Category Archives: skepticality

Science and politics – Part 1

On October 30th, 2019 I’ve organized an event at Manny’s (3092 16th St, San Francisco) on Science and Politics, with accomplished scientists Elaine DiMasi and Michael Eisen who chose to run for congress, in the wake of the 2016 US election, the Women’s March and the March for Science.

Dr. Michael Eisen and and Dr. Elaine DiMasi, who respectively ran for US Senate (CA) and US House of Representative (NY-1) , at Manny’s in San Francisco on October 30th, 2019

The setting was quite ideal for the speakers (Manny’s has held event for 17 out of the 20 Democratic candidates to the US Presidential election), and the two accomplished scientists shared many thoughts on their unsuccessful run.

A man’s life is interesting primarily when he has failed — I well know. For it’s a sign that he tried to surpass himself
George Clemenceau

Of the wave of scientists who ran in 2018, few were elected, but it’s is hard to change a political machine that has been here for many decades on the first attempt.Trial, error, re-calibrate, try again. I hope to shortly provide a summary of lessons learned in a “Part 2” (I have a recordings of the event, but it’s low quality.)

While there is a lot of work done in the realm of science policy (how to inform our representative and make sure they make evidence-based decision)—groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, Engineers and Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) or closer to me the Berkeley Science Policy Group and interesting programs such as the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships— very few scientists do engage politics frontally, as candidates.

While other countries do have trained scientists at their helm (Angela Merkel from Germany and Xi Jinping from China are both doctors in Chemistry, and their respective term have been relatively successful up to this point), other countries not so much. Currently, Rep Bill Foster (D-Il), Steve Englebright (NY state assembly) and Dan Kalb (Oakland City Council) are scientists in public offices; Vern Ehlers and Rush D. Holt were the first physicists to be elected in congress (party did not matter so much, Ehlers being a Republican and Holt a Democrat; see College Professors Who Have Served in Congress – The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 2014) for a partial list)

Interestingly, a few rising stars (or shining bright already!) of the Congress are professors (but not scientists): Katie Porter, ❤️Kirsten Sinema💙, Elizabeth Warren. Jess Phenix is a geologist who has ran for the House of Representative; she has still been unsuccessful, but her time might come.

(edit 11/8/2019: note that Olivier Ezratty published a post on “Do we need more scientists and engineers in politics“, quite thorough)

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Open access – redux

Wow the levy is about to break on Open Access!

I’ve written a few times on Open Access (here, and here), and things have been changing at an incredible pace.

A quick explanation about the topic: scientists share their research by publishing into very specialized journals. These journals then either charge a fee (>$10) for any reader to read a specific article, or as is more often the case, collect a subscription for an institution so that all of the people who work for this institution get complete access to a journal or a set of journal. The problem here is that the research submitted by the authors is often funded by public entities, which do not have the right to read the publications of other group freely (open access.) And the subscription fees have skyrocketed (e.g. in the order of $10 million for UC Berkeley.)

But now, large entities are rebelling.

The first salvo came from funding agencies, which require the papers to be made freely available, either by sharing the pre-prints (e.g. on arxiv) or by publishing in an Open Access journal (journals where the authors pay (usually $1000!) to get published, and where anyone can read.)

Then came Germany, which reached an impass with the academic publisher Elsevier (one of the leading actors, together with Springer and Wiley) and decided not to pay for the racket (projekt DEAL). The issue has not been resolved yet and German researchers still do not have access to publications such as Cell (they can however directly contact the authors of the papers to get the papers — which actually sound like a good way to start off collaborations!)

Next is the University of California (the whole UC system, with UC Berkeley, Los Angeles, … including Lawrance Berkeley National Lab and Los Alamos), who decided not reneged a deal with Elsevier. That’s a lot of people, for the most important public university system in the world. The impact can be quite dramatic…

And soon will be the turn of Europe as a whole, with Plan S, starting next year…

I can’t wait to see the science literature being unshackled!

Still, don’t expect much changes in the conduct of science… “Authors do not publish to get read, they publish to get reviewed.”



Lead by lidar

At the moment (April 2019), the economy is in a weird quantum superposition of doom (yield curve inversion) and exaltation, with Lyft recently joining the public markets (always loved the irony of the term…)

I’ve been talking to a few people involved in driverless cars and AI lately, asking them…. when? They usually tell me soon, the problem they have is that the main drawback with learned neural networks is that they are almost impossible to debug. You can try to get insight on how they work (see the fascinating Activation Atlas), but it’s really difficult to rewire them.

And it’s actually pretty easy to hack them — you can easily do some random addition to find noise that will activates the whole network. In the real world, you can put stickers at just the right location and… make every other car crash. Pretty scary…

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How I unlocked my Verizon Moto G6 and ditched my iPhone 6 because it was too slow

Recently, I bought a phone for my family visiting, because roaming costs are so incredibly high for no good reason, and because it becomes hard to navigate the world without the internet (booking, GPS, etc.) I bought at $99, and paid a $50 data plan from Verizon (good deal given that the phone the MSRP is $249, that it’s a very decent phone, and that you can use it anywhere with any carrier — it has GSM, CDMA and everything you need.)

On the back of the box, it was mentioned that the phone could be unlocked after $50 had been made. I had just bought $50 of credit for 1 month of 4G with Verizon.

When my parents left, I tried to unlock it. It was a bit confusing, but it did work!

You can find solace in successfully going through automated customer service

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Paul Valéry sur le mensonge

Bonne année 2019!

Ces deux dernières années aux Etats-Unis m’ont beaucoup fait reflechir, sur le plan personnel et politique, à la notion de verité, de transparence et d’honnêté, qui plus que jamais est nécessaire au discours civil.

Au centre de cette réflexion, ces quelques lignes de Paul Valéry, toujours juste.


Ce qui nous force à mentir, est fréquemment le sentiment que nous avons de l’impossibilité chez les autres qu’ils comprennent entièrement notre action. Ils n’arriveront jamais à en concevoir la nécessité (qui à nous-même s’impose sans s’éclaircir).

– Je te dirais ce que tu peux comprendre. Tu ne peux comprendre le vrai. Je ne puis même essayer de te l’expliquer. Je te dirais donc le faux.

– C’est là le mensonge de celui qui désespère de l’esprit d’autrui, et qui lui ment, parce que le faux est plus simple que le vrai. Même le mensonge le plus compliqué est plus simple que le Vrai. La parole ne peut prétendre à développer tout le complexe de l’individu.

– Paul Valéry, Tel Quel

On truth and its perils

What is true, what is false, what is wrong?

With the rise of large scale misinformation, this question has become more and more important, as it seems political parties around the world have reached the escape velocity of facts.

polarization in US politics really goes only one way…

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Mr Musk is having a hard time, and even though I have great appreciation for his making engineering look cool again, I won’t relent  as I believe his efforts are misguided.

Nothing can be so amusingly arrogant as a young man who has just discovered an old idea and thinks it is his own. – Sidney J. Harris

Today, I’ll talk about Hyperloop.

edit 12/18/2018: Hyperloop startup Arrivo is shutting down -The Verge — lol

edit 10/10/2019: Was the Ocean Cleanup Just a Pipe Dream? – Outside online
Jenny Allen: “Male privilege in science is a 24 year old guy with no formal training being called a ‘boy genius’, receiving millions of dollars in funding, and referring to qualified female oceanographers as ‘Ms’ instead of ‘Dr.’ when they critique his project.”

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Self-reference is cornerstone in Hofstadter’s Godel-Escher-Bach, a must read book for anyone interested in logic (and we shall rely logic in these days to stay sane.)

Here’s a bunch of examples of self-reference that I found interesting, curated just for you!

Barber’s paradox:

The barber is the “one who shaves all those, and those only, who do not shave themselves.” The question is, does the barber shave himself?

Self-referential figure (via xkcd):

Tupper’s formula that prints itself on a screen (via Brett Richardson) Continue reading

Moore’s wall

A single chip such has Intel Xeon Phi has a computational power in excess of 1TFLOPS and features more than a hundred billion transistors. Few people  outside the world of semi-conductor engineering appreciate this, but that is a fantastical number: 100,000,000,000. If every transistor was a pixel, you would need a wall 0f 100 x 100 4K TV screen to display them all!

Over the past fifty years, the semiconductor industry has achieved incredible things, in part thanks to planar technology, which allowed to exponentially scale the manufacturing process, following Moore’s law. But it seems that we’re about to hit a wall soon.


Let’s give an overview of where we stand, and where do we go from here!

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Over the years I’ve collected quotes from people who are.

I always like quotes, because they are atoms of knowledge, quick and dirty ways to understand the world we only have one life to explore. To some extent, they axioms of life in that they are true and never require an explanation (otherwise they wouldn’t be quotations.)

Here’s a bunch of quotes that I found particularly interesting, starting with my absolute favorite quote comes from the great Paul Valery:

The folly of mistaking a paradox for a discovery, a metaphor for a proof, a torrent of verbiage for a spring of capital truths, and oneself for an oracle, is inborn in us. – Paul Valery

On research — trial and error

Basic research is like shooting an arrow into the air and, where it lands, painting a target.
-Homer Burton Adkins

A thinker sees his own actions as experiments and questions–as attempts to find out something. Success and failure are for him answers above all.
– Friedrich Nietzsche
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