Sunday, November 10, 2013

Post-expat culture shock

I'm in Kuala Lumpur today on business.  This is the first time I've been back in Asia in some time, and the first time in Malaysia in about ten years.  I arrived late at night, but right from the beginning I felt discombobulated.  It is strange to be back in a place that is at once so familiar - at least, close enough to Singapore that it certainly feels familiar - and at the same time so foreign.  In some small ways I am beginning to remember some of what it was like to be an expatriate.

The first and strangest experience is the one of suddenly feeling out of place.  I do not speak Malay, and despite the outward similarity to my familiar years in Singapore, upon arriving in Kuala Lumpur I was suddenly disoriented by the lack of English speakers.   Exhausted and confused, it was an hour or so before I could orient myself enough to figure out how to get a cab ticket. 

When I got to the hotel, other things began to make me feel out of place.  I have never been comfortable with the obsequious way in which foreigners are treated, and it was no different arriving there.  I was given prompt and attentive porter service, and the person holding my bag accompanied me directly to my room.  In the elevator with us, on the other hand, was a Malay family - with kids - obviously also just checking in.  They were carrying their own bags, and while the porter greeted them amicably he didn't offer any service.  It felt very wrong.

Since my arrival, I realized that where I am staying happens to be located directly adjacent to an upmarket mall.   This also felt strange, mostly because it was also so familiar.  The ethnic makeup of the people visiting the mall changed radically to be mostly ethnic Chinese and a smattering of obvious foreigners.  The language of the mall is not Malay but English or Chinese.   While Kuala Lumpur is about 45% Malay, this mall could not have been more than 10%.  It was a stark reminder of how ethnicity is tied to wealth in this country.

Finally, it was some time before I figured out why everybody insisted on speaking to me in English and treating me like an obvious foreigner.  I would order my food in mandarin and have people serve me meals with a fork and spoon (the ethnic Chinese would get chopsticks).  It was confused for a while, but suddenly remembered: in Singapore, and in Asia in general, I am always singled out as a Westerner, despite the exact opposite being true in the United States.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Arguments that annoy me, mandarin edition

I've started studying mandarin again.  As part of this, I've been encouraged to write my normal type of writing and translate it into mandarin.  The original English post is reproduced first, followed by the translation.  To aid my studying, I've bolded words that are new to me.  I originally wrote this post in February of this year, link here.

I love debate.  Once upon a time, I liked competitive debate, too, and thought that I liked pounding other people's arguments into the dust.  However, as time went on I realized that what I enjoyed was not winning per se, but having conversations with intelligent people.  People with poor argumentation and poor logic not only made for poor debate, but simply annoyed me.

To this day, there are few things that annoy me more.  So I'm going to blog about them. Hah.

1.  "It is better to be consistent than correct"

Hypocrisy is an irrelevant ad hominem, but I see this all the time.  Essentially, someone argues that because person/country/organization A has done something before, but subsequently advocates against it, the argument is invalid.  A is hypocritical!  Common examples:

  • The US has violated someone's sovereignty before, therefore its advocacy against a violation of other people's sovereignty is invalid.
  • <insert political party here> did something in the past, therefore its current stand against the practice is invalid.
  • You once believed this, but now you've flip-flopped and your argument is weaker because of it.
I could go on and on.  This is a poor argument.  Accusations of hypocrisy are often valid, but the only thing that they should do is cast aspersions on the character of the advocating party - they never have any relevance to an argument itself, unless that argument is about a person or organization's character.

When presented in simple terms as above, it's easy to spot how fallacious an accusation of hypocrisy is.  I more frequently see it presented in forms more difficult to recognize.  For example, if I were to hypothetically accuse the Republican party of being obstinate in their use of the filibuster in the Senate of the US, I might receive the following reply:
"But when the Democrats were in the minority during the Bush years, they also heavily used the filibuster and justified it by claiming that they were doing the job of the minority in protecting their interests, and you didn't complain then!"
Sound familiar?  Doesn't address the issue at hand, doesn't address anything but the parties to the argument (the Democrats and the proposer), allegation of hypocrisy.  While pointing out how hypocritical a group or person is might cast aspersions on their character, it has zero to do with the argument.  Instead, it's a statement that amounts to "it is better to be consistent than correct," or, alternatively, "consistency is a prerequisite for having a valid argument."

Top places I see that argument:
  • Anti-colonial related rants
  • Chinese uberpatriots
  • American political debate 



1. "一致正确好“

  • 美国侵犯过外国的主权,所以美国的论据反对别的国家的侵犯主权行为就无效了。
  • 什么政党以前的行为象他门现在的反对,所以他们的反对就无效了。
  • 你以前相信这个论据,但是你推翻了你的决定,所以你现在的论据更无效。

  • 殖民注意咆哮
  • 中国五毛咆哮
  • 美国政治了解

Friday, October 11, 2013

A small incident (Translation)

I've started studying mandarin again.  As part of that, I am systematically reading through a book of short stories by one of China's grandmasters of literature, Lu Xun (鲁迅), who lived during early revolutionary China. To aid my study, each story I go through I'm going to post here and then try to translate it as best I canThe original text is below, the translation is presented first.

"A small incident" - Lu Xun, July 1920

The six years from when I moved from my home town to the capital have passed in the blink of an eye.  Over this time, I've heard that our so-called country has had not a few milestones; but in my heart, none of them have left any impression, and if I try to search for what I have of these events, it only increases my discontent - truthfully, it makes me to look down on people more and more each day.

But there was one small incident that for me has significance, dragging me out of my discontent, that until now I have been unable to forget.

This was in the country's sixth year's [1917] winter, with the North wind blowing hard, when for work I had no choice but to commute in the mornings.  When I started my commute there were almost no people to be seen, so it was easy to find a rickshaw, telling the driver to go to the S Gate [one of Beijing's gates].  It didn't take long for the North wind to die down and the dust on the road to clear, leaving a spotless white path, letting the rickshaw puller go faster.  Just before the S Gate, suddenly on the rickshaw's axle there was a person, who slowly fell down.

The fallen person was a woman, with grizzled hair, and very ragged clothes.  She had abruptly turned from the street and cut in front of us; despite the rickshaw puller giving her right of way, the woman's jacket hadn't been buttoned, and a gust of wind had caused it to open and finally wrap around the rickshaw axle.  Luckily, the rickshaw puller had slowed down, or else the woman would have been caught and overturned, her head struck and bleeding.

She lay on the ground; the rickshaw puller put down the handles.  I judged that this old woman wasn't hurt, and no one saw it, so I thought the stop was strange, and that he was asking for trouble and delaying my trip.

He said to her:
"Are you alright?"
"Something's broken."

I thought, I saw you fall slowly to the ground, how is it that she could have broken something, she's malingering, how reprehensible.  The he's meddlesome and asking for trouble, getting his own ideas about walking around.

The rickshaw puller, upon hearing the old woman's words, did not hesitate for a moment, suddenly supporting the woman by her arm and walking forward step by step.  I was a little astonished, forgetting to look forward to see a police station in front of us, upwind, with no one outside.  The rickshaw puller was supporting the old woman as they made their way towards the big door.

In that moment I suddenly felt an unusual feeling, like the impression in the dust from the rickshaw puller became taller, or perhaps grew ever larger, so that I had to crane my neck to see it.  Or maybe he gradually became more powerful, even as I felt my petty concerns being squeezed from underneath my leather jacket.

My life's urgent pace slowed down, sitting there without moving, without thinking, until I got off when a police patrolman approached the rickshaw.

The policeman said, "You should book another rickshaw, he won't be pulling you."

Without thinking, I pulled a roll of coins from my jacket, giving it to the policeman, saying "Please give this to him..."

The wind died down, the street was still very clean.  I walked, lost in thought, almost scared of my introspection.  With everything else in my life temporarily set aside, I asked myself, what was the meaning of that roll of coins?  To reward him? Could I still judge the rickshaw driver?  I couldn't bear to reply to myself.

To this day that incident is one I frequently remember.  I therefore always remember to put aside my pain, to strive to think about myself.  These past few years' cultural forces, like the classical aphorisms I memorized at a young age, have so faded from my memory that I can't even half recite them.  Only this small incident, which hovers just in front of my eyes, sometimes even more clearly, has taught me to be ashamed, urged me to reform, and renewed my courage and hope.

Professional Translation linked here


一件小事 - 鲁迅 July 1920


Monday, October 7, 2013

On the concurrent majority and the Westminster system

With the recent US government shutdown, there has been a lot of talk on the nature of majority rule and the way our system works in comparison to others.  I want to go over some of the things I've been hearing and my thoughts on them.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Bad NYT cooking section! Bad!

The New York Times online spread a deadly mindvirus in the form of bad chemistry in its cooking section back in 2010.

Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, which already includes one proton and so has a limited ability to take up more. But if you heat baking soda, its molecules react with one another to give off water and carbon dioxide and form solid sodium carbonate, which is proton-free.
 Actually, the reaction he's talking about is relatively simple.  It's the lime kiln effect, done all the time to make lime from calcium carbonate:
CaCO3 --> CaO + CO2
 Similarly, using baking soda,
NaHCO3 --> NaOH + CO2

I'm afraid Harold McGee doesn't understand what he's talking about - claiming that it goes to sodium carbonate (aka washing soda) rather than to sodium hydroxide means that he gives a bunch of cockamamie advice from his bad information.
Just spread a layer of soda on a foil-covered baking sheet and bake it at 250 to 300 degrees for an hour. You’ll lose about a third of the soda’s weight in water and carbon dioxide, but you gain a stronger alkali. Keep baked soda in a tightly sealed jar to prevent it from absorbing moisture from the air. And avoid touching or spilling it. It’s not lye, but it’s strong enough to irritate.
Actually, it IS lye, just probably a mixture of lye and baking soda.  Some of the weight might come off of it in the form of water due to hydrated crystals, but most of it will be carbon dioxide.  I'd wager if you put your baking soda through an oven self-cleaning cycle, on the other hand, you'd end up with a much higher proportion of NaOH versus baking soda, possibly over 90%.  So don't handle it as if it's slightly stronger than lye, handle it for what it is: lye.

Oh, also you can make food grade lye by baking baking soda.  Who knew? 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Corporate lobbying writ large

Over a year ago I sank my teeth into Tim Worstall's horrifically uninformed rant about Celanese's TCX technology and the Renewable Fuels Standard.  At the time, I didn't know where he got his position from - now I do.  That website is, simply put, a vehicle for corporate lobbying.  Lobbying for what, you might ask?  For this: a law that would allow Celanese to make synthetic ethanol and sell it on the US fuel market under the ethanol standards set by the erstwhile Renewable Fuels Standard.  Meanwhile, Celanese has already been hard at work implementing its technology in Nanjing, China and is in the process of doing so with PERTAMINA in Indonesia.

I don't want to re-hash arguments over the RFS - suffice to say, it is a deeply flawed law.  However, I think that it's worth highlighting exactly what this Domestic Alternative Fuels Act is in context of the RFS.  Far from being a way of opening up the US to a "free market" in alternative fuels, it is in fact a huge corporate giveaway to one corporation in particular (Celanese), and transparently so.

Besides the fact that the so-called Domestic Alternative Fuels Act as proposed will amend the RFS and make a mockery of the "renewable" part of that statement, it also falls well short of being a domestic alternative fuels bill.  If it were, it would include provisions for natural gas vehicles, or fischer-tropsch diesel, or LPG vehicles, methanol for fuel, and the like - there are a whole slew of technologies that would be capable of counting as a domestic fuel if we wanted to refashion the RFS into simply a bill focused on energy security.  But no, this bill (which I will uncharitably refer to as "the giveaway") only focuses on ethanol.

So why is focusing on ethanol so bad?  First, it's a protected market with a protected production quota.  Celanese and Pete Olson both know this, and are pushing forward their giveaway anyhow.  Never mind that encouraging true domestic fuels security might involve other products.  Never mind that ethanol was a bad fuel to blend from the beginning and encouraging other fueling methods, especially for fleet vehicles or trucking, might be much more beneficial to domestic energy security.  No, we have to use ethanol, because that's where Celanese's product can go.

But wait, Josh, can't we produce non-fermentation ethanol from a method that Celanese doesn't use?  Why yes, there is. It's called direct hydration of ethylene, and it hasn't been commercial since the mid-'90s, even though many college design textbooks (including my own) continue to use it as a process design example.  The US has run for close to 2 decades without a single ethylene direct hydration plant, not because of the abundance of corn ethanol, but mainly because ethylene is an incredibly valuable product.  Once corn ethanol became sufficiently advanced to drop the price of industrial alcohol below a certain point, any chemical company running a cracker could make more money by switching to polyethylene, or ethylene glycol, or a whole host of other products - and by and large that's what they did, years before the RFS.

At the moment, ethane (the main feedstock for ethylene production in this country) is at the cheapest it's been in a decade and up until a few weeks ago ethanol was at an all-time high because of last year's drought (recent projections of a bumper crop of corn this year and revisions to the RFS have since changed that).  Presumably, these conditions are ideal for a revival of this venerable, time-tested technology.  I set out to find out if that was true.

Some hacking at economic models later*, and I came to the conclusion that yes, direct ethylene hydration could make money if you sold ethanol into the fuel market - if whoever was running it wanted to throw away, at minimum, 20% of the value of their ethylene, not even counting the opportunity cost of adding value to it in, say, ethylene glycol.

So truthfully, Celanese is the only party that can possibly benefit from this bill because they are the only ones with an economical fossil ethanol technology.   And they even set up a misleading lobbying website to do it, filled with loaded language about how only corn ethanol is legal in the United States.

And if you needed more proof, the instigator of this giveaway, one Pete Olson (R-Sugar Land), represents the Texas 22nd Congressional District.  Guess where Celanese is located?  Good little lapdog.

One final note that I'd like to make on this issue is why Celanese specifically has focused on ethanol.  The truth is that Celanese has found itself in the unusual situation of being more competitive than ever, not in ethanol (though that would, in the absence of a carbon tax, which I continue to advocate, also be competitive) but for its main product: acetic acid.  Celanese is one of the world's largest producer of acetic acid and related acetals, and due to the shale gas boom felt confident enough to even brave contract cancellation fees and litigation by cutting off its supply agreement with Methanex, the Trinidad-based methanol producer, because natural gas is cheap enough that restarting methanol production in the US is favorable for them again.  I've since taken a good look at their patents (see, e.g., US8471075) and confirmed my suspicions: the only reason Celanese is targeting ethanol is because it's a bolt-on, single step transformation from their existing acetic acid process... and the company is obviously trying to unload as much of it, as a chemical or as a fuel, as possible to make as much money as possible. 

In short, they're trying to bootstrap, via lobbying, into a higher value, protected market.  Even if it means rank hypocrisy when they try to promote "free markets."  And to anyone with a second-year undergrad technical background in process engineering, it's as plain as the nose on your face.

* Although I would like to show the evidence, I used some of my company's proprietary models in order to get the result, and am not interested in revealing commercially useful information or anything else that could lose me my job.  I'm thus forced to speak about the uncompetitiveness of ethylene hydration as a process in vague generalities, which might also reveal something commercially useful but, on the other hand, is just a repeat of everything everyone in the industry has already known since around the time I was in grade school.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Growing up with science books

This is a part 2 of a set of posts where I talk about how my attitude towards reading in science and technology has changed over the years.  My first post was on periodicals, and this one will instead focus on books.

Unlike for magazines, my enthusiasm for different books and authors of science fiction or nonfiction has risen or fallen unpredictably.  Instead of going through every instance, most of the changes in my tastes can be summed up by a few examples.

Growing up with science periodicals

In my childhood and through my teens, I was a voracious reader.  Many of the books and periodicals I read at the time were science-oriented, and indeed I credit much of my early interest in science to works involving or talking about science, math, and technology.  To this day, although much of my nonfiction reading is in the realm of politics or economics, I still read several science-oriented books and periodicals on a regular basis.  

In recent days, I've been increasingly reflecting on how my reading tastes have changed and how my opinion of books and magazines I once enjoyed has risen or fallen as I've progressed in my education.  This post will be the first of two that looks at periodicals.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Economics of The Windup Girl

Noah Smith recently posted his list of science fiction for economists.  I am happy to note as an avid sci-fi fan and armchair economist, I've read almost all of those books (excepting the final two).  What surprised me most was the inclusion of my favorite science fiction novel of the last decade, The Windup Girl by the supremely talented Paolo Bacigalupi.  The first time I read it, I lost myself in enjoying the setting and characters of Bacigalupi's 22nd century Thailand.  I was curious to reread it and to think about the economics of the book, and was again surprised at how well thought out - and heartbreaking - that world is*.

To summarize, the book takes place in a post-oil world, where coal is the main remaining fossil resource and energy is provided primarily by agricultural resources.  Although it's not explicitly mentioned, I presume that the collapse of most high-energy technology has effectively prevented solar photovoltaics from existing in any quantity (because even low-quality refined silicon requires enormous amounts of high-quality energy) and that the same applies for wind power (presumably for reasons of fabrication).  Another macroscopic aspect of the world are the so-called "calorie plagues."  These are engineered diseases intentionally released into the environment by large agricultural companies around the world - more on those later.

Friday, July 19, 2013


One of my favorite blogs, The Oil Drum, is shutting down.

Noah Smith has a postmortem, which I largely agree with.

Karl Smith is the only commentator who's dipped his toes into oil, gas, and petrochemicals thus far that I have actively stopped reading because he is so misinformed it makes me angry.  His postmortem continues to spout uninformed bias about petrochemicals that I am genuinely surprised no one has bothered to correct.  To summarize: no, we cannot make ethanol from ethane.  There are proposals to make ethanol from syngas (by first making acetic acid and then hydrogenating it) from Celanese, and there are very uneconomical processes to make ethanol from ethylene (which is no longer done because ethylene used in other capacities has much more value).

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A question of incentives

Some of my recent thinking has been about tax policy in the US, and what I would consider to be the ideal policy with respect to capital taxes.  I will freely admit that my thinking has been influenced by others.  To summarize:
  • I have turned decisively against any support of 401(k)s plans and tax-advantaged retirement accounts,
  • After researching the pros and cons of corporate taxation, I am now considering favoring their rollback (not quite abolition) provided that capital gains are taxed at a much, much higher rate

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A subsidy by any other name

One of the most self-serving fallacies I've ever seen is the idea that a subsidy can only exist on the spending side of the ledger.  I see this argument popping up more and more, and it annoys the crap out of me.

The fundamental definition of a subsidy is any form of government support that allows a firm or product to be sold at below the efficient, market-clearing rate.  Exactly what that market clearing rate is can be up for debate, depending on how many externalities one takes into account.  However, it's a decent proxy to say that a subsidy is any type of explicit government support, where one type of firm or product is intentionally favored where no favoritism existed before - this definition, at least, avoids any debate over what the market clearing price level is given that most goods and services are taxed, regulated, etc. away from an efficient market rate.

The argument I've heard from certain GOP* commentators is that a subsidy can only be a government payment, soft loan, or other type of spending support.  Rather than engaging the economics directly, they tend to focus attention on one of two arguments.

Thursday, May 9, 2013


There ain't no such thing as carbon neutrality.

Or, at least, exceptions to that rule are few and far between.

Besides scarcity, greenhouse gas emissions are the second major concern with our current sources of energy.  But one of the most frequent fallacies I encounter is the contention that if any alternative source also produces a greenhouse gas at all, or does not have a negative carbon balance,  it is somehow not "green" or is just as bad as using fossil fuels.

Convergence, or, energy is a high yielding investment until it isn't

This will be a rambling post just to help me get some thoughts down. 

With the recent announcement that Chevron is essentially pulling out of all biofuels and renewables, I think it's worth noting some of the unrealistic expectations that Chevron placed on clean technology.  Most notably, Chevron placed clean tech processes in direct competition for investment money with its oil exploration projects.  Thanks to some of my work in graduate school from some of the best industrial practitioner educators I've ever had, I know that the IRR for a typical conventional oil exploration project is on the order of 20%. 

The corresponding number for a bio-renewables project is much lower, on the order of 3-7% for the very best.  This is much more typical of what you would see in agriculture.  Placing investment money for bio-renewables projects in competition with oil projects, it's easy to see why bio-renewables lost out.

Besides making me profoundly disappointed in Chevron, this kind of news, to me, points to where the future of energy will go.  If you accept that the world cannot indefinitely continue to power itself with petroleum-based transportation fuels, then eventually the IRRs of bio-renewable projects (or other types of renewable energy) must approach those of oil.  This can happen in one of three different ways.

On the side of petroleum, either the number of opportunities for highly profitable ventures will decrease (a supply-driven slump) or there will not be enough demand to sustain these ventures at a high level of profit (a demand-driven slump). 

On the other hand, a second option is for bio-renewables to decrease their costs, increase their IRRs and compete with petroleum on its own terms.

I've staked out my position on demand destruction before, and I still believe that the structural changes that might cause fuels demand to decrease in the same way the IEA and others claim will take decades longer than they predict.  That environment means that high prices will continue, and supplier costs will increase as profitable opportunities for exploiting petroleum become depleted - in short, a petroleum supply driven argument.   Something like a carbon tax would also help that along, by seriously affecting the economics of bitumen (somewhat less for other forms of unconventional oil, such as tight oil). 

As for bio-renewables, after seven years of active work in the area, two of them professionally, realistically I can't see the IRR of any project improving much beyond that 3 to 7% level.  Making a low-value product like a fuel just doesn't pay, not when there is the opportunity to avoid the cost of gathering your energy source (i.e. the sun, collected on land) by going with petroleum.

In the end, there will be convergence at some point, when a bio-rewables project and slurping up dead dinosaurs become equally attractive.  However, there are too many physical limits to bio-renewable feedstocks to make them more competitive.  Instead, the point at which convergence will occur will be when energy as we've known it for the past three quarters of a century is no longer a high yielding investment.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Reflections on Political Correctness and Israel

In my previous post, I briefly referenced not liking a meme rather unfortunately popular among the American right.  In brief, it claims that the liberal media, in kowtowing to the desires of minority groups, left-wing causes (such as, for example, illegal immigration, gay rights, and the like) are mired in an atmosphere of "stifling political correctness" that prevents anybody who does not share the liberal views of said media from expressing themselves.  Although the view is appealing to those with unpopular views, it has several problems.

The first problem is that in order for the thesis to be true, you would have to see editorial policy actively discouraging the publication of conservative viewpoints.  Instead, conservative views are regularly aired in so-called liberal media.

Second, the entire idea of an atmosphere of political correctness as "stifling" implies that the media themselves are to blame, when in fact the media are simply covering their bases in response to criticism.  This criticism comes not from the management of the media itself, but from the audience.  In other words, crying foul at "stifling political correctness" smacks of whining about receiving criticism because one's words offend.  It confuses the negative right to free speech - i.e., that no entity can stop one's words from being heard - with the positive right of preventing others from judging your words.  It's not a cry for "freedom to," but for "freedom from."

I suppose it's been easy for me to hew to this opinion for much of my life because by and large, I've never been on the receiving end of such feelings of persecution.  Recently, however, the incident with the BDS and Brooklyn college (and yes, I know I'm 2 months late) made me nuance this view.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The difference between skepticism and disbelief

One of the myriad subjects that's been bouncing around my cranium recently has been the nature of scientific skepticism.  I suppose I should admit what brought this about: one of my housemates is an alumna of Bowdoin College, a liberal arts college in Maine, which recently came under attack by the Neocon pressure group National Association of Scholars for exemplifying what they believe has "failed" about modern liberal arts education.  Reading the report is a sometimes hilarious, sometimes soul-crushing reminder of the non sequitors that build up in a movement that only listens to itself*. But rather than dismissing the entire report as simply another episode of "Those Neocons say the darndest things!" I found myself thinking about one point that was often (shrilly, bleatingly) raised.  I am paraphrasing, but the report repeatedly implied that Bowdoin failed to teach students any sense of academic skepticism using two different examples: first, by proceeding from an unexamined assumption that gender is an inherently social construct (rather than being determined by "biology") and second, by not teaching any of the controversy over global warming.

I don't want to discuss either of these issues in this post.  Instead, I want to discuss how the nature of skepticism in each of these issues is different, and why it's impossible to apply the label of "skepticism" as expressed by the anti-AGW movement to scientific issues like climate change, the safety of GMO foods, or many other inherently technical controversies.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Thoughts on Feminism

There was a recent comment thread in Marginal Revolution (original post here) in which a guy (who goes by the handle Tom West) gave a very illuminating perspective on modern feminism and feminist politics that I felt compelled to share. I've reproduced the thread at the end of this post, so you can read it there first or find it on MR first.  It's one of the first few comments.  Either way, I really want to just jump into discussion here.

Let me preface all of this by saying that as the proud carrier of a Y chromosome with an expressed SRY region, I've never fully understood the underlying drivers for the modern feminist movement - nor will I.  My introduction to modern feminist politics was the furor over Larry Summers' resignation in the early spring of 2006.  Summers' speech didn't seem at all inflammatory to my eyes.  To me, the budding scientist and researcher, what Summers suggested was (among other things) an extraordinarily simple, plausible testable hypothesis: that there exists some innate aspect women and men's intellectual capabilities that, statistically, predisposes either gender to have some level of over-representation in certain fields.  Other things Summers mentioned were also proven statistical correlations, including that women with a certain level of education in the United States tend to marry men of an equal or greater level of education.

Yet, all of my feminist friends - even ones that were normally lukewarm about advocacy - seemed up in arms about the speech.  I wondered why, and didn't understand, not least because I felt that the statements were very properly given with caveats and an emphasis that the correlations were a necessary but not sufficient condition for causation. Worse still, when I tried to defend Larry Summers' propositions as reasonable*, I was attacked - not criticized, but full-on ad hominem attacked - by people I considered my friends.  In later years, in the rare instances the topic was brought up, the same situation repeated itself; eventually I learned to avoid the topic altogether.

All this, and other instances, led me to negatively categorize the behavior of the modern feminist movement as hypersensitive and too willing to allow ideology to trump any empirical evidence, especially if the hypothesis in question suggested any innate differences between men and women (beyond the physical, of course). 

None of it quite made any sense until I read the refreshing explanation from the MR comment thread.  "Tom West" sums it up quite succinctly;

Feminism, in general, seems aghast at even acknowledging a lot of innate gender differences.
Perhaps. But lets face reality. The fight for equality is a political battle on both sides. And most of us realize that acknowledging that ‘nature’ has any part in current inequality has historically and will continue to be used as a weapon to go *far* beyond that nature to try and force all women (and men) into roles that they might only statistically tend towards. Man likes to categorize, and we are continually insisting that any statistical correlation above 0 must be 1.

So, if you know that acknowledging that a given ratio might actually be 0.4 and 0.6 will be turned into a very politically effective argument that the ratios must be mandated as 0 and 1, you can be forgiven for claiming the ratio is 0.5 and 0.5 despite some evidence to the contrary. It also doesn’t help that in quite a number of cases, it turns out the accepted wisdom is pretty much wrong, and once we conduct experiments to eliminate the cultural component, results between genders are far closer than original experiments indicated.
Suddenly, a lot of things started to make sense.  It makes sense, for example, that if I start talking about innate gender differences, I am suddenly mistaken for one of the gender-roles-are-hardwired crowd.  I am aware that statistical differences in the intellectual ability of genders are smaller than is commonly believed, and that even these statistical likelihoods does not change the likelihood of extraordinary individuals existing from a group that might have a lower aptitude on average.  In fact, I have firsthand experience (by virtue of my college) of extraordinarily talented individuals of both genders in roles seen as the preserve of the other.  But my arguments largely appear the same as those who don't have this understanding, and routinely use "nature" arguments to pigeonhole women into their traditional roles.

That, in a sense, explains the visceral reaction that "nature" arguments tend to get, even from people like me that acknowledge the problems that the feminist agenda wants to solve.  One of two misunderstandings will happen when someone with a well-grounded, empirically valid understanding of innate gender differences pitches an argument to a feminist: either a subtle distinction or clarification is lost in conversation, or, more likely, the argument will be functionally identical to one made by some clod who thinks that the underlying relative correlations with ability are closer to 0.9 to 0.1 than 0.5 to 0.5.  Either way, the feminist assumes (not unjustifiably) that the underlying assumptions are sexist, and then proceeds to chew the other guy out.

The case of a cautious and well-versed proposer being chewed out is a good example of a type I error, in which the feminist response assumes that the proposer has wrongheaded biases where they do not exist.  Unfortunately, the reason that it's so hard to dissuade people from making the assumptions that lead to type I errors in my case, and probably Larry Summers' case as well, is that most of the time the assumption is valid.  Most people who make the innate differences argument are drawing fantastically wrongheaded conclusions from equally fantastically wrongheaded estimates of what the true statistical differences in ability are.  These estimates are informed not by familiarity with the literature but by cultural and social biases.  In other words, the type I error occurs because most people who propose this position just use the possibility of natural variation in intelligence between genders as a vehicle for their own preconceived notions of gender roles.  A good portion of these people will also deny the existence of outliers who can perform just as well in non-traditional gender roles as they could in ones seen as the preserve of the other.  Either way, it's disgusting and all-too-frequently the case.

As Tom West put it in a later response:
... my personal experience with teachers (teachers!) who took a certain Harvard president’s words as “proof” that women can’t do math made me pretty sensitive to the reality that people work hard to misinterpret tiny factoids to make them into giant edifices that can have profound effects on many, many others. It’s certainly left me sympathetic to those who want to err on the side of assuming more equality of nature, especially given the uncertainty in any claims as to what’s nature and what’s culture.)
So like Tom West, I'm now much more sympathetic to feminist movement's tendency to discredit or attack gender-based intellectual ability claims.  I have personally been hurt by the calculus that goes into making that decision, and at least partially because of that I disagree with the strategy.  But I also recognize that introducing subtlety into arguments allows the opposition to claim that feminists actually agree with them, and agitate for the hell of it, or some other bullshit argument.  Refuting that claim takes careful presentation of facts, and sound bytes count for far more than facts in politics.

* I have to emphasize here that my working assumption is that intellectual ability is roughly equal until proven otherwise.  The values suggested by literature - even with statistically significant results - all point to differences that are too small in most categories of intelligence to justifiably change that assumption.

Full source thread after the jump:

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Why I (mostly) drive below the speed limit

(Updated 2/19/13 - see below)

Although it's not at all obvious to most, the speed you drive has a highly significant effect on the fuel consumption of your vehicle.  The key is the drag equation, which is an approximation of the drag force on an object moving at high speed (relative to the characteristics of the fluid in which it's moving - more on that later).

The drag equation is
F_D\, =\, \tfrac12\, \rho\, v^2\, C_d\, A,
where F represents the force, rho is the density of the fluid, v is the velocity of the fluid with respect to the object (in the case of a car, it's equivalent for us to consider the car in motion and the fluid stationary), and A is the cross-sectional area of the surface relative to the fluid - for us, the "face" of the car moving into the "wind."  The C term is the drag coefficient, which is a "fudge factor" that's usually determined empirically and depends on the properties of the surface, its shape, and the properties of the fluid*.

The key to take away from the drag equation is that the drag force depends on the square of velocity.  However,  if we want to talk about fuel consumption (call it gasoline in gal/min), we're going to need to move beyond just the drag force.  We can compare gasoline consumption at different speeds by using the energy requirement of your car, in, say, horsepower.  Horsepower is a power term (in case the name didn't make it obvious), meaning it expresses some amount of energy expended over some period of time**.

 P_d = \mathbf{F}_d \cdot \mathbf{v} = \tfrac12 \rho v^3 A C_dWe can relate the force to the power required to overcome it by using the definition of work (a force exerted over a distance) and diving by the total time.  Since the distance over which you travel divided by the time over which you travel is your average velocity, this gives the power equation above***.  Note now that the power is proportional to the cube of velocity.

So now, onto why I drive below the speed limit.  One fine day I was driving from Ithaca, NY to Syracuse, NY, on the I-81N out of Cortland.  The road is pretty boring except for the occasional deer, so I did some mental math.  Because the fuel consumption (power) required from my car to overcome drag is proportional to the cube of velocity, the ratio of fuel consumption at, say, 75 mph vs at 65 mph is simply (75^3)/(65^3). 

The ratio turns out to be about 1.54.  This means that to a first approximation, at 75 mph I was consuming fifty percent more fuel than I was at 65 mph! Ouch.  I knew that on country roads, my Subaru got about 23 mpg at 65 mph, which means that over a 60 mile drive at around 65 mph it'd consume roughly 3 gallons.  At 75, it'd be consuming 1.5 more gallons. But wait - I was saving time by driving faster. Was my time worth it?

This calculation was easier - between 75 and 65, over the course of an hour it'd take (60/75) hours (0.8 hours, or 48 minutes) to go at 75 mph versus 60/65 hours (0.92 hours, or 55 minutes and about 20 seconds) to go at 65 mph.  How much was 7 minutes of my time worth?  At the wages I was working at that point (about $15 an hour), $1.75.  How much was 1.5 gallons of gas worth? At that time, roughly $6.

I decided to drive slower.  However, on the way back, I had my girlfriend, which meant I, ahem, valued the time saved from driving faster more.  I drove faster on the way back.

To this day I've yet to make enough money in hourly terms to justify regularly driving 75 mph over driving 65 mph on the highway.   At the current average gasoline price in New York state ($3.92/gal), I'd have to be making $50.40 an hour to justify it, which for a standard 8-hour work week is $104,832 per year.


This analysis is relatively simple.  There are a couple of (to my mind, anyway) interesting little wrinkles to this calculation, the magnitude of which I can't calculate off the top of my head but I think on balance points to even more fuel consumption at higher speed.

The first wrinkle occurs when we relax the assumption that the drag coefficient is the same at different velocities.  Earlier, we assumed that the drag coefficient is the same at 75 mph and 65 mph - at least, I didn't call attention to the variation, which means I assumed the drag coefficient was the same.  If we relax that assumption, it turns out that there's an additional velocity dependence in the drag equation.  The drag coefficient is proportional to some power of the Reynolds number, which for an object moving through fluid is proportional to velocity.  Usually the expression is something along the lines of C_d = k*Re^a, where k is some constant that's empirically determined and a is some number below 1, also empirically fit.  So the power equation is actually proportional to velocity to the (3+a) power.  So power required to overcome drag force is actually somewhat higher because of this effect.

The second wrinkle occurs when you consider that an engine doesn't linearly deliver horsepower with increasing fuel consumption.  Engines have power curves that describe their performance given the acceleration they must deliver and the rpm they are already moving at.  A power curve for the motor on a Kia Alto (a small car) is shown below:

Fuel consumption is the bottom curve (PS is a German abbreviation, common in the car industry, for metric horsepower).  Most cars will operate in the downward sloping part of the curve (we usually change gear if we're not), which means that if we increase speed and don't change gears, fuel consumption per amount of energy delivered actually goes down.  However, we're still delivering a much higher amount of energy, and the ratio varies (in the region we're likely to see) from about 4.5 to maybe 3.25.  In reality the difference in engine RPM is likely to just be the ratio of the velocities, 75/65 or about 1.15, while the fuel consumption ratio occurs over a much larger range (about 3.5).  Still, it means that the fuel consumption at higher velocities, all things being equal, is lower than we might expect because fuel consumption increases less than linearly.

Finally, we have to consider that engine work is also used to overcome rolling resistance in addition to drag.  Rolling resistance is a subject that I don't have any experience in, but I know that for a car it generally increases at a much higher than one-to-one rate with applied torque.  This has much more to do with the way the wheels interact with the pavement then the way bearings behave; at high speeds there's some slippage and the like that cause inefficiencies.  If it were the bearings alone, we'd actually expect less resistance as speed increases because bearing lubricants tend to be shear thinning.  But all in all, this causes required power and hence, fuel consumption to increase at higher velocity more than we would expect from drag alone.

edit: Thanks to a lively discussion with my friend Tom, here's some more interesting stuff:

Tom calculated that the optimal speed at my then wage of $15 by minimizing the total cost of a 60 mile journey:

Cost(v) = Gas cost + Time Cost
C(v) = (60/23) gal*$4/gal*(v^3/(65mph)^3) + $15/hr* 60 miles/v
C(v) = $10.43 * v^3/(65 mph)^3 + $900 mi/hr / v

The local minimum for this can be calculated with some basic calculus, but we were lazy and used Wolfram Alpha:

This means that my optimal speed at that wage, assuming that the drag force dominated my costs, was 53 mph.  It turns out that's a pretty darn good assumption.

Thanks to some quick googling, I found the following diagram (which is given for a parcel truck):

Rolling resistance increases with a relatively low order with respect to velocity while aerodynamic drag has (as we've discussed) a very high order with respect to velocity.  Thus at high speeds it's a bit tricky to discuss aerodynamic drag as the only force, but it isn't an overwhelmingly bad assumption. Note that on the above graph, the curves stop at about 120 kph which is about 75 mph.

All in all, a fun physics problem.

* The drag coefficient for most objects is close to 1.  It's a measure of how close the object is to representing an ideal object for modeling, usually something like a cylinder of infinite height or some such.  Most objects don't deviate much from that - hence, the coefficient doesn't modify the ideal equation much.  For cars, though, a considerable amount of R&D goes into making that drag coefficient lower.  In terms of fluid properties, however, it's also related to the Reynolds number, a dimensionless quantity that is related to the inertia of a fluid (usually involving the velocity) and the viscosity.

** It's easy to get confused about what quantity to look for when talking about fuel consumption, but we can review the units to double check: fuel burned releases energy (in joules) over time (min), while force (Newtons) must be multiplied by distance (Newton*meter = Joule) and divided by time (min) to produce an equivalent quantity.

*** Strictly speaking, if we wanted to be precise then the power equation should be given by d/dt(F_d \dot x), where F_d and x (the distance) are both vector quantities and d/dt is the differential operator with respect to time.  This gives the instantaneous power consumption, which given the data for a whole trip can be averaged out taking into account all acceleration and deceleration and the like.  However, for a rough comparison of fuel consumption at constant speeds it's not necessary.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Arguments that annoy me, part 1

I love debate.  Once upon a time, I liked competitive debate, too, and thought that I liked pounding other people's arguments into the dust.  However, as time went on I realized that what I enjoyed was not winning per se, but having conversations with intelligent people.  People with poor argumentation and poor logic not only made for poor debate, but simply annoyed me.

To this day, there are few things that annoy me more.  So I'm going to blog about them. Hah.

1.  "It is better to be consistent than correct"

Hypocrisy is an irrelevant ad homoniem, but I see this all the time.  Essentially, someone argues that because person/country/organization A has done something before, but subsequently advocates against it, the argument is invalid.  A is hypocritical!  Common examples:
  • The US has violated someone's sovereignty before, therefore its advocacy against a violation of other people's sovereignty is invalid.
  • <insert political party here> did something in the past, therefore its current stand against the practice is invalid.
  • You once believed this, but now you've flip-flopped and your argument is weaker because of it.
I could go on and on.  This is a poor argument.  Accusations of hypocrisy are often valid, but the only thing that they should do is cast aspersions on the character of the advocating party - they never have any relevance to an argument itself, unless that argument is about a person or organization's character.

When presented in simple terms as above, it's easy to spot how fallacious an accusation of hypocrisy is.  I more frequently see it presented in forms more difficult to recognize.  For example, if I were to hypothetically accuse the Republican party of being obstinate in their use of the filibuster in the Senate of the US, I might receive the following reply:
"But when the Democrats were in the minority during the Bush years, they also heavily used the filibuster and justified it by claiming that they were doing the job of the minority in protecting their interests, and you didn't complain then!"
Sound familiar?  Doesn't address the issue at hand, doesn't address anything but the parties to the argument (the Democrats and the proposer), allegation of hypocrisy.  While pointing out how hypocritical a group or person is might cast aspersions on their character, it has zero to do with the argument.  Instead, it's a statement that amounts to "it is better to be consistent than correct," or, alternatively, "consistency is a prerequisite for having a valid argument."

Top places I see that argument:
  • Anti-colonial related rants
  • Chinese uberpatriots
  • American political debate
Next in this series: "It is preferable to be understood than to be correct"

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

What's this process configuration called?

There's a relatively common process configuration for pilot and demonstration plants that operate at least in part continuously, where process steps are isolated in a modular fashion and tankage is placed between them to store intermediates/effluent.  It's a method of design that's focused on being a modular platform for testing and investigation rather than for a manufacturing campaign, such that individual process steps/units can be devoted to different teams for testing and investigation, but it can be integrated to achieve pseudo-steady state operation if need be. It looks approximately like this:

I've seen it in pilot and demonstration plants all over the place, but what is it called?  I want to not look like an idiot when I speak at a conference.