Misquoting Einstein Is Fast And Stupid, But Not Accurate

from the so-here's-an-accurate-meme dept

I was writing something a while ago, and had reason to quote the famous aphorism ?Computers are incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid; humans are incredibly slow, inaccurate, and smart.? I?ll bet you?ve heard a variation on that quote before, and probably have seen a meme or two with it. It?s usually attributed to Einstein.

(wait, who’s Tom Asacker?)

But when you’re writing a research paper, and you need to add the source citation into Zotero for bibliographic and reference management, you need the actual publication title and date, as well as the author. So I went looking. 

About 25 links and a Wiki-hole later, I stumbled over this article by Ben Shoemate, a web architect and developer who’d come across the same problem I had–in 2008.

Ben had sought this quote as well, thinking that with tens of thousands of search results pointing to Einstein as the quote’s author, there must be a source somewhere.

Even at NASA’s showcase at the conference called Supercomputing 2006, this quote was attributed to Einstein, and then later fact-checked. No one can find out who said it. The closest anyone had gotten was Ben finding a single page (page 691) of a screenshotted article that seemed to have it.

Well, I was sitting in England, in a small room in Oxford to be precise, in lockdown, a short walk from the most extensive library on earth since the Library of Alexandria first smelled smoke. I had plenty of things better to do but a bee in my bonnet, nonetheless. I started trying to track down the source article Ben had mentioned; it was something from the Instrument Society of America. However, while I was a short walk from the Bodleian, the lockdown meant no one could go inside. Oddly, that turned out to be a boon for this little quest. Because most university libraries in the world right now are cooperating with each other to an extraordinary extent, I was able to talk the librarian at the Bod into calling whichever university would have the article I needed–the one surrounding page 691. 

It turned into a combination of Telephone and Who’s On First. 

“I need the article that contains page 691 in 1969 from the ISA.” 

“Ok, what is the author name and the title of the article?” 

“I have no idea; that’s what I’m trying to find out.” 

“But the webform won’t let me submit a request for an article if I don’t know the name of the author and title.” 

“But you know the page number in the article; can you request the five pages before and after that page?” 

“No, I can only scan and deliver one article at a time and that might be more than one article. We could breach our sharing agreement.” 

“What about getting the entire paper journal issue shipped here on Interlibrary Loan?”

“We don’t have the budget for that and it can take months to have a paper copy shipped, even if they’re willing to do so with their only copy.”

Can you call the library and see if someone will walk down there and look at the article?”

“I’m sorry, madam, they are eight hours behind us and we share no business hours in common.”

“AHA they’re on the West Coast of the United States, AREN’T THEY??”

“Ahem. Perhaps I can send an email asking if someone could look around.”

That would be lovely; thank you so much for your time.”


Several weeks later, I had this article in my inbox. From the Instrument Society of America’s 1969 proceedings, and written by H.D. Couture and Marion Keyes. 

H.D. Couture was at Eastex Incorporated, and didn’t have too many other articles and patents; like many of us, it’s probable that much of his contributions were private or under the name of his company. Marion Keyes, however, was a prolific inventor and patent holder. Keyes seems to have been an electrical engineer, and I say “seems to be” because although I am a reasonably intelligent person, I have no idea what most of the words in that patent search listing mean.

Seriously: what does “A load control for a system comprised of a plurality of energy converters wherein the energy output of all converters is adjusted in parallel to maintain the total rate of energy output from the system equal to demand and wherein during steady-state conditions the rate of energy conversion for that converter having the lowest incremental cost is increased and simultaneously the rate of energy conversion for that converter having the highest incremental cost is decreased a like amount” even mean?

I like to think that after decades in electrical engineering, Marion Keyes had seen it all. It turns out he was raised in Bellingham, Washington, just north of me here in Seattle. His obituary was lovely, and says he was survived by his wife, one of their three sons, and all six of his grandchildren.

H.D. Couture is harder to find, but I do know now that his name was Herbert Daniel Couture, Jr. He was a correspondent for the Temple-Inland Employee Newsletter, which rarely mentioned him other than as a writer, but does have him as part of the Utilities group doing work on operational improvements. He is buried at the Resthaven Cemetery in Silsbee, Texas. 

I knew by this point that I wanted to write this down somewhere. One of the hardest issues in disinformation is that when there are hundreds of thousands of results saying that something inaccurate is true, computers cannot parse between them for the credible or true result. It might seem a bit nuts to go to these lengths to find a citation for a research paper, but it matters when I find a fact that people have been misusing. When it’s a simple meme on Tumblr, it’s just annoying. When it is a fact or part of history that we use to build technology, security, or health policy upon, it grows much more important. 

But who the heck was Ben Shoemate and how could I tell him that his quest to find the Grail of Quotes was at an end…and warn him that I was about to link his 13 year old Medium article? Back to the Googles I rode, finding his profiles on Twitter, LinkedIn, and more. I DMed him on Twitter. I connected with him on LinkedIn, I messaged him on his website’s contact form, and emailed something I found on some lookup site. Crickets. Three different times I tried, and finally, I tried publicly tweeting him.

Ben sent me a terse email of one line (as any of us would when contacted the first time by a stranger who is requesting our time without being too specific), and I replied with the PDF of the article…at which point he sent me back a warm and happy email so we could have a chat. We spoke for a while, and discovered we were something of kindred spirits in our annoyance tolerance for made-up facts, as well as really enjoying digging into why someone would pursue a source citation this far. It was a wonderful chance to reward him for a long, long ago post that put a bit of useful information out into the world that gave me a place to continue, and it?s the reason I finally have the quote I need for my paper.

So, in thanks for Ben?s humor and point of reference, and for H.D. Couture?s and Marion Keyes? humor and quotability, I give you a true meme at last:

Tarah Wheeler is an information security researcher and social scientist, and a cybersecurity fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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Comments on “Misquoting Einstein Is Fast And Stupid, But Not Accurate”

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Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:


Correct attribution: $1,500 plus — no doubt everyone will invest that amount for each detail — to get their paper correct in every detail.

So…999 of 1000 future papers will still be misattributed, because no one can confirm the correct attribution in this ocean of misattribution. (Yes, Ben Shoemate’s site has the correct attribution and says so…but 999,999 other sites will swear to their misattribution. This is the web, after all.)


The only thing that surprises me is that it didn’t get attributed to good ol’ Ben Franklin.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Challenge Accepted

“A load control for a system comprised of a plurality of energy converters wherein the energy output of all converters is adjusted in parallel to maintain the total rate of energy output from the system equal to demand and wherein during steady-state conditions the rate of energy conversion for that converter having the lowest incremental cost is increased and simultaneously the rate of energy conversion for that converter having the highest incremental cost is decreased a like amount” even mean?

You have some set of energy converters. They might be, for instance, power plants. Converting water energy, wind energy coal, natural gas, atomically generated heat, whatever into, for instance, electricity.

You have all of these working, pouring electricity into, say, a regional power grid. You want the power you are putting into the grid to stay the same, but you want to make it less expensive.

So what you do is find the answers to this question: for energy converter X, how much more/less expensive will it be if I increase (decrease) its power output. (Aside: you probably have these answers before you start, for every value from zero to maximum for that energy converter. Something like this, you don’t want surprises.)

Having those answers, you then (changing things in parallel) increase the output of, say, your nuclear plant while decreasing the output of your hydro plant. The power output remains the same, and you reduce the cost-per-kilowatt. (Also aside: the cost isn’t always money. It could be ‘wear’. It could be ‘opportunity cost’. It could be practically anything you want to describe as a "cost".)

"Plurality" because you may have some energy converters in the system over which you have no immediate control, and thus cannot change on the scale you are looking at.

Say you have a coal power plant, a hydroelectric dam, and a field of solar cells. The coal power plant can change its generation, but it takes significant time. The dam can change its generation fairly rapidly, but if you push it too hard, you run out of water to generate with. And the solar cells? Can’t do anything much with them.

Night falls, people start cooking. Also, the solar cells stop producing power. To meet demand, you increase hydro generation. But you don’t want to do that for long, because you would eventually run out of water. So, you start spinning up the coal plant.

The load balancing (and incremental cost business) is, while the output from the coal plant increases, you decrease the hydro output so the energy output total remains constant. This increases your ability to respond to changes in power demand, by increasing the range you can increase hydro if needed.

The "cost" in that example is somewhere between literal cost-to-operate, "energy converter fuel resource" cost, and "ability to change" cost. In the real world, it’s much more complex. 😛

The patent? For the algorithm (or, perhaps, device) that calculates what to increase, what to decrease, and when to do so.

mechtheist (profile) says:

Re: Challenge Accepted

The word ‘plurality’ kinda jars in that patent. I briefly worked for a company that did translations of technical documents including lots of patents. I didn’t translate, only edit for clarity and accuracy of the translation. One of our translators always mistranslated ‘number’ as ‘plurality’. I don’t really understand what you’re saying about the word, I can’t parse the sentence in a way that makes sense to me based on the rest of the quote. Is ‘plurality’ some kind of patent jargon? I’m just guessing, maybe they were basing their patent on a previous patent from some foreign source that was similarly mistranslated.

mechtheist (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Challenge Accepted

There are numerous definitions of the word. It’s use here just isn’t the way anyone talks, that’s why I said it was jarring. The question is whether it’s jargon in patents, is this usage common in patents? Changing ‘plurality’ to ‘number’ was something I received specific instruction to do so it makes me curious to see it here in a patent.

sumgai (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Challenge Accepted

Sorry, I should’ve paid closer attention.

As above, yes the word is often used in patent language. Much of this stems from the fact that what works once should work again, and since patents have been around for about as long as our country…. you can probably guess why this word, and others, seem to be "out of step" with today’s common vocabulary, but are part and parcel of the patent world.

As an example, I looked up something that I happen to know from personal experience. Check out how many times "plurality" appears in this patent:


… and this is from 1994. Dig into the referred patents that go back in time, and you keep finding the word, over and over. And wouldn’t you know it, the patent passes the examiner’s litmus test, despite the fact that it’s re-inventing the wheel for about the 15th or 20th time.

Ah, the power of language, ain’t it grand.

sumgai (profile) says:

Re: Re: Challenge Accepted

That uncreated storage would be an additional cost, something that looms large in planning and budgeting… particularly in the public sector.

So far, excepting Texas, the general grid can handle the transfer of enormous amount of power for short durations. Since wire is less costly than pretty much any storage medium of equivalent capacity, guess way the wind blows….

Federico (profile) says:

Misattributed Albert Einstein quotations

It took me approx 30 seconds to find all the information I needed about this false quotation from the English Wikiquote:

When curious about a quotation there’s just too much junk around the web (and often in books too). My first stop is always at Wikiquote.

Vidiot (profile) says:

Cite me, please

"I knew by this point that I wanted to write this down somewhere."

Knowing, or even suspecting, that a stated fact isn’t factual can end in frustration. I’ve wanted to correct a handful of inaccurate Wikipedia entries, for instance, but doing that would run afoul of the citation requirement… no one ever made an on-the-record recitation of the fact I knew so well, sometimes even firsthand. That might be one of the few practical justifications for maintaining a vanity blog… not because you think anyone, anywhere might read it, but at least you can cite your own words elsewhere.

BernardoVerda (profile) says:

Re: Cite me, please

Yeah, I know.

I just spent half my afternoon trying to pin down just how toxic (to humans) borax and boric acid are (or aren’t), and just why people might think think they are (or aren’t).

I also learned that in the EU, borax has been virtually eliminated (banned) as a consumer product or component thereof — and replaced with something distinctly more dubious.

On an interesting detour in this meander, I also learned that the red food colour certified in the USA appears to be considered unsafe in the EU, while the red food colouring approved in the EU is actually banned in the USA…

And proponents of both stances appear to be quite certain that they have authoritative backing for their positions.

Suddenly I’m feeling slightly more charitable towards some of those people who are "unsure" about covid vaccines or climate change.

Anonymous Coward says:

The Web is almost infinite anyone who expects all the data or quotes on it to be 100 per accurate or up to date is a fool. And many university’s cannot afford to pay for dozens of journals that have high subscription fees
Still it is the best resource we have to communicate and for artists to share and collaborate how many future musicians will be inspired by random audio or video clips on YouTube soundcloud or some random websites
And Wikipedia is being constantly checked by users for accuracy and its updated every hour

David says:

Re: I thought you were on to something here

but it turns out his seminal work is the theory of relativity, not of relationships. Actually, two of them. But he got his physics Nobel prize for photoelectric quantum effects although being an outspoken opponent to quantum physics.

Maybe someone misattributed what he wrote and the rest is history.

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re:

In my experience (30 years programming), that’s the number one source of bugs, and they’re very difficult to find because we don’t read back the code we actually wrote, we read back what we thought we wrote. Some programmers will go back through the code backwards to find those bugs. Others will pass the code on to someone who doesn’t know what you meant to write, only what you actually wrote.

Glenn says:

After 25+ years of being a sysprog and sysadmin and working with operators… a well-trained operator does little more than observe established, written procedures and policies (largely by sysprogs and sysadmins); thinking has little to do with it–let alone being brilliant. Mostly, a well-trained operator doesn’t "think" at all, except about where to find the appropriate instructions for the current situation.

The brilliant operators become programmers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Misquotes are annoying

For one thing it’s

Quoth the Raven: "Nevermore."

Note the quote marks, the capitalisation, and there never is "Thus" in the whole poem. You are probably mixing this up with "Also sprach Zarathustra", commonly translated as "Thus spake Zarathustra".

For another, the poet is called "Edgar Allan Poe" with a double l in the middle.

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