Locklin on science

Golden age experimental physics memories

Posted in Design, physics by Scott Locklin on March 26, 2019

I’ve given some hints of my tastes in experimental physics, and that my taste is experimental physics rather than impotent theoretical cargo cult wanking. I didn’t exactly work on project SLAM, but my early work kinda had this flavor. I caught the last fumes of the heroic cold war age in experimental physics.


My first big project was an experiment for observing something called the quantum breaktime, which I believe nobody gives a shit about any more. If you observe a quantum (in our case, chaotic) system for a short period of time, it should look semiclassical. If you wait around long enough, because quantum bound systems are a recurrence map, it will end up looking quantum. Anyway, nobody cares any more, as it turned out to be a fairly trivial thing and nothing important was observed. But at the time it looked important; Anderson won the Nobel for a related idea, and so we tried to build a crazy contraption to observe the thing. None of it was my idea, other than a few gew-gaws to make it go, as I was just some redneck kid who was good at making mechanical things work. I think the PI on this project is still alive, shooting at crows in Kansas or some such thing, and the senior grad student (who graduated) has gone on to more gentle pursuits. I totally lost track of the laser jockey. Names withheld to protect the innocent.

Proof this actually happened; and I used to have hair

The physical embodiment of the idea was to build a couple cubic meters worth of vacuum chamber filled with calcium vapor and shoot lasers at it. The problem with calcium vapor is at the partial pressures we needed it at, the chamber needed to operate at 400 degrees C. Oh yeah, we also needed to distill the crap so we were only using one of the isotopes, to avoid some fine structure nonsense that would have sunk the whole experiment, but as I never got that far, we’ll just pretend it didn’t matter. So, calcium is a reactive metal that wants to bind with anything resembling an optical opening that can withstand a 500 degree C bake out. So, there was another chamber within the chamber, with a set of calcium fluoride windows resting on knife edges that hopefully would keep most of the calcium out of the main chamber and away from the seals and the sapphire windows that kept the air out and let the laser pulses in. Did I mention seals? Yeah, seals and 500/600 degree C bakes (you need to cook all the volatile shit out of the chamber at higher than operating temperatures) don’t get on well. You can’t use viton which is the ordinary high vacuum seal. You sure as shit can’t use conflats and copper due to different coefficients of expansion of stainless and OFHC copper. The PI came up with this brilliant thing involving bolts under preposterous strain, shallow spring like knife edges, and a thick brand of aluminum foil. I think it was used in the Mercury program and promptly forgotten by everyone but the PI who was actually alive and sentient in those days. I won’t tell you what we used to seal the optics; it was similarly insane (and, unlike the aluminum trick, carcinogenic) and found by scouring the literature using INSPEC and paper indexes rather than the garbage you ninnies use on your nerd dildos. I tested both technologies, and to my minor amazement, they both worked  reliably at the design temperatures.

The pump on this thing was something called a diffusion pump. You pump on the chamber with a piston driven mechanical roughing pump to rough it out to 10^-3 torr or whatever, then you fire up the diffusion pump. Diffusion pumps boil some dense fluid which makes a spray through various trumpet like things in a big cooled metal tube, and it creates a pumping action which works sort of like how the shower curtain gets sucked inward when the shower is on. The dense fluid is sometimes mercury, which is why every experimental atomic physicist of a certain age has a mad hatter twitch, though in this experiment, we used some weird fluorodated oil made by Dow-Corning which we hoped wouldn’t explode when calcium vapor hit it. On top of the diffusion pump sits some water cooled baffles and a “trap” of liquid nitrogen, which catches any stray diffusion pump operating fluid molecules and prevents them from futzing up the vacuum too badly. Believe it or not, this kind of pump stack was dirt standard for 60s-90s atomic physics before turbo pumps and ion traps became cheaper. Probably still often used where you need high pumping power in a relatively small place.

Now, to do atomic physics, generally speaking, you also need lasers. The kinds of experiments we were doing you needed pump and probe stuff. This was mostly someone else’s responsibility, at least in the early days, but I was keenly aware of the laser systems as I had to observe proper safety procedures when the laser setup was being run in the same room with me. Our stack consisted of a UV excimer laser (which lived in the other room and ran on poisonous gas and high voltage electricity), an infrared YAG setup which fed a dye laser which I believe made green light when everything was working right. There was probably a KDP crystal or two in it somewhere, since momentum generally must be conserved, and since I remember the laser jockey blowing them up from time to time to powerful slavic imprecations. I don’t remember how many watts these things were, but you could light each other’s pantaloons on fire with some of the things. The dye laser setup used DMSO, a membrane penetrant used to deliver drugs through the skin, and a soup of carcinogenic and poisonous dye (I believe it was coumarin). A dye laser is basically a pump and high pressure hose with some optics around it, and it would occasionally spectacularly explode, shooting deadly DMSO dye goop all over the place. It never hit anyone important. Oh yeah, in case some of you don’t have laser safety training: green light, IR and UV; what do you use for safety goggles? I’ll tell you what you use: a  steel bucket on your head.


Remember how the excimer laser was in the other room? How do you think the laser light got into the magic show room of tremendous grad student danger? Well, I couldn’t tell you exactly how this happened, but there was a convenient hole in the wall. I heard a rumor someone rented an electric jackhammer and blew a hole in the (load bearing) wall over a long weekend. The past is a foreign country, and the late 20th century was different, I tell you.


There’s all kinds of interesting little details here; how do you build something to hold the vacuum chamber up while you’re baking it? It can’t be well thermally connected to anything or all the heat will bleed out where you don’t want it. It can’t expand or contract at much different rates from the vacuum chamber steel. Oh yeah, and since you have two chambers made of of stainless steel, and barely touching each other, you needed to thermally link them together with a big spring loaded bar of OFHC copper.  Finally, how do you make an oven which bakes the thing to those kind of temperatures? Turns out, rockwool blankets and big ceramic resistors I found in a junkpile fed by silica coated wires worked pretty good.  If I happen to die of mesothelioma, I’ve always harbored the view that rockwool can cause this as easily as asbestos -feel free to name it after me. I won’t even mention the microwave feed throughs and  high-Q niobium microwave cavity that was supposed to fit into the thing, as I never really believed it possible to do this. All of this was done using two line equations and graphing paper rather than the preposterous finite element analysis people waste time with now, and it worked just fine.  на коленки.

Finally an illustrative anecdote: at one point I was putting liquid nitrogen into the trap for a vacuum test, and did so too rapidly. Just like they said it might in the manual, the trap cracked from cooling it too fast, rendering it a leaky paperweight. I knew there was another trap of identical manufacture hooked up to a chamber in an abandoned lab across the hallway (physics departments in them days had all kinds of weird stuff across the hallway; punched tape CP/M machines, weird pumps, high voltage DC generators, farad tier high voltage capacitors with no internal resistance, depleted uranium bricks, etc). I considered just pulling it out of the other setup. I thought about it for a few minutes, and realized I should manfully admit my blunder to the PI first, because who knows what kind of bonkers shit was going on in that old lab across the hall when it was active. Well the PI was real understanding, as he had blown up a nitrogen trap or two in his day, and thought it was a swell idea to nick the nitrogen trap across the hall to save a few bucks and some leadtime on a new trap … oh wait a minute, that might have been the chamber they used for the atmospheric plutonium experiments. Here’s the stack of (60s vintage, probably slightly radioactive) safety sheets on plutonium, and go borrow the mica-window Geiger from Jimmy down in the other building.  I did my best on the safety front; I wore a HEPA dust mask, some gloves and a baseball umpire vest I found somewhere. I gingerly stuck the mica business end around the inside of the vacuum chamber with the matching nitrogen trap bolted onto it.  Plutonium is weird shit; I think it’s an alpha emitter. I know you have to get right on top of it with the counter or you can’t see it at all. Well, I found some plutonium all right; so much it actually shorted out the Geiger tube -you could hear it shorting out bzzz bzzz bzzz. I gingerly shut the thick plexiglass door and tried to never go into that abandoned lab again.


My experience wasn’t particularly dangerous or weird, but it was from a bygone era. I mean, pretty much everyone in that lab (including me at the time) smoked. In the lab. Next to the mercury diffusion pumps and poisonous shit. By the time I arrived at LBNL, a mere year or two later, I was doing nonsense like attending weekly safety circle, and signing up for  classes on how to safely use the sonicator and a beaker of acetone for cleaning UHV parts. LBNL had plenty of dangerous stuff around, and jerks would regularly create dangerous conditions; mostly because they were visitors and tragedy of the commons, so it was probably necessary. It felt oppressive though. You could tell it wasn’t always thus; I distinctly remember a photo of someone (probably Owen Chamberlain, though somehow I remember Segre or Luis Alvarez) smoking a pipe next to 1000 gallons of liquid hydrogen bubble chamber.


not the photo, but like it

I don’t know if there are lessons to be learned here. The project fizzled out a few months after I joined it because the Clinton administration were weasels who preferred to spend the “peace dividend” putting factory workers in prison while they outsourced the industrial base to China. Maybe the way we used to do things was ridiculously super dangerous and we’re all lucky to be alive. Maybe it is OK to play fast and loose with safety, because frankly time is more precious than a 2% higher probability of dying prematurely. All I know was it was fun living like this, just like it was more fun riding a bicycle before they made you wear a helmet.  The attitude was healthy, even if the environment objectively wasn’t. I am pretty sure people routinely do vastly more dangerous things in unsavory hobbies. I’ll probably never do experimental physics again; if I do it will be at least this ridiculously awesome.

Ave Atque Vale: Marty Halpern

Posted in history by Scott Locklin on March 12, 2019

My pal Marty Halpern died over a year ago now. He was one of my oldest and closest pals who still had some presence in Berkeley. Though he was only a quarterly visitor to Berkeley in recent years, we kept in touch as best we could, and it was always like old times when we’d talk on the phone or see each other in person for some red meat and man talk.

Our first meeting was very Berkeley, and is still one of my favorite “Locklin being an idiot” stories. I was still a long haired grad student, just getting started on deadlifts and presses in the Berkeley 24 hour fitness place; it must have been late 2002 or early 2003. Marty Gutzwiller’s book on quantum chaos fell out of my locker while I was showering; it was one of those yellow Springer-Verlag books immediately recognizable as a physics text. When I got out of the showers, a large nude man was standing there reading the other Marty’s book. It’s not every day I’m confronted with large nude men reading books that fell out of my locker, so I probably said something somewhat rude like,

“What are you doing.”

“Oh, is this yours”

“Yes, it was in my locker”

“You know something about physics?”

“Yes, I study physics.”

“I know some physics too.”

At this point my eyes are rolling, and I figure I’m confronted with some Berkeley loon who is going to tell me how his quartz crystal gives him psychic powers. As soon as he introduced himself, I knew who he was; Marty Halpern, the eminent high energy physicist from UC Berkeley who helped invent the second generation of supersymmetric string theory.


As fellow physics nerds who enjoy lifting weights we became fast friends. We didn’t have even vaguely similar tastes in physics; his stuff was all high energy, tending towards noodle theory. Mine was experimental low energy. I don’t think either one of us understood each other very well when we talked about such things, and of course, my own knowledge of my field was ridiculously shallow compared to his. Yet we had some spirited conversations on the topic, as well as my later topics of quantitative finance and data science. Mostly though, that was work talk. Guys who do mathy things who also like lifting weights, shooting guns, eating red meat, being guys  and not taking shit from any pasty  nincompoops; that’s real talk.

Marty and I both appreciated our Robert E. Howard Conan books and our John Carter of Mars novels. In our own ways we lived these science fiction ideals in our daily lives as best we could in this degenerate age. Neither one of us cared much for the state and trajectory of modern life; America and western civilization in general was looking pretty weedy and green about the gills. Even physics wasn’t looking real healthy. It’s tough having such opinions while living in Berkeley. Berkeley is a place where the prevailing wisdom seems to be that everything is gonna be awesome because … cell phones or intersectionality or whatever. Then again, it’s great having proper friends in such places; a friend is a friend at all times, it is for adversity that a brother is born.

His hat, not mine

He was also a link to the physics past for me. I never got the chance to meet Heisenberg, Feynman, Abdus Salam, Schwinger; Marty did. Physics people love to hear about the stories of the great heroes of that era -ole Marty actually knew these guys in some capacity. I remember once he pulled out a Koran to make some point at a dinner party -turned out Salam gave that to him. That was pretty cool.


I think the below eulogy from the physics department captures some of his personality; the Limberger cheese incident being particularly choice (though his practical jokes … they were much better, actually), but it seems to be biased towards his early achievements on the career front.


One of the things they left out: Marty’s thesis adviser was Walter Gilbert, a Nobel Prize winner. Gilbert started as a physicist, but ultimately went into medical research, winning the Nobel for DNA research, and as I understand things making a decent pile of loot for learning to make insulin from toilet water. Oddly, Marty started as a sort of pre-med biologist himself (his dad was a doctor who served in WW-2), and ended as a physicist out of curiosity. Marty always told the stories about how Gilbert figured he and Marty were pretty smart, but guys like Schwinger were SO DAMN SMART he might as well go into biology for lack of competition. Marty just liked dat physics though.


To add a little color to what they describe as his early career; I think his Westinghouse prize project was actually building a tic tac toe “computer” out of relays; a considerable achievement back in the 50s when all knowledge of computers and digital logic was pretty obscure.


Another thing I know about from Marty’s career, he spent quite a lot time at CERN, enjoying the convivial physics to be had there, as well as developing his palate in the local restaurants (pro tip from Marty; avoid the Michelin rated places with too many stars; they’re just phoning it in -2 stars are often the sweet spot). I think he was really happy there. He also had a deep fondness for the Niels Bohr institute. Amusingly, he told me about this guy Predrag Cvitanovic at the Neils Bohr who told similar jokes to mine. This was the only person at the Niels Bohr I had the vaguest chance of  knowing anything about. I read das book and exchanged a few bantz anyway. Should I ever make the ridiculous money, I’ll make sure there is some kind of Halpern fellowship at the NB Institute. To troll Marty’s ghost, which, considering the nature of our friendship, I think he’d appreciate, I’ll make sure the recipient of such a fellowship works on semiclassical physics.

FWIIW for all your electronics nerds who think you need whatsapp, slack, discord, ‘tardbook, texting or whatever ridiculous communication application to keep in touch with friends; after he retired, since he didn’t need to send LaTeX to collaborators any more, ole Marty didn’t even use email. He considered it a waste of his time. Friends use the telephone and meet in person.

Marty told me a lot of wise stuff; some of which I will never repeat.  He left his friends at a bad time, and we miss him terribly, but then, there never is a good time.


“Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem,
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum,
heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi.
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu
atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.”



Professor Martin Brent Halpern – World Renown Theoretical Physicist died in Tucson, AZ on January 21, 2018.

As a child, Martin Brent Halpern was drawn to chemistry experiments and other physical concepts such as tesla coils, perhaps to the consternation of his parents, Dr. Melvin Halpern and Blanche Halpern. Marty enjoyed playing practical jokes with his pals, including an infamous stunt involving a pound of limburger cheese. He was also active in the Boy Scouts for many years.

As a teen, Marty focused on the sciences, winning the Westinghouse Science Talent Search at the age of sixteen. His work in the field of physics began as a chemistry and math major at the University of Arizona, where he was University Valedictorian. As Marty’s questions became more fundamental, his professors directed him to the physics department and Marty changed his focus from pre-med to physics, going on to earn a PhD in physics from Harvard in 1964.

During his post doctorate studies, he was awarded a NATO fellowship at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland (1964-1965), a post-doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley (1965-1966), and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton in 1966-1967. While at UC Berkeley finishing his post doctorate, he was invited by Julius Robert Oppenheimer to Princeton on a fellowship in the late 1960’s. He returned to UC Berkeley, quickly moving up the ranks from assistant professor to full professor, from 1972 until he retired as emeritus.

He greatly contributed to Quantum Field Theory, String Theory and Orbital Theory, among others. He was a co-discoverer of affine Lie Algebra with Korkut Bardakci. He returned to CERN most summers and for a one-year sabbatical in 1996 to continue his research.

Outside of physics, Martin was a life-long, avid weight lifter, a devotee of books, theater, film and music, as well as a passionate comic book collector. Armed with a sense of humor and a well-traveled passport, Martin Halpern was able to explain the laws of physics in creative and colorful ways to his daughter, the filmmaker Tamar Halpern, as well as to his grandson, and his second wife (of over 39 years) Penelope Dutton Halpern. Marty fulfilled a lifetime dream of retiring to his childhood hometown of Tucson, Arizona in 2012.


Cybersyn and Allende’s Semi-Automated Luxury Socialism

Posted in econo-blasphemy by Scott Locklin on February 26, 2019

One of the interesting “what ifs” of history is “what if the 70s-80s commies used computers to do their planned economy.” Men like KantorovichNikolay Fedorenko and Victor Glushkov helped develop some of the mathematical tools and computer systems which would have made this possible.There were abortive attempts to build this in East Germany (pdf link), the Soviet Union and Allende’s Chile. As far as I can tell, the Soviet and German efforts were crushed by old guard party rednecks who feared losing control to technocrats. Oddly, Allende’s attempt at this, which would have been constructed of bone knives and bearskins, seemed to come closest to being deployed.

The visionary behind this was Fernando Flores, who is still alive despite being Allende’s minister of finance and later “General Secretary” back in the early 1970s. Flores was inspired by a sort of futurist “cyberneticist” operations research proponent named Stafford Beer. Operations research is generally now thought of as the field of applied work involving optimization; linear programming and all that. In those days  it was something more general: mathematics applied to the problem of management. Guys like Beer with this sort of training ended up running large parts of the war economy.

It’s difficult for me to characterize what “cybernetics” is, probably because it doesn’t really mean anything. Norbert Wiener, who I respect, coined the phrase, and more or less defined as a hand wavey general study of systems of feedback and control mechanisms. As far as I can tell, “cybernetics” was a complete bullshit field, and what it really meant was “I know futuristic looking words and have Wiener’s book on my shelf; pay me more.”  Stafford Beer was a proponent of “management cybernetics” which, as far as I can tell, meant “using data to make business decisions.”  The books are hysterical; you can go look at them on filesharing sites. They appear to be total horse shit. FWIIW the Soviets more or less agreed with me, at least in 1947; the field of cybernetics was condemned as “a science of obscurantists, a pseudoscience wedded to obscurantist epistomology.”

This looks like it pertains to something real; nope


Flores hired Beer. Beer cut his rates to $500 a day (about $2500 in today’s money) along with unlimited cigars, chocolate and wine; items the Chilean government had a surplus of. Mind you the Chilean government was being starved of dollars at the time as a form of colonial pressure, just as the Venezuelan government is now in 2019. The results were hilarious.

The thing Beer built for the Chilean government is most famous for its control room, so we’ll start there. It had a bunch of cool chairs where powerful human intelligences would examine data on the walls and vote on the cybernetically optimal next steps. The chairs are TOTALLY not based on Captain Kirk’s control chair from Star Trek; every account of the thing makes certain to mention this. I assume Beer got a lot of shit over it, and rightly so, because he totally copied this from Star Trek. Or, if he didn’t, his designer did.

The chairs come equipped with ash trays (men of power always smoked in those days) and a place for a whiskey glass, presumably in case Castro or Beer wanted to relax while making important decisions. There are 7 of the chairs to make sure they can always achieve consensus when they vote. They use ridiculous glowing geometric buttons (like on Star Trek) instead of keyboards. The main reason is because they’re all hardwired to physical mechanisms; the images and graphs on the wall are not computer generated or directly interfaced with a computer at all. They’re slides and viewgraphs that are manually put in there by human helpers behind the walls. The lack of keyboard has also attributed to keyboards being “feminine” or confusing to men, which may be true in some way, but which doesn’t make any sense, as male factory workers used the teletypes to communicate factory data with home base.

The important pieces in the background, besides the workers behind the curtain, were the computer, an antique that they had on hand, and dozens of teletype machines they distributed to factories and control points to relay important metrics and data back to home base. These metrics would be entered into the computer (by hand), which would presumably generate reports (it’s not clear this ever happened) which would be manually turned into viewgraphs and slides by artists. The display of these slides would then be controlled by heavy drinking/smoking men in Captain Kirk Star Trek chairs, just like when they show you their vacation photos on a carousel slide projector. Except it was 7 people controlling the projector and arguing about what it all means.

People go on about how futuristic this was, because … I dunno, muh internet and muh powerpoint is used to make business decisions now. The reality is, Beer built the Allende government the economic equivalent of one of those WW-2 era RAF air defence sector station operation rooms with a little futuristic woo slapped onto it. It has some trappings of high technology with the Star Trek like buttons, but those buttons really didn’t do much of anything. The data allegedly eventually feeding  back to the computer could have been more effectively gathered by people on the telephone with yellow legal pads rather than the teletype, just like it was in a WW-2 era RAF air defence command center. In fact, factory managers ended up routing around the central command center and teletype process by calling up other factory managers and working out potential supply issues.

The one time it was allegedly useful was during a CIA organized truckers strike. You’d expect any central data/controll station to be useful in a crisis situation, more for putting decision makers in a room where all the data is available than anything else. Pretty sure the slides, assuming any were made for the event, and the computer, assuming any data was entered into it, were not helpful here.

It may have eventually been a helpful tool if Pinochet hadn’t taken over, thrown many of those involved out a helicopter, and destroyed the room of socialist power. The fancy appearance of it was almost entirely Potemkin village though. It relied on people entering stuff into the system at the collection end. It relied on “data science” people writing code. And it relied on artists marshalling the data into useful and insightful visual reports. It also relied on people who managed the factories to obey, and in a timely fashion; presumably once you finished your whiskey and cigars, you summoned a telephone to tell the factory workers what to do. All of these things are guaranteed to more or less fail.

Even small design decisions were foolish. The controls; why should everyone in the room be able to control the view? How could everyone in the room control the view? We don’t give everyone a remote when we do powerpoint now. Beyond that, how does the cigar smoking drunk in the chair know what slides are where when he’s pressing his buttons? It changes every meeting, and some boob in the background could screw up the order of the things. Who sets the agenda? I strongly suspect the guys in the chairs would be shouting through the walls to get the secretaries to pull up different slides. Also the voting buttons. Seems very scientific and futuristic to have the seven cigar puffing drunks in the Captain Kirk chairs voting by some kind of electrical secret ballot to make decisions. Why wouldn’t they just say “dude this sucks?” How would it make a difference? And of course, there was no way to actually transmit decisions using all this fancy electronics, besides the telephones they should have used in the first place.

The SAGE system was a real world embodiment of this sort of thing, built 15 years earlier. Unlike Cybersym, it was a real time system, with real time data flowing into a central processing unit, and real time commands being sent out to remote bases. SAGE also had human operators who helped the computer make the right decisions. SAGE worked (we think) because it actually was entirely networked, and the data flowed quickly, and split second decisions were absolutely necessary. SAGE also didn’t have any goofy fake control panels with a place to put your liquor, or LARPY telex stuff where secretaries had to do data entry to put the data into a computer. But, at the time, it was probably fairly difficult to see this, and people who watched a lot of Star Trek were probably impressed.



I’m not sure how the detailed history of this played out. It’s entirely possible American spooks ramped up their efforts to depose Allende in part because of fear of this. US economists and analysts almost always overrated Soviet and communist efficiencies. In part this happened because the Soviets would occasionally surprise people with things like Sputnik. In part it was rice bowl politics; you get a bigger budget for the scary threat rather than the third world threats made of coconuts and rubber band slingshots. But mostly it was because the technocrats and economists who purported to study Soviet economics thought their own farts smelled of roses. Western economists in those days were not the mere bean counters and toadies for capital they are today: they had vast powers to regulate the economy, set prices and so on. They just assumed more regulation of the economy would cause it to run more efficiently. They believed their own bullshit.

The threat of a more efficient civil service is taken very seriously by governments. For examples from history, the late Imperial government of Russia was seen as a great threat by Germany as it had developed an efficient and productive civil service. One which was rapidly industrializing the country and improving its logistics with a fraction of the per capita civil service manpower of Germany. WW-1 may have been partially a result of this fear. I can’t  prove any of this without access to spook internal documents and reports on Cybersyn. But I do have the example of an article in New Scientist who described Cybersyn as potentially “one of the most powerful weapons in history.” I mean, it very obviously wasn’t and probably couldn’t have been with the approach they took. But the CIA had no real way of knowing this.

As a sort of weird coda to all this, apparently Brian Eno and later David Bowie and David Byrne befriended Beer. I kind of wonder what they talked about, or if they just partied. As mountebanks go Beer seemed like a fun guy. Any proto data scientist who puts ashtrays and whiskey cup holders in a Captain Kirk control chair can’t be all bad, even if he was full of shit.

Bones send whiskey and smokes, stat









AI is not eliminating jobs

Posted in econo-blasphemy, machine learning by Scott Locklin on February 9, 2019

Midwits keep asserting that “AI” is going to eliminate jobs. They say things like “those jobs aren’t coming back because of AI” (or screws or whatever other dumb excuse: but they’re real sure about those jobs not coming back).  These are not statements of scientific or technological fact, or even a reasonable prediction based on present trends. These are ideological political statements. “AI” is a soundbite/fnord excuse for not doing anything about the policy problems of the present.

The ruling caste of American tech and FIRE lizard people continue to make these statements, not because they are inevitable, but because this is their desired future. Their preferred future is a population consisting of powerless, preferably drugged up serfs on the “universal basic income” dole, ruled over by our present ruling class of grifters, rentiers, pyramid scheme salesmen, watched over by a surveillance hellscape.  The lizard people would like to continue our present policy of de-industrializing the country, breaking what little labor negotiating power US citizens have, and atomizing people to their raw protoplasm. It’s almost like a Freudian slip. Don’t bother agitating for any rights, slave, we soon will have electric Golems and won’t need you!

The most murderous drug dealers who ever existed … Google’s AI dude thinks they’re great! https://twitter.com/JeffDean/status/1093953731756867584

Oh I am sure the Google doofs would like to develop and control some strong AI, and perhaps a robot maid to replace Juanita. I, too, would like to have a magic technology which gives me infinite power, and a robot maid to iron my shirts. If I were a Silicon Valley oligarch rather than a humble nerd, I might develop delusions the pile of C++, Javascript and tech drones which made me rich could become a Golem of infinite power. Personally,  I would build rockets. At least I could get away from lizard people who want to turn the world into a soy dystopia.

If these clowns really believed that “AI” were something actually like an “AI” which could replace humans in general tasks, they’d use it to replace computer programmers. At one point in history, people believed CASE tools would eliminate most programmer jobs. How’s that working out for the AI geniuses at Google? They can’t even automate devops jobs; devops being one of the most automatable roles in tech companies. Devops tasks don’t seem much different from a computer strategy game.

Google’s “AI” team can’t do this useful thing, which, even by my lights, actually seems  achievable. Yet somehow, google boobs think they’re going to violate Moravec’s paradox and replace drivers. Think about that for a minute. It’s becoming clear that autonomous vehicle “technology” as sold to people for the last 10 years is basically fraud, and is still stuck in the 1980s when Ernst Dickmanns was driving around the autobahn with Sun Workstations in his back seat. Demonstrations of this tech always have a human in the loop (remote or in vehicle), because moving automobiles without human control are death machines under most circumstances.

Inside of the UniBwM autonomous experimental vehicle VaMP, at the rear bench where the computing system was installed for easy access and monitoring. This was at the PROMETHEUS demonstration in Paris in October 1994 | Photo by Reinhold Behringer

Even assuming I’m wrong and the media hyperbole is right and full level 5 autonomous vehicles are “right around the corner” Google also has zero business interest in “disrupting” driving. Google is a tech driven advertising company with a  collection of loss leaders. Yet they go after this preposterously difficult, possibly impossible task. Why not disrupt a business they presumably know how to disrupt, like that of the lowly ops engineer? At least this would be good for their bottom line, and it would be a real step forward in “AI” rather than a parlour trick perpetuated by marketing nerds and started by obvious mountebanks.

From a semiotics point of view, this shows astounding hostility to the types of people who drive cars and trucks for a living. Drivers are … ordinary, usually uneducated, salt of the earth people who have a fairly independent lifestyle and make a decent living. Google overlords must really hate such people, since they’re dumping all this skrilla into ruining their lives for no sane business reason. They will almost certainly fail, but man, why would you try to blow up those people’s lives? If this country really wanted to get rid of driving, or considered it a serious problem that there are too many cars on the road, or thought that people now employed as drivers should do something else, we had a solution to this problem invented in the late 1800s.


The other professions  people “think” will be replaced always seem to be low caste irritations or lawyers (lol). You regularly hear “experts” talking about how presently common jobs won’t exist in 20 years because of “AI.”  I’ve said multiple times now that all estimates for delivery of something in 20 years are bullshit. A prediction that a technology will do X in 20 years means “we don’t know how to do this, but we want your money to fool around with anyway.” Controlled nuclear fusion researchers being the most amusing case of the perpetual 20 year rice bowl. 20 years is a magic number, as it’s plenty of time for a technological mountebank to retire; and it’s at least 2-3 generations of tenured academics, which is enough to turn a scam subject like “quantum computing” or “nanotech” into an actual field.

“AI” doesn’t exist. Machine learning is a force multiplier and productivity enhancer for statisticians. If you believe the “automation”=”no more jobs” ding dongs, machine learning should have at least automated away the job of statistician. Yet somehow, the  statistician (aka “data scientist”) jobs are among the best paid and most in-demand jobs out there at present.


The last job category I can think of which was automated away is Flight Engineer on airliners. It mostly went away because of automation of airliners, but it wasn’t even computer related; just normal improvements of systems monitoring and reliability; good old mechanical and systems engineering. Despite 1/3 fewer seats in airliner cockpits, there are now more people with airline flight officer jobs now than ever before. Planes got cheaper and there are more of them servicing vastly more people.

The example of Flight Engineer is how the world works. Technological advances increase human power over nature and makes more things possible. Actual “AI” advances, should any eventually materialize, will work exactly like this.

AI has eliminated exactly zero professions, and essentially no jobs. Since the best prediction tool for a market is generally a random walk, my forecast is, barring giant breakthroughs, this trend of “nothing important actually happened” regarding AI job destruction will continue. If you disagree with me and have an alternate prediction on a normal human (aka 5 or 10 year) timescale, I am happy to entertain any long bets on whatever platform you care to use.