Beware the ‘Big Data’ Gospel 27 February 2015

More debunking of the idea that ‘data’ can always be a tool for rigorous & disinterested analysis
A follow-up to my earlier CNN article, responding to a couple of poorly reasoned critiques
[Weekly Wonk]


Reflections on the 90th Anniversary of the New Yorker 19 February 2015

On first looking into Trow’s essay
A reminiscence of the first time I read “Within the Context of No Context” and why you should read it too
[Weekly Wonk]


The FAA’s new rules on Small Drones 16 February 2015

A quick reaction to the FAA’s notice of proposed rulemaking
The new rules are tardy and incomplete but could have been much worse.
[Quartz]


Alibaba’s Teabag Stunt Doesn’t Prove That Drone Delivery Works 4 February 2015

Another drone PR stunt
A Chinese companies scheme to deliver tea doesn’t mean the logistics or economics of delivery via drone will be real anytime soon.
[Slate]


The big dangers of ‘big data’ 2 February 2015

Don’t fall in love with every bit you meet
An essay about how the obsession with data is undermining social structures in government, business and life.
[CNN]


Why Are Drone-Makers Helping Governments Crack Down on Drones? 28 January 2015

DJI’s brute force regulation through software
The dangers of users lacking control over the devices they use, as illustrated by one drone-maker’s reaction when one of its aircraft crashed on the White House grounds.
[Slate]


A small step backward for mankind 5 November 2014

Why America needs to embrace a culture of risk in order to build the next-generation space program.
How and why to be resilient in the face of failed spacecraft, and the loss of life.
[Foreign Policy]


Sayur Manis: Delicious, But Also Deadly, Greens From Borneo 14 August 2014

Eat too much of it raw, and it can cause lung failure
Also known as sabah veggie, and a multitude of other names, sayur manis tastes like spinach crossed with asparagus
[NPR]


Book Review: ‘The Interior Circuit’ by Francisco Goldman 9 August 2014

Ka Wong Seng looks as if it fell into a Chinatown wormhole and emerged complete with roasted duck.
Review of Goldman’s memoir of Mexico City, which I think does not succeed in its aims.
[Wall Street Journal]


Not So Offal: Why Bone Soup, A ‘Perfect Food,’ Tastes So Meaty 16 July 2014

In praise of Tulang Soup, the most delicious thing I ate in Singapore
Trying to figure out the richness of bone marrow
[NPR]


How Gobbledygook Ended Up in Respected Scientific Journals 27 February 2014

The IEEE and Springer published dozens of algorithmically generated articles
What a slew of nonsensical publications says about the state of science.
[Slate]


In the interests of fairness, I thought it made sense to note that Phil Plait published an apology of sorts this morning.

At the clearest point, Plait owns up: “I blew it, and I’ll try to be more careful in the future.”

However, he does not actually seem to realize what he did. He’s amused by the episode, throwing in a references to The Princess Bride, a movie I like as much as the next guy, but which hardly is appropriate in the context of an apology/retraction. (Plait’s so proud of his accomplishment, he marks it with an asterisk to make sure people notice.)

Plait goes on to note:

Overall, a lot of what I wrote in the article is correct prima facie. A lot of it wasn’t.

“I didn’t get everything wrong,” (which he didn’t) is a poor defense. Someone with his stature–not only was he a practicing scientist for years, but he is one of the foremost popularizers of science of our time–has a responsibility to do better.

That he doesn’t see things this way comes to the fore in his closing paragraph:

So: I made some mistakes, got other stuff right, could’ve been more clear, and learned a lot. Pretty much a typical day in anyone’s book.

Learning a lot–about different subjects–is one of the pleasures of writing about science, indeed of writing in general. But the idea is to do that learning before publishing a piece, not after. There’s plenty that’s thoughtful in Plait’s follow-up, but that doesn’t change the fact that his original post remained up as Plait composed his apology, and remains up now.

The question is whether the original post can be construed as an error made in good faith, by someone who is good at their job, doing their job well. Plait obviously thinks the answer is yes. But, in my view, his follow-up does little to expiate the damage of the original post, which continues to draw in the gullible. (As I was writing this brief note, 3 more people on Twitter chimed in to note the “astonishing” result.)

Anyhow. To reiterate–the things Plait got wrong are not details. They are basic.

comment

This should be news to nobody, and I can’t believe I have to say it out loud, but the sum:

1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9+10+11+…

is not well-defined. The series diverges. It does not make sense in any mathematically rigorous way to say that it “equals” anything.
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Responding to the New York Times off-base math education editorial 10 December 2013

Math doesn’t have to be boring, but it does have to be math
The New York Times editorial board doesn’t understand the first thing about mathematics, and this is a big problem.
[Slate]


Chang’e 3 5 December 2013

The Second Space Race
Short voiceover of a photograph of China’s lunar rover.
[The Weekly Wonk]


PR Stunts 2 December 2013

Amazon Prime Drone Delivery? It’s Hot Air
Why Amazon won’t be delivering packages with drones by 2015.
[Slate]


How many nuclear weapons does China have? 11 November 2013

Consensus: China Offers Limited Deterrent
Probably fewer than 300.
[Aviation Week and Space Technology--Subscription Required]


Bard of Folly 21 October 2013

Book Review: ‘Command and Control’ by Eric Schlosser
A fantastic new book about nuclear weapons, and what it says about technology more generally.
[The American Prospect]


How High the Moon? 4 October 2013

Book Review: ‘Dreams of Other Worlds’ by Chris Impey and Holly Henry
Where the Milky Way’s missing arms went and other tales of astronomical discovery.
[Wall Street Journal]


America’s Last Nuclear test 3 October 2013

A photograph of divider
And the wacky names for other nuclear tests; a short voiceover.
[The Weekly Wonk]