Saturday, July 25, 2015

House passes "DARK" Bill

Although I don't write about it nearly so much anymore, I've watched a LOT of pseudo-science in my day. While much of the most pernicious comes from the right wing, the left has its own variety often centered around the naturalistic fallacy. That is to say, "if it's 'natural' it must be healthy and if it's not, it must be un-healthy".

This has expressed itself most notably as the anti-vaccine movement, but more recently as the anti-GMO movement. When I first heard about this, 3-4 years ago, it seemed quite plausible to me. Companies have a long history of putting profits before people when it comes to safety. So could we really trust the safety of genetically modified foods?

But very quickly, I started reading up on the claims of those that opposed GM foods. The arguments simply fell apart. Shoddy science with poorly designed experiments and weak data. Logical fallacies. Fake experts. Massive collusion and conspiracy necessary to pull it off... It was no different than any other pseudoscience.

Which is why I have to say I fully support the ominously nicknamed "Deny Americans the Right to Know" or DARK bill that passed the house recently which, if it passed the Senate (unlikely), would prevent states from requiring labeling of GM foods.

While advocates say this would allow consumers to know what they are consuming, this isn't true at all. Saying something was genetically modified gives absolutely NO useful information because the term is uselessly vague. It is as informationally useful as saying your food contained yellow. Not yellow 5 dye which has been much maligned. Just something yellow. GM crops are so diverse that painting with such a broad brush says nothing worthwhile.


There is one thing that labeling would do.

Imply that the foods are dangerous and in need of a warning label.

Which seems all too familiar. It's the tactic the Creationists tried to use in Cobb County Georgia in 2001 where they deemed Evolution too flawed to teach without putting a warning label in textbooks stating that evolution is JUST a theory. It was true, but presented out of context gave no useful information and the only thing it did was attempt to spread fear through sleight of word. This tactic didn't work in Cobb County. It shouldn't work anywhere else.

Sunday, May 31, 2015


My girlfriend and I went to see Disney's new movie Tomorrowland last night. Hands down, this is one of the worst movies I think I've ever seen. As a warning, this post is going to be spoiler heavy so read no further if you don't want to have things ruined for you.

The first problem I had was the main character, Casey. She was a throwaway. I don't think it's a huge spoiler to say that she finds a magical pin that teleports her to a marvelous futuristic world, but that's where the motivation ends. It was really cool so she wants to get back there. Despite freaky robots trying to kill her, a cryptic little girl that supposedly gave her the pin refusing to answer any questions, and a jerkface George Clooney who also answers no questions and just tells her everything is awful. Who cares! She still wants to go. Just cuz.

So, Casey won't be dissuaded. She is, as we find out in the very first scene, an optimist. To a fault. And that's about her only defining characteristic. It amounts to a paper thin justification for Casey being led around by the nose for the vast majority of the film to solve someone else's problem that they won't even tell her about. She lacks agency as a character and the audience is supposed to forget this because of the bright shiny distraction of "Ooh! Shiny futureland!"

After the film ended, my girlfriend and I agreed, Casey could have been written entirely out of the movie. It would require some reengineering of the structural details such as a revelation on the part of Clooney's character, Frank, on the solution to the supposed problem (more on that in a minute) instead of letting Casey pop in to figure it out in the matter of a single scene as a cheap workaround of pulling a strict deus ex. Writing her out would have made the main story much tighter and potentially a more triumphant story as Frank solves a problem of his own making. But I just like redemption stories so maybe that's just me.

Now, about that problem. While it is ultimately revealed and its solution proposed all in a very short time, vague hints are given several times prior to the big reveal stating that "someone invented something that should not have been invented". An engaging teaser to be sure, but the reality is a big let down. As a second warning, this is one of the key reveals of the whole movie, so if you're wanting to avoid spoilers, this is where you should stop.

The thing that should not have been invented is... a device that shows the future. And it's not painting a pretty picture. In 59 days* from Casey's present there will be simultaneous disasters: icecaps melting suddenly flooding everything, major terrorist attacks, raging fires destroying the world's forests, etc.... How is it all supposed to happen at the same time? I'm going to go with "Disney magic" because they don't explain this at all.

This of course should beg the question of why all these horrible things shall come to pass at all? After all, knowing that something bad is in the future gives us the opportunity to change it. Except the main point of the movie is that we don't. It treats humanity as a proverbial deer in the headlights. Hugh Laurie's character, Governor Nix (a not at all subtle reference to the Greek goddess of darkness, but then again, making Casey's last name "Newton" wasn't subtle either) gives a speech about this stating, with some truth, that when we learn of impending doom, instead of trying to solve the problem, we repackage it into cheap entertainment. Apparently Laurie's character had been trying to warn the mundane Earth about all these bad things for years, but no one would do anything except tip their glass to the oncoming train.

Defeated, Frank and Casey are about to head back to Earth when suddenly Casey has the deus ex realization that Laurie's character constantly blasting Earth with warnings was the problem; it planted the negative outlook in humanity's mind that was what caused all these problems in the first place**. It hearkens back to a proverb told back at the beginning of the movie about two wolves fighting. One of light and hope. The other of darkness and despair. Which one wins? The one you feed. The implication here is that by worrying about the future feeds the wrong wolf.

There was another early scene in the film in which this was again thematically raised in which Casey is in school and her teachers are giving dire warnings about the world we live in - Global warming, dystopias, etc... Casey raises her hand to ask a question and is consistently ignored until, just before the bell rings, she is finally called upon and asks, "So what are we doing to fix it?"

This is a fair and profound question, but an honest answer is never given. Instead of giving it a fair answer, the film runs in the exact opposite direction assuming that humanity is collectively doing nothing except crying to the heavens about it in despair or ignoring it. Which certainly has an element of truth to it, given the global warming deniers, the spread of religious extremism, etc..., but it fails to give a fair shake to problems humanity has addressed such as largely reducing the hole in the ozone layer, or making inroads to nuclear disarmament. In Tomorrowland, history doesn't exist. Just sloppy moralizing.

So what solution is proposed? I think the intention was "Stop wallowing. Start fixing." But the delivery was so botched that it was entirely subverted. Instead, what was depicted in the film was a dangerously ridiculous prescription. They destroyed the future telling machine and recruit a bunch of idealistic dreamers to.... stand and marvel in a field at the wonder of Tomorrowland.

Now my comment about not giving an honest answer to the question of "what are we doing to fix it" comes into play. Because it is never answered as to how this solves the problem. We are still facing all those crises. The heroic dreamers are inspiringly cast from all walks of life - musicians, scientists, ballerinas, an explorer studying elephants. But none of them directly addresses the issues as presented.

Instead, the film completely dodges resolving the central dilemma, plastering over the massive plot hole with a vague allusion to hope. Or maybe inspiration. Or something. Because jetpacks.

Either way, the potentially strong message of "Stop wallowing. Start fixing." devolves into "Don't think about the problem and it wont' be one."

I've heard this song before. It's one I consistently hear in discussions about racial inequality. It's the battle cry of the "I'm not racist" crowd who want to claim that racial tension is the product of discussing the problem of racial inequality. And history has given us a clear picture of how refusing to confront the problem works out for us.

Additionally, the film fails to honestly address the issue in another key way. Casey was arrested for sabotaging cranes being used to disassemble a NASA launch pad. Her father, a NASA engineer, tells her that regardless of the cranes being rendered useless, the launch pad will be torn down. He embodies the pessimistic and fatalistic tendencies that are supposed to be everything wrong.

And they never come back to this. If they really wanted to sell the idea that hope will triumph, the launch pad needed to be saved. But instead of addressing this sole concretization of the theme, they walk away from it. I can only conclude that her father was right. The launchpad was torn down while Casey was busy living in fantasy land. By failing to address this plot point, it only shows how hollow the theme was in the first place.

But the problems don't stop there for me. I may well be overthinking this, but it seems to me that the future seeing device isn't really all that hypothetical. We actually have one. It's the hallmark of our species.

It's our brains - a magnificent evolutionary advantage that allows us to look at the world around us, and predict what may happen next so that we might change that future to better our chances at survival. Sure, it's not perfect, but then again, neither is the future telling machine in the film. If it were, then there would be no point in Casey trying to fight it.

Ultimately, the film's recommendation is to turn off our brains. Instead of worry about what the future may bring, we should ignore the warnings and focus on what we want it to be.

Early in the film as Casey explores the parallel reality shown by touching the pin, she hits her head on walls, falls down a flight of stairs, and wades into a lagoon while pining for her fantasy land. This is the most apt analogy of what this film truly prescribes except that we have no idea when those stairs will be a cliff.

It's a story that means well, but obviously didn't think about what it was saying. The only impression I had at the end was


* - Technically, it wasn't 59 days. Casey scrolls through time from the present to the future and there's several days of "static". Not sure what this was supposed to represent, but either way, the explicit point was made that no one was sure exactly when all of these doomsday things were going to happen; only that in 59 days, when the static cleared, everything would suck.

So Frank's countdown clock to doomsday, ticking away the seconds annoyed me because it was promising far more accuracy than it really should have. Significant digits people!

** - I was honestly expecting some sort of ridiculous reference to "quantum" to pop up here with them explaining that the future was a set of hypotheticals until we collapsed a nonsensical future wave function by observing the it. That they at least avoided this cliche is at least some small consolation.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Playing With Data - Quadratic Cameos

I haven't been blogging much the past few years in large part due to being somewhat removed from the science/skeptic/education scene. The past 3 years I've been working in estate jewelry and am currently functioning as an inventory manager. While it is certainly far afield of my main background, I do frequently find ways where I'm applying my scientific background.

Today was a good example of that. One of our buyers has a fondness for cameos. Unfortunately, cameos just don't sell well anymore. There's some rare exceptions, such as the one pictured here. This one happened to be an 1800's piece in a 22k gold mounting that was in spectacular condition.

But most aren't. The most common ones are cameos carved from shell that I refer to as the "profile of the homely young lady". They often come in a 10k gold mounting and if we try to sell them at auction, they often sell for roughly the value of the gold in the mounting. Then, after auction fees, we've made less money than if the cameo was simply pulled out of the mounting and the mounting melted. Thus, when buying, it's important for our buyers to know roughly how much of the weight of a piece is shell, and how much is gold.

I've been collecting the cameos that we've pulled out of the mountings for several months now and have a good collection, so I put some data together today and figured that this could be a good project for a math class, looking at a few types of functions.

From each piece in my collection, I took 3 pieces of information: The height, the width, and the weight. Ideally, I'd have taken another, the thickness, but this is somewhat harder to get at since, in a real world application our buyers would be facing, they would likely not be able to easily measure this. Additionally, I make a weak assumption that this doesn't really change much. After all, even for small cameos, they'll still need to be fairly thick, or risk breaking. So I felt ok leaving this out.

My first pass I tried putting together equations from just single pairings of the height vs weight, or the width vs weight. Before graphing it and letting Excel do the fit for me, it bears some thinking about what the plot might look like. It certainly wouldn't be a linear equation because what we're really looking at is an increase in volume which is length x width x thickness, which would mean it should scale towards the 3rd power. But because the thickness probably stays more or less constant, ad the length and width increase proportionally to one another, this means I should be looking for the data to fit a second degree polynomial, or a quadratic function.

And sure enough, when I plotted everything up, it ended up coming out pretty well.

The thing I really like about data like this is that there's lots of little things you can see by looking at it. The first thing that I noticed (I actually noticed it while taking the data) is that there seems to be several somewhat standard sizes. You can see this borne out on the graph because there's several little vertical groups. I hadn't really considered this before, but there's probably a good reason for this. As with many things in jewelry, there's often a sort of "mix and match" that goes on. Customers could pick the carved cameo they wanted, and then separately pick out the mounting they liked. If there were standardized sizes, this means that jewelers can insert them fairly easily.

Another thing that jumped out at me, this time from the graph, is that there is more scatter towards the larger cameos. If this were something like astronomical data where this was a plot of the recession velocity of galaxies as a function of distance, I would expect that the larger scatter would be due to larger uncertainties in the measurement at larger distances. It would look about the same. But that's not the case here. In fact, the uncertainty in measurement should actually go down as you get to larger heights. I was measuring in mm, so if I were 1mm off, this would be a large error for the small cameos, but becomes rather insignificant towards the larger ones.

So where is the breakdown? It's likely based on the assumption I called out earlier; the cameos aren't all a consistent thickness. This gets magnified as you get towards larger cameos because the variation in thickness is getting amplified by the rapidly growing surface area.

Which brings up another question. I first did this in just one dimension - the height. I had another hidden assumption in there, is that all the cameos are essentially the same overall shape. I only selected the oval ones. None of the ones with clipped corners or heart shapes. But do they really all have the same ratio of major and minor axes? If they don't, then perhaps I'm missing something and that could be the reason for the scatter on the right of the above graph.

To try to minimize that difference, I looked at the area. Kind of. Instead of going through the full calculation to find the actual area of an oval (A = pi x (major axis)/2 x (minor axis)/2), I figured the pi and the "over 2"'s would be common factors, so I simplified this down to just the height x width. Plotting those up vs the weight gave another graph. Again, before looking at the next graph, consider what sort of fit this should be.

If you guessed linear, you guessed right! So what are we learning from this graph?

We still see the large scatter towards the high end. Similarly, if you look at the R^2 value (the residuals), you see that it's only slightly lower than for the simple one dimensional plot. This is a good indication that the scatter on the previous graphs is not caused by significantly different shapes. But aside from looking at the graph, there's a better way to check. The best way is to simply divide the height of each one by the width and see if there's much difference. I did this and found it was very consistent, right around a ratio of 1.3:1.

So how will I use this from here? Probably as a tool to give my buyers in the future. I'll likely spare them all the math that I used to come up with this, but giving them the final graph, they should be able to fairly easily use this to estimate how much of the weight of an item is gold and how much is shell that will get stuck in my giant bag and isn't being turned into money. Perhaps then they can stop paying too much.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

That's Not How Engagement Works

Let's say I'm a website designer for a company. I'm hired to produce a new website, a better website. It's hard to say exactly what defines a good website and I don't want to have to put together a huge poll of users asking for feedback. I just want to work with what I have available. Namely the analytics my ISP or Google or some other company provides.

One of those can be loosely defined as "engagement". Are users staying on the site longer? Are they clicking things? Do they visit more than just the homepage?

In an ideal situation, you'd hope the answer would be "yes" to many of these things. However, just because the answers are "yes" doesn't mean that it's a good website design. Rather, it could imply a very bad design; a website that is too confusing causing people to have to hunt for the information, making them click on more things for more pages and staying longer.

So simply looking at a situation in terms of a metric like this doesn't give the whole picture.

And the same applies for education where student "engagement" is often used as a proxy for good education. There's good reason for this. If students are engaged, studies show they retain more of the material. However, if the material is poorly constructed, then "engagement" may be more of a desperate attempt to rectify this. Worse, if the material is downright wrong, the students will likely still retain it thus, being a net negative on their education.

It seems several teachers in Louisiana don't understand this concept. In a stunning letter unearthed by Zach Kopplin, teachers state that a law passed in 2006 which led to "...students invariably get more involved in the lesson which leads to better discussion and in turn to a higher level of achievement...".

Sounds good, right?

The only problem is that the law has opened the door for Creationism, climate change denial, and any other pseudo-scientific trash politicians want to sneak into the classroom which is what these teachers are championing.

But this isn't how engagement, at least as a meaningful metric for academics, works. I recall a discussion in which I and many of my classmates were very involved in in high school. The teacher (thankfully not a science or history teacher) was explaining why she thought the moon landing was a hoax. Oddly enough, this was one of my first big encounters with pseudo-science and it was what led me personally, to do more research. It's what introduced me to Phil Plait's "Bad Astronomy". So in this one case, it ended up being a positive. However, a few years later in my American History class we had to do presentations. I did mine on the space race and moon landing. Wouldn't you know it, there were questions about whether it had been faked.

Although my History teacher wasn't the one espousing moon hoax nonsense, I recall other spirited discussions in his class regarding the Kennedy assassination. This teacher was a big fan of conspiracy theories regarding this event. And students knew it. Thus, many times students would try to get him off topic, wasting valuable class time, by engaging him on this topic. This is another example of how student involvement can be a poor metric.

Thus, it is quite disappointing that so many teachers would defend bad science by perverting what can be a useful metric. But as the computer geeks say, "Garbage in - Garbage out."

Monday, April 20, 2015

HST's 25th Anniversary and Documentary

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. This Wednesday night, PBS will be featuring a documentary, Invisible Universe Revealed which will look at the history of this amazing instrument.

I'm looking forward to seeing this documentary, not just because I love the HST, but because a post I wrote in 2007 that mentioned the Hubble caught the attention of those working on the documentary. In particular, I noted that the HST added tremendously to our understanding of stellar formation and evolution and they wanted details. I passed along several thoughts, but I doubt that the hard science will be making the final cut (no, I haven't gotten a sneak peek). So to celebrate Hubble's 25th, here's some of the thoughts I passed along.

Before I start though, I should give my normal caveat that the discovery process is often muddled in modern science and astronomy in particular. One group using one telescope may note something interesting, another using a different instrument does follow up observations, another group does the math, more observations are made by other people, and while it supports the hypothesis, not everyone is convinced and it takes years or decades to form a scientific consensus as more and more results pour in from multiple teams an instruments.

Thus, it is nearly impossible to say "Hubble discovered X". Rarely is astronomy so cut and dry. Rather, we should approach the question from the opposite direction and ask, "What observations might be needed to build and/or support stellar formation theory and has Hubble contributed to any part of that process?"

In particular, there are several things I consider as observational evidence that the theory is correct:

  • For a cloud to collapse to form a star in the first place, it will have to surpass what's known as the Jeans Mass (essentially having enough mass in a small enough space with the right conditions). While it's good sound physics, if you really want to confirm the models that rely on this are correct, you'd need to not only demonstrate that the necessary conditions of mass, density, pressure, etc... are being met, but that clouds that meet those conditions are actually collapsing. This can be done via spectroscopy by noting that the edge of a proplyd closest to you is redshifted (i.e., it's collapsing towards the center which is further from you) while the more distant edge is blueshifted (i.e., it's collapsing towards the center which is closer to you). Indeed, Hubble did just this.
  • Once a larger nebula has begun to fragment, proto-stars should develop inside the proplyds. Hubble was not the first to observe propylds. In particular, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) launched in 1983, had previously discovered them (for example, here is a paper on them from 1989 although the term "proplyd" had not yet been introduced). However, it was Hubble observations that really did the heavy lifting on proplyds that things seemed to take off from the HST observations. In particular, visual observations from the Hubble seemed to be what determined that these weren't just clumps, but were flattened which is a sign that they're rotating and forming disks as predicted by stellar formation theories. A major paper on this was published in 1994 by O'dell and Wen.
  • For stellar formation to work, forming stars will need to find a way to overcome the conservation of angular momentum which requires that as a cloud collapses, it would "spin up" and would result in it flinging itself apart (like a child on a merry go round spinning to fast). Several methods are proposed to do so, but one of the most pronounced is shooting out excess material at high velocities through jets perpendicular to the disk. Such jets have been known since the late 1800's (they're quite large and relatively bright in an astronomical sense since the ejected material slams into the larger interstellar cloud around it at high velocity). The jets themselves are known as Herbig-Haro (HH) objects and at their centers, we often find extremely young stars such as T-Tauri objects. T-Tauri objects had long been recognized as a type of variable star, but again, Hubble seems to have been the first to zoom in on them sufficiently to see their structure. Much like the proplyds, they were discovered prior to the Hubble era, but this 1999 paper suggests that their actual structure hadn't been resolved in detail until the HST. In particular, that paper indicates jets were discovered in some of these objects and points to other papers in which jets were discovered in such objects thanks to the HST.
  • Another important clue is that we find young stars in places that we expect them to be forming; namely, in dense dust clouds. The problem is that it's hard to see into these clouds to confirm this. In 2009, the HST got a very nice upgrade with an infrared camera that allowed it to peer through the dust and see these young stars still in the shrouds. Again, this wasn't entirely new. The Spitzer Space Telescope had been launched 6 years earlier, but Hubble was definitely a contributor.

Those are really the main pieces of evidence I'd want to see to be convinced our models of stellar formation were correct. However, there's one more way to look at things: Stellar evolution is a very hard theory to really prove because we don't get to see a star's life from start to finish. Even the births are hidden inside dense nebulae and proplyds and take hundreds of thousands of years. Trying to study this field is like taking a quick hike through a forest and and trying to figure out the entire life cycle of a tree. You can probably do it because you can see saplings to adult trees to rotting logs. But if your hike is too short, you won't have seen enough to really have a coherent picture.

Prior to the Hubble, we'd walked on trails along the edge of the forest, but Hubble took us deep into its heart. It's not always important that we saw new things or saw them for the first time. It's also important that we just saw more of them; enough to really be sure that we had seen all the steps in the process and that it was always consistent. That's not nearly as glamorous, but in science, that's quite often even more important.