Gene Saunders, RIP

I just learned that my old friend, Sun colleague, and fellow SecularLiberalGeek Gene Saunders died last week. (I just got off the phone from speaking with his friend Judy.)

Gene Saunders
Gene Saunders
I’m going to miss his constant emails on politics, technology, godlessness, and Texas.
More anon.
UPDATE: Links to Gene’s blog and his photos, courtesy Alec.
UPDATE: I’ve created a mailing list for friends of Gene to exchange news and thoughts. You can sign up here.



SpaceX did it! Fantastic work.


One subject, two books…

I left my Kindle at the office this weekend, and I just finished a couple of work-related books (one tedious, one great), and so I’m looking for reading material this evening. I have two new books on the same subject, and I’m trying to decide which to crack first:

Both are accounts by former Christian preachers and apologists of how and why they rejected Christianity in favour of atheism. Both include lengthy justifications, including many of the familiar arguments against Christian faith. I’m more interested in the personal narratives than in the anti-apologetics, however.
One of my favourite accounts of the loss of faith is Anthony Kenny’s A Path from Rome, in which he describes his life from childhood, through becoming a Catholic priest, to the seeking and granting of laicization. This took place during the 1950s and early 1960s, at a time when few Catholic priests left the church, and I suspect that he wrote the book in part as an “existence proof” of the possibility of doing so. Of course, religion was far less potent a social or political force there and then, in England, than it is here and now, in the United States.
I hope that Barker and Loftus present their arguments as aids to the uncertain, to those who are inclined to reject religion but need ammunition to deal with family and friends who might seek to dissuade them. Arguments against religion per se are, in my view, a waste of time: apologetics are all post hoc constructions designed to reinforce a purely emotional commitment to faith, and the hard-choice fideist is unlikely to hear any counter-arguments. People have to find their own way out of the mist; it’s only as they begin to do so that they will be receptive to an account of what the mist is.
Anyway, let me flip a coin. Heads… I’ll start with Godless.



Felipe Massa should have won today’s Singapore Grand Prix. He was the fastest driver, in the fastest car, using tyres which worked better on his car than the competition. Instead, he finished next-to-last, out of the points, and saw Hamilton extend his lead in the Championship. And the cause of his failure was a classic piece of over-engineering.
Those familiar with Formula One may find this a bit obvious. But others, especially some of the software engineers with whom I work, may find it instructive.
In the course of a Formula One race, drivers will routinely stop to add fuel and change tyres. Unlike US motor racing, Formula One teams can have as many people working on the car simultaneously as they like. As a result, a pit stop is an elaborately choreographed procedure, with mechanics changing tyres, adding fuel, cleaning debris out of the radiators, adjusting wing settings, and even polishing the driver’s visor. With so much going on, the driver is in no position to see when everyone’s finished. And there’s another consideration: the pit lane is narrow, and there may be other cars overtaking; the driver can’t drive away until it’s safe to do so.
The traditional solution has been “the lollypop man”, a mechanic holding a sign on a stick, right in front of the driver. Using the sign, this mechanic signals to the driver when to engage gear, and when it’s safe to leave.
Recently, some clever person in the Ferrari team thought, “This pole thingy is a bit inefficient. It takes quite a while (about a second – an eternity in racing!) to lift it, and sometimes the mechanic will hesitate. And having a person standing next to the car holding the pole just makes things more crowded. Wouldn’t it be better to replace the pole with a remotely-controlled light signal?”
And so they did. And when Massa made his first pit stop, the mechanic controlling the light flipped it to “green” while the fuel hose was still attached. Massa took off, dragging the fuel hose behind him, and knocking over a mechanic (who was rushed to hospital). By the time everything had been sorted out, Massa was dead last.
This was not the first time that the light signal system had failed, and the TV commentators were unsure whether the system had been enhanced with an electronic interlock, so that the light would be kept at red until the fuel hose had been removed. Obviously, if there were such an interlock it must have failed.
It seems to me that this is an interesting systems design problem, with a number of useful lessons. The intended function of the system is pretty straightforward, and the costs and benefits (including faster starting) are clear. Simplified, the system is intended to work as follows:

  1. Signal the driver to stop.
  2. Wait until the pit stop service has been completed.
  3. When it is safe to do so, signal the driver to go.

But this describes the correct behaviour of the system. We need to go beyond this, and think about the ways in which the system can fail, the probabilities of each failure, and the consequences. Broadly speaking, there are two types of failure that may arise:

  1. The mechanic evaluates the situation incorrectly, for example misjudging the position of an obstruction or the speed of another car in the pit lane.
  2. The physical mechanism fails to reflect the mechanic’s intent.

Let’s assume that the mechanic is equally competent in both cases: he (or she?) is just as likely to make an error of judgement with either mechanism. This seems plausible, although if the light system did include some kind of interlock, it is possible that the mechanic might tend to rely upon that rather than making an independent assessment. (“I can’t see if the fuel hose is all the way out, but everything else is clear, and the interlock will catch it if I’m wrong, so… CLICK!” Not consciously, perhaps…)
But what about the mechanism? To be specific, what is the probability that the mechanic will inadvertently press the “start” button unintentionally, and how does this compare with the probability that he might inadvertently lift the pole? The answer seems pretty clear. Anyone who has played a video game, or typed, or performed any other kind of test involving hand-eye coordination knows how easy it is to “jump the gun”. And the light system has other undesirable failure characteristics. If the mechanic realizes that he’s made a mistake, he has to do something (press another button?) on the light control, which takes at least 500 ms (based on what we saw at Singapore). The “lollypop” is relatively fail-safe; if the mechanic stops lifting it, gravity will do the rest.
So why do I describe this as “overengineering”? For me, the term refers to additional engineering work which reduces the net value (benefits less costs) of the system. The light system was intended to provide a benefit of perhaps 2 seconds per driver per race, which was presumably expected to translate into points in the Championship and Constructor rankings. So far this season the mechanism has cost Ferrari at least 10 points, probably more. The actual benefit has been negligible. In addition, mechanics have been injured. And it’s plausible that this could have been predicted with an analysis of the potential failure modes, coupled with some simple behavioural stress testing.
One final thought: it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that these issues emerged after Michael Schumacher and Ross Brawn had left Ferrari. Both of them were passionate about what in my world is termed “operational excellence”. The Ferrari engineers are still among the very best in the world, but the operational quality is slipping.


"Fall on your sword, Sarah"

Kathleen Parker at National Review Online, one of Sarah Palin’s most enthusiastic supporters, throws in the towel.

McCain can’t repudiate his choice for running mate. He not only risks the wrath of the GOP’s unforgiving base, but he invites others to second-guess his executive decision-making ability. Barack Obama faces the same problem with Biden.

Only Palin can save McCain, her party, and the country she loves. She can bow out for personal reasons, perhaps because she wants to spend more time with her newborn. No one would criticize a mother who puts her family first.

Do it for your country.

Of course Parker had to toss in that gratuitous – and completely unsupported – jibe at Biden. Perhaps it was an attempt to soften the blow; no matter. The claim that “Palin can save McCain” is purely wishful thinking: the damage is done, McCain’s desperation is revealed for all to see. Does she really think that people would be able to forget McCain’s colossal error of judgement in a few short weeks? Well, maybe she’s got a point… after all, McMightyMouse will have (or fabricate) plenty of opportunities to play the drama queen between now and the election.
UPDATE: Even the manic enthusiasm of the rabid NROer K-Lo is wavering:

I’m not where my friend Kathleen Parker is — wanting her to step aside to spend more time with her family and Alaska — but that’s not a crazy suggestion. She’s right to say that something’s gotta change.


"[Bush is] Cardinal freaking Richelieu compared to McCain"

Enter the (incompetent) drama queen: McCain makes it worse:

And so, a bailout proposal that once seemed likely to pass now is back to negotiations. In the process, Secretary Paulson was reduced to getting on his knees to beg House Speaker Nancy Pelosi not to have her party members bail on the proposal; President Bush was forced to ponder a market meltdown on his watch; and Democrats were left fuming that in a bid for the leadership spotlight, John McCain may have simply gone and fouled things up.
“Bush is no diplomat,” said a Democratic staffer, “but he’s Cardinal freaking Richelieu compared to McCain. McCain couldn’t negotiate an agreement on dinner among a family of four without making a big drama with himself at the heroic center of it. And then they’d all just leave to make themselves a sandwich.

And what did McCain actually do with his carefully orchestrated appearance? Sat in silence for three quarters of an hour, uttered a few vague platitudes, and did nothing to support Bush, thereby encouraging the apres moi le deluge House Republicans to declare their independence.
Bush went along with McCain’s charade (inviting him to the White House and asking Obama almost as an afterthought), but he must be fuming right now. One more “maverick move”, and McCain’s only friend in the world will be the execrable Palin. (Even she must be wondering what the hell she’s got herself into.)


"Take-your-daughter-to-work day"

Quote of the day:

Letterman said McCain taking Palin to meet world leaders at the United Nations was like “take-your-daughter-to-work day.”

(Via Huffpo.)


The caging of Sarah Palin

TPM on the bizarre handling of Sarah Palin:

What’s really sobering is that the McCain campaign continues to block Palin from answering questions even though it’s now resulting in reams and reams of bad press for the McCain-Palin ticket. That suggests McCain advisers know that letting her answer even the most elementary questions in an uncontrolled environment is so dangerous that it’s worth weathering the current media drubbing they’re taking in order to prevent it from happening at all costs.

Of course there’s an alternative explanation: they’re worried that she will sound all too good, and will flip the ticket. I mean, she’s already on record as referring to a “Palin-McCain administration”….
No, no, no: I’m only joking. Really.



If it seems as if I’ve posted fewer book-related items recently, there is a simple explanation. I’m reading Neal Stephenson’s latest, “Anathem”, and it’s going to take a while. The good news: I’m reading it on the Kindle, which reduces the weight (and the price!). The bad: it’s still going to take some time: I don’t want to rush it.


"Sarah has a tummy ache"

Andrew Sullivan becomes understandably apoplectic at this nonsense:

At the insistence of the McCain campaign, the Oct. 2 debate between the Republican nominee for vice president, Gov. Sarah Palin, and her Democratic rival, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., will have shorter question-and-answer segments than those for the presidential nominees, the advisers said. There will also be much less opportunity for free-wheeling, direct exchanges between the running mates.

McCain advisers said they had been concerned that a loose format could leave Ms. Palin, a relatively inexperienced debater, at a disadvantage and largely on the defensive.

She’s “unblinkingly” ready to become President, but too delicate to handle a televised debate? My bullshit meter just went off the scale and exploded.
I liked the following comment by Skip Evans over at Dispatches From The Culture Wars:

Dear Mrs. Debate Holder,
Sarah will be absent from the debate today, because she has a tummy ache and is not feeling well. Please excuse her absence.
Mrs. Karl Rove