The Science is Never Settled

Craig Pirrong:

Anyone who says that “the science is settled” is a fool or a charlatan.

That’s the first sentence of the post; he’s certainly not burying the lede. The professor then walks us through a piece by David Gelertner who credibly argues there is essentially no evidence of evolution creating new species. Gelertner also cites our current understanding of molecular biology and the very large numbers of possible protein combinations: for a protein containing 150 amino acids (the average protein has 250), the odds of creating new useful protein by random mutation is approximately 1 in 10^77. We currently estimate the universe contains 10^80 atoms. When you consider the thousands, or maybe millions, of protein changes that would be required to evolve a new species, and the requirement to do it every time you want to evolve the millions of species on earth, the odds are overwhelming.

I’m not smart enough to propose a theory of how the diversity of living creatures on our planet came to be. But I’m pretty sure Darwinism isn’t the answer, and I’m equally sure that seven-thousand-years-ago-god-created-the-earth-and-everything-in-it isn’t the answer either. The science is far from settled.

The science is far from settled in many other scientific domains: we had to invent dark matter and dark energy to make our observations of the universe fit with Einstein’s theory of general relativity. We don’t really know what dark matter and dark energy are, but we need these “weird things” to explain how fast stars orbit around galaxies and why the universe is expanding faster than Einstein’s model predicts.

As statistician George Box said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” Darwinian evolution and general relativity have proven enormously useful. I think our current climate models are wrong, but also useful. I’m wary of anyone who thinks our climate models are good enough to remake entire economies at the cost of trillions of dollars. And I think anyone who says climate science is settled is a fool.

Sunscreen Might Kill You

When I was 12 years old, I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. An outpatient surgical procedure saved my life. The dermatologist put the fear of the sun in us, and everyone in our family started wearing sunscreen all the time.

Rowan Jacobsen writes Is Sunscreen the New Margarine? for Outside Magazine about emerging research which seems to indicate that avoiding sun exposure increases your risk of death:

Some of the best came from Pelle Lindqvist, a senior research fellow in obstetrics and gynecology at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, home of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Lindqvist tracked the sunbathing habits of nearly 30,000 women in Sweden over 20 years. Originally, he was studying blood clots, which he found occurred less frequently in women who spent more time in the sun—and less frequently during the summer. Lindqvist looked at diabetes next. Sure enough, the sun worshippers had much lower rates. Melanoma? True, the sun worshippers had a higher incidence of it—but they were eight times less likely to die from it.

So Lindqvist decided to look at overall mortality rates, and the results were shocking. Over the 20 years of the study, sun avoiders were twice as likely to die as sun worshippers.

There are not many daily lifestyle choices that double your risk of dying. In a 2016 study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine, Lindqvist’s team put it in perspective: “Avoidance of sun exposure is a risk factor of a similar magnitude as smoking, in terms of life expectancy.”

Most dermatologists recommend their patients follow the American Academy of Dermatology’s zero-tolerance stance on sun exposure. Every one of my dermatologists has given me the same advice. I have also repeatedly tested as Vitamin D deficient.

I like the sun, and I like the way I feel when I’m outside. I’m going to use less sunscreen.

How Banksy Authenticates His Work

How does a famous anonymous artist authenticate her work? Banksy created a company called Pest Control, which issues Certificates of Authenticity with a paper based public key crypto system. The paper stapled to the certificate is a fake Tenner with Lady Diana’s picture on it, torn in half.

RCS Chat Is A Mess

RCS, the next generation replacement for SMS, has been around since 2008. It went exactly nowhere until the summer of 2018, when Google announced a big push to get it adopted by Android manufacturers and carriers. There was a bit of press saying how this would be great for everyone. Turns out, the RCS Chat rollout is a big mess. Hard to see this turning around and being successful.

And who sponsors a new chat infrastucture that doesn’t support end-to-end encryption?

Reasonable Expectation of Electronic Privacy

Utah recently passed a bill that requires a warrant for access to electronic information. This bill essentially makes electronic information, no matter where it’s stored or by who, the equivalent of our physical possessions. For example, if I write a document and store it on DropBox, law enforcement in Utah must obtain a warrant to use that document as evidence, even if they are able to acquire the document from DropBox. In addition, the law requires that law enforcement notify me when they obtain my electronic information via a warrant.

This law creates a reasonable expectation of privacy for electronic information. I wish all other states had the same protections.

We Don’t Know How to Build Safe Software

On Oct 29, 2018, Lion Air flight 610 from Jakarta to Pangkal Pinang crashed into the ocean, killing all 189 people on board. On Mar 10, 2019, an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi crashed, killing 157. Equipment on both flights was the Boeing 737 Max. Within days of the second crash, airline regulators around the world grounded all of these planes.

Details are now starting to emerge about the design, certification, training, and software used in these troubled aircraft. Gregory Travis, who has been a pilot for 30 years and a software developer for 40 years, writes a scathing indictment of the many compromises and mistakes made to bring this aircraft to market. It’s a great read for both aviation enthusiasts and software developers.

We have collectively learned how to design tangible objects to be safe, when required: buildings, cars, airplanes, even hover boards. We have devised systems and protocols for testing and validating these physically designed objects. We build in healthy safety margins.

Our practice, methods, and rituals in software lag far behind these proven design patterns in the physical world.

First Pictures of a Black Hole

In a worldwide effort, we now have our first picture of a black hole. “You’re basically looking at a supermassive black hole that’s almost the size of our solar system,” or 38 billion kilometers in diameter, said Sera Markoff, an astrophysicist at the University of Amsterdam.

Capturing and generating this picture required collaboration from scientists around the world. Jason Snell explains

To capture this image, the EHT used seven different radio telescopes all around the world in order to use something called interferometry, which combines data from telescopes spread out over a wide distance to essentially create a virtual telescope the size of the distance between the telescopes. The result is a telescope that’s basically the size of Earth. (Among the telescopes used is one at the South Pole, which needed to be retrofitted to make these measurements.)

Then the telescopes have to capture data simultaneously, which means the weather needs to be good in Hawaii and Spain and Chile and the South Pole and other places simultaneously. And when that data is captured, it needs to be brought back to a correlation facility to process it and generate a single data set.

The telescopes captured 5 petabytes of data: when stored on high capacity hard drives, it would fill up the back of a pickup truck. Andy Tanenbaum’s quote from 1985 is as true today as it was 30 years ago: "Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway." When you have petabytes of data to move from place to place, even fast internet connections aren’t fast enough. To beat an airplane carrying several dozen hard drives to the MIT Haystack processing facility near Boston, the data captured at the Kitt Peak telescope in Arizona would have to be transmitted at a rate of approximately 14 gigabytes per second. That’s like downloading 3-4 high definition movies per second.

I love the space and computer parts of this amazing project. But my favorite part is Katie Bauman’s response. She got a lot of attention yesterday because she is female and she was a major contributor to the algorithmic processing required to generate the image that we have all been looking at the last couple of days. It’s great to have another role model of a woman in STEM. But it’s even better to see (no link because I hate Facebook) how she gracefully reminded us that it was a large team with many contributors.

All the parts of this story make me feel good inside.

AirPower’s Problem Was Not Physics

In September 2017 Apple announced AirPower, a wireless charging mat that would be able to charge multiple devices at the same time. Apple said it would ship sometime in 2018. 2018 came and went. Last week Apple made several hardware announcements describing updated iPads, iMacs, and AirPods. These were done via press release in advance of the big March 25 event that was focused on services. No mention of AirPower.

Today Apple canceled the product, saying "AirPower will not achieve our high standards". The twitterati, almost none of who are hardware engineers, are saying that physics makes this an unsolvable problem.

Lemme tell you about the multi-device wireless charger I have been using for more than a year. The Nomad Base Station has dual 10W wireless charging, a 18W USB-C PD port, and a 7.5W USB-A port. It can charge four devices at the same time. The tasteful black rounded rectangle is covered with a padded leather charging surface. Charging my iPhone, AirPods with wireless case, iPad Pro, and my Bose QC35 headphones simultaneously is no problem. It costs $99 and has been out for more than a year. They have another version of the same product that drops the USB ports for a MFi-certified Apple Watch charger. The Nomad Base Station has small, unobtrusive LED’s that emit an orange glow when charging, and turn white when charging has completed. It’s a well designed, beautiful product that perfectly does what it’s supposed to do.

This problem can be solved. Something went horribly wrong with AirPower, and it wasn’t bumping into the limits of physics.

Two Solo, Unaided Antarctica Crossings

Colin O’Brady, an American adventurer, has completed a solo, unsupported, unaided crossing of Antarctica. That’s 925 miles of human powered travel in an inhospitable environment with only the supplies you can drag behind you on a sled. That’s an average of 18 miles a day, for 54 days in a row.

Two days later, a 50 year old British Army captain named Louis Rudd completed the same journey. He had an unusually casual approach to food:

My grazing bag is a tropical mix that I bought from Asda – I just grabbed what was available every time I went in, until I had 70 bags. Then there are Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bars, and some cheese and salami I bought in Chile.

When Rudd stopped at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, he couldn’t go inside or accept even a cup of tea, or he would lose "unsupported" status. Image having lived in subzero temps for weeks, and knowing there was a warm bed nearby, and having to walk away to weeks more in the cold. And it’s really cold, the all time high temperature ever recorded at the South Pole was a balmy −12.3 °C (9.9 °F). Just in case you think Antartica is flat, the south pole is actually 2,835 meters (9,301 feet) above sea level.

Colin O’Brady calls this trek "The Impossible First". He’s also fond of saying "We all have reservoirs of untapped potential."

Indeed.