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“I’m gonna use my formula sheets and that’s the only way I’m gonna do stuff.” (mrmeyer.com)
69 points by ColinWright on Jan 2, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 69 comments

If you link through to the NYT article, you'll see a word-for-word dramatization of the deposition. The actual deposition video can be found on Youtube:


I found the choice of accents in the reconstruction interesting. The "dummy" expert witness had a southern accent, and the "smart" attorney had a mid-western/northern accent. In the actual deposition, both guys had southern accents.

Maybe it's unfair of me, but I think it shows bias on the part of the NYT.

In the actual deposition, it looks like the expert actually does some calculation with the calculator. And I imagine he did the math and saw it was different from what he had stated.

The lawyer deposing him isn't an "expert" and isn't allowed to introduce evidence by himself (even if it is patently obvious). The only tool he has is to ask the expert in front of him. If the expert refuses to comply and show himself to be wrong, the lawyer has no recourse but to bring his own expert to court to refute him.

I don't know what went wrong here (measurements were off, conversion was off, drawing wasn't to scale, whole thing is wrong), but if the expert admits something isn't right, it would presumably allow the whole thing to be excluded. The expert is trying to recover and cover his ass here. He knows something isn't right, but probably knows that 68 feet is the right answer. Rather than sink his whole ship, he's trying to focus on the actual accident.

I think his testimony is worthless based on his mistake and the deposing lawyer was right to push the issue.

I am not a lawyer.

This is complete insanity to me. It's like having to accept 2+2=5! The lawyer deposing him has greater patience than I would ever possess.

I think you've misidentified the accents. In the real video the lawyer (whose firm is from Kansas fwiw) definitely has a weaker accent than the expert (who works in Missouri apparently fwiw). In all likelihood they tried to cast people who spoke like the original people.

It's possible that I was mistaken on the accents. But to me, the lawyer's accent sounded like Texas/Oklahoma (I know his firm was in Kansas) and the expert's accent sounded more Kentucky/Missouri.

I actually thought the lawyer's accent was the stronger one - maybe because it's less like mine. I'm from upstate NY originally, living in Ohio for the last 20 years.

Anyway, my comment was pretty US-centric to begin with, probably not that useful to folks from other countries.


I moved from the Florida panhandle (hey ya'll) to NYC. I have noticed a jingoistic attitude towards the Southern states. And towards people who live in rural areas.

From that original Youtube video, I noticed more of a melodic drawl in the lawyer's voice in the original than the expert's voice.

It does seem to me that NYT mixed up the accents, and that resulted from a bias on their part, however unintentional.

> jingoistic

Unless you're suggesting another civil war, I think you've chosen the wrong word.

How much money do you think the NYT put into making this video? How much should they have? At the end of the day you are at the mercy of who shows up at the casting call, their accents, and their ability to duplicate a regional accent.

Or, for all you know they were hired for the opposite rolls, but during takes they each exhibited affinity for the opposite role, and the casting was switched.

> How much should they have?

About zero, considering the actual deposition video is available on YouTube.

That doesn't really work does it? That's like saying why would Hollywood make the dramatization of Man on Wire when there was already an effective documentary? Furthermore, why remake an existing drama when there is already and effective previous version?

They're trying to get eyeballs to the NYT and not Youtube or anywhere else. They control that media now, they can re-use it later or do whatever they want with it.

Ya, I liked the real video more. It wasn't "exciting", but it gave me a much better sense of what happened.

But then they couldn't run pre-roll ads on it.

I'm just gonna point out the metric system that the rest of the world uses.

I had to think for a minute to work out how to convert 3 3/16" to scale by 20 feet to the inch. Now, if you'd said 8cm at 240:1 scale I'd have got there a lot quicker.

It's trivial for someone that is used to it to do with a calculator. Especially an expert. When I did a lot of cad/solid works I'd memorized the most common fractions anyway. About 68' is not "accurate" since the answer is closer to 63'.

yeah, but with metric it's bloody obvious when a calculation is wrong.

I'm always amazed at why the USA still uses the imperial system...

I feel the experts pain (if this is a stress related thing). I get freaked out under any interviewing. If the interview was hostile I would forget my own name. Parts of my brain just refuse to function under such situations and I'm not exaggerating. I.e. I know what a newton-rhapson iteration is supposed to do but cannot remember it nor derive it from first principles. Although, I suspect I've also relied a bit too much on google when these sort of things pop up professionally (which would make search engines a critical part of my higher reasoning )

But it is his JOB as an expert witness to testify under "stressful" circumstances. I think it is reasonable to expect an expert witness to be able to answer questions in a deposition.

Ah - I was confused about the term (not familiar how the legal system works there) - I thought it meant an expert as a witness by chance. If it's his job to sit in the proceedings my comment was really off.

I'm not completely clear on the role of expert witnesses either, I assumed it was someone who was an expert in the field occasionally called to be a witness but their day job is not to be a witness (despite getting paid for it).

There are people who make a career out of being an expert witness. For engineers it requires having a PE certificate at a minimum which is rare in most industries in the US. This allows the professional experts to command high fees.

He is being paid, probably a lot.

From the same series, perhaps the best thing on the NYT website:


I thought for sure that was going to be this: http://youtube.com/watch?v=PZbqAMEwtOE

I'm biased because John Ennis played one of the lawyers, but that one was absolutely my favorite of these.

Wow that is just... How do you argue with crazy? What terrifies me is he was starting to convince me!

Looking at the raw transcript from the deposition can be horribly misleading at best. The transcript doesn't capture tone, accents, stress level, pacing, volume, and a variety of other things. A dramatization allows you to color the scene in a variety of ways that tell the story in radically different ways.

Think of saying "wow, that's a great idea!" to your best friend that has a great idea. Then think of saying that to the office idiot who just suggested they can rebuild your entire system in a weekend.

Disclosure: I work in speech recognition systems.

Well, yeah. But that's also how screenplays work.

"Interpreting tone, accents, stress level, pacing, volume, and a variety of other things from a transcript" is a pretty good description of a director's job.

This project just uses the verbatim transcript as a screenplay, and runs with it. They are very honest about the fact that they are aiming for something between faithful re-creation and entertainment.

The video of this deposition is in the comments above and is pretty spot on to the reenactment.

There's a video of the actual deposition as well. Sounds pretty similar.

The worst student in medschool can still become a doctor, and the worst student in lawschool can still become a lawyer. People with a track record of terrible judgement can still have illustrious careers.

So we shouldn't be surprised by the shocking level of incompetence of the expert witness on display here. Most of us live in a bubble where we never come into contact with people like this, but they're everywhere.

The joke goes, "What do you call the person who graduated last in their class from med school?"


Sometimes we fail spectacularly at momentous points in our lives. That doesn't invalidate everything we've ever done and prove we are and will always be the incompetent frauds we appear to be, no more than any by other failure, although that's what it feels like when you're on trial. I would still rather receive medical treatment by an MD who graduated last in their class than by the lawyer who pointed out that doctor's biggest mistake.

More than anything, to me, the expert looks unprepared, which is forgivable, especially for someone with little legal experience. Also, fractions on a tenkey? He would have done better on an abacus.

((3 / 16) + 3) * 20 = 63.75

He fiddled with the calculator, perhaps as he did it, he recognized his drawing didn't add up to the stated 68 feet (1 inch to 20 ft scale) and stonewalled, knowing that if he did the calculation for them, he would have demonstrated himself incorrect.

But yeah, incompetent people are everywhere.

That's possible, but his defense about not being a mathematician and not being able to "derive the formula" indicates he's truly clueless, not clever and thinking several steps ahead.

Alternatively, he's good at his job of stonewalling under difficult circumstances, not bad at his job of math.

I can totally imagine that if he'd done the sum as instructed, he'd be facing a dressing down from his boss as to why he didn't follow the simple "not without reference materials" script. I imagine they're probably instructed to avoid doing maths under pressure in general, because that's a terrible idea for any normal person. Real life is not a maths exam.

Edit: It turns out he was his own boss, but I think the above still applies.

This is what puzzles me. It did seem like stonewalling. But I also believe a non-math savvy person could take a course, cram the formulas, and become an "expert". It's not like this guy is a PhD physics professor who is moonlighting - he said he took a course and was trained how to do this. Given the wrong answer, I lean towards inability rather than a simple mistake. But who knows?

So how do you become qualified as this kind of expert? Most people here know more math and probably have better understanding of it than this guy. I'd like to be able to bill $930 for a deposition.

He did say "68 feet approximately". From the video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sYqXlRQrBN4 it seems that he was feeling a lot of stress and doesn't trust himself to be sure.

I side (mostly) with the expert here. I'm now in my 50s and my memory is not what it used to be. Under hostile questioning I can forget my own name sometimes. That said, you'd think an expert witness would keep his cool as he might be in a court room situation with similar questioning.

But this isn't a memory thing. This is math with a calculator. He isn't being asked to recite the multiplication speed tables by memory. I'll admit that it can take me a couple of seconds to remember what 9 * 7 is when calculating the bill for dinner, but I can most definitely do it with a calculator, because I know that that's how math works.

I agree with what another poster has said [1]. It's likely this expert knew how to use the calculator but then saw what the answer came up as and realized, "Oh shit!". But maybe this was the "right" tactic to go with, if the expert wanted to be able to weasel his way out of a mistake (perhaps he just made a typo when he initially did the work?) without technically perjuring himself.

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10826365

Try doing it in a deposition or court proceeding. It's different, and anything you say is part of the court record, and any mistake, even one you correct immediately is used against you.

I've had to testify in front of a grand jury before. I definitely know that being questioned in front of people is not not as easy as typing into a discussion thread at my leisure. But again, this is not a task of recall, i.e. "what were you doing the night the victim was murdered?" or "Do you remember your mother's birthday?". This is a question of fundamentals. Again, the expert is not being asked to recall the result of `3 / 16`, he's being asked if he can do it on a calculator. This goes on for several minutes.

Here's what would be a perfectly understandable answer: "I don't recall how I got 68 when now that I calculate it, the answer appears to be 63.75" Because sure, it could be there was a typo in the initial work of the expert, and it has only now been revealed. But this is not what the expert admits to failing to. He's asked point blank if he can use a calculator: "Will you please convert 3 / 16ths to a decimal value...Can you?" And he says, "I will not do it without my reference material".

Again, completely understandable if he says "I will not do it without a calculator". That is not the issue of contention here.

I'm a bit surprised to see people jump to his defense. Calculations like these are the foundation of the science and "science" that is used to convict/fuck people over. And even though this seems to be a minor case, a difference of feet in any kind of reconstruction (scientific or witness testimony) can mean the difference between conviction and acquittal. This is just one case that has been spotted by a writer/artist to dramatize for humorous effect. There are countless more, involving less obvious mathematical errors, that may impact the justice system. That we can't even agree that this witness is either too incompetent to trust the evidence that he's provided to his side, or too disingenuous to admit his mistake...and we wonder why shit happens?

A grand jury is different -- it's secret.

Once the opposing counsel opens the door to extemporaneous testimony, you're screwed as a witness, because the next question may not be 1+1=2, it may be something else.

Right, it's not just doing tip math at dinner, it's doing tip math at dinner with everyone looking at you and the waiter tapping their feet because they want you to free up the table.

Edit: Whoops, meant this for the sibling comment.

Under stress I sometimes have trouble with calculators. I'm not kidding. It's happened to me in restaurants.

Then you shouldn't be an expert witness. My dad is in his early seventies and he can still do cubic scaling (e.g., 50m cubic cm to cubic inches) in his head without a calculator.

My mom (in her 60s) still knows where to apply compounding growth formulae, and how to estimate them.

If your memory is beginning to go on you to the point where you can no longer effectively do your job you should learn to do something which requires less memory.

Seriously? Are those even practical skills? For all we know, your parents are great at parlor tricks and terrible at their jobs. What engineer works without a computer these days?

A calculator is a computer. Hewlett Packard made calculators, which is why Steve Wozniak wanted to work there until Steve Jobs convinced him to start Apple. The expert wasn't being asked to figure out 3/16ths by memorization, he was being asked if he knew what math was, and then how to execute it on a calculator. That the expert equated such a request with pulling numbers "out of thin air" (if he's being honest, and not just covering up a mistake that he now realizes he made) means that he does not actually understand the very fundamentals of math. It is virtually no different than if he were asked, "Is 1 equal to 1?", and he responded, "I'm not just going to make up the answer for you, we need to use the computer program to get the truth"

Very few of them, but this isn't even middle school level math that he seems to be forgetting. Anyone calling themselves an engineer should know fractions cold, no question.

The man is asked to give the decimal of three sixteenths. That's not a memory quiz.

So...I just have to know...was the lawyer able to convince the jury (or the judge)...that this was basic math? Because in this day and age, I would think the average adult would honestly think, "Hey, it's unfair to make someone do math without their computer programs!"

Also, is this really "middle school math" (as described in the NYT's caption)? Decimal numbers were covered in 4th/5th grade I thought? (I remember learning algebra and geometry in 7th and 8th grades)

> Decimal numbers were covered in 4th/5th grade I thought?

What?! Do US students use binary until 4th grade? This is an honest question, I don't think I understand what exactly you meant here

Ah yes, you're right. I should have said "fractional numbers". Sorry, thinking of "DECIMAL" as being "numbers with decimal points" is a result of writing too many MySQL [1] schemas :)

[1] https://dev.mysql.com/doc/refman/5.0/en/precision-math-decim...

Wait, really? How the hell american kids count fractions until 4th grade? Btw, how old is that?

Every time I hear stories about math education in US, it frightens me

Numbers with fractions and/or remainders.

> in this day and age

The case is from 2004, which is not really this day and age in technological terms.

Talk about crazy coincidences the expert was killed when a truck pulled in front of his motorcycle.


One of the things taught in engineering school is to never trust your memory. Always work from the original formulas and reference material which has been proven to be correct and to work.

You need a reference sheet to convert 3/16 to a decimal? You have to do a lookup every time you need to convert a fraction to a decimal using a calculator? That would be like a C expert looking up how to dereference pointers or a Ruby expert looking up how to access instance variables (well, except that I've seen that too).

I would think an expert witness need to testify to something more than "yep that's my result".

Actually, yes, in many areas it is considered good practice to NEVER do things in your head even if they are obviously trivial to do so.

2x2=4, but anyway a cashier receiving or handing out 20 notes of 20 dollars should still use a calculator to get the total - since otherwise once in a blue moon a tired person will mistakenly enter it as 200. This particular combination is a "common" source of cash handling mistakes that ocassionally happens in every organization that has a lot of such deals, not a fictional example.

The examples you give about programming are about understanding concepts, not menial tasks. If a programmer needs to reference a e.g. particular table/column name it often is appropriate as a policy to copy and paste it instead of retyping a dozen obvous characters; I've seen people that are paranoid enough to do that every time in production environments where testing won't catch that and you need a script to run properly the first time. Being careful and re-reading will catch most of the typos, but not all. When that's not good enough, you have to reduce risks of introducing such typos in the first place even if it takes more time to copy/paste.

So yes, if you need to convert 3/16 to decimal in practical engineering situation - yes, you absolutely will use a calculator or something comparable every single time, and possibly repeat it twice to verify against typos. If you believe that you can do that in your head - sorry, you and everyone else will make a stupid mistake once every thousand times, and that is not good enough.

Let me reiterate:

>>You have to do a lookup every time you need to convert a fraction to a decimal using a calculator?

I'm not criticizing those who use a calculator to convert a fraction to a decimal. I was criticizing those who need a reference in addition to the calculator, as the witness claimed he needed.

I think we're mostly in agreement.

But "fat finger" errors are so well known they have a name. And these are responsible for billions of dollars of errors.


All my tests were closed book. We were expected to prove/derive formulas, not use them so much. And everything that goes through a computer gets double checked with a calculator and back of envelope calculations. Otherwise you end up with crazy boners like (3 + 3/16)*20 = 68.5.

Interesting, most of my engineering classes we were allowed to bring formula sheets. Most of my math classes we were allowed to take them home and/or use open books (because neither helped if you didn't know how to prove/derive the formulas).


"I am the president of a small Missouri based corporation Accident Reconstruction Limited."

"[An accident reconstructionist] is someone who mathematically accesses, usually traffic accidents, and applies known formulas and physics laws to the occurrences that happened. And usually what it boils down to in the final draw is an assessment of time and distance on the sequence, or the events that occurred during the accident."


[The mathematical expert witness is asked to covert his own drawings to real units using his own scale. The problem is (3 + 3/16) * ~20 = 68. Calculator in hand, he has no idea how a scale works. In reality, he probably just measures these things and puts the numbers in a computer. So he has no idea if the computer is spitting back the correct information.]


"Are you capable of deriving any of these formulas?"

"Of deriving them? No sir. Not generally. We have been taught of how to look them up in the book. We have been taught in the use of them. But to break them down and derive them back to the square root and kinetic energy, no."


[The mathematical expert witness is then given the basic formula for applying a scale (multiplication). drawing * scale = answer. The mathematical expert then claims that he does not know how to multiply a fraction by 20 without a "formula sheet".]

The expert witness behaved pretty reasonably here. He doesn't know the source of the error. He said the length of the line was 3 and 1/16th of an inch, but maybe it wasn't. Or maybe, the line was drawn too short, but the right length was used in the calculation. In either case, the 68-foot calculation could still be correct. If he does the conversion on the spot, he's basically committing to the 63.75-foot result without knowing if that's right. Of course, he could have protected his credibility by doing the conversion with a hypothetical to show he can do it. But it's reasonable not to commit to re-doing calculations in the actual report on the fly.

At one point he was asked to calculate the decimal value of 3/16 using a basic calculator. He should have been able to do that, even without any kind of formula sheet.

And, towards the end, he was asked specifically if he could convert 3/16 to a decimal, regardless of the application, and he admitted he couldn't.

He was being asked if he could convert 3/16 to a decimal using a calculator, not to reconstruct the entire result.

I think HNers might be working from an ingrained assumption that failing to pass a maths test is a terrible, terrible outcome. In court, the terrible outcome is losing your client's case. Given the choice between admitting the error and looking like an idiot, it's very possible he did the right thing.

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