Quotulatiousness

February 13, 2018

Elon Musk as Heinlein’s Delos D. Harriman – “Selling the moon is just what Musk is doing”

Filed under: Books, Business, Space — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 06:00

I suspect I’d recognize a lot of the books in Colby Cosh‘s collection, as we’re both clearly Robert Heinlein fans. In a column yesterday, he pointed out the strong parallels between Heinlein’s fictional “Man Who Sold the Moon” and his closest counterpart in our timeline, Elon Musk:

Written between 1939 and 1950 for quickie publication in pulp magazines, the Future History is a series of snapshots of what is now an alternate human future — one that features atomic energy, solar system imperialism, and the first steps to deep space, all within a Spenglerian choreography of social progress and occasional resurgent barbarity. It stands with Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy as a monument of golden-age science fiction.

[…]

The result, in the key story of the Future History, is an uncannily accurate description of the design and launch of a Saturn V rocket. (Written before 1950, remember.) But because Heinlein happened not to be interested in electronic computers, all the spacefaring in his books is done with the aid of slide rules or Marchant-style mechanical calculators (which, in non-Heinlein history, had to become obsolete before humans could go to Luna at all). Heinlein sends people to colonize the moon, but nobody there has internet, or is conscious of its absence.

Given that his ideas about computers were from the pre-computer era and even the head of IBM thought there’d be a worldwide demand for a very small number of his company’s devices, that’s not surprising at all. In one of his best novels, a single computer runs almost all of the life support, heat, light, transportation and communication systems on Luna … and is self-aware, but lonely. In later works where computers appear, they tend to be individual personalities or even minor characters, but they’re anything but ubiquitous: powerful, but rare.

I suspect the lack of an internet-equivalent derives both from the nature of his conception of how computing would progress and a form of the Star Trek transporter problem – it solves too many plot issues that could otherwise be usefully woven into stories.

The “key story” I just mentioned is called “The Man Who Sold The Moon.” And if you’re one of the people who has been polarized by the promotional legerdemain of Elon Musk — whether you have been antagonized into loathing him, or lured into his explorer-hero cult — you probably need to make a special point of reading that story.

The shock of recognition will, I promise, flip your lid. The story is, inarguably, Musk’s playbook. Its protagonist, the idealistic business tycoon D.D. Harriman, is what Musk sees when he looks in the mirror.

“The Man Who Sold The Moon” is the story of how Harriman makes the first moon landing happen. Engineers and astronauts are present as peripheral characters, but it is a business romance. Harriman is a sophisticated sort of “Mary Sue” — an older chap whose backstory encompasses the youthful interests of the creators of classic pulp science fiction, but who is given a great fortune, built on terrestrial transport and housing, for the purposes of the story.

Forensic (junk) science

Filed under: Law, Science, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

In The Nation, Meehan Crist and Tim Requarth report on a solved-by-forensic-science case that opens a lot of valid questions about the “science” part of forensic science:

Today, Genrich is 55 years old and has been in prison for nearly 25 years for crimes he says he didn’t commit. His latest appeal has been taken up by the Innocence Project, in the hopes of not only freeing Genrich, but getting the courts to recognize recent scientific challenges to forensic pattern-matching techniques that affect hundreds of thousands of people at all levels of the criminal-justice system. In our investigation, we comprehensively reviewed the literature on handheld toolmarks published in forensic trade journals, dug through past legal rulings, pored over nearly 7,000 pages of trial transcripts, and conducted dozens of interviews with prosecutors, defense attorneys, forensic practitioners, judges, academics, and scientists, from Grand Junction to the Department of Justice. What we found was a startling lack of scientific support for forensic pattern-matching techniques such as toolmark analysis; a legal system that has failed to separate nonsense from science even in capital cases; and a consensus among prosecutors all the way up to the attorney general’s office that scientifically dubious forensic techniques should be not only protected, but expanded. With Donald Trump in the White House and Jeff Sessions at the helm of the DOJ, the nominal momentum for forensic-science reform spurred by the two major reports is slowing. Genrich’s case reveals a system that makes it nearly impossible to throw unproven forensic science out of courts and may be keeping thousands of innocent people behind bars.

[…]

Firearm and toolmark analysis emerged out of a national push in the early 20th century to professionalize police investigative techniques at a moment when Americans were particularly enamored with science. Law enforcement borrowed terms from science, establishing crime “laboratories” staffed by forensic “scientists” who announced “theories” cloaked in their own specialized jargon. But forensic “science” focused on inventing clever ways to solve cases and win convictions; it was never about forming theories and testing them according to basic scientific standards. By adopting the trappings of science, the forensic disciplines co-opted its authority while abandoning its methods.

Amid the swirl of new forensic techniques, the courts realized there had to be a gatekeeping mechanism to filter out quackery. In 1923, the DC Court of Appeals provided that mechanism in Frye v. United States. The judges rejected a doctor’s dubious claim that he could use a polygraph to detect when a person was lying from a rise in their blood pressure. In the ruling, the court said that in order for scientific evidence or expert testimony to be admitted, it must be offered by an experienced practitioner making inferences from a “well-recognized scientific principle” that has “general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs.” In Frye, the judges deemed the scientists in the “particular field” relevant to polygraph use to include psychologists and physiologists—not just polygraph practitioners who would, presumably, be biased toward preserving the technique’s reputation. The effectiveness of Frye in keeping dubious science out of the courts depends on whom judges include in their definition of the “relevant scientific community.” But as the decades wore on, and the forensic disciplines gained influence, judges tended to restrict their definition of the “relevant scientific community” to the forensic examiners themselves. Judges began taking advice on what counted as good forensics from the very people who invented the techniques and made a living off of them.

In the American criminal-justice system, where prosecutors regularly battle defense attorneys over what constitutes valid evidence, judges’ rulings on admissibility are the final word. Once a technique has made it into court and survived appeals, subsequent judges, most of whom have no scientific training and little ability to assess the scientific validity of a technique, will continue to allow it by citing precedent. Forensic examiners, in turn, cite precedent in order to claim that their techniques are reliable science. Prosecutors point to guilty verdicts as evidence that the science brought to court was sound. In this circular way, legal rulings — which never really vetted the science to begin with — substitute for scientific proof. This is Frye’s fatal flaw: Nowhere in this process is anyone required to provide empirical evidence that the techniques work as advertised. Frye aimed to keep pseudoscience out of the courts, but instead has helped create the perfect conditions to keep it in.

[…]

No human endeavor is perfect, yet many forensic examiners claim “zero” or near-zero error rates. In a widely cited 1984 paper in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, bite-mark examiners claimed a coincidental match would occur less than one in 10 quadrillion times. But when actually tested, even the most experienced examiners were wrong about one in six times, and in one study they struggled to distinguish a child’s bite mark from an adult’s. In 2009, the chief of the FBI Firearms-Toolmarks Unit wrote that a qualified examiner will “rarely if ever commit a false positive error (misidentification).” In practice, error rates for matching bullets to firearms can be dramatically higher: In 2008, the Detroit Police Department’s crime lab was shuttered when auditors found that its examiners made one error in every 10 cases. The head of the FBI’s fingerprint laboratory testified that its error rate was one in 11 million—because he knew of only one error in the FBI’s 11 million comparisons—but subsequent tests of fingerprint examiners show error rates ranging from one in 680 to one in 24.

The Grand Tour: Legally Tesla

Filed under: Business, Humour, Law, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

The Grand Tour
Published on 12 Feb 2018

In a test of the Tesla Model X, Jeremy Clarkson is joined by lawyers in this legally perilous task.

****These observations about the Tesla Model X are made in Clarkson’s personal capacity and should not be regarded as any statement or opinion by any other person or entity about the general safety, road worthiness, mechanical effectiveness, or any other standards of the vehicle about this specific model or any other Tesla vehicle.

Tulip mania … wasn’t

Filed under: Economics, Europe, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Tim Harford on bubbles in general and the great seventeenth-century Tulip mania in the Netherlands in particular:

It seems all so much easier with hindsight: looking back, we can all enjoy a laugh at the Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, to borrow the title of Charles Mackay’s famous 1841 book, which chuckles at the South Sea bubble and tulip mania. Yet even with hindsight things are not always clear. For example, I first became aware of the incipient dotcom bubble in the late 1990s, when a senior colleague told me that the upstart online bookseller Amazon.com was valued at more than every bookseller on the planet. A clearer instance of mania could scarcely be imagined.

But Amazon is worth much more today than at the height of the bubble, and comparing it with any number of booksellers now seems quaint. The dotcom bubble was mad and my colleague correctly diagnosed the lunacy, but he should still have bought and held Amazon stock.

Tales of the great tulip mania in 17th-century Holland seem clearer — most notoriously, the Semper Augustus bulb that sold for the price of an Amsterdam mansion. “The population, even to its lowest dregs, embarked in the tulip trade,” sneered Mackay more than 200 years later.

But the tale grows murkier still. The economist Peter Garber, author of “Famous First Bubbles”, points out that a rare tulip bulb could serve as the breeding stock for generations of valuable flowers; as its descendants became numerous, one would expect the price of individual bulbs to fall.

Some of the most spectacular prices seem to have been empty tavern wagers by almost-penniless braggarts, ignored by serious traders but much noticed by moralists. The idea that Holland was economically convulsed is hard to support: the historian Anne Goldgar, author of Tulipmania (US) (UK), has been unable to find anyone who actually went bankrupt as a result.

It is easy to laugh at the follies of the past, especially if they have been exaggerated for the purposes of sermonising or for comic effect. Charles Mackay copied and exaggerated the juiciest reports he could find in order to get his point across.

Update, 15 February: For more detail on the lack-of-bubble in Tulip Mania, you might want to read Anne Goldgar’s post at The Conversation.

Feature History – Seven Years’ War

Filed under: Americas, Britain, Europe, France, History, India, Military, Russia — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Feature History
Published on 14 Jan 2017

Hello and welcome to Feature History, featuring the Seven Years’ War, an overdue video, and the reason you don’t record after just waking up

QotD: Mark Twain on Indian weather

Filed under: Humour, India, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I believe that in India ‘cold weather’ is merely a conventional phrase and has come into use through the necessity of having some way to distinguish between weather which will melt a brass door-knob and weather which will only make it mushy.

Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World, 1897.

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