In this week’s EconTalk podcast (around minute 55,) Russ Roberts reiterates an interesting idea: that economists should film a constant video feed of themselves and their computer screen while they’re doing research. That way, all the discarded dead ends and fruitless attempts are documented along with the brilliant paper-worthy successes.
The reason for taking this video is that null results can actually be just as valuable as positive results, but are far less rewarding – to the extent that most researchers don’t find them worth documenting well and thus a lot of potentially valuable information falls through the cracks.
Russ makes the suggestion in the context of economics research, but I think it would be valuable in my field – mechanical engineering – and don’t see why it wouldn’t be useful in other fields as well.
The problem is that the raw video feed would have a very low signal to noise ratio – a lot of useless typing for a few interesting attempted starts and stops. (The other problem is the huge amount of video data itself, but I’m going to cop out and invoke Moore’s Law for that one.)
I recently learned about a project that might present a solution to the signal-to-noise problem. The GDS group at Ames has developed software that ties together in time and importance automatically generated data (here, the video feed) with other inputs (such as files generated by the researcher, their notes, comments etc.) The application here (watch the whole thing, but the especially relevant part is at 24:00) is tying the video feed of a submarine to comments by those viewing the feed and actually in the submarine. It doesn’t seem like too much of a leap to extend it to much more boring videos of scientists at their computers.
Will researchers be willing to have a running video feed of themselves at work? Probably not. But I believe a way to archive the ‘failures’ in research rather than having them ignored and forgotten in favor of ‘successes’ would be a huge win for human knowledge.
Every day I bike past an intersection with a gas station on three of the four corners. The nice thing about biking is that my speed gives me time to pay attention to the prices at each place each day. This leads (as is wont to happen while biking) to thinking about gas prices far more than is warranted. Here are some of those thoughts and what answers I could find so they occupy your commute:
- Each station has a different price – a 0th level economic analysis would say that this makes no sense. Shouldn’t the more expensive one get no business assuming the gas is the same? However, there is a more sophisticated explanation (or at least an interesting and satisfying story) of why the price differences make sense.
- Whenever I pay attention, the prices seem correlated to how the market is doing (the market was down this morning, as were gas prices by about 10 cents.) I might start playing a game where I note the gas prices and guess how the market is doing while biking to work, checking my accuracy when I get there, and recording the results.
- Throughout the price fluctuations, the Arco station at the corner (as well as Arco stations along my ride) always has the lowest price. This confused me until I did some research and discovered that it is due to something I rarely consider: the fact that retailers have to pay a fee to accept credit cards. It might also be due to supposed lower quality, but I suspect that’s just a manifestation of the ‘if it’s cheap it must be inferior’ fallacy.
A busy day at Ames continued to drive home the point that NASA has too many random cool projects for anybody to actually keep track of.
Did you know that there are people working on:
- Bacteria that can extract resources from lunar regolith?
- Self-diagnostic spacecraft systems?
- Actually easy-to-use data collection systems that tie multiple users and collection methods together automatically?
- Smart flight traffic controllers that without any additional technology could several-fold more flights in the US with fewer delays (theoretically)?
And that’s just what I learned about in the past two days, at a single NASA center.
I think the same problem of overabundant excellent but smaller projects exists in the private space sector as well. Just like they only think of ‘space shuttle’ or ‘mars rover’ when you say ‘NASA,’ most people just think ‘SpaceX’ when you say ‘private space exploration.’ There’s got to be a good way to expand awareness of awesome.
In completely unrelated news, I wrote a quick essay for a contest at work on the prompt “If you could have a superpower for a day, what would it be?” Since it ate my blog-post-writing-time, I thought I would offer it up as sacrifice instead:
Full essay below the break.
The superpower I would choose for a day would be the ability to ‘see’ physics.
This article about the European Space Agency’s attempts at making a reusable space plane brings up two big issues. I don’t have time to go into depth about them now, but it’s still worthwhile to bring them to the surface:
Competition between companies is useful and makes sense – driving each company to do better than it would without the incentives. Competition between governments on space technology bugs me. Yes, I realize there is a national security component, etc. etc. but through probably unnecessary secret keeping, the US government is basically forcing the Europeans, with whom we already share tons of military tech, to reinvent the very very complicated wheel.
Basically, I feel like governments have no place competing like companies, especially in the area of space exploration, which should really be a shared human endeavor.
The second point is that ‘reusability’ is not an end in and of itself – in spacecraft or anywhere else. The idea that reusability is always desirable is an unfortunate cultural perception that stems from the fact that sometimes reusing things is more efficient. However, reusability is only worthwhile if it is actually more efficient than getting a new thing and this needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis.
The space shuttle, while reusable, was horrifically inefficient and while awesome, its missions beyond demonstrating its own technology could have been achieved much more cheaply with single-use spacecraft. I worry that this focus on reusability as a justification-free goal continues in the IXV.
More Shameless Research Plugs
I go into a bit more detail on my summer research over at the SSDS blog.