Rocket Scientists Should Know Better

A while back I posted a little rant about false precision in measurements (though it turns out a chose a poor specific example). Today I was perusing the list of exoplanets discovered to date (how cool is that?), and I noticed another source of ridiculous artificial precision. For instance, according to the table planet tau Gem b is 299.8125 light-years away — which is simply ridiculous. They are claiming to know the distance to the planet to a precision of less than one light-hour, which could well be less than the orbital radius of the planet. (It has a mass eighteen times that of Jupiter.) So even if the distance were exactly 299.8125 light years when tau Gem b was found, that’s not the distance now.

I looked a little more at the table, and saw a pattern. Many of the ridiculously precise numbers were conversions of fractions. 13/16 (itself suspect in my book) becomes 0.8125; a measurement rounded to the nearest sixteenth of a light year is suddenly represented as being accurate to 0.0001 light years.

Way to set an example, Jet Propulsion Laboratory! I hope the guys in charge of this table aren’t expected to do any actual science over there — although surely the guys who discovered the planets drop by to check the list now and then. Someone should have said something by now, you’d think.

The public-facing aspect of the scientific community needs to be careful what example they set. If the rocket scientists at JPL don’t care enough to get it right, no wonder the public accepts advertising claims with ridiculous precision. (51% of your fiber for the day!)


A Measurement Rant

You’ve all seen this:

1 in = 2.54cm

The only problem is, that’s wrong*. This may seem nit-picky, but understanding why the above is wrong can uncover some clever ways people deceive others (and themselves).

“But everyone knows an inch is 2.54 centimeters,” I hear you say. Hold on a second there, Sparky! Let’s back up. An inch is a measurement. Let’s say I measure a piece of wood and find that it’s 57 inches long. Now I want to know how many centimeters it is. I multiply by 2.54 and discover that the wood is 144.78 centimeters long. So where’s the problem?

The issue is that I measured my stick to the nearest inch, and now through the magic of conversion I claim that I know how long that wood is down to a tenth of a millimeter. The idea that I could get that sort of precision with my tape measure is silly, yet people do this all the time. On road signs you’ll see “Exit 4 mi (6.4 km)”. Is the sign really accurate to 100 meters? That’s a tough assumption to swallow given the first measure is only accurate to the nearest mile.

A rule to remember: when you do a unit conversion, the result is always less precise than your original measurement. Always.

Here’s what your conversion table should read (although this isn’t quite perfect either):

1.00 in = 2.54cm

What’s the difference? Remember that an inch is a measurement. The number of decimal places indicates how exact the measurement is. If I measure something down to a hundredth of an inch, I can (usually) justify claiming precision to three significant figures after I make the conversion. So, if I measure my stick to be 57.0 inches, I can reasonably represent it as 145 centimeters long. The error of a tenth of an inch in the first measure is smaller than the error of one centimeter in the second, so I’m all right. 57.00 inches = 144.8cm.

The people who put things like “1 inch = 2.54cm” into textbooks will claim, “What we actually mean is that exactly one inch equals 2.54 centimeters.” The only problem is, That’s wrong too. First, with measurements there’s no such thing as exact. Every measurement contains error. Always. 1.0000000 inches is not the same as exactly one inch. Second, for almost every comparison of measurements in different systems, the conversion factor itself is not exact. An ounce is not 29.57 milliliters. It’s not 29.5735 ml.

So why does this matter? Ask yourself, how much product is in that bottle or can of your favorite beverage? 12oz or 355ml? In this case, we hope that the more precise measure is applicable. It would be informative if the bottler used 12.0oz rather than just 12; you know the Coca-Cola bottling company knows to great precision how much less than 12oz they can put in a can and still label it 12oz. Technically (though perhaps not legally), 11.50000001 oz could be labeled as 12, but that would not be anywhere close to 355ml.

This sloppiness with units is frightfully common. Even scientific papers with measurements in them sometimes don’t include the margin of error in the measurements – which makes the number pretty meaningless.

Don’t be fooled by false precision! Often it’s harmless, but even subtly it can give the impression that the peple who made the measurements are far more diligent than they actually were. This can give their arguments extra weight, without you even realizing it.

* It turns out I picked a bad example – in 1959 they redefined the inch to make this true. Go figure — the inch is metric now. See the comments below. So, as a unit, the conversion is correct. This has no effect on how you use the conversion in real life. I may go back and change this episode to use a better example.


None of Your Damn Business

After reading a post in my buddy’s blog (and the articles that post links to) about National Security Letters I started to get more and more irate. Apparently, our government sends out thousands and thousands of letters to Libraries, Web hosts, and the like, saying, “We’re the government, we’re fighting terrorists, so give us everything you have about this person. Also, you’re not allowed to tell anyone about this, not even your lawyer.” This is not like a search warrant, because there is no judicial oversight.

The FBI’s use of national security letters to get information on Americans without a court order increased from 16,804 in 2007 to 24,744 in 2008. The 2008 requests targeted 7,225 U.S. people.

Read More

Those are all requests for personal information with no warrant, no need for probable cause, and no right to legal counsel even for the people who are not themselves under investigation. I’m not a trained legal scholar, but good lord, this can’t possibly be constitutional.

Well, it’s not like I have anything to hide, but if my ISP got served with one of these letters, would they turn over the information, or would they fight? Would Google protect the emails mouldering in that account that I rarely check? What about my Web hosting provider? I would love to see each entity that has my personal information publicly state that they will not turn over information without due process.

The only way this governmental bullying will be stopped is if everyone agrees not to be intimidated.

On a personal level, I’ve decided to start a policy of encrypting my emails. Not because there’s anything incriminating in there, but because if only secrets are encrypted, then everyone knows where the secrets are. And really, it’s nobody’s business but mine what I put in private correspondence. If everyone encrypted all their messages, the constitutional rape called National Security Letters would be pointless.

Toward that end I have installed Gnu Privacy Guard, which is based on OpenPGP (Pretty Good Privacy), a system which can withstand any attacks feasible at this time (naturally as computing power increases, the encryption must be made ever-more sophisticated).

It takes two to pass a secret message, however. I’m not able to encrypt messages to people who do not also have GPG or PGP installed, and who do not have my public key. The system works with a pair of keys – one I keep secret and another that everyone can see. When the message is encoded using one key, it can be decoded using the other. So if I have your public key, I can encode a message that only you can read.

It’s a bit of a hassle to set up GnuPG (available for Mac, Windows, and Linux), but once you have your key generated and all the pieces in place, it’s pretty transparent to use. My public key is now available on many servers, so once you have the plugin to your email program installed, it’s easy to load.

You can learn more through the link called “Jerry’s public key” on the sidebar in the top section. Please join me in taking the teeth out of National Security Letters and the bullying bureaucrats that use them.

Addendum: Comcast’s privacy policy states that they will not disclose information without a subpoena, warrant, or “other valid legal process”. Then they go on to say they will also disclose information if they think “the disclosure of information is necessary to prevent financial loss“. That means they reserve the right to sell out their customers if they think they could end up incurring legal costs to protect them. Sigh.


Getting the Hut Back Up and Rolling

Um… actually two releases. The first didn’t last long.

It’s been a while since I’ve really knuckled down and worked on Jer’s Novel Writer, but after wrestling with the script to extract data from iBlog to export to WordPress, my brain has been sliding into technomode, and it was nice to work in a programming environment that was less frustrating than AppleScript. I had a version of Jer’s Novel Writer that I’d done some work on a while back, but it took a while to get myself back up to speed on just what was going on in the code.

I missed something on my first try. Happily a loyal user caught it almost right away, and one day later version 1.1.8 is out there, helping people write. Whew! Slowly things are returning to the balance I’d managed to keep for the last few years. The last few months have been… less balanced. (Obviously I’m operating in the geek hemisphere right now. No metaphors for you today!)

Meanwhile, a few days ago I got this!


The Descent – ongoing commentary

If you’ve been here recently you’ve seen my review of the first four chapters and the beginning of the fifth of The Descent by Jeff Long. To summarize: Tiresome pages of backstory, cheap writer’s tricks, and really frickin’ cool stuff.

I don’t know what it was that prompted me to set down the book and write the previous review, what instinct warned me that it was time to record my impressions – there was no time break or anything like that – but the very next paragraph announced a new narrative direction that almost made me put the book down for good. After spending four chapters introducing four interesting people, the point of view is wrested away from one of those characters and we are subjected to a series of anecdotes of only passing relevance to the story. We learn about the mobilization of millions of people, from dozens of countries, in absolute secrecy. Unlikely as that is, the secrecy turns out not to matter. The bad guys counterattack in a coordinated, lethal, downright evil fashion. Panic in the streets leads to great (but ultimately irrelevant) destruction. Our guy? The one this chapter started to be about? Oh, yeah, the author says (well, he practically does), probably should have mentioned – Branch is delirious with a fever in a hospital safely out of harm’s way.

At this point I started getting annoyed not only with the author but with the editor as well. If I had been the editor, much of this chapter would have been cut, and the story would have benefitted. Twenty (give or take) pages of blah blah blah in the omniscient point of view – “then this happened and then that happened” – while Branch, the interesting guy this chapter is supposed to be about, is mentioned now and then and winds up watching the worst of it on TV. Branch could have been in the middle of it, bringing us the events viscearally, which also happens to be the author’s strength. If I’m his editor, I say to Jeff, “ok, you’ve written a synopsis of events. Now put it in the story. Some of it won’t fit, and we’ll just cut those bits.”

This is a lesson I would do well to remember.

I did not put the book aside. I plowed through all the blah blah blah. Why? Because when Jeff Long gets to the parts he does well, he does them really well. Eventually the story starts again, with our man Branch down in the caves, and there’s horror and fear and holy crap there’s Ike. Ike was interesting before, but now… yeah, Ike has some stuff going on in his head. He gets full credit for my continued reading of this story.

And that’s what’s driving me crazy. Why couldn’t someone have gone over the manuscript before it got to me? I need William Goldman’s dad to say, “what with this and that, two years passed.”

So three quarters of chapter five is crap, but then it ends strong. There follows some maneuvering to get people in the right places to allow the adventure to truly begin. Fifty percent blah blah blah and a parade of names I sure hope don’t matter. And then a really cool encounter between Ike and Ali, a quiet meeting that shows Ike’s humanity, and his almost magical understanding of what it means to pass from the light into darkness. It’s a moment that will have repercussions, and just like that I’m back on board.

I just want to grab the author by the lapels and say, “Do you see the parts you do well? Yes? Just do those. Leave the rest.” At the end of my last review I thought I had gone through the introductions with the characters and now the story was going to get under way. It was time. A lot of pages later, I still have the feeling the story is about to get under way. Hopefully I’m right this time.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

The Descent

I have read the first 4 chapters and a bit of the fifth in the novel The Descent, by Jeff Long. Some among you might contend that one should read the entire book before writing a review, but to that I say, “fiddlesticks!” If the fist hundred pages give you plenty to talk about, why wait? The following is in the style of a real-time blog I might have been writing as I read the beginning of this book. My memory of my impressions as I read the first few chapters is unusually clear, however I feel I must write this review before going on with the story, lest I forget.

Edited to add: apparently the reading public (all one person who has mentioned it to me) has gotten the idea that I’m really not enjoying this book. There are a couple of times near the beginning that nearly lost me, but then something really cool happens and all is forgiven. I think now that the characters are introduced things will just be getting better.

Pseudo-LiveBlogging Descent’s first 4.2 chapters:


Every kid who aspires to be a writer should read this. A lot of people worked very hard on this book, including a nameless copy editor. It is apparent that the author also worked hard, devoting himself to research on many different subjects. This book was not the product of some guy simply sitting in front of a keyboard and making the magic happen.

We’re off to a good start; I have already developed a personal attachment to the author.

Chapter 1

We have a group of tourists trapped in a cave somewhere in the bumpiest part of Tibet. Nice.

WTF??? we just had our first dramatic moment of the book, and it was totally contrived. I’m willing to suspend disbelief for almost any situation, but when people stop acting like people, that’s it, I’m done. They’re in a cave, in the pitch black, and only now someone thinks to turn on a light? Pleeeeeeease. So the big moment is ruined by a ridiculous and ultimately unnecessary need on the part of the author to have a Big Surprise.

It’s three days later now, and I’m picking the book back up. Despite the disappointment on the third page, I suspect I’m going to like this story. Onward, then, with chapter one. The thing revealed by the lights is pretty damn amazing, marred only by someone identifying an object as “solid gold” based on a glimpse of color beneath a coating of grime. Another silly detail that ultimately is not needed for the plot. But the thing itself, there in the cave, it’s pretty intense.

You know what I could use about now? Another page or two of backstory. You can’t overdo the backstory.

All right! Ike and his business partner/sweetie seem to be patching up some backstory relationship problems. It’s too easy. These two are going to be fighting for the whole damn book. Now they have to find another way out of the caves.

Sweet holy crap. I was undecided about this book until now. As chapter one closes, we learn just what Jeff Long is capable of. It’s not the horror of the situation, it’s how Ike judges his own response to the horror. All the above criticism is forgiven.

Chapter 2

Another time, another place.

Nooooooooo! Not the mirror! The nun looks in the mirror and once again feels bad about being attractive. Ali took the mirror down for a while, then she put it back up – which I suspect is more a description of the author’s efforts to find another way to introduce her hotness. He wrote out the mirror then put it back in. Never mind that during the rest of the chapter there are plenty of times (especially during the extensive backstory) to present her hotness dramatically. From the mirror we learn two things: Ali’s a looker and she has long blonde hair. At the time, her attractiveness is irrelevant. The color of her hair could easily be introduced in a dozen other places, and the length is incongruous with the local heat and available hygiene. Easy to mention. But the author wanted us to know right away that Ali was one smokin’ nun.

Like there’s been a nun in modern literature who wasn’t temptation personified. Goes without saying.

Ooo! The intriguing native girl has given Ali a good luck charm. I will be sooo surprised to learn that it’s made from human skin.

The nun was a rising star in the church, but she stepped out of line at the wrong time. When she was relocated to the butthole of Africa, she went. Sometimes critical, but always loyal. She has given her life to the church and she will not be asking to have it returned.

But… things are getting interesting. The locals, and the girl (reputed to be a witch) in particular, seem to know a deep, dark secret. Perhaps they’ve been trying to tell Ali about it all along, but she hasn’t been willing to open her mind enough to hear them. There aren’t any obvious connections with the incidents in the cave that we can decipher, but it’s pretty clear that something big is going on. I want to know more.

Yep… It’s human skin. I lied before; I’m not surprised at all.

Chapter 3

Bosnia. Rain. War crimes investigators. Branch is a career military guy who on that night accidentally lets his principles do the talking. He winds up flying an attack helicopter to investigate a strange occurrence. His commanding officer is not happy. Not at all. The colonel had put his foot down and Branch undermined his authority. A promising career just crashed against one man’s morals. This isn’t going to come out well.

OK, the other guy in the helicopter has never seen his newborn son. Why don’t we just paint a bulls-eye on him?

Holy smoke. Let’s just leave the chapter at that. Holy frickin smoke. Although the rockets don’t really make sense. But I’ll tell you this: I like the helicopter pilot, and I think these events are going to mess him up. I really care what happens to this guy. Like Ike in chapter one, Branch was faced with a choice between survival and compassion. He made a different choice. I think that’s going to matter down the road.

Chapter 4

Our fourth point of view. We have a vatican scientist named Thomas investigating some ancienter-than-ancient ruins that were accidentally exposed. The vatican is quite adamant that the ruins be hidden away again, but Thomas wants a look first. He has an old friend who has seen the site, who has said some interesting things about a carving there, a face depicted in the ruins that seems to be actively preventing the church scientist from seeing it.

It’s funny when there are characters who have no reason to suspect foul play, but we readers all know bad shit is going to happen. Hell, it’s chapter four, and people have died in nasty ways in all the previous chapters. “Huh,” says one of the scientists. “The security guard must be off drinking.” Of course we know the security guard has died terribly, and we want to shout at the characters, “don’t you see?” But of course they don’t see. Why would they?

Thomas is a pretty good guy. You can feel his quiet confidence and the internal consistency of his character. His presence is intimidating to those who feel themselves lacking.

This chapter ends with a horrific revelation. What do you know? I like the church scientist, and with him came a couple of other characters that might prove interesting. We have met the intellect of our inevitable party of discovery (although the nun was also pretty damn smart).

Chapter 5

Oh please oh please oh please don’t introduce another character. I’m looking at the book sitting on the table in front of me and I know another character would be more than I can handle. It’s not like I can’t keep track of five people, it’s that we have four completely different vectors toward the truth in this story, and that’s plenty. Also, some of the folks in the previous chapters were in pretty deep doodoo, and I’m anxious to hear back from them.

It has been pointed out to me that an odd-numbered group good for storytelling – it is always imbalanced, and can be imbalanced between different subsets of the group over different issues at the same time. We’ve got four characters right now, and that’s enough. A couple of these introductions were brutal enough to last me for a while.

I get the feeling that each character is crafted to represent a particular facet of humanity. Ali is compassionate, Thomas is intellectual, and so forth. One of the guys will get the hot nun, but at first it will be the wrong one.

Chapter 5 underway. We’re back with Branch, the helicopter pilot, and yes he’s messed up. Spooky messed up. The burn scars are competing with the scars from cuts and trauma; he’s still carrying a fair amount of metal around with him, as well as some medical equipment he absorbed while healing. His recovery was not normal. Now he’s back in Bosnia.

And that’s as far as I’ve gotten. There have been a couple of close calls where I put the book down and almost didn’t pick it back up again, but I’m hooked now. There will be a convergence, and the group will combine weaknesses as well as strengths.

I did not mention above the style of the writer, and to be honest, I never thought about it much. That’s a good thing. His voice is clear and doesn’t get in the way of the story. If I discover anything else over the next 450 pages I’ll let you know.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

NASA chief says it’s not for us to decide what the Earth’s climate should be…

Yep, we have global warming. Yep, it’s largely due to human activity. That’s what the boss of NASA says. For a long time the current administration refuted that the earth was warming up. Then they had to admit it was, but maintained there was no evidence that it was due to human activity. Now they’ve had to accept that. The next step in the Washington stonewalling of any attempt to even contemplate doing something about it: Hey, climates change. It would be arrogant of us to decide what the climate should be.

OK, maybe. But doesn’t that make anything man does to alter his environment for greater comfort or productivity arrogant? By that definition, arrogance is one of the primary characteristics of mankind, one of the things that makes us who we are. Why shouldn’t we decide what the best climate would be? Hell, if warmer is better for for most of humanity, I’m all for global warming. Let’s heat this place up! The problem is that making the climate hotter is more likely to be negative, and has the potential to cause suffering on a scale never before witnessed in history. Not since the black death, anyway. That’s a pretty big potential downside.

No, it’s not arrogant to consider potential disasters in the coming decades, it’s just that the people getting rich off current policies risk having the cash gusher they’re sitting on slow down a bit. Energy policy is, as far as I can tell (I’m no expert), a critical element in mitigating global warming. We will not have a well-considered energy policy while oil men are in charge. We would also not have a well-considered energy policy if windmill people were in charge, but that’s not what we’re facing right now.

If Cape Canaveral is abandoned to the waves, I hope NASA puts up a plaque with this guy’s picture on it.