How mathematical modeling saved money and sped up innovation in 1570

Computer-aided design (CAD) enables engineers to create products much faster and cheaper compared to trial and error.

But did you know that innovators have used abstract modeling long before the existence of computers?

Anton Howes, a historian of innovation, tells the story of Matthew Baker. Baker was a 16th century shipbuilder who improved the construction of carvel ships.

Carvel-built hull versus the previous clinker-built method. Source

As Howes explains:

What Matthew Baker did in the 1570s was to take the design process out of the shipyard, and onto paper. He drew his ships, to scale. And by using pen and paper, with geometry to make such drawings possible, he opened up grand new possibilities for design. […] He drew out new designs for frames, using geometry to work out how any variation would affect the overall shape of the hull, as well as its weight and carrying capacity – all at the cost of only time, ink, and paper, and avoiding the huge potential waste of conducting experiments at full scale in wood. His process allowed him to innovate more easily, and even to design new measuring instruments.

Interestingly, the new methods were not quickly adopted in the rest of Europe:

By the 1580s, new English ships were among the most technically advanced in Europe, and even in the mid-seventeenth century, ship plans were apparently still unknown in France. Having once lagged far behind, geometry began to give English shipbuilding the edge.

It’s still true today that good business practices (a) can save you a lot of money and (b) are hard to copy.

‘Banks make money out of thin air’ is a confusing slogan

Banks do not create money out of thin air. That’s the title and argument of an article by Pontus Rendahl and Lukas Freund in VOX.

Unsurprisingly, people on Twitter took issue with the authors’ claim:

I find this polemic boring and unproductive.

Boring, because I explained the misconceptions surrounding “money from thin air” in Bankers are people, too. (If you have a copy of the book, see page 38).

It’s also unproductive, because a slogan is not an insight. VOX claims to provide ‘Research-based policy analysis and commentary from leading economists’. It’s a sad state of affairs if leading economists produce more heat than light by using slogans.

Scientists don’t argue about slogans. Insight follows from identifing the relevant mechanisms or from looking at empirical findings, not from these endless ‘debates’.

That’s why Bankers are people, too contains so many drawings of simple balance sheets and discussions of behavior and incentives. I wanted to be crystal clear, not become yet another vague economics guru.

Do better, economics community…

Economics is hard

How are economic statistics collected? Do economic models correspond to observable reality?

In a world where markets and politicians respond strongly to things like gross domestic product (GDP) figures and economic forecasts, these are important questions. Unfortunately, discussion often jumps directly to the interpretation of new data or the output of models. Students are rarely challenged to question what the data and the models represent.

I recently came across two great articles that dig into these issues. Continue reading “Economics is hard”

Can we avoid another financial crisis?

Can we avoid another financial crisis? Ten years after the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), we’ll hear the opinions of countless pundits about the likelihood of a new crisis. However, few commenters will be able to answer the question as profoundly as professor Steve Keen. Keen elaborated his views in the 2017 book with the appropriate title Can we avoid another financial crisis? Continue reading “Can we avoid another financial crisis?”

Preparing physics students for 21st-century careers

Are universities teaching physics students the things they need to succeed in the real world? The vast majority of physicists don’t work as physics professors. Jobs outside of physics departments often require skills that are less important for an academic career.

In Physics Today (open access during November 2017), professors Laurie McNeil and Paula Heron discuss how universities can teach relevant business skills, without neglecting the physics curriculum. Based on statistical data and interviews, they show that there is much room for improvement. Continue reading “Preparing physics students for 21st-century careers”

Two publication cultures: economics versus physics

In a recent blog post, professor Roger Farmer comments on the publishing process in economics. He writes that economic journal publishing is “a process that is highly centralised around five leading journals. These are the American Economic Review, the Quarterly Journal of Economics, the Review of Economic Studies, Econometrica and the Journal of Political Economy. For a young newly appointed lecturer, publishing a paper in one of these top five journals is a pre-requisite for promotion in a leading economic department […]” Continue reading “Two publication cultures: economics versus physics”

Michael Lewis on the US Department of Energy (highly recommended!)

Michael Lewis, the author of The Big Short, has written a great article for Vanity Fair.

Why the scariest nuclear threat may be coming from inside the White House is a fascinating portrait of the Department of Energy.

If you’re interested in politics, management, innovation, nuclear weapons or environmental pollution, you should read the article now. Continue reading “Michael Lewis on the US Department of Energy (highly recommended!)”

What do physicists do? Research, software, and finance

After I got my PhD in physics, I started working for a bank. People often ask why I left physics. I usually reassure them by saying that this career choice isn’t exceptional. In fact, most physicists don’t work “in physics”.

A report by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) tracked down physicists working in the private sector, who earned their PhDs in the U.S. about ten years earlier. The respondents were employed in a variety of industries, working as consultants, managers, (software) engineers, etc.

But what about the rest of the world? Are the AIP findings representative for all physicists? Continue reading “What do physicists do? Research, software, and finance”

Don’t be an idiot like Paul Krugman

The electoral victory of Donald Trump has dumbfounded the pundits. Nobel Prize winner and political commentator Paul Krugman was very confident prior to the election that Hillary Clinton would win.

When the election results came in, he was shocked. Krugman admitted that he didn’t know the United States as well as he thought he did.

This was not surprising. Krugman is the prototype of a sheltered elite living in a bubble. How many Trump voters do you think he personally knows? Probably none. Rather, he inhabits an echo chamber full of likeminded people. Just to give some examples, I’m talking about people like Noah Smith, Brad DeLong, Paul De Grauwe and Simon Wren-Lewis.

All have academic backgrounds, cushy jobs, and liberal technocratic preferences. They all read papers like the New York Times. They all are given a forum in the quality press. The all “know” Trump is an incompetent idiot. They all “know” that “facts have a well-known liberal bias”.

In spite of their titles and influence, they were dead wrong about Trump. Continue reading “Don’t be an idiot like Paul Krugman”

My favorite type of model

Scientists build models that capture the essence of some observed phenomenon. The models that I like best are strongly simplified. This in contrast to very complex and non-transparent models that try to replicate every aspect of reality. Good models allow us to gain insight into something we observe by using a limited number of key concepts. I use simple models to be explicit about the underlying assumptions and to be consistent. Continue reading “My favorite type of model”