NASA is Special (But Not Because of This)

Two of the many stories about the shutdown I’ve run across mention NASA (because several of the people on my twitter and RSS feeds are in astronomy-related fields), so that’s a common thread, and makes the stories slightly more aligned with my own, as opposed to the people working at e.g. NIH.

I cannot volunteer my time to work on NASA business during the furlough

What may come as a surprise to many is the following statement from the letter I received informing me of what I can and cannot do during the furlough: “During the furlough, you will be in a nonpay, nonduty status. During this time, you will not be permitted to serve NASA as an unpaid volunteer.”

How many federal agencies, for that matter, how many employers have to tell their employees “I’m sending you home without pay for an indefinite period of time and you are strictly prohibited from doing any work for the company/organization on your own time and without compensation?”

History Repeats Itself, and NASA Bears the Brunt of It

Before the actual shutdown, the threat of a furlough was a dank, dark cloud hanging over that work. It was hard to be hopeful about the future, knowing that at any minute we might all have to drop what we were doing and go home, for an unknown length of time. That hit a lot of folks very hard; they wanted to do their jobs. It wasn’t just worrying over paying the bills, it was actually not doing the work that had so many people upset.

The people at NASA are not alone in this, in terms of these circumstances and how they feel about it. Not that the articles are claiming this, mind you, but just in case one reads such stories and is tempted to think it’s an isolated case. Phil hits the nail on the head when he speaks of the dank, dark cloud, and how people really want to get the job done. Les mentions it in terms of unpaid time, and I have long suspected that many of my scientist, engineer and technician (and support staff) colleagues have worked more hours than went on the timecard, just because getting the job done, and done right, is important to them. I know scientists in other parts of the government who feel the same way. NASA may have some different rules in place, but there are parts of government where this rule about not volunteering your time is not limited to the shutdown — unpaid overtime is a no-no. I hope Les doesn’t get in trouble for admitting to doing it. I will neither confirm nor deny the fact that I’ve done so.

The admonition against volunteering your time, AFAIK, was boilerplate wording that would have gone to all workers. NASA wasn’t singled out for this. I’ve mentioned how the scientists want to work, but I see dedication with non-scientists as well, and that means when I see comments to the effect that we government workers are overpaid and pampered (hey, we already have healthcare! Luxury!), and so staying home “on vacation” is no big deal, it really chafes. Morale-killing moves like this will drive good people out of government service, sooner or later, especially younger workers who are not as invested in it. Professionals (i.e. those who have degrees beyond undergraduate work) typically can make more in the private sector, and why stick around (or join) with all this BS? The right complains the government is incompetent and this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy if their antics succeed in driving the top talent out.

N is for Neville Who Died of Ennui

As regular readers know, I work for the US government. I discovered over the summer that even though being furloughed affords me extra time, it’s not time where I’m generally in a mood to blog. The pointlessness and selfishness of this government shutdown has absolutely killed my enthusiasm. To paraphrase a colleague, they have dug another morale hole for us to fall into.

We’ll see what happens.

Letting the Air Out, Thank Goodness

I was gearing up for a rant about how the sequester, and in particular the furloughs, were sucking all the air from the room, but it was just announced that they will stop at six days, which means just one more week of this nonsense. So that kills the worst part of my rant, thank goodness.

The lesson of the first four-and-a-half-weeks is that scheduling time, especially with more than two people, becomes incredibly more difficult when you lose a day per week if your furlough days aren’t synched up. Any interaction where you need information from someone else, or vice-versa, becomes strained; there is no quick turnaround when key people are absent on random days, and you have your own work you are trying to get done. Work in the lab has slowed considerably because that’s one of the variables, while bureaucratic nonsense seems to be a constant, and when you reduce hours, the constants don’t seem to shrink. This was not a 20% reduction of useful work output — it was more than that. These are probably some of the reasons academic researchers work the long hours: they can, because they are on salary, and the research part of the job is where the extra hours are spent, after teaching and doing all of the bureaucratic overhead.

The people up on top of the food chain, to their credit, have been insistent that nobody sneak in unpaid overtime to compensate. It was recognized that a furlough meant that work would not get done. It seems to me that many were irked by the political narrative that there’s all this fat and bloat in the military, so that the sequester will have no effect on operations, because the fat would be cut. Well, guess again. It’s more that the DoD part of government actually is big-boned, and what looks like fat is more of a system bloat that needs to be restructured, which doesn’t happen simply by starvation.

Here’s a rough example of what I mean: spending money has a huge overhead of paperwork. One of the reasons for this is that government employees need to be good stewards of the taxpayer dollars they get, so there are a whole bunch of rules to follow to make sure money is not mishandled. But all of the paperwork and regulations make the process inefficient, which wastes taxpayer dollars. However, nobody is willing to streamline the process, because eventually there will be some misuse of funds (or even just something that has an appearance of impropriety), and too many members of congress, and the general population, will go absolutely apeshit over the revelation. So we spend many dollars in order to safeguard fewer dollars. That’s a systemic problem, and not one that can be solved simply by reducing budget.

But my creeping malaise seems to be somewhat better now that the end of furloughs is in sight, even though the larger sequester problem still exists. I had joined a colleague in meaningless protest by not shaving (anywhere). He started while I was on vacation, so I got a late start, but even the shorter duration doesn’t change the fact that I had one of the worst beards grown by anyone of drinking age. Glad to be rid of the non-goatee portion of it.

Do You Have My Back?

This tweet by @johnroderick is funny but also something I find to be antagonistic, especially when taken in the context of several tweets along the same lines. (Could be it’s the wrong time of day, I need food, or my caffeine levels are wrong, or just that the snark is strong in this one, but…)

Look, nerds, I appreciate you like Star Wars and everything, but WE STILL DON’T KNOW WHAT GRAVITY IS! #GoBackToDoingScience

Or maybe it’s really just the time of the season, what with all of the politics in the air, and most of it smelling rather foul to me, because of the anti-science taint to it. Science just doesn’t seem to sit well with those on the far right, but this rejection of science is without much thought or true conviction. If one were to really distrust science, one would not be using GPS, which relies on relativity. Or go get a flu shot, as the recurring danger from the flu is a product of evolution. Or get any prescription medications and its oh-so-sciency double-blind testing. Or take advantage a whole host of other improvements that science has afforded us. (The fact that @johnroderick is interested in the nature of gravity probably mean he’s not in that group, but still … Sending us nerds of to do science for him?)

So this whole “get back to doing science” kind of hits me where I live. I’ve seen budgetary fallout from recent events, and I know I’m not alone in that regard. But I also know that a tweet is not a substitute for actual action or activism. I’m a scientist. So I want to know: Do you have my back?

Are you going to fund me? That is, do you recognize the value of research so that you won’t complain that some fraction of a penny from your tax dollar goes to funding science? And that scientists — not politicians, nor religious leaders, nor fat, lying and/or bald pundits, nor even the general public — decide what constitutes good science? You won’t sulk if the results aren’t what you or your ideology want them to be? You won’t pout when the bulk of basic research doesn’t pan out, because investigating the unknown means you — by definition — don’t know what you will find?

If you really want nerds to get back to doing science, provide us with the atmosphere for doing science. Throw those bums who make it unduly difficult to do science out of office. The ones who raise decidedly non-scientific (or unscientific) objections to science. Who wouldn’t know science if it bit them on the ass and said, “I’m science!” The ones in the pocket of anti-science industries. The ones that muffle scientists whose results are inconvenient. Throw them out.

If you want us nerds to do science, you have to let us do science. Otherwise, go do it yourself.


Really it’s afterquake; I’m not sure how much math will be here. But anyway, a few more comments on what happened, just because.

An event such as this allows for an evaluation of systems and protocols that you have in place. You can do simulations, but quite often you aren’t willing to invite any real risk in an exercise — the stress on the system isn’t real. So sure, you can time how long it takes for a response to happen in a test or know that a backup system is present, but under real conditions things fall apart quickly. You have different traffic patterns because of fallen trees and traffic lights that are out of commission. That backup system didn’t engage because of an overlooked problem, and you never actually tried it out because you didn’t want any downtime. At best you can find things that worked but would work even better or be useful in that situation, but never noticed because you weren’t in that situation. Hey, you know what? We need an emergency light here! Or, this system status data would really be useful to have in real-time. So there are flaws and potential improvements that only come to light under actual stress.

It took me more than an hour to get home, when it usually takes me less than 30 minutes. The district DOT people closed off Rock Creek Parkway to southbound traffic, which they normally do at 3:45 PM, but they did it at 2:30 and forced a bunch of Virginia-bound drivers into the downtown area to find another bridge. Bad call, IMO. Surprises are bad — I think you want to keep routines as constant as possible. Disruptions to routine usually makes things worse. Crossing the Potomac requires a bridge or tunnel, and shutting off a main route to one of them is one reason traffic was so heavy. There are more options for getting into Maryland.

I’m not at liberty to discuss the operations response at work, but I’ll put it this way: I’m sure the press would not have been shy about pointing out problems had they arisen. If I had not been caught up in the response, I probably would have appreciated this more in real-time: I work with a bunch of professionals. People who do what they need to do, without being told — checking on systems, making sure a backup has kicked in if there’s a problem with the primary, and then diagnosing what that problem is when they find one. And I cannot fathom why there are those in elected positions who think it’s worthwhile to put pressure on these people, essentially inviting them to leave government service, by under-compensating them so that they would have to be replaced by less capable people. This attitude filters down either by diffusion or by direct pressure. If you continue along that path you’ll be left with people who are senior enough that staying is still worthwhile since they are heavily vested in the retirement program and marginally competent junior people who can’t get better jobs in the private sector. When the senior people retire, the system will crumble. Maybe that’s what people are looking for, as an excuse to privatize or disband more of government, but I think it’s a bad idea.

It became apparent that there are government people working in fairly critical positions whose primary means of communication is a cell phone. The cell phone system froze for a period of time after the quake, isolating these people. This is where the argument about how “the market” will provide a solution just fails. Even with whatever FCC requirements exist, the system collapsed. It wasn’t a matter of one carrier reaching saturation, to be fixed by switching providers. What if this had been more serious? Would the rationale that lives were lost because the market does not value the extra capacity really hold up? Government regulations are an absolute requirement in cases where the players cannot be trusted to regulate themselves. The mantra that less regulation is always better is sheer idiocy. We already have too many wingnuts thinking that e.g. the EPA should be emasculated. As a citizen I don’t see the upside of more air, water and land pollution. Ultimately it’s cheaper to prevent it than clean it up. We don’t need fewer people inspecting our food or maintaining our roads. We don’t need softer building codes.

One more thing, about the mockery from the west-coasters: payback is a bitch. Yes, many people overreacted, because they are not used to earthquakes, and you stay calm because you go through it. But because they are common, you build for them. There are a lot of old buildings — i.e. structurally questionable — in DC. Not so much in LA, or especially San Francisco, because all of the really old buildings burned down, fell over and then sank into the swamp during some previous earthquake. How much of SF construction dates back before 1906? A 5.9 earthquake here is not to be compared to a 5.9 there. Here, it’s the biggest earthquake we’ve had in more than 100 years. You want a real comparison? What would be the LA reaction to a hard freeze? The city has only seen a temperature as low as 29ºF in the last 80 years — that’s the record low. Do you think maybe you’d scurry about in a bit of a panic if that were to happen again, worrying about bursting pipes and dead plants, because you aren’t built for that sort of thing? DC may not handle snow very well (not many really big cities do), but we get freezing weather quite a bit. It’s not a problem. I’ll keep a snarkball in the freezer, ready to throw at you, in case this ever happens.

Obama's Goodfellas Moment

(Sorry, foul-mouthed politics spleen-vent time. No physics here)

There’s a scene in Goodfellas where Sonny, the sniveling restaurant owner, partners up with Paul Cicero, the mob boss, to give him leverage to deal with Tommy, one of Paulie’s underlings. Sonny thinks his troubles are over. Henry, in a voiceover, explains how this is really an asymmetric arrangement:

Now the guy’s got Paulie as a partner. Any problems, he goes to Paulie. Trouble with the bill? He can go to Paulie. Trouble with the cops, deliveries, Tommy, he can call Paulie. But now the guy’s gotta come up with Paulie’s money every week, no matter what. Business bad? Fuck you, pay me. Oh, you had a fire? Fuck you, pay me. Place got hit by lightning, huh? Fuck you, pay me.

So obviously Obama is Sonny here, having negotiated his way into a bad deal, right? No. What I hope for — what I want — is that Obama is Paulie. For some time the GOP has been maintaining that what’s been standing in between us and prosperity are low taxes for people with large incomes and the removal of “uncertainty” from the business world: Don’t raise taxes on the job creators! Give us a visit from the confidence fairy! Well, the deals have been made. Obama can now ask, “Where are my jobs?”

S&P downgrades us? Fuck you, pay me.

Stock market tanks? Fuck you, pay me.

Repubs try any kind of distraction? Fuck you, pay me.

Other excuses? Fuck you, pay me.

That’s what I want. But I don’t think it’s going to happen. Anyone paying attention to recent events will know that the democrats absolutely suck ass at controlling the message and explaining what they’re doing and intend to do. Nobody believes them anyway. There is little history to indicate that anyone is going to grow a spine and start calling the republicans out for boning 98% of us.

Several people have done a careful analysis of the debt deal and shown it’s not as horrible as the media have reported it. That Hillary would not have been treated any better and because the tea party was willing to trash the economy even worse. That Obama got about the best deal he could have because he was the only adult in the room. There’s faint hope that this is some rope-a-dope and he’ll eventually come out swinging. None of that matters. Politics is perception, and as long as the message is that Obama caved and the dems lost, that what people will come to know. The media are complicit, because they will not challenge lies and spin from the right and force people to deal in facts. The dems have to control the message, loudly and forcefully, and they aren’t doing it.

If there’s a strategy being employed, I don’t see it. Cooperating when your opponent continually stabs you in the back is a losing proposition from basic game theory. If the democrats are going to rely on voters knowing that the republicans are the worse alternative, then they have already forgotten the lesson of 2010: there is an option to not voting republican, and that is to stay home. It’s a horrible option, but it’s what happens when the leaders don’t step up and lead. The left didn’t do nearly enough to energize the voters that elected them in 2008; Obama had accomplishments before the midterm, but the democrats were too meek in proclaiming them. By not controlling the message, voters were allowed to focus on what didn’t happen, got disheartened and too many switched or stayed home on election day.

That can’t be allowed to happen again. The republicans have already shown us what their plans are for the country, and it’s ugly. Obama needs to win office again, and because congress has been an obstacle, we need a better one. To get there, this wishy-washy nonsense has got to stop. The republicans aren’t interested in cooperation, so there’s no point in pretending any longer. Denounce the people who are causing the difficulties and tell us how you are going to fix the problems. Cite chapter and verse of how the right has been an obstacle instead of thanking them for superficial cooperation. How they have not proposed any jobs legislation. How their political feet-dragging has encumbered us all. If you have to, fire your speechwriters. The right has been very good at scapegoating and laying blame for everything. They’ve been too successful at it — loudly pretending to hate socialism but loving government subsidies and ending regulation that socializes the cost of clean air and water, pretending to hate the elite while enabling the rich and powerful to have their way with the rest of us. It’s time to pound on the table and say enough is enough.

"Hi, I'm Randall, and I'm a MAN."

If you have yet to run across posts on elevatorgate/rebeccapocalypse (over 9,000 Google hits on the former term) then you probably don’t read many science/skeptic blogs. If you have and are sick of it, don’t worry, because I’m not going to add my quanta of coinage. I have come to loathe participating in internet discussions of this ilk — despite the community supposedly being held among the science/skeptic minded, they have a tendency to stray from rationality and civility far too quickly and too much in magnitude for my taste. In many cases, if you don’t present the right answer™ as determined by the owner of the dais, you are quickly dogpiled into oblivion, and that can extend to any kind of criticism. Point out someone has misquoted Evil Protagonist (or note that EP was actually correct in some statement) and all of the sudden you are a staunch supporter of Evil Protagonist in the eyes of some (many?) participants.

However, in case you want more of the same or are otherwise interested in a somewhat related topic, here is a post by xkcd’s Randall Monroe on Google+’s insistence on publicly disclosing your gender, which does not seem to have descended into the usual quagmire, though it does include the predictable “it doesn’t bother me so it shouldn’t bother anybody” responses.

The bottom line is that there are a lot of reasons Google+ would want to ask about your gender. But there’s no good reason to pointedly make it the only thing in your profile that can’t be private—and many reasons not to, starting with basic courtesy. It may be a small issue in the grand scheme of things, but I think it’s worth getting right.

Please Take a Math Class

Americans say ‘no’ to electrics despite high gas prices

Nearly six of 10 Americans — 57% — say they won’t buy an all-electric car no matter the price of gas, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll.

That’s a stiff headwind just as automakers are developing electrics to help meet tighter federal rules that could require their fleets to average as high as 62 miles per gallon in 2025. And President Obama has set a goal of a million electric vehicles in use in the U.S. by 2015.

I’m assuming that journalism school covered metaphorical statements and the author used “stiff headwind” as he meant to.

That statistic presumably means ~40% are open to the idea. The US adult population is more than 200 million people, so in what world is a group of 80 million potential electric car drivers less than the 1 million needed to reach that goal, thus representing that stiff headwind?

Way down at the end, it is noted that

Nissan interprets the poll numbers as a good sign, pointing out that “as many as 40% are considering driving electric vehicles.”

While math is the obvious problem here, I don’t think it’s the larger issue, which is that of spin. The author/headline writer wanted to cast the story in a negative light and so they leveraged the existence of a slim-margin majority to make a statement. People resisting change really isn’t news. I wonder if they had done a poll around 1900 about the enthusiasm for driving an automobile, what kind of results they would have gotten.

The Anti-Tyson

Is speculation in multiverses as immoral as speculation in subprime mortgages?

Perhaps Anti-Tyson is a little harsh, but soon after I see a great discussion by Neil deGrasse Tyson on science being driven by passion and curiosity, I read some blather from someone who’s basically pissed off that a physicist wrote something other than a physics textbook. Speculating on the metaphysical implications of science isn’t my particular cup of tea, but it’s not up to me to tell others that they can’t engage in it — as long as they don’t think they’re doing science. One never knows what speculation might spark an actual scientific advance, or when one might recognize that there is an actual falsifiable scientific principle embedded in one of those thoughts. (Leo Szilard is said to have come up with the idea of the fission chain reaction by seeing a traffic light change. Who the hell knows where inspiration comes from?)

I think it’s worth noting that John Horgan is the author of The End of Science, which I believe is the book (and concept) that Tyson was blasting in the interview as being shortsighted.

Is theorizing about parallel universes as immoral as betting on derivatives based on subprime mortgages? I wouldn’t go that far. Nor do I think all scientists should be seeking cures for cancer, more efficient solar cells or other potential boons to humanity. But scientists should, at the very least, investigate the world in which we live rather than worlds that exist—as far as we will ever know—only in their imaginations.

Now, I haven’t read the book, and I can’t say for sure how it is presented. If it’s being misrepresented as actual physics, then Greene is in error. But that doesn’t seem to be the complaint. Horgan knows its speculation, because he identifies it as such. His objection appears to be that a physicist was doing something that’s not physics! How dare he do that! If a physicist wants to write a book about metaphysics, or poetry, or whatever, who the hell is John Horgan to tell him/her otherwise, or to say what we do with our (free) time?

Q & A

I mention from time to time that this blog is hosted by Science Forums (dot net), which is a discussion board for science, mainly, and because I don’t teach anymore, I spend a lot of my time answering physics questions or discussing/debunking topics that are posted (or moved) to our “Speculations” forum, where threads on “alternative” science live. The kinds of threads can generally be divided into two categories: those that ask a question, and those that try and tell you the answer. The latter is pretty exclusively the domain of the crackpot; they have “found” the answer to some corner of science, and want to tell the world. They are predictable, even to the point of being able to play bingo with the tenor of their responses. The path they take depends on what flavor of crackpot they happen to be. (For example, to me a crank is the subset of the crackpot species who gets angry at being contradicted. They will yell at you when you tell them they are wrong, and then complain about being persecuted. Just like Galileo was.)

The former — the askers — do share a few characteristics of the crackpot, though, namely a lack of familiarity with the process of science, because most of the people that originate threads fall somewhere on the spectrum of being amateurs or nonscientists. This makes the process is very Gumpian — when a question is posted, you don’t know what you’re gonna get in terms of physics background, and more importantly, you don’t know what you have in terms of scientific literacy (facts, concepts and/or science process). This makes for some interesting dynamics. As I recently observed, the act of correcting someone’s misconception is often considered rude in a social setting (or so I’m told. I’m a geek and have no social skills) but it’s de rigueur as science. There’s no shame attached to blurting out a wrong idea and having it shot down; it’s what we’re trained to do — both the blurting and the shooting. Let as many smart people as you can try and find a flaw, see if you can fix any problems, and what survives is probably worthwhile. But an outsider may not have developed a thick enough skin to be comfortable with this.

Another issue that arises is the lack of appreciation of the history of science, or the appearance of science as dogma. The person who wonders why their wonderful idea for perpetual motion won’t work may not be satisfied with “it violates the first and/or second law of thermodynamics.” If one does not have an awareness of the history and the process, one might not appreciate the enormous weight of the statement. There is no dogma behind the laws, but unless you’ve sat through a semester of thermodynamics, you might not see this. Worse than this, there are sites on the intertubes that propose and support a panoply of wacky —and demonstrably wrong — concepts, and you have people who think that finding a site that agrees with them makes them right. There’s no a priori reason to accept one source over another when you don’t understand the concept. Ignoring Sturgeon’s Law — that 90% of everything is crud — is dangerous when drinking from the internet.

A third issue is the problem of jumping into the deep end, or biting off more than you can chew, or some other metaphor for not having properly learned the basics. A lay person might read about quantum entanglement and want to learn more about it, but as much as one would wish to study it, at the end of the day it’s advanced quantum mechanics. Analogies can only go so far, and quite often the curious one will try and construct a model of what’s going on, and be hampered by the lack of a physics foundation. The model almost instantly fails because some common misconceptions persist, which might have been driven out in a semester or two of classroom instruction, and science discussion boards, like blogs, aren’t the best method of that kind of information transfer — the kind of high-volume, strongly-interacting information transfer that the classroom tends to be (or to which it aspires). It’s like someone showing up one day to some upper-level class without having taken the prerequisite course; not understanding the basics (or the math) is a huge impediment. Sadly, another trait shared by the eager amateur and the crackpot is often a disdain for math.

But one thing I must note is where the amateur differs from the crackpot: while the amateur is simply unaware of the volume of evidence that is behind a brief debunking of their toy model or a seemingly dogmatic statement, the crackpot, by positing that he knows “the truth,” is making a de facto assertion that this evidence either doesn’t exist or is all wrong. That’s a huge difference.

So it’s tough to figure out the right response to questions and often the difficulty has little to do with the physics, but I do it because I enjoy it. (Blogging is somewhat different, in that SFN is directed toward interaction, while a blog is somewhat more “preachy,” in the sense that a response is not integral to the process.) The payoff is that sometimes you get asked really good questions, and you are working with people who really want an answer; most of them work at developing an understanding even when the topic is over their head (though occasionally you do uncover the attitude of “this should be easy” and blame you when they don’t instantly understand the intimate details of relativity). The questions that come from those not constrained by what’s been taught in a classroom give me the occasional idea for a post as well.