Locklin on science

Kickstarter: muppet graveyard

Posted in fraud, investments by Scott Locklin on January 22, 2013

If another person sends me a kickstarter proposal, Lord Humongous help me, I’ll go light the nitwits who founded it on fire. I’m sure someone reading will say, “you mean ‘bad kickstarter proposal'” but that’s uselessly tautological: I have never seen a kickstarter proposal which wasn’t on the short bus. Mind you, I’m all for capitalism, the arts and  charity, but kickstarter is a place where all socially and technologically inept proposals go to … needlessly gather internet attention that would otherwise be more productively spent on cat memes. Just because it is on the internet and you need … technology … to see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t completely imbecilic.

The most successful kickstarter proposals I’ve seen seem to embody everything that is wrong with modern life. People who wallow in self righteous moral certitude will fund monumentally stupid ideas. Are you a professional vaginal kvetcher, worried about the tremendous social injustice of video games not having enough female characters which appeal to your personal neurono-libidinal peccadilloes? Do mean, nasty, pimply faced video game players make you cry when they laugh at your impostures? No need to do anything productive and hilarious, such as attempting to write a feminist video game: idiots will give you money to further whine about it in public.  The givers get to marinate in their superior state of enlightenment over pimply faced video game players who think feminist princesses are silly. The taker gets to continue her project of publicly proving the futility of a modern liberal arts education.

Subsidies for dyspeptic feminist dunderheads are probably the best use for kickstarter. More hilarious and offensive are ding dongs who think they can build environment-saving spectrometers out of cardboard and bits of DVD, and want you to pay for their “researches.” The pitch is a model of kickstarter imbecilities, and should be preserved in amber for it sheer perfection in catering to the tastes of the  modern day techno-muppet. Let me break it down:

  1. Make it hardware related. Most internet dorks know nothing about hardware and are acutely aware of  and embarrassed by their lack of interaction with the real world. This is how stupid  ideas like solid printing get traction. Keyboard warriors want to work in meatspace, but they don’t know how. For a small donation, they can be hardware hackers!
  2. Make it “open source.” Keyboard muppets luuuurve open source, as it gives them “free” toys to play with. It doesn’t matter if it costs money, it doesn’t matter if it actually functions; what matters is that it is freeeeeeee.
  3. Make it related to their nerd-dildo (aka their “smart phone”). Modern techno-muppets have a relationship with their nerd-dildo not unlike that between Gollum and his precious. Polishing the nerd dildo and giving it even more power … tapping into the love affair between a nerd and his dildo strikes powerful emotional chords.
  4. Make noises about a super great prototype which will be distributed via junky open source rep-rap solid printing.
  5. Make it related to some fashionable moral crusade. If this were a mere gadget, only the most devoted Gollum would care, but keyboard warriors are going to save the goddamned planet with their open-source nerd dildo!

I might  support such a thing if I thought it were possible or doable. Why not arm environmentalists with a bunch of spectrometers, and have them go hunt for pollution of various kinds? At least they’d be basing their ideas on something resembling science, and lowering the preposterous levels of chemical pollution is something all sane people can get behind. The matter is: the “engineering” on this gizmo is pathetic. It is some kind of refugee from a Make magazine project; it is abundantly obvious that nobody with a passing acquaintance with optics, let alone spectroscopy was involved in this project. In fact, the principal is a media guy with no apparent remedial physics making him qualified to build spectrometers. Not that this is a horrible thing; many self-taught amateurs have made important contributions to engineering and science. The thing is, amateurs need to know shit first. This guy seems to know nothing.

In a past life, I dabbled with spectrometer design. I knew enough about it that Zeiss (greatest, oldest and most careful optics company in the world) nearly hired me straight out of college to work on semi-spectroscopic optics that heals people’s eyeballs. If I weren’t unnaturally honest, I’d probably be in Jena, laboring in lucrative obscurity, pullling 6 week vacations and waiting for my Krauty pension to kick in. As such, I have a few (very rusty) bona fides in spectrometer design and can explain in laymans terms why this idea is completely retarded.

There are a couple of ways to do spectroscopy, all of which involve light interference. The one being used here utilizes a diffraction grating. A diffraction grating is, more or less, an optical gizmo with lines etched into it, which are similar in dimensions to the wavelengths of light which are of interest. When the wave front of light hits the grating, it bounces off in different path lengths, dictated by the grating dimensions. The resulting interference pattern reflects different wavelengths of light from the grating at different angles. So, red light will reflect off the grating at a different angle from blue light, because red has a longer wavelength than blue. It’s not important that you understand this, though college physics will suffice. The important thing to remember: different wavelengths of light, different angles. Here’s a useful infographic I stole from a real optics company:

FAQ Optics - Grating Equation

The way a spectrometer with a reflective diffraction grating works, you take a small spot of light of many wavelengths, illuminate the grating, and the grating reflects the different wavelengths of light to different angles. To turn this into a spectrum, you need to detect the light at the different angles; use the grating equation to get the answer, and voila, you are a spectroscopist. Otherwise, you’re just looking at rainbows. What good is it? Well, different kinds of atoms and chemicals absorb light at different wavelengths; you see lines in the resulting spectrograph on your detector. Like this:


The light into the contraption needs to be small in physical dimension, otherwise, you won’t be able to distinguish one wavelength from the other. Remember, you have to distinguish things, otherwise these lines will overlap. You can generate the light all kinds of ways; by burning interesting shit, sticking it into an electrical discharge or by passing some other kind of  white light through something semi-transparent which absorbs distinguishing lines; whatever. The spectrometer needs to be rigid; if anything moves inside it, you’re going to be integrating a jittery blur, rather than building up a nice sharp line on the detector. The grating spectrometers I’ve used are often bolted to giant pieces of granite to avoid this sort of noise. Also, oh yeah, your grating has to be perfect, or it won’t have any ability to resolve the sharp little lines. You can see why in the grating equation; it depends on the grating ruling, d; if it varies, you get smeared out lines. If it scatters light, or has an imperfect optical figure, it will distort the image on the detector, making for blurry lines, assuming you can see any lines at all. Oh yeah, it helps if your detector is perfect as well, or at least very big, so you can resolve tiny little lines. If you have some shitty 980 pixel wide camera like in an iphone, well, you had better be able to move the detector versus the diffracted image through lots of different angles if you want it to be able to resolve thin lines.

How do they solve all these problems? Well, they use a piece of DVD for a grating, and a piece of cardboard for the rest of the “spectrometer.” I’m not exaggerating: go look at it. They have a slightly better one which doesn’t work with phones, but it’s also made of cardboard.

As you might guess, an old DVD  makes a  shitty diffraction grating. The lines on the DVD grating are not even; they’re not even really lines; more like dots and dashes. If they were perfect or even vaguely useful, physicists would use them for diffraction gratings, because they’re a lot cheaper than ones you get from Richardson or Zeiss.

There are other Ph.D. thesis worthy matters wrong with this thing, such as calibration, integration time, polarization, scattering; it’s not even worth going over these things. These objects will never do what they’re supposed to do, which is perform as spectrometers. All these things will ever do is make rainbow patterns on a camera. That is not spectroscopy. That is looking at rainbow patterns on cameras. Go look at their results! I defy anyone to point to any results of theirs and characterize it as anything but looking at rainbow patterns; something you could do more effectively with the common prism; $7.99 at Edmund Scientific. Less for a whole spectrometer with much better resolution!

It gets worse. Imagine you could build a good spectrometer out of all this junk; one which does their claimed resolving power of 200. Congratulations; you have just spent a lot of time and energy building something you could purchase for a few hundred dollars. Without shopping around, I found a really awesome one, designed by people who are not walking, grinning tomatoes,  with much better sensitivity, resolving power, software and bandwidth, calibrated by real optical engineers, brand spanking new and with intelligent technical support for a grand total of $2k. How much money is your time worth? If I wanted a mini spectrometer, I’d get a job at MacDonalds and purchase one that is guaranteed to work. I mean, I could actually build a really badass visible light mini spectrometer in my workshop, but … why?

Oh yeah, we’re saving the environment with our cardboard cutout spectrometers. Right. Are visible light grating spectrometers useful for environmental remediation? No, they are not. If you want something like that, you need a much more powerful spectrometer.  Best bet is to use a mass spectrometer, which is another sort of spectrometer. Second best, and distant relative, maybe an FTIR. Finally, for a couple hundred bucks, the amateur environmentalist can buy a useful spectrophotometer and do Real Things, rather than jerking off with costly open source nonsense that will never work.

“Kickstarter the startup” is probably a great idea. The way the world presently works, people will fork out money for good intentions and bullshit that sounds cool. Kickstarter ideas… A functioning market would allow me to short things.

16 Responses

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  1. erehweb said, on January 22, 2013 at 7:13 pm

    See also http://kotaku.com/5963135/this-might-be-the-stupidest-kickstarter-pledge-of-all-time – someone who used Kickstarter to help him raise money for someone else’s Kickstarter – the original being to remake a computer game called “Elite”, which was great… in the late 80s. Nostalgia and niche appeal seems to drive a lot of Kickstarters.

    • Scott Locklin said, on January 22, 2013 at 7:22 pm

      I was looking at “top kickstarter proposals,” and the most reasonable ones seemed to be video game revivals.

  2. Len Layton said, on January 22, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    Given the massive growth of kickstarter recently it clearly has identified and tapped into a new, albeit dysfunctional and unbalanced, market for ‘pre-commercial’ (i.e. slightly crappy) ideas proposed by people without expertise in the area. As you say, this isn’t bad per-se but there needs to be a way to price the options negatively. Back in 2003, at a think tank conference in Texas called “Project Barbq” (yes!) some co-conspirators and I came up with a concept we dubbed ‘nASCAP’ which would allow tradeable tokens representing a right to a copy (or a play) of a creative work. It was predicated on the existence of a secure digital rights management scheme which probably makes it infeasible in practice (although bitcoin relies on the same kind of mechanism), but if kickstarter allowed you to sell/option your units, then it might be something interesting…

    • Scott Locklin said, on January 22, 2013 at 7:50 pm

      It was kind of a joke … but thinking about it, kickstarter proposals are long forwards on a deliverable that may never be delivered. What I’d really like to short is the value of the deliverable, which would have to be established on some other kind of market. For example: the piece of cardboard these guys call a spectrometer.

      • Len Layton said, on January 22, 2013 at 8:25 pm

        Even the kickstarter people themselves have expressed some disquiet about the use of their system to fund technology development (at least as reported by Chris “3D Printing Will Save America” Anderson) as their initial intent was for artists to pre-sell their artworks to starry-eyed strangers. I expect that as it evolves there will be increased regulation (from inside and outside) of kickstarter and of course the usual fraud laws still apply. Perhaps those spectrometer guys should have pitched their project as “iRainbow” – that would keep everyone happy – perhaps even you! Oh and those fine people at Zeiss say ‘danke’ for making them aware of the latent market for rainbow-making-dildo attachments.

        • Scott Locklin said, on January 22, 2013 at 8:41 pm

          I guess I am onboard with floating artists for their recording costs or what not. Art needs all the help it can get; the usual patronage networks are a horror.
          I might have supported the above kickstarter project if it were pitched as a bad educational project for rich kids with cell phones (though they have a long way to go to beat the Edmund scientific version). Save the world spectroscopy: no.

  3. whatever said, on January 23, 2013 at 12:11 am

    I’ll see your rant and raise you Leisure Suit Larry http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/leisuresuitlarry/make-leisure-suit-larry-come-again

    • Scott Locklin said, on January 23, 2013 at 8:44 pm

      Upside to that one: there is a real deliverable.

  4. William O. B'Livion said, on January 26, 2013 at 2:50 am

    So if I start a kickstarter project to collect money to pay you to set the founders on fire and send it to you, what should I start the limit to?

  5. Nick Thompson said, on January 31, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    The vernier stuff is designed for school and entry level college stuff (see http://www.vernier.com/products/sensors/spectrometers/) it’s not a professional solution, but for investigations this stuff is quite interesting. Great for anyone looking for something reasonable that can be easily hooked up to a computer. They also in most cases hook up directly to the new Ti n-spire calculators if you need a mobile touchscreen data acquisition device. The one saving grace of all this stuff is that it does inspire a few more people to get more involved with science.

  6. Atardecer Links | Iced Borscht said, on February 20, 2013 at 12:07 am

    […] Locklin on Kickstarter: “… I’m all for capitalism, the arts and charity, but kickstarter is a place where […]

  7. Chris said, on February 28, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    Scott, I applaud your trenchant criticisms and witticisms! This post had me laughing out loud.
    However, I did not understand one reference. To what were you referring when you mentioned: “…semi-spectroscopic optics that heals people’s eyeballs…”? I can’t think of a technology or technique that fits this reference. Thanks. (P.S. I found you over here after reading about your interesting LAPACK work on the J Software programming forum.)

    • Scott Locklin said, on February 28, 2013 at 8:28 pm

      Thanks for the kind words. I did my dissertation on a novel kind of Mach-Zender interferometer that only kinda sorta worked with X-rays. Zeiss was using M-Z’s to image people’s eyeballs for the laser surgery. Both work by observing interference patterns from the M-Z. In my thesis project, you take the Fourier transform of the result passed through a gas cell on a small detector to get the absorption spectrum. Zeiss used 2-d images of the lines to reconstruct the cornea’s surface. I guess Zeiss’ project was not all that spectroscopic, it had similar enough optics to consider hiring me.

      A lot of my research time was spent hammering on the grating monochrometer on the X-ray beamline to make it work, so I could make my impossible gizmo work. That makes it pretty annoying being told that you can do spectroscopy using reflections from an old DVD and an iphone.

      I hope you find the LAPACK hack useful. I have big plans for J, so there’s more useful gizmos to come. The terseness and power of the language makes it worth using. Tacit programming still escapes me, but it’s plenty powerful without it. JDB is also pretty great.

      • Chris said, on February 28, 2013 at 11:50 pm

        Aha! Imaging the cornea…now I see the light! I had heard about OCT (Optical Coherence Tomography), fluorescein angiography, etc. and was wondering what you had worked on.
        I heartily agree with your point regarding no / low expertise people opining on things that demand very high levels of expertise. (Though I must confess I have sinned that sin; mea maxima culpa)
        I don’t have any current requirements for LAPACK…but having used it in the past, respect your efforts in that regard. On J…it is a tool of awesome power and elegant beauty. Every day I am utterly amazed that is available for free. As a J novice, I worship it and hope the effort to master it doesn’t kill me. 😉

        • Scott Locklin said, on March 1, 2013 at 12:11 am

          I don’t mind amateur efforts; lord knows I make plenty myself. I just want people to, you know, do their homework and be right sometimes. This gizmo is a sad example of someone who simply ignored everything ever done in a giant, technical field, and took money from the credulous. Money that would have been well spent on, like, a smart spectroscopist. There are more; some idjit is claiming they can power an iphone with a stirling engine that runs on the heat emitted from a coffee cup. No. You can’t do that. Of course, he got his $100k as well; everyone ignoring the fact that people have been working on stirling engines for *centuries* and have not been able to extract watts of heat, not to mention the laws of thermodynamics and the Carnot limit. That’s coming up next.

          J is genius. It is amazing it can have that much power and be so close to the metal. I’m amazed at what I can accomplish knowing the paltry bits of it I do know. I actually liked Q enough to consider paying $100k for it; having the source is even better.

  8. […] by Scott Locklin’s series of posts criticizing awful Kickstarter projects, I would like to share my thoughts on the […]

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