Saturday, September 28, 2002

Alright, just this and nothing more

I got a Google hit for "Madelyne Toogood Playboy". Go ahead, Mr. Hefner, let's see what you can do with that one.

Nothing happening this weekend

I'll be incommunicado, but there's enough blogs and other sources listed here to keep you busy for days. See ya late Sunday night at the earliest.

Friday, September 27, 2002

Blinded by science

I'm getting some feedback that suggests that some of us have a fundamental misunderstanding about science. IMO I'm picking up a heavy load here, but let's see what happens.

Plato famously made a point with his "cave". In this, people were chained facing a wall, unable to turn around. Things were going on behind them, but all they could see were the shadows of them on the wall before them. Whatever Plato's intent was, mine is to get across the idea that our perception of nature is similar - what we can know of the world is distorted because we have distorted information, filtered through our senses and our instruments.

Another example would be the blind men and the elephant. One found its trunk, another its leg, another its side, etc, and each drew an incomplete conclusion about what an elephant was. Here the idea is that our perceptions can be all too narrowly focused on aspects of a phenomenon which are inadequate or even misleading wrt describing its whole.

Are scientists thus "blind"? Yes, like all the rest of us, in certain respects.

Well, there's no denying that science has had smashing success. So let's suppose we ignore those problems and gather data anyway - now what? We have to decide what data to collect. That requires a hypothesis, which introduces yet another source of distortion. What doesn't get hypothesized doesn't get investigated. So if scientists are politically limited, internally or otherwise, they can remain blind to discoveries that are obvious to less constrained investigators.

OK, now you've collected data. It alone isn't so useful. It is given value by being organized into models designed to behave like the phenomena being studied. Then these models can be used to interpolate values where no direct data exists (in 1995 the population of Chicago was X), or to extrapolate beyond the range were data was available (in 2100 the population of Chicago will be Y). I'm showing my bias toward the "hard sciences" here, but corresponding processes exist where the data is less quantitative.

Engineers like myself can testify to the great usefulness of these models in innumerable situations. But these models impose yet another form of blindness or distortion. They might apply to only very limited circumstances. They take into account only the phenomena that appear in the equations. Other yet to be discovered phenomena might be emerge, or be significant under other circumstances. We may improve our mensuration, thus exposing flaws in the model that were not evident or significant previously. And mathematical models necessarily have the same limitations of mathematics itself (you can't divide by zero, for instance).

If you were successful to this point, terrific, but it ain't science yet. Now you must suffer peer reviewers. Peer reviewers are human beings, complete with biases, blind spots, reputations, and political agendas. Woe to you if your discovery is unwelcome. It can take years before the fogeys give way for a new theory, and entire books have been written about this.

You made it this far? Now we get to the interpretation, where entirely different kinds of errors arise. This is especially true in the hands of amateurs like journalists.

One of these errors arises in application. Models ordinarily are limited in applicability to a range of circumstances. For instance, you can use the "ideal gas law" for gases, but not for liquids (you'd think that's intuitive enough, but I've corrected alleged engineers who thought otherwise). Even that law isn't good for all gases under all circumstances. And beware of extrapolations.

Another type of application error which is depressingly common is overgeneralizing. I don't know how many times people have told me seriously that Einstein's General Theory of Relativity shows that "everything's relative", morality and all. Or they start with microevolutionary changes in, say, the distribution of colors of some moths as proof that all life on earth came from some primordial protein molecules coming together by chance - maybe they did, but you'll need more and better evidence than that.

One of the worst interpretation errors is to confuse the model for the phenomenon. Nature doesn't obey our scientific "laws" - it does what it does . We write our "laws" to accomodate what we observe, subject to the limitations of our observations, our mensuration, and our capabilities for mathematical reasoning. Any conflict between what nature does and what scientists predict is always the scientist's fault. And we can't ever be sure but that tomorrow something new might come along and force us to revisit it all.

Despite it all, science produces results which we engineers use to make life better for all of us.

But science does not give us Truth. To that it will remain forever blind.

Monday, September 23, 2002

Packaged cogeneration

< needle>By the grace of God< /needle> Kathy Kinsley has led me to this item about a company that is building rooftop power plants on commercial buildings.

The article doesn't give a lot of detail, but it appears that they are doing something called cogeneration. With cogeneration, you generate electric power, but you also use some of the waste heat from the prime movers (usually gas turbines) for heating rather than rejecting it to a heat sink like a river, lake or atmospheric cooling tower. The result is improved thermal efficiency - more delivered power per unit of gas consumed.

There are other benefits also. There is more diversity of supply for electric power. Capital, operation and maintenance costs can be reduced with standardized designs and training. And as an engineer with a strong IT background, I like technologies that leverage both - such installations require sophisticated control systems.

There is a downside, however. One nice thing about remote powerplants is that any pollution is deposited far from the point of consumption. And the real cost of pollution is a strong function of where it is deposited. I'm not sure places like LA need any more heat or exhaust gases around - other locales such as Ontario may be far better.

The prime movers, which provide the heat and drive the generators, run on natural gas. Presumably any cost savings would result in part by buying natural gas in long-term contracts. I have to wonder if the existing gas distribution infrastructure can handle large-scale application of this. This could require major capital investment in places that are hostile to such development.

Also, although absorption chillers can use waste heat to provide cooling for air conditioning, it's difficult to balance the power and cooling demands. The difference presumably would be made up by buying more power from other utilities. The result will be a system that reduces the base load for power without doing much to reduce the maximum loads. And it's the costs at the maximum loads that cause the grief.

So I'm not sure we'll ever see really wide application of this in places like California, where the initial sites are. Ontario may be different. It will be interesting to watch.

Sunday, September 22, 2002

Heroine for the day

You've probably already seen this on Instapundit, but it's worth republishing. Anyway, a Jordanian woman kicked three creeps' butts in front of a bunch of witnesses. Heh heh.

Attention sisters

Researchers trying to find environmental causes of breast cancer--diet, exercise, exposure to chemicals or other factors--will start recruiting 50,000 sisters on Saturday for study.

The government-funded teams will start in Florida, at a fund-raising event in Tampa called the "Race for the Cure."

They hope to sign up 50,000 women nationally, aged 35 to 74, whose sisters have been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Sisters of women with breast cancer have up to twice the breast cancer risk of other women. A few genetic mutations are associated with breast cancer risk, but they account for fewer than 10% of cases.
Much more here.

Stem cell misreporting

Gray Davis has signed a bill to allow embryonic stem cell research in California.

The misreporting is here: "Stem cells, which are found in human embryos, umbilical cords and placentas, can divide and become any kind of cell in the body. " Stem cells are also found in adults.

Why is this important? Because some people want to represent embryonic stem cell research as the only game in town. It does offer advantages for some purposes, but the use of adult stem cells is more advantageous for other purposes.

What has he been smoking?

Rod Blagojevich is a representative from IllinoisChicago, representing disgraced fellow Democrat Dan Rostenkowski's old district.

Now he's running for governor. We have yet to see if he's crooked enough - I think the last two Democrats who governed Illinois wound up in prison like Rosty.

Someone asked him if he had smoked pot, and this is what he said
"I did it twice, and I'm a nonsmoker," Blagojevich said at a Statehouse news conference. "I don't like it; I run. So I don't know if I inhaled or not."
Musta been some good stuff.

Big deal if he did some pot. Good grief, anybody who went to a rock concert in the 70's or 80's did whether they liked it or not - closed venues were like walk-in bongs.

But does he have to insult our intelligence by saying he doesn't know if he inhaled or not?