Locklin on science

Office chairs are a scam

Posted in Design by Scott Locklin on April 23, 2021

A younger self employed pal asked me if he should dump $2k on a Herman Miller Aeron recently. The TLDR is “no.” It’s like spending $2k on a pair of sneakers blessed by a devil worshipping blood-drinking pothead. Worse; unlike the $2k devil worshipping blood sneakers (which I suppose will eventually be mandatory for corporate dress codes), it’s become something that everyone unquestionably accepts.

Let’s do a little history here; there was a first office chair, and it existed for a reason. Originally it was because Charles Darwin had a giant room filled with biological specimens and he needed to flit from object to object to invent evolution. So he stuck some wheels on a comfy Victorian chair. I’ve used caster-chairs in laboratories for their intended purpose. They’re great and they exist for a reason. Thank you based Charles Darwin for inventing laboratory caster chair.

Darwin chair; respek

Later, such chairs were used as an integral part in early information technologies systems. Aka office workers with filing cabinets; yards and yards of filing cabinets, performing essentially the same functions done by a roughly equivalent volume of IT professionals and computer databases. The little casters on the bottom of the chair; that’s for flitting from cabinet to cabinet without getting up. They’re sort of like the actuator arms of the R/W head of magnetic spinney disk drives. The innovation in this era of office chair is they have a swivel mechanism, making it even easier to maneuver around, bring files back to your desk, and do clerical work with a typewriter and Marchant calculator. This also made total sense and it was both healthy and civilized having such aids to efficiency in offices.

At some point they put another joint in the things so self-important executives (who were actually glorified clerks: otherwise they’d have sat in stuffed armchairs) could sit in such a chair with their feet on the desk; this was never needed, but it was popular anyway. I inherited such a 50s era chair from a friend and kind of wish I had kept it going by bringing the metal parts to the machine shop, as it looked cool at least.

By the 70s, such chairs were pretty universal and made out of plastic. By then, information technology was an important factor, so swiveling and rolling past the filing cabinet was vastly less important. However physical decay and the workman’s comp lawsuit had become important factors in the workplace. People sued their employers for having a bad back. In reality, your bad back is some combination of genetic factors and poor maintenance. But whatever: this is when ergonomics became a factor in office chair design.

Now, the reality is, there is absolutely no such thing as “ergonomics.” Nobody who isn’t a 60s era fighter plane or space capsule designer, has any idea how to make a chair that is “ergonomic” -nobody really has any idea what “ergonomic” means in terms of office chairs. It’s just a sort of virtue word with vaguely medical connotations. Cargo cult science at its best, designed to ward off bad juju like lawsuits. This is where it started to go bad really quickly. Herman Miller who invented the office cubicle: the second most dystopian form of office, started producing “ergonomic” chairs festooned with gas-lift levers to alter the height, and lots of sliding doodads to move arm rests and knee flex points and so on.  The idea was based on factory/industrial designs. Cube farms are a sort of production line for clerical work. I’m pretty sure casters were completely irrelevant at this point, but since cube farms were all covered in filthy plastic carpet, and non-casters would ruin the shitty rugs, the casters stayed. Rotations same thing. And I guess you could still put your feet up in your smelly little carpeted cube.

the ergon; this atrocity is considered “iconic”

Finally we come to the Herman Miller Aeron chair; the throne of the bugman open office. Add even more slidey “ergonomic” pieces. Because we’re doing “ergonomics” don’t you know. You can raise and lower the arms, cant the thing at all kinds of odd angles, roll around; it is endlessly ergonomic (whatever that means). Truly the Aeron chair is like the restaurant with 100 specialties on the menu; infinite choices for propping up your ridiculous clerical meatsack. Since by the 90s not  only were office workers completely gelatinous and in need of 10,000 adjustments to hold them in front of their computers against the ravages of gravity, they were also enormously fat sweathogs. The plastic carpeted cushions of Herman Miller’s Ergon gave way to a sort of polyester hammock-net so they wouldn’t develop grotesque sweat and fart stains on their office chairs and kakhis and cotton shirts. Something that was somehow missing when everyone wore wool and weren’t disgusting gelatinous ham planets. The chair itself, as a chair is, like most aspects of modernity, almost unspeakably ugly: it looks like some kind of arachnid or brine shrimp.

I came to the realization that office chairs are a scam when I was writing my Ph.D. thesis. Up until that point in life, I had spent most of my time as a free range physicist, bounding up and down vacuum chamber platforms, dashing to the machine shop, rolling the helium leak checker over and crawling over piles of conflat flanges; even practicing martial arts with the Filipino janitor who studied with Remy Presas. Suddenly though, I was strapped to a chair answering emails, doing Fortran, gnuplot and LaTeX all day; then goofing off by making fun of people on the internet. I actually developed mild carpal tunnel and a sore lower back. Since I worked for the government they sent a safety and ergonomics expert over who upgraded my chair from an Ergon looking thing to something more like an Aeron and gave me training and a new “ergonomic” keyboard. It very obviously didn’t help one whit. Moving to the LBNL physics library and sitting on hard wood and metal chairs from 50s Army offices helped some. Going back to the gym and lifting heavy objects cured it for all time. Your body isn’t a tub of shit when you exercise and so you can happily sit on a log or boulder and be just fine.

Best open office chair I had was one of those exercise balls; it kept my posture good and was way more comfy than any other kind of plastic chair could be. Plus it flexed on my coworkers who would get sore in the midsection if they attempted it. For my home-office; I mostly sit in tub chairs. It’s been right for 250+ years; peak chair.

The more “advanced” a chair gets, the more degenerate it is. If you train your body to decant itself into some arbitrary chair shape (with 1001 “ergonomic” positions) like a living jello mold or octopus hiding in a mayonnaise jar,  you will eventually inevitably experience back problems. This happens because despite your bugman lifestyle, you actually are a vertebrate. Look at how the spinal column is made; it’s not made to be held up by stupid chairs; all those little pointy deely boppers on your spine are muscle attachments. Those muscles are meant to never relax: they’re structural, just as much as the ligament, cartilage and bone in your spinal column. That’s why people with back problems do better sleeping on the floor rather than a waterbed.

The other thing that makes these things a scam; in addition to being made of materials which are both fragile and uncleanable (unlike, say, steel, wood, leather or even hard plastic) it is made up of numerous fragile parts which wear out and break. People own leather tub chairs for decades; assuming there is no plastic foam in them, for centuries even.

Literally all of this could be discerned if people paid attention or had the rudiments of common sense. Instead of using humble powers of observation, office drones have been brainwashed into uncritically accepting the claims of the vendors of these ridiculous contrivances. Instead of demanding a comfy tub chair and their own damn office, modern invertebrates accept the swindles of their bugman overlords, and feel important sitting in horrific open offices on their intricate, smelly and insubstantial $2000 plastic thrones. Anyway when you get back to the office after the covidiocy abates, tell them to sell the chair and give you an office with a regular chair in it; even a metal folding chair or a stool in your own office is an improvement. They won’t, because the chairs cost way less than urban commercial real estate, but that’s the future you should be aiming for anyway. At least as good as the one portrayed in Brazil.

Woo for its own sake

Posted in Design, tools by Scott Locklin on January 8, 2021

Software development is a funny profession. It covers people who do stuff ranging from register twiddling in device drivers and OS guts, to people who serve web content, to “big data” statisticians, to devops infrastructure, to people who write javascript and html front ends on electron apps. To a certain extent, software engineering is grossly underpaid. If software engineers were allowed to capture more of the value they create, we’d have vastly fewer billionaires and more software engineers with normal upper middle class lifestyles, such as houses owned in the clear and successful reproductive lifecycles. The underpaid are often compensated in self esteem.

By “compensated in self esteem” I don’t mean they have high self esteem; I mean the manager saying “dude yer so fookin smart brah” kind. This is the same brainlet payment system in place in the present day “hard sciences” with people writing bullshit papers nobody cares about, or, like, journalists and other “twitter activists” who believe themselves to be intellectual workers rather than the snitches and witch hunters they actually are. Basically, nerd gets a pat on the head instead of a paycheck.

Once in a while, independent minded programmers demand more. They may or may not be “so fookin smart,” but they think they are. Their day jobs consist of unpleasant plumbing tasks, keeping various Rube Goldberg contraptions functioning and generally eating soylent and larva-burgers and claiming to like it. As such, most programmers long to do something fancy, like develop a web server based on Category Theory, or write a stack of really cool lisp macros for generating ad server callbacks, or add some weird new programming language of dubious utility to an already complex and fragile stack.

Allowing your unicycle-riding silver pants mentat to write the prototype in Haskell to keep him from getting a job at the Hedge Fund may make some HR sense. But if you’re going to rewrite the thing in Java so a bunch of offshore midwits can keep it running, maybe the “adulting” thing to do is just write it in Java in the first place.

I’m not shitting on Haskell in particular, though there is an argument to be made for looking askance at using it in production. Haskell is mostly a researchy/academicy language. I don’t know, but I strongly suspect its run of the mill libraries dealing with stuff like network and storage is weak and not fully debugged. Why do I suspect this? In part from casual observation, but also from sociology. Haskell is a fancy language with people doing fancy things in it. One of the valuable things about popular but boring languages is that the code has been traversed many times, and routine stuff you’re likely to use in production is probably well debugged. This isn’t always true, but it’s mostly true. The other benefit to boring languages is people concentrate on the problem, rather than the interesting complexities of the language itself.

You see it in smaller ways too; people who feel like every line of code has to be innovative: new elliptic curves, new network protocols, new block ciphers, new ZNP systems; to a crucial money oriented application that would have been really cool and have a much smaller attack surface if you had bestowed only one innovation on it. I guess this sort of thing is like bike-shedding or Yak-shaving, but it’s really something more perverse. If you have a job doing shit with computers, you are presumably solving real world problems which someone pays for. Maybe, you know, you should solve the problem instead of being a unicycle riding silver pants juggling chainsaws.

You see a lot of it in the cryptocurrency community, in part because there is enough money floating around, the lunatics are often running the asylum, in part for its undeserved reputation as being complicated (it’s just a shared database with rules and checksums; Bram more or less did the hard part in the summer of 2000 while my buddy Gerald was sleeping on his couch). For example: this atrocity by Gnosis. Gnosis is an interesting project which I hope is around for a long time. They’re doing a ton of very difficult things. Recently they decided to offer multi-token batch auctions. Why? I have no freaking idea. It’s about as necessary and in demand as riding to work in silver pants on a unicycle. Worse though: from an engineering perspective, it involves mixed integer programming, which is, as every sane person knows, NP-hard.

This is a danger in putting software developers or programmers in charge. These guys are often child-like in their enthusiasm for new and shiny things. Engineers are different: they’re trying to solve a problem. Engineers understand it’s OK to solve the problem with ephemeral, trashy, but fast-to-market solutions if the product manager is going to change it all next week. Engineers also plan for the future when the software is critical infrastructure that lives and fortunes may depend on. Engineers don’t build things that require mixed integer programming unless it’s absolutely necessary to solve a real world problem. If they juggle on unicycles, they do it on their own time; not at work.

Consider an engineering solution for critical infrastructure from a previous era; that of providing motive power for small fishing boats. Motors were vastly superior to sail for this task. In the early days of motorized fishing, in some cases until fairly recently, there was no radio to call for help if something goes wrong. You’re out there in the vastness on your own; possibly by yourself, with nothing but your wits and your vessel. There’s probably not much in the way of supply lines when you’re at shore either. So the motors of the early days were extremely reliable. Few, robust moving parts, simple two stroke semi diesel operation, runs on any fuel, requires no electricity to start; just an old fashioned vaporizing torch which runs on your fuel; in a pinch you could start a fire of log books. You glance at such a thing and you know it is designed for robust operation. Indeed the same engines have been used more or less continuously for decades; they only turn at 500 rpm, and drive the propeller directly rather than through a gearbox.

Such engines are useful enough they remain in use to this day; new ones of roughly this design are still sold by the Sabb company in Norway. They’re not as environmentally friendly or fuel efficient as modern ones (though close in the latter measure), but they’re definitely more reliable where it counts. When you look at this in the engine room, you are filled with confidence Mr. Scott will keep the warp drives running. If you find some jackass on a unicycle back there (who will probably try to stick a solar powered Sterling engine in the thing), maybe not so much.

I don’t think long term software engineering looks much different from this. Stuff you can trust looks like a giant one-piston semidiesel. You make it out of well known, well traversed and well tested parts. There are a couple of well regarded essays on the boringness yet awesomeness of golang. Despite abundant disagreement I think there is a lot to that. Nobody writes code in golang because of its extreme beauty or interesting abstractions. It is a boring garbage collected thing that looks like C for grownups, or Java not designed by 90s era object oriented nanotech fearing imbeciles. I think it bothers a lot of people that it’s not complicated enough. I’m not shilling for it, but I think anyone who overlooks it for network oriented coding because it’s boring or they think it’s “slow” because it doesn’t use functors or borrow checkers or whatever is a unicycle riding idiot though. Again looking at blockchain land; Geth (written in golang) has mostly been a rock, where the (Rust) Parity team struggles to maintain parity with feature roll outs and eventually exploded into multiple code bases the last time I checked. There’s zero perceptible performance difference between them.

There’s a Joel Spolsky on (Peter Seibel interview with) JWZ which I always related to on complexification of the software process:

One principle duct tape programmers understand well is that any kind of coding technique that’s even slightly complicated is going to doom your project. Duct tape programmers tend to avoid C++, templates, multiple inheritance, multithreading, COM, CORBA, and a host of other technologies that are all totally reasonable, when you think long and hard about them, but are, honestly, just a little bit too hard for the human brain.

Sure, there’s nothing officially wrong with trying to write multithreaded code in C++ on Windows using COM. But it’s prone to disastrous bugs, the kind of bugs that only happen under very specific timing scenarios, because our brains are not, honestly, good enough to write this kind of code. Mediocre programmers are, frankly, defensive about this, and they don’t want to admit that they’re not able to write this super-complicated code, so they let the bullies on their team plow away with some godforsaken template architecture in C++ because otherwise they’d have to admit that they just don’t feel smart enough to use what would otherwise be a perfectly good programming technique FOR SPOCK. Duct tape programmers don’t give a shit what you think about them. They stick to simple basic and easy to use tools and use the extra brainpower that these tools leave them to write more useful features for their customers.

I don’t think this captures the perverseness and destructiveness of people who try to get fancy for no reason, nor do I think JWZ was a “duct tape programmer” -he was an engineer, and that’s why his products actually shipped.

I say this as an aficionado of a couple of fancy and specialized languages I use on a regular basis. I know that it is possible to increase programmer productivity through language choice, and often times, runtime performance really doesn’t suffer. Languages like OCaML, APL and Lisp have demonstrated that small teams can deliver complex high performance software that works reliably. Delphi and Labview are other examples of high productivity languages; the former for its amazing IDE, and the latter for representing state machines as flow charts and providing useful modules for hardware. The problem is that large teams probably can’t deliver complex high performance software that works reliably using these tools. One also must pay a high price up front in learning to deal with them at all, depending on where you come from (not so much with Labview). From a hiring manager or engineer’s perspective, the choice to develop in a weird high productivity language is fraught. What happens if the thing crashes at 4 in the morning? Do you have enough spare people someone can be raised on the telephone to fix it? What if it’s something up the dependency tree written by an eccentric who is usually mountaineering in the Alps? For mission critical production code, the human machine that keeps it running can’t be ignored. If your mentat gets hit by a bus or joins the circus as a unicycle juggler and the code breaks in production you’re in deep sheeyit. The idea that it won’t ever break because muh technology is retarded and the towers of jelly that are modern OS/language/framework stacks are almost without exception going to break when you update things.


The “don’t get fancy” maxim applies in spades to something like data science. There are abundant reasons to just use Naive Bayes in production code for something like sentiment analysis. They’re easy to debug and they have a trivial semi-supervised mode using the EM algorithm if you’re short of data. For unsupervised clustering or decomposition it’s hard to beat geometric approaches like single-linkage/dbscan or PCA. For regression or classification models, linear regression is pretty good, or gradient boost/random forest/KNN. Most of the time, your real problem is shitty data, so using the most accurate  tool is completely useless.

Using the latest tool is even worse. 99 times out of 100, the latest woo in machine learning is not an actual improvement over existing techniques. 100% of the time it is touted as a great revolution because it beat some other technique … on a carefully curated data set. Such results are trumpeted by the researcher because …. WTF else do you expect them to do? They just spent a year or two developing a new technique; the professor is trying to get tenure or be a big kahuna, and the student is trying to get a job by being expert in the new technique. What are they going to tell you? That their new technique was kind of dumb and worthless?

I’ve fallen for this a number of times now; I will admit my sins. I fooled around a bit with t-SNE while I was at Ayasdi, and I could never get it to do anything sane. I just assumed I was a moron who couldn’t use this advanced piece of technology. No, actually, t-SNE is kind of bullshit; a glorified random number generator that once in a while randomly finds an interesting embedding. SAX looked cool because it embodied some ideas I had been fooling around with for almost a decade, but even the author admits it is horse shit. At this point when some new thing comes along, especially if people are talking about it in weeb-land forums, I pretty much ignore it, unless it is being touted to me by a person who has actually used it on a substantive problem with unambiguously excellent results. Matrix profiles looks like one of these; SAX dude dreamed it up, and like SAX, it appears to be an arbitrary collection of vaguely common sense things to do that’s pretty equivalent to any number of similar techniques dating back over the last 40 years.

There are innovations in data science tools. But most of them since boosting are pretty marginal in their returns, or only apply to corner cases you’re unlikely to encounter.  Some make it easier to see what’s going on, some find problems with statistical estimators, but mostly you’re going to get better payoff by getting better at the basics. Everyone is so in love with woo, the guy who can actually do a solid estimate of mean differences is going to provide a lot more value than the guy who knows about the latest PR release from UC Riverside.

Good old numerical linear algebra, which everyone roundly ignores, is a more interesting subject than machine learning in current year.  How many of you know about using CUR decompositions in your PCA calculations? Ever look at some sloppy PCA and wonder which rows/columns produced most of the variance? Well, that’s what a CUR decomposition is. Obviously looking at the top 3 most important of each isn’t going to be as accurate as looking at the regular PCA, but it sure can be helpful. Nuclear Norm and non-negative matrix factorizations all look like they do useful things. They don’t get shilled; just quietly used by engineering types who find them helpful.

I’m tooling up a small machine shop again, and it makes me wonder what shops for the creation of physical mechanisms would look like if this mindset were pervasive. The archetypical small shop has always had a lathe in it. Probably the first thing after you get tired of hacksawing up material; a bandsaw or powered hacksaw. Small endmill, rotary sharpener, and you’re off to the races; generally building up more tooling for whatever steam engines, clocks or automatons you feel like building. I’m imagining the archetypical unicycle-juggler buying a shop full of solid printers and weird CNC machines and forgetting to buy cutters, hacksaws, files and machinist squares. As if files and machinist squares are beneath them in current year.

Shitty future: Bugman design versus eternal design

Posted in Design by Scott Locklin on February 4, 2020

I was yacking with nerds recently on the reason why some people enjoy owning  mechanical wristwatches. In the finance business or any enterprise sales org, wearing a mechanical wristwatch is well understood, like wearing a nice pair of leather shoes or a silk necktie. Tastes may differ, but people in that milieu understand the appeal. In tech, other than a small subculture  of people who wear the Speedmaster moon watch (because we all wanted to be astronauts), and an even smaller subculture who wear something like the Rolex Milgauss (some of us work around big atom-smashing magnets), the mechanical wristwatch is mostly a source of confusion.

You can dismiss it as an expensive status symbol (many things are; nice cars, nice bags, nice nerd dildo, nice anything), but the continued existence of the mechanical wristwatch is more than that. The wristwatch became popular after WW-1, and was a necessary piece of equipment in the time of the last great explorers, from the Everest and Polar expeditions to Jaques Cousteau‘s undersea adventures to the Moon landing. The association with this now historic, but still golden era continues to sell wristwatches.

The geared mechanical clockwork itself is ancient: we have no idea where/when it was invented, but we know the ancient Greeks had such mechanisms. While there is no evidence for or against it, it is possible that gear trains predate recorded civilization. The geared mechanical clock, like the pipe organ and the Gothic cathedral is a defining symbol of Western Civilization. Division of the day into mechanically measured hours  unrelated to the movements of the sun is a symbol of the defeat of the tyranny of nature by human ingenuity and machine culture.

As a piece of technology, wristwatches probably peaked around 1970 when quartz watches became a thing. Quartz watches are undoubtedly more accurate, and at this point you could probably stick a microdot which syncs to GPS atomic clocks anywhere. But the psychological framework, and the association with the last  human earthbound age of adventure and exploration remains. Watchmakers continue to innovate; my daily beater by Damasko contains a bunch of technology you usually only see in an experimental physics Ph.D. thesis (saw them all in mine anyway); ceramic bearings, martensitic steel, preferentially etched silicon springs, viton o-rings. None of this is necessary to build a good watch; it is just a tribute to the art of mechanical things and the creativity and artistry of the craftsman.

There is still much to be said for the mechanical wristwatch as a useful object. Whether it is self winding or manual, it doesn’t require batteries or plugging into USB ports, and it might keep track of any number of useful things. It’s also routine to make new ones waterproof. While quartz has more accuracy, for most purposes (including orbital mechanics navigation), mechanical watches are accurate enough it doesn’t matter. If it does matter, you can buy a hybrid quartz/mechanical self winding springdrive.  There is also the aspect of durability: if you take good care of them and avoid mishaps, most well made watches will continue to be serviceable without a major overhaul for … centuries. People hand them down to their grandchildren.

I expect there to be mechanical wristwatches made for as long as some remnant of Western Civilization continues to exist, if only to sell luxury products to the Chinese.  It’s a fundamental art form; a physical embodiment of the spirit of Western Faustian civilization.

I do not expect goofy innovations like the present form of “smart watches” to be around for as long. Smart watches are bugman technology.  They tell time … and do all kinds of other crap you don’t need such as informing you when you have email/slack updates, saving you the towering inconvenience of reading them a half second later on your phone or laptop. When you dump $600 on one of these goofy things, you can’t even expect it to be around in 20 years to give to the kids you (as a bugman) will never have, let alone 100 or 200 years as a $600 watch might. It isn’t because new “smart watches” have amazing new features which obsolete the old ones: it’s because the connectors and case will physically wear out and the operating system for your phone won’t support old models.

The difference between mechanical watches and smart watches is a sort of useful test case to generalize this sort of value judgement from. Consumerist capitalism has committed many great sins.   I could put up with most of them if they could get engineering aesthetics right. The world we live in is ugly.  Bugman engineering is one of the forms of ugliness which makes life more unpleasant than it needs to be.

Bugman devices are festooned with unnecessary LED lights. Whether it is a smoke alarm, a computer monitor switch, keyboard, power strip, DVD player, radio: you virtually never need an LED light to tell you that some object is hooked up to power. Especially objects which stay on all the time, like a smoke alarm or monitor. If you must have an indicator of activity; place a mechanical button on the object that makes a noise when you press it with power is on. Nobody is going to notice one among the sea of stupid little lights in a room have gone out. The time when it was “futuristic” to have little led’s all over your refrigerator or toaster is long past. Just stop it.

Bugman designed appliances have digital clocks you must set. There is no reason for your oven, blender, microwave, refrigerator, dish washer or water dispenser to know what time it is.  Power does go out on occasion (all the time in “futuristic” shit holes like Berkeley), and nobody wants to tell their stove what time it is. If you must have a clock; make one with a mechanical clock with hands you can easily move rather than navigating a 3 layer menu of membrane switches to set digits.

Bugman devices don’t use mechanical switches; they’re not “futuristic” enough. Capacitative switches are terrible and never work right. Touch screens on your car’s entertainment system are a horror. Membrane switches on your appliance or anything else are a planned obsolescence insult unless you are operating in a flammable or underwater atmosphere; the only reason to use membrane switches.

Bugman devices are besmirched with extraneous software and are networked when they don’t have to be. Being able to control your light bulb over wifi or bluetooth is almost never necessary. It is wasteful, a security nightmare and aesthetically disgusting. And no I don’t want my stove to be on the internet so its clock knows what time it is.

Bugman devices and services use invasive phone applications for payment instead of credit cards. If your device is hooked up to the internet enough to talk to a cell phone, it’s hooked up to the internet enough to use a credit card, crypto currency or paypal. Bugmen don’t mind the security and privacy nightmare of loading new executables on their nerd dildo phones.

Bugman devices complexify life and make people work rather than making their lives better. Every password, clock, networked device, app you have to manage, every battery you have to charge, change or replace is making your life worse. Bugman don’t care though; it helps fill the emptiness.

Bugman software substitutes software for actual experiences. Not all video games or online entertainment are bugman, but most VR applications or immersive social games (looking at you, Guitar Hero) are. Bugman sexuality; well, I bet they’re excited about sex robots.

Juicero, an internet equipped, phone interfacing, centrally planned/distributed subscription juice machine that costs $700 instead of a manual juicer that costs $10 and lasts multiple lifetimes.

Peloton: an internet equipped, exercise bicycle that costs $2000 plus subscription, as opposed to a $500 bike and some competitive friends.

Soylent is bugman food. It even looks like something the actual bug-man in the classic “The Fly” movie would eat. Hell, the bugmen in the media are trying us to get to eat actual bugs.

Many images and ideas from the excellent (arguably NSFW) “Shitty Future” twitter feed.

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.