Locklin on science

Bad models and the end of the world

Posted in econo-blasphemy, stats jackass of the month by Scott Locklin on March 23, 2014

I loathe journalism as a profession: a claque of careerist whores, half-educated back-slappers and propagandists for the oligarchical lizard people who are ruining civilization. I loathe “science journalism” particularly, as they’re generally talking about something I know about, and so their numerous impostures are more obvious.

Journalists: they're mostly like this

Journalists: they’re mostly like this

Today’s exhibit, the “NASA study predicting the end of Western Civilization.” The actual study can be found in PDF format here. If you read the “journalism” about this in the guardian, cnet, or wherever else, it’s all about our impending doom. Not only do scientists tell us we are doomed, fookin’ NASA scientists tell us we are doomed.

The authors of the study are not NASA scientists. The NASA subcontractor  associated with this paper would like you to know this; probably because NASA was annoyed their name was associated with this paper. The only contribution NASA made was in partially supporting an institution which partially supported one of the three authors for one semester. The author in question,  Safa Motesharrei is a grad student in “public policy” and “mathematics” at U Maryland. The other two authors are also not NASA scientists. One is allegedly a professor of … political science in Minnesota -and more recently some cranky looking outfit called “Institute of Global Environment and Society.” The other one is a professor of the U Maryland department of Oceanic and Atmospheric sciences. Unless you consider the partial ramen noodle stipend one grad student received for one semester to be “funding,” or you consider NASA’s subcontractor to be liars, NASA did not fund or endorse this study in any meaningful way. Journalism 101, failed before even getting to the content of the article.

The three authors of this study

The three authors of this study

For what it is worth, had I published anything my sophomore year of grad school instead of trying to build a crazy vacuum chamber and catch a venereal disease, I’d have had some words in my paper thanking NASA for their support as well. This is despite the fact that most of my money came from the NSF and the University I was attending. I wasn’t in any way a NASA scientist. My institution wasn’t NASA affiliated. But we did get a NASA grant that paid for at least a month’s salary for me over the course of a year. When you get those grants, you say “thank you.”

Nafeez Ahmed, the imbecile at the Guardian who broke the story, continues to insist that NASA funded this study, despite the fact that they didn’t. I guess when someone Discovers you are a shoddy journalist, the accepted thing to do these days is doltishly double down on your error. Ahmed, of course, works for some preposterous save-the-world outfit, which apparently means he can pretend he is a journalist and doesn’t have to tell the truth about anything.

Journalistic failure is to be expected these days, and NASA scientists say stupid things all the goddamned time. Still, reading the paper itself was informative. Had anybody bothered to do so, the story would have been murdered in infancy. It’s one of the godawful silliest things I have ever read.

There is a fairly standard model from ecology called the “predator prey” model. Predator/prey models were  mostly developed to model exactly what it sounds like: things like wolf and moose populations in a National Park. The model makes assumptions (that predators are always hungry,  the prey will never die of old age, and  there are no other predators or prey available, for just a few examples of the limitations of the model), but if you set these equations up right, and the parameters and conditions are non-degenerate, it can model reality reasonably well. It’s really no good for predicting things, but it’s OK for modeling things and understanding how nature works.  The equations look like this, where x(t) is the predator population, y(t) is the prey population and a is predator birth rate, b is the predator death rate, c is the prey’s birth rate, and k is the predation rate; all rates are constant.

\frac{dy}{dt} = ay(t)x(t) -bx(t)

\frac{dx}{dt} = cy(t) -kx(t)y(t)

The predator/prey model is elegant, concise, and in some limited circumstances, occasionally maps onto reality. It is, of course, a model; there is no real reason to model things using this set of differential equations, and a lot of reasons not to. But sometimes it is useful. Like most good models, it is simple and doesn’t have too many parameters. Everything can be measured, and interesting dynamics result; dynamics that we can observe in nature.

The authors of this doom-mongering paper  have  transformed that relatively simple set of equations; a set of equations which, mind you, produces some fairly complicated nonlinear dynamics, into this rather un-handy mess, known as HANDY (for “Human And Nature DYnamics”):

\frac{dx_c}{dt} = \beta_c x_c(t) - \alpha_c x_c(t)

\frac{dx_e}{dt} = \beta_e x_e(t) - \alpha_e x_e(t)

\frac{dy}{dt} = \gamma (\lambda -y(t)) y(t) - \delta x_c(t) y(t)

\frac{d \omega}{dt} = \delta y(t) x_c(t) - C_c(t) - C_e(t)

In this set of equations, x_c(t) is the productive peasant population, x_e(t) are the population of parasitic elites, y(t) is “natural resources” and w(t) is “wealth.” \lambda is a “saturation of regrowth of nature rate.” \gamma is an “exponential growth of nature rate.” \delta is a “depletion of nature” rate term. C_c(t), C_e(t) are wealth consumption rates.

to make it even more complex: \alpha_c(t), \alpha_e(t), C_c(t), C_e(t) are all functions of \omega(t), x_c(t), x_e(t)

C_c(t) = min(1,\frac{\omega(t)}{poor(t)}) s x_c(t)

C_e(t) = min(1,\frac{\omega(t)}{poor(t)}) \kappa x_e(t)

poor(t) = \rho x_c(t) + \kappa \rho x_e(t)

poor(t) is some threshhold wealth function, below which you starve, and allegedly \rho is supposed to be a minimum consumption per capita, but it really makes no sense based on the equations. s is some kind of subsistence level of wealth and \kappa is the multiple of subsistence that elites take.

Instead of contenting themselves with constant predation or death rates, this train-wreck insists on making them the following:

\alpha_c(t) = \alpha_m + max(0,1-\frac{C_c(t)}{s x_c(t)}) (\alpha_M - \alpha_m)

\alpha_e(t) = \alpha_m + max(0,1-\frac{C_e(t)}{s x_e(t)}) (\alpha_M - \alpha_m)

Where \alpha_m, \alpha_M are constants for a normal death rate and a death rate where you have a high death rate, where, and I quote the paper directly: “when the accumulated wealth has been used up and the population starves.”

It’s worth a look at what they’re implicitly modeling here by adding all this obfuscatory complexity. All of the following assumptions are made by this model. Very few of them are true in reality. Most of these assumptions are designed to get the answer they did.

  1. The natural resources of the earth is well modeled by the prey equation
  2. The natural resources of the earth regenerate themselves via a logistic function
  3. There are two classes of humans
  4. There is a thing called “wealth” that is consumed by the two classes of humans at different rates
  5. The elite class of humans preys on the peasants and produces nothing
  6. The peasant class is all equally productive
  7. Wealth comes from peasants exploiting nature
  8. Elites all have \kappa times a subsistence income, rather than a smooth distribution of incomes
  9. Peasants all have s , a subsistence income, rather than a smooth distribution of incomes
  10. An extra variable called “wealth” is needed to make sense of these dynamics, and this variable maps onto the thing known in common parlance as “wealth.”
  11. The wealth factor could sustain a human society for centuries after ecological collapse (page 18)
  12. Death rates increase as natural resources are consumed at a faster rate (everything about modern civilization indicates the exact opposite is true)
  13. The peasants get nothing from the elites except population control
  14. Technological change is irrelevant (yes, they argue this; page 7)
  15. This ridiculous spaghetti of differential equations actually models something corresponding to Human Civilization

There are more assumptions than this, but you get the idea: this model is ridiculous, over parameterized, and designed to get the answers that they did. If you assume parasitic non-productive elites, you get the situation where social stratification can help “cause” collapse. Of course, if you assume parasitic non-productive elites, you’re assuming all kinds of ideological nonsense that doesn’t map well onto reality.

If you assume natural resources also act like prey, you can get situations where the natural resources collapse, then the society collapses. This is no big surprise, and you don’t need these obfuscatory complications to say this: it’s in the predator-prey equations already. Why didn’t they just model humanity and nature as simple “predator/prey” above? I am guessing, because nobody would buy it if you say things that simply, and it wouldn’t be an original paper. It also doesn’t allow them to pontificate on egalitarian societies.

As for the additional “wealth” factor these clowns use to distinguish themselves from an earlier bad model; as far as I can tell, the only purpose served by this degree of freedom is making it easier to mine way more natural resources than we actually need to support a population (something that wouldn’t happen in a standard predator-prey model). It also doesn’t make any sense, modeled in this way, unless you believe grain silos contain centuries worth of corn, or that people can eat skyscrapers. That’s how their wealth equations work; they actually assume you can eat wealth.


Dr. Nafeez Ahmed: Guardian columnist who broke this story

I actually feel a bit sorry for these guys, even though they are unashamed quacks. They didn’t ask to become this famous. Somehow the zeitgeist and some imbecile activist newspaper reporter decided to make them famous as people who are really bad at modeling anything. God help these people if they attempt to model something real, like chemical reaction dynamics, or, say, the earth’s atmosphere.

Returning to the mendacious loon, Ahmed, who brought this paper to world fame and attention. He asserts that the paper actually compares historical civilizations using this model. It does nothing of the sort. The paper mentions historical civilizations, but they don’t even make legalistic arguments that, say, the ancient Egyptians, whose civilization lasted for thousands of years, somehow follow these equations.  All they say is, ancient cultures were cyclical; they rise and fall; something everyone has known from the time of Heraclitus. Cyclical behavior does not imply this complex pastiche of differential equations; there are cyclical behaviors in nature which can’t be modeled by any differential equations. Finally, Ahmed asserts that the model predicts things. It doesn’t; nor does it claim to. It claims to model things. Modeling things and predicting things are very different.

The model itself was bad enough. What the activist-reporter said about it is inexcusable. The fact that everyone credulously picked up on this nonsense without questioning how Nafeez Ahmed made his living is even worse. Science by activist press release. Yeah, thanks a lot, “science journalists.” Nobody even noticed the clown who broke this story is a goddamned 911 truther.

A more reliable narrator than the Ahmed bozo who broke this story

A more reliable narrator than the Ahmed bozo who broke this story

I find all this intensely sad. I’m sad for the boobs who wasted their lives cranking out a model this useless. I’m sad for our civilization that it is possible to make a living publishing rubbish, and that talented people can’t make a living doing interesting and correct research which will benefit humanity. I’m also sad that journalists aren’t fired over their credulity regarding this fraud. I’m sad that ideological hogwash is published in all the papers as some kind of scientific truth, while nobody notices simple things, like the fact that the world fisheries are presently undergoing collapse, or the fact that there are no more rhinos because Chinese people haven’t discovered viagra yet.

I’m also sad that people are so obsessed with the end of the world. Maybe some day we’ll experience some kind of ecological apocalypse, or the imbeciles in the White House will nuke the slightly less stupid cavemen in the Kremlin. Chances are pretty good though, that before these things happen, we will all be dead. Wiser men than me have pointed out that anxiety about the end of the world is a sort of transference for anxiety about their own impending demise. As Spengler put it, “perhaps it is not the end of the world, but just the end of you.”

Kickstarter: muppets threaten lawsuits!

Posted in fraud by Scott Locklin on March 5, 2013

I received this childish threat via email today from Mr. Tommy Joseph. Obviously, he has never heard of SLAPP laws.  I’ll remove the photo of his dumb idea, because I am a nice guy, though it certainly does not infringe on any copyrights, and provide a link instead. The text of my assessment of their project will remain unaltered, as is my “fair use” quote from his pitch.

I’ve been threatened with lawsuits by scarier people than Mr. Tommy, and would dearly love for him to attempt to follow through with this. As far as I know, the laws of physics are still protected by the laws of the United States. This will also be forwarded to kickstarter and kicktraq. Mr. Tommy is encouraged to defend his project online, though I’m happy to take his money should he attempt to follow through with this lawsuit.


Sent by Certified Mail and Email

March 5, 2013

Dear Scott Locklin,

I am writing on behalf of Epiphany Laboratories LLC (Epiphany) to notify you that your unlawful copying of Epiphany’s materials on your website infringes on Epiphany’s exclusive copyrights and trademarks. Accordingly, you are hereby directed to CEASE AND DESIST ALL COPYRIGHT AND TRADEMARK INFRINGEMENT.

All copywrightable and trademarkable aspects of Epiphany’s materials, including its logos, names, word marks, images, and videos are protected under United States intellectual property law and Epiphany Laboratories LLC is the owner of such copyrights. Under United States intellectual property laws, Epiphany’s copyrights and trademarks have been in effect since the date that the materials were created.

It has come to our attention that you have been copying our materials. We have copies of you unlawful copies to preserve as evidence. Your actions constitute copyright infringement in violation of United States copyright laws. Under 17 USC 504, the consequences of copyright infringement include statutory damages of between $750 and $30,000 per work, at the discretion of the court, and damages of up to $150,000 per work for willful infringement. If you continue to engage in copyright infringement after receiving this letter, your actions will be evidence of “willful infringement.”


In addition to infringing Epiphany’s copyrights, you have made allegations on your website that are without substance, untrue, and that we regard as damaging to our reputation and the reputation of our customers. At this time, we demand that you remove such allegations from the web and cease and desist from making any allegations or passing any false and unsubstantiated public comment directly or indirectly on our company, products, services, or companies who may use our technology.

1) Cease and desist your unlawful copying of Epiphany’s materials
2) Contact all persons and entities to whom you have directly or indirectly provided copies of Epiphany’s materials and inform them that such copyright/trademark-protected materials belonging to Epiphany Laboratories LLC were provided improperly in infringement of the rights of Epiphany Laboratories LLC.
3) Provide Epiphany Laboratories LLC with contact information for all such persons and entities
4) Cease and desist from making any unsubstantiated allegations or passing any false or unsubstantiated public comment directly or indirectly relating to Epiphany, its products and services, or customers who may use Epiphany’s technology.
5) Send written retractions to all persons and entities to whom you have directly or indirectly distributed the unsubstantiated allegations relating to Epiphany’s products or services
6) Remove all content and references to Epiphany (including Epiphany and/or onE Puck) from the website https://scottlocklin.wordpress.com, and any mirrors and references and replace your original “Kickstarter: muppet graveyard part 2” article with the following statement:

“Epiphany Laboratories LLC has requested that I remove my original article entitled ‘Kickstarter: muppet graveyard part 2’ as it contained numerous inaccuracies and material subject to their copyright and trademark protection. I would also like to apologize to Epiphany for misrepresenting the capabilities of their products and for distributing copyrighted and trademarked content without permission.”

7) Provide Epiphany with prompt written assurance by 12:00pm EST on March 7, 2013 that you will comply with the foregoing.

If you do not comply with these cease and desist demands within this time period, please be advised that Epiphany Laboratories LLC will pursue all available legal remedies, including seeking monetary damages, injunctive relief, and an order that you pay court costs and attorney’s fees. In addition, Epiphany is entitled to use your failure to comply as evidence of “willful infringement” of copyright and seek monetary damages and equitable relief for your copyright infringement. In the event that you fail to meet this demand, your liability and exposure under such legal action could be considerable.

Before taking these steps, however, Epiphany Laboratories LLC wishes to give your one opportunity to discontinue your illegal conduct by complying with this demand by 12:00 PM on March 7th, 2013.

Accordingly, please send written assurance of compliance with this letter to:

Epiphany Laboratories LLC
825 N. Croton Ave.
New Castle, PA 16101

With an email copy to: accounts@epiphanylabs.com.

If you or your attorney have any questions, please contact me directly.
Tom Joseph
Epiphany Laboratories LLC


Further conversation with Mr. Tommy:

Thank you for your prompt response and for removing our images and video. However, the Epiphany Laboratories wordmark and Epiphany onE Puck wordmark remain our intellectual property and must also be removed.

Regarding you analysis of the laws of physics, you are mostly correct, but your assumptions about our methodology are not. Out of respect for your abilities as a scientist and seeker of truth, we will be happy to send you a onE Puck when they go into production so you can see for yourself that it does, indeed, work as promised.
Tom Joseph”

*****************my reply******************************

Your video was never even linked on my website. I actually took the picture from someone else’s website; it is very obviously public domain. Like I said: I’m a nice guy. If it hurts your feelings to use your picture to debunk your project; a link is just as good. If you continue to piss me off, I’ll simply put it back up. It has no digital watermark or copyright on it, and even if it did, parody is protected in this country.

As for those other things: you do not have the right to regulate what I say about your company because of “intellectual property” laws. Not in the US. Not even in Singapore. If that were true, there would be no reviews of products, anywhere, ever. If you have a registered trademark on them, show me the paperwork and, I’ll put <tm> after them. Just as soon as every other link to your project on the internet does the same thing.

I’m not mostly correct: I’m correct. While I am not active in academic research, I, too, have a Stirling project. I also have significant background in experimental physics; they even gave me a Ph.D. for some reason. As I said in my original post, if you have come up with something which works anything like you say, I’ll apologize profusely. Hell, I’ll probably invest in your company. Until then, my assessment stands.

I respect your entrepreneurial spirit, but I have no respect for your cowardly and ultimately laughable attempts to cow me into not saying bad things about your idea. Maybe you should spend more time building the freaking thing, and less time making enemies: you’ll get more done.

You have already done yourself significant damage; your threat will probably be linked on kicktraq, it has had about 1000 views in the few minutes since I posted it to my blog, and I’m about to send it to kickstarter, along with this conversation. Why don’t you quit while you are ahead?

Kickstarter: muppet graveyard part 2

Posted in fraud, investments by Scott Locklin on March 1, 2013

Perhaps people think I engage in hyperbole about Kickstarter projects. No, I merely speak the obvious truth. It is a place of fraud and deception, a place which takes advantage of well meaning nerds who don’t think critically. Remember my five criteria for a perfect Kickstarter marketing pitch? Let’s review.

  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!

My next example embodies at least three of the five points. It is a piece of hardware. It is supposed to power an iphone. And it is supposed to save the environment. What is it? A Stirling engine which powers an iphone using the energy from a coffee cup. Behold, the Epiphany onE Puck!


Quote from kickstarter site:

The idea behind the Epiphany onE Puck is to use a stirling engine powered solely by heat disparities, such as a hot or cold drink, a candle, ice, etc. These heat sources will provide enough power to the stirling engine to fully charge your cell phone battery. There’s nothing new about Stirling engines – they were invented in the early 1800s – but thanks to modern materials and modern electronics, we are able to put them to use in ways that weren’t previously possible.

So, now the new question is, How can a small device that powers my cell phone change the world?

Well, the fact of the matter is, it won’t change the world. It also explicitly violates the laws of thermodynamics, so it won’t do anything but line the pockets of the people pitching it. How do I know this? Well, several ways.

The first way is common sense. It’s obvious this won’t work if you have ever looked at a small gamma Stirling engine like this one. There used to be a home made coffee machine powered gamma Stirling in the lab. It was made by a skilled machinist who built scientific apparatus every damn day, and it made just enough mechanical energy to overcome friction and turn over; and this from a very hot coffee machine. There are others that actually do work on just a coffee cup; they don’t produce much more useful work than is required to overcome friction either. Small home made Stirlings are fragile things that end up using graphite pistons to overcome friction; it is a big achievement to make a little one that turns over at all. Check the model engine builder groups if you don’t believe me.

The second way is knowing about practical Stirling engines that do useful work. The ones that are actually efficient use complex mechanical tricks to extract as much energy as possible. One of the main necessities is for a better working fluid than air; so you end up with lots of pressurized seals and such, to keep in compressed helium or whatever they use. The very best ones are completely sealed and connect to the dynamo via magnet. They also require extremely efficient regenerators; this one pretty obviously has no regenerator. The efficient ones are always much larger than a coffee cup, to fit all the necessary mechanical junk in it. The model shown in the pitch is a toy gamma Stirling with none of these advanced features. One that never actually functions on video, mind you: an LED lighting up doesn’t impress me. Therefore, they fail at this project on inspection. I once had an idea to cool a beer can with a hand made, hand powered reverse Stirling cycle cooler. It can theoretically be done, but the design so far is intensely complex. Having gone through this exercise, I know they didn’t by looking at their proposal. Example from history: Philips spent decades making a 200 watt Stirling engine which, well, go look at it. It is hugely complex, and ultimately failed because it was too costly to manufacture.

The third way is to do math. How much energy is needed to charge a cell phone? Batteries in them hold 1200mAH at 3.7 volts, for 4800mWH. They use around 60mW when they’re suspended, which is why you need to keep your dumb phone hooked up to a charger all the time. But anyway, is there 4-watt-hours in a cup of coffee? That’s 4 times 860 calories, or 3440 calories. A calorie is conveniently the amount of energy required to raise 1 gram of water by 1 degree C. So, their 6 ounce coffee mug or 177 grams, at a generously hot 70 degrees C with generously cool 20 degrees in your room yields 12390 calories. So, all we have to do is get out a quarter of the energy in a hot cup of coffee to do this! I’m all excited. OK, how? Stirling engines? Let’s forget about all the practicalities of designing one, and just use the most theoretically efficient heat engine: the Carnot cycle. The efficiency of a carnot cycle is

efficiency = 1 - \frac{T_c}{T_h}

T_h and T_c must be in absolute temperature, Kelvin. So, what is the maximum possible efficiency of a heat engine at these temperature differentials?

efficiency = 1 - \frac{273+20}{273+70} = 0.15

It seems tantalizingly close, right? But it’s not. T_h is an exponentially decaying function of time, even without assuming the Stirling engine sucks energy into it. Integrating over time (an exercise for the reader; that’s enough LaTeX for you), you get an average efficiency number closer to 0.08. Only 1000 calories of mechanical energy can be retrieved even in principle from a coffee cup heat source. That’s assuming Carnot perfection. Real Stirling engines, using the maximum of tuning and technical innovations achieve 0.5 times Carnot on the heat pumped into them. Now we’re down to 0.04, or 500 calories. This is leaving out the fact that the design they are using is at best 5% Carnot; probably significantly less than 1%. What’s left in our calculation? Oh, actually, a Stirling engine can’t magically suck all the heat out of a coffee cup: most if it is radiated to the world. Call that a generous 10%. 50 calories left! What is that in mWH? 0.05. Less than the phone uses at idle. Adding back in friction, dynamo inefficiencies and real world gamma Stirling efficiency, the real result is pretty much zero.

There is a small chance I’m wrong about this one. Maybe they have some very innovative technique which actually can extract significant energy from a coffee cup. Should they make one that does something more than light up an LED, I will apologize profusely for saying nasty things. But it sure fails the sniff test from where I am standing.

Why do I bother? I hate it when people are paid for stupid technological shit. It robs the credulous and makes people who do real things look bad. Stirling engines are cool; I hope serious people continue to work on them. I just wish muppets would leave them alone. If you want a real Stirling engine, send money to the guys at Sunpower. They’re actual experts who can get shit done.

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.