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Copyright (c) 2008 Design/Analysis Consultants, Inc.
DESIGN/ANALYSIS NEWSLETTER
3rd
Qtr
2008
Dedicated to Design Excellence
Feedback: newsletter@daci-wca.com
OFF TOPIC
Global Warming
Applying engineering thinking to life
The scientific method is one of mankind's crowning achievements, designed to guide us, over time, toward the underlying truths of nature. The catch, though, is "over time." In the short run, scientists -- being human -- are often prone to promote ideas that coincide with their own best interests, regardless of facts to the contrary. (For some good references on this phenomenon see the Bad Science section on our Links page.) The result is that the path to truth is a herky-jerky one, with false branches leading to many detours and dead ends. An excellent example is the current debate over global warming.

On one hand one sees an array of scientists who flatly state that global warming is real, it is primarily man-made, and it is a threat to all life on our planet. Some members of this group tend to attack personally other scientists who may disagree. Name-calling, of course, is not true scientific discourse; it is politics. Members of this first group also appear positioned to be rewarded handsomely for their views, since they would be in the vanguard of the bureacratic army that would be unleashed to regulate the world's economies to combat the global threat.

On the other hand, there are scientists who agree that the earth is warming but also believe that it has little to do with mankind. Others believe that the earth's warming follows the waxing and waning of the sun's output as indicated by sunspot activity. In fact, sunspot activity indicates that the earth may actually be starting to significantly cool (see the compelling article by NASA astronoaut Phil Chapman: "Sorry to ruin the fun, but an ice age cometh," The Australian, April 23, 2008).

The sun is what we engineering analysts call a Big Gorilla Variable; i.e. it overwhelms other variables that some scientisits try to crank into their computer models. Pardon us, but we are justifiably wary of politically-driven and statistically-dubious computer tweaking. The preferred scientific approach is to track the Big Gorillas and see where they lead us.
OUR VIEW
The wrong answer can kill your company
SIGHTINGS / COMPUTER MODELS: REALITY or MIRAGE?
Some years ago a startup company developed a new product that relied extensively on a software-driven algorithm. Performance seemed to be great and investment money flowed in. However, upon subjecting the technology to new third-party input data, it was found that the algorithm had to be, ahem -- adjusted -- in order to obtain the required accuracy. This went on for a couple of years more until it had to be admitted that the expected performance was a mirage that existed only in the imaginations of the original designers. The years spent tweaking and tuning the algorithm was in reality a form of data mining, where the designers collected only the data that confirmed their predictions, whereas contrary data were dismissed as outliers or anomalies.
I Didn't Use to be Paranoid...
NEWS BULLETS
A Japanese man discovered an unknown woman secretly living in his closet.
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The Black Swan / The Impact of the Highly Improbable
Mr. Taleb has written an engaging and entertaining philosophical book on probabilities, applied to the world at large. The subject is black swans, a term Taleb uses to describe highly improbable events, such as financial meltdowns. Improbable events are also extremely important to design engineers, because the last thing we want is for any of our designs to become one. On the contrary, we would highly prefer that our products hum merrily along for their intended life spans, not pausing to belch flame or smoke, or to collapse in oscillatory paroxysms.
Mr. Taleb refers to this blissful state of predictability as Mediocristan. For an engineer, keeping one's design within the hum-drum and predictable bounds of Mediocristan is one of the hallmarks of design excellence. Readers of this newsletter, and our Design Analysis Handbook, will find that The Black Swan buttresses our prior cautions against the inappropriate application of statistics. (A notorious example in engineering is using MIL-HDBK-217 for reliability predictions.)

The Black Swan is recommended reading for design engineers and technical managers who would like to improve their ability to spot statistical nonsense.
Reuters, May 30 2008
by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Random House)
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