So, You Thought It Was About Climate Change?

Smog over Warsaw
Air pollution over Warsaw center city in winter. Piotr Szczepankiewicz / Shutterstock

Sorry about failing to post to this blog last week. I took sick and just couldn’t manage it. This is the entry I started for 10 April, but couldn’t finish until now.

17 April 2019 – I had a whole raft of things to talk about in this week’s blog posting, some of which I really wanted to cover for various reasons, but I couldn’t resist an excuse to bang this old “environmental pollution” drum once again.

A Zoë Schlanger-authored article published on 2 April 2019 by World Economic Forum in collaboration with Quartz entitled “The average person in Europe loses two years of their life due to air pollution” crossed my desk this morning (8 April 2019). It was important to me because environmental pollution is an issue I’ve been obsessed with since the 1950s.

The Setup

One of my earliest memories is of my father taking delivery of a even-then-ancient 26-foot lifeboat (I think it was from an ocean liner, though I never really knew where it came from), which he planned to convert to a small cabin cruiser. I was amazed when, with no warning to me, this great, whacking flatbed trailer backed over our front lawn, and deposited this thing that looked like a miniature version of Noah’s Ark.

It was double-ended – meaning it had a prow-shape at both ends – and was pretty much empty inside. That is, it had benches for survivors to sit on and fittings for oarlocks (I vaguely remember oarlocks actually being in place, but my memory from over sixty years ago is a bit hazy.) but little else. No decks. No superstructure. Maybe some grates in the bottom to keep people’s feet out of the bilge, but that’s about it.

My father spent year or so installing lower decks, upper decks, a cabin with bunks, head and a small galley, and a straight-six gasoline engine for propulsion. I sorta remember the keel already having been fitted for a propeller shaft and rudder, which would class the boat as a “launch” rather than a simple lifeboat, but I never heard it called that.

Finally, after multiple-years’ reconstruction, the thing was ready to dump into the water to see if it would float. (Wooden boats never float when you first put them in the water. The planks have to absorb water and swell up to tighten the joints. Until then, they leak like sieves.)

The water my father chose to dump this boat into was the Seekonk River in nearby Providence, Rhode Island. It was a momentous day in our family, so my mother shepherded my big sister and me around while my father stressed out about getting the deed done.

We won’t talk about the day(s) the thing spent on the tiny shipway off Gano Street where the last patches of bottom paint were applied over where the boat’s cradle had supported its hull while under construction, and the last little forgotten bits were fitted and checked out before it was launched.

While that was going on, I spent the time playing around the docks and frightening my mother with my antics.

That was when I noticed the beautiful rainbow sheen covering the water.

Somebody told me it was called “iridescence” and was caused by the whole Seekonk River being covered by an oil slick. The oil came from the constant movement of oil-tank ships delivering liquid dreck to the oil refinery and tank farm upstream. The stuff was getting dumped into the water and flowing down to help turn Narragansett Bay, which takes up half the state to the south, into one vast combination open sewer and toxic-waste dump.

That was my introduction to pollution.

It made my socks rot every time I accidentally or reluctantly-on-purpose dipped any part of my body into that cesspool.

It was enough to gag a maggot!

So when, in the late 1960s, folks started yammering on about pollution, my heartfelt reaction was: “About f***ing time!”

I did not join the “Earth Day” protests that started in 1970, though. Previously, I’d observed the bizarre antics surrounding the anti-war protests of the middle-to-late 1960s, and saw the kind of reactions they incited. My friends and I had been a safe distance away leaning on an embankment blowing weed and laughing as less-wise classmates set themselves up as targets for reactionary authoritarians’ ire.

We’d already learned that the best place to be when policemen suit up for riot patrol is someplace a safe distance away.

We also knew the protest organizers – they were, after all, our classmates in college – and smiled indulgently as they worked up their resumes for lucrative careers in activist management. There’s more than one way to make a buck!

Bohemians, beatniks, hippies, or whatever term du jour you wanted to call us just weren’t into the whole money-and-power trip. We had better, mellower things to do than march around carrying signs, shouting slogans, and getting our heads beaten in for our efforts. So, when our former friends, the Earth-Day organizers, wanted us to line up, we didn’t even bother to say “no.” We just turned and walked away.

I, for one, was in the midst of changing tracks from English to science. I’d already tried my hand at writing, but found that, while I was pretty good at putting sentences together in English, then stringing them into paragraphs and stories, I really had nothing worthwhile to write about. I’d just not had enough life experience.

Since physics was basic to all the other stuff I’d been interested in – for decades – I decided to follow that passion and get a good grounding in the hard sciences, starting with physics. By the late seventies, I had learned whereof science was all about, and had developed a feel for how it was done, and what the results looked like. Especially, I was deep into astrophysics in general and solar physics in particular.

As time went on, the public noises I heard about environmental concerns began to sound more like political posturing and less like scientific discourse. Especially as they chose to ignore variability of the Sun that we astronomers knew was what made everything work.

By the turn of the millennium, scholarly reports generally showed no observations that backed up the global-warming rhetoric. Instead, they featured ambiguous results that showed chaotic evolution of climate with no real long-term trends.

Those of us interested in the history of science also realized that warm periods coincided with generally good conditions for humans, while cool periods could be pretty rough. So, what was wrong with a little global warming when you needed it?

A disturbing trend, however, was that these reports began to feature a boilerplate final paragraph saying, roughly: “climate change is a real danger and caused by human activity.” They all featured this paragraph, suspiciously almost word for word, despite there being little or nothing in the research results to support such a conclusion.

Since nothing in the rest of the report provided any basis for that final paragraph, it was clearly non-sequitur and added for non-science reasons. Clearly something was terribly wrong with climate research.

The penny finally dropped in 2006 when emeritus Vice President Albert Gore (already infamous for having attempted to take credit for developing the Internet) produced his hysteria-inducing movie An Inconvenient Truth along with the splashing about of Jerry Mahlman’s laughable “hockey-stick graph.” The graph, in particular, was based on a stitching together of historical data for proxies of global temperature with a speculative projection of a future exponential rise in global temperatures. That is something respectable scientists are specifically trained not to do, although it’s a favorite tactic of psycho-ceramics.

Air Pollution

By that time, however, so much rhetoric had been invested in promoting climate-change fear and convincing the media that it was human-induced, that concerns about plain old pollution (which anyone could see) seemed dowdy and uninteresting by comparison.

One of the reasons pollution seemed then (and still does now) old news is that in civilized countries (generally those run as democracies) great strides had already been made beating it down. A case in point is the image at right

East/West Europe Pollution
A snapshot of particulate pollution across Europe on Jan. 27, 2018. (Apologies to Quartz [ https://qz.com/1192348/europe-is-divided-into-safe-and-dangerous-places-to-breathe/ ] from whom this image was shamelessly stolen.)

. This image, which is a political map overlaid by a false-color map with colors indicating air-pollution levels, shows relatively mild pollution in Western Europe and much more severe levels in the more-authoritarian-leaning countries of Eastern Europe.

While this map makes an important point about how poorly communist and other authoritarian-leaning regimes take care of the “soup” in which their citizens have to live, it doesn’t say a lot about the environmental state of the art more generally in Europe. We leave that for Zoë Schlanger’s WEF article, which begins:

“The average person living in Europe loses two years of their life to the health effects of breathing polluted air, according to a report published in the European Heart Journal on March 12.

“The report also estimates about 800,000 people die prematurely in Europe per year due to air pollution, or roughly 17% of the 5 million deaths in Europe annually. Many of those deaths, between 40 and 80% of the total, are due to air pollution effects that have nothing to do with the respiratory system but rather are attributable to heart disease and strokes caused by air pollutants in the bloodstream, the researchers write.

“‘Chronic exposure to enhanced levels of fine particle matter impairs vascular function, which can lead to myocardial infarction, arterial hypertension, stroke, and heart failure,’ the researchers write.”

The point is, while American politicians debate the merits of climate change legislation, and European politicians seem to have knuckled under to IPCC climate-change rhetoric by wholeheartedly endorsing the 2015 Paris Agreement, the bigger and far more salient problem of environmental pollution is largely being ignored. This despite the visible and immediate deleterious affects on human health, and the demonstrated effectiveness of government efforts to ameliorate it.

By the way, in the two decades between the time I first observed iridescence atop the waters of the Seekonk River and when I launched my own first boat in the 1970s, Narragansett Bay went from a potential Superfund site to a beautiful, clean playground for recreational boaters. That was largely due to the efforts of the Save the Bay volunteer organization. While their job is not (and never will be) completely finished, they can serve as a model for effective grassroots activism.

Falling Out of the Sky

B737 Max taking off
Thai Lion Air Boeing 737 Max 9 taking off from Don Mueang international airport in Bankok, Thailand. Komenton / Shutterstock.com

3 April 2019 – On 29 October 2018, Lion Air flight 610 crashed soon after takeoff from Soekarno–Hatta International Airport in Jakarta, Indonesia. This is not the sort of thing we report in this blog. It’s straight news and we leave that to straight-news media, but I’m diving into it because it involves technology I’m quite familiar with and I might be able to help readers make sense of what happened and judge the often-uninformed reactions to it.

I claim to have the background to understand what happened because I’ve been flying light planes since the 1990s. I also put two years into a post-graduate Aerospace Engineering Program at Arizona State University concentrating on fluid dynamics. That’s enough background to make some educated guesses at what happened to Lion Air 610 as well as in the almost identical crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX in Addis Ababa, , Ethiopia on 10 March 2019.

First, both airliners were recently commissioned Boeing 737 MAX aircraft using standard-equipment installations of Boeing’s new Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS).

How to Stall an Aircraft

In aerodynamics the word “stall” means something quite unlike what most people expect. Most people encounter the word in an automobile context, where it refers to “stalling the engine.” That happens when you overload an internal-combustion engine. That is pull more power out than the engine can produce at its current operating speed. When that happens, the engine simply stops.

It turns from a power-producing machine to a boat anchor in a heartbeat. Your car stops with a lurch and everyone behind you starts swearing and blowing their horns in an effort to make you feel even worse than you already do.

That’s not what happens when an airplane stalls. It’s not the aircraft’s engine that stalls, but it’s wings. There are similarities in that, like engines, wings stall when they’re overloaded and when stalled they start producing drag like a boat anchor, but that’s about where the similarities end.

When an aircraft stalls, nobody swears and blows their horn. Instead, they scream and die.

Why? Well, wings are supposed to lift the aircraft and support it in the air. If you’ve ever tried to carry a sheet of plywood on a windy day you’ve experience both lift and drag. If you let the sheet tip up a little bit so the wind catches it underneath, it tries to fly up out of your hands. That’s the lift an airplane gets by tipping its wings up into the air stream as it moves forward into the air.

The more you tip the sheet up, the more lift you get for the same airspeed. That is, until you reach a certain attack angle (the angle between the sheet and the wind). Stalling begins suddenly at an attack angle of about 15°. Then, all of a sudden, the force lifting the sheet changes from up and a little back to no up, and a lot of back!

That’s a wing stall.

The aircraft stops imitating a bird, and starts imitating a rock.

You suddenly get a visceral sense of the concept “down.”

‘Cause that’s where you go in a hurry!

At that point, all you can do is point the nose down (so the wing’s forward edge starts pointing in the direction you’re moving: down!

If you’ve got enough space underneath your aircraft so the wing starts flying again before you hit the ground, you can gently pull the aircraft’s nose back up to resume straight and level flight. If not, that’s when the screaming starts.

Wings stall when they’re going too slowly to generate the required lift at an angle of attack of 15°. At higher speeds, the wing can generate the needed lift with less angle of attack, and worries about stalling never come up.

So, now you know all you need to know (or want to know) about stalling an aircraft.

MCAS

Boeing’s MCAS is an anti-stall system. It’s beating heart is a bit of software running on the flight-control computer that monitors a number of sensor inputs, like airspeed and angle of attack. Basically, in simple terms, it knows exactly how much attack angle the wings can stand before stalling out. If it sees that for some reason, the attack angle is getting too high, it assumes the pilot has screwed up. It takes control and pushes the nose down.

It doesn’t have to actually “take control” because modern commercial aircraft are “fly by wire,” which means it’s the computer that actually moves the control surfaces to fly the plane. The pilot’s “yoke” (the little wheel he or she gets to twist and turn and move forward and back) and the rudder pedals he pushes to steer (push right, go right) just sends signals to the computer to tell it what he wants to have happen. In a sense, the pilot negotiates with the computer about what the airplane should do.

The pilot makes suggestions (through the yoke, pedals and throttle control – collectively called the “cockpit flight controls”); the computer then takes that information, combines it with all the other information provided by a plethora (Do you like that word? I do!) of additional sensors; thinks about it for a microsecond; then, finally, the computer tells the aircraft’s control surfaces to move smoothly to a position that it (the computer) thinks will make the aircraft do what it wants it to do.

That’s all well and good when the reason the attack angle got too high is just that something happened that broke the pilot’s concentration, and he (or she) actually screwed up. What about when the pilot actually wants to stall the aircraft?

For example, on landing.

To land a plane, you slow it way down, so the wing’s almost stalled. Then, you fly it really close to the ground so the wheels almost touch the runway. Then you stall the wing so the wheels touch the ground just as the wings lose lift. You hear a satisfying “squeak” as the wheels momentarily skid while spinning up to match the relative speed of the runway. Finally, the wheels gently settle down, taking up the weight of the aircraft. The flight crew (and a few passengers who’ve been paying attention) cheer the pilot for a job well done, and the pilot starts breathing again.

Anti-stall systems don’t do much good during a landing, when you’re trying to intentionally stall the wings at just the right time.

Similarly, the don’t do much good when you’re taking off, and the pilot’s just trying to get the wings unstalled to get the aircraft into the air in the first place.

For those times, you want the MCAS turned off! So you’ve gotta be able to do that, too. Or, if your pilot is too absent minded to shut it off when its not needed, you need it to shut off automatically.

When Things Go Wrong

So, what happened in those two airliner crashes?

Remember that the main input into the MCAS is an attack angle sensor? Attack angle sensors, like any other piece of technology can go bad, especially if it’s exposed to weather. And, airliners are exposed to weather 24/7 except when they’re brought into a hangar for repair.

The working hypothesis for what happened to both airliners is that the attack-angle sensors failed. They jammed in a position where they erroneously reported a high angle-of-attack to the MCAS, which jumped to the conclusion “pilot error,” and pushed the nose down. When the pilot(s) tried to pull the nose back up (because their windshield filled up with things that looked a lot like ground instead of sky), the MCAS said: “Nope! You’re going down, Jack!”

By the time the pilots figured out what was wrong and looked up how to shut the MCAS off, they’d actually hit the things that looked too much like ground.

Why didn’t the MCAS figure out there was something wrong with the sensor?

How’s it supposed to know?

The sensor says the nose is pointed up, so the computer takes it at it’s word. Computers aren’t really very smart, and tend to be quite literal. The sensor says the nose is pointed up, so the computer thinks the nose is pointed up, and tries to point it down (or at least less up). End of story. And, in the real world, it’s “end of aircraft” as well.

If the pilot(s) try to tell the computer to pull the nose up (by desperately pulling back on the yoke), it figures they’re screw-ups, anyway, and won’t listen.

Every try to argue with a computer? Been there, done that. It doesn’t work.

Mea Culpa

When I learned about the hypothesis of attack-angle-sensor failure causing the crashes that took nearly four hundred lives, I got this awful sick feeling that was a mixture of embarrassment and guilt. You see, a decade and a half ago my research project at ASU was an effort to develop a different style of attack-angle sensor. Several events and circumstances combined to make me abandon that research project and, in fact, the whole PhD. program it was a part of. In my defense, it was the start of a ten-year period in which I couldn’t get anything right!

But, if I’d stuck it out and developed that sensor it might have been installed on those airliners and might not have failed at all. Of course, it could have been installed and failed in some other spectacular way.

You see, the attack angle sensor that apparently was installed consisted of a little vane attached to one side of the aircraft’s nose. Just like the wind sock traditionally hung outside airports the world over, wind pressure makes the vane line up downstream of the wind direction. A little angle sensor attached to the vane reports the wind direction relative to the nose: the attack angle.

I got involved in trying to develop an alternative attack-angle sensor because I have a horror of relying on sensors that depend on mechanical movement to work. If you’re relying on mechanical movement, it means you’re relying on bearings, and bearings can corrode and wear out and fail. The sensor I was working on relied on differences in air pressure that depended on the direction the wind hit the sensor.

In actual fact, there were two attack-angle sensors attached to the doomed aircraft – one on each side of the nose – but the Boeing MCAS was paying attention to only one of them. That was Boeing’s second mistake (the first being not using the sensor I hadn’t developed, so I guess they can’t be blamed for it). If the MCAS had been paying attention to both sensors, it would have known something in its touchy-feely universe was wrong. It might have been a little more reluctant to override the pilots’ input.

The third mistake (I believe) Boeing made was to downplay the differences between the new “Max” version of the aircraft and the older version. They’d changed the engines, which (as any aerospace engineer knows) necessitates changes in everything else. Aircraft are so intricately balanced machines that every time you change one thing, everything else has to change – or at least has to be looked at to see if it needs to be changed.

The new engines had improved performance, which affects just about everything involving the aircraft’s handling characteristics. Boeing had apparently tried to make the more-powerful yet more fuel efficient aircraft handle like the old aircraft. There, of course, were differences, which the company tried to pretend would make no difference to the pilots. The MCAS was one of those things that was supposed to make the “Max” version handle just like the non-Max version.

So, when something went wrong in “Max” land, it caught the pilots, who had thousands of hours experience with non-Max aircraft, by surprise.

The latest reports are that Boeing, the FAA, and the airlines have realized what the problems are that caused these issues (I hope they understand them a lot better than I do, because, after all, it’s their job to!), and have worked out a number of fixes.

First, the MCAS will pay attention to two attack-angle sensors. At least then the flight-control computer will have an indication that something is wrong and tell the MCAS to go back in its corner and shut up ‘til the issue is sorted out.

Second, they’ll install a little blinking light that effectively tells the pilots “there’s something wrong, so don’t expect any help from the MCAS ‘til it gets sorted out.”

Third, they’ll make sure the pilots have a good, positive way of emphatically shut the MCAS off if it starts to argue with them in an emergency. And, they’ll make sure the pilots are trained to know when and how to use it.

My understanding is that these fixes are already part of the options that American commercial airlines have generally installed, which is supposedly why the FAA, the airlines and the pilots’ union have been dragging their feet about grounding Boeing’s 737 Max fleet. Let’s hope they’re not just blowing smoke (again)!

Luddites’ Lament

Luddites attack
An owner of a factory defending his workshop against Luddites intent on destroying his mechanized looms between 1811-1816. Everett Historical/Shutterstock

27 March 2019 – A reader of last week’s column, in which I reported recent opinions voiced by a few automation experts at February’s Conference on the Future of Work held at at Stanford University, informed me of a chapter from Henry Hazlitt’s 1988 book Economics in One Lesson that Australian computer scientist Steven Shaw uploaded to his blog.

I’m not going to get into the tangled web of potential copyright infringement that Shaw’s posting of Hazlitt’s entire text opens up, I’ve just linked to the most convenient-to-read posting of that particular chapter. If you follow the link and want to buy the book, I’ve given you the appropriate link as well.

The chapter is of immense value apropos the question of whether automation generally reduces the need for human labor, or creates more opportunities for humans to gain useful employment. Specifically, it looks at the results of a number of historic events where Luddites excoriated technology developers for taking away jobs from humans only to have subsequent developments prove them spectacularly wrong.

Hazlitt’s classic book is, not surprisingly for a classic, well documented, authoritative, and extremely readable. I’m not going to pretend to provide an alternative here, but to summarize some of the chapter’s examples in the hope that you’ll be intrigued enough to seek out the original.

Luddism

Before getting on to the examples, let’s start by looking at the history of Luddism. It’s not a new story, really. It probably dates back to just after cave guys first thought of specialization of labor.

That is, sometime in the prehistoric past, some blokes were found to be especially good at doing some things, and the rest of the tribe came up with the idea of letting, say, the best potters make pots for the whole tribe, and everyone else rewarding them for a job well done by, say, giving them choice caribou parts for dinner.

Eventually, they had the best flint knappers make the arrowheads, the best fletchers put the arrowheads on the arrows, the best bowmakers make the bows, and so on. Division of labor into different jobs turned out to be so spectacularly successful that very few of us rugged individualists, who pretend to do everything for ourselves, are few and far between (and are largely kidding ourselves, anyway).

Since then, anyone who comes up with a great way to do anything more efficiently runs the risk of having the folks who spent years learning to do it the old way land on him (or her) like a ton of bricks.

It’s generally a lot easier to throw rocks to drive the innovator away than to adapt to the innovation.

Luddites in the early nineteenth century were organized bands of workers who violently resisted mechanization of factories during the late Industrial Revolution. Named for an imaginary character, Ned Ludd, who was supposedly an apprentice who smashed two stocking frames in 1779 and whose name had become emblematic of machine destroyers. The term “Luddite” has come to mean anyone fanatically opposed to deploying advanced technology.

Of course, like religious fundamentalists, they have to pick a point in time to separate “good” technology from the “bad.” Unlike religious fanatics, who generally pick publication of a certain text to be the dividing line, Luddites divide between the technology of their immediate past (with which they are familiar) and anything new or unfamiliar. Thus, it’s a continually moving target.

In either case, the dividing line is fundamentally arbitrary, so the emotion of their response is irrational. Irrationality typically carries a warranty of being entirely contrary to facts.

What Happens Next

Hazlitt points out, “The belief that machines cause unemployment, when held with any logical consistency, leads to preposterous conclusions.” He points out that on the second page of the first chapter of Adam Smith’s seminal book Wealth of Nations, Smith tells us that a workman unacquainted with the use of machinery employed in sewing-pin-making “could scarce make one pin a day, and certainly could not make twenty,” but with the use of the machinery he can make 4,800 pins a day. So, zero-sum game theory would indicate an immediate 99.98 percent unemployment rate in the pin-making industry of 1776.

Did that happen? No, because economics is not a zero-sum game. Sewing pins went from dear to cheap. Since they were now cheap, folks prized them less and discarded them more (when was the last time you bothered to straighten a bent pin?), and more folks could afford to buy them in the first place. That led to an increase in sewing-pin sales as well as sales of things like sewing-patterns and bulk fine fabric sold to amateur sewers, and more employment, not less.

Similar results obtained in the stocking industry when new stocking frames (the original having been invented William Lee in 1589, but denied a patent by Elizabeth I who feared its effects on employment in hand-knitting industries) were protested by Luddites as fast as they could be introduced. Before the end of the nineteenth century the stocking industry was employing at least a hundred men for every man it employed at the beginning of the century.

Another example Hazlitt presents from the Industrial Revolution happened in the cotton-spinning industry. He says: “Arkwright invented his cotton-spinning machinery in 1760. At that time it was estimated that there were in England 5,200 spinners using spinning wheels, and 2,700 weavers—in all, 7,900 persons engaged in the production of cotton textiles. The introduction of Arkwright’s invention was opposed on the ground that it threatened the livelihood of the workers, and the opposition had to be put down by force. Yet in 1787—twenty-seven years after the invention appeared—a parliamentary inquiry showed that the number of persons actually engaged in the spinning and weaving of cotton had risen from 7,900 to 320,000, an increase of 4,400 percent.”

As these examples indicate, improvements in manufacturing efficiency generally lead to reductions in manufacturing cost, which, when passed along to customers, reduces prices with concommitent increases in unit sales. This is the price elasticity of demand curve from Microeconomics 101. It is the reason economics is decidedly not a zero-sum game.

If we accept economics as not a zero-sum game, predicting what happens when automation makes it possible to produce more stuff with fewer workers becomes a chancy proposition. For example, many economists today blame flat productivity (the amount of stuff produced divided by the number of workers needed to produce it) for lack of wage gains in the face of low unemployment. If that is true, then anything that would help raise productivity (such as automation) should be welcome.

Long experience has taught us that economics is a positive-sum game. In the face of technological advancement, it behooves us to expect positive outcomes while taking measures to ensure that the concomitant economic gains get distributed fairly (whatever that means) throughout society. That is the take-home lesson from the social dislocations that accompanied the technological advancements of the Early Industrial Revolution.

Don’t Panic!

Panic button
Do not push the red button! Peter Hermes Furian/Shutterstock

20 March 2019 – The image at right visualizes something described in Douglas Adams’ Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. At one point, the main characters of that six-part “trilogy” found a big red button on the dashboard of a spaceship they were trying to steal that was marked “DO NOT PRESS THIS BUTTON!” Naturally, they pressed the button, and a new label popped up that said “DO NOT PRESS THIS BUTTON AGAIN!”

Eventually, they got the autopilot engaged only to find it was a stunt ship programmed to crash headlong into the nearest Sun as part of the light show for an interstellar rock band. The moral of this story is “Never push buttons marked ‘DO NOT PUSH THIS BUTTON.’”

Per the author: “It is said that despite its many glaring (and occasionally fatal) inaccuracies, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy itself has outsold the Encyclopedia Galactica because it is slightly cheaper, and because it has the words ‘DON’T PANIC’ in large, friendly letters on the cover.”

Despite these references to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this posting has nothing to do with that book, the series, or the guide it describes, except that I’ve borrowed the words from the Guide’s cover as a title. I did that because those words perfectly express the take-home lesson of Bill Snyder’s 11 March 2019 article in The Robot Report entitled “Fears of job-stealing robots are misplaced, say experts.”

Expert Opinions

Snyder’s article reports opinions expressed at the the Conference on the Future of Work at Stanford University last month. It’s a topic I’ve shot my word processor off about on numerous occasions in this space, so I thought it would be appropriate to report others’ views as well. First, I’ll present material from Snyder’s article, then I’ll wrap up with my take on the subject.

“Robots aren’t coming for your job,” Snyder says, “but it’s easy to make misleading assumptions about the kinds of jobs that are in danger of becoming obsolete.”

“Most jobs are more complex than [many people] realize,” said Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist.

David Autor, professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology points out that education is a big determinant of how developing trends affect workers: “It’s a great time to be young and educated, but there’s no clear land of opportunity for adults who haven’t been to college.”

“When predicting future labor market outcomes, it is important to consider both sides of the supply-and-demand equation,” said Varian, “demographic trends that point to a substantial decrease in the supply of labor are potentially larger in magnitude.”

His research indicates that shrinkage of the labor supply due to demographic trends is 53% greater than shrinkage of demand for labor due to automation. That means, while relatively fewer jobs are available, there are a lot fewer workers available to do them. The result is the prospect of a continued labor shortage.

At the same time, Snyder reports that “[The] most popular discussion around technology focuses on factors that decrease demand for labor by replacing workers with machines.”

In other words, fears that robots will displace humans for existing jobs miss the point. Robots, instead, are taking over jobs for which there aren’t enough humans to do them.

Another effect is the fact that what people think of as “jobs” are actually made up of many “tasks,” and it’s tasks that get automated, not entire jobs. Some tasks are amenable to automation while others aren’t.

“Consider the job of a gardener,” Snyder suggests as an example. “Gardeners have to mow and water a lawn, prune rose bushes, rake leaves, eradicate pests, and perform a variety of other chores.”

Some of these tasks, like mowing and watering, can easily be automated. Pruning rose bushes, not so much!

Snyder points to news reports of a hotel in Nagasaki, Japan being forced to “fire” robot receptionists and room attendants that proved to be incompetent.

There’s a scene in the 1997 film The Fifth Element where a supporting character tries to converse with a robot bartender about another character. He says: “She’s so vulnerable – so human. Do you you know what I mean?” The robot shakes its head, “No.”

Sometimes people, even misanthropes, would prefer to interact with another human than with a drink-dispensing machine.

“Jobs,” Varian points out, “unlike repetitive tasks, tend not to disappear. In 1950, the U.S. Census Bureau listed 250 separate jobs. Since then, the only one to be completely eliminated is that of elevator operator.”

“Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake,” founder Elon Musk mea culpa-ed last year “Humans are underrated.”

Another trend Snyder points out is that automation-ready jobs, such as assembly-line factory workers, have already largely disappeared from America. “The 10 most common occupations in the U.S.,” he says, “include such jobs as retail salespersons, nurses, waiters, and other service-focused work. Notably, traditional occupations, such as factory and other blue-collar work, no longer even make the list.

Again, robots are mainly taking over tasks that humans are not available to do.

The final trend that Snyder presents, is the stark fact that birthrates in developed nations are declining – in some cases precipitously. “The aging of the baby boom generation creates demand for service jobs,” Varian points out, “but leaves fewer workers actively contributing labor to the economy.”

Those “service jobs” are just the ones that require a human touch, so they’re much harder to automate successfully.

My Inexpert Opinion

I’ve been trying, not entirely successfully, to figure out what role robots will actually have vis-a-vis humans in the future. I think there will be a few macroscopic trends. And, the macroscopic trends should be the easiest to spot ‘cause they’re, well, macroscopic. That means bigger. So, there easier to see. See?

As early as 2010, I worked out one important difference between robots and humans that I expounded in my novel Vengeance is Mine! Specifically, humans have a wider view of the Universe and have more of an emotional stake in it.

“For example,” I had one of my main characters pontificate at a cocktail party, “that tall blonde over there is an archaeologist. She uses ROVs – remotely operated vehicles – to map underwater shipwreck sites. So, she cares about what she sees and finds. We program the ROVs with sophisticated navigational software that allows her to concentrate on what she’s looking at, rather than the details of piloting the vehicle, but she’s in constant communication with it because she cares what it does. It doesn’t.”

More recently, I got a clearer image of this relationship and it’s so obvious that we tend to overlook it. I certainly missed it for decades.

It hit me like a brick when I saw a video of an autonomous robot marine-trash collector. This device is a small autonomous surface vessel with a big “mouth” that glides around seeking out and gobbling up discarded water bottles, plastic bags, bits of styrofoam, and other unwanted jetsam clogging up waterways.

The first question that popped into my mind was “who’s going to own the thing?” I mean, somebody has to want it, then buy it, then put it to work. I’m sure it could be made to automatically regurgitate the junk it collects into trash bags that it drops off at some collection point, but some human or humans have to make sure the trash bags get collected and disposed of. Somebody has to ensure that the robot has a charging system to keep its batteries recharged. Somebody has to fix it when parts wear out, and somebody has to take responsibility if it becomes a navigation hazard. Should that happen, the Coast Guard is going to want to scoop it up and hand its bedraggled carcass to some human owner along with a citation.

So, on a very important level, the biggest thing robots need from humans is ownership. Humans own robots, not the other way around. Without a human owner, an orphan robot is a pile of junk left by the side of the road!

How to Train Your Corporate Rebel

Tebel Talent Cover
Rebel Talent by Francesca Gino makes the case for encouraging individualism in the workplace

13 March 2019 – Francesca Gino, author of Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and In Life, is my kind of girl. She’s smart, thinks for herself, isn’t afraid to go out on a limb, and encourages others to do the same.

That said, I want to inject a note of caution for anyone considering her advice about being a rebel. There’s an old saying: “The nail that sticks up the most is the first to get hammered down.” It’s true in carpentry and in life. Being a rebel is lonely, dangerous, and is no guarantee of success, financial or otherwise.

I speak from experience, having broken every rule available for as long as I can remember. When I was a child in the 1950s, I wanted to grow up to be a beatnik. I’ve always felt most comfortable amongst bohemians. My wife once complained (while we were sitting in a muscle car stopped by the highway waiting for the cop to give me a speeding ticket) about my “always living on the edge.” And, yes, I’ve been thrown out of more than one bar.

On the other hand, I’ve lived a long and eventful life. Most of the items on my bucket list were checked off long ago.

So, when I ran across an ad in The Wall Street Journal for Gino’s book, I had to snag a copy and read it.

As I expected, the book’s theme is best summed up by a line from the blurb on its dust jacket: “ … the most successful among us break the rules.”

The book description goes on to say, “Rebels have a bad reputation. We think of them as trouble-makers. outcasts, contrarians: those colleagues, friends, and family members who complicate seemingly straight-forward decisions, create chaos, and disagree when everyone else is in agreement. But in truth, rebels are also those among us who change the world for the better with their unconventional outlooks. Instead of clinging to what is safe and familiar, and falling back on routines and tradition, rebels defy the status quo. They are masters of innovation and reinvention, and they have a lot to teach us.”

Considering the third paragraph above, I hope she’s right!

The 283-page (including notes and index) volume summarizes Gino’s decade-long study of rebels at organizations around the world, from high-end boutiques in Italy’s fashion capital (Milan), to the world’s best restaurant (Three-Michelin-star-rated Osteria Francescana), to a thriving fast-food chain (Pal’s), and an award-winning computer animation studio (Pixar).

Francesca Gino is a behavioral scientist and professor at Harvard Business School. She is the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration in the school’s Negotiation, Organizations & Markets Unit. No slouch professionally, she has been honored as one of the world’s top 40 business professors under 40 by Poets & Quants and one of the world’s 50 most influential management thinkers by Thinkers50.

Enough with the “In Praise Of” stuff, though. Let’s look inside the book. It’s divided into eight chapters, starting with “Napoleon and the Hoodie: The Paradox of Rebel Status,” and ending with “Blackbeard, ‘Flatness,’ and the 8 Principles of Rebel Leadership.” Gino then adds a “Conclusion” telling the story of Risotto Cacio e Pepe (a rice-in-Parmigiano-Reggiano dish invented by Chef Massimo Bottura), and an “Epilogue: Rebel Action” giving advice on releasing your inner rebel.

Stylistically, the narrative uses the classic “Harvard Case Study” approach. That is, it’s basically a pile of stories, each of which makes a point about how rebel leaders Gino has known approach their work. In summary, the take-home lesson is that those leaders encourage their employees to unleash their “inner rebel,” thereby unlocking creativity, enthusiasm, and productivity that more traditional management styles suppress.

The downside of this style is that it sometimes is difficult for the reader to get their brain around the points that Gino is making. Luckily, her narrative style is interesting, easy to follow and compelling. Like all well-written prose she keeps the reader wondering “What happens next?” The episodes she presents are invariably unusual and interesting themselves. She regularly brings in her own exploits and keeps, as much as possible, to first-person active voice.

That is unusual for academic writers, who find it all too easy to slip into a pedantic third-person, passive-voice best reserved for works intended as sleep aids.

To give you a feel for what reading an HCS-style volume is like, I’ll describe what it’s like to study Quantum Dynamics. While the differences outnumber the similarities, the overall “feel” is similar.

The first impression students get of QD is that the subject is entirely anti-intuitive. That is, before you can learn anything about QD, you have to discard any lingering intuition about how the Universe works. That’s probably easier for someone who never learned Classical Physics in the first place. Ideas like “you can’t be in two places at the same time” simply do not apply in the quantum world.

Basically, to learn QD, you have to start with a generous dose of “willing suspension of disbelief.” You do that by studying stories about experiments performed in the late nineteenth century that simply didn’t work. At that time, the best minds in Physics spent careers banging their heads into walls as Mommy Nature refused to return results that Classical Physics imagined she had to. Things like the Michelson-Moreley experiment (and many other then-state-of-the-art experiments) gave results at odds with Classical Physics. There were enough of these screwy results that physicists began to doubt that what they believed to be true, was actually how the Universe worked. After listening to enough of these stories, you begins to doubt your own intuition.

Then, you learn to trust the mathematics that will be your only guide in QD Wonderland.

Finally, you spend a couple of years learning about a new set of ideas based on Through the Looking Glass concepts that stand normal intuition on its head. Piling up stories about all these counter-intuitive ideas helps you build up a new intuition about what happens in the quantum world. About that time, you start feeling confident that this new intuition helps you predict what will happen next.

The HCS style of learning does something similar, although usually not as extreme. Reading story after story about what hasn’t and what has worked for others in the business world, you begin to develop an intuition for applying the new ideas. You gain confidence that, in any given situation, you can predict what happens next.

What happens next is that when you apply the methods Gino advocates, you start building a more diverse corporate culture that attracts and retains the kinds of folks that make your company a leader in its field.

There’s an old one-line joke:

I want to be different – like everybody else.”

We can’t all be different because then there wouldn’t be any sameness to be different from, but we can all be rebels. We can all follow the

  1. READY!
  2. AIM!
  3. FIRE!

mantra advocated by firearms instructors everywhere.

In other words:

  1. Observe what’s going on out there in the world, then
  2. Think about what you might do that breaks the established rules, and, finally,
  3. Act in a way that makes the Universe a better place in which to live.

What is This “Robot” Thing, Anyway?

Robot thinking
So, what is it that makes a robot a robot? Phonlamai Photo/Shutterstock

6 March 2019 – While surfing the Internet this morning, in a valiant effort to put off actually getting down to business grading that pile of lab reports that I should have graded a couple of days ago, I ran across this posting I wrote in 2013 for Packaging Digest.

Surprisingly, it still seems relevant today, and on a subject that I haven’t treated in this blog, yet. It being that I’m planning to devote most of next week to preparing my 2018 tax return, I decided to save some writing time by dusting it off and presenting it as this week’s posting to Tech Trends. I hope the folks at Packaging Digest won’t get their noses too far out of joint about my encroaching on their five-year-old copyright without asking permission.

By the way, this piece is way shorter than the usual Tech Trends essay because of the specifications for that Packaging Digest blog, which was entitled “New Metropolis” in homage to Fritz Lang’s 1927 feature film entitled Metropolis, which told the story of a futuristic mechanized culture and an anthropomorphic robot that a mad scientist creates to bring it down. The “New Metropolis” postings were specified to be approximately 500 words long, whereas Tech Trends postings are planned to be 1,000-1,500 words long.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this little slice of recent history.


11 November 2013 – I thought it might be fun—and maybe even useful—to catalog the classifications of these things we call robots.

Lets start with the word robot. The idea behind the word robot grows from the ancient concept of the golem. A golem was an artificial person created by people.

Frankly, the idea of a golem scared the bejeezus out of the ancients because the golem stands at the interface between living and non-living things. In our enlightened age, it still scares the bejeezus out of people!

If we restricted the field to golems—strictly humanoid robots, or androids—we wouldnt have a lot to talk about, and practically nothing to do. The things havent proved particularly useful. So, I submit that we should expand the robot definition to include all kinds of human-made artificial critters.

This has, of course, already been done by everyone working in the field. The SCARA (selective compliance assembly robot arm) machines from companies like Kuka, and the delta robots from Adept Technologies clearly insist on this expanded definition. Mobile robots, such as the Roomba from iRobot push the boundary in another direction. Weird little things like the robotic insects and worms so popular with academics these days push in a third direction.

Considering the foregoing, the first observation is that the line between robot and non-robot is fuzzy. The old 50s-era dumb thermostats probably shouldnt be considered robots, but a smart, computer-controlled house moving in the direction of the Jarvis character in the Ironman series probably should. Things in between are – in between. Lets bite the bullet and admit were dealing with fuzzy-logic categories, and then move on.

Okay, so what are the main characteristics symptomatic of this fuzzy category robot?

First, its gotta be artificial. A cloned sheep is not a robot. Even designer germs are non-robots.
Second, its gotta be automated. A fly-by-wire fighter jet is not a robot. A drone linked at the hip to a human pilot is not a robot. A driverless car, on the other hand, is a robot. (Either that, or its a traffic accident waiting to happen.)

Third, its gotta interact with the environment. A general-purpose computer sitting there thinking computer-like thoughts is not a robot. A SCARA unit assembling a car is. I submit that an automated bill-paying system arguing through the telephone with my wife over how much to take out of her checkbook this month is a robot.

More problematic is a fourth direction—embedded systems, like automated houses—that beg to be admitted into the robotic fold. I vote for letting them in, along with artificial intelligence (AI) systems, like the robot bill paying systems my wife is so fond of arguing with.

Finally (maybe), its gotta be independent. To be a robot, the thing has to take basic instruction from a human, then go off on its onesies to do the deed. Ideally, you should be able to do something like say, Go wash the car, and itll run off as fast as its little robotic legs can carry it to wash the car. More chronistically, you should be able to program it to vacuum the living room at 4:00 a.m., then be able to wake up at 6:00 a.m. to a freshly vacuumed living room.

Farsighted Decisions

"Farsighted" book cover
Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most by Steven Johnson

30 January 2019 – This is not a textbook on decision making.

Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most does cover most of the elements of state-of-the-art decision making, but it’s not a true textbook. If he’d really wanted to write a textbook, its author, Steven Johnson, would have structured it differently, and would have included exercises for the student. Perhaps he would also have done other things differently that I’m not going to enumerate because I don’t want to write a textbook on state-of-the-art decision making, either.

What Johnson apparently wanted to do, and did do successfully, was lay down a set of principles today’s decision makers would do well to follow.

Something he would have left out, if he were writing a textbook, was the impassioned plea for educators to incorporate mandatory decision making courses into secondary-school curricula. I can’t disagree with this sentiment!

A little bit about my background with regard to decision-theory education: ‘Way back in the early 2010s, I taught a course at a technical college entitled “Problem Solving Theory.” Johnson’s book did not exist then, and I wish that it had. The educational materials available at the time fell woefully short. They were, at best, pedantic.

I spent a lot of class time waving my hands and telling stories from my days as a project manager. Unfortunately, the decision-making techniques I learned about in MBA school weren’t of any help at all. Some of the research Johnson weaves into his narrative hadn’t even been done back then!

So, when I heard about Johnson’s new book, I rushed out to snag a copy and devoured it.

As Johnson points out, everybody is a decision maker every day. These decisions run the gamut from snap decisions that people have to make almost instantly, to long-term deliberate choices that reverberate through the rest of their lives. Many, if not most, people face making decisions affecting others, from children to spouses, siblings and friends. Some of us participate in group decision making that can have truly global ramifications.

In John McTiernan’s 1990 film The Hunt for Red October, Admiral Josh Painter points out to CIA analyst Jack Ryan: “Russians don’t take a dump, son, without a plan. Senior captains don’t start something this dangerous without having thought the matter through.”

It’s not just Russians, however, who plan out even minor actions. And, senior captains aren’t the only ones who don’t start things without having thought the matter through. We all do it.

As Johnson points out, it may be the defining characteristic of the human species, which he likes to call Homo prospectus for their ability to apply foresight to advance planning.

The problem, of course, is the alarming rate at which we screw it up. As John F. Kennedy’s failure in the Bay of Pigs invasion shows, even highly intelligent, highly educated and experienced leaders can get it disastrously wrong. Johnson devotes considerable space to enumerating the taxonomy of “things that can go wrong.”

So, decision making isn’t just for leaders, and it’s easier to get it wrong than to do it right.

Enumerating the ways it can all go disastrously wrong, and setting out principles that will help us get it right are the basic objectives Johnson set out for himself when he first decided to write this book. To wit, three goals:

  • Convince readers that it’s important;

  • Warn folks of how easily it can be done wrong; and

  • Give folks a prescription for doing it right.

Pursuant to the third goal, Johnson breaks decision making down into a process involving three steps:

Mapping consists of gathering preliminary information about the state of the Universe before any action has been taken. What do we have to work with? What options do we have to select from? What do we want to accomplish and when?

Predicting consists of prognisticating, for each of the various options available, how the Universe will evolve from now into the foreseeable (and possibly unforeseeable) future. This is probably the most fraught stage of the process. Do we need a Plan B in case of surprises? As Sean Connery’s “Mac” character intones in Jon Amiel’s 1999 crime drama, Entrapment: “Trust me, there always are surprises.”

Deciding is the ultimate finish of the process. It consists of finally choosing between the previously identified alternatives based on the predicted results. What alternative is most likely to give us a result we want to have?

An important technique Johnson recommends basing your decision-making strategy on is narrative. That explicitly means storytelling. Johnson supplies numerous examples from both fiction and non-fiction that help us understand the decision-making process and help us apply it to the problems we face.

He points out that double-blind clinical trials were the single most important technique that advanced medicine from quackery and the witch-doctor’s art to reliable medical science. It allowed trying out various versions of medical interventions in a systematic way and comparing the results. In the same way, he says, fictional storytelling, allows us to mentally “try out” multiple alternative versions of future history.

Through storytelling, we explore various possibilities and imagine how they might turn out, including the vicissitudes of Shakespeare’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” without putting in the time and effort to try them out in reality, and thereby likely suffering “the fuss of mass destruction and death.”

Johnson suggests that’s why humans evolved the desire and capacity to create such fictional narratives in the first place. “When we read these novels,” he says, “ … we are not just entertaining ourselves; we are also rehearsing for our own real-world experiences.”

Of course, while “deciding” is the ultimate act of Johnson’s process, it’s never the end of the story in real life. What to do when it all goes disastrously wrong is always an important consideration. Johnson actually covers that as an important part of the “predicting” step. That’s when you should develop Mac’s “Plan B pack” and figure out when to trigger it if necessary.

Another important consideration, which I covered extensively in my problem solving course and Johnson starts looking at ‘way back in “mapping” is how to live with the aftermath of your decision, whether it’s a resounding success or a disastrous failure. Either way, the Universe is changed forever by your decision, and you and everyone else will have to live in it.

So, your ultimate goal should be deciding how to make the Universe a better place in which to live!

Why Diversity Rules

Diverse friends
A diverse group of people with different ages and nationalities having fun together. Rawpixel/Shutterstock

23 January 2019 – Last week two concepts reared their ugly heads that I’ve been banging on about for years. They’re closely intertwined, so it’s worthwhile to spend a little blog space discussing why they fit so tightly together.

Diversity is Good

The first idea is that diversity is good. It’s good in almost every human pursuit. I’m particularly sensitive to this, being someone who grew up with the idea that rugged individualism was the highest ideal.

Diversity, of course, is incompatible with individualism. Individualism is the cult of the one. “One” cannot logically be diverse. Diversity is a property of groups, and groups by definition consist of more than one.

Okay, set theory admits of groups with one or even no members, but those groups have a diversity “score” (Gini–Simpson index) of zero. To have any diversity at all, your group has to have at absolute minimum two members. The more the merrier (or diversitier).

The idea that diversity is good came up in a couple of contexts over the past week.

First, I’m reading a book entitled Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most by Steven Johnson, which I plan eventually to review in this blog. Part of the advice Johnson offers is that groups make better decisions when their membership is diverse. How they are diverse is less important than the extent to which they are diverse. In other words, this is a case where quantity is more important than quality.

Second, I divided my physics-lab students into groups to perform their first experiment. We break students into groups to prepare them for working in teams after graduation. Unlike when I was a student fifty years ago, activity in scientific research and technology development is always done in teams.

When I was a student, research was (supposedly) done by individuals working largely in isolation. I believe it was Willard Gibbs (I have no reliable reference for this quote) who said: “An experimental physicist must be a professional scientist and an amateur everything else.”

By this he meant that building a successful physics experiment requires the experimenter to apply so many diverse skills that it is impossible to have professional mastery of all of them. He (or she) must have an amateur’s ability pick up novel skills in order to reach the next goal in their research. They must be ready to work outside their normal comfort zone.

That asked a lot from an experimental researcher! Individuals who could do that were few and far between.

Today, the fast pace of technological development has reduced that pool of qualified individuals essentially to zero. It certainly is too small to maintain the pace society expects of the engineering and scientific communities.

Tolkien’s “unimaginable hand and mind of Feanor” puttering around alone in his personal workshop crafting magical things is unimaginable today. Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus character, who had mastered all earthly knowledge, is now laughable. No one person is capable of making a major contribution to today’s technology on their own.

The solution is to perform the work of technological research and development in teams with diverse skill sets.

In the sciences, theoreticians with strong mathematical backgrounds partner with engineers capable of designing machines to test the theories, and technicians with the skills needed to fabricate the machines and make them work.

Chaotic Universe

The second idea I want to deal with in this essay is that we live in a chaotic Universe.

Chaos is a property of complex systems. These are systems consisting of many interacting moving parts that show predictable behavior on short time scales, but eventually foil the most diligent attempts at long-term prognostication.

A pendulum, by contrast, is a simple system consisting of, basically, three moving parts: a massive weight, or “pendulum bob,” that hangs by a rod or string (the arm) from a fixed support. Simple systems usually do not exhibit chaotic behavior.

The solar system, consisting of a huge, massive star (the Sun), eight major planets and a host of minor planets, is decidedly not a simple system. Its behavior is borderline chaotic. I say “borderline” because the solar system seems well behaved on short time scales (e.g., millennia), but when viewed on time scales of millions of years does all sorts of unpredictable things.

For example, approximately four and a half billion years ago (a few tens of millions of years after the system’s initial formation) a Mars-sized planet collided with Earth, spalling off a mass of material that coalesced to form the Moon, then ricochetted out of the solar system. That’s the sort of unpredictable event that happens in a chaotic system if you wait long enough.

The U.S. economy, consisting of millions of interacting individuals and companies, is wildly chaotic, which is why no investment strategy has ever been found to work reliably over a long time.

Putting It Together

The way these two ideas (diversity is good, and we live in a chaotic Universe) work together is that collaborating in diverse groups is the only way to successfully navigate life in a chaotic Universe.

An individual human being is so powerless that attempting anything but the smallest task is beyond his or her capacity. The only way to do anything of significance is to collaborate with others in a diverse team.

In the late 1980s my wife and I decided to build a house. To begin with, we had to decide where to build the house. That required weeks of collaboration (by our little team of two) to combine our experiences of different communities in the area where we were living, develop scenarios of what life might be like living in each community, and finally agree on which we might like the best. Then we had to find an architect to work with our growing team to design the building. Then we had to negotiate with banks for construction loans, bridge loans, and ultimate mortgage financing. Our architect recommended adding a prime contractor who had connections with carpenters, plumbers, electricians and so forth to actually complete the work. The better part of a year later, we had our dream house.

There’s no way I could have managed even that little project – building one house – entirely on my own!

In 2015, I ran across the opportunity to produce a short film for a film festival. I knew how to write a script, run a video camera, sew a costume, act a part, do the editing, and so forth. In short, I had all the skills needed to make that 30-minute film.

Did that mean I could make it all by my onesies? Nope! By the time the thing was completed, the list of cast and crew counted over a dozen people, each with their own job in the production.

By now, I think I’ve made my point. The take-home lesson of this essay is that if you want to accomplish anything in this chaotic Universe, start by assembling a diverse team, and the more diverse, the better!

The Scientific Method

Scientific Method Diagram
The scientific method assumes uncertainty.

9 January 2019 – This week I start a new part-time position on the faculty at Florida Gulf Coast University teaching two sections of General Physics laboratory. In preparation, I dusted off a posting to this blog from last Summer that details my take on the scientific method, which I re-edited to present to my students. I thought readers of this blog might profit by my posting the edited version. The original posting contrasted the scientific method of getting at the truth with the method used in the legal profession. Since I’ve been banging on about astrophysics and climate science, specifically, I thought it would be helpful to zero in again on how scientists figure out what’s really going on in the world at large. How do we know what we think we know?


While high-school curricula like to teach the scientific method as a simple step-by-step program, the reality is very much more complicated. The version they teach you in high school is a procedure consisting of five to seven steps, which pretty much look like this:

  1. Observation
  2. Hypothesis
  3. Prediction
  4. Experimentation
  5. Analysis
  6. Repeat

I’ll start by explaining how this program is supposed to work, then look at why it doesn’t actually work that way. It has to do with why the concept is so fuzzy that it’s not really clear how many steps should be included.

The Stepwise Program

It all starts with observation of things that go on in the World.

Newton’s law of universal gravitation started with the observation that when left on their own, most things fall down. That’s Newton’s falling-apple observation. Generally, the observation is so common that it takes a genius to ask the question: “why?”

Once you ask the question “why,” the next thing that happens is that your so-called genius comes up with some cockamamie explanation, called an “hypothesis.” In fact, there are usually several possible explanations that vary from the erudite to the thoroughly bizarre.

Through bitter experience, scientists have come to realize that no hypothesis is too whacko to be considered. It’s often the most outlandish hypothesis that proves to be right!

For example, the ancients tended to think in terms of objects somehow “wanting” to go downward as the least weird of explanations for gravity. The idea came from animism, which was the not-too-bizarre (to the ancients) idea that natural objects each have their own spirits, which animate their behavior: Rocks are hard because their spirits resist being broken; They fall down when released because their spirits somehow like down better than up.

What we now consider the most-correctest explanation (that we live in a four-dimensional space-time contiuum that is warped by concentrations of matter-energy so that objects follow paths that tend to converge with each other) wouldn’t have made any sense at all to the ancients. It, in fact, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to anybody who hasn’t spent years immersing themselves in the subject of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

Scientists then take all the hypotheses available, and use them to make predictions as to what happens next if you set up certain relevant situations, called “experiments.” An hypothesis works if its predictions match up with what Mommy Nature produces for results from the experiments.

Scientists then do tons of experiments testing different predictions of the hypotheses, then compare (the analysis step) the results, and eventually develop a warm, fuzzy feeling that one hypothesis does a better job of predicting what Mommy Nature does than do the others.

It’s important to remember that no scientist worth his or her salt believes that the currently accepted hypothesis is actually in any absolute sense “correct.” It’s just the best explanation among the ones we have on hand now.

That’s why the last step is to repeat the entire process ad nauseam.

While this long, drawn out process does manage to cover the main features of the scientific method, it fails in one important respect: it doesn’t boil the method down to its essentials.

Not boiling the method down to its essentials forces one to deal with all kinds of exceptions created by the extraneous, non-essential bits. There end up being more exceptions than rules. For example, the science-pedagogy website Science Buddies ends up throwing its hands in the air by saying: “In fact, there are probably as many versions of the scientific method as there are scientists!”

A More Holistic Approach

The much simpler explanation I’ve used for years to teach college students about the scientific method follows the diagram above. The pattern is quite simple, with only four components. It starts by setting up a set of initial conditions, and following two complementary paths through to the resultant results.

There are two ways to get from the initial conditions to the results. The first is to just set the whole thing up, and let Mommy Nature do her thing. The second is to think through your hypothesis (the model) to predict what it says Mommy Nature will come up with. If they match, you count your hypothesis as a success. If not, it’s wrong.

If you do that a bazillion times in a bazillion different ways, a really successful hypothesis (like General Relativity) will turn out right pretty much all of the time.

Generally, if you’ve got a really good hypothesis but your experiment doesn’t work out right, you’ve screwed up somewhere. That means what you actually set up as the initial conditions wasn’t what you thought you were setting up. So, Mommy Nature (who’s always right) doesn’t give you the result you thought you should get.

For example, I was once (at a University other than this one) asked to mentor another faculty member who was having trouble building an experiment to demonstrate what he thought was an exception to Newton’s Second Law of Motion. It was based on a classic experiment called “Atwood’s Machine.” He couldn’t get the machine to give the results he was convinced he should get.

I immediately recognized that he’d made a common mistake novice physicists often make. I tried to explain it to him, but he refused to believe me. Then, I left the room.

I walked away because, despite his conviction, Mommy Nature wasn’t going to do what he expected her to. He persisted in believing that there was something wrong with his experimental apparatus. It was his hypothesis, instead.

Anyway, the way this method works is that you look for patterns in what Mommy Nature does. Your hypothesis is just a description of some part of Mommy Nature’s pattern. Scientific geniuses are folks who are really, really good at recognizing the patterns Mommy Nature uses.

If your scientific hypothesis is wrong (meaning it gives wrong results), “So, What?”

Most scientific hypotheses are wrong! They’re supposed to be wrong most of the time.

Finding that some hypothesis is wrong is no big deal. It just means it was a dumb idea, and you don’t have to bother thinking about that dumb idea anymore.

Alien abductions get relegated to entertainment for the entertainment starved. Real scientists can go on to think about something else, like the kinds of conditions leading to development of living organisms and why we don’t see alien visitors walking down Fifth Avenue.

(FYI: the current leading hypothesis is that the distances from there to here are so vast that anybody smart enough to figure out how to make the trip has better things to do.)

For scientists “Gee, it looks like … ” is usually as good as it gets!

Reimagining Our Tomorrows

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Utopia with a twist.

19 December 2018 – I generally don’t buy into utopias.

Utopias are intended as descriptions of a paradise. They’re supposed to be a paradise for everybody, and they’re supposed to be filled with happy people committed to living in their city (utopias are invariably built around descriptions of cities), which they imagine to be the best of all possible cities located in the best of all possible worlds.

Unfortunately, however, utopia stories are written by individual authors, and they’d only be a paradise for that particular author. If the author is persuasive enough, the story will win over a following of disciples, who will praise it to high Heaven. Once in a great while (actually surprisingly often) those disciples become so enamored of the description that they’ll drop everything and actually attempt to build a city to match the description.

When that happens, it invariably ends in tears.

That’s because, while utopian stories invariably describe city plans that would be paradise to their authors, great swaths of the population would find living in them to be horrific.

Even Thomas More, the sixteenth century philosopher, politician and generally overall smart guy who’s credited with giving us the word “utopia” in the first place, was wise enough to acknowledge that the utopia he described in his most famous work, Utopia, wouldn’t be such a fun place for the slaves he had serving his upper-middle class citizens, who were the bulwark of his utopian society.

Even Plato’s Republic, which gave us the conundrum summarized in Juvenal’s Satires as “Who guards the guards?,” was never meant as a workable society. Plato’s work, in general, was meant to teach us how to think, not what to think.

What to think is a highly malleable commodity that varies from person to person, society to society, and, most importantly, from time to time. Plato’s Republic reflected what might have passed as good ideas for city planning in 380 BC Athens, but they wouldn’t have passed muster in More’s sixteenth-century England. Still less would they be appropriate in twenty-first-century democracies.

So, I approached Joe Tankersley’s Reimagining Our Tomorrows with some trepidation. I wouldn’t have put in the effort to read the thing if it wasn’t for the subtitle: “Making Sure Your Future Doesn’t SUCK.”

That subtitle indicated that Tankersley just might have a sense of humor, and enough gumption to put that sense of humor into his contribution to Futurism.

Futurism tends to be the work of self-important intellectuals out to make a buck by feeding their audience on fantasies that sound profound, but bear no relation to any actual or even possible future. Its greatest value is in stimulating profits for publishers of magazines and books about Futurism. Otherwise, they’re not worth the trees killed to make the paper they’re printed on.

Trees, after all and as a group, make a huge contribution to all facets of human life. Like, for instance, breathing. Breathing is of incalculable value to humans. Trees make an immense contribution to breathing by absorbing carbon dioxide and pumping out vast quantities of oxygen, which humans like to breathe.

We like trees!

Futurists, not so much.

Tankersley’s little (168 pages, not counting author bio, front matter and introduction) opus is not like typical Futurist literature, however. Well, it would be like that if it weren’t more like the Republic in that it’s avowed purpose is to stimulate its readers to think about the future themselves. In the introduction that I purposely left out of the page count he says:

I want to help you reimagine our tomorrows; to show you that we are living in a time when the possibility of creating a better future has never been greater.”

Tankersley structured the body of his book in ten chapters, each telling a separate story about an imagined future centered around a possible solution to an issue relevant today. Following each chapter is an “apology” by a fictional future character named Archibald T. Patterson III.

Archie is what a hundred years ago would have been called a “Captain of Industry.” Today, we’d refer to him as an uber-rich and successful entrepreneur. Think Elon Musk or Bill Gates.

Actually, I think he’s more like Warren Buffet in that he’s reasonably introspective and honest with himself. Archie sees where society has come from, how it got to the future it got to, and what he and his cohorts did wrong. While he’s super-rich and privileged, the futures the stories describe were made by other people who weren’t uber-rich and successful. His efforts largely came to naught.

The point Tankersley seems to be making is that progress comes from the efforts of ordinary individuals who, in true British fashion, “muddle through.” They see a challenge and apply their talents and resources to making a solution. The solution is invariably nothing anyone would foresee, and is nothing like what anyone else would come up with to meet the same challenge. Each is a unique response to a unique challenge by unique individuals.

It might seem naive, this idea that human development comes from ordinary individuals coming up with ordinary solutions to ordinary problems all banded together into something called “progress,” but it’s not.

For example, Mark Zuckerberg developed Facebook as a response to the challenge of applying then-new computer-network technology to the age-old quest by late adolescents to form their own little communities by communicating among themselves. It’s only fortuitous that he happened on the right combination of time (the dawn of a radical new technology), place (in the midst of a huge cadre of the right people well versed in using that radical new technology) and marketing to get the word out to those right people wanting to use that radical new technology for that purpose. Take away any of those elements and there’d be no Facebook!

What if Zuckerberg hadn’t invented Facebook? In that event, somebody else (Reid Hoffman) would have come up with a similar solution (Linkedin) to the same challenge facing a similar group (technology professionals).

Oh, my! They did!

History abounds with similar examples. There’s hardly any advancement in human culture that doesn’t fit this model.

The good news is that Tankersley’s vision for how we can re-imagine our tomorrows is right on the money.

The bad news is … there isn’t any bad news!