My last post on albedo, I promise

After seeing my recent blogs on Nathan Myhrvold, a friend told me that, in the tech world, the albedo-obsessed genius is known as a patent troll.


Yup. My friend writes:

It’s perhaps indicative that Myhrvold comes up in the top-ten hits on Google for [patent troll]. These blog posts lay it out pretty clearly:

Just about anyone’s that’s been in the tech game thinks patents are ridiculous. The lab where I used to work wanted us to create an “intellectual mine field” in our field so the companycould block anyone from entering the space. Yes, we made stuff, but the patents were for totally obvious ideas that anyone would have. Even Google’s PageRank was just a simple application of standard social network analysis models of authorities in networks.

Who knew? I’m used to seeing Myhrvold’s “Intellectual Ventures” company described adoringly by reporters from the New Yorker etc as being a place where brilliant minds create the ideas of the future. Then on the other side is this patent stuff.

I know nothing about patents and so am in no position to judge this one. So let me say clearly that I’m not describing his work as patent trolling; I’m merely noting that this perception exists.

Still no excuse for getting albedo wrong and then having a hissy fit about it. For less than a thousandth of his fortune, Myhrvold could hire someone like my friend Phil who could check all his physics for him.

The other day when I was checking the albedo story, I Googled Myrhvold. I suppose in his honor I should’ve used Bing, but in any case the first thing that came up was Wikipedia, which describes Intellectual Ventures as In 2000 Myhrvold co-founded Intellectual Ventures, a patent portfolio developer and broker,” which sounds about right, descriptive rather than pejorative. Later down on the first page of the Google search are a Wall Street Journal article referring to Myhrvold as “the king of patent aggregating” and a TechCrunch article referring to his “patent extortion fund.” Also a couple of articles from the New York Times and Forbes magazine) that don’t bring up the patent stuff.

Again, this shouldn’t really have anything to do with the albedo fiasco, but it provides a bit more perspective, in that Myhrvold has a lot going on. Really the problem was not so much the hasty statements about albedo, so much as the tendency of various journalists from Levitt to Lanchester to just accept them without checking with a physicist. (As a physics graduate myself, I can assure you that a degree in physics does not immunize a person from making physics mistakes.)

P.S. It took only three entries on this topic to move it over to the Zombies category on the blog . . .

P.P.S. I found another albedo reference! See the 4th-5th paragraphs from the end of this article. Perhaps this was the original albedo insight that got him stuck on the idea.

7 thoughts on “My last post on albedo, I promise

  1. This is on a completely separate topic:

    I like when you give examples of misleading figures, and just came across another good example:

    The first two figures, he says, shows that the US is a fair amount better than most other countries on these two cancers, but figure 3, he claims, shows that if you add all cancers together, "That’s a much tighter clustering of results." But he starts each y-axis at zero, so the third figure is on a much different scale than the other two. It looks, from eyeballing, that if the scales were the same, the clustering wouldn't be any tighter.

    It's too bad, because I'm sympathetic to his argument.

  2. Finally a statement that makes sense – the grill reflection thing makes perfect sense (although I'm not sure it counts as albedo in the strict sense) – but you don't need to be a physicist for that – any moderately experienced chef will appreciate that (and many do, actually – I've seen various tinkers with aluminum foil in roasting devices and grills for exactly that purpose.)

  3. What's especially weird about this is that Myhrvold has a PhD in theoretical physics – from Princeton, no less. I believe he was a postdoc with Stephen Hawking as well. Mistaking a tiny effect for a really large one is an inummerate's error. Hard to see how it happened…

  4. Aluminum is very reflective in both infrared (IR) and visible. (Actually many bare metals are, I think). Stainless steel is not as IR reflective. But there's not necessarily anything wrong with paint, either; some paints, and some colored surfaces, are highly reflective in the IR. So I wouldn't go so far as to say that the iconic black Weber grill would do a lot better if the inside were stainless steel or aluminum instead. It might be true, and in fact I"d say it is probably true at least to some degree, but it might not be as big a difference as one would think. (As is so often the case, I'm sure someone has looked into this and the answer is out there somewhere; I just don't know what it is for sure).

  5. I also suspect that many people have looked at this in greater depth than Myhrvold, but the point I'm wondering about is how convection cooking affects the analysis.

  6. Foster:

    As I noted in an earlier entry on the topic, my guess is that he just was making an offhand remark. The problem is that (a) nobody fact-checked it before it appeared in the book, (b) later he doubled down by defending it rather than just admitting it was an incidental comment he'd made, not so relevant to his main point.

    As noted here, I think that, for whatever reason, Myhrvold has albedo on the brain and thinks of it in all sorts of settings, some appropriate and some not. And, of course, for his geoengineering project, albedo definitely is relevant.

  7. Given what we know about Intellectual Ventures, I'd be surprised if Myhrvold didn't control numerous patents involving geo-engineering and doesn't stand to make a lot of money if we move in that direction. This would certainly predispose him to focus on problems with alternate technologies.

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