Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Trooly Grate Skool in the Sitty of Cleaveland

Here's a picture of me standing in front of Artemus Ward Elementary School on the west side of Cleveland.

This is the only school I've ever heard of named after a fictional character. Artemus Ward was a sort of 19th-century version of Larry the Cable Guy. He was the creation of Charles Farrar Browne, a humorist who wrote for the Plain Dealer in the 1850s and later became a very popular lecturer. Browne's Wikipedia page says Artemus Ward was simply Browne's pen name, but I disagree. A pen name is simply a substitute name, like Mark Twain, that a writer takes on no matter what he is writing. In contrast, Artemus Ward was a full-blown character who had a vivid fictitious life and generally starred in his own anecdotes.

Browne's writings  are so far out of copyright you can read them in their entirety for free online. Here is a favorite of mine (and a favorite of Abraham Lincoln's):

High-Handed Outrage at Utica
In the Faul of 1856, I showed my show in Uticky, a trooly grate sitty in the State of New York.

The people gave me a cordyal recepshun. The press was loud in her prases.

1 day as I was givin a descripshun of my Beests and Snaiks in my usual flowry stile what was my skorn disgust to see a big burly feller walk up to the cage containin my wax figgers of the Lord’s Last Supper, and cease Judas Iscarrot by the feet and drag him out on the ground. He then commenced fur to pound him as hard as he cood.

“What under the son are you abowt?” cried I.

Sez he, “What did you bring this pussylanermus cuss here fur?” and he hit the wax figger another tremenjis blow on the hed.

Sez I, “You egrejus ass, that air’s a wax figger–a representashun of the false ‘Postle.”

Sez he, “That’s all very well fur you to say, but I tell you, old man, that Judas Iscarrot can’t show hisself in Utiky with impunerty by a darn site!” with which observashun he kaved in Judassis hed. The young man belonged to 1 of the first famerlies in Utiky. I sood him, and the Joory brawt in a verdick of Arson in the 3d degree.

This guy says he doesn't think Outrage at Utica is funny and suspects it's because he doesn't understand the social context it was written in. Well, neither do I, but I think it's hilarious. I also don't understand the social context of the Philosophers' Soccer Match in Monty Python (for a long time I thought Franz Beckenbauer was a philosopher) but it's still funny. De gustibus non est disputandum, I guess.

By the way, this photo was taken on a trip from my home in upstate New York to Cleveland. That trip always reminds me of Artemus Ward because I pass Utica, and Browne wrote his Artemus Ward stories from Cleveland.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Day in the Life of a Scientist

So my friend Phil posted to Facebook how he tried all kinds of technical fixes to get the speed sensor on his bike to work, and in the end all he had to do was move the base unit a little closer to the sensor. The story hit home for reasons that will become apparent.

When I was a kid, wanting to be a scientist, I read stories about Einstein and Newton and how they wielded elegant, airtight logic to move their incredible hypotheses straight toward undeniable fact. Now that I'm a scientist (sort of ), my experience has been closer to Edison's comment about it being 99% perspiration. No doubt Edison wasn't as smart as Einstein and Newton, but I think his take is a lot closer to typical than what you read in the biographies.

So here is a day in the life of a real scientist, showing you how the sausage is really made. The details have been altered but the story is all too true.

1. Arrive at desk at 8 am. Where did I leave off yesterday? Oh yeah, I was trying to fix up a simulation so that it predicts Effect Y when Cause X is active. It had better, because our experiment said X causes Y.

2. Was I really unable to show X causes Y? I have results here from right before I went home last night, but didn't record the inputs because I was in a hurry not to miss dinner and was sure I'd remember them. So I don't really know what these results mean. Reconstruct the inputs and re-run.

3. During this run, I started to think about causes. What about the interpolation order? Is it high enough? Too high? What about the modulus? I can't even remember where I got this value. I'm going to look it up on Wikipedia. If the Wikipedia value is different, then my value is probably bad. Or maybe Wikipedia is wrong. So I'll check another source. Here's a student project from the Technical University of München. It uses a value within 5% of mine. They are pretty smart over in München and I can imagine them speaking in a foreign accent, so it's probably a good value.

4. Lunchtime, then I have to go on a phone call with the people funding this work. They want to know all about the schedule and budget, so it takes an extra half hour to regain my train of thought once the call is over.    

5. The run is done and it shows Result B, which is different from anything I've seen so far. What if I didn't put on the boundary conditions correctly? To be sure, I'll remove all the boundary conditions and re-apply carefully.

6. Ran again and I'm still not getting the expected results. Maybe I had the boundary conditions right before, and messed them up with this latest re-do. Double check and run again. I think maybe the displacement is going nonlinear. I might need to change to a hyperelastic constitutive theory.  It is a good thing I'm so smart and know about these things. Others would have been defeated by this problem.

7. I am 99% sure there is a bug in this code. There must be. I've checked every conceivable input and they all look good. All this money for software and it's full of bugs. Spend an hour drafting a bug report. In the process of writing the bug report I discover that I was looking at the wrong column of results. Trash the bug report. I am really stumped for new ideas, so I spend several minutes drawing the Greek letter sigma in both its capital and lower-case forms.

8. Maybe the temperature was recorded incorrectly during the experiment. Did they even say where they placed the thermocouple? Did they make sure everything was soaked out before doing the test? Experimenters never document things well enough. If the temperature was this way, then the result would be that way. I think.

9. Run again with a different temperature and the trend is opposite what I expected. Something is interfering with my concentration - a vague feeling of pressure. Then I remember - back during Step 3, I never did get to the bathroom. It can't be put off any longer.

10. It's getting late and my kid has a ball game tonight. I am not sure what the original problem was. Oh yeah, X should cause Y but it's causing Z, or A or B depending on the inputs. Go for a walk outside to clear my head.

11. While sitting on a bench outside, I realize that in converting minutes to hours, I might have multiplied by 60 instead of dividing by 60. I don't think I did that. I have a Ph.D., and nobody would get a Ph.D. who doesn't know when to divide instead of multiplying. But I'd better check it anyway.

12. Back in the office and sure enough, I've entered 60 minutes as 3600 hours instead of 1 hour. Got to change that, but I need to find my original set of inputs. By looking at the timestamps on my files, I deduce that the original inputs are in the file Inputs(13).xlsx,

13. I really need to go, so I'm in a hurry and run the simulation with the corrected inputs, but forget to turn on output so it takes 18 minutes to get nothing. But I'm so close. I can run it once more and if I really need to hurry, I'll skip filling in my timesheet until tomorrow. Run again and get result Y. Victory!! Leave so quickly that I forget to take my container of lunch leftovers out of the refrigerator. I'll discover them in a few weeks when they have grown a green beard.


I am not sure where this all fits into the scientific method, Kuhn's paradigm shifts or Popper's falsifiability criterion.  You can find numerous fallacies and biases here. But this process actually works, at least for me. The best I can guess is that during all the fooling around with inputs and going down dead ends, even though the results are no good, I'm building intuition that I can use later to speed up my reasoning by a large factor, so that after going through ten or so of these cycles, I can answer questions without even having to run a simulation. Without intuition you may as well pack it in.  

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Ramps for Breakfast

Ramps are Allium tricoccum, a member of the onion/garlic/chive genus. They grow in springtime and were considered by old-time Appalachian folk as "tonic herbs", along with poke, cress, dandelions and such. Tonic herbs are leafy plants with a bite or bitterness that were eaten in the spring to counteract the lack of fresh vegetables over the winter, according to folk medicine.

It's easier to get the old-timey Appalachian produce like ramps and pawpaws here in upstate NY than when I lived in Cleveland, because they only grow well in hilly and dampish areas and they don't ship well. However, I did read that the city of Chicago got its name from the native word for a patch of ramps growing along Lake Michigan.

Every description of ramps makes a big deal about how smelly and garlicky they are. They do smell garlicky when you get them cooking, but not as much as garlic itself. They might have seemed pungent compared to the very bland traditional cooking of Appalachia, which was mainly Scottish in origin, but would hardly raise an eyebrow today.

I got some ramps yesterday at my fantastic grocery store, the Niskayuna Co-Op.  They're trendy now, so these ramps, labeled as "foraged from the Hudson Valley", cost $15 a pound. But you gotta jump on them because they're only available for a few weeks each year.

I fried up the ramps this morning in a tiny bit of bacon grease and ate them with eggs. Fried, they have a deep but not sharp garlic flavor that stays on your breath. They are slightly sweet and not as bitter as some other greens. They'd probably also go very well with fried potatoes.

There is another kind of ramp that grew in Appalachia - people! In Southwestern Virginia in the 1800s, there was a class of darkish-skinned people who were thought to have some Indian or black ancestry and therefore were near the absolute bottom of the social hierarchy, along with free blacks. One thing that is clear is that they had a large German component. They were called ramps - some people think it's because they ate ramps, but my own theory is they may have migrated from the Ramapo Mountains of New Jersey where there is a similar class of people even today.

Apparently "ramp" was what other people called you, not what you would call yourself, so if you are descended from ramps you won't really know it. But my grandmother's mother came from Southwest Virginia, lived in a group of about four family names (Thomas, Hand, Van Huss, Widener and a couple others) that almost exclusively intermarried with each other for generations, were sometimes listed as "mulatto" in the census, and included at least one guy with six toes (a sign of inbreeding.) So you can put two and two together. They had an old aunt living with them who was born before 1800 in New Jersey. These were the people my great-grandfather, no prize himself, said were "not good people." Well, we turned out OK for the most part, so they couldn't have been all bad.

As-foraged. You have to rinse the dirt off and cut off the roots.

They take about 5 minutes to fry up 


Saturday, May 3, 2014

Diversity in Science

One lesson of the past week is that a controversial post gets about triple the views as a regular old boring post. If I were doing this for money, I'd certainly feel pressure to create controversy where none exists, which of course explains a lot of what you see on the Internet.

In that spirit, I've attached a clickbaity title to this post that has nothing to do with diversity as usually understood.

I recently heard of the untimely death of a guy named Seth Roberts who was a leading light of the "self-experimentation" movement. In short, self-experimentation is doing medical experiments on yourself in order to solve problems that you yourself have, such as insomnia or overweight. We all do it informally - maybe your pillowcase goes in the laundry for a couple nights and you notice that you sleep better without a pillow  - but self-experimenters consciously collect and analyze quantitative data.

The self-experimentation movement stems in large part from criticism of established medical science as corrupt and harmful. A couple of posts ago I touched on one way this can happen. Unfortunately, many questions can only be answered by large-scale, expensive studies that, like any big operation, are vulnerable to exploitation by the selfish and short-sighted.

But even if big-time science were ethically pure, there would still be a reason to like self-experimentation. It has to do with the observed fact that people can follow widely varying lifestyles but have the same health level; in other words, wide diversity in people's responses to what they eat and which medicines they take. A good doctor will grasp this and it's why medical training is mostly just concentrated experience with patients rather than textbook learning. When there are five different cholesterol medicines, a good doctor will run you through all five to figure out which one works best for you.

Part of the diversity in human biology is only apparent diversity because we are still ignorant of the causes of many diseases. Lung cancer patients are more likely to be smokers than people without lung cancer, but there are nonsmokers who get lung cancer. We know about some but not all other causes of lung cancer. For instance, maybe new car smell causes cancer, but we just haven't made the connection yet, so people who got cancer from new car smell just show up as "statistical anomalies".

But I think part of the diversity is actual diversity in the biochemical processes of human life. There is obviously large diversity in human appearance and behavior. There's also anatomical diversity - things like horseshoe kidneys, extra toes or supernumerary nipples. So there's most likely wide diversity in less visible things like hormone production, enzyme balances, gut bacteria and a bunch of stuff we can't even guess about.

Why can't big-time science deal with the diversity? If it takes a billion dollars and ten years to cure a disease, the only diseases that will be cured are those that work pretty much the same in everyone. It doesn't make sense to spend a billion dollars to cure a disease that only a few people get. That money would do more good buying antibiotics or vitamins for people who can't afford them.

I used to have a lot of stomach problems. I'd get a bad upset stomach three or four times a week and it was stopping me from doing things I wanted to do. I went to several docs, but despite various probes stuck in various places nobody could figure it out. They tended to think it was "nervous stomach" and did things like putting me on a low dose of Xanax, which I was never comfortable with.

After years of paying attention to this, it dawned on me that my stomach empties much slower than normal. You know that "sloshy" sensation you get after you drink a big glass of water? I sometimes get that sensation four hours after I've eaten anything. The slow emptying causes problems because mealtimes are spaced according to the average person's digestion and by following normal eating patterns, sometimes I'd just get too much food in there.

So I went to yet another doctor but this time made a point of complaining about the lasting sensation of fullness. He put me through one of those studies where you eat oatmeal with radioactive particles in it and then they use a fluoroscope to watch the particles move through your gut. Hours passed and the technician wanted to go to lunch, but the particles were still sitting in my stomach. The doc wanted me to take Reglan but that has some side effects, so I just changed the timing and amounts of food I eat, and have had few stomach problems since.

I guess the lesson is that we all have to be our own doctors first, and find a good real doctor who doesn't assume that you'll always respond to treatments like the average patient in a study.  Devices you can wear to collect large amounts of real-time data on what's going on inside you, along with automated crunching of the data, could help doctors tailor treatments to your particular system. We can only hope that such devices are allowed to be invented and sold.  


Thursday, May 1, 2014

Wahoo Part Deux

So, a friend of mine who has a very acute sense of justice didn't like my post approving of Chief Wahoo AT ALL. I said Super Mario doesn't bother me as an Italian-American, so why should I care about Chief Wahoo, but I guess she thinks Super Mario should bother me.

It all hinges on whether people think of real Indians when they see Chief Wahoo, or real Italians when they see Mario. I don't think they do, or at least they didn't until other people started raising a fuss about it. It's conceivable someone might think of a real Indian on seeing Wahoo, but about as likely as people thinking of a real mouse when they see Mickey Mouse.

To be clear, I accept that there is such a thing as a harmful caricature. I just don't think Wahoo is one. It's not like he's carrying a scalp or a whiskey bottle. It's important to distinguish between harmless caricatures and harmful ones, otherwise you have to be against all caricatures, and that is getting dangerously close to the kind of thinking that led to the Mohammed cartoon riots.

Super Mario doesn't bug me, but I admit I've never liked the kind of Mafia movie that implies crime is an integral part of Sicilian culture. It of course is not, except in certain small towns near Palermo, heh heh. Once I complained to Danny Boy's Restaurant in Sandusky about them having a poster of John Gotti in their Mafia-themed restaurant. The guy was a straight-up murderer, for God's sake. But one cannot deny there is a certain style of crime that is peculiarly Sicilian. When I watch The Godfather sometimes I catch myself thinking, yeah, we're badasses, so don't mess with us. This usually happens during the scene where Vito Corleone puts the horse head in the movie director's bed. But that is just wrong and I should be ashamed of myself.

Aside: My great-grandpa, who came to the US from Sicily as a young man, was a baker. He used to deliver bread to a bin at a restaurant. He got into a dispute over bin space with another baker, X, and eventually there was a confrontation where Great-Grandpa threw some of X's bread out of the bin. His friends said, you shouldn't have done that because X is in the Murray Hill Mob. (Murray Hill is Cleveland's Little Italy.) I don't know whether he really was, but later X and Great-Grandpa became friends. X is dead but I don't give his family name because it's fairly well known in Cleveland. I used to see X hanging around his bakery but never met him. That's as close to a brush with the Mafia as I can give you. This story is even less interesting than it sounds.

Perhaps I wouldn't be so cavalier about the Chief Wahoo thing if I was of some recognizable minority ethnicity myself. A quarter Sicilian doesn't qualify as a minority (except at the City University of New York, chuckle), especially considering there is nobody under the age of 75 in my family who speaks more than a few words of Italian. Plus I'm not even Catholic and I don't have a Sicilian name because it's on my mom's side.

On the other hand, every couple of years someone asks me if I'm Middle Eastern. Once when I was in Japan, a couple of Iranian guys came up to me because they thought I was Iranian. So did some annoying kids on my bus in the 5th grade. I don't have a foreign-sounding name or an accent, but maybe they thought I had a Steve Jobs thing going where I was adopted and my real dad was Iranian. Sorry, but no. Dad's ancestors were all European and already holed up in the Blue Ridge Mountains when George III was still running the place. These incidents, while puzzling, have not made me as sensitive to the plight of the stereotyped minority as some would like.