Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Find Out

When you look at the immensity of space  and time, the sum total of all the knowledge  of all the humans across all the ages is  statistically zero.  This is not a reason to give up.   It's a reason to find out.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Spirituality in Science

The chances are, if you're a human being, when you say the word spirituality you mean something completely different from what I mean when I say it... even after we've consulted a dictionary.

Though I consider myself to be religious, when I use words like spirit or soul or consciousness in a metaphysical sense (collectively, mind-body duality), I do so with full acknowledgement that I have no idea whatsoever what those words really mean. And the more I talk with people who think they know what these words mean, the more I'm convinced that they have no idea either. And yet they're all over the place.

When the words are used, they typically describe some incorporeal, non-physical beingness. We suppose that this beingness exists apart from the body, and is yet tied to the body. And though we have perfectly good meat-computers in our heads, it is this beingness that we imagine controls our actions and thoughts, through some undefined manipulation of these meat-computers (brains).

None of this explains what a soul is, or how it interacts with a brain, or why we suppose it to be indestructible. It doesn't explain why we imagine it to be something we can give away -- or that some devil can collect -- while continuing to go about our lives. And given the fact that our thoughts and memories can be affected by chemicals, or physical trauma, or surgery, or genetics or disease; it doesn't explain why we suppose it to live on after our deaths to face punishment or reward or recycling or merging with some grander consciousness, depending on your religion. It doesn't explain why the concept of mind-body duality is accepted without question by people who believe themselves to be atheists, yet write fiction involving body-swapping and possession and mind-reading at a distance and astral projection and transcendental evolution. I don't think even the Pope could adequately explain it without saying it's a matter of faith. And honestly, I think that's a pretty good answer.

It's generally agreed that this is not a scientific concept. That doesn't mean it can't be true; but it means that we've agreed (most of us, anyway) that there's no way of testing it scientifically. And for the following discussion, I'm going to put my scientist hat on.

Basically, if you took all of the verified scientific evidence of the existence of mind-body duality, wrote it all out on 20# paper stock, and put it on a scale, it would weigh nothing whatsoever. Empty scale. On the other hand, you could fill a library with the "factual" statements of conviction that have been written on the subject. (Don't get excited. The same thing's true of much of theoretical physics.)

Here's an example: Supernatural Magazine. I've linked you to an article on consciousness and parallel universes. Notice all of the declarative statements. Nary a doubt. Notice all the scientific jargon, like "vibrational rates", which mean absolutely nothing outside of this word salad. Notice phrases like "Science says," when Science does no such thing. Some scientists may say something to the effect, but you have to be very careful to understand the context of any theoretical discussion among scientists. That is, the scientists all know and understand the discussion to be theoretical. In other words, every word of every discussion is understood to be descriptive of models built from hypotheses and suppositions accepted for the purpose of discourse to then ask the question, "What if? If all of these things we're talking about were true, then what would we expect to see?" And then they go off to experiment and measure and observe and tell you whether they see those expected things. And if they don't, then they dream up something new. And though for the sake of their human egos and funding and pride, most theoreticians like us to assign a little more gravitas to their gravity; at it's core, that's what science is. The folks at Supernatural Magazine don't seem to understand that. Instead, they take these models as solid fact and present them as such. The end result is a meaningless, garbled mess. They confuse parallel universes with multiple dimensions and get basically everything wrong.

Sometimes scientists themselves get tied up in knots in a similar fashion over this subject as well as similar nebulous terms such as free will. I don't think it's a spoiler to reveal that we really have no idea what free will is, or how we would recognize it if we saw it. I think it's fair to say that as far as we know, the Universe is deterministic, even if it is unpredictable at the scales of the very small. (I think probability more accurately describes the state of our knowledge than the state of the event. Thought experiment: flip a coin and call it in the air. What is the chance that it lands heads-up? 50%? Now flip the same coin, catch it in the air and cover it. What is the chance now? Now flip it, catch it, cover it, and peek. Then ask someone else to tell you the odds. Do the two of you agree?) How is it possible to have free will in a deterministic universe? For that we need to know what free will is, and that's tied in with consciousness, and we don't even know what consciousness is. That's just being honest.

I think it's highly unlikely that we could ever actually solve problems like this about the physical universe. We cannot prove the self-consistency of a system from within the system itself (Gödel's incompleteness theorems). And sadly, we are intrinsically part of the Universe we're trying to explain, and we're using the brains that we're trying to explain. So I think that "we don't know" is a very rational response to our questions about the most fundamental nature of reality and of ourselves.


That doesn't stop people from trying, of course. I recently came across a 2014 article in ScienceDirect by Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose entitled, "Consciousness in the universe: A review of the ‘Orch OR’ theory". "Orch OR" stands for "orchestrated objective reduction". I'm not going into a detailed summary, as the article is exactly that, and you can read the article and commentary yourself. And as you do, note the inherent differences between this article and the previously-linked one from Supernatural Magazine. In ScienceDirect, phrases like "we may speculate" and "we believe" abound. In criticizing the article, I make no comment on the discussion of neurochemistry. I'll take their word for it as I don't study that. But I do have some issues with their logic.

Of course, Orch OR invokes quantum events as an outside causal agency for the action of free will. Hameroff and Penrose conclude that "consciousness plays an intrinsic role in the universe." The problem I have with it is that with all of the mental gymnastics employed in the article, there's no way that the premises or the arguments definitively support the conclusion.

Let's strip it down. At the start of the article they declare: "what consciousness actually is remains unknown". Well, that much is true. And in their conclusion they state, "Such OR events would have to be ‘orchestrated’ in an appropriate way (Orch OR), for genuine consciousness to arise." See the problem? They don't know what "genuine consciousness" is. They therefore have no basis for stating its required conditions.

Yes, they do lay out some conditions that they may believe are descriptive of consciousness. But these are self-admittedly subjective. That we feel as if we have free will does not mean that free will is a property of "genuine consciousness". Should we encounter a provably deterministic consciousness that reports that it feels as if it has free will, it would meet the conditions at least as well as we do. Typically, some form of randomization is usually invoked in discussions of free will, but it doesn't follow that a randomized system is non-deterministic; merely that the trigger for the action is unknown. And once triggered, the system itself is still deterministic. "Free will" of itself does not even imply randomization... quite the opposite. "Free will" implies deliberation and volition, not random action. And if a wave-function requires consciousness to collapse, and consciousness has free will, why can't Schrödinger simply will his cat to live?

Such difficulties are why I now like to avoid the term "free will" entirely, and instead focus on "self-determination". It doesn't matter whether I have free will or not. As your brain is equipped no differently, you have no inherent authority regarding my decisions. It works for me on every level, including the religious, the philosophical and the political.

To be fair, Penrose is quite explicit that when he's talking about non-computability, he doesn't mean randomness. But I'm not sure he makes his case. Randomness is pretty much how the transition from quantum to classical physics expresses itself in our present understanding. Penrose proposes that some new model of physics is required. Unfortunately, this would appear to require processes that take place below the threshold of possible experimentation.

But this does nothing to define or explain what is meant (if anything) by employed terms such as proto-consciousness. Really... what the hell is that? I intuitively think that OR -- objective reduction -- as a "real thing" must exist in some form, otherwise we have a very hard time explaining the reality of events, the effects of which we observe long after their occurrence in the far reaches of the Universe. I think it's pretty nonsensical to seriously posit whether things exist that we haven't experienced. But is it necessary to invoke consciousness to explain the reduction of those events? Is it not enough to allow that interactions count as observations? Is it not enough to allow that quantum events, although they may provide random input, thus influencing our computation, do not necessarily imply a consciousness separate from ourselves? Is it necessary to discard the notion that our brains are sufficiently complex to perceive themselves as "conscious" without first disproving it?

Now, all of that is said with my scientist hat on. When I take that hat off, there's something extremely familiar about the notion of some pervasive objective consciousness collapsing the wave-functions of the Universe, resulting in a deterministic world which we inhabit while exhibiting free will made possible by partaking of the essence of that proto-consciousness. It certainly seems to be a restatement of things I accept on faith, dressed up with a bit of math. It's called Religion. And yet, Penrose describes himself as an atheist. Maybe that's a wave-function he should concentrate on reducing.


UPDATE: One other thing that I'd like to address is that the article mentions the following:
Measurable brain activity correlated with a conscious perception of a stimulus generally occurs several hundred milliseconds after that stimulus. Yet in activities ranging from rapid conversation to competitive athletics, we respond to a stimulus (seemingly consciously) before the above activity that would be correlated with that stimulus occurs in the brain. This is interpreted in conventional neuroscience and philosophy [1–3] to imply that in such cases we respond non-consciously, on auto-pilot, and subsequently have only an illusion of conscious response. The mainstream view is that consciousness is epiphenomenal illusion, occurring after-the-fact as a false impression of conscious control of behavior. Accordingly, we are merely ‘helpless spectators’
Hameroff and Penrose offer quantum processes in the brain as "loopholes" for such implementations. I wonder if that's even necessary, as I have doubts as to whether the mainstream view is even correct.

Here's an analogy from my own field of computer programming. Granted, programs are automata (even as we might be) so I'm going to anthropomorphize a bit and use a simple example, but it's for the purpose of illustration.

Let's take a program like Chess. There are basically three things going on here: You have a user interface (UI). That's what communicates with the outside world in some meaningful way, by taking input from the keyboard and mouse and drawing graphics. The UI may have other functions, such as being 'aware' of the rules of the game and checking the legality of the player's moves. It may remember previous positions. Then there's the chess engine, which has very limited UI, mainly intended to communicate with the UI. And then there's a library of set responses to known chess positions. Together, they comprise the chess program.

Now, you might think of the library as 'instinct' or 'reflex' or 'muscle memory'. It's not very interesting here, in that no 'thought' is involved in the responses. So long as it receives input that's 'in the book', it responds automatically.

Positions that are not 'in the book' are evaluated by the chess engine. Once that's done it distills all of that analysis into a single response (the move) and sends it back to the UI.

The library is much faster than the computations performed by the engine. And to improve performance, we need not wait for the library to report failure before working on the problem. The engine 'thinks' about the problem even as the library is being searched. But the library responds first, even though we know we 'consciously' set to work evaluating the position. And if the library responds negatively, then we've constructively used the time. In any event, it takes some finite amount of time to integrate the results and report them to the UI.

Keep in mind that the UI is fairly superficial. And if we look at what's going on in the internals of the machine, the program has generated a response and taken action to update its internal 'board' before the UI is 'aware' of the decision and can communicate it to the user. Other programs do similar things with procedural calls to back-end processes that perform actions before they can be reported. For instance, I've designed a system for mortgage insurance that submits applications to multiple decision engines and returns "first response" underwriting decisions.

If our understanding of the 'program' were limited to the superficial layers that communicate with us, then we might conclude that the program were acting 'unconsciously'.

I think the same is likely to be true of biological consciousness. It's not that any part of this happens 'unconsciously'. Rather, it's that consciousness is more complicated than is thought of in the mainstream view. I think it doesn't all happen at once, monolithically, and it's not a step-by-step linear process as it might be in a very simple program. Rather, I surmise that we frame a choice and set the various parts of our mind to work on it, integrating the results and reporting them. To say that something is 'unconscious' when it is part of the conscious process is to mis-label it. And this goes back to the earlier assertion that we don't really know what consciousness is... so we run the risk of excluding necessary functions from that definition and erroneously saying that it's not conscious at all...  we are merely ‘helpless spectators’ experiencing an 'illusion'. We look at functional design and conclude that it's a paradox. Such an interpretation is not necessarily warranted.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Can You Tango with a Frango?

Even when languages are very similar, we can be tripped up by unexpected minor differences.

For instance, shortly after I first moved to England, I was asked by a young lady, "Would you like to pop 'round my flat this Saturday and knock me up?" (I've met a few other people with similar experiences)

"What a lovely invitation!" I thought, until I realized that she meant I should strike her door repeatedly with my clenched fist. As I was married at the time, my disappointment was mixed with relief.

I experienced some similar scenarios this past week on a business trip to Brazil. I met with salespeople from all over South America, about half of which spoke Portuguese and the rest, Spanish. And on some occasions, I smoke a pipe. On this trip I used my pipe as an excuse to go outside as often as possible to take in the mountain vistas and examine the botanical diversity. When I did, I was often accompanied by some of the salesmen, mostly the Spanish-speaking ones. They'd generally tell me, "You remind me of my uncle," in smooth, measured voices borrowed from Antonio Banderas. And they'd point to my pipe and tell me it was my pipa (pronounced "peep-ah").

So late in the week, when I'd run out of my own tobacco, I went to find a tabacaria to buy more. After a few false starts, I found what I was looking for in Barra... a little hole-in-the-wall cigar shop. I walked in fairly confidently (it was my seventh day in Brazil) and asked, "Você vende tabaco para pipa?"

The vendor looked at me with a very puzzled expression and finally said, "Marijuana?" "No, no no!" I exclaimed, pulling the pipe from my pocket and showing it to her. "Ah! Cachimbo!" was her reply.

As it turns out, while "pipa" is Spanish for "pipe", in Portuguese it means "kite". I suppose she thought I wanted to get high. So I tried again: "Você vende tabaco para cachimbo?"



Another word left me more puzzled than confused. It's the Portuguese word for "chicken".

In all other Latin-derived languages, the word for chicken is derived from the Latin "pullus". In Italian and Spanish, it's "pollo". In French, it's "poulet". Even in English we say "poultry" and "pullet" when we're not using the German-derived word.

In Portuguese, it's "frango" (rhymes with "tango").

I have no idea where this word comes from. Neither did any of my Brazilian guides. It just seems to have popped into the lexicon out of nowhere. Looking around the Web, I've seen suggestions that perhaps during the time of Portuguese colonization it was assimilated from some other language that has since gone extinct.

I suppose it's not important, but to me, not knowing the origin of this word is the intellectual equivalent of having a bit of sand in an inconvenient place. So if you have a good theory, please tell me in the comments.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Tale of Two Rios

I just spent a week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Although that seems straightforward, it does bear some exposition. Like "New York", "Rio" is both a city and a state. And like New York, the two things are in no way identical.

Here is one Rio... the one everyone knows about:

Here is the other...

I was there on business, and for the majority of the trip, I stuck with my group. But for two days I broke away and did my own thing.

One of the things that I wanted to do when I was there was to see the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. I took a pair of high-powered binoculars for the purpose. So when my friends went out drinking, I went to Macumba Beach, which was practically deserted compared to the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana:

My friend Mayank took this pic the night
before I went stargazing.
I was the last of my group to leave. On Saturday I was by myself in Rio for the entire day. So I hired an Uber. Now, Uber is something I've never used before this trip, and there are both very good and very bad things about it. Because everything is done on-line... setting your destination, making your payment, rating the driver... there is absolutely no need whatsoever to talk to the driver. That can be a great thing when there are language problems. None of us spoke any Portuguese of any consequence, and it meant we could get around. And when I was with the group, none of us spoke to the driver very much. But it also means that an Uber ride can be a very lonely experience if you're by yourself, and that's very, very bad.

But... Google Translate is quite possibly the greatest invention in the history of Mankind. What I found when I was by myself was that if you put Google Translate in the conversation mode, that Uber driver transformed from a driver to an animated tour guide. In every case -- and I took a lot of rides -- the driver laughed with delight at the first translation, and then became animated and talkative. The translation's not perfect, but you can tell when it "hears" things wrong, and we all laughed at the mistakes. The main thing I had to do was tell the driver not to talk to the phone, but to talk to me, and let the phone do the work. Each driver loved the experience so much he installed Google Translate on the spot.

On Saturday, I had one driver for almost the entire day, and several for the remainder. I was the first U.S. citizen that two of my drivers had ever met, and the first that any of them had talked to at length.

My first intention was to visit the statue of "Christ the Redeemer", but by the time we got there (the drive took nearly an hour) the queue for the tram was a two-hour wait. Although my driver (Fernando) was willing to park and wait for me, I wasn't going to make him wait for at least three hours while I went up there, snapped a few photos, and came back down. Besides, clouds covered the statue itself. So I told him I'd rather drive around with him and talk some more. Through Translate, Fernando told me that that it was an incredible sight, and he would feel bad if I didn't see it. I responded that there are thousands of amazing sights in this world that I would never see. Missing this one wouldn't hurt me... and besides, I would rather just spend the time with him, hearing what he had to tell me about Brazil.

As we drove around, we visited the "hot" spots, but also drove past the favelas. But what was more important to me was to see places that tourists don't see, so we drove through the country as well. And as we drove, we saw some of the economic disparities like those that you can see for yourself in the pictures above. A great many houses are built by the inhabitants themselves using cast-off construction material like re-used cinder blocks and sheet metal for roofs. And if you ask how anyone can live like that, the answer is that any house is better than no house.

The answer confirms something that I suspected before I went on this trip; and now I believe it firmly: there are a great many people in the United States who think they are poor only because they have never personally experienced poverty.

When you stop at almost any traffic light outside the city centers, Brazilian children will jump in front of cars to juggle or dance (poorly for the most part) or try to sell useless items. While it all seems very exotic and entertaining when you're with a group of tourists, it takes on a completely different flavor when you're alone with a Brazilian who's explaining that while such antics don't really work to earn money, they do it because they have no other means, and no hope for improvement.

My drivers were completely consistent in blaming these problems on corruption in their government. Fernando, in particular, responded to my query about the juxtaposition of poverty and wealth in a way that almost made my heart break. He said that yes, Brazil has much beauty and much ugliness. Only he wasn't talking about the favelas; he was talking about the people. So I told him, "Fernando, I have never seen or met an ugly Brazilian. You're all beautiful. I want you to put this in your heart: just because you have less than someone else, never believe you are worth less." He told me that he wanted to come to the United States where something like that could be true. "Os Estados Unidos são ótimos e bonitos."

People like those I met are not looking for aid: they're looking for opportunity. We in the US have so much that we take for granted. I'm not talking about things. I'm talking about the hope that Americans can rise to any station from any beginning. Because it is true that here you can be whatever you want if you're not hampered by your own disbelief. With very few exceptions, it's true that our poor are not destitute. It's true that we have individual dignity that can be relinquished, but never taken. Even as elitists smugly deride the thought, the common people of the world look to us. We are the hope of the world.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Impact of Tariffs on Solar Energy

I just saw this shared on Facebook, which leads me to an economic evaluation I'm still ruminating:

The statement that "solar employs more people than coal and oil" is Fact 1, and it checks out on sites like Forbes.com:
In the United States, more people were employed in solar power last year than in generating electricity through coal, gas and oil energy combined. According to a new report from the U.S. Department of Energy, solar power employed 43 percent of the Electric Power Generation sector's workforce in 2016, while fossil fuels combined accounted for just 22 percent. It's a welcome statistic for those seeking to refute Donald Trump's assertion that green energy projects are bad news for the American economy.
That "welcome statistic" is one of the things I'm evaluating here.
The 30% tariff is a partial truth, as we'll see below. The rest of the text is opinion, which I'm also evaluating.

Fact 2 is this table, from the US Energy Information Administration:

Solar produces 0.9% of "utility scale" power. Not quite 1% of the total power generation.

Fact 3 is this report from Yale University
For all the conflict surrounding rooftop solar, solar energy last year generated just under 1 percent of U.S. electricity, and utility-scale solar farms have three times the generating capacity of residential solar installations. That disparity is likely to grow.
So let's add another 0.3% for residential. Residential installations, however, aren't made entirely on economic factors. If they were, you wouldn't do it at all. However, there is perceived value for the customer in independence (lowering dependency on utility-sourced power) and "being green". So this can (and does) grow in defiance of economic interests. However, in some states, being "off the grid" is a non-starter, as consumers are required by law to be connected to the power grid even when they are fully capable of producing their own power. Florida, for example, requires residential solar to shut off when the grid does to protect the lives of power workers. Some solar companies simply refuse to do business in such states.

Fact 4 is this article, again from Forbes, comparing the costs of utility scale solar:
Which Is Cheaper -- Rooftop Solar Or Utility-Scale Solar?
The study found that projected utility-scale PV power costs will range from 6.6¢/kWh to 11.7¢/kWh across all scenarios, while projected power costs for a typical, customer-owned rooftop PV system will range from 12.3¢/kWh to 19.3¢/kWh.
So utility scale solar is much cheaper. Still not as cheap as coal, nuclear, and hydroelectric generation, though:
There are no obvious fuel costs, but PV solar has O&M costs of about 1.3¢/kWh, which comes to about $400 million over the life of this array. So to produce 32 billion kWhs at about $2.3 billion means a life-cycle cost of 7¢/kWh. This is getting close to the range of normal baseload providers like coal, nuclear and hydro, which have life-cycle costs of 5.1¢/kWh, 4.1¢/kWh and 2.7¢/kWh, respectively.
Fact 5 is the tariff imposed is on imported solar panels. While @Now1Solar certainly seems to see this as a bad thing, their opinion is not shared by US manufacturers that the tariff is intended to protect. From Time.com:
Trump’s solar decision comes almost nine months after Suniva Inc., a bankrupt U.S. module manufacturer with a Chinese majority owner, sought import duties on solar cells and panels. It asserted that it had suffered “ serious injury” from a flood of cheap panels produced in Asia. A month later, the U.S. unit of German manufacturer SolarWorld AG signed on as a co-petitioner, adding heft to Suniva’s cause.
Even given that I am philosophically opposed to tariffs, whether this will substantially harm the industry depends a lot on whether you're talking about the domestic industry, the Chinese importers, or the overall picture once the industry stabilizes after the tariffs take effect. That said, it appears that at the very least, the meme is misleading in that it projects the harm anticipated by @Now1Solar to the entire industry, rather than limiting it to those dependent on importers. This is despite the fact that domestic producers will clearly benefit. Thus the projection of job losses is most certainly hyperbole. To what degree, I do not yet know.

Now, keep in mind the additional fact that energy companies are not in the business of hiring people. Rather, they hire people to further their business of producing energy. That energy, in turn, allows other companies to be productive and hire people. If we could, as a nation, produce energy with no labor at all, freeing people for more productive pursuits, we would.

Given all this; as rational beings, what conclusions are we to make regarding the economic efficiency of solar power (employing 43 percent of the sector's workforce to generate around 1.2% of the total power)? And is that really a "welcome statistic" for solar proponents?

UPDATE 1: here's a bit more on the implied "unfairness" of the imposed tariffs: From PV magazine, The case for U.S. solar manufacturing.

The article describes the illegal "dumping" of subsidized Chinese panels into the US market to drive American manufacturers out of business. And regarding the predictions in the meme at the top of this page,
Opponents also contend that relief from imports could cause layoffs in the installation business.  The same corner of the industry predicted similar job-loss fallout from the first two cases – losses that never materialized as the U.S. market kept right on growing.
And Tesla doesn't seem to be bothered at all: Tesla commits to Gigafactory 2 expansion despite Trump’s 30% solar tariff.
Together with Panasonic, Tesla has begun production of solar cells in-house at Gigafactory 2 in Buffalo. By manufacturing solar modules and photovoltaic cells at its New York-based facility, Tesla would largely be unaffected by the 30 percent tariff imposed by the US government.

UPDATE 2: If you've done the math and extended the amount of effort to expand solar from its current 1.2% capacity to replace the 83.9% of the power production currently provided by natural gas, coal and nuclear, you should quickly come to the conclusion that solar... sucks. It simply does.

Photovoltaic solar energy horribly inefficient. It seems to me the most effective way of using solar energy to produce massive amounts of electricity involves harnessing the Water Cycle. Let the solar energy evaporate water into the atmosphere, where it then precipitates on high ground. This runoff is then collected behind dams, where it turns gravity-fed turbines to generate electricity. 100% of the water that passes through the turbines is returned to the rivers and oceans to be re-evaporated as part of the Water Cycle. The major inefficiency of this system is that some of the water soaks into the ground or used by living things, and some evaporates from the reservoir prior to use for power generation. And YES. This IS solar power. It is infinitely sustainable and infinitely renewable. It's what powers the planet.

Again, this is THE most efficient use of solar energy. And it still provides only 6.5% of our total power. And we can't dam every river. (Well, we could, but we won't, and if we did it still wouldn't match our power consumption needs). So how do we make up the difference? Well, this talk by Michael Shellenberger should put solar in context compared to nuclear energy.

Keep in mind that Schellenberger's talk focuses on obsolete reactors. Modern reactors are much safer.

My conclusion: I'm completely unimpressed by the complaints of the solar lobby. Economically, solar energy is a luxury item, bought because you want it and can afford it. As it stands, 43% of our energy effort is expended providing limited amounts of solar energy to basically a few economically privileged homes. Good for them: it's a free market. But I'm not holding that up as a "welcome statistic" by any measure. It is, to use an electrically-charged word, "deplorable". Environmentally, solar makes no sense at all.

  1. https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2017/01/25/u-s-solar-energy-employs-more-people-than-oil-coal-and-gas-combined-infographic/#6a74fc022800
  2. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2015/07/30/which-is-cheaper-rooftop-solar-or-utility-scale-solar/#6010a23b1e5d
  3. https://e360.yale.edu/features/utilities-grapple-with-rooftop-solar-and-the-new-energy-landscape
  4. https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=427&t=3
  5. http://time.com/5113472/donald-trump-solar-panel-tariff/
  6. https://pv-magazine-usa.com/2017/08/31/the-case-for-u-s-solar-manufacturing/
  7. https://www.teslarati.com/tesla-expanding-gigafactory-2-despite-trump-30-percent-tariff/

Sunday, January 14, 2018

On TV: Useful Engineering

Quite a while back, in 2011, I wrote a post called "More Junk Science on TV". Since then it's been the most viewed post on this blog, attracting tens of thousands of views, and sparking many comments right to the present day. Today I'm not writing about junk science; I'm writing about an alternative to it.

There's a popular tendency in the reactions to speak of "science" in relation to things that are not properly scientific problems; rather, they are matters of Engineering and/or Mathematics. The difference between these disciplines is not trivial, as I've had to reiterate time and again.

Rather than explain the difference at length here, let's let an engineer do it: this article on Engineering.com is called (conveniently enough), "The Difference Between Science and Engineering".

The difference is well described in this short quote by Henry Petroski:
Science is about knowing, engineering is about doing.
You do not need to know why or, often, even how something works to leverage the fact that it does work in order to successfully complete an engineering endeavour.

Likewise, Mathematics is not Science, not in the slightest. And let's let a mathematician explain that, as in this Mathforum.org post entitled (equally conveniently): "The Difference between Science and Mathematics". Note that these are different differences. Mathematics is not Engineering either.

Some practical definitions:
  • Science is the process of gaining empirical knowledge by means of the Scientific Method: observation, hypothesis, refinement through further observation and experimentation, acceptance as a tentative law ("theory"), and repeat forever. Scientific statements cannot be proven. Rather, they can be supported or refuted by evidence.
  • Mathematics is process of manipulating values (whether they be spaces, as in Geometry, or abstract numbers) according to a set of axiomatic rules. The Scientific Method is not employed. All that's necessary is that the mathematical rules are rigorously self-consistent. Mathematical statements can be proven. That is, they can be shown to be incontrovertibly true within the applicable mathematical ruleset.
  • Engineering is the process of solving real-world problems. Engineers may employ Science and Mathematics as tools, but Engineering itself can be accomplished without explicit knowledge of these disciplines. The 'proof' of an engineering project is that it works.
Please remember this if you're ever tempted to use a phrase beginning with "Science cannot explain..." to object to what is clearly an engineering problem. While the Scientific Method can be employed to suss out the principles used to solve engineering problems, scientists are often not the best people to make the attempt precisely because their expertise is not in the area of practical application.

Also remember it if you're ever tempted to argue that knowledge of complex mathematics must have been available to an engineer without first demonstrating that the mathematical relationships found in an engineering work are not explained as a by-product of the process by which the work was accomplished. For instance, in any engineering work where a wheel (such as a hodometer) was used in measurement, a ratio of pi is not merely unsurprising... it is to be expected . In fact, such relationships are often good clues as to how something was built or how the work was planned. The engineer may readily recognize this even when a mathematician may get bogged down in analyses of the abstract relationships themselves.

  • Technology refers to the ways in which these disciplines, as well as skills, are combined and employed as a means of empowerment. Thus, a new technology may evolved from pre-existing scientific or engineering principles. For instance, the technology of baking bricks requires nothing that you did not previously develop for the making of sun-dried bricks and baking of bread. Technology is all about utilization. So it's inaccurate to say that the Ancients "lacked the technology" to accomplish certain feats using the 'primitive' tools available to them. Obviously they had the technology, because they accomplished the task. It's more accurate to say that we lack the technology to do so. Even though our knowledge of science, math, and engineering, taken separately, is vastly more developed and refined, we lack the skills... the knowledge of what specific combination of science, math, and engineering techniques were employed. 
The difference between these disciplines is profound. It's why we use the acronym 'STEM', and not 'S'.


With this in mind, I was very pleased to watch the History Channel series Ancient Impossible. Now, this originally aired in 2014, but I didn't see it then, possibly because I don't watch that much television. I found it on the History Channel website, and decided to try it out despite the title looking suspiciously like that of Ancient Aliens. I've rarely been so pleased to have been 'dissapointed'

Season 1, Episode 2, "Moving Mountains", touched on a few of the tasks deemed 'impossible' by my readers/commenters. This particular episode touched on the problems of breaking the defenses of Masada; moving water by means of aqueducts; and moving megalithic stones such as Egyptian obelisks and the stones of the retaining wall at the temple of Baalbek. In only one place does the presentation falter; and that's in depicting some dramatic tension as to whether a specific technique used in aqueduct construction would work. In practice, an engineer would only doubt the quality of his model. He would never entertain serious doubts as to whether an inverted siphon would work. Not only does Physics require it, but these things are commonplace. Several of these devices are present in every modern home. You probably call it a 'trap', and there's one under your sink. For that matter, the water pressure in your home is probably accomplished by means of a water tower, in which case, your whole water supply is delivered by means of inverted siphon.

But I was especially pleased that the episode reminded me of something that I should have passed on to my readers long ago... that being De Architectura, the engineering text written well over 2,000 years ago by the Roman engineer, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio ("Vitruvius").

Of particular interest is Book Ten, which deals with the constructions of machines. Vitruvius focused his effort to describing those things that are useful to engineers, as he deemed it unnecessary to describe those things (wheels, bellows, etc.) that were  that were common in a Roman's everyday life. His text isn't just descriptive; it's explanatory. That's a great thing for us, because it gives us a window into the mind of a Roman engineer, revealing how engineers looked at the world before Newton and the formal establishment of the Scientific Method. Here's what Vetruvius writes regarding the laws of mechanics (as translated by Joseph Gwilt, and available online):
The laws of mechanics are founded on those of nature, and are illustrated by studying the master-movements of the universe itself. For if we consider the sun, the moon and the five planets, we shall perceive, that if they were not duly poised in their orbits, we should neither have light on the earth, nor heat to mature its fruits. Our ancestors reasoned so on these motions, that they adopted nature as their model; and, led to an imitation of the divine institutions, invented machines necessary for the purposes of life. That these might be suitable to their different purposes, some were constructed with wheels, and were called machines; others were denominated organs [Dave's note: sometimes this is translated 'engines']. Those which were found most useful were gradually improved, by repeated experiments, by art, and by the laws which they instituted.
This should be largely familiar to us. Engineering is based on physical laws and is refined through practical application. Vitruvius differs from us mainly in mindset: whereas we think of a distinct separation between nature and artifice, the ancient engineer more explicitly thinks of machines as being the employment of those principles he has observed in nature.

That may sound like a subtle distinction, so let's phrase it a bit more crudely for effect: The modern engineer conquers Nature; the ancient engineer uses it. While this isn't completely accurate (technically speaking, all of physics is natural), the modern engineer often brute-forces solutions, and (lacking manpower) builds machines to apply that brute force. The ancient engineer employs manpower to assist nature in accomplishing the task for him. The further back in time you go, the more this must hold true, as there were fewer machines. The Romans themselves represent an intermediate step between mechanization and earlier techniques.

We use brute-force mechanization for its advantages, one of which is the reduction of manpower. However, it also eliminates the need for the intermediate steps that had previously been employed, and replaced, by mechanization. Eventually, the intermediate steps aren't even considered. After all, who would build giant ramps by hand only to tear them all down again? The answer: someone who wants to get the job done.

If we follow that principle backward, we can more readily see its application to megalithic works. Vitruvius himself (and it's in the referenced episode) describes enclosing a block in a wooden frame that effectively transforms it into a wheel and axle (Vetruvius, book 10, chap. 2, para. 12). allowing it to be easily rolled. Moving a huge block alone would be difficult, but the the Roman engineers did not do that; they moved a device of which the multi-ton block was a component. This is not secret, esoteric knowledge. Vetruvius' book was well-known. But it was forgotten and "re-discovered" several times.

(image source)
Such is the case with all such techniques, whether it's been re-discovered in the present or not.  For instance, obelisks were raised by using gravity, not working against it. A ramp would be constructed and the obelisk pulled up the ramp, base-first. Tipped over the edge, the obelisk descends upon its base by means of gravity. 'Magical' tech is simply not required. Then again, neither is advanced math or science. Just common sense: rolling is easier than carrying; dropping is easier than lifting. A wheel isn't just a mode of transportation; it's a wickedly accurate measuring device. Counterweights assist and levers multiply force.

Even when it pushes the dramatic tension (and let's not forget the sensationalist dross it must compete with), the Ancient Impossible series is a breath of fresh air.  It can help you to re-think the plausibility of ancient engineering feats so you don't resort to dismissing the accomplishments that deserve a healthy dose of respect.

And I highly recommend you read Vetruvius' work, as it will help you get into the mindset of an ancient engineer. Through it you can take a step toward understanding the past, and perhaps open up a mind that may have been clenched tight around baseless fantasies.

Since the online version has no illustrations, try this one [PDF].