Sunday, May 19, 2019

I am sick to death of "firsts" that aren't

If you're going to claim to be "first" with some invention, try -- just for a change -- to actually be first.

There is a decided trend toward hype, hype, and over-hype regarding the originality of inventions. More than anywhere else, you'll see this on Kickstarter. And more often than not, it's bogus. Even if it's a great idea, even if it's very cool, I tend to give these things a pass, because I simply can't stand the disingenuous self-aggrandizement that's taking place. I refuse to fund those particular lies.

Let's look at a couple:

SQUARE OFF: World's first robotic chessboard

This was the product that got me paying attention to this trend. In October 2018 there was an ad on Facebook describing it as the world's "first robotic chessboard". They subsequently backed off that claim. It was toned down to the world's first telerobotic chessboard, and now it's described as the world's smartest chessboard.

The reason for my ire was simple. The Fidelity Phantom models played on a physical board back in the 1980s. Dedicated chess computers were all the rage back then. The patent for the Phantom expired in 2000. Obviously, the cool factor of moving pieces around by moving magnets under the board is as wonderful and impressive now as it was "back in the day". But while the Phantom was a very cool device, it didn't change the world as the hype for the Square Off claims for itself. In the real world, the Square Off probably has the same chance of changing the world as the Phantom had.

Respect to Square Off for ditching the "first" claims. I was genuinely mad at them when the ads first came out, and I'm very happy to see them reign it back. I wish them well. Nevertheless, this was the bit of hype that set me off.


ECOAC: World’s first desktop thermoelectric cooler/heater
Here's the Kickstarter

Bullshit. This device operates on the Peltier effect. It's a well-known principle of thermocoupling that was invented in 1834 by Jean Charles Athanase Peltier. That's 185 years ago. Do you think somebody might have thought to try this out as a portable A/C unit since then? Just maybe?

Of course they have! You can even search YouTube and other websites for plans to build your own. You can buy the frakking thermocouples. But guess what you can't do? You can't really cool anything down beyond blowing a bit of cool air on your face, and you certainly can't pat yourself on the back about being "eco-friendly" while you're doing it. In fact, there are clear reasons why this hasn't caught on as an A/C option. And there are other reasons why putting an unvented A/C unit on your desk won't do what you're promised. The two biggest reasons are science and math.

BTW, can it work? 
Of course it can; it's a real effect. You're going to feel some cool air if you're close to it and it's pointed at you. And in reverse you'd get a little warm if you're close to it and it's pointed at you... but no more than if you were heating yourself with a 60 watt light bulb. For that, it's consuming 100 watts of electricity (and I'm seriously doubtful about the power claims, but they don't get very specific). Certainly it can't give you more energy than it can draw out of the heat sink (water tank ). It also can't cool down anything once the heat sink (water tank) is saturated. Does it use a chemical coolant? Absolutely yes; it uses water (a very abundant and safe chemical). But the tank doesn't have much capacity. So you'll spend a lot of time either waiting for the water to cool down/heat up or you'll have to change out the water. And because it consumes energy, and the Laws of Thermodynamics have not been repealed, it will always have the effect of a net raising of the temperature in any environment, regardless of whether it's used to generate cool or warm air.

I'm going to simplify this, but remember, it's generating 60W, consuming 100W, and wasting that other 40W. You might be thinking, 60W cool - 40W heat = 20W net cooling. Not really. That 20W is the capacity of your heat sink. After that it stops working, and then the heat is re-released into the room as your water cools down. Net result: on A/C the room ends up warmer than you started. You're better off pushing the heat out of your environment than trying to capture it right there on your desk. This is why even though other people have built portable Peltier units (making the ECOAC not the first) the tech has not really caught on commercially. For what it's worth, it makes more sense to vent warm air outside than use the water heat sink, but this is marketed as a desktop unit.

The marketing is there not to sell you on numbers, but on feelz. You're told it's eco-friendly, so you're supposed to believe it is, even if you're sucking 100W from a coal-fired generator in the next county. Honestly, if they really wanted to make it eco-friendly, they wouldn't put unnecessary power-wasters on it like Bluetooth and speakers. So don't think about that... just feeeeelz.


More World's Firsts


Try it yourself: search Google for world's firsts on Kickstarter. I got 833,000 results. See how many promise to "change the way you think about [yadda yadda yadda]". It has become a bit of a tired meme among Kickstarter projects. Obviously, people think that their projects will not become successful unless they adopt a standard sales template over-hyping innovative, game-changing aspects of whatever it is they're selling. In almost all of the cases I've seen, it's just a convenient label that tells me to stay far, far away from the decidedly non-world-changing thingamabob being marketed.





Thursday, May 16, 2019

No they didn't (part 2)



This was reported by Phys.org today:

https://phys.org/news/2019-05-bristol-academic-voynich-code-century-old.html

The article describes a paper by Gerard Cheshire which claims to have determined that the Voynich Manuscript is written in a proto-Romance language using an unfamiliar alphabet. This hypothetical language is presented as the precursor of modern Romance languages such as Italian, Spanish, French, and Portuguese. This would basically make the document a substitution cypher of Vulgar Latin.
Gerard Cheshire, The Language and Writing System of MS408 (Voynich) Explained, Romance Studies (2019). DOI: 10.1080/02639904.2019.1599566
Here's a link to the paper itself.

My response is, "not bloody likely". Here's why:

There is no single 'proto-Romance language' other than Latin. To be more precise, there's no such single language that is the common precursor of today's Romance languages. Each of today's Romance languages began as a pidgin-turned-creole of Latin mixed with the local languages of the conquered areas and further corrupted by time, much as English is a creole of Germanic and French influences on the aboriginal languages of Britain. 'Vulgar Latin' (a somewhat obsolete term used interchangeably with 'proto-Romance' by Cheshire) is not 'a language' either. It's a description of any of the many corrupt dialects spoken locally. And this makes the "lateral thinking" of Cheshire highly suspect, to put it kindly.

There was a tower in Babylon,
but it looked nothing like this.
And "proto-Romance" looked
nothing like the Voynich Manuscript.
Much like the Biblical account,
Latin fractured into many languages
spread far and wide.
What Cheshire does, which is linguistically -- well -- wrong, is to drag in a bunch of words from disparate localities, implying that they were all in the proto-language. Actually, the hypothetical proto-language itself would be a corruption of Latin. And that's what happened with Old French, Old Spanish, etc. Where Cheshire fails spectacularly is in implying that these changes were homogenous within the tatters of the Roman Empire. They weren't. They were localized, and became French, Spanish, etc. because of said localization. You just can't take a word of Romanian, a word of Castilian, and a word of French that resemble the letters you've decided to lay out in your two whole weeks of 'lateral thinking', put them all together in a sentence and claim that this represents a heretofore unknown common dead language.

Another problem with Cheshire's theory is that Latin did not die out. You read that right... Latin is not a dead language. It survived as a language of liturgy, scholarship, and official communication for centuries past the demise of the Roman empire. In fact, it survived well into the modern era. I myself took four years of Latin in high school, and it was within my lifetime that the Roman Catholic Church in America started using the vernacular instead of Latin in the rituals of the Mass. The differences between classical and late Latin works, as well as ecclesiastical Latin, are pronounced and recognizable. The point is, for the most part we know what happened to Latin. While the spoken vernacular diverged from written Latin, it did so according to linguistic rules.

Someone who has studied Latin generally doesn't have that much trouble recognizing its descendents. Even when corrupt, any reconstruction of a descendent should bridge the gap between Latin and the language that eventually arose from it in a particular area. With a knowledge of Latin you can generally work out any of the Romance languages. Such should be doubly simple when dealing with a vulgar Latin far closer to the classical source. But the Voynich does not appear to be a cipher of corrupt Latin.

Gerard Cheshire argues that the Voynich Manuscript is written in a common-but-forgotten language; using an alphabet that has no precursors, no descendents, and no other examples surviving as either manuscripts or inscriptions. I doubt the document was a plaintext intended to be read and impart homely advice, as Cheshire argues. The more likely conclusion is that the Voynich manuscript is indecipherable because it was intended to be. The illustrations, if intended to give homely advice, should be recognizable; however,  all of the drawings, even of plants, are fanciful in some way. Few are recognizable species. So the document may have been a sincere cipher; but it may have been a hoax (what today we'd call a "troll").

In fact, I'm not convinced that Cheshire's own document is not an elaborate troll itself. I have reasons.

The first is that he spent two weeks on his research. That's just about enough time to write the first draft of the paper itself. Another is that I can't find anything by Cheshire on Academia.edu on any subject other than the Voynich Manuscript. Yet another is that he uses terms such as 'tripthong' (normally used to describe sound) where one would expect 'trigraph' (descriptive of text). This isn't necessarily problematic; it's just weird. Another is the grandiose claims including the 'fact' that the Manuscript is the only example of a proto-Italic script, though we have no intermediate forms among the numerous contemporary documents. Another is the description of his paper as being 'peer-reviewed' with no mention of what the peers think of it. Any trash can be 'peer-reviewed': failing to mention its reception is just a common-literature way of giving it gravitas divorced from merit.

Another is this: remember that thing you can't do? Taking words from different languages and then hypothesizing a common language based on the differences (not the similarities)? Well, he does it. A lot. For instance:

Figure 33 (from Cheshire's paper)
Figure 33 shows two women dealing with five children in a bath. The words describe different temperaments: tozosr (buzzing: too noisy), orla la (on the edge: losing patience), tolora (silly/foolish), noror (cloudy: dull/sad), or aus (golden bird: well behaved), oleios (oiled: slippery). These words survive in Catalan [tozos], Portuguese [orla], Portuguese [tolos], Romanian [noros], Catalan [or aus] and Portuguese [oleio]. The words orla la describe the mood of the woman on the left and may well be the root of the French phrase ‘oh là là’, which has a very similar sentiment.
Can't find the word locally? Then just cast the net wide. Grab any similar word out of any Mediterranean language. And the bit about ‘oh là là’ just reeks of trolling. For what it's worth, ‘oh là là’ is risque in English, but in French it's an interjection that can be widely applied.

Then there's this bit:

Figure 32. Detail from Folio 77 (from Cheshire's paper)

Figure 32 shows a diagrammatic representation of a miscarriage or abortion, as a baby swaddled in bandages and a mass of blood exiting a tube, accompanied by the words ‘omor néna’ (killed/dead baby). The word ‘omor’ survives in Romanian, where it means ‘to murder’. The word ‘néna’ survives in Spanish, where it now means ‘female baby’ [‘néne’ is male baby].
I'm calling bullshit. I happen to have a PDF copy of the Voynich Manuscript. Here's Folio 77:

Folio 77. Click to 'embiggen'

Yeah, I know. The Voynich Manuscript is filled with illustrations ranging from perfectly pedestrian plants to psychedelic fever dreams. And it contains a lot of drawings of fat naked women. You definitely get the feeling that the author wouldn't have shied away from showing an abortion if he or she had wanted to. And if that was the message, he or she probably wouldn't have hooked up the 'vagina' to four other vaginas by means of a common tube at the ends of which two naked humans were showering while some Dr. Seuss shit is going on beneath them. Not even given Medieval schematics such as the T&O maps of the world. But where's that "baby swaddled in bandages" we were promised? It's very much not there. Frankly, this looks to me a lot more like (left to right) Air, Water, Spirit, Fire, and Earth than what Cheshire is imagining.

I could drag through the rest of his paper, but that would be tedious. And I don't really want to accuse the guy of being a monumental troll, even though I don't discount it. I'd rather believe he was "not even wrong".

In any case, if you're interested, read his paper (the link's above), apply his alleged cipher to a few sentences of the Voynich Manuscript, and see if you get anything other than cherry picked wishful thinking and post-hoc reasoning applied to the accompanying drawings.

--==//oOo\\==--

UPDATES: This is an odd thing. Having now done a bit more digging, I found a blog post on this subject by Nick Pelling (who writes like a man after my own heart) written 10 Nov 2017. So why in the almost two years since have I found nothing else written by Cheshire? Curiouser and curiouser. In any event, Pelling tears this theory apart for the same reasons I do, and has some much better detail regarding linguistic analysis.

And it looks like Ars Technica's not convinced either.

Also, this blog post by JK Petersen is just delicious.

The University of Bristol has published a retraction of their news release.

And now Phys.org has deleted their embarrassing hype-filled article, too. My link to the original article still works, though.



Wednesday, May 15, 2019

No they didn't (part 1)

As today's unfortunate headline, I present, from Phys.org,
Study finds scientific reproducibility does not equate to scientific truth

I call this an unfortunate headline because it's usual with such statements that they don't accurately represent what was actually found.

The referenced study consisted of modeling various scientific communities with a variety of research strategies to discover a modeled "scientific truth"... in this case, the shape of a target polygon. Keep in mind that these were not actual scientific communities, but computer models. As with all such models, certain assumptions are made and biases can be introduced by the programmers. Such models may, but do not necessarily, accurately reflect reality. As is the way with models, the model is extremely simplified. Reality is more variable, and this can muddy the water.

For my part, a statement to be closely considered is the following:
"We found that, within the model, some research strategies that lead to reproducible results could actually slow down the scientific process, meaning reproducibility may not always be the best—or at least the only—indicator of good science," said Erkan Buzbas, U of I assistant professor in the College of Science, Department of Statistical Science and a co-author on the paper. "Insisting on reproducibility as the only criterion might have undesirable consequences for scientific progress."
Notice that what Buzbas says here does not support the headline... not by a long shot.  Buzbas isn't complaining about the insistence on reproducibility: rather, he's opining on the insistence on reproducibility alone... which in practice, nobody does.

We all know from numerous historical examples that scientific discoveries can be made by accident. The discoveries of X-rays and penicillin are two such examples. A careful reading of the above statement reveals nothing more or less.  If you are not rigorous in your method, then you might discover something new more quickly than otherwise. And indeed, the application of rigorous method may slow progress.

However, this says nothing about the value of reproducibility. "Innovative" (let's face it: sloppy) method might get you the correct answer by accident, but it doesn't prove a damned thing. The problem is that with irreproducible experiments, you can't show a definitive cause for the observation you witnessed. Any number of uncontrolled environmental or experimental factors might be the cause. This can skew the researchers' hypotheses and lead to the wrong explanations for observed effects. So long as the research is irreproducible, it has dubious explanatory value and no practical applications. Obviously, you can't reliably use a principle that you can't reliably reproduce. That part of science... the part that leads to engineering... is just common sense.

On the other hand, if you can control and reliably bring into existence an effect based on manipulation of predictable and consistent factors, then you are far more likely to have discovered the truth than if you were to have stumbled across an effect that no one else can observe or make happen.

Far from the implied message of this Phys.org article, "innovative experiments" do not supplant the value of rigorous, controlled experiments. Every accidental discovery must be followed by rigor if you want to claim that what you discovered is most likely the Truth. And if you cannot reproduce your results, you don't get to shelter under the Umbrella of Laziness and whine that your progress is being impeded.  Oh yes, Mr. Innovator, your discovery of Cold Fusion (or whatever) could change the world... but if and only if you can make it happen on demand.

The history of serendipitous discoveries alone tells us that it is not, nor has it ever been, innovation that is criticized when scientists talk about the replication crisis. Rather, it's the hyping and premature conclusions that are drawn when innovative experiments are not followed up with sound method.

If you truly "fucking love science", avoid