Science


What is it about Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics that attracts the socially inept? I’m not just talking about the lack of hygiene issues some dorks have, the tendency of geeks not to bathe, or even the very disturbing lack of respect for personal space some open source weenies display. Specifically I’m talking about the inability of many dweebs, especially in technology, to understand when and where certain types of jokes or behaviours are appropriate. It has lately come to my attention that the cadre of foul smelling basement trolls, behind the (incredibly useful) open source plotting tool gnuplot, have decided it’s perfectly professional to throw up a pornographic picture on their tool’s manual. Sure it’s “just a line drawing”, but it’s the kind of line drawing that if you used as your background at work would get you sued for sexual harassment, and rightly so.

Evidently the nerds behind gnuplot don’t get out of their filth ridden cave very often, or if they do, rarely see beyond their bristly neck beards, because otherwise you’d think they would realize that this sort of objectification of women, *especially* in a field where women are under represented, and often intimidated by the chauvinistic exclusionism which pervades the field, is not cool in a professional context. I’ve talked to many people who are angry about this particular infantile prank, and the worst part is, it seems the folks at gnuplot have been asked several times to take down the image, or move it off of the professional portion of the site. A quick Google search turns up a lot of irate messages from people who have been trying to get the gnuplot folks to have shred of adult conscience with no avail.

I’d like to ask our readers to write to the gnuplot dev team (gnuplot-beta@lists.sourceforge.net), and ask them to move this image off of their tool’s site. It’s degrading to women, disrespectful to professionals in the field, and utterly unprofessional. I’ve sent my own message, and if I don’t see some change, will likely be reporting their behaviour to the IEEE and ACM, both of which have codes of conduct which prohibit this sort of behaviour in professional contexts.

Hopefully this is a very poor representation of the men in the field. I’d like to believe professionals in technology have grown up a bit, but displays like this one make me doubt the maturity of anyone who works with computers. Left unanswered, stunts like this reinforce the unfortunate opinion that behavior like this acceptable in a professional context. Its no secret that the field of CS is currently lacking in raw talent, there simply aren’t enough Computer Scientists at the present as evidenced by the current trend of outsourcing amongst top companies. The field needs more creativity, diversity, and skilled professionals. By behaving in a way that excludes women, the socially ept, and men with an adult sense of humor these bozos are pretty much ensuring CS won’t be recruiting the kinds of people it needs.

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In a recent NY Times piece, noted imperial advisor Nicolas Kristof points out that the Emperor’s Advisers Have No Clothes:

The expert on experts is Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His 2005 book, “Expert Political Judgment,” is based on two decades of tracking some 82,000 predictions by 284 experts. The experts’ forecasts were tracked both on the subjects of their specialties and on subjects that they knew little about.

The result? The predictions of experts were, on average, only a tiny bit better than random guesses — the equivalent of a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board.

I salute Kristof for having the courage to declare that his profession (along with pretty much everyone else) has no clothes (or at least far fewer clothes than we think—perhaps a German speedo!) I have sometimes disagreed vehemently with Kristof over various issues, but I have to admire anyone who has the moral courage to turn the harsh light on his own profession, and even himself:

The marketplace of ideas for now doesn’t clear out bad pundits and bad ideas partly because there’s no accountability. We trumpet our successes and ignore failures — or else attempt to explain that the failure doesn’t count because the situation changed or that we were basically right but the timing was off.

For example, I boast about having warned in 2002 and 2003 that Iraq would be a violent mess after we invaded. But I tend to make excuses for my own incorrect forecast in early 2007 that the troop “surge” would fail.

As Kristof notes, the greatest problem is with extremely self-confident experts who are morally certain that they’re right:

Mr. Tetlock called experts such as these the “hedgehogs,” after a famous distinction by the late Sir Isaiah Berlin (my favorite philosopher) between hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs tend to have a focused worldview, an ideological leaning, strong convictions; foxes are more cautious, more centrist, more likely to adjust their views, more pragmatic, more prone to self-doubt, more inclined to see complexity and nuance. And it turns out that while foxes don’t give great sound-bites, they are far more likely to get things right.

Perhaps the problem is that expertise grants enormous ability to describe details about the present state of things in a field or area. There’s no absolute logical requirement for that to translate into better prediction in that area, but we’re basically hard-wired to think that there is. Combine that with our hard-wired response to confidence and we’ll follow a knowledgeable hedgehog anywhere, even to Hell itself.

Contrast that with the ability of markets,in general, to outperform experts. The best example is the stock market, whose simple average generally outperforms 2/3 of managed mutual funds each year (an example from last year: http://www.winninginvesting.com/index_vs_managed_funds.htm and another: http://www.fool.com/investing/mutual-funds/2009/02/25/index-funds-are-hard-to-beat.aspx). Over time, the results are even more staggering, as very few mutual funds repeat winning performance from year to year. Experts simply cannot complete with the “wisdom” of the market as a whole.

An important thing to keep in mind, especially today as we’re urged to put more and more confidence in expert management of the financial sector by government regulators, expert allocation of money by government bureaucrats, and the most massive transfer of money from the private market-driven economy to government experts in recent history. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the government is relying upon the least-regulated part of the financial sector (which has been least affected by the recent woes) to bail out the most-regulated part:

Democrats like Barack Obama and Barney Frank, at least on the campaign trail or in sound bites, have portrayed the financial crisis as the product of deregulation. The solution, they say, is more regulation. In that vein Frank, one of the brainiest members of Congress, is proposing that the Federal Reserve become a regulator of systemic risk, with the power to regulate firms that because of their size or strategic position are of systemic importance.

My American Enterprise colleague Peter Wallison has argued powerfully that this is a bad idea. Neither the Federal Reserve or other regulators identified the systemic risk which caused this crisis. Neither did most financial institutions or investors. Systemic risk is hard to identify for the very reason that it is systemic.

If experts are as unreliable as Kristof argues, can expert risk assessment (which is what regulation is) be expected to outperform market-based risk assessment (which is what an unregulated market does)? Certainly not all the time, which is precisely the lesson that we should learn from the recent crisis originating in the heavily-regulated mortgage industry…and precisely the lesson our leaders seem determined not to learn.

(Hat tip to Angry New Mexican for the Kristof link and article!)

In the past year or so, I’ve gotten pretty serious about photography. One of the things I’ve discovered both through my own experimenting, and by reading a number of excellent books on the subject, is that there is this magical device called a “polarizing filter” which, believe it or not, will make a good 95% of your outdoor pictures worlds better, just by slapping it on, and rotating it until the sky turns a deep and magical blue. While just about every photographer knows this little trick, I’d bet they don’t know the history of this incredible device. It’s a tale of war, of invention, and most of all, dog piss.

The polarizing filter was invented by Dr. Edwin Land, of Polaroid fame (hence the name), who had been studying the problem of making a polarizing filter for civil and military applications during his time as a student at Harvard, when he ran across work by Dr. William Herapath whose pupil, one Mr. Phelps, discovered that feeding a dog iodine and quinine caused it’s urine to form strange green crystals which polarized light, called herapathite. Dr. Herapath had spent years trying to grow a single large crystal of herapathite, to no avail, and had given up on the project. Land, inspired by these antics with dog urine, decided to go the opposite direction, and invented a process for forming many small crystals of herapathite, and lining them up properly so they would function as a single large crystal by forcing the, *ahem* crystalizing substance through narrow slits. His experiments were successful, and Harvard invited him back and provided him with space to continue his research.

World War II had several profound effects on Land’s invention. Reflections on the water made it difficult to spot submarines and other naval vessels, thus polarizing sunglasses were used to cut down on the reflected light, making it easier for scouts to spot ships at a distance. However while this increased the demand for polarizing filters, World War II also saw US soldiers coming face to face with the terror of malaria in the South Pacific. Large amounts of quinine were needed to treat these men, limiting the supply for polarizing filters. Land, ever the inventor, took this challenge as an opportunity and developed a new process for creating polarizing filters using sheets of polyvinyl alcohol stretched so as to pull the molecules into alignment.

This new method did not require quinine, and was actually found to create better quality filters than the older iodoquinine sulfate methods, and continued to be the dominate method for producing polarizing filters. Thus died the dog piss polarizer.

-Angry Midwesterner


    The Wall Street meltdown might have a silver lining.

    No I’m not talking about the schadenfreude that many are experiencing now that the investment bankers are falling from their lofty heights. That might be fun, but it’s not a silver lining. No, I’m talking about the large amount of highly talented people who became “quants” aka mathematical modelers in the finance sector now having to seek employment elsewhere.

    Now don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for finance, but we as a society over-invested in it. One of the really sad things was that the greed led a lot of people to put deep and abiding faith in the models. Those of us involved in mathematical models for any length of time know from bitter personal experience: The last thing you should do is believe a model, especially if it’s your model. Models are useful, not true, and should be viewed with a great deal of skepticism, always. While I suspect that the “quants” knew this, the greedy, myopic twenty five year olds doing the trading—the ones with the right hair and a nice liberal arts degree from an Ivy or Duke—didn’t (they’re certainly not trained to evaluate such things), and given the almighty dollar coming their way I suspect a good number of the quants started believing too.

    If you want a case in point, I offer up Doctors Merton and Scholes, Nobel laureates in economics, 1997, and principals of Long Term Capital Management. LTCM was a hedge fund founded by the smartest guys in the room. Unfortunately, their model was predicated on some assumptions that turned out not to be true, most importantly one about lack of correlation in various investments. This assumed other people weren’t copycats on what LTCM were doing. Whoops, funny how when the smartest cats in the room seem to have found a burrow of endless mice every other cat starts copying.

    One of the giant market distortions engendered by the rise of Wall Street has been the shortage of scientists, broadly defined: Fewer Americans going to engineering, chemistry, math, statistics, economics (besides finance, that is), etc. Instead, far too many of the best and brightest young people go into finance and investment banking. Something like 20% of the graduating class of Harvard in recent years goes directly to investment banking. That’s right, a 22 year old is managing your money, hoping to retire by 35 or 40 to a house in the Hamptons, another house in Bermuda, and a third one in Tahoe, with a nice trophy wife on his arm, and the surplus of young ladies living in finance capitals are there hoping to be said trophy wife. One of the reasons to chase the Ivy degree so hard was the hope—not unreasonable—that an in would be available for Junior into a hedge fund, Lehman, etc. So this massively distorted the college admissions market, too, making otherwise solid schools seem like poor buys and encouraging many families to run up piles of debt on undergraduate educations, mostly in the hope that Junior would get the right contacts in Duke that he wouldn’t get at, say, Illinois.

    I recall taking real analysis back in the mid ’90s. Hands down the smartest guy in the class was a Cal Tech educated engineer getting a PhD in Finance. Now this was just before the big model finance mania. He’d worked for a big aerospace company but with the defense budgets going down, he realized that his future lay elsewhere. This is, of course, why so many physicists ended up on Wall Street, too. I’m sure he did well but you know, finance doesn’t actually produce anything, whereas airplanes are something. It was getting so bad near the end of my tenure in grad school that I’d see students trying to “stealth” their way into finance by applying to programs in one area but taking finance classes. Getting into an actual PhD finance program was tricky and often costly but most schools will let you take a few courses in another department….

    So if there is a silver lining, I hope it is this: Smart kids with math skilz considering careers in finance, please come back. The rest of the world needs you to help deal with things like, oh, climate change, looming mass extinctions, energy shortages, world hunger, transit and infrastructure, finding productive things to do now that we won’t make piles of dough on houses nobody wants, to say nothing of good old “basic science.”

    As for the Ivy league liberal arts major turned investment banker who ran my admittedly modest portfolio into the ground with $200K in student loans breathing down his neck… thanks but I don’t want aioli, arugula, sprouts, grape tomatoes or olive tapenade, I’ll enjoy my schadenfreude plain and unadulterated.

    For further reading:

    • Niall Ferguson, The Ascent of Money. Excellent and very lucid writing. I read this on a plane to Vegas (for business!), which seemed appropriate.
    • Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan. Rather more personal pique than is really necessary and some excessively broad statements, but generally he’s right on, particularly about the excessive faith in the Gaussian error distribution when modeling extreme events, the so-called “tail risk” being too low. We’ve seen this in other areas as well.
    • Any others?

The LA times is flabbergasted that amongst large numbers of entries in a database:

  1. There are similar entries
  2. People who have been banking on people’s bad understanding of the statistics of large numbers are reluctant to have them re-educated about the reality of the situation.

Here is the story.

The FBI DNA database has some close matches (strangers matching at 9 points of the DNA profile). Defense attorneys are jumping on this trying to make DNA not be the nail in the coffin for their clients. Prosecutors have been lazily overstating the uniqueness of a 9-point match. The FBI, rather than just acknowledge that a higher match level might be necessary to ensure uniqueness, is seeking court orders to stop wide match searching in its database. This to me seems retarded from the FBI. Wouldn’t you rather crawl the database once, find all of your close matches, then resolve those cases (a few hundred out of 65,000+) so that you can be aware that any of the people involved in those matches will require 11 or 12 point matches if they are on trial. The FBI should just crawl their own database (Google iFBI !) once, and publish the numerical results to DA’s offices nation-wide.

It would seem that you’d want to eliminate the uncertainties that you can, so they don’t bite you in the butt unexpectedly.

The complaints about tying up the database or violating the right to privacy are ludicrous. My laptop could do billions of comparisons in a day. Depending on how hard a comparison is, this shouldn’t take more than overnight, unless the FBI database is running on a TI-85 graphing calculator. Borrow time on a DoE supercomputer overnight and get it done. Doing numerical compilation of the results while havingthe names stripped off the numbers would be sufficient to not violate someone’s privacy. Yes, the whole DNA strand is mostly unique (twins being the outliers), and the profile is apparently less, but still significantly unique. But the counts of comparisons between profiles aren’t unique. It’s analogous to comparing the names of the people in the database and returning the amount of matches among the letters of the names. The names might be private, but the match numbers won’t be.

I generally avoid the diet and food hyperbole, but my daughter is studying nutrition so I get an earful of terms like trans-fats and the like. Recently, I decided to get a general physical. I learned that my glucose was a little high and my LDL was high. Strangely my HDL levels were good and the triglycerides were excellent. Regardless of my suspicion that the results were skewed by a late meal the night before, I did my homework and adjusted my diet. I have a fairly exhaustive exercise routine which probably accounts for the triglyceride levels so I know that diet was the only variable factor. My weight over the past six years has been 200 lbs plus or minus 3 pounds.

I used to consume Dr. Pepper and Peach Snapple — both quite tasty, as well as various juices. I cut these from my diet as well as any other source of HFCS I could identify. Basically, I restrict myself to boring ice tea and water. My weight for the past two months has been 193 lbs plus or minus 2 lbs — with a loss of 7 lbs. in the initial week. These are my facts.


sucrose

Sugars in the body are metabolized via the Kegg Pathway. Sugars, specifically sucrose, are disaccharides consisting of a glucose molecule and a fructose molecule coupled by an α1→2-glycosidic bond. In nature, most available sugars occur in this form and it’s not surprising that a pathway evolved to process them. The first process in the metabolism of sucrose is the cleaving of the glucose from the fructose. Glucose can be metabolized anywhere in the body at the cellular level. Fructose is metabolized in the liver.
fructose metabolism

Hepatic fructose metabolism: A highly lipogenic pathway. Fructose is readily absorbed from the diet and rapidly metabolized principally in the liver. Fructose can provide carbon atoms for both the glycerol and the acyl portions of triglyceride. Fructose is thus a highly efficient inducer of de novo lipogenesis. High concentrations of fructose can serve as a relatively unregulated source of acetyl CoA. In contrast to glucose, dietary fructose does NOT stimulate insulin or leptin (which are both important regulators of energy intake and body adiposity). Stimulated triglyceride synthesis is likely to lead to hepatic accumulation of triglyceride, which has been shown to reduce hepatic insulin sensitivity, as well as increased formation of VLDL particles due to higher substrate availability, increased apoB stability, and higher MTP, the critical factor in VLDL assembly.

Since sugars arrive in the body in these paired units, and glucose is the principle energy source, it is understandable that the evolved regulatory mechanisms are associated with the glucose metabolism. The fructose metabolism has essentially no independent regulation and feedback loop, depending upon the glucose component’s parallel metabolism.

This was all well and good when the principle source of free fructose was fruits consumed in sparse quantities. With fructose now saturating food products, via the HFCS component, there is essentially no feedback for the body to say “Whoa there sport, I’m saturated with sugar and really don’t need any more.” So the metabolism process continues. The result is the depletion of enzymes in the liver and the concentration of low density lipids.


Four companies control 85 percent of the $2.6 billion HFCS business–Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Staley Manufacturing Co. and CPC International. Recently the Corn Refiners Association has been issuing statements in an attempt to persuade the consuming public that HFCS is not the root of all evil. The association has obtained some support from the Center for Science in the Public Interest:

We respectfully urge that the proposal be revised as soon as possible to reflect the scientific evidence that demonstrates no material differences in the health effects of high-fructose corn syrup and sugar…The real issue is that excessive consumption of any sugars may lead to health problems. ……The Center for Science in the Public Interest

This is an interesting statement. Many are arguing that it is deceptive. True, HFSC is not detrimental per se, although its manufacture has some interesting components, and true obesity does have as a contributory factor the increased intake of sugars. In the interest of accurate science, the CSPI is correct.

What is missing or ignored is mention of the lack of a regulatory feedback loop in the fructose metabolism. Without such a mechanism, self control of fructose intake is difficult to impossible. This asymmetrical regulation of the two sides of the sucrose metabolism is the real danger. Since there is no inherent control mechanism, it is irresponsible to use fructose based sweeteners in literally every food product.

Perhaps in a few thousand years, given a constant diet of HFCS, we will evolve a new regulatory mechanism. Until then, I will continue to attempt to limit my intake of HFCS.

You’re in the wrong line of work. I know this because there is a fabulous career in research waiting for you in Antarctica where the sun stays hidden below the horizon in a night that lasts from June until September. Wait! Wait! There’s more! Just yesterday the base at McMurdo received part of its last shipment of supplies for about 90 days, which included 16,500 condoms. Did I mention only 125 people will occupy the base for the next 90 days?

Thats right, 16,500 condoms are being delivered to a base in Antarctica populated by a mere 125 scientists. There are less than 90 days until the next resupply. Given those numbers that’s 132 condoms per individual. Given the use of these… ahem, items, this number is more like 264 per person. So the suppliers are estimating these scientists will be getting laid about three times per day.

That’s an awful lot of “science” going on…

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