Archive for the 'Science' Category

Flat Earth – the second largest geographical method in the world

February 23rd, 2009

It’s very easy to be the second-largest anything in the world, when the first largest group is defined as everything that’s actually relevant, and you’re defined as everything else.

A very large forum/bulletin-boards website here in Israel, Tapuz (Hebrew only), recently opened a new forum about Classical Homoeopathy.

That by itself is fine. I mean, they do discuss pure nonsense in the forum, even dangerous nonsense given that they recommend to people not to take proper medical care for their problems, but a forum about homoeopathy can be expected to discuss homoeopathy.

What amused me was the launch publication they did in their other forums. They posted links to this new forum, with a text that can be roughly translated as:

Want to be exposed to the wonders of homoeopathy, the second largest healing method in the world?

And, well, technically it’s pretty correct. There’s the first largest healing method, being science-based medicine, that covers all sub-healing-methods that can be proven to work and heal people. And then there are the other healing methods, in this case grouped under the term Homoeopathy[1], the ones that give people a healing chance which is equivalent to the random chance of spontaneous recovery, or to the healing from a placebo effect.

Since all you have are the two options, it’s pretty obvious that the second is, by definition, the second largest of its kind in the world.

Being technically correct doesn’t make that statement semantically correct, though.

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  1. Yes, I’m aware that Homoeopathy is just one kind of woo pretending to be medicine, and not the whole basket of them. In this case, however, the forum seems to happily deal with the others as well, and they clearly refer to it as anything besides actual medicine[back]

There is an expiration date on medical privacy

January 23rd, 2008

There are a lot of debates about privacy, and about the balance between privacy and research (or possibly privacy and anything else of utility that can be derived from the private information).

Of all the areas of privacy, one of those where people object the most to violations of their privacy is in health and medical information. You’d be very hard-pressed to find anyone willing to disclose diseases, health problems, and medical examination reports.

And when disclosure of private information occur, people get the most annoyed, or concerned, when it comes to children. It may involve a lot of over-sensitivity, but it’s still the case.

Well, now there’s a new service, for any interested researcher, or any interested Internet user with some free time and a little curiosity. A website that allows to browse a comprehensive set of complete and full, uncensored, medical records from a large hospital for children.

You can search and browse by the real full names of the children[1]. You can get the full diagnoses, what diseases the doctors found when examining these children. For some of the children you can get the full case notes of the doctors who checked the sick children. You can see what were the treatments and medication given to each of these children, and whether they helped.

And you can even get the full, and real, physical home address of the patients. The people who digitized the information on the site actually invested quite a lot to make sure that the addresses are correct and, for example, none of the street names would be misspelled.

Sounds lovely, does it?

So why isn’t there a huge outcry over it? A major violation of privacy and data protection laws. Not to mention children. And it didn’t even hit the news. Why?

Because the details are from 1852 to 1914. Meaning that youngest patients would potentially be 94 years old now. Certainly in no condition to care, or complain, if they’re even alive. Just some interesting past cases for research.

I’m sure their children won’t mind at all that mom’s chronic illnesses are online for everyone to see. Mom is dead, so there’s no point in keeping her secrets, right?

Welcome to Small and Special, the site showing you all the gritty details from the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, in Britain.

A unique database lies at the heart of the Small and Special website. It is based on the information contained in the In-Patient Admission Registers from Great Ormond Street Hospital for the period 1852 to 1914, which have survived intact. The Registers have been carefully transcribed and indexed to allow flexible and accurate searching of this important resource. Users can search for children by name (first and last names), age, sex, and address. Other searchable fields include date of admission and discharge, admitting doctor, outcome of treatment and subsequent referrals (if any).

The database is supplemented by a collection of scanned images from 14 volumes of patient case notes of the founding physician, Dr Charles West. The case notes, which cover a period between 1852 and 1874, contain a wealth of information on the treatment and management of sick children in the mid-Victorian period.

Some of the information is accessible freely. For the rest you need to register. But the registration is easy, free, and they don’t require that you’d prove (or even claim to be) you are a researcher, doctor, or anything.

And what does it say about the future? About my own medical records, or yours? We trust[2] in doctor-patient confidentiality. In privacy laws. In that even if the doctor has to share the details with insurance companies, none of them could, or would, ever just list everything on the Internet for the curious masses.

Anyone having these expectations of privacy about your medical and health records? Just wait about a hundred years or so, and we’ll see. We most definitely will see. Everything. Free for searching and browsing.

After all, our friends in Kingston University are still working:

This outstanding resource will be further enhanced by the inclusion, at a later date, of the surviving Registers for Cromwell House (the Hospital’s convalescent home at Highgate), from 1869 to 1910.

Amusingly enough, when you register to the site they have a privacy policy, and they clearly state they won’t share your personal details with anyone. Which is admirable, and I wish more online services would be so clear about their privacy policy. It’s just that, well, they’d keep my name and email secret, but don’t feel any problem with showing me the names, addresses, medical history, and diagnoses, of many many past-children who never thought to agree to release it.

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  1. Some of the names have been anonymised. This is a minority of them. I’m not sure what were the criteria to choose. And even for the anonymous ones, you still have a full home address, just not the name[back]
  2. Want to trust, anyway?[back]

Some basic math for waiters

October 8th, 2007

When a group of several people eat together at a restaurant (or bar, coffee shop, etc…) there are common ways to split the bill:

  • One person pays everything.
  • Split evenly.
  • Each pays for their own portion.

The exact values are of course a bit fluid on the last two options, since the numbers may be rounded. Currency is discrete rather than continuous, after all. Not only that, but it’s often simpler to divide up to the main coin and not the sub-coins[1].

The payment can be done by cash. In that case the people would usually just collect enough, pay with it, and divide the change between themselves when the change comes back. The work on properly dividing the charge is on the customers in these cases.

Sometimes, though, people pay with credit cards. Which means that many times the waiters will just receive a bunch[2] of cards, with simple instructions on how to divide the charge between them.

The common one is of course “Split it evenly”. And these are the cases where money is often rounded to higher coins, since apparently most waiters have a problem with fractions. I can recall maybe 1-2 cases, ever, where the individual charges weren’t rounded with one person paying the extra.

When things are not split evenly, well, that’s when the fun begins. And by “fun” I mean an all too common tragic comedy of errors.

The simple case is when the customers still calculate the amounts in advance. In this case the waiter receives exact instructions in the style of “Put 100 on this card, and 150 on that card”. Simple. Easy.

And they still sometimes manage to get it wrong:

  1. The bill comes back split evenly.
  2. The amounts are charged correctly, but on the wrong cards. In this example, the first card is charged 150, and the second 100.
  3. All of the cards are charged the same amount, which is one of the sub-amounts. So, for example, for this 250 bill either both cards will be charged 100, or both will be charged 150.
  4. Some of the cards may be charged correctly, and some will be charged an unrelated amount. This is because the complexity of the task got the waiter confused and he/she charged an amount due for another customer entirely.

I had all of these happen to me, as a customer in restaurants.

One time I had two of them happen in a series. The waitress made a mistake (#3 above), I alerted her, and she came back with a “correction” that included another type of mistake (#4 above). When there’s a charge, and a cancellation, as a customer you’re requested to sign on both. If you simply don’t sign on the charge, it creates all sorts of complications. So I ended up having to sign five times for my bill that day. What did I tell you? Fun!

It also happens, though, that the job of dividing the charge is placed on the waiter. Sometimes the customers know the difference between what they’re supposed to be billed for, but not the final amount.

In which cases someone has to do the calculation. It’s a simple enough calculation, you know the total, and you know the differences.

And the natural tendency would be to let the waiter do it. People just had a meal, are finishing up, and they need to pay the bill. Why would they want to do the work, as easy as it is, when there’s a waiter that will have to process the charges anyway and is being paid for it?

Makes sense.

Except it doesn’t. Because many waiters seem a bit deficient in the math department.

The latest time this happened to me was a couple of weeks ago. I was finishing a meal with a friend. We basically shared the dishes, so almost everything was supposed to be split evenly. The only difference was that I had an extra glass of some medium-pricey alcohol.

The waitress arrived, and saw the two credit cards on the tray with the bill. The dialog between me and the waitress went something like that:

Waitress: Should I split this up?
Me: Yes, but it’s 70 more on this card.
Waitress: Right. 70 on this card, and the rest on the other card.
Me: No. Split it between the cards, so that this card is charged by 70 more than the other card.
Waitress: Eh…
Waitress: Hmm….
Waiterss: I’m…. err… not….
Me: It’s simple. Just split evenly, add 35 to this card, and reduce the other 35 from the other card.
Waitress: Ah. Yes. OK, sure.

And this is the math lesson for today. If you want to divide a sum X between N people so that everyone pays the same except for one who pays an extra Y, this is what you do:

  1. Divide X by N. Let’s call that A for average. You already know how to do that. This A would be what you’d charge each card if you had to split evenly.
  2. Divide Y by N. Let’s call that B. This value is like the average of the differences. Mathematically it’s the exact same process as the previous step, so if you knew how to do it, you know how to do that.
  3. Everyone, except the person who has to pay more, pays A-B. You know how to do subtraction already. It’s the same thing you’d do if someone paid part by cash and part by credit card, and you’d have had to reduce the cash amount from the total to get the credit card charge.
  4. The person who has to pay more pays A + [(N-1)*B]. Basically all the B’s you reduced from the bills of the other people, you add to this one’s bill. You already know how to do addition too. It’s just like what you’d do if someone asked you to charge the tip on the card as well, telling you how much is the charge and how much is the tip. You already know how to do multiplication as well, it’s what you’d do if you got everyone else’s cards and they all told you they have to pay B.

That’s it. Easy. Simple steps. And these are all things that waiters are supposed to know how to do already.

Except sometimes they don’t.

In this case, for example, I was indeed charged 35 more. The other card? Charged exactly the amount of an even split.

Wait, wait, I know what you’re thinking. In this case it would mean that the total would come to 35 more than the real total, right? So the waitress, or at least the cash register computer, should notice something is off, right?

Right.

But they had a simple solution for that. You see, the final bill came back printed with three items:

  • Credit card charge : A
  • Credit card charge : A+35
  • Refund : -35

So the total was absolutely correct, making the waitress feel perfectly happy about it. No problem if it all adds up, after all.

Except that, of course, we didn’t get that refund. The bill did not come back with 35 cash, nor did one of the credit cards get a refund (which would have kind of defeated the whole purpose, but at least would have meant the amount of money passed from us to the restaurant would have been correct).

Our poor waitress didn’t quite see the problem. It all adds up after all, and the total is right. Luckily another waitress/supervisor did see the light immediately after a very brief explanation.

Waiters should learn a little basic math. Me, I should learn not to trust waiters to do even the most basic math. I think I learned my lesson. Now it’s their turn.

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  1. OK, Poor terminology here. I mean that, for example, to split 25$ between to people you’d sometimes, often, see one charged 13$ and one 12$, rather than 12.5$ each.[back]
  2. 2 is also valid for “bunch”[back]

NASA found life on Mars! And Killed it! Not!

January 8th, 2007

There have been some reports lately on a claim that it’s possible NASA‘s space probes that landed on Mars 30 years ago missed signs of bacterial life.

The theory raised is that it is possible life developed on Mars in manners different from what is usual on Earth, and that it is possible that, for some of these hypothetical types of life, the attempts by the probes to locate micro-organisms may have missed those organisms and maybe killed them.

Not exactly a big claim. Nobody actually knows, or has any factual basis to suspect, that there were micro-organisms there. If there were some, of a type the probes weren’t set to find, nobody can say if they were of a type that the experiments would also kill. Not that killing a few microbes is such a big deal, but it does make for a more interestingly sounding story.

Basically, a lot of non-news, unless you’re planning the devices for the next attempt to locate life on a different planet, and want to take more options into account.

But accidentally killing the same micro-organisms you try to find, that makes a decent headline, no? So all the various reports on this that I read (Plenty of stories, but all pretty much based on the same AP report, so they’re unsurprisingly very similar) start with claims like this:

Two NASA space probes that visited Mars 30 years ago may have stumbled upon alien microbes on the Red Planet and inadvertently killed them, a scientist theorizes in a paper released Sunday.

Which is slightly sensational and contains a lot of hyperbole, given that we don’t know any of this, but isn’t really that out of line for modern media reports.

Until, that is, the headlines get to some clueless reporter who is unprofessional enough to take the hype at face value, and out of context.

So on the radio we had this young women, who sounded genuinely shocked and outraged as she reported the latest news: “NASA found life on Mars! And killed it!“.

Really. That is what she said.

Cue the mental images of NASA‘s probe finding several prospering cities full of happy Martians, and nuking them all into oblivion. And then of course taking pictures of the empty wasteland, and sending back reports that there is (now) no life on Mars. And they’ve kept us all in the dark for 30 years, hiding their nefarious xenocide.

She didn’t say that, of course, but it was the obvious thing to understand from her tone about the shocking discovery.

Thankfully the next thing they aired was an interview with some scientist who was asked to comment about NASA‘s wholesale slaughter of the Martians. He actually did know what this all was about, and explained it.

So sorry, folks. NASA did not find life on Mars, and did not kill it. Or, in any case, they still keep a very successful cover-up if they did.

The most complex and expensive way of killing cockroaches yet

July 2nd, 2006

Researchers from Brussels, in a research funded by the EU (for a sum of 3 million Euro), have developed a small robot that smells like a cockroach.

OK, that was an overly simplistic way of presenting it.

The kick in the mandibles comes from a Belgian-led team who spent three years developing a mini robot that can convince cockroaches to creep out of dark holes and gather in light places. The InsBot looks more like a pencil sharpener than a household pest, but it smells like a cockroach.

The InsBot has a cocktail of pheromones and molecules painted on its body, allowing it to infiltrate the cockroach community.

Imagine, working for three years just to develop something that smells like a cockroach. Wouldn’t it have been better instead to work on something that can take away the smell of one once you crush it? These bugs stink.

Cockroaches, it turns out, are very social creatures. No, really. Yes, yes, I know that staying put even after you yell at someone to get the heck out of your house is usually considered a very asocial behaviour. They’re not social with people. Just with other cockroaches. Go figure.

And if there’s something they think is another cockroach, like a mini-robot with the right smell, they’ll tend to get friendly and stick around. So if the robot slowly wanders around near them, and then goes and stand outside on the floor, a bunch of them are likely to congregate around it.

Yes, that sounds strange to me too. Because I’ve seen many cockroaches in my life, but it was always one on one[1].

But the researches say that cockroaches tend to stick together in group. And they spent three years of intense study, not nearly thirty years of sporadic encounters. So maybe they do know better than me.

Now you must be wondering what is so exciting about being able to get the cockroaches to stick around the robot. Does it shoot them? Electrocute them? Spreads poisonous bug-spray on them? No. That won’t be fun. It won’t be sporting. And it won’t allow them to release that disgusting smell of squashed cockroaches.

The plan, the 3 million Euro plan, is far simpler, and much more direct. It could draw them all out into the middle of the floor, where a person could squash them with a shoe. Or, if there are enough of them around, maybe jump around in a marry little dance crunching and stomping cockroaches under heel with every step. How fun.

Can you imagine the cost of the extra software and electronics needed to allow the timing to be right? Because this is not automatic. Automatic means you’ll have cockroach parties in the middle of the living room when you’re sleeping, or out at work.

So there will need to be some signalling mechanism, or some pre-set timer. Letting the robot know when is it the right time to draw the little cockroaches in so you could step on them.

I wonder if it will take another research just to come out with the fact that the cockroaches, while highly social, are not entirely insane. When a person comes stomping in, do you think they’ll stay and keep the little robot company? Hell, no! They’ll scatter around, leaving the poor stomper in no better position than had he[2] just spotted a lone cockroach randomly.

Plus, how is one expected to go around stomping cockroaches when smack down in the middle of them there’s a complex, and expensive, electronic device, in the form of our erstwhile robot? You put down your leg too hard, you’ll break the robot. Unless the robot is very tough, in which case you’ll break the leg. None of the two options seems appealing.

So, given all the problems that I can think of[3], why are they still doing it? Are cockroaches really such a big problem?

In a breakthrough for the battle against mankind’s most diehard enemy – the cockroach – European scientists have hoodwinked a group of them into congregating in a place where they can be stamped on easily.

Aha! Cockroaches are mankind’s most diehard enemy.

Our greatest, and toughest, enemies. And all the EU invests in fighting them is a measly 3 million Euro fund?! And a small group of researchers from just one university?! All this with no assistance by other world countries and superpowers?!

Shocking. Truly shocking.

Plus, while fighting such a dangerous, tough, vicious, insidious, and diehard enemy, they put in the research team a traitor who sympathizes with the enemy. Seriously:

But, for now, Deneubourg is not taking his eye off cockroaches which he describes as ‘no dirtier than flies’ and victims of a ‘bad press’.

Bad press. Would that be the same press calling them “mankind’s most diehard enemy”, I wonder?

He believes it will soon be possible to develop an ‘intelligent roach nest’ in which robots are positioned to tease the creepy-crawlies into human stamping range.

Brr. Am I the only one getting odd vibes from the Terminator movies, with the robots designed to look like humans and infiltrate into their camps in order to betray them to the machines to be killed?

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  1. Me and the cockroach, Mano a mano. Two begin, but only one comes out alive. And it’s not the cockroach, let me tell you.[back]
  2. Women don’t squish cockroaches, they yell “Ewwww!” loudly, and wait for a man to come and do it.[back]
  3. And I did it with no funding, and hardly any time invested in research. So they, with the time and funding, probably came out with more.[back]

TVs are bad for kids

June 27th, 2006

This time the concerns about TVs are not because of the content, or excessive viewing time. No. It’s because TV sets can physically fall on small kids[1] and injure them.

On the face of it the claim does make some sense. TVs, especially ones from home-cinema sets, are big and heavy. But they’re not so big that a child climbing on them won’t have an effect. So if a kid climbs on the TV set the TV can fall, and it will likely fall on the child. That, in turn, can certainly cause an injury.

But this ignores what I think is a pretty big problem. The child, and a very young and small child at that[2], has to climb on the TV set first.

In order to do that the child will have to be able to reach the TV. From a position they can start climbing from. Assuming the average toddler can’t pull him/herself up without at least a little help from the leg muscles, that means the TV set will have to be placed very low.

And TV sets aren’t placed very low. People usually watch TV sitting. Sitting in chairs or sofas, not on a mat. And not just lying on the floor. So having a TV located at a height and location where a 3 years old kid can climb on it… sounds highly unlikely.

And somewhat negligent from the parents’ side, who otherwise probably went around baby-proofing nearly everything else in the house. True, a TV isn’t exactly the knife drawer, but parents should notice any piece of furniture with a top low enough that the kid could climb on.

Beyond that, these two articles include some more puzzling and suspect statements (emphases in quoted text are mine).

Contrast one article:

An estimated 2,300 children each year are injured by falling TVs and are sent to the emergency room because of their injuries, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

With another:

U.S. emergency room doctors treated 2,600 children younger than 5 who were injured by falling televisions in 2005, said Arlene Flecha, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The numbers, allegedly coming from the same source, don’t match up. Those are 300 kids who are either invented, or unaccounted for, straight up. With this level of accuracy here, how reliable is the rest of the info supposed to be?

Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center studied data on ER visits for 26 children – aged 1 to 7 years old – admitted to the ER after being hit by a falling television between November 2003 and October 2004. One-third of the children sustained injuries serious enough to be admitted to the hospital and stayed for between one to four days.

Wow. Those researches studied a huge data pool of hundreds and hundreds of cases, and… No, wait, scrap that. 26 cases? That’s supposed to be research??

How big is the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center? According to the homepage:

UT Southwestern Medical Center physicians conduct more than 2.1 million outpatient visits and treat thousands in our affiliated hospitals.

So out of more than 2.1 million patient’s records, they had a whooping 26 cases of kids injured by a falling TV? Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear they had a similar number of patients who were struck by lightning.

Though of course there are two different, and mutually exclusive, problems with this tiny amount. Either these are not all the kids hit by falling TVs that they had, in which case whatever analysis they do on this group probably tells us nothing, or these are all the kids they had who were hit by falling TVs, in which case there are too few of these altogether in order for the analysis to tell us anything.

Although nearly two-thirds of the TVs in the study were in the 20-inch to 30-inch range, the researchers said they could not determine whether size had anything to do with the hazard.

” ‘The bigger the TV, the worse the injury’ makes sense, but we don’t know,” Ota said. “We don’t have enough cases.

Of course they couldn’t determine anything. Which didn’t prevent them from releasing all sorts of statistics. Lots and lots of factoids, all meaningless. Remember, with this sample size every kid is almost 5% of the cases. It’s not realistic to infer any sort of connection from that.

Eighty-five percent of the TVs fell from a height of between two and five feet above the floor.

The range between two and five feet[3] is huge. They may as well just say that the falling TVs… fell.

It’s also disconcerting. 0.6 meters is very low for a TV. And 1.5 meter is taller than the average 7 years old kid, so how did the kid climb on the TV exactly? If a kid climbs up to a 1.5 meters high table, the kid can fall and get injured regardless of whether there’s a TV there or not.

It also makes me curious about the other 15% (almost 4 whole kids) who were injured by TVs allegedly located either even lower than 0.6 meters above the floor, or higher than 1.5 meters above the floor. That’s very high, so it would be even harder for the kids to reach. And quite uncomfortable to watch, requiring cranking the neck up towards the screen, from most chairs.

“More aggressive education to warn parents about the risk of injury must be implemented so that more families will take the time to display their televisions safely,” researcher Dr. Robert Todd Maxson, an assistant professor of pediatric surgery at UT southwestern and medical director of the pediatric trauma service at Children’s Medical Center Dallas, said in a prepared statement.

Yes, because there aren’t plenty of other things for parents to worry about. Things that actually have a statistically insignificant chance of affecting their kid.

The Dallas researchers propose that warning labels be put on TVs to make more parents aware of the hazard.

Because nothing looks better, or more relevant, on a TV set than a big label stating “WARNING: Climbing on this television can be hazardous to your health”. Sure. I’m convinced.

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  1. assuming these small kids actually try to climb on the TV set.[back]
  2. The articles discusses kids younger than 7 years old, median age about 3.3 years.[back]
  3. about 0.6 to 1.5 meters.[back]

Study claims atheists in the US are the most distrusted minority group

March 24th, 2006

A research by the department of sociology in the University of Minnesota claims that Atheist are the most distrusted minority group in America.

From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.

I’d really like to see some more technical info about this study. Sociology isn’t exactly my field, but this thing is just so strange that I have a very strong feeling they haven’t done something, or quite a few things, right.

Starting with the poll. Telephone sampling? For these type of questions? How exactly does that work?

Imaginary phone call:

Q: Hi. I’m calling from the department of sociology in the University of Minnesota. Can I please ask you a few questions for a research project we’re having?

A: Sure, go ahead.

Q: Would you say Muslims share your vision of American society?

A: What? Those terrorists?! Heck, no!

Q: How about recent immigrants?

A: Yeah, coming to steal our job with their cheap labor. Sure they share my vision of American society. Land of opportunities, right?

Q: What about gays and lesbians, do they share your vision of American society?

A: Those darn *censored*?! No way! They should get their head examined, and go find themselves a good woman. Err… Except for those lesbo *censored*, they should go find themselves a good man. No way they share my vision of American society!

Q: I see, sir. What about atheists then?

A: Atheists?

Q: Yes, atheists. How much do you think they share your vision of American society?

A: Those dumb *censored* don’t even notice that God exist. Even those crazy *censored* Muslims knows God exist, even if they have this funny name for him, and they don’t have a clue what he wants them to do. But the atheists, they don’t even believe there’s a God. I don’t want to live in an America where people can deny God. This is a shame. They should all be shot the damn *censored*, before they ruin America for all of us. And it would be fun to see the look on their face when they realize that they do have immortal souls, and that they got sent to hell because they’re dumb *censored*.

Q: I see, sir. And how do you think are they in comparison to gays and lesbians? You expressed dissatisfaction with both minority groups. Can you say which one do you think is further from sharing your vision of American society?

A: Are you *censored* kidding me? There’s no question! Compared to a *censored* atheist I’ll take a lesbo any time. Heck, I’d marry a lesbo before letting one of those atheist creeps through the door. I’ll have my daughter marry a lesbo, a lesbo named Muhammed even, if it was that or marry an atheist!

Q: Thank you very much sir, you’ve been a great help.

A: You’re most welcome. God bless you, dear.

How does one even start such a conversation? Calling people and asking them who share their vision of American society more? Heck, who will seriously answer someone asking them a question like that on the phone?

And I’d really want to know who they asked in order to surmise the answers they got are representative of the entire US population. Spread evenly across states, or by population size? All states, or selected states? Large cities, or small desolate towns? On a question like this I think they’ll find very big variations, so not controlling for a lot of factors, or separating the data sets, is problematical.

I also really don’t think that their idea of comparing these “minority” groups is sound, if that’s really the way they did it. I mean, comparing atheist to gay people? WTF?! Didn’t it occur to anyone that maybe some of those gay people are not exactly good Christians, and are not spending their lives being worried if they’re really going to hell for breaking some obscure biblical verses?

I’m not saying gay people can’t be, or aren’t, religious. But we get lots of press from religious figures going on and on about how being a homosexual is an abomination unto god and so on. Stand to reason that the gay people at least don’t follow those specific streams.

There will be a correlation. Which makes a question about preferences very complicated. Did they ask more specific questions about lesbian Muslims, lesbian Christians, and lesbian atheists?

The press release actually mentions “other minority groups”. The possibilities for interactions here are immense. Second-generation Puerto-Ricans are probably a minority group, but nothing stops them, or any other minority memeber, from being gay, or from being a Muslim or an atheist.

So claiming atheists are the most distrusted, compared to other groups which contain atheists… Doesn’t sound too good to me.

Also, with the amount of prejudiced people around, I have a hard time believing that most Americans will be happier having their kids marry Black/Hispanic/Muslim/Wiccan/Gay/etc, or a combination thereof, before marrying an atheist. My belief is of course meaningless from a statistical standpoint. But a sample size of merely 2,000 people can’t be that much more significant.

Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public. “Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years,” says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the study’s lead researcher.

I was also surprised by that 3 percent figure. I know most Americans are religious, but I didn’t think it was by that high a majority. Though it’s important to notice that they very probably don’t include agnostics here. Still, the way they define Atheist for the research can have quite an effect. A pity they don’t make it more clear on this press release.

And being a threat to the American Way of Life(TM)? Did they really get that without asking extremely leading questions?

Oh, well, what do I know? I’m probably just a *censored* atheist myself, most of the time.

Integer sequences

March 15th, 2006

This is rather cool, in a very math-geeky sort of way. A site with a searchable database of integer sequences.

All those number sequences with the “what’s the next number in this series?” questions? There’s probably an answer there.

The frightening thing is, there are probably lots and lots of answers there, for each individual sequence. Even for the number sequences which have an ‘obvious’ next number, there are apparently tons of other numbers that could fit the same sequence. Some of them have very complex, or wacky, rules and mathematical conditions behind them, but they’re there, and are real.

The next number on 2, 4, 6, 8, … can indeed be 10, but can also be 14, 12, 27, 1, 6, and quite a lot more

This really brings home the point that all those “what’s the next number?” questions don’t say much about anyone’s mathematical grasp. Certainly not if those tests only compare against the “right” answer. There are simply too many right answers, and many more possible reasons.

Too much of a really-good thing

February 17th, 2006

It makes sense that being perfect would be good, or perfect even. But is being a perfect part of a perfect group still as good?

Many women, I noticed, tend to believe they’re perfect, and wonderful. Or at least tend to claim they are. I think at one point or another a conversation with nearly any long-time women friend of mine reached a point where they jokingly mentioned that they’re perfect, and so men should be very grateful and appreciative for knowing them and being in their presence. Especially given the fact that men in general (or their particular BF at the time, if they had any) are far from perfect.

Now, whether the premise is correct or not (And that’s really open for discussion), is not what this post is about. Let’s assume the claims made by those women are true, for the sake of the argument. Let’s also assume, because this is the context under which the statements were made, that men and women desire each other’s company.

Given those premises, then, the conclusion makes perfect sense. If a specific woman is perfect, or nearly so, and most men are far below perfect, then men should indeed show that woman the utmost respect and admiration. The poor wretch who is blessed with her presence, should know he’s in the presence of extremely superior perfection.

Not so fast, ladies. Don’t rejoice yet. There’s more, you see…

The problem starts with them all continuing the argument by stating that it’s not only them who are perfect, but rather all women. Although they were all, so far, quick to agree that maybe all is too strong a term, and there are some bad women out there too. They don’t generally drop to some, however, but rather just to a very large most.

Because of that, they claim that as a general rule men should be a lot more respectful towards all women, and show them all awe and admiration.

On the very face of it, if we accept the premises, this would appear to make sense. If all (I’ll round it up a bit, since the exceptions are generally claimed to be rare. Though for a some reason they’re often a part of the small circle of women the one I’m talking to actually knows. Go figure.) women are perfect, and all men are lousy, pathetic, and dense, then any man who is with a women is in the presence of someone obliging him despite being much better than him, and he should act accordingly.

This is where these conversation threads usually end, with the poor women failing to grasp the big gaping hole existing in the theory they raised in their perfect little heads.

Because, you see, if we do accept all these premises, and apply them to the real world, the conclusions would be very different.

Here’s one fact that should make it obvious. The number of women in the world, for the sake of this argument, is equal to number of men. Now, I do make some rough generalizations here. Statistics show that there are more women than men. This actually strengthen my claim, but isn’t as relevant because it mainly results from the fact that women live longer.

The birth ratios are indeed almost equal, with average number of born men equal to the average number of born women. This is for simple evolutionary reasons. In a population tending to have more men than women, a women will have a smaller chance of not managing to find a mate, so a bigger chance of having children and passing her genes onward, making it a more viable genetic strategy to have women instead of men as kids. The reverse holds as well. So populations will tend to be stable around equal numbers from each gender. This does not take into account people beyond the child-bearing age, which is why the statistics show we have more women.

China, where the severe birth limitation, and cultural biases, caused people to get rid of daughters in order to have more sons, is not considered here. Both since the current huge ratio of men to women there is just a temporary condition, and because the women I had these conversations with were not Chinese, so as far as I am, or they are, concerned this does not apply.

The important part is that there are not more men than women in the world.

And remember, we also assume that men and women want to be together, in couples. Never mind that it’s not a universal truth, it’s most common, and more importantly it’s the assumption existing in all the conversations where the above statements and false conclusion were made.

What does it mean? Simply put, it means that the very large majority of women will end up with a men, and the very large majority of men will therefore end up with a women.

And this is where it becomes interesting. If there were just a few perfect women, they would be highly sought after. Everyone would prefer to be with a perfect and wonderful woman, instead of a plain one.

But remember, they’re all wonderful. All perfect. Even if they say so themselves.

So? So any man knows that if it doesn’t work out with a woman, there are plenty of other ones, all perfect and wonderful, he has a good chance with. The risk of losing perfection isn’t that big if you know you can easily get perfection to replace it. Men are far from perfect, remember. And since all women are perfect and wonderful, even a perfect and wonderful women doesn’t have anything to ensure she could keep one attracted better than any other women could.

And what happens from the women’s point of view? Men are really not up to par. They all have many faults, and many problems. So any man who is a little less lousy, a little less dense, a little less infested with faults, is a relatively great catch. They don’t take him, they’ll have to settle for a worse model.

Do you sense the pattern here? Counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Under these premises women are the ones who should be extra nice to men. Men don’t have much to worry about, since nearly whatever they do, they can still end up with a perfect women. But the women can only hope they’ll catch one who is a little better than the rest, and never know if when a relationship will fail they won’t have to settle for much worse afterwards.

Quite the opposite of what these women friends of mine were claiming, isn’t it? With the most ironic point being that this is not despite women being all perfect and wonderful. It is because of it.

By claiming that they’re perfect and deserve better treatment, they’re doing alright. But by extending that claim of perfection to the entire gender, they’re getting the absolute opposite effect. They want treatment as they deserve as perfect creatures. And by insisting to have men agree that all women are perfect, the treatment they deserve as perfect creatures becomes far less than what is sought after.

Now I just need to find a way to explain it to them without being physically beaten… I’m afraid I may not be able to pass the point quickly enough, about why I should be better treated and my life preserved.

P.S. Yes, this is not a serious essay. If you read this without noticing the amused and cynical undertone, you’ve been doing a bad job. Or I have been. I don’t believe all women are perfect, nor do I preach for men to treat women badly. Clear?

NASA sued over space mission

July 3rd, 2005

NASA is running a research experiment in which they will crash a probe into the Tempel-1 comet, trying to gain insights from the impact, and hopefully learn more about the composition of the comet’s core. This is called the Deep Impact mission.

Some people, though, aren’t happy. One is unhappy enough to go and sue NASA over the mission. Marina Bai, a Russian “self-published author and spiritualist”, is suing in a Russain court, over moral damages:

“Somewhere deep inside me, a voice told me the whole mission had to be stopped,” she said in an interview. “I fear that it could have an impact on all humanity.”

In court papers, Bai asserted that Deep Impact would “infringe upon my system of spiritual and life values, in particular on the values of every element of creation, upon the unacceptability of barbarically interfering with the natural life of the universe, and the violation of the natural balance of the universe.”

I just hope that the voice which told her that was a metaphor. If she’s really hearing voices, this may cause people to believe she may be a bit mentally imbalanced… Oh, heck, as if the rest of the lawsuit doesn’t make that point strongly enough as it is. The women is nuts.

The people at NASA think that she’s insane as well. Though they said it in one of the nicest ways I ever encountered. Not too hard to read between the lines, though:

Dolores Beasley, a spokeswoman for NASA, said it would be “inappropriate” to comment.

Is there any real danger, a chance that the impact will noticeably divert the comet? The scientists don’t think so. Of course, since they’re not yet entirely certain about the composition, they may turn out to be wrong, but the current estimations still allow for a very wide margin of error:

Scientists have dismissed fears that the collision might break up or divert the comet, comparing the impact to a mosquito striking a Boeing 747.

Still, even if she could prove the moral damage, and if the judges would for some reason rule in her favour, how bad can it be? How much can those damages be worth? Well, apparently according to Russian law, it can amount to quite a lot:

Bai’s attorney, Alexander V. Molokhov, said the damage claim was calculated under Russian law, which allows plaintiffs to recover an amount equal to the cost of the undertaking that allegedly does the harm.

So that would be around the entire cost of the mission. An interesting law I must say, granting compensation based on the cost of causing the damage, rather than on the damage itself.

If we had such a law here, I guess stuff like the current disengagement plans would have never happened. Imagine if every person who sees this as a moral crime and affront would sue, for the entire cost of the plan? If the court would accept that there were damages (and in this case a theoretical moral damage could be easily proved, since according to the believes of some of these people that’s really a big deal), the country would go broke… Hmm, there are Gush Katif residents who are immigrants from Russia, and who I think still have their Russain citizenship. I’m not that much of an expert on international law, but I wonder if they can sue using Russian courts, despite them also being Israeli residents and the better jurisdiction of Israeli courts…

In any case, a very interesting lawsuit. I doubt any sane judge will rule in her favour, especially considering the request compensations. Still:

Steven P. Maran, a spokesman for the American Astronomical Society and author of “Astronomy for Dummies,” reacted to Bai’s claims with humor.

“I get dizzy just thinking of this lawsuit,” he said. “But I don’t think the outcome is written in the stars.”

On the bright side, if she does win, the money will do good. The women obviously have some taste and good sense. I don’t know about those alleged oligarchs, but I wouldn’t have bought a soccer team either:

If she wins the case, she said, her nonprofit Transformations fund will spend the award on environmental and social programs.

“Unlike the oligarchs, I’m not going to buy a soccer team with the money,” she said.

The story got covered in plenty of papers. And surprisingly (or maybe not so suprisingly, given the fact that reports all to often bother to do a lot less fact-checking than they should) enough there are some factual differences between the reports.

Like for example, the above quoted article claims she asks compensations for a sum of $311 million. While other reports claim the actual investment in the mission was more like $330 million. It may sound like a small differece, a mere 6 percent or so, but I assure you that 19 million USD is not a small sum. Seriously.

Or, as another example, while the article I quoted states that scientists compared the impact to a “mosquito striking a Boeing 747″, the article linked in the above paragraph, about the mission itself, states that the scientists compared it to a “mosquito running into a 767 airliner”. The 747 is only double the size of a 767, so while a collision with a mosquito won’t matter much to any of them, that’s still a major difference.

Marina Bai herself, who is described in most places as a “self-published author and spiritualist”, is on other articles, some from Russain sources, described as a “local astrologer”.

Almost makes it seem as if reading the papers is as accurate as reading the map of the heavnens…

Puncturing holes in Acupunctures

May 14th, 2005

Those invisible and unexplainable points in the body, which have such a tremendous medical effects if you stick a needle into them, despite them not being noticeably different from any other point? Well, yet another research shows that acupuncture doesn’t help, this time a study that demonstrates how acupuncture is no more effective than placebo for reducing migraines.

Shocking, isn’t it?

My own personal familiarity with acupuncture is very slight. I did know a doctor once who took acupuncture courses, and then started providing services using acupuncture in things like obesity treatment. I didn’t follow up on his patients, so I can’t say, but during that time he was a bit chubby himself, so you can guess just how good that worked.

Via Bob Park from What’s New, who put this best:

Acupuncture is
widely touted for treating migraine, but in 12 sessions over 8
weeks, sham acupuncture, in which the needles are inserted in the
“wrong” points, was just as effective as inserting them in the
“correct” points. This should greatly simplify the training of
acupuncture specialists. Just stick the damn needles anywhere.

Not that funny by a long shot

May 5th, 2005

I kind of took a look at that Laugh Lab research several weeks ago, but it didn’t look all that interesting, so I lost interest. But now they claim to have finished the research, and have some results and conclusions about what makes jokes funny, and which jokes were judged to be funniest.

Go read that article and you could see just how corny and unimaginative is what they call the world’s funniest joke. Well, they do say that the tastes changed across geographical, and supposedly cultural, barriers. This is why they list the jokes that were found funniest in several different regions. All pretty dull and simplistic, if case you’re wondering.

What’s really funny is some of the other things that their research indicate, like for example that jokes with 103 words are especially funny. Now, that’s funny. As is the notion that people the jokes funniest at 6.03pm on October 7 (Alas, no time zone specified in the article). Or the claim that jokes mentioning ducks were seen as funnier than other jokes.

Oh, yes, and they now sell a book with their findings. This may explain a few things… That, and the fact that the raw data is web based votes, and we all know how scientifically sound these are, right?

Dark chocolate is still healthy

April 4th, 2005

There is yet another study claiming that dark chocolate is healthy,
due to high amounts of antioxidants. This is not new, since the
benefits of antioxidants are touted for quite some time, as is the fact
that chocolate is rich with flavanoids, a type of antioxidants.

The first reason I like this particular article is that it bothers
to emphasise several times that those health benefits are only in dark
chocolate, not white or milk chocolate. Since I’m very much pro dark
chocolate, and con the thing called milk chocolate, this is always nice to hear. Mind
you, this is something the article mentioned as shown in other
studies, but this particular study only compared dark and white
chocolate, no milk. Which is also a good thing, since these are the two
kinds I acknowledge as deserving to live, and no self-respecting
researcher should refer to milk chocolate as chocolate…

OK, enough silly chocolate bashing. Chocolate good. the other reasons are more fun, anyway. Read:

Investigators
from the University of L’Aquila in Italy found that after eating only
100 grams, or 3.5 ounces, of dark chocolate every day for 15 days, 15
healthy people had lower blood pressures and were more sensitive to
insulin, an important factor in metabolizing sugar.

Yes, that’s only
100g
. Like, a full pack of chocolate. Daily. So far the word was that
a tablet or two of chocolate per day are good. But a whole packet,
that’s a whole different ballgame, methinks. Even one of the
investigators, a Dr. Ferri, admitted:

He added that each 100 grams of dark chocolate contains
roughly 500 calories.

Not to mention plain fat. At least dark chocolate is low on carbohydrates (sugar – for you uneducated lot), so that’s something.

Beyond that, we have the amazing research quality and methodology:

Ferri and colleagues asked 7 men and 8 women, all healthy,
to eat 100 grams of dark chocolate or 90 grams of white
chocolate every day for 15 days. The subjects consumed no
chocolate for the next 7 days and then switched to the other
chocolate type for 15 days.

First,
sample size. Seven men, eight women. That’s like, wow, fifteen whole
people. I doubt anyone can question that they are totally
representative of the population at large, and give great confidence to
the results.

Second, 100g of dark, compared with 90g of white? Why? Especially
since they expected the flavanoids to be the key factor, and, well,
white chocolate doesn’t really have those. But if they wanted to make
sure, taking the same amounts would make for a stronger case. And if they
didn’t want to bother checking, why do a research in the first place?
The way it currently goes, someone can legitimately claim that they didn’t prove
much…

Odd.

And now for the really fun part, chocolate manufacturers jump on the bandwagon too.

"While the University’s results are exciting — especially for chocolate
lovers — not all chocolate contains high levels of flavanols, which impart
these potential heart healthy benefits," says Dr. Catherine Kwik-Uribe, PhD,
Research Chemist for Mars, Incorporated, the world leader in cocoa science.
"In fact, only certain cocoas and chocolates are specially processed to retain
much of the flavanols naturally occurring in cocoa beans."

Yes, the take themselves seriously, having lots of scientists around. I like the world leader in cocoa science
title. And in case you were wondering which certain kinds of chocolate
have most flavanoids, why, they’re the ones made by this selfsame
company using its unique and special processes. I wonder why nobody
tried to publish this explanation and then give a different company the
credit for being better…

Based on 15 years of research, Mars has developed the only patented and
proprietary Cocoapro® cocoa process to preserve these important cocoa
flavanols that often are destroyed during standard processing.  This unique
process, used in the chocolate in a new Mars cocoa-based snack bar called
CocoaVia®, helps retain the natural goodness of the cocoa bean while keeping
the pleasurable taste characteristics of chocolate

Uh-huh.
I think this paragraph contains more superlatives than even dark
chocolate contain flavanoids. On the other hand, laughing myself silly
is also good for my health, so whatever works.

And they to are aware of the dangers of eating too much chocolate
(Or at least of the dangers of being sued by obese kids claiming they
only ate tons of chocolate because of this press release):

While research is promising, Mars Nutrition Communications Director
Marlene Machut cautions, "It’s not about eating more chocolate, but rather
about working flavanol-rich foods into an overall healthy, balanced diet.
First start with plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and then you
may be able to fit in an 80-calorie CocoaVia® Bar."

Yes, that’s a may be able to fit in an 80-calorie chocolate bar. And do you remember, that whole 100g packet of chocolate, from the research, was about 500 calories? So was the research an overkill on the amounts, or are these itsy-bitsy bars just not good enough? Interesting…

Oh, yes, and they managed to write flavanols throughout the entire press release, including the quotes from their chemist, who should really know better. Or was that just a marketing trick? Maybe their chocolates are poor in flavanoids, and this way they can deny claiming the opposite.

Hat tip to Nonliteral .

Two silly TV-related studies

March 21st, 2005

Why do people keep coming up with these silly studies, don’t they have something better to do? And if not, can’t they at least make the same nonsense research in a proper way?!

“Saving Private Ryan” is dangerous to your health. Official.

March 9th, 2005

From the New Scientists, Another fine example of how not to do research.

Sample size of 20 people? Only 14 showing the result of the conclusion?
In my book it’s more like meaningless statistics with plenty of noise,
than actual sample and conclusions.

And even so, they reached a conclusion that laughter is good for you.
Because there was a measured 22% increase of blood flow after laughing.
Compared to the 35% decrease after stress. If the sample and research
are unreliable (which they sure seem to be) then none of these matter.
But if the research can be used to reach a conclusion, which seemed
stronger? That laughter is good, or that stress/Ryan is bad? My money
would be on the other direction that the one the research used.

Can I say "Who has a conclusion waiting for a research" or would that be slander? Can it be slander if it’s true?