The Valuable Lesson Silicon Valley Needs to Learn from the Thai Rescue

Sometimes patience is required to solve a problem:

Instead of venting, Mr. Musk — indeed, Silicon Valley as a whole — can perhaps see the Thai operation as a lesson. This was a most improbable rescue against the longest odds. Safely navigating 12 kids and one adult, many of whom were not swimmers, through a dangerous cave relied on a model of innovation that Silicon Valley can and should learn from.

The Silicon Valley model for doing things is a mix of can-do optimism, a faith that expertise in one domain can be transferred seamlessly to another and a preference for rapid, flashy, high-profile action. But what got the kids and their coach out of the cave was a different model: a slower, more methodical, more narrowly specialized approach to problems, one that has turned many risky enterprises into safe endeavors — commercial airline travel, for example, or rock climbing, both of which have extensive protocols and safety procedures that have taken years to develop.

Self-proclaimed know-it-alls–even those with some record of success–are a nuisance and a menace, but these days the “Silicon Valley model” seems to be in the ascendant in American society and thinking, such as it is.  Having been in a field and a business where a model closer to the Thais’ is the rule, it’s easy to see the Silicon Valley model, while it’s done remarkable things, leaves many “loose ends” and unintended consequences (consider Facebook’s woes as a good example) in its wake.  Who knows, we just might make progress on our political mess if we took a more thoughtful and deliberate approach…

Internet Privacy and the “vulcanhammer” Sites

Just about everyone who is a content generator on the internet has been affected by the EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR.)  It didn’t come suddenly, but you’d never know that by the scramble many American organisations have been doing to become compliant (or at least try) with these regulations.  It’s not easy; they’re “prescriptive” in that they give broad (and sometimes vague) guidance rather than telling you in detail what to do.  There’s a good chance that the various EU based agencies enforcing these regulations will do so differently from one to another, and also that many of those charged with the enforcement won’t understand what they mean.  (We’ve experienced that problem with enforcers here, such as with the tax code.)  But this is as good a time as any to outline our basic philosophy regarding information gathered on our websites, past and present.

The vulcanhammer “Family” of Websites

There are currently five of these:

All of these sites, in one way or another, started as “static” sites, with few interactive features.  The first to break the mould was this one, which became a blog in 2005 and a WordPress site the following year.  This was also the first site to sport the “https” secure site feature.

The first three on the list were migrated to starting less than two years ago.  The reasons for this are tied up in two search engine trends that could not be avoided: their preference for “https” sites (that comes with sites) and a need to be able to morph themselves for mobile devices such as phones, tablets, etc.  The sites were also more interactive and a lot less work to design and maintain as well.

At this point all but one of the sites are, in one way or another, WordPress sites.  That’s significant because for the WordPress sites information gathering is done by WordPress, and thus they control the intake at least of any information we gather (or don’t gather) on our sites.  For this site and, we get statistics from 1and1, our web hosting service.

Web Site Statistics

Our sites have never been “about” collecting private information, and certainly not disseminating it, for profit or otherwise.  Our idea has always been to disseminate information with a minimum of encumbrance to the visitor, which means no paywalls or requirements to register before getting the information.  The one thing we do review on an ongoing basis is our website statistics.

WordPress/Automattic’s privacy policy outlines what kind of information is gathered in these statistics.  Some of that only pertains to those of us who upload information to them to be in turn shared with you.  Both WordPress and 1and1 (and the web hosting services that preceded them) gather this type of information.  We do not share that information with anyone.

We use this information to improve our sites.  One of the things we learned is that many of you come from places where your privacy is really “on the line,” and so that’s been motivation to keep access simple and discreet.  At one time, that was just about all the information that anyone gathered.  That’s changed (right, Facebook?) and is the source of many of the problems we have today.  Unfortunately without that “in depth” information websites are, to some extent, “flying blind” but that’s the price we’re willing to pay to keep it easy for you to visit us.

Back in the last decade we used Google Analytics and monetised the sites (especially using Google ads.  We pulled the plug on that because a) the revenue stream was deteriorating and b) we felt Google was too nosy.  We still feel that way.  We do embed YouTube videos on the site, as much out of necessity as anything, and they’re still nosy.

Comment and Contact Forms

There are two places where these sites collect personal information: the comment forms and the contact forms.  Both gather things such as name, email (both of which can be faked,) IP address and URL.  We don’t give these things out either.  Obviously if you want us to respond to either (and you know about it) you have to give a valid email address.

Something fun to do: next time you look at an email, ask your email client to show you the source for the email.  Most of the type of information mentioned earlier is in every email you send or receive.  Just think about that.

Making Money Off of Sites

As mentioned earlier, there was a time when we made money directly off of our sites.  That’s no longer the case; in fact, for the sites on we can’t.  We do make some revenue (enough to pay the fees we have to keep the sites live) from our book sales, which are described here.  Doing it this way also avoids the problem of handling people’s credit card and other confidential information (although you’re subject to their privacy policies.)  At one time I maintained a web store for the church ministry I worked for but the security issues forced us to turn it over to people who did it all the time.  In theory we could make money off of the YouTube channel but, unless something goes viral, we’re not important enough to YouTube for that to happen.

Getting Your Information on Sites, and Site Security

Two requirements of GDPR are that people can either request the information a site has on them, get the site to remove it, or both.  Again we’re dependent upon WordPress to do this and they have been working on this problem.

As far as site security, with the sites this is handled by WordPress.  For this site we have taken additional measures, and given the way this site gets attacked they’re necessary.  (But virtually any site gets attacked; the only sites that don’t are the ones that don’t exist.)  I also should mention that 1and1 is pretty diligent about its site security, frequently at the expense of loading speed.

European vs. American Privacy

With the EU’s enactment of GDPR, the question arises as to why there isn’t something like it in the US.  Some of that, of course, is due to the fact that our large tech companies have become embedded in this country’s power structure.  But another overlooked fact is that the US has traditionally been, and still is to a large extent, a land of poker-playing dogs.  It’s a society with a long continuity of government and constitutionally-mandated rights, which lures its people into a false sense of security.

Europe is another matter altogether.  Totalitarian states are still either a living memory or a present reality for many on the continent; the power of information-gathering states or institutions is better appreciated.  The “right to be forgotten” is a manifestation of this wariness.

If Americans want European-level privacy requirements, the pressure is going to have to come with a change in people’s attitudes.  We have all other manner of privacy requirements; we could add this if we liked.

This is a brief overlook at the present state of our privacy measures; more information is found for this site in its terms and conditions, and the others in theirs.

Build a House with 3D Printing? An Anglican Divine Shows the Way

But, when Christ came, he appeared as High Priest of that Better System which was established; and he entered through that nobler and more perfect ‘Tabernacle,’ not made by human hands–that is to say, not a part of this present creation.  (Hebrews 9:11 TCNT)

For the structures that are made by human hands (with a great deal of help from stuff like this) we can now turn to 3D printing for possible solutions, and that brings up Anglican divine Bruce Hilbert.  We’ve featured him before and this brief video shows what he does and a little of how he does it:

In the past Anglican (and other divines, such as this Lutheran) have been involved in scientific and technological discoveries and advances.  Bruce continues in that tradition.  Should there be others?  Why not!

Two Plus Two Equals Four Until You Redefine Addition

Like everything else, the Babylon Bee had fun with this:

In a mathematics lesson delivered to her kindergarten class Tuesday, local teacher and closed-minded bigot Becky Delatorre reportedly insisted that two plus two equals four, all the time, to the exclusion of all other numbers, no matter how anyone feels about it.

Well…we turn to the famous Russian mathematician Israel Gelfand’s Lectures on Linear Algebra (Dover Books on Mathematics), who at the start makes this definition:

Breaking it down, in the italics he makes a definition of what a vector space is.  At the core of that definition is what linear algebra (which itself is at the core of numerical methods, computer simulations, etc.) is all about: everything that happens is basically scalar addition (which is what the kindergarten teacher in the Bee was trying to teacher her bratty students) and scalar multiplication, and lots of it for large models.

That definition made, Gelfand sets forth eight (8) rules for these two operations to follow in order to be valid.  At this point, Gelfand puts in the kicker:

It is not an oversight on our part that we have not specified how elements of R are to be added or multiplied by numbers.  Any definitions of these operations are acceptable as long as the axioms listed above are satisfied.  Whenever this is the case we are dealing with an instance of a vector space.

What he is saying is this: for a valid vector space, we can redefine addition and multiplication as long as it meets the eight rules!  An example of how that works is here.

This is an interesting twist in mathematics that, mercifully, doesn’t have much practical application.  But I suppose it’s possible to shut up (or put to sleep, either result works) a class of unruly kindergartners with the eight rules.  And having endured stuff like this makes attacking Bill Clinton’s Eucharistic Theology even more fun.

Better stick with 2 + 2 = 4


We’re Stuck at the Other End of Science, Too

Sabine Hossenfelder laments that what should be the “cutting edge” of science isn’t cutting it these days:

Very plausibly, the main reason why we haven’t made progress is that we’re not doing the right thing. We’re looking in the wrong places. We are letting ourselves be guided by the wrong principles. It’s about time that we rethink this because, clearly, it’s not working. One of the things that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about is what would be good principles to look at. Interestingly, in high-energy particle physics and also in cosmology, people pay a lot of attention to aesthetic criteria that they use to select theories they think are promising. And we know that paying attention to beauty is not very scientific. It’s certainly a human desire, but it’s questionable whether it will bring us anywhere.

To be honest, her article struck a chord with me at the “trailing edge” of science, geotechnical engineering.  I’ve gotten the feeling that we’re stuck in neutral in many ways: we’re doing a great many technological tweaks, but we’re not really moving the ball down the field the way we should.  Some of this is due to our regulatory environment, some due to the way our research is funded (which isn’t as different from Hossenfelder’s as we’d care to admit) but ultimately, as is the case in her field, it’s the way the community looks at the problem.  I lamented some of this last year in this post regarding my own specialty, pile dynamics:

Numerical methods and computer power have both vastly improved since Smith’s day. So is it possible to see another paradigm shift in the way we perform forward and inverse pile dynamics? The answer is “yes,” but there are two main obstacles to seeing that dream become a reality.

The first is the nature of our research system. As noted above, Smith’s achievement was done in a large organisation with considerable resources and the means to make them a reality. It was also a long-term effort. Today the piecemeal nature of our research grant system and the organisational disconnect among between universities, contractors and owners incentivises tweaking existing technology and techniques rather than taking bolder, riskier steps with the possible consequence of a dead-end result and a disappointed grant source.

The second is the nature of our standard, code and legal system. Getting the wave equation accepted in the transportation building community, for example, was an extended process that took longer than developing the program in the first place. Geotechnical engineering is a traditionally conservative branch of the profession. Its conservatism is buttressed by our code and standard system (which is also slow-moving) and the punishment meted out by our legal system when things go wrong, even when the mistake was well-intentioned. Getting a replacement will doubtless be a similar extended process.

My guess is that this problem extends to other fields of science and engineering as well.  If we want to make progress, we need to address these issues directly.

He Was Right, They Do Flunk Clock

Some British schools are taking analogue clocks out of schools:

Schools are removing analogue clocks from examination halls because teenagers are unable to tell the time, a head teachers’ union has said.

Teachers are now installing digital devices after pupils sitting their GCSE and A-level exams complained that they were struggling to read the correct time on an analogue clock.

In 1971, when I was in prep school, I obtained for my dorm room one of the earliest types of digital clocks, namely one with those “flip cards” which changed to display the time digitally.  A friend looked at the clock and said, “Your little brother will flunk clock.”  He was partially wrong because I was the little (or younger) brother in my family.  But he was right about one thing: when people have digital clocks, they will forget how to read an analogue one.

So many problems can be anticipated if we just have the vision to see the consequences…

The Matter of Women Pilots Should Have Been Settled in the 1930’s

The Daily Beast correctly notes the achievement of Southwest pilot Tammy Jo Shults but with the usual caveat:

Just how masterfully Tammie Jo Shults, the pilot of the badly crippled Southwest Airlines Flight 1380, handled the problem of an engine exploding at 30,000 feet is winning admiration from thousands of her fellow pilots—and should finally help to temper the hubris of what has been a notoriously testosterone-charged profession.

That last point was settled a long time ago, as I noted here:

One of the more interesting parts of our story concerns the substantial number of women who flew and took parts in the competitions that Chet coordinated. This is not just a “hindsight” kind of thing; it garnered a good deal of attention at the time as well.

Aviation was still a new technology in the 1930’s, and attitudes about “roles” weren’t as fixed about flying as they were about other activities. Moreover many of the women who flew came from the upper reaches of society, which put the whole role of women in a different light than elsewhere.

When we think of women’s aviation in those times, we usually think of Amelia Earhart.  But there were many other women who achieved great things in the pilot’s seat: as I noted here, in the lead-up to the May 1934 Langley Day air show in Washington, my grandfather hosted “…a reception at the Willard Hotel in honour of Laura Ingalls, the New Jersey “society girl” who had just (22 April 1934) come from setting a world’s record by flying 15,000 miles from the U.S. to South America and back, which included crossing the Andes Mountains.”

As Camille Paglia noted, the 1920’s and 1930’s were indeed the “favourite period” of feminism, with plenty of lessons for us now.

The Core Problem With Liberal Arts Curricula/Degrees

I’ve taken flak for saying this in other contexts, but this comment on a frustrated history PhD’s failure to land a tenure-track position hits the nail on the head:

my own experience has been very similar although now i’m glad that i left the humanities and i believe that the humanities themselves should be completely erased as actual graduate disciplines. so many wasted minds, so much wasted capital for really very little societal value and much much grief to very smart individuals only to keep up a very vague idea that a university teaches you “how to think” or how to “read” or “how to write.”

the irony is that, given the current way in which most writing and reading occurs, taking a humanities course in milton, cervantes, or baudelaire may actually make you a worse writer and reader for today’s environment… but i digress.

i encourage you to think of this as an opportunity and to go outside of the field completely. i myself am now a software engineer although i once did a phd in comparative literature. it is possible to change, and it can be very fulfilling.

Those Unscientific Science Journalists

NPR wants a new one, but…

NPR, which to its credit at least attempts to cover science and health, is looking for a new Science Editor. Unfortunately, actually being trained in science is not required for the job.

Under the qualifications section, the ad says, “Education: Bachelor’s degree or equivalent work experience.” Amazingly, not only is a background in science unnecessary, college itself is optional. Despite such a low bar, whoever gets hired for the job will be responsible for covering “consumer health trends, medicine, public health, biotech and health policy.” Seriously?

It’s fair to say these days that a journalism position is an advocacy position.  But that’s one thing that’s discredited many scientific initiatives: the total lack of people with science training either reporting, advocating, or setting public policy on these kinds of issues.  No where is this more evident than climate change, where the biggest carbon-free solution in the mix–nuclear power–has been shunted aside, even when most of scientific community is good with it.

But that’s the American way, and has been for years.  It’s little wonder that countries such as China, Iran and Russia, where more of the educated population is trained in the sciences, are perceived as such threats.

I Guess YouTube Will Flag the Boring Video, Too

YouTube is doing some strange things these days, and this is yet another:

YouTube announced Friday it will start flagging videos published by organizations that receive government funding.

Viewers will be able to see labels on videos from government-funded outlets above the video’s title on the page.

“News is an important and growing vertical for us and we want to be sure to get it right, helping to grow news and support news publishers on YouTube in a responsible way,” YouTube News senior product manager Geoff Samek said.

I guess that includes this masterpiece, which I use in my Soil Mechanics class:

Watch it for a minute or two and see why I call it the “Boring Video.”  I told my students that labelling it as such was my attempt at “truth in advertising.”

This video was produced at the University of California at Davis with a grant from the Feds.  Like so many documents and other material in this field, it was produced with government funding, and use of this kind of material is widespread amongst the Federal and State agencies charged with civil and military works, and used in the teaching of civil engineering, most of which in this country takes place at state (government) universities.

So I guess that YouTube will, once it figures all this out, label this as “propaganda.”

Like I said, YouTube is doing some strange things these days.  Recently they demonitised “small” YouTube channels (like mine, the pennies rolled in) and frankly I couldn’t figure out what they were trying to accomplish other than getting rid of a large number of accounts that were more hassle to service than they were worth.  The obsession of social media with “propaganda” (and YouTube certainly isn’t alone) is going to kill it for themselves and everyone else.