Saturday, August 18, 2018

Stuff I learned this week.

I always love to learn new things. My first fun fact is about the mudskipper, a fish that lives much of its life above water. That makes it sound like it's technically an amphibian, but it has gills and can only breathe through them. How does it breathe without being submerged? It fills up its cheeks with water and the gills get oxygen from there.

I didn't know that last part until this week.

Michael Godwin, the lawyer best known for his formulation of the Internet rule called Godwin's Law, gave a link on Twitter (sniff.) to a short introduction to the philosopher Jacques Derrida. I knew a little about his work, but this taught me more. I was completely unaware of Derrida's background as an Algerian Jew, an outcast both in Algeria and later in Paris. This informs his philosophy, which always looks to understand why some things are valued over others, like high culture over pop culture or reason over passion. His ideas are always questioning the choices we make, but he clearly chooses kindness or cruelty.

Personally, I would usually rather read an article than watch a video, unless the video is really short and/or has adorable animals in it. This is almost ten minutes, but I came out of it much better informed. Your mileage may vary.


Thursday, August 16, 2018

Five from the Queen.

Five songs from Aretha with as little writing from me as possible.

I love her voice and I love her on piano.

Here's a little gem I never heard before this week, Aretha and Smokey together, again with Aretha on piano.

This was written by Steve Wonder for Aretha. My sister Jennifer calls it The Stalker Song.

This is a silly song, but it's a fantastic groove, thanks to Narada Michael Walden.

Wouldn't be right if Aretha didn't drop a fur coat on a floor. Carole King loses her shit, as one does.

Here's to the Queen, may she rest in power as God's grace shone through her to all of us.


My life on the Internet

I first went online back in the 1970s at college, when the Cal State University system was connected to ARPANET. All the colleges were linked into what would now be called a chat room. It was the mid 1970s when I first saw it, and it felt like the future. I don't have an exact date for my first private e-mail address, but I'm guessing it was the late 1980s or early 1990s, so the Internet has been part of my life on a daily basis for nearly thirty years.

I started this blog on April Fools Day, 2007. I posted regularly here until the end of 2012. I also had a few other blogs with specific interests, including a blog about the headlines on the supermarket gossip magazines for about two years and one about science fiction for nearly three years. I also had a math blog in 2013. I've been online a lot.

Now, most of my online life is spent on Facebook and Twitter. I joined Twitter originally to advertise my blogs and I used Facebook in a similar fashion. None of my blogs ever "took off" and even at their most popular, the kindest interpretation of my audience reach would be "small, but loyal". I admit I did this with the hopes of becoming better known and if that was the only criterion by which my writing is judged, I failed.

But here's the thing. Being famous on the Internet is a lousy gig. I had people who read my stuff regularly, but I never got well enough known to gather an army of trolls to tell my how much I sucked. The advice "don't read the comments" is well-known enough now to be a cliche, but at my cozy level of obscurity, I became friends with the people who commented on my blog and would often follow their blogs and comment there. I had one person who tried to become my personal troll, but that didn't last too long.

While I have no personal experience, the troll problem online gets a lot more press now than it used to and a lot of Internet Famous people write about how much worse a website like Twitter has become. From what I can tell, if someone gets targeted by a mean-spirited user with a lot of followers, abuse comes in a mighty torrent. One of those sources of abuse is Alex Jones, who is facing the most effective campaign against his industry of lies and nonsense that fronts for his actual moneymaking scams of selling supplements. While he spouts a lot of nonsense, Jones is taking the most heat right now for his non-stop abuse of the families of the victims of the 2012 shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. He claims it was a hoax, a "false flag" and the grieving families are all faking it. At long last, he is being sued by the families and the companies that give him a platform are starting to realize they may also be liable for damages as well. His main Internet delivery systems have been Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, and only recently the latter two companies shuttered his accounts. Just this week, the FCC closed down the largest pirate radio station that carried his show. He tried establishing a channel on Vimeo, but they have also banned him.

And then there's Twitter. Jones has violated their Terms of Service many times, but Twitter shows a favoritism towards accounts with a lot of followers and would not shut down his account. The public outcry became large enough that Twitter finally gave his account a week long "time out". As many others have already said, this assumes he can be persuaded with half measures. His recent record in court cases has been dismal. He recanted a slur against the yogurt maker Chobani, who Jones accused on Twitter of importing migrant rapists to work at their Idaho factory. This coincided with the case of his ex-wife suing for primary custody of their children, where Jones claimed to believe everything he said but his own attorney described him as a "performance artist". Alex Jones lost that case and the judge decided his wife can decide where the children will live.

Jones' status on Twitter is the primary issue for the people who have organized to make tomorrow, Friday, August 17 as Deactivate Day or #DeactiDay. If you have a Twitter account, you can deactivate it at any time, but it won't be deleted from the system for another thirty days. The hope is that if enough people quit the website on that day, Twitter will realize people are serious about wanting to see real change.

For me, I will get back on Twitter if they act decisively in the Alex Jones case and ban him forever. Free speech has never been a license to commit libel. It will not turn Twitter into paradise, but it is a reasonable place to start. I use the site a lot and I am going to miss visiting, but this is as good a place as any to draw that first line in the sand.


Wednesday, August 15, 2018

More questions than answers

A good graph can convey a lot of information quickly and efficiently. Opioid deaths have been on the increase for several years and the main culprit are the synthetic opioids, which includes Fentanyl, sold legally under several names, including Actiq, Duragesic and Fentora. When all these numbers are combined, we are looking at about 72,000 in the calendar year 2017, which is now more than gunshot deaths (about 39,000) or auto accident deaths (about 40,000). This puts the drug overdose death rate at about 22.5 per 100,000.

The graph comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and I nicked it from an article in The New York Times. The article notes that a lot of these deaths are from heroin cut with Fentanyl. Fentanyl is the stronger narcotic of the two and even people used to heroin can be overwhelmed by the mix. Death is often caused by respiratory failure instead of heart failure. Breathing is slowed until it stops altogether.

The article does not address people abusing the synthetics they obtain legally by prescription. I for one would like to know how the death rate is split between the users of legal drugs vs. the users of illegal drugs.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Deactive your Twitter account on August 17

I am addicted to my computer the way many people are addicted to their phones. I love Twitter, but I have have only a few hundred followers and a very small presence, which is a blessing. My current screen name is Matthew "Remove Trump from office" Hubbard and I get zero people getting in my face about that. For me, following Twitter is hearing from journalists, writers, cartoonists, scientists and celebrities. Some "famous" people follow me back, though I can't say why.

A day to quit the site - this Friday, August 17 - has been announced and I want to publicize it. This is a good idea for me because my vacation ends this week and it makes sense to waste less time and work on the four classes I'll be teaching this semester. Obviously, you might feel differently about the value of the site to you.

But to repeat myself, I'm a fucking addict and if my leaving can make a difference, leaving is a great idea.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Oakland temperatures in 2018

In global terms, the average temperature around the world is not as warm as any of the past three years. The first six months - marked in black with dots - is extremely similar to the first six months of 2010, the pattern in green. This would make 2018 the fourth or fifth warmest year on record with the top three years being 2016, 2017 and 2015. One of the favorite talking points of the climate change denialists for most of the 21st Century was "It's nothing compared to 1998!" The last five years have all been warmer than 1998 on average, which is represented by the light brown line that is slightly higher that the green and black patterns in February, but below those lines in every other month.

Global temperature differences for the spring months of 2018 are not completely compiled yet, and the unknown values are marked in grey. As is obvious from even the partial data, global warming is not uniform. Some places aren't showing much warming and some are even cooler than average, shown on the grid in light blue and dark blue. Even so, stories of record temperatures and sustained heat waves have been reported around the world, many listed in this July 5th story in the Washington Post.

And then there's Oakland, where the temperatures have been relatively mild in comparison with the past few years. The baseline temperature, represented by the grey dotted line is, the daily average for the period 1981-2010. While there have been heat waves up and down the West Coast this year, they have skipped over the Bay Area for the most part. The longest stretch of much warmer temperatures at the local weather station was a week in early February that could best be described as an early spring, with temperatures in the mid sixties to mid seventies. That sort of streak does not deserve the title "heat wave" in human terms, but sometimes an early warm spell can cause plants to bloom early or animals to end hibernation.

As all natives know, we are now going into the hot months here in the Bay Area. September is regularly the warmest month of the year around here, with August usually slightly warmer than July. I will post the final numbers for 2018 early next January.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Conspiracy theories

I know the seductive power of conspiracy theories. When I was a kid, I obsessed over the details of the Paul Is Dead conspiracy, that somehow one of the world's most famous people had died and his death had been covered up by finding an almost perfect doppelganger. More than that, for this to be true, an army of people who knew the truth decided to say nothing, though some would leave tantalizing clues that the clever and tenacious would find. Only recently, I've read about similar conspiracy theories from the 21st Century. There are people on the Internet who believe Avril Lavigne died in 2003 and has been replaced by an imperfect twin. This theory is put forward by people who are fans of the original Avril and think the new usurper is besmirching the dead woman's memory, a very close parallel to the McCartney story. There are other theories about celebrities put forward, mainly on YouTube, including an elaborate set of explanations that try to convince people that actress and singer Lea Michele is illiterate.

And then there are fictional conspiracy theories presented as entertainment, though very close to what some people actually believe. In the 1970s, Warren Beatty starred in The Parallax View, a thriller about a shadowy organization who hire patsies to take the fall for assassinations committed by professional hit men. A few years later, Capricorn One postulated about a fake landing on Mars, a story which parallels the popular real world conspiracy theory that the moon landings were fake. In the 1990s, conspiracy as entertainment had its most enduring incarnation in The X-Files. My own modest contribution to conspiracies for fun are the songs Let's Start a Rumour and Illuminati, both songs I performed with my band The Wonders of Science. I'm sorry no recording of Illuminati exists, because it was our best dance song and a true collaboration, with verses written by Michael Dresbach, Travis Hunt and myself. We had all read Robert Anton Wilson and loved the Weekly World News, and the only instruction for the lyrics was to write a story from the point of view of a believer.

I teach for a living, so at some level I have to trust the power of education, but one of the problems with conspiracy theories is that the believers think they are the educated and the great mass of humanity are sad, deluded fools. Once the belief system is set, cognitive dissonance comes forward in full force when confronted by contradictory evidence. Debunking works for some, probably most, but those who are unconvinced by the given evidence become like antibiotic resistant diseases, a more virulent strain. For them, the unbelieving masses are not only ignorant, but probably puppets ruled by evil forces. Conspiracy theories need an enemy at the core of the story who is diabolically clever enough to keep the truth from the masses.

For those who think conspiracy theories are something to be resisted, the 21st Century had made this tougher with always improving technology to doctor sound and images, both still and moving. A popular theory on the right this century was that Obama was born in Kenya, therefore not an American citizen. As we know, this was Donald Trump's entryway into right wing politics. Once the long form birth certificate was produced, the mainstream press reported this as though it was the last word and many birthers were forced to recant, including Trump in a very unconvincing manner. Other birthers, including the pardoned criminal and U.S. Senate hopeful Joe Arpaio, believe the document was photoshopped.

I am still skeptical of conspiracy theories when I hear them. I have to admit that one of my main arguments against their plausibility was how hard it would be to keep a secret with that many people knowing about something, since any one person spilling the beans could ruin the secret. But we have seen secrets kept for years because the press isn't interested enough in the story or it becomes a he said/she said situation.  

The perfect example of press disinterest is the multiple stories of rape by Bill Cosby. He lost a court case and the beans spilled, but the public largely forgot about it, showing signs of cognitive dissonance, rejecting evidence of his villainy for quite a while, believing he had to be like the image we saw in our living rooms for over a decade. Cosby might still be doing his shtick if it wasn't for comedian Hamilton Burress, who got tired of Cosby acting like a moral paragon whose advice had to be obeyed. Burress called Cosby a rapist during his act and it went viral. The general public turned on Cosby bit by bit after this, until it reached some threshold and the view of him as villain became the conventional wisdom.

As for two sided arguments, too often power gets to dictate the narrative to the detriment of the truth. The most obvious example of conventional wisdom turned around is the international pedophile scandals the Catholic Church covered up for decades. When Sinead O'Connor ripped up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live, she was vilified and mocked for this and her side of the story might as well have been non-existent. Sadly for the world, it turns out her conspiracy theory was right and we in the general public had let ourselves be deluded.

But now we have a slowly unwinding scandal with Trump and his associates of many decades, as well as new bedfellows made during the campaign. The details sound like plot points in pulp fiction. The president's personal lawyer couldn't really be a cheap hood, could he? The guy who worked for free as Trump's campaign manager couldn't really have been doing the bidding of foreign governments who gave him secret payments, could he? Could Trump's first national security advisor really have been working for a foreign government while he got top secret U.S. intelligence briefings?

The answer to all three of those questions turn out to be yes, and the evidence comes from legal documents. Reality in 2018 feels like a conspiracy theory, stories almost as implausible as the tales told by Trump's defenders. But even to talk about "competing conspiracy theories" is to play into Trump's hands, a man who has no respect for the truth and wants to drag all of us down to his cynical and stupid level. Trump is a crook, and we knew this clearly before he took the oath of office when he settled a fraud case. But he successfully used divisions among us to make a minority rule party that won the presidency only due to the antiquated and corrupt fraud known as the electoral college.

And so we have come to this place, where the Golden Rule is only applied to people who are "like us", a phrase with multiple bad definitions. People with large platforms sound like characters from the racist screed The Turner Diaries,  telling us Norman Rockwell's ideas are dangerous and un-American. They love American Exceptionalism, they tell us, except for those awkward exceptions when the United States acted in the interest of the downtrodden.

Here we are, young and old, every color, every gender and every creed, asking that The Rule of Law stand for mercy as well as justice for all. We never asked to die on this hill, but now it is here and now we need to be strong.

Here endeth the lesson.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Where I'm sending my money

Hiya, blog readers! I'm going back to writing something here on a regular basis.

Starting with something brief, I'm going to list my political contributions so far this year.

My first three contributions are in three different states, none of them California.

1. Stacey Abrams. She's running for governor of Georgia and she has a real shot. Her opponent is Brian Kemp. I could list his faults, but suffice it to say he's a Republican and awful. You may notice that this is a trend this year.

2. Beto O'Rourke. He's running for Senate against Ted Cruz in Texas and he has a real shot. If you don't know Ted Cruz's faults by now, you probably don't follow politics closely and that's okay. We need people who don't follow politics closely to get engaged. Besides supporting Republican initiatives like the destruction of health care and the enormous tax scam passed last year, Cruz is a nasty human that even fellow Republicans find objectionable personally.

3. Danny O'Connor. O'Connor is running for a House seat in a very red district in Ohio. The special election was held this last Tuesday and he trails in that races, but it's close and not all the ballots have been counted yet. His opponent is Troy Balderson, who has been endorsed by Trump. I can think of no worse insult than "endorsed by Trump".

Regardless of the result of this special election, there will be another election for the same job in November. If there is going to be a Blue Wave, Ohio's 12th District is the kind of place that could flip from red to blue.

Anyone who has read my stuff before knows I'm partisan, but seriously, the Republicans support evil. How is separating families anything but evil? What does the rule of law even means if toddlers have to defend themselves in court? Why would we bring a carcinogen like asbestos back into the building trades unless we admit we don't care about human life?

The list goes on and on. I'm in the bad demographic, old, male, straight and white, but I have an education, which seems to mitigate some of the worst tendencies of people like me. I am being selfish hoping for the Democrats to regain power, because two more years of unchecked Republican legislation means government money I am going to rely on, things I paid into like Social Security and Medicare, could get slashed for no other reason than performative cruelty.

I'm not a woman or person of color or gay or transgendered or any of a number of categories that are under attack. But I am strongly union, and I believe in the goals of unions, to come together to help as many people as possible.

To my longtime readers, welcome back. To folks just finding me, hello! I ask that people be respectful in the comments. The answer to the demand "Debate me!" is "Fuck off!"

I'll be back tomorrow. I have no idea what the topic will be, which is kind of exciting.

Well... for me at least.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

I saw Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri last night and I would compare my feelings about it to my feelings after seeing Forrest Gump. I left the film with a few reservations that have now grown into full blown contempt and disgust, especially for the writer and director Martin McDonagh. He made In Bruges, which I liked and Seven Psychopaths, which I didn't like as much.

This movie I flat out hate.

I have no complaints with the actors, I rarely do. It's what the writer/director does with the actors that made me so angry. Let me break down my complaints into categories.

The movie is being sold as a comedy, but it is horribly violent in personal and explicit ways. A lot of entertainment I like has both comedy and drama elements, but the violence done in this film is hard to watch multiple times and we are still supposed to care about the people who do this violence. The alleged redemption scenes rang completely false. Also, this is a movie where cops are main characters and several major crimes are committed with obvious suspects and no one is ever arrested.

For men, adolescence ends at about fifty. For women, fifty is the age when they should be sent out on ice floes. There are three romantic relationships shown, the sheriff and his wife, Frances McDormand's ex and his 19 year old girlfriend and the guy who sells billboard advertising and his office manager. Only the last one is age appropriate.

Actors are in general attractive people, usually somewhere between good looking and glamorous. Woody Harrelson and John Hawkes are good looking men in their late fifties. They are paired with glamorous actresses, Harrelson with Abbe Cornish, twenty one years his junior, and Hawkes with Samara Weaving, thirty four years younger than he is. The script actually notes how young Weaving's character is. She is supposed to be 19, the actress is a very pretty 25 year old and played a younger women well, with a mixture of innocence and uncertainty. But the obvious age discrepancy between Harrelson and Cornish isn't even worth mentioning. I know Hollywood has been doing this shit since Dorothy and Lillian Gish were ingenues, but it's bothered me for a long time, especially when the guys aren't glamorous and the women are, like Milton Berle married to Dorothy Provine in It's a Mad, Mad... World. Again, this isn't Harrelson's fault, the fault belongs to the writer-director McDonagh.

Even the men who aren't shown in romantic relationships act like they are much younger than the actors portraying them. Sam Rockwell is about fifty, but his drunk, violent, clumsy, dim-witted mama's boy cop character acts like he hasn't turned twenty five yet, and Peter Dinklage is given a demeaning and undemanding role as a car salesman hoping to get in a romantic relationship with Frances McDormand. To the movie's credit, he does get one scene where he notes that while she is dismissing him without a thought, she is the one who is the town pariah and he has an actual job.

The two female roles performed by women over fifty are Frances McDormand, the true star of the film, and Sandy Martin as the mother of Sam Rockwell's idiot character. With the exception of Dinklage's romantic interest in McDormand, they are treated as objects that would be best hidden from view.

Black people are props. There is one role that is an exception to this rule, Clarke Peters, best known as Lester Freamon in The Wire, plays the new sheriff about halfway between the film. Every other black actor plays a character just barely a plot device.

The transformation of Woody Harrelson's character. Harrelson's character is written as a nasty, foul-mouthed, horny, violent man for his first several scenes, but late in the film is turned into a saint with the wisdom of Solomon and the compassion of Gandhi. It's not his fault I didn't buy it. The writing sucks. 

This is one of those movies so bad that it makes me re-think the rest of the director's earlier works. I actually accepted Brendan Gleeson's In Bruges performance as a fifty-something hitman turned wise aesthetic. I now wonder if I wasn't just charmed by the beautiful scenery.

The physics of fire is completely wrong in multiple scenes. This is me nitpicking, I admit this, but the movie had done such a poor job of drawing me in that by the time these scenes came around, I was already in "fuck this shit" mode.

In conclusion, as you might imagine, I do not recommend this film in any way, despite a stellar cast. More than just the good actors wasted, the music is by Carter Burwell, who has been involved in a lot of movies I love. I place all blame on the writer and director Martin McDonagh. I had high hopes for this film when I saw the trailer and all those hopes were dashed.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Hot enough for ya?

This September in Oakland has been hot. Here are some ways to put it in perspective.

1. The average temperature was 78.3° F. This might not seem like much in Sacramento or San Diego, but that is the warmest average month not only this year so far, but the warmest since 2011, which is the arbitrary year when I started measuring things this way.

2. According to Weather Underground's daily average of the past fifteen years, September 2017 was 3.9° F. warmer than the average. 3.9° above the fifteen year benchmark is definitely warm, but it is by no means a record over the years I have been using to measure things this way. For example, the winter of 2015 was way above average, with January at 3.5° warmer, February at 5.1° warmer and March at 5.7° warmer. Still, 3.9° warmer than the benchmark is by no means an average month. In 2017 so far, September and May are tied for first with 3.9°.

3. September 1st and 2nd were both 101° F in Oakland. Again, it's a matter of perspective. In Sacramento, days over 100° are an inconvenience. In Oakland, two days in a row over 100° is a sign of the apocalypse.

We also have a statistical method to tell us if a month is unusually hot or not using t-scores, a relative of z-scores. The formula for the two is the same, the average times the square root of the number of days in the month divided by the month's standard deviation. (This formula is almost what we want, and it is exactly correct if mux = 0.) Using this test data, we can get a p-value, the beloved precious of scientific researchers everywhere. If the p-value is less than .05, this is usually a sign your paper can possibly be published.

Using this method, September 2017 was not unusually above the average of the last fifteen Septembers. (Note: May 2017 had the same raw score of 3.9° above average and it produced a p-value high enough to let us reject the null hypothesis. May was unusually hot using this method, September, not so much.)

Why did September fail in rejecting the null hypothesis, which is to say it does not seem unusually warm using this test? The answer is in the standard deviation, a commonly used method to measure how spread out a data set is. If there isn't much deviation in a set, a 3.9° difference would definitely impress the t-score test. What happened is that September was warm in a very weird way, several days way warmer than average, but thirteen days out of thirty, it was actually slightly cooler than average. (By "way warmer", the early heat wave was 26° F. warmer than average for two days and there were five more days in September were the temperature was 10° warmer than average or more.) But in the middle of the month, there was a ten day "cool snap", when temperatures were cooler than average by -1° to -6°. These big swings meant for a higher standard deviation, the highest of the year at 9.384. In comparison, the month of May did let us reject the null hypothesis because the standard deviation was "only" 7.865, which is the second highest standard deviation of the year.

Okay, Matty Boy, what does this have to do with the price of tea in China? Well, if it isn't my old pal Hypothetical Question Asker! This is just an example of statistical methods sometimes producing confounding results. I have no philosophical qualms about the t-score test in general, though the arbitrary threshold of .05 to decide whether we accept or reject the null hypothesis is fairly coming under question these days in research circles. My other quibble about this work that I am doing is whether we should think of a month as a period of time that measures climate or if it should be still considered just weather. The method I hit upon earlier in September argues that climate should use time spans of a year. Shorter spans like season or half years might make sense, but my general feeling is a month is too short.

In any case, I saw some weird numbers and decided to write about 700 words about them.

Don't hate. This is how I roll.

Any questions?

(Seriously, the comments are perfect for questions.)

Saturday, September 16, 2017

An idea for linking weather and climate

There is a difference between weather and climate, but as a mathematician I wish the demarcation point was better defined. Weather tends to deal with localities or small regions and time periods ranging from a day to several days. Climate usually discusses large regions or even the entire globe over longer periods of time. Climate scientists have decided a month is the smallest reasonable length of time when talking about climate. If I had a say, I'd prefer a season or a half year to be the smallest useful unit, where a half year would begin on the first day of spring, either in the Northern or Southern hemisphere, which means either late March or late September. This would argue that years should start on one of these dates, but that's too much to ask.

Whatever units of time are used, the numbers make a solid case that the surface temperature of both the land and the sea are getting warmer over time. The data does not show a constant rise, each day warmer than the last or even each year warmer than the last, but the trend over time is upward using any standard mathematical measure of a data set.

The idea I present today is currently in the hypothesis phase, as I have only done a little bit of data from a single weather station. I chose the Oakland Airport stations because... well, I'm from Oakland. The data did what I expected more or less, but for this to be fully fleshed out, I need to get a programming language on my computer and take a rip into a very large data set.

Here is my methodology.

1. Take the daily data from a baseline set of years for a single weather station. Climate scientists right now are using 1981-2010 as the standard baseline, so I used that set as well.

2. Using that set, get an average temperature and a standard deviation for each day. If I have any quibble with this method, I would say February 29 is getting the short end of the stick, as there were only seven leap years in the set instead of thirty for every other date. In practice in the Oakland data set, the average and the standard deviation for Leap Day are not out of line with the other nearby days.

The Excel data for 2013

3. Input the daily data from any year and get 365 or 366 z-scores. The numbers on the left are the z-scores from 2013, one of the warmest of the recent years but by no means the record holder. Cells with red backgrounds and borders are the z-scores greater than 3, which makes that day very unusually hot for that data set. The z-scores in red with no border are over 2 but under 3, so they are unusually hot. Two days are marked in green, they were unusually cold, which are z-scores under -2 but greater than -3. No days in 2013 had z-scores under -3.

4. A high z-score is not crazy hot by human standards, just crazy hot in context. For example, December 29th (ahem, my birthday) was 72° F in 2013, which right-thinking people would regard as "a nice day". The thing is, it is not normal for the weather to be that nice on December 29, as I can remember with some clarity. This example counts as a very unusually hot day.

5. Show the data from a weather station as the average temperature for the year and the number of days in each of four categories: Very unusually cold, unusually cold, unusually hot and very unusually hot. That's the what graph below shows for six years in the 1960s and six years in the 2010s.
Comparing the 1960s to the 2010s in terms of unusually warm and cold days

Okay, let's take a look at the data year by year.

1961: This is the warmest year in the 1960s in our Oakland Airport data, and the average is exactly the same as 2011, the coldest year in 21st Century set. 1961 holds the record with 18 days that are very unusually hot for that particular day of the year, but if we rank the years by (# of warm days) - (# of cold days), it has the highest number in the 1960s with 30, but would still be outranked by five of the six measured year in the 2010s.

1962: 1962 turns colder than 1961 and there are only 25 unusually hot days this year, with 8 unusually cold.

1963: 1963 is colder still, and the number of cold days is greater than the number of warm days by our measuring standards.

1964: 1964 is the only year on our list with no very unusually hot or very unusually cold days.

1965: The coldest year of the twelve on the list, it is dead last on the (warm days) - (cold days) ranking system at -5. It is also dead last in total number of unusual days with 16.

1966: 1966 warms up slightly in comparison to 1965, but as the chart shows, all its entries are about the size of Trump's fingers.

2011: The year most like 2011 is 1961, but most noticeably, it starts the 21st Century trend of no very unusually cold days.

2012: 2012 is only a little warmer than 2011 and the bars are unimpressive by 21st Century standards, but it is the first year on the list with no unusually cold days whatsoever.

2013: And now it gets warm. In terms of bar heights, 2013 is most like 2011, even though the average temperature is 2.25 degrees hotter. This is the most noticeable instance of the imperfect correlation between average yearly temperature and number of unusual days, but that actually makes me happy with the data set. Perfect correlation in naturally occurring data is suspicious in such a simple measuring system.

2014: And now it gets hot. The first of three years in a row with an average temperature in Oakland over 68° F, 2014 has the highest average temperature, the most unusually warm days and zero unusually cold days.

2015: Compared to 2014, 2015 is a reversion to the mean, but it has the second highest number of unusually hot days, the second highest number of very unusually hot days, the second highest total of unusually hot and very unusually hot combined and no unusually cold days at all.

2016: Again, we see the numbers shrinking from the 2014 peak, but still higher than 2013, which had been the highest on the list when it was posted.

To repeat myself here in the conclusion, this is an interesting hypothesis, but it needs more data. I took a very large climate data set and whipped it into shape back in 2013, so this only a matter of me applying myself once more, as well as buying a programming language package for the new computer. You may have read the book How to Be Your Own Best Friend. I must now write yet another chapter in my unpublished tome How to Be Your Own Overworked, Underpaid Grad Student. If I do put this in the pipeline of my many long-term projects, I will likely start a new blog showing the data.

Wish me luck. Or mutter to yourself that this mofo is crazy. Whatevs.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Most of the books I read are recently published, but occasionally I read an older book to continue my education, as I like to put it. This week I read the 1921 novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, this edition translated by Natasha Randall in 2006. Some reviews call it one of the first dystopian novels, but that isn't accurate. After Edward Bellamy's successful 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887, both utopias and dystopias became the fashion for many years to come. Most of these books and their authors are now forgotten, but in English, readers will still recognize 1895's The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, and will know the name of Jack London, though his 1908 book The Iron Heel about the future dystopian struggles leading to utopian socialism is not nearly as popular as his thrilling boy's adventures.

The book We is compact, but for me it was hard to keep focused. It is written in the first person, so the narrator has to describe what is everyday to him (or her) in ways that will make sense to people like his readers who have never seen this world. There are other such books, but it's a tricky proposition. Zamyatin decides to describe things in mathematical terms and colors. As a mathematician, much of his mathematics irritates the hell out of me. For example, his narrator D-503, a mathematically trained engineer in charge of building an interplanetary spaceship, has a particular distaste for the square root of -1, which he calls "irrational". We usually call this number imaginary, but technically he is right. The number we often call i is not the ratio of two integers. Mathematicians call it algebraic.

What irritates me more is that an engineer should know that this very odd idea is of immense practical value in electrical engineering. Using both real and "imaginary" numbers together creates complex numbers and this system very cleanly represents the physical fact that electric currents naturally produce counter-currents that run in a perpendicular direction. Electrical engineers find this idea so useful, then call the square root of -1 j instead of i, so any reference to imaginary is erased. The great mathematician Gauss hated that "imaginary number" was already stuck in the mathematical vocabulary even in his era a century before Zamyatin, and wanted positive to be replaced by direct, negative by inverse and the imaginary directions to be coined lateral and inverse lateral. It is completely possible Zamyatin was never taught this.

Now that I have indulged myself to two paragraphs of mathematical quibbling, let me get to my complaints as a reader of speculative fiction. It's hard to understand some never seen world when the writing relies heavily on bad mathematical descriptions and a made up language of his own personal feelings about colors. Worse still, the first person narrator has a breakdown in the middle of the story where he believes he has died, and several chapters after this point are later to be understood as dreams or hallucinations caused by fever.

The world where D-503 lives is a city made of glass where all lives are supposed to be completely visible to everyone else to make sure everyone is doing exactly what they should be, but there is an exception for when people have sex.  The sex component is excessively important to the plot, and anyone who has seen through Hugh Hefner's idea of utopia can see it for the juvenile male fantasy it is. People can have sex with anyone who can agree to have sex with them, and men are completely free from the burdens of fatherhood. It also presents women who have once given consent and wish to rescind it as horrible and duplicitous creatures. It never assumes to a man he might not be an ideal lover.

In short, if you have never read We, you have my leave to never read it. The book has fans that range from Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion who is strongly capitalist and just as strongly anti-Putin, to Noam Chomsky, the renowned linguist whose political views are sometimes described as libertarian socialist. Chomsky has said We is superior to Nineteen Eighty Four, which he considers wooden. Just to add a little more interest to reading this book I have said you shouldn't read, Orwell considers it completely superior to Brave New World.

Here's where I stand on these provisos to my bold and underlined main position above. Huxley and Orwell did not get along and I am 100% on Team Orwell. As a prose stylist, Orwell runs rings around Huxley and Zamyatin, though I will admit I cannot read Zamyatin in the original Russian, which is my problem, not his. A point on which I agree with Orwell that We is better than Brave New World is both books have characters who are considered great poets in morally empty times. What would such a poet write? Zamyatin gives examples, Huxley does not.

Point to Zamyatin.

More importantly than any political position or literary merit, Orwell understood the connection between politics of any stripe and lying. Here are his six rules of writing, from his essay Politics and the English Language.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. (Many of Orwell's examples are now thankfully out of date. The best modern example is the completely meaningless cliche "thoughts and prayers".)
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
 To summarize, if you are intrigued by my description or the testimonials, by all means read We. If you want to take my advice instead, find some Orwell you haven't read, especially his collections of essays. In particular, Shooting an Elephant should be at least as famous as The Declaration of Independence or the preamble to The Constitution.

It's a Sunday, so I will write: Here endeth the lesson.

It's a cliche, but any other way of writing it is barbarous.


Saturday, August 5, 2017

Trump and the polls

Many stories have been written this year saying Trump voters are still happy with Trump. Almost none have been written about Clinton voters still pissed that she won by nearly 3,000,000 votes and over 2% of the popular votes and Trump was still installed as president by the seriously anti-democratic Electoral College system.

In contrast to these anecdotes, polls  make the attempt to gauge the general public opinion using something approximating scientific methods. The big failure of poll-based prediction in 2016 makes me less confident in these numbers, but statistical methods never promise certainty. That said, the polling numbers for Trump's popularity after six months in office show a public growing quickly disenchanted.

I follow 22 different polling companies, getting their results from the Pollster page funded by The Huffington Post, but I have more confidence in looking at six companies that poll every week or even more often. The two tracking polls that update almost every day are Gallup and Rasmussen. The four polls that give weekly numbers are Politico, SurveyMonkey, YouGov and Ipsos/Reuters. I never consider any one polling company to be the most reliable, but I would rank these six at least as reliable as the companies that poll only two or three times a month or even less and much more reliable than the very sporadic pollsters.

The graph speaks for itself. While there are ups and downs in the average written in blue and the median written in red, the general trend is downhill. Since the middle of July, the numbers have taken a steep fall. On July 11, Trump's net popularity averaged -11 percentage points and the median was -13.5 points. As August began, those numbers sunk to -19.7 on average and a median of -21.5 percentage points.

On the left is slope graph for the six companies, showing their net numbers on January 31 and July 31. Two points are difficult to read due to exact overlap. On the far right, both YouGov and Ipsos/Reuters had Trump at -1 point net in January, while Rasmussen and Gallup now concur that Trump is at -22 percentage points when the unfavorable number is subtracted from favorable.

The first and most obvious point is that everything is downhill. Politico, represented by the light blue line at the top, has been consistently the kindest to Trump, but currently even they have his net favorable numbers at -10 percentage points, worse than even Gallup had at the end of January. The steepest fall is the yellow line, representing Rasmussen, a poll well known throughout this century as being very kind to conservatives. In January, only Politico and Rasmussen gave Trump a net favorable score. Now, Rasmussen is tied with Gallup giving Trump a -22 point rating, only surpassed in the negative direction by Ipsos/Reuters at -24.

Let me repeat that no poll is perfect and even a collection of polls won't always give us an accurate read. For example, in last year's polls of Pennsylvania, not even one company gave Trump the lead, which made his win there all the more shocking. But having written that, I present this data as an antidote to anecdotes. For all the reporters who can find Trump voters still happy with their choice, the polling companies can find large masses of voters who realize they made a horrible mistake in November.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Climate Change in Oakland, 2015 to 2017

Longtime readers will know that I love to collect data. Many blog posts have had a collection of data as the jump off point, but there are times when I collect data hoping to see a pattern and none becomes apparent, or I see some trend but I'm of several minds about how to present it.

One type of data set I have been collecting for two and a half years concerns the average temperature in Oakland. The website Weather Underground publishes not only the daily temperature highs and lows, but compares each day to the average over the last fifteen years. I have used this data in my statistics classes, showing how to take large sets and input them in calculators using frequency tables. Most Texas Instruments calculators will balk at a data set with 365 or 366 values, but because of repetition of values, we can get all the data in the set and the important statistics from these samples, notably the five number summary - an old school way to look at outliers - and also average and standard deviation, the more modern way to discuss what numbers on a list are remarkably high or remarkably low.

This is a dot-plot of the 366 days of 2016 in Oakland, each day listed as the number of degrees above or below the average for the previous fifteen years. The tallest stack of dot is at zero degrees. This represents the mode of the set. Obviously, there are a lot more dots to the left of the tallest stack than there are to the right. The other two famous measures of center, the mean and the median, are not so apparent from this graph. The median is 2 and the average is about 2.604, with a standard deviation of 5.659. Simply put, the more commonly used measures of center say the temperature in 2016 is warmer than the rest of the century.

You might say this is evidence of climate change in Oakland. I am not 100% convinced. Here are my reasons.

1. Should I trust the average daily temperatures given by the website? The averages stay the same for weeks at a time, not even wobbling by a degree. That smells like they are averaging not just all the single day temperatures for example, but maybe taking the average of several days in a row, then averaging that over fifteen years. Not sure this is kosher.

2. Should I trust the t-score method and the p-value it produces? The t-score test uses average/(standard deviation) x sqrt(size of set) as the test statistic. In this case, that would be
2.604/5.659 x sqrt(366) ~= 8.803. This is a crazy big number for a t-score and it produces a p-value so small it has to be written in scientific notation, 2.705 x 10 ^ -17. Written in regular notation, this is 0.0000000000000002705, which is crazy close to zero. A paper publishes with a p-value this small is basically saying, "I'm right, so shut the fuck up."

But let me note here that statistics is math mixed with opinion, and not every statistician loves the t-score/p-value method used with a data set like this. Most notably, W. Edwards Deming, the famously practical statistician credited with turning the Japanese economy around after World War II, argued that if there was any difference between any two sets, all you needed was a large enough sample size to prove that difference significant. In this case, the large sample size gives us a multiple in the formula of sqrt(366), which is about 19. Since a t-score of 3 will give us a very impressive p-value, having this relatively large number in the formula guarantees an impressive p-value.

3. How should we think about a year in terms of climate change data? A hot or cold day is not climate change. I am skeptical about counting a month as a long enough time to have meaning, though Dr Michael E. Mann often tweets about a month being the hottest or second hottest (fill in the month in question) in history. Mann is not an alarmist, as was made clear when he poured cold water on the New York magazine article from earlier this year that was all doom and gloom. While not an alarmist, he does want to keep climate change in the news, and it is a slow moving process, at least from the standpoint of the 24 hour news cycle.

But I have no problem about thinking a year is a length of time where we can talk about the numbers as having meaning when discussing climate change. Personally, I am uncertain as to whether years should be the basic unit of measure or should be clumped into groups to have clearer meaning. My simile is this. A year has meaning, but if we compare it to grammar, is a year a sentence or a word or merely a letter? When I wrote my math blog about climate change, I argued that we should look at periods of time between strong El Niño years that included a strong La Niña year as the basic unit.

So those are my provisos and quibbles. Here is the data.

2015: The temperature in 2015 was 2.605° F warmer than the average of the previous fifteen years and the standard deviation was 5.659° F. With a sample of 365 days, this data set makes a very convincing argument that things are getting warmer. Using the average and standard deviation method, an unusually cold day would be 9° F lower than average. That happened once. An unusually hot day would be 14° F higher than average. That happened seventeen times, and very unusually hot days wound be over 20° F hotter than average, which happened three times.

2016: The temperature was 2.242° F warmer than the fifteen year average and the standard deviation was 5.447° F. It didn't warm up quite as much as 2015, but the lower standard deviation would mean the t-score/p-value number would again be hard to argue against. There were no days that count as unusually cold (again, 9° F colder than average), but eighteen days at 14° F hotter than average and six days above 19° F hotter than average.

First seven months of 2017: So far, the average temperature is 2.321° F warmer than the previous fifteen average with a standard deviation of 5.480° F. No days have been unusually cold so far, twelve have been unusually hot and three have been very unusually hot. The cutoff points for unusually hot and very unusually hot are 14° F above average and 19° F above average, respectively. These thresholds are unchanged from the 2016 numbers, which is not surprising because the averages and standard deviations are so similar.

Conclusion: Here in Oakland it's getting warmer. 2015 shows the largest change upward, but note that 2015 is part of the last fifteen year average when measuring 216 and 2017. I'd love to get more raw data from a weather station that has produced data continuously for a few decades and I have an idea of how to achieve that. I also want to come up with a good way to define a heat wave and I think I have the start of an idea I need to flesh out.

Tomorrow, another math-y blog post, this time about Trump's approval numbers.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Bil Paxton 1955-2017

Bill Paxton, the Texas-born actor who has been working steadily since the 1980s with many of his best known roles in James Cameron films, has died at the age of 61 from complications during surgery.

It's remarkable how many well-known projects Paxton worked on in his career. His first big breaks included small roles in Stripes and Terminator, his first work with James Cameron. He moved on to the nasty older brother in Weird Science and first major role in a Cameron film as Private Hudson in Aliens. His career is a steady progression up the cast list, from a bit part in Commando, to a featured role in Predator 2 to starring in Twister. He was also seen in movies with great ensemble casts like Tombstone, Apollo 13 and Titanic. Possibly my favorite film of his after Tombstone is Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan, co-starring Bridget Fonda and Billy Bob Thornton, about three acquaintances finding millions of dollars in lost cash. This century, a lot of his best work has been on TV, including his starring role in HBO's Big Love, a recurring character on Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Training Day, a new series that just started showing on Amazon Prime.

This one came as a surprise to me, in part because Paxton is my age and also because he was still working so consistently. Thinking back on his work, I remember his character for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. calling Ruth Negga's character "Flowers". I also remember the interaction between him and the bodybuilder Vasquez in Aliens.

Hudson:, Hey, Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man.
Vasquez: No. Have you?

Best wishes to the family and friends of Bill Paxton, from a fan. He is never to be forgotten.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is on a roll. Now in his fifties, he is sometimes still described as a "cult favorite", which is to say he is not as well known as J.K. Rowling, Stephen King or George R.R. Martin. Some adaptations of his earlier works will debut this year, an indie movie version of How To Talk to Girls at Parties and a TV mini-series of American Gods on the Starz network. On Twitter, he was surprised his latest effort Norse Mythology opened at #1 on The New York Times bestseller list this week. I bought my copy last week and I have already finished the slender volume, not even 300 pages with a large font. If you prefer audiobooks, he is his own narrator on this one and he has a lovely voice. Here is my review.

In the introduction, Gaiman admits his first taste of the Norse myths was in the Marvel Comics version, where Thor is the star and Loki is but one of many villains, with Odin usually in the background. His re-telling of the original stories, mixing together the two main sources of the myths, the Poetic Vedda and the Prose Vedda, changes the billing among these three, giving Loki his rightful place as the character who drives the story in most of the sagas, though it is hard to ever say he is the hero. Of course Odin and Thor have a lot to do as well, but we also meet Thor's wife Sif, known for her lovely hair; Heimdall, the gatekeeper; Idunn, the goddess who owns the apples of immortality that give the gods their very long lives; Balder, the most beautiful and beloved of the gods; and the giants, monsters and ancient gods that will come to destroy all nine worlds in the End Times known as Ragnarok.

It is good to read these stories in winter, because the cold and the storms are a near constant companion in these tales from people who lived so far north. Gaiman writes at a fine pace for stories of adventure and magic, and adds his own magic of humor and compassion even for the monsters and villains.

If you love Neil Gaiman, you should certainly read (or listen to) Norse Mythology. If you do not know him but the topic sounds interesting, this would be a fine introduction.

Friday, January 27, 2017

John Hurt, 1940-2017

John Hurt, one of the greatest British actors of an incredibly great generation, has died a week after his 77th birthday. He is pictured here as the emperor Caligula in I, Claudius, welcoming a horse that he has made a senator onto the Senate floor. Hurt played a lot of great roles, but I, Claudius was the first time he showed up on my radar as a callow American youth. Other British actors of his generation who were in I, Claudius include Brian Blessed, Derek Jacobi, Sian Phillips, Patrick Stewart and John Rhys-Davies. If you've never seen it, find a copy in the library or buy it or steal it if necessary. The production values are weak by today's standards, but the writing and acting are second to none.

Another great project many people haven't seen is the 1984 version of Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which Hurt plays the protagonist Winston Smith. A British TV version in the 1950s starred the gaunt and haunted Peter Cushing, The 1950s American version starred the hefty and clueless Edmond O'Brien. Let's just say the casting directors in one of these two countries actually read the book before casting.

Without checking, the other projects I know I saw Hurt in are Alien and a parody scene of Alien in Spaceballs, Harry Potter, The Elephant Man, Only Lovers Left Alive, Snowpiercer, The Naked Civil Servant and V for Vendetta. I decided to show pictures from a TV mini-series about an obviously insane character being given absolute power and an unhappy cog in the machinery of a vicious totalitarian government where the truth means less than nothing.

I wonder why I chose those?

It's a puzzlement.

Best wished to the family and friends of John Hurt, from a fan. May he never be forgotten.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Mary Tyler Moore 1936-2017

I find myself unable to be clever talking about Mary Tyler Moore. I loved her and that was that. We shared a birthday, so she was 19 when I was born, and even before I knew that I always thought she was a wonder. She could sing, she could dance, she was a brilliant comedian, and she was a low flying angel. That's quite the combination.

A lot of people are remembering comedy scenes, most notably the funeral of Chuckles the Clown, but the scene that I remember today is Dick Van Dyke and Miss Moore singing Mountain Greenery.

Best wishes to the family and friends of Mary Tyler Moore, from a brokenhearted fan. May she never be forgotten. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Two obiturary tributes to two bands that didn't quite make it

Another pop music obituary from the 1970s is in the news today. Philip Overend Watts, guitarist first and bassist later for Mott the Hoople, is dead at 69. No one back in the day would have dreamed of putting them on the same bill with the sister group The Roches, who lost Maggie Roche this week, but both groups wrote brilliant songs about the death of the rock and roll dream.

With the rule of ladies first, here are The Roches with Mr. Sellack, a song about getting back in the job market once the dream is over.

Mott the Hoople had more success in Great Britain, or maybe it was easier to get to a certain level of success as a rock band versus a folk rock band. This is The Ballad of Mott the Hoople, in memory of Philip Overend Watts. This is a live recording in Zurich from 1972. They weren't truly at the end, but they certainly saw it coming. Oddly enough, The Roches survived as a group much longer after Mr. Sellack than Mott the Hoople did after this song.

 As a mathematician, I see two projectiles in the air that with different trajectories. As a man 61 years old who can still hit all the notes he could when he was 30 and many with more power and clarity, I think of heights I never reached.

I love both songs though they make me sad. Your mileage may vary.

Best wishes to the family and friends both Maggie Roche and Philip Overend Watts , from a heart stricken fan. May they never be forgotten.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Maggie Roche 1951-2017

Maggie Roche, one of three sisters comprising the musical group The Roches, has died at the age of 65 of cancer.

I owned several of their albums back in the day, including The Roches, their first record as a trio produced by Robert Fripp, I also picked up Keep On Doing and Speak. I saw them live once in San Francisco in the late 1980s. As you listen to their harmonies, Maggie has the lowest of the three voices, a contralto that almost qualifies as a baritone.

By coincidence, I saw the movie 20th Century Women last night, which takes place in 1979. It didn't feel much like the 1979 I experienced, but the Roches' first album certainly takes me back.

Off the first album, here is The Hammond Song.

Also from The Roches, Maggie's composition The Married Men, later recorded by Phoebe Snow.

And from Keep On Doing, another of Maggie's songs, Losing True.

Best wishes to the family and friends of Maggie Roche, from a fan. She will never be forgotten.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Ahlgrimm Harlequin

Using the same pieces as before but moving the colors around, here is the Ahlgrimm Harlequin.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Dick Gautier 1931-2017

Dick Gautier, the actor whose best known role was as Hymie the Robot on Get Smart!, has died at the age of 85 after a long illness. On TV, he was usually in comedies and was a regular in two short lived series, Mr. Terrific in 1967  - as the best friend of the main character -  and When Things Were Rotten, Mel Brooks' parody of Robin Hood that aired for 13 episodes in 1975. He later became a regular on several TV game shows.

One of the reasons I like obituaries is finding out things I did know about people. After leaving the Navy, Gautier worked as a nightclub singer and Broadway musical actor, including playing Conrad Birdie in the first run of Bye Bye Birdie on Broadway, a show whose cast included Dick Van Dyke, Chita Rivera, Paul Lynde, Michael J. Pollard and Charles Nelson Reilly, as well as Broadway stalwarts Susan Watson and Kay Medford. Besides that, Gautier was a talented cartoonist and did a lot of voice acting, most notably as Rodimus Prime/Hot Rod on the 1980s cartoon Transformers.

Best wishes to the family and friends of Dick Gautier, from a fan. He is never to be forgotten.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Ahlgrimm Cube

I haven't been posting pictures of the OctTetra pieces recently because having pictures online could make the patent process more difficult. But today I throw caution to the wind to present a new shape I call The Ahlgrimm Cube, in honor of my CAD programmer and collaborator Dörte Ahlgrimm. She was playing around with the pieces you can see which are called Cylinder Wedges, rounded versions of the Wedge, which can most easily be described as half a pyramid. If the blue pieces were Wedges instead of Cylinder Wedge, we would have Size Two Corner, and if we we replaced all the wedges the shape would be a Size Two Cube, where all the faces would be flat. The half blue half green face on the lower right gives you a good idea of the shape of all the faces, which are kind of like square throw pillows with a button in the middle.

It's been a while since I've been playing with OctTetra on a regular basis, but it is my plan for the winter and spring to see if I can take the next steps to making the toy now in prototype into a viable product.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Semi-slipped My Mind Saturdays
Fleetwood Mac Oh Well

I ran errands yesterday and did not get back home in time to put up a Half Forgotten Fridays post, so it's a Semi-slipped My Mind Saturday post instead.

Fleetwood Mac is by no means forgotten, but their original line-up before the additions of Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, Bob Welch and Christie McVie is definitely obscure. The closest thing they had to a hit in the 1960s is this long song in two very distinct parts, Oh Well, written and sung by Peter Green. It starts with one of the greatest guitar hooks in rock history, breaking into a hard driving instrumental section that could easily be identified as early heavy metal. Then it breaks into a completely different melody on acoustic guitar and recorders, little wooden flutes famous for going out of tune after about a month of use due to saliva and heat warping the little bastards. I know, I used to play the recorder.

Then the symphonic section with flamenco guitar begins, which could be fairly considered a distinct third part.

I fucking loved this song in high school, when it was only FM radio that would play it. As a single, it had to be broken into Part 1 and Part 2, but FM radio would play whole thing straight through. I would lie in bed in the morning hoping the DJ would play it before I had to go to school. The only thing I can compare it to when I was a kid was the Traffic album John Barleycorn Must Die.

Peter Green had schizophrenia and the drugs didn't help. He has been in and out mental institutions much of his life. Still, he wrote some great songs and other musicians could see how damned good he was. His other great contribution to rock history is writing Black Magic Woman, turned into a hit by Santana. Oh Well has been covered by a whole passel of musicians, including Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Joe Jackson, Ratt, and The Black Crowes with guest guitarist Jimmy Page. Musicians loved the hell out of this, but it's public reception is tiny compared to the album Rumors took off.

Here's Fleetwood Mac, led by the musical genius Peter Green, playing the original version of is composition Oh Well.


Thursday, January 5, 2017

Math Thursday:
The math of life and death, part 3
Death by overdose

A major culprit in the increasing death rate are drug overdoses. This study from the CDC follows the number of deaths over the five year period from 2010 to 2014 for ten drugs: Six opioids (fenatyl, heroin, hydrocodone, oxycodone, methadone and morphine), two stimulants (cocaine and methamphetamine) and two benzodiapazines (Alprazolam and Diazepam). The rate of deaths from these causes, which are difficult to separate in many overdose cases, rose from 12.4 per 100,000 in 2010 to 14.8 per 100,000 in 2014. The drugs listed separately as causes all have been under 2.0 per 100,000 except for heroin, which rose steadily throughout the five year study from 1.0 per 100,000 in 2010 to 3.5 per 100,000 in 2014. In 2015, the numbers for heroin continued to rise and for the first time in any recent year, more people died from heroin overdose than from gun homicides, though the difference in the reported numbers - 12,989 to 12,979 - could be over-turned on a recount.

What's going on? Let me be the first to say I don't really know, but the old, often discredited idea of a "gateway drug" is re-surfacing here. It is assumed that the prescription opioids are introducing people to the opiate experience and they are more likely to take heroin after experiencing Oxycontin or some other doctor prescribed painkiller. I have no personal experience of this phenomenon, so I was surprised to find that heroin is much cheaper than the prescription drugs. We have assumed illegal drugs were an urban phenomenon for maybe a century now, but the deaths we are seeing now are definitely not limited to the cities or even the suburbs. When Rush Limbaugh was outed as an Oxycontin abuser, I first learned of its nickname Hillbilly Heroin. Obviously, some enterprising job creator has been able to introduce real heroin to real hillbillies.

The epidemic is most prevalent among whites and is also seen in the African American male demographic.  It is much less common among African American females and both genders of the Latino community. The current prevailing assumption is doctors prescribing pain relief in ways that show both racial and sexual bias, which actually hurts white males by this measurement rather than helps them. Many commentators linked these death statistics to the alleged spring of Trump's victory, the set upon white working class. We now get a four year experiment, possibly longer though I certainly hope not, as to whether having a guy in the White House who is "on their side" will see a drop in these numbers. Given that heroin is the leading edge of the problem, my assumption is that no slogans or cheering rallies or increased policing will make much difference. Like with the numbers in the early 1990s at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the at risk population is going to have to figure out how to pull out of this tailspin by themselves.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Half Forgotten Fridays:
John Riley

Folk music is making a comeback after the success O Brother Where Art Thou?, but it tends to be the more "authentic" branch and less pop. The recordings here of the traditional love song John Riley are from the era of more pop style singing. The TV show Hootenanny featured mostly younger acts, though they sometimes had on people from Pete Seeger's generation. I'm not sure they would have gone for "old timey" acts like the Stanley Brothers or the Cox Family, but I must admit the show is one of those things I've half forgotten.

The next version is from Joan Baez.

And the first version I ever heard was from The Byrds. They are now remembered as a druggie lyrics and jangly guitars, but they were deeply connected to the folk music scene. I love the harmonies here, which I think are close to the style of madrigals. This version is without the string section overdub added to the album version and is repeated for reasons unknown. You will also hear a record skip unfortunately. As much as I love the Byrds' music that is still remembered, this may be my favorite of all their songs.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Math Thursday:
The math of life and death, part 2
Ticks and trends

Death statistics are very rarely news because they are best viewed over the long haul. In the past few months, major news media have had stories about small yearly upticks in some statistic or another. All these stories have found at least one scientist  to make the case this story is about a serious problem. Personally, I remain skeptical.

Here is the graph of the number of reported cases of tuberculosis, usually shortened to TB. You'll notice that there was a peak in the early 1990s which coincides with the height of the spread of AIDS. Since then the number of reported cases has dropped or stay nearly equal each year until a slight uptick in 2015 compared to 2014. It's hard to see on the graph, but the 2015 numbers were lower than 2013, so the rise is not very serious. Given the size of the U.S. population, the number of TB cases is about 3 per 100,000. If this was the death rate, that would be a number worth noting, but the number of TB deaths is not even 1 in 20 compared to the number of reported cases in a year. A cause of death that is below 1 per 100,000 population is not a significant vital statistic.

Simply put, trends should be news, but a tick upward for a single year should not be a major news story.
The next story is also about a single year tick in a average life expectancy, which is a much more important vital statistic than the TB rate.

In general, the life expectancy rate is a non-decreasing sequence, by which I mean it either improves or stays level for almost all years when measured at the level of one tenth of a year. Yet again, the last down tick we saw was a single year in the early 1990s coinciding with the worst of the AIDS deaths. Having so many people in their 20s and 30s dying at increased rates will have an impact on the overall numbers. The reason for the new small downturn is not as clear cut as was the health crisis of the early 1990s, though there is a prime suspect.

To my mind, the most significant news story about vital statistics in the past two years was the 2015 study by the wife and husband team of Case and Deaton looking at middle aged mortality (people from 45 to 54) from 1999 to 2013 here in the United States. Simply put, black folks in that age range showed a great improvement in mortality, but of the three groups listed, they still have the highest mortality. Somewhat to my surprise, Hispanics were slightly better in terms of mortality in this cohort compared to non-Hispanic whites even at the start of this study in 1999. The part of the study that made big news is that middle aged white Americans actually had a worse death rate in 2013 than they did in 1999, bucking not only the trend of other demographic groups in the United States but also almost all the rest of the industrialized world. The graph on the right shows the trend is being cause by that most precious of voting demographics this year, "the white working class".

Are the findings of Case and Deaton the cause of the down tick in the life expectancy rate? Since we have seen the trend they have discussed is about fifteen years long, why has it taken until now to see this downturn? Is this just a tick in the overall life expectancy rate in the U.S. or the start of a trend?

I haven't studied the numbers well enough to have an educated opinion on all of this, but I would say the answer to the first question is very probably yes, while the answer to the second question takes more serious study than I have put in and the answer to the third is harder still.

Next week: breaking down a significant part of the Case and Deaton numbers, deaths from overdoses of drugs both prescribed and illegal.