31 Aug

British to study 500,000

Ok, so I know this is kinda old news but I just hadn’t gotten around to blogging about it and I kept putting it off. Tonight we get discuss, ladies and gentlemen, the largest scientific study every undertaken or even thought up of. This is the study to end all studies, at least that is the hope of the British researchers. The goal of this study is to take half a million British citizens, have them fill out health questionnaires and to donate their DNA. The citizens will then go on about their daily routine, and whenever they get sick, they will record it for the scientists. The goal here is to see if there is any link between the person’s DNA and the environment that they live in to account for them getting sick over someone else. Now when I say sick, we are not discussing just a simple cold or flu, rather cancers, heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

The problems that I see with this fall into three issues: Number One – how do compile the data and DNA for 500,000 people effectively, Number Two – privacy and Security for these people health information and DNA, Number Three – what is the point of this study. Let’s take these one at a time and explain what exactly is the problem and why I feel this is a problem.

First issue is the handling of data and DNA for that many people and variables in an experiment to last for so long and also to be as realistic as possible. These are people who will be living their own separate lives in approximately half a million different communities, being exposed and subjecting themselves to a huge variety of influences. Heart Diseases as many studies have show is triggered by a great variety of things, how do you plan to isolate whether it was genetics or environment that caused someone to suffer a certain problem. The other problem is the sheer mechanics of analyzing all the data that each person will develop for the organization. In short I feel that this study will not be completed in any real timeframe simply by sheer weight of numbers. The study is to big to be handled effectively.

That being said, the next issue is when we get to the privacy of the users and their medical information and DNA. Obviously this data is not going to be just put somewhere that any person would be able to interact with the data and steal it. However with the sheer size of the study, you would need dozens if not hundreds of people interacting with the information, to hopefully extract something useful. This is a very really problem, any one with common sense will tell you that as you add more users onto a system that have access to sensitive information, the more likely a mistake or error could occur and something bad happen. The more people you have to police and be sure no one does anything inappropriate with the data, the higher the likely hood someone will do something stupid. We have all done it at one point or another, said or done something that we knew very well was wrong and should not have done and it was stupid of us. Ok, take the likely hood of one person doing something stupid and multiply it by the number of people with access to the information.

Now comes the final and sometimes the one that most non-scientists complain about the most. What is the point of this study? (Note – I always accept criticism of my arguments, just write a comment if you feel I am wrong.) This study seems largely a waste, we already know that genetics does effect your chances of being affected by diseases and we know that environment plays another large part in this. It seems to me, that there is simply too many variables and not enough constants to make this study useful beyond learning the health characteristics of a portion of the British population. Which if the researches wanted that, they could analyze death certificates to find the causes of death. Overall I find this study too large to be handled properly both in terms of analyzing the data and also in protecting the personal information of the participants of this study.

P.S. Sorry about not posting last night, it was a busy night for me with classes and such. I will try to do something so I can be sure that I have something to post every night, but every once in awhile I might either get to it late or have a really short post or not even post anything. I’m in college and working a job, this is what I do for fun but I still have to study and work and such.

30 Aug

It’s All In How You Present Information

Politics the lifeblood of any country whether it be communist, dictatorship, or even and perhaps most especially a democracy. Politics is a crazy system where voters are told information given no real basis behind the information then excepted to draw conclusions from the pre-packaged information that doesn’t fit with the underlying facts of the argument. In the interest of full disclosure I will openly tell you what my political affiliations are. I am generally liberal in my outlook, however I desire a Libertarian government but I also feel that it is for now an unreachable goal for a vast majority of society. There are times when I tend to agree with conservatives on issues, so it’s rather difficult for me to say that I am always in agreement with any one party even 75% of the time. However overall I most closely associated with the Libertarian and the Democratic party.

Now, onto my post for this evening or rather afternoon now, the Democratic party yesterday sent out one of their mass e-mails detailing the “horrible atrocities” that the Bush administration has committed in the year since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. One of their statements is “So far, the administration has gotten around to spending barely half of what Congress authorized.” Now the problem with this statement is not that it is true, in fact Americans should be happy that this statement is true. Before the comments get started, let me cut you off at the pass. I am not saying that the administration did everything that it could and that it shouldn’t do more for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and Rita. President Bush himself has admitted that there were problems with the federal response to the disaster.1 The real problem is with what the Democrats do not say, Congress has appropriated $110 billion dollars in both immediate aid that was used on trailers and food stamps and repaying states that housed refugees from the hurricane. A good deal of this money is also to be spent cleaning up New Orleans and also making it safer from another hurricane. The issue here is that only in the next several weeks will the Corp of Engineers which is responsible for the dams and levies used to protect New Orleans will present their report to Congress on what to do to fix the whole system.

Democrats imply throughout their message that if Democrats were in charge the money would have already have been spent. This is in fact a bad thing, money should not just be shoved out the door and hope it does some good. This has been proved more times that any one person can list, money alone doesn’t solve a problem you first need a well defined problem and a reasonable plan to fix the problem. Yes, more money will help you solve a problem as you will be able to present more and possibly better plans for an option. But first you have to know what to fix. Even if Democrats were in power the money would still be sitting in bills waiting a final decision as to where it will finally be spent. This is the same as bidding on contracts you appropriate money for a problem, companies bid to solve the problem and you choose the best and cheapest plan.

Politics more and more often does not appear to be to present unbiased information to the masses and allowing them to make an honest decision but rather to manipulate facts and information. Now I know that this most likely will never change, but what would happen if candidates actually had to debate the issues. Anybody who has every watched a presidential debate, knows that they are at best a joke. The facts are spun like crazy, neither side makes any real argument, most of the time conclusions are draw based on sketchy or irrelevant information.

I can not imagine any of our modern politicians writing Common Sense simply because the capacity for basic logic seems to be lost among candidates these days. Instead arguments are wrapped around the idea of it being a “Christian idea” or “Protecting the rights that we have”, ideas used by the pro-life and pro-choice groups respectively. Their most basic arguments boil back to one of these very simplistic and basic ideas that doesn’t really address the issue.

Politics has turned into marketing campaigns rather than what politics should be. An actual debate on the organization and purpose of government and what it can accomplish and should accomplish in the life of everyday citizens of the government. Where is the politician that understands the concept of a social contract and uses it to promote their point of view. Now for all those out there who say that the public can’t understand these concepts, and that this information needs to be spoon fed to them. Please refer to my earlier posts in which I discuss ways that complex information can be presented without the general masses uneducated in complex philosophical or even political theory can understand and accept these concepts. Pluto – What is it, and what about the other stuff in the solar system? And, How to be a better chess player and, Beef Jerky Reports

References:

  1. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/5295218.stm

P.S. Sorry about this post being so late in the afternoon, my computer decided to quit working last night, but it’s up and running now.

29 Aug

The Golden Era of Profitability

An article from today’s New York Times1 discussing the recent decline in real wages and the increase in worker productivity. First of all, what does real wages mean, real wages is not just the amount of money that you earn, but what that money can actually buy. To give a relevant example, let’s say for simplicity you work a job that earns you a $10 an hour, and every year you get a 2% raise. This means that after your first year of working you will make $10.20 an hour, the second year $10.404 an hour, and so on. Now in our imaginary world inflation rises at 3% a year, which is a fairly standard inflation rate in the real world for the United States. This means that a majority of goods will cost 3% more than last year, now obviously this is just an average as some goods will drop in price, some will stay the same and some may increase in price more that just 3% or so. However you only received a 2% raise so now your wages are actually worth 1% less then they were last year. Real wages is thus the actual purchasing power of your net income.

 

Now why is this important, well if you read the NYT article, you will see that corporate profits are at their highest level that they have ever been. So while corporations as a general rule are making a profit they are sending that extra profit either back to the company or to their top 10% (in terms of pay scale) or so of employees. This means that the bottom 90% of employees are not receiving enough of a pay increase through either benefits or actual salary to offset inflation. A particularly worrying situation considering the rapid increase in volatile commodity markets such as oil.

 

The other problem is that the minimum wage is at it’s lowest purchasing power in 51 years2. The question on politicians minds and on the voters is what should the government proceed to do about this. I am conflicted on this question, I feel that the government should try to limit it’s interference in the market as much as possible, yet at the same time I do feel that people should at least be able to survive on the minimum wage. If you worked 40 hours a week for 52 weeks, a full year of working with no time off, you would manage to earn, before taxes of course, $10,712, just barely above the poverty line for a single person3. Now if you work 60 hours a week for 52 weeks, you would eek out $16,068 below the poverty level for 3 people. A minimum wage job in my humble opinion should not automatically force someone to being in poverty status. No, it should not be a handout out to people, but at the same time people at least deserve the decency of having a life.

 

I believe that the best solution would be to number one raise the minimum which hasn’t been done in 10 years. The minimum wage has to be increased or the business owners will wind up spending more money on taxes, then they ever would on salary increases, when you have more people unable to provide for their families and more people fall deeper into poverty as their wages stay the same and everything begins to cost more and more. You can only cut out oh so much before you start cutting back on necessary items. I do not see the free market correcting this imbalance before it gets out of hand, in instances such as this the government must step in to protect the people it is supposed to serve.

 

The Declaration of Independence lists as one of it’s unalienable rights is the right to pursue Happiness. When the Declaration of Independence was written Happiness was interpreted to mean the pursuit of property and material wealth. Even using a modern day translation of Happiness, our government should provide each person the ability to pursue his or her dream. Part of being able to pursue a dream is to be able to have time and money to devote towards that project. The more I consider this issue the more I come to accept the position that the government needs to step in and correct this imbalance between wages and purchasing power, not by taxing the corporations as some have proposed4 but rather by giving the lowest earners in society a nudge up.

 

References:

 

  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/28/business/28wages.html?_r=1&th=&emc=th&pagewanted=print

  2. http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0774473.html

  3. http://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty/06poverty.shtml

  4. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/4383296.stm

P.S. – I do understand and realize that by raising the minimum wage that it may increase the price of goods due to having to pay more in salaries and also that some people may loser their jobs over this increase. However every study that I have seen shows that most goods and services do not increase in price enough to cancel out the benefits of the salary increase. The majority of cost built into products is the advertising (hence generic products are cheaper even though they are sometimes identical to the brand name products) and in the materials needed to make the good. Also you can only get rid of so many people before your business can not function properly. Small business which would be disproportionately hit by a minimum wage increase already do not tend to have too many extra employees that can be reduced.

28 Aug

A Journalist By Another Name

A question that has been running around both the blogosphere and around the mainstream media, is trying to decide if bloggers are “journalists”. Not just in the sense of can their news and information be trusted but also whether or not they should be given the same rights as a regular journalist. I do not propose to answer this question, I personally feel that it is far to complicated to be given a simple yes or no answer. However, in this post I do hope to present my thoughts and if possible narrow the scope of the question so it can be reasonably answered.

 

Bloggers come in many forms, some merely write their own personal thoughts down in their blog, an online journal and diary. For a vast majority of bloggers this is all their blog is, a form of personal therapy committing some thoughts to the web as opposed to paper. These bloggers I think both sides, both bloggers and mainstream journalist, can say they do not deserve the protection of an actual journalist. They aren’t presenting news, there are no inside sources, there is nothing else to protect other than the basic 1st Amendment right to be able to speak your mind in a public forum. Now the next type of blogger is one where they present their analysis on news stories and intersperse it with personal thoughts from time to time. This type of blog also appears to not require the legal protection of being labeled a journalist. The sources of news to be analyzed are either other bloggers or news articles. Again it seems unnecessary to provide the protection of being labeled a journalist where journalism is not being practiced.

 

Now, the crux of the problem is when you have sites such as ThinkSecret1, TechCrunch2, and other sites that present news that is not presented in any other form other than an online blog and that work to break a news story. Several companies have sued blogging sites, unsuccessfully I might add, to try to find out what employees leaked confidential information, and argued that since there is no formalized business structure, no editors vetting the information and the sources, that these “news blogs” (Note: I am using quotes around the phrase “news blogs”, not because I dislike them but rather because there is no good definition for what this third type of blog is.) are the same as Joe/Sarah Smith standing on the side of the street and screaming the information. In a way their argument makes a great deal of sense. In many, but not all “news blogs” there is no standard procedure to guarantee accurate information, however we have also seen mainstream media fail at properly checking their sources3.

 

Yet I also feel that any citizen should be able to present information, and if ThinkSecret has a rumor from Apple that they wish to blog about, who am I to stop them. The question should not rest on the qualifications of the site or the blogger. The blogosphere has on more than one occasion presented information before mainstream media4. CNN now even has a part in their daily line up when they go through and see what some of the blogs are discussing.

 

This question is not so much of whether all bloggers should also be labeled journalist but rather which bloggers are journalistic in nature to actually need the protection of being labeled a journalist. Is a blogger a journalist by any other name? That is for you decide, hopefully this blog has presented the question in a different light.

 

References:

 

  1. http://www.thinksecret.com/

  2. http://www.techcrunch.com/

  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killian_documents

  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blogs

25 Aug

Happy Women’s Equality Day

I won’t write a long post, but I just thought I would mention that tomorrow August 26, is Women’s Equality Day. This is the day that in 1920, 86 years ago, women gained the right to vote after 72 years of the same bill, with the exact same wording being introduced what we now recognize as the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution. In 1971, August 26th was designated by Congressional order Women’s Equality Day. So there is your history lesson for the day and on that note, I will say have a good weekend, I probably won’t be posting tomorrow though hopefully on Sunday. I am having to move into my college dorm room tomorrow and it will be a little crazy.

24 Aug

When I Write, Does That Tell You What Sex I Am?

Tonight I want to discuss something that I noticed that I did today without even realizing it. I was reading an article today and I assumed that the author of this article was female, without even looking at the author’s name or anything. Once I realized I did this, the first thought was why it even mattered, but the second and to me the more intriguing one was, Why did I decide the author was female?

This wasn’t an author I had read before, the author never came out and indicated gender in her article or even an occupation that is predominantly a male or female dominated career. Is there something in the way that males and females, as a whole, write that indicates our sex, what about sexual orientation or even what is our cultural background. I do know that scientists who study handwriting, a field called graphology, imply that they can determine a person’s sex based on the handwriting. But here we are talking about something that has been typed on a computer and even professionally edited. There have been a great many studies that observe the differences in how men and women communicate, but most of those have been in relation to verbal and non-verbal, what about the written form of communication. Is there a difference in the way that men and women write. This is an interesting question and one that I am not prepared to answer just yet. So I intend to research this some more, however if you have any comments, post away and I will try to respond to your ideas about this issue before I next speak on it.

22 Aug

Beef Jerky Reports

This series of post is drawing to a close, this will be the final post. This third post, in the series discussing the recent decision by the International Astronautical Union to rewrite the definition of what is and isn’t a planet. In how this decision is not going to be understood nor will it be accepted by the general public, and thus there will be two trains of thoughts with regards to our solar system. The first will be the masses who will recognize nine planets, Pluto included. The next school thought will be the astronomers and other types who can actually understand the International Astronautical Union’s definition of what constitutes a planet. This post I would like to present some instances where even though something had been proven or redefined by science it wasn’t until later when the information was presented in a more coherent manner that the public at large accepted the change.

The example that I shall discuss will be a very simple example – the spherical shape of the Earth. As early as Greek and Roman times, philosophers taught that the Earth was a sphere, not only for philosophical and religious reasons, but also because of scientific and mathematical proof. Aristotle is the first recorded philosopher to detail the mathematical and scientific reasons as to why the Earth is a sphere as opposed to a flat disk.1 Yet as any American elementary school child will be able to tell Christopher Columbus’ sailors believed that the earth was flat and that they would fall off the edge as soon as they left sight of land or would be devoured by sea monsters. Almost, 2,000 years after Aristotle and Eratosthenes had proved that the earth was round, the masses believed that the Earth was flat.

Even today there exists a society of skeptics, proudly calling themselves The Flat Earth Society, whose stated goal is “Deprogramming the masses since 1547”2. This is something that most reasonable people would have no trouble agreeing to, that the Earth is a sphere, resting in space, that it orbits the Sun and the Moon orbits the Earth. Yet even on this after humans have been in space, orbited the Earth and even landed on the Moon, there are still fringe groups in society that rebel against such a commonly accepted belief.

How then are engineers to present an idea to the masses that can be accepted without all the confusion, by presenting the information in a way that the masses can understand. Rather than writing for other scientists, I would challenge researches to write for the masses. Today’s modern society has on average more years of schooling than any other in the history of the world, and yet news reports from scientific organizations read like a dry and impossible to chew piece of beef jerky. There seems to be no meat to the reports and what there is, no one without a higher degree in math or physics or engineering can make any sense of. I would urge Scientific bodies to write two types of reports one for the researches and the scientific magazines and journals and another for the masses and the general news media. Information presented inadequately might as well not even exist.

References

1. – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spherical_Earth

2. – http://www.alaska.net/~clund/e_djublonskopf/Flatearthsociety.htm

17 Aug

How to be a better chess player

This is the second post in a multiple post series. Yesterday, I discussed how the news media is missing an important part of the discussion with the International Astronautical Union or the IAU, on the new system of naming what is and is not a planet. My general idea was that there is a vast difference between a non-governing body such as the International Astronautical Union declaring a new naming convention and the masses, you and I, accepting this convention. Today I wish to further this relation between researchers and information being accepted into mainstream society.

Scientific American has an article describing a study involving the memory retention of chess players. The article can be read at this web address – http://www.sciam.com/print_version.cfm?articleID=00010347-101C-14C1-8F9E83414B7F4945. The largest difference between a grandmaster at chess, and an expert player or a novice player, wasn’t that they looked at more moves or looked further ahead in the game. Instead it was in how the players viewed the game. A grandmaster viewed the current game board and it’s setup as a sub-set of a type of chess game. For example:

To a beginner, a position with 20 chessmen on the board may contain far more than 20 chunks of information, because the pieces can be placed in so many configurations. A grandmaster, however, may see one part of the position as “fianchettoed bishop in the castled kingside,” together with a “blockaded king’s-Indian-style pawn chain,” and thereby cram the entire position into perhaps five or six chunks( of information).

All of the chess players studied scored about the same on memory tests and intelligence tests. So the skill of a chess player is not from his/her IQ score or memory recall but intelligent organization and distribution of information.

Now what does this have to do with information from researches being presented and accepted by the masses. It comes from how researches present information, in long drawn out boring papers that very few people want to or have the time to read. The only people who have the time or desire to read the full paper are the people who specialize in that same field that the paper is written for. Now, yes research papers do have abstracts to summarize what is presented in the paper, but even these are long drawn out boring things that no one reads. Now I am not advocating another summarization of papers, instead what I am advocating is a new way of writing papers and in presenting information to the masses.

Papers and information should be presented in the same way that the Grandmasters of chess recall the board, in chunks, in easy to distill and understand chucks of data. These chunks do not have to present all the information, for the general public doesn’t need to have all the information that is actually contained in the paper. But, and this I believe this is the key, the public does have to understand and remember the information, if that information is to make any difference to society.

There are a great host of examples of this in history, and that will be the discussion tomorrow. How when information is presented in a way that is easy to remember and understand, the general public will accept it as fact and that is the only way the International Astronautical Union will ever be able to change Science books from listing 9 planets, and not the 12 or so that we could end up with.

16 Aug

Pluto – What is it, and what about the other stuff in the solar system?

This is going to multiple part post, the first section is going to discuss something that I feel the news media is missing from the Pluto story.

Pluto is it a planet or not? Have school kids been debating this idea? Nope, it has been scientists and engineers who have been spending time and energy to formalize a definition of what constitutes a planet and what isn’t a planet. No, this isn’t a rant about how scientists need to have better things to do with their time. In fact, I approve of this study by the International Astronautical Union or IAU to decide on a formal definition of what is a planet. There has never really been a formal rule for what is and is not a planet, basically the IAU decided on a case by case basis with no real set standards.

So where is the problem? The problems, which out of the five articles I read discussing the IAU proposal only the New York Times discussed this any amount of detail, which is that beyond researchers and scientists no one will understand the definition or accept it. Millions of schoolchildren will be naming planets inaccurately, planetariums will be providing incorrect information, museums the one place where information is supposedly sacred and unpolitical will in fact be giving out false information. Why, you might ask, why would institutions that pride themselves on being factual give out false information?

The answer is quite simple and everyone has experienced this at some point in their lives. These researchers and scientists will not be able to explain either the reasons behind the change or the change itself to the average citizen of the world. If this change can not be explained to the everyday people of the world, how can museums, planetariums, and schools hope to present and teach this same information. They can’t and thus they won’t. Instead they will settle for making it a footnote in lecturers and lessons, that the information just presented is not entirely accurate.

This problem should be evident to the news media, but they themselves I think don’t entirely understand the problem of information being presented in a bad way and not being accurately understood by the masses. Not because the information is bad or wrong in anyway, simply because people in many fields can not present information is easy to understand and small chunks. Chunks that those in the masses, namely you and I without a higher Physics or Math degree can understand.

Tomorrow I will present information from a study that will back up my hypothesis and further explore the relation between information being created from a study and information understood and accepted by the masses.