Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A straightforward approach

Having come down with the sore throat/sinus affliction that is plaguing the east coast, I've been looking up some sore throat remedies on the internet. I'm familiar with the trusty lemony and honey drinks, and usually down cup after cup of licorice tea (which works very well but many people find repulsive). These solutions, however, work mostly because they constantly hydrate the tissues, and maybe add a little something extra. What I'm looking for is something a little more... magical. Let's peruse through some google results, shall we?

First of all, as soon as I type in "sore throat remedy", google chrome suggests "sore throat remedy whiskey". Let's get this straight people. Drinking alcohol does not make you better. For example, take a look at this question, posted to an online forum:

I've had a sore throat for a week now and I'm convinced that nothing will heal it but getting drunk and hoping a high BAC will destroy all unwanted pathogens.
Would I be better off drinking a hoppy beer (pale ale/IPA), red wine, or liquor? I know anything with excessive sugar should be avoided. Thanks,

For starters, as a general rule (which, mind you, doesn't apply to all bacteria by any means) you need 70% alcohol by volume to sterilize something. It being more than a few years since I took the test for my driver's license, I had to look up exactly what BAC (blood alcohol content) is. I trust that Wikipedia is correct in saying that BAC is measure in the % of alcohol by volume (which is great because that's the same unit of measure we're using already and if it wasn't I'd probably stop right now because I hate conversions), and lists the symptoms of various BACs, including "0.010–0.029%; Average individual appears normal, Subtle effects that can be detected with special tests" up to ">0.50%; Unconsciousness, high risk of poisoning, high risk of death". If you recall, we're looking for a concentration of 70.0% (or 70%) to be sterile. So according to our research, you WOULD NEVER be able reach 70%, never mind survive it. (Note: in addition to correcting my math, my friend Nick points out that hops act as an antibiotic. I don't have any stats on that, but I'm going to maintain that it's not very efficient to drink to cure oneself.)

I also can't help but mention that alcohol is a depressant. That's a class of drug. It depresses your immune system, which, if you recall from high school, fights off infection. Such as bacteria. Soooo.... you probably don't want to inhibit that.

Back to our Google search. Other remedies: chicken soup (rumored to be like magic, but only if made by mom. Plus, the store bought stuff is full of sodium); cough drops (not magical, not tasty), marshmallows (mine as are hard as a rock plus this seems mostly like a kid's scheme to be allowed treats while sick). Gargling is one that I already know (and which has been working) but gargling with baking soda in water is new to me. Maybe I'll try that (similarly, I've had a lot of success with battling sinus infections with a Neti pot filled with the same).

Conclusions: Despite our technological advances in medicine and communication, the only true cure for a sore throat is to go the Van Gogh (or, if you prefer, Futurama) route, and cut it off.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Foul play

the cat is trying o eat my oatmeal and i am too sick to fend her off.

Do you want to know something that is unfair? ...the sunspot cycle. The sunspot cycle is unfair because it largely impacts our lives on earth without discretion for justice and we have no control over it. 

Do you want to know something else that is unfair? Going to visit your romantic interest and watching a movie completely platonicly to the point of not even holding hands bc he is sick and doesn't want you to get sick (aw). And then getting sick anyways. And not knowing you're sick yet and getting the flu shot for the FIRST TIME EVER and ending up coming down with:

Infectious Through Totally Platonic Interactions Virus (ITTPI)  +   Flu Shot Symptoms, including shooting stomach pains

This, my friends, is not fair.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The thing about a bike

The thing about a bike is that it's like a boat. When you ride it out to someplace, and then have a problem, you're stranded.

I ambitiously took my allegedly fixed bike out for a ride yesterday evening, wanting to make the best of the remaining sun and unseasonably warm weather. Oh foolish me.

I live at the top of a hill, so I glided down without any problem. Turning onto a side street, I realized the handlebars were loose, but I ignored it as I began to churn up the next hill. A little handlebar problem couldn't stop me! Since I had begun to slow, I attempted to change gears, and found that, as usual, my trusty Huffy would not go into 1st. This has always been its problem. I believe it was born like this; with a genetic defect that prevents it from switching gears while riding.

I walked the bike up the rest of the hill and realized the tires were flat.

The light was waning, but I didn't want to give up yet and plotted out a relatively flat, roundabout course back home. No use in being out here if I wasn't going to get some exercise!

The long way home turned out to be more of what I would call a "constant, gentle upward slope" than flat. This caused what I would call "extreme burning and fatigue" of the leg muscles. If one were to be in such a situation, which I sincerely hope that they never are, they would probably find themselves leaning heavily on the handlebars....which turns out to compound the problem of loose handlebars which I mentioned earlier; forcing the rider to rely on their core to maintain a straight back while their legs pump away. Vehement swearing would be encouraged in this situation, if the rider had any breath to spare.

By the end of the ride between my weakened legs and faulty equipment I could barely ride in a straight line. I walked back up the hill home. By this time it was dark and the temperature was rapidly dropping back to more seasonal temperatures. How had I not learned my lesson about bike riding in Germany? Why would I submit myself to such misery again, this time voluntarily? Surely I could sell my bike for some extra cash.

The first thing I did when I got home was to tighten the nut for the handlebars.

Monday, January 7, 2013

What's in a name?

I've been pretty steadfast on the issue of last names ever since I can remember. It started when I was little. My father's side of the family is rather small, and I worried that my male cousins wouldn't marry, or would have daughters, and the family name would die out. I didn't understand why I couldn't carry on the name.

Later in life, like many other girls, I imagined what my name would sound like ending in a boyfriend's family epithet. "Ick." was my usual response. I was accustomed to seeing my name as it was. Furthermore, being a scientist and showing the earliest warning signs of turning down the road of the absent-minded professor, I felt that having to adapt to a new name was a lot to ask. After all, I had to remember a new age every single year as I got older, as well as anniversaries and birthdays of my non scientist friends (friends in science are courteous enough to remind others of their own birthday). Wasn't that enough without having to remember a new name to answer to?

The issue came to a head when I became involved in a serious relationship. Beware, modern ladies- you can't start dreaming about your wedding without your potential spouse dreaming about wrenching away your familiar cognomen and replacing it with his own. Why IS this? I've never figured it out, to the distress of my former beau. Why must I change myself to be bound to him? If we are both changed by entering into marriage, why couldn't he take my name- or better yet, couldn't we take a totally new one that we picked together?

I know changing names doesn't bother most women at all; its just tradition and doesn't symbolize anything but moving into a happy new union. But now, more than ever, I can't imagine losing the name I've lived with for so long- answered to, introduced myself with, and been published under.

In one of my favorite episodes of Gilmore Girls, a bride to be asks Lorelei, "Do you ever think, if you got married today or even in the next few years, you could be married for fifty years -- for most of your life." And while this may be true, as I approach my 27th birthday, I can't imagine bot making a testament to the name that has carried me this far.

posted from Bloggeroid

Conversations with my cat

I'm not a crazy cat lady (yet). But my cat does have an attitude that no one can deny.

Me: "Oh geeze. Water spilled everywhere when the Roomba bumped into your bowl."
Rosie: "You know, that robot vacuum makes a mess of my water bowl every time. It's more trouble than it's worth."
Me: "Yeah you're right, we should get rid of it."
Me: "You know that means you'd have to vacuum, right?"
Rosie: "...oh."

Me: "Dammit why can't I log onto the internet?? I disconnected the DSL filter.."
Rosie: "mmhmm.."
Me: "I turned off the wireless and selected the ethernet connection..."
Rosie: "Mmhmm..."
Me: "And then I rebooted the modem and it STILL won't work."
Rosie: "Is there any more of that ham you gave me this afternoon?"

(Getting up from finishing lunch)
Me (graciously): "Here. I know you like this chair better."
Rosie (settling in): "I don't know why you were sitting in it in the first place."

Me: "Hey you, wake up. Do you want some chicken?"
Rosie: "Mmm...huh? Chicken? Yes please."
Me: "Can you please do your trick? Gimme paw."
Rosie: "Ugh ok."
Me: "That's not "give me paw", that's just sniffing my hand."
Rosie: "Ok, ok!"
Me: "Good job. Here's the chicken. What a smart kitty."
Rosie: "Damn right." (Eats.)
Rosie: "Hey. Hey, look!"
Me: "Ok, that's your trick but that's not how it works. I have to ask you and then the reward is the chicken."
Rosie: "Just look!"
Me: "The answer is still no."
Rosie: "Dammit!"

Today was a rough day.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The big D

This article focuses on an interesting and much overlooked issue that has been occasionally discussed as a concern at my lab's meetings. It doesn't specifically touch on our main concern in terms of research (that large amounts of data can contain patterns that are merely artifacts of randomness). However it nicely illustrates the point that the layman (and the undiscriminating scientist) forget: that patterns are not a conclusion, and numbers are not a guaranteed forecast.

Are We All Being Fooled by Big Data?

When, on a summer Sunday morning in 1987, three hundred thousand people crammed onto the central span of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, they came perilously close to participating in the largest accident in American history. The bridge's engineers had made copious calculations and had designed it to sway nearly 28 feet and shoulder the burden of hundreds of vehicles. But nobody had ever predicted that a gigantic crowd of pedestrians, attracted by the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, would be stuck between its towering pylons unable to move in any direction. As a result, the bridge flattened out and came within whiskers of straining every last fiber of its vermilion superstructure.
The consequences of faulty data, wonky forecasts, ill-conceived opinions, loose predictions, incorrect assumptions and, in the case of the Golden Gate Bridge, an improbable event form the backbone of Nate Silver’s absorbing new book, The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail but Some Don’tThis book, written by the voice behind the popular election forecasting blog, FiveThirtyEight, now licensed by the New York Times, is a reminder that while data doesn’t lie, it does allow people to deceive themselves and others. In some cases it's a question of the bigger the data, the grander the deception.
These days our entire lives revolve around predictions. Government departments project the cost of health exchanges, the rate of economic growth, next year’s crop yields, the future birth rate and the arms buildup of unfriendly countries. Websites and retailers anticipate what we want to find and buy; oil companies gauge the best sites for drilling; pharmaceutical companies assess the probable efficacy of molecules on a disease; while, in the background, the bobble-heads on television incessantly spew out largely irrelevant and inaccurate forecasts. In the meantime, we busy ourselves with personal projections. How long will our commute take? When will the turkey be golden? How much will the price of a stock rise? What will the future value be of a law degree?
Some of these forecasts are surprisingly accurate while others are shockingly dismal. Silver, who has become the Woody Allen of statisticians, explains the reasons. Like many others, the 34-year-old Silver became fascinated with numbers because of a boyhood devotion to baseball. Unlike his peers, Silver – after a brief and frustrating spell as a consultant – instinctively returned to the challenges of numbers. He took up internet poker (only to eventually discover that the odds were not in his favor) and, also started to unravel the riddles presented by data.
There are events that – at least on the surface – defy forecast: things that are so outlandish or improbable that, for most people at one time or another, they seem inconceivable. Think of Pearl Harbor, 9/11, Fukushima, a black President of the United States or Apple as the world’s most valuable company. Yet all, to varying extents, were possible to predict if people had been able to separate the important from the trivial (a.k.a. the signal from the noise) and make the giant leap of faith which converts the improbable into the possible. While Silver provides a supple assessment of the reasons we struggle to comprehend these sorts of possibilities, the majority of his book is devoted to an often-hilarious account of how we deal with more mundane challenges.
About ten years ago, Silver developed a system for predicting the performance of batters and hitters for Baseball Prospectus. The exercise helped him develop his approach to predictions. It is no coincidence that Silver fastened on both baseball and politics. In each pursuit there is an enormous trove of accurate, historical information. The baseball fiend can immerse himself in minutiae such as hits, on-base percentages and pitches thrown, while the political junkie can stare at votes recorded, demographic shifts and polling results. Silver gradually discovered that in baseball the data, while essential, could be made richer with the judicious application of human judgment. This must have come as a reassuring endorsement for baseball scouts whose usefulness had been much maligned in the years following the publication of Moneyball, Michael Lewis’ much-read book about the way data had helped Billy Beane transform the Oakland A’s. After all, it is difficult for a machine to measure the determination, pluck, grit (and wandering eye or fondness for drink) of a baseball player.
The same goes for politics, the field in which Silver made his reputation with his accurate predictions about the 2008 races (which he subsequently burnished in 2012). Here he bases many of his predictions on the averages of poll results conducted by others. This, he has discovered, provides more accurate forecasts for election nights than reliance on a single pollster, no matter how sterling the reputation. When Silver does stray from the received wisdom, he does so with caution and says, “The further I move away from consensus, the stronger my evidence has got to be … that I have things right.” This is an observation worth dwelling upon because it helps explain why most people have such trouble making the correct decision about an unconventional selection or the path less trodden. Making a decision frowned upon by a committee or a popular opinion is a lonely place to be.
Accurate information married with human judgment is the best ally for the prognosticator. This explains why some forecasts, such as those for hurricanes, are so good and others, such as economic predictions, are so poor. Thanks to a knowledge of past catastrophes, satellite photography, weather balloons and airplanes that fly into the eye of the storms, the National Hurricane Center can predict the path and severity of hurricanes with remarkable certainty several days in advance of when they collide with land. This information, enhanced by the analysis of scientists, has improved the National Hurricane Center’s forecasting accuracy by 350% in the past 25 years. The fact that 1,833 people died when Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans is not because of faulty forecasting, but mainly because the city’s Mayoral office hesitated about ordering a compulsory emergency evacuation until it was too late. According to Silver, weather forecasting for the subsequent two or three days, at least as promulgated by the National Weather Service (before it falls into the buffoonish hands of the local TV weathermen for whom ratings are more important than accuracy), is also something that can be counted on.
Economic forecasting is another matter. Part of the reason that predictions about hurricanes and the weather have improved is that scientists, mathematicians and programmers can build computer models from accurate molecular data of cloud formations. The same is not true for the economy where attempts to capture every calorie of economic endeavor are much harder. Even the U.S. government – irrespective of whether a Democrat or Republican is at the helm – has proved woefully inept at forecasting overall GDP growth let alone more refined measures. It’s not uncommon for economic forecasters to fail to predict recessions even after they are already underway. It’s a wonder that any bank or company bothers to keep an economist on the payroll. They all might be better off employing the descendants of Carnac the Magnificent, the soothsayer from the East once played by Johnny Carson.
While economists have plenty of excuses, the same does not go for the rating agencies that, prior to the housing collapse, so conspicuously labeled the thousands of mortgages they bundled together as relatively riskless. Even if you are prepared to accept that officials at S&P, Moody’s and Fitch were merely guilty of a failure of judgment – as opposed to criminal collusion – they made the colossal mistake of not recognizing the consequences of uncertainty (a risk that is hard to measure): the close correlation between all these mortgages. They did not understand that they had designed a monstrous, nationwide pileup of concrete, glass and wood. It’s no coincidence that these same rating agencies are today all involved in designing a future economic calamity: the implosion of municipal, state and corporate pension obligations. In this case they are even more culpable because they are willfully ignoring copious amounts of stock market data which, if heeded, would instantly catapult these pension systems into default.
If an economist might deserve some pity, it’s a teaspoonful compared to what should be given to those charged with making an accurate prediction of the timing and strength of an earthquake. These hapless devils don’t have accurate pictures of geological formations dozens of miles below the earth’s crust or reams of data supplied by probes latched to different striations. Nonetheless, in our data-drenched age, the geologist is still somehow expected to provide certainty about a cataclysmic event that may last a matter of seconds. That’s especially true in Italy, where, in the wake of the 2009 quake that killed over 300 people in the central Italian town of L’Aquila, six scientists and a government official were found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in jail for not protecting their neighborhood. The sentencing magistrates, like the Japanese in the ninth century, must just believe that earthquakes can be accurately predicted from the behavior of catfish.