Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

I like statistics. When properly used, they can tell you what has actually happened in the past. Statistics can provide valuable information to help you run your company or for the government to run the country. Statistics can tell you how closely two sets of data are related, their correlation. You might notice, for example, that since you introduced pastel colored widgets, your sales to teenage girls have significantly increased. You might jump to the conclusion that teenage girls prefer pastel colored widgets, and you might be right. On the other hand, the increase in sales to teenage girls could be due to your increased marketing of widgets in women-only high schools and colleges.

When statistics tell you that two quantities vary together, most people will believe that they are related in some way. You should always beware of jumping to conclusions. Correlation does not equal causation. Here are three very high correlation examples from Tyler Vigen’s book Spurious Corrections.” I suspect there really is no relationship between the two quantities in each case.

CorrelationEven if there is an actual cause and effect relationship, it may not be in the direction you think.

Your company collects more and more data about its operation, products and customers. Additionally, thousands of data sets are available from public and private sources about behavior, health, poverty rates, driving accidents and just about anything you can think of. Given enough processor power, you can search for correlations among these data sets. Sometimes these “strange” correlations can prove valuable. A dozen years ago, an almost random check of the correlation between auto accidents involving personal injury or death across the counties of one state had a very high correlation with the number of people over 55 who were taking a specific medicine. The resulting investigation by the pharmacy company that manufactured the drug led to increased warnings to doctors and patients about a previously unsuspected age-dependent side effect.

When someone brings you one of these correlations, pay attention, but apply reason. Correlation is not causality

The last word:

President Obama and many other politicians on the left want to make it illegal for law abiding citizens to own a gun. In their view, only the government should have any weapons. They want to eliminate the Second Amendment to the US Constitution. The primary reason the first session of the US Congress included that amendment in the Bill of Rights was the recent experience with their prior government. The British Government severely limited gun possession in towns and cities; they could not police the rest of the colonies. They feared, rightly it turned out, that the colonists could use those weapons against the British government. The US Founding Fathers wanted to make sure that a future government could not take away citizens rights without the citizens having a last resort to deal with a run amok government.

President Obama will tell you that eliminating all legal guns is the solution to these tragic mass-shooting events. But we know that is a false argument. Almost every one of the mass shooting events in the past two decades has been in a “gun-free zone.” We have been steadily increasing the number of these zones, so it includes virtually every school, sporting event, shopping area, government facility, and even most portions of our military bases. We actually put signs up to indicate to potential terrorists of where they will have five to thirty minutes of unbothered time to kill as many unarmed victims as they can.

Consider the recent Oregon tragedy. Chris Mintz is student at Umpqua Community College. As a decorated Army veteran, he tried to stop the gunman before he entered the classroom where the gunman killed nine students. Mr. Mintz was shot seven times for his bravery. If Mr. Mintz had a weapon with him, the results could have been vastly different.

Oregon state law actually requires that colleges allow guns on campus in some circumstances. At a minimum, a college must allow a visitor with a carry permit to bring a gun on campus, but not necessarily a student. Until police arrived, the gunman was the only person with a weapon on the campus.

Gun control laws do not keep guns out of the hands of criminals and terrorists; they only keep them out of the hands of law-abiding citizens. Chicago, with restrictive gun control laws, had over 400 murders in 2014. That is the equivalent of an Umpqua Community College event every 8 days.

We are painting a target on the back of our children.

Comments solicited.

Keep your sense of humor.



Read Full Post »

1000-year-old-recipeA writer friend posted a blog about Ancient Remedies Resurrected. He blogs mostly to help other writers use medicine correctly in their fictional murders. This particular post discusses the surprising success of a medieval recipe in killing specific troubling antibiotic resistant bacteria.

  • Who would suspect that a thousand-year-old Anglo-Saxon recipe to vanquish an infected eyelash follicle could do that?
  • Who even tried the recipe on something different than its original documented purpose?
  • Why was the recipe still around?
  • Who could read it?

Babylon-recipeThe first two questions are relatively easy. Some ancient remedies actually work. They were created over hundreds or even thousands of years of experimentation in the real world. Many experiments failed, with the expected unpleasantotherresults. Some worked and were passed down orally from “doctor” to “doctor,” often from parent to child. Often the “doctor” was closely associated with the local religion. One recipe for curing fever occurring in the brain is on an eight century BC tablet. The particular poultice is attributed to oral medical lore dating back to around 1860 BC. The tablet itself cites “mythological sages from before the Flood.” It is hard to argue with such authority. Enough of these old recipes work that it is well worth the effort to test them. Government agencies, pharmaceutical companies and universities all spend some effort searching ancient texts and experimenting. Looking at what the recipe does from a scientific viewpoint may point out some other possible uses of the drug.

The last two questions are the really important ones.

The survival of any particular ancient text is more due to luck than good data management. There is so much that can go wrong. The document first of all has to avoid being broken into a thousand pieces, sunk in the middle of the ocean, cleaned and reused, or being damaged by the ravages of nature with floods, fire, mold, or rot. But perhaps the most danger to old documents is man. Opened in the third century BC, the Library of Alexandria was one of the largest and most significant libraries in the world of its time. The library was destroyed, first by Julius Caesar when he conquered Egypt in 30 AD, and finally by Coptic Pope Theophilus in 391. Pope Theophilus was very thorough. Not only did he complete the destruction of the main library, but also a smaller version, the Serapeum, located elsewhere in Alexandria. Perhaps the first recorded case of a backup failure.

Maya-CodexMaybe as significant for the preservation of possible ancient medicinal cures was the destruction of all but four of the thousands of Maya codices by Spanish conquistadors and Catholic priests. Why were they destroyed? According to Bishop Diego de Landa in July 1562, because “they contained nothing but … superstition and lies of the devil.”

Unfortunately, this organized destruction of the past continues to this day as the result of conquest and religious fanaticism.

We recently visited one such ancient document, and it was only 800 years old. If was both surprisingly readable and very hard to read, and it was a language we had some rusty familiarity with. Image the difficulty of even deciphering an ancient text and then determining its meaning. We do not have a Rosetta Stone for most ancient languages. I am referring to the multi-language stone found in Egypt during Napoleon’s conquest, not the language instruction company – although the statement applies to both. Often even the structure of the language as well as the meaning of individual characters or symbols had to be coaxed out of many documents by many people over many years. Only after that can other researchers begin to search for specific snippets of interest, like medical recipes.

In trying to recreate the recipe that began this post, researchers had to figure out what the ingredients really were, and hope that modern garlic is similar enough to 1,000 year old garlic to actually work. In most cases an ancient text will not describe exactly how hot or long to cook something, or even how much of each component was to be used.

As a discussed earlier, it is perhaps as difficult to keep data for the long term in today’s electronic age as it was in ancient times.

The last word:

Save the data, especially if you have no idea what value it might have in the future. Pictures, movies, personal history stories whether written or currently only oral could be important. Talk to older relatives and friends and get their stories saved. Do it now while you still can.

If you save oral recordings, go back and make transcripts that can also be saved. A hundred years from now there may be no one who can understand what was said.

If your family knows a language that is little used, work to preserve it so its oral and written legacy can be saved.

Even mundane business records can have historical value in a distant future. Kyle Harper used ancient purchase records to reinterpret the end of Roman slavery by determining what slaves were eating in Rome around 300 AD. This kind of information can help fill in the gaps about a civilization and the well-being of its people, whether wealthy citizens or slaves.

As I have said before, keeping data on paper only is not the best idea.

Comments solicited.

Keep your sense of humor.


Read Full Post »

Science and technology have provided many new wonders in the past few years.

DNA analysis is an important tool in convicting and exonerating criminals, and just opening up new possibilities in medicine, with some cancer centers analyzing your DNA to help determine the most effective treatment program.  Check out Jim Murray’s blog for lots of postings on the intersection of murder and medicine.

But an even more enabling technology has been the Internet and Cloud Computing.  You are all aware of their impact on business.  The Cloud has disrupted the music and movie industry, news media, and many consumer-oriented businesses.  Legacy companies who have learned to embrace a new paradigm for customer relationships and doing business by seamlessly integrating their brick and mortar and on-line presence are thriving.  Those who have not are in deep trouble even if they don’t know it yet.  New companies have almost unlimited opportunities for growth at costs that are a fraction of the cost of starting a new business just ten years ago.

As I recently posted, the Cloud is also driving a much-needed revolution in education, with the opportunity for vastly superior education opportunities at significantly reduced cost.

Sometime in the next five years, after we get over the conversion hump, electronic medical records (EMR) will revolutionize the actual practice of medicine, significantly reducing errors while reducing clerical requirements.  EMR is impossible without the Cloud providing a consistent set of information everyone connected with your health care including doctors, hospitals, pharmacies and other caregivers.

Last year I wrote about “Your Smart House in the Cloud.”  Home security is also changing, with traditional home security services and traditional ISPs (like Comcast or Verizon) are offering the ability to monitor and control your house from a smart phone.  Want to see what your children are doing while you’re on a busy trip?  No problem.  Forget to set the thermostat?  No problem.

Google and others already have cars that can successfully navigate autonomously.  No more getting turn-by-turn directions from Google maps, let the car do that and get you there while you read, watch a movie, or get some shuteye.  Although, based on a recent personal experience with a closed bridge, it could be amusing.  Our smart phone was baffled by the situation and kept trying to get us back to where we could try to cross the same closed bridge.  In October 2012, California joined Nevada and Florida in approving those cars for the public highway.  (Interestingly, no state actually has a law that prohibits a driver-less car, and as of this writing, none of the autonomous cars can backup, yet.)

By every one of these benefits is potentially a two-edged sword.  One of the most serious dangers is what I call “predictive punishment.”

Some auto insurance companies want to constantly monitor your car to determine how your are driving in real time, and set your rate accordingly.  I’m not sure what kind of algorithm they are using, but at least it includes speed and braking information.  Someone driving at 75 mph on I80 in Nevada is likely to be a safe driver, yet someone driving 75 mph on the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia is definitely not a safe driver.  This is a maybe benign form of predictive punishment: based on a couple of data points on your driving, I will punish you with a higher rate.

Jim Murray often writes about the relationship between genes and crimes or diseases.  While there may be statistically significant relationships between a particular gene or set of genes and socially unacceptable behavior (the “killer gene,” for example), these relationships are not guaranteed.  The vast majority of people with these genes do not actually commit the crime or exhibit aggressive behavior, and many people who do murder do not have the gene.

We are steadily accumulating DNA.  In some jurisdictions, police officers collect DNA from anyone they bring into the police station, even if they are not a suspect, never tried, and never convicted.  That DNA is never destroyed.

Expect your health insurance company to ask for and eventually demand your DNA.  Or, more likely, the U.S. government will demand your DNA for identification as well as health care.  Already the government controls what medical treatment you can get based on symptoms, as I found out when my doctor prescribed a specific test and Medicare told me I could not get the test because I did not have the appropriate symptoms.  This happened on two separate occasions with two separate tests.  Under U.S. Health and Human Services Rules, the government can violate HIPAA security requirements to use your health data for “meaningful use.”  It is not a leap to some serious predictive punishments by forcing or denying treatment based on your DNA.

DNA information could also be used to set your life insurance rate, or prevent you from getting a job.  If a company had your DNA, they could deny you a job because you had a slightly high probability of being aggressive or getting an expensive disease.  If they had two qualified candidates, it would be very hard to prove that they used DNA in the final selection.  On the other hand, if they had a candidates DNA, hired him, and he later “went postal” the company could be liable for law suits because they knowingly created a higher risk working environment.

The issue is that there are far too many false positives: indications that something might happen.  This type of statistical analysis, whether based on how fast you drive or your DNA, may be exceedingly likely over a large population but is almost useless as a prediction for the individual.

We may want to consider an addition to the protections against government provided by the U.S. Constitution: the protection against predictive punishment based on statistical analysis and not behavior, especially as related to our personal DNA.

The last word:

Once something gets into the Cloud or on the Internet, it is there forever.  That data is vulnerable for attack by cybercriminals and governments.  Incidentally, that includes the camera feeds from your new home security system.

As companies and governments collect more and more personal data, the risk that data will be used against us increases.  The recent revelations of what the U.S. National Security Agency collects from the Internet is likely just the tip of the iceberg of what they really collect.  The U.S. intelligence agencies have demonstrated that they are very bad at “connecting the dots” before an event.  That does not stop them from violating U.S. citizens’ rights as they come into the U.S. because of a random “connection.”  Check out a recent NPR On the Media article.

Comments solicited.

Keep your sense of humor.


Read Full Post »

Who buys an Encyclopedia?  Do you remember the Disney song that taught you how to spell “encyclopedia” sung by Jiminy Cricket?  The current print edition of Encyclopedia Britannica has 32 volumes and 65 thousand articles.  The English language Wikipedia has 3.29 million articles. Wikipedia is almost always written by people who really know the subject and is monitored by the ugly masses.  Like on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” often the best option is to ask the audience.  There have even been rescues at sea that have been successful because the searchers have asked the public where the boat was.  Somehow the masses are often right.  Wikipedia is, of course, just one small corner of the Internet’s Library in the Cloud.

The future of the physical library is short.  Except for those few historians who really need to touch the originals, there is more information available on your 2 pound laptop, or even your 5 ounce smart phone, than is in the Library of Congress with its 745 miles of shelves.  Unfortunately there are lots of people who do not have access to the Internet.  This is recognized as an important problem by the US government.  However, the US Rural Electrification Program that was started by Congress in 1936 is still an active program in the US Department of Agriculture, so I would not rely on the government to solve this issue.  If we really want to help our students learn the best option is to make sure that they can use a word processor and have access to the Internet.  There is no value in sending an elementary child to the school library and its few hundred books to do research.  The real world no longer does research that way.  Teaching physical library skills is as outdated as teaching script penmanship.  School libraries need to be refocused on providing the skills and equipment necessary to access the huge Library in the Cloud that is the Internet, perhaps looking more like the lounge area of a Barnes and Nobel book store than a collection of shelves.  Many libraries are making this transition, but many more are stuck in the mid-twentieth century.  I urge parents to seriously look at how their children’s schools spend their limited “library” dollars.

The next major push for the Library in the Cloud is translation, enabling anybody anywhere to read anything anytime.  This translation requirement ranges from the fairly mundane like allowing a patient in the hospital to communicate with a caregiver when they have no common language, a shameless commerce plug for Med-Communicator Inc.  By one estimate, only 5% of the world’s population are native English speakers, with about another 9% that speak English as an additional language. There are millions of documents created each year that aren’t in English.  As one small measure, there are 538,000 Wikipedia articles in Russian, and over one million in German.  How do we find in all of these books, scientific articles, and even blogs the solutions for green energy, oil spill cleanup, or better medical care at a lower cost?

Figuring out how to merge multiple language conversations together is a challenge.  There are companies working on it and you can now carry on discussion groups with some people typing in English and some in Chinese.  For example, see the NPR “On the Media” article.  This problem will be solved, and in the relatively near future, leading to another huge jump in information availability in the library that is the Cloud.

The last word:

Our son in Afghanistan

On a personal note, Suzy and I went down to Camp Lejeune in North Caroline to join a couple hundred other people waiting in the rain in the middle of the night for a plane load of Marines to return from Afghanistan.  I recommend going to one of these military homecomings even if you don’t have a family member or friend who is returning.  These men and women will take a hug and a thank you from anyone, and they all deserve it.  While the Marines are quite capable of effectively forcing behavior modification, and did so when required, their main job was to win the hearts and minds of the Afghani people.  I’ll relate two examples.

The Marines who are out in the field away from major bases are provided MREs (meals ready to eat) or larger platoon-sized “box lunches” for all meals.  While these are OK food, they can become tiring after a few weeks.  So the Marines would, while they were on patrol, stop at a local food stall and buy some fresh fruits and vegetables and some live chickens.  Every group of Marines has someone who knows how to take a live chicken and turn it into some delicious food.  They can do the same thing with goats or sheep, but if they get a bad one it can ruin dinner for 40 soldiers.  The Marines paid for this food out of their own money, but food there is really inexpensive.  Once you become a customer, the shop keeper is a lot more interested in having you return on your next patrol, so they start telling you about an IED (improvised explosive device) that was “placed last night by some guys from Pakistan” near that old bridge.  They aren’t quite ready to tell you it was really the guy two doors down and his brother who planted the IED, but that will come.

& when he first got home at 0400

In another case, one squad leader had been working for months to gain the trust of a local elder in a particularly dangerous region.  Then one day, the elder stopped talking to him.  He found out that the elder’s wife and daughter were sick and the local Afghani medical system couldn’t do anything for them.  The squad leader brought a Navy corpsman and a member of the Marine FET (Female Engagement Team).  Using the FET member to communicate with the wife and daughter, the corpsman was able to quickly cure the elder’s family.  The Marine had a real friend who later turned in a Taliban cell.  One indication of the state of Afghanistan and the uphill road to bring that country to even the twentieth century is that one Navy Corpsman has more capability than a town’s medical facilities.

Comments solicited.

Keep your sense of humor.


Read Full Post »