Observations Along the Road

Theatre Writeups, Musings on the News, Rants and Roadkill Along the Information Superhighway

Something To Stew About

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Jun 07, 2014 @ 10:55 pm PDT

Observation StewThis has been another busy week, what with trying to get the truth out about the kerfluffle at the REP in Santa Clarita (#IStandWithTheREP),  my daughter Erin being in town getting ready to go off to a summer Yiddish program back east, installing and setting up a new password manager, and loads of stuff at work. Still, I grabbed a few articles of interest:

 

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It’s the Littlest Things…

Written By: cahwyguy - Thu Apr 03, 2014 @ 12:22 pm PDT

userpic=observationsToday’s collection of lunchtime news chum stories all have to do with the littlest things having big effects:

  • High-O Silver! Recently, my wife picked up a new antibiotic gel at the pharmacy — an over-the-counter colloidal silver creme. I thought nothing of it (other than to try it and see it worked well) — after all, there are people who use colloidal silver to fight infections, although it has the side effect of turning your skin blue. Additionally, according to numerous studies, consumers may benefit from the silver specks’ ability to inhibit the growth of bacteria, fungus and other microorganisms, including disease-causing Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus. So, I was intrigued by this Discover article about the new silver antibiotic gel — it seems that it contains silver nanoparticals that may harm humans and wildlife. The problem is that silver nanoparticles’ tiny size allows them to enter parts of living things bodies that other molecules can’t reach. This can damage the inner workings of cells and inhibit protein production.  And of course, being stupid humans, we’re just tossing this stuff into the environment, along with plastic nanoparticles, gold nanoparticles, and copper nanoparticles.
  • Battling the Bulge. Everyone has heard, by now, of the various bariatric surgical approaches for weight loss. Two of the best approaches are the Roux-en-Y gastric bypass operation and the vertical sleeve gastrectomy. One might think that these approaches work by reducing the size of the stomach, and thus reducing the amount of food one can eat and/or absorb. But if you think that, you would be wrong. There’s some new research on how obesity surgery really works, and it is astounding. It appears that these surgeries actually work by setting in motion a cascade of signaling changes in the gut and elsewhere. Those changes, in turn, reshape the mix of gut bacteria in ways that appear to turn up metabolic function, lipid metabolism and signals that tell the brain it’s time to stop eating. Researchers have already observed that certain bile acids circulate more copiously in the guts and blood of patients in the wake of bariatric surgery, but could only guess at why. They also have observed that the community of bacteria colonizing the guts of obese patients changes in the wake of bariatric surgery. Researchers just found that that one link between these two changes is a genetic “switch,” or transcription factor, called FXR. Increased bile acid unlocks FXR, which improves metabolic function directly. But improved FXR signaling also promotes the growth of gut bacteria that help regulate fat metabolism, and suppresses gut bacteria that is linked to weight gain and metabolic disturbance. The next step is to figure out how to create the FXR signalling through medicine, not surgery.
  • Concrete Isn’t Forever. Most of us see something made of concrete, and we think “permanence” (well, I also wonder about the water trapped in the structure). But all of our concrete isn’t permanent, and that’s creating a problem. Here’s the scary headline related to this that caught my eye: Concrete-Dissolving Bacteria Are Destroying Our Sewers. The problem is that, within the sewer system, one set of microbes emits hydrogen sulfide, the gas that is also responsible for raw sewage’s unpleasant smell. This gas fills the empty space between the top of the pipe and the water flow. Another set of microbes living in this headspace turns hydrogen sulfide to sulfuric acid, which eats away at concrete, leaving behind gypsum, the powdery stuff you find in drywall. This turns the sewer pipes into wet drywall. Yuk. That’s worse than Orangeberg piping. The current solution is to put plastic liners into the concrete pipes, a process that is almost as expensive as digging them up entirely. A better approach might be to embed anti-bacteria in the concrete (but that can build resistance). Microbiologists are instead thinking about how to tinker with the water systems and DNA sequencing to create probacteria — bacteria in the water pipes that are harmless to humans (so they say) but can manage the sewer bacteria.
  • [ETA] Bugs from Birth. Here’s a P.S. item from Andrew Ducker on how the birth process was designed to colonize us with beneficial microbes that help keep the bad ones out. The implication of this is that, as more and more women opt go to the Caesarian route for convenience, we are entering life less prepared with the good stuff we need to get us started. As the article notes, “the founding populations of microbes found on C-section infants are not those selected by hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution or even longer.” In other words — we are too safe for our own good.

Scientists like to say that this is a bacteria’s world, and we just live with it. After all, humans carry more bacteria cells than human ones, and without bacteria, we couldn’t live in the world. In fact, small microbes now are believed to be responsible for one of the greatest mass extinctions on earth! We need to think more about our indiscriminate use of antibiotics,  and the impacts of our growing use of nanotechnology that we don’t fully understand.

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Thanksgiving Left-Over News Chum Stew

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Nov 30, 2013 @ 12:49 pm PDT

Observation StewAh, the weekend after Thanksgiving. Time to sit down to a hearty bowl of Turkey Stew, with nice chucks of news:

  • Smelling The Subway. This is a real interesting article (and quite likely of interest to Andrew Ducker and those in the UK). A fellow who has synaesthesia, a neurological condition which prompts an involuntary reaction to sensory experiences, tastes things that he hears. In particular, place names provoke real tastes and intense cravings for particular foods. Using this knowledge, he has made a “taste map” of the London Underground. For example, to this fellow, Tottenham Court Road provokes a particularly strong taste of a sausage and egg breakfast, whilst nearby Bond Street prompts the less appealing tang of hairspray. Among the flavors that appear on the map are apple pie, bubble and squeak, HP sauce, purple grapes, chicken soup and soft boiled egg. Others include sweets such as love hearts, poppets, soft wine gums and jelly tots. Obscure flavors include coal dust, putrid meat, burnt rubber, wet wool, pencil eraser, fuzzy felt and dried blood.
  • Shel Silverstein. One of my favorite warped authors is Shel Silverstein. His kids stuff is great; his adult stuff is even better. He was also an accomplished songwriter, penning many folk and comedy songs. Here’s an interesting article on the unlikely way he rose to fame. Here’s a hint: Whenever you read his children’s stuff, look for the hidden subversive adult message.
  • I’m Bored. Many of us, I’m sure, get bored. But most of us don’t make it their job to boredom. Luckily, there are researchers that do. Did you know, for example, that there are five types of boredom … one more than researchers expected? (Well, you did if you were bored enough to listen to Wait Wait).  The types of boredom that they expected were: (1) Indifferent boredom, a relaxing and slightly positive type of boredom that “reflected a general indifference to, and withdrawal from, the external world”; (2)Calibrating boredom, the slightly unpleasant state of having wandering thoughts and “a general openness to behaviors aimed at changing the situation”; (3) Searching boredom, the kind that makes you feel restless and leaves you “actively seeking out specific ways of minimizing feelings of boredom”; and (4) Reactant boredom, which is so bad that it prompts sufferers “to leave the boredom-inducing situation and avoid those responsible for this situation (e.g., teachers).” What they discovered was a fifth type of boredom: Apathetic boredom. I’d go on, but I’m sure you’re bored by now.
  • Next on Wait Wait. Do you ever see scientific studies, and go “That’ll be on Wait Wait”. Here’s one for Wait Wait: Sexual frustration decreases lifespan — at least in flies. Specifically, the chemical attractant wafting from a female fruit fly shortened the lifespan of male flies when the femme fatale didn’t deliver on the signal’s promise, according to a new study.
  • Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning. I’m a morning person. In fact, I often get up just shortly before my alarm goes off. Turns out, there’s a reason why. It’s due to having a very accurate body clock. The body happens to love predictability. Your body is most efficient when there’s a routine to follow. So if you hit the hay the same time each night and awake the same time each morning, your body locks that behavior in.  The implication of this, of course, is that having constantly changing bedtimes and waking times puts stress on your body. That’s one of the reasons that, for me, sleeping me means sleeping until 530am.
  • Good News for Steve Stepanek. Dr. Steve Stepanek is one of the folks I work with regularly at CSUN, as he is head of the Computer Science Liaison Council. The Daily Sundial is reporting that Steve just got elected to the CSU Board of Trustees. That’s great news — they’ve got a great educator, an engineer, and a computer scientist (as well as a train aficionado) as a member.
  • Eating the Brain. One last science related item: Scientists have discovered an overlooked type of brain cell that may be responsible for learning. What it does is prune connections (essentially, eating them) in the brain, permitting new connections (and thus new learning) to be recorded. This could carry important implications for the battle against neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, for psychiatric disorders, and for the nagging loss of memory that comes with aging.

 

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The Jokes Just Write Themselves

Written By: cahwyguy - Thu Jun 06, 2013 @ 7:14 pm PDT

userpic=blushingSometimes the headline says it all: “Why did the chicken lose its penis?”

(This is one where you really need to read the comments)

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And The Winner Is…

Written By: cahwyguy - Tue Apr 16, 2013 @ 9:32 pm PDT

cssfuserpic=mad-scientistToday was the 62nd Annual California State Science Fair, and it was my 11th year of serving as a judge for the Mathematics and Software Panel (Junior Division)… and my (mumble-number) year as chair of that panel. As is my tradition, here’s a recap of our panel and my day. Here is the full list of major fair awards and the category awards.

In our panel, the unanimous winner was Saving Lives One Swimmer at a Time. This project was the development of a system in Python to detect when a swimmer is underwater. It did this by comparing images to a baseline, and included mechanisms to eliminate non-relevant items such as slightly moving lane-lines. The software was well-written and commented. The only problems this had was that it couldn’t handle multiple swimmers, or distinguish between those in distress and those not in distress.

The second place winner was Computer-based Automatic Music Creation through Analysis of Existing Music Pieces. This project took as input existing music pieces in the form of note sequences, note sequence repetition, and measures and developed a composition algorithm to develop similar new pieces. The software to do the generation and analysis was written in MATLAB. There was a fair amount of code developed, and all except the chunk that played the resulting music was developed by the student.

The third place winner (and one of my favorites) was Are Your Passwords Secure over Public Wi-Fi? This project looked at the security of unencrypted wi-fi, and also investigated the SSLstrip  and man in the middle attacks. It also looked at how some browsers have not implemented mechanisms to address the SSLStrip attack. There was less programming effort involved, but this guy knew his stuff. What hurt here was the lowered amount of effort compared to the other highly ranked projects.

The fourth place winner was Danger, Will Robinson! Life Critical Computer User Interfaces and the Science of Safety. Although the title was hokey, the subject was not: it explored what was the most effective user interface for a warning display.

Honorable mentions went to three projects: (1) Misspelled! Creating an Accurate Computerized Spell Correcting Algorithm, which was a reasonably good attempt at programming a spell-correction algorithm; (2) Wi-Fi Watchdog: Application to Observe the Indoor Mobility of Senior Citizens, a project that had seniors carrying android devices and looking at signal strength to determine their locations; and (3) Programmatic Signature Fraud Detection, a program that attempted to determine when signatures were fraudulent.

As for the other projects. We had two (#1, #2) related to the Monty Hall problem. Hint: If you are going to do this, make it original. Everyone knows one car and two goats. But what about more than three doors? multiple cars? multiple goats? the effect of different values of the prizes? the values of incentives to switch? Exploring how these change the odds would be an interesting project. The original question? It’s been done to death. However, I must admit that one of the students was a born salesman — he’ll end up hosting a game show one day, or end up being in sales!

And for those wanting to calculate π… again, figure out what would make this unique, because it’s been done to death. For example, one project related to Buffons Needle.  First, you need to understand why it works. Secondly, you need to understand the effects of random  number generator quality on your results… and perhaps you might explore how you can use such a calculation to test a RNG.

You should try not to do projects where the results appear obvious: we had a few where we couldn’t figure out why the project was even submitted. In such cases, you need to make clear what was unique about this. If you are going to be doing pure math, there needs to be something novel there … something that makes us see the hard work and the applicability (if possible) of the results. Most importantly, you need to understand what you are doing. If you are doing common subjects (especially things like probability in sports or gambling), try to find the unique angle — simple effort to duplicate what is likely known makes it hard for you to shine above the middle of the pack.

As for the other projects, we had some good ones related to cell counting and identifying dementia that just seemed to be in the wrong category — they were most likely in this category due to the fact they involved programming or modeling.  We had some others where the student just didn’t seem to think about the problem fully. For example, in a project related to developing a language for evaluating linear programming, the issue was less the program to solve the equation, and more (in my eyes) about the parser developed to address the language. This was not robust and provided no error feedback. This placed the project more in the middle of the pack.  We had another on security algorithms for attack/defend, but the student had difficulty explaining how the algorithms worked or understanding how the input and results mapped to the real world, other than they affected placement of resources. This was an example of a timely subject hurt by the understanding.

I should clarify here that, as usual, projects had some clear divisions. From the end of the first session, we knew the likely leaders because every judged liked them to some degree. We also knew the ones at the lower end of the spectrum. The great bulk of the projects were in the middle. This didn’t make them bad, but it didn’t make them outstanding. So if you are doing a project, you need to ask what you can do to make yours outstanding. From what I’ve seen, in this category, the answer is: (1) understanding what you did and all aspects of it; (2) being able to communicate that understanding; (3) being able to show that there was some significant effort put into the project; (4) if you developed code, developing the code using good techniques and making it robust.  If you want your project to be able to move beyond the category winner, I’d suggest making it have some utility that makes it stand head and shoulders above the typical engineering or scientific projects — which is something hard to do with math and software.

Originality ___
Comprehension ___
Organization/Completeness ___
Effort/Motivation ___
Oral and Visual Clarity ___
TOTAL ___

[ETA: When I generate the project pages, I’ve been adding a stamp of the form illustrated to the right. This illustrates the various dimensions of judging according to the Judges Handbook. I’ve done this for about 5 years now, and every year I get annoyed because it doesn’t work. By the time the next CSSF comes around, I’ve forgotten about the problems with this and use it again… and curse again. Perhaps this year, by making this note, I’ll remember. There are two problems with this form. First, using this at the state level with a scale of 1-5 does not work, because most of the projects (by virtue of the fact they made it to state) are already at a 3 level. Thus I end up with a number of projects clumped at the higher levels. I need to modify this to indicate the scale, along the lines of: “[Scale: -5 to 5, where 0 = minimal state level and 5 = exceptional]“. Secondly, the dimensions are unclear, and in some cases, difficult to judge through the interview. I need to rework the dimensions to clarify what we appear to be looking for. This would give the following table:]

[Scale: -5 to 5, where -5 = "ehhh",
0 = CSSF minimal and 5 = exceptional]
Originality of Project ___
Understanding of Project Issues ___
Quality of Code/Work Performed ___
Level of Effort Performed ___
Degree of Difficulty for Age ___
Presentation Skills ___
TOTAL ___

As for other aspects related to the day:

First, instead of driving to USC I took Metro. It was lovely. Parked in North Hollywood, Red Line to Metro/7th Street, and then Expo line to USC/Expo Park. Easy-peezy, and something I’ll do again.

Second, I took a little time to visit the space shuttle Endeavour. Nice display; it should be even nicer when they have the new building built. The shuttle itself is both larger and smaller than I expected, and certainly looks more worn. They also have a display of the Rocketdyne command center, the tires, an engine, and various other shuttle ephemera and artifacts. Well worth visiting if you are down at the ScienceCenter. Note: The page talked about timed tickets being required, but that wasn’t the case when I was there. It may have been a special day due to the CSSF.

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Science Stuff: Missing Continents, Evolution, Being Smart, Pools, and Observatories

Written By: cahwyguy - Tue Feb 26, 2013 @ 5:21 pm PDT

userpic=chicken-and-eggToday’s news chum brings together a number of science related news items for your enjoyment:

Music: Greatest Hits (1980-1994) (Aretha Franklin): “Freeway Of Love”

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Science News Chum: Appendices, Dolphins, Food, Politics, and One Dog

Written By: cahwyguy - Wed Feb 20, 2013 @ 11:47 am PDT

userpic=cyborgToday’s skimming of the news sites over lunch has unearthed a fair number of articles all relating to science and scientific stuff:

  • Useless No More. For the longest time, the term “appendix” has referred to something that could be removed without harm; something felt to be useless (although often, especially in government documents, the appendices often contain more information than the main part of the document). However, science is learning more about the appendix, and finding it may not be useless after all. In particular, ScienceNow/HuffPost is reporting that the appendix evolved independently over 30 times. This is yet another acknowledgment of the apparent usefulness of the appendix. The current belief, by the way, is that the appendix harbors the good gut bacteria when something bad is overtaking the gut. I’ve yet to come up with a good analogy between this use and Appendix F in NIST SP 800-53.
  • I Call Your Name. Humans tend to look for things that make us unique, and thus superior. But more and more we are finding that we are just another animal. Today’s example: Discovery is reporting that dolphins call each other by name. Now what I found interesting was the comment in the article that “it can be challenging to study dolphin signature whistles, since it’s difficult to identify which particular dolphin is emitting the sounds, and whether or not the sounds are just mimicked copies.”. I’m sure if dolphins were studying human speech, they might be, umm, saying the same thing.
  • Engineering Food. The New York Times has a very interesting article about the science behind food — in particular, the lengths to which commercial companies will go in order to get you to buy (and buy, and keep buying) their food. The article goes into a number of detailed examples where particular engineering adjustments were made in the composition of the food to make it more addictive appealing to consumers. In many ways, reading this will make you even more wary of commercially processed foods. Of course, everytime I read something like this I feel the urge to shout the words of Alton Brown, which once appeared on his old blog:

    Here’s what it comes down to kids. Ronald McDonald doesn’t give a damn about you. Neither does that little minx Wendy or any of the other icons of drivethroughdom. And you know what, they’re not supposed to. They’re businesses doing what businesses do. They don’t love you. They are not going to laugh with you on your birthdays, or hold you when you’re sick and sad. They won’t be with you when you graduate, when your children are born or when you die. You will be with you and your family and friends will be with you. And, if you’re any kind of human being, you will be there for them. And you know what, you and your family and friends are supposed to provide you with nourishment too. That’s right folks, feeding someone is an act of caring. We will always be fed best by those that care, be it ourselves or the aforementioned friends and family.We are fat and sick and dying because we have handed a basic, fundamental and intimate function of life over to corporations. We choose to value our nourishment so little that we entrust it to strangers. We hand our lives over to big companies and then drag them to court when the deal goes bad. This is insanity.

    One additional thing related to this article. The article goes into details about how Dr. Pepper designed a new flavor, and how Coca-Cola tinkers with its flavors. Both note that the actual formulation is secret. This, of course, raises the question of how they do kosher certification of Coca-Cola. Wonder no more.

  • You Say Tomato. As we’re talking about food here, another big issue in food is how we have been genetically adapting and engineering our foods to be “better”. There’s lots of fighting over whether genetically engineered food is safe (go head… go to Google News and search on “genetically engineered food”), and even over the profits. One thing generally agreed, however, is that genetic engineering has broken… the tomato. It is hard and flavorless. Well, science is coming to the rescue by trying to engineer a better tasting tomato.
  • We Knew They Were Off In The Head. Evidently, brain scans can determine political party preferences. A lot of this has to do with how the brain assesses risk (something humans are notoriously bad at). Recent investigations into the psychology of liberals and conservatives have found a number of subtle differences, from conservatives exhibiting more squeamishness to liberals paying less attention to negative stimuli or threats. In particular, a 2011 study published in the journal Current Biology found differences in some brain structures between politically liberal and political conservative young adults. Many of these areas were linked to risk-assessment and decision-making. Here’s a good example of how we are bad at assessing risk, from a wonderful Freakanomics episode dealing with effective approaches regarding guns: which is riskier: letting your child visit a friend’s house where there is a swimming pool, or letting your child visit a friend’s house where there are guns?
  • Monotheists Believe in One Dog. Some interesting research has found a biological marker that is indicative of dyslexia. According to the study authors, there is a relationship between a person’s ability to read and how their brain encodes sounds. This is because, according to the researchers, people learn language skills by making meaningful associations between sounds and information. The most difficult sounds for the brain to encode are consonants, which are shorter and contain more complex sounds compared to vowels, which tend to have longer and simple intonations. More stable brain responses to these sounds can lead to easier interpretation of both aural and written words.

 

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Friday News Chum: Periodic Table of Tech, USS Enterprise, Kickstarter, Disney+Lucas, Sitcom Spinoffs, and Robocalls

Written By: cahwyguy - Fri Nov 02, 2012 @ 11:22 am PDT

Well, it’s Friday at lunch (well, really, it is Thursday evening, but you know how things go), and it is time to clear out the accumulated links of the week. There’s a bunch of real interesting stuff here folks, so let’s dive in…

 

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