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.