Thursday
Jan172013

My child, future truck driver (A rant: What the hell is ACT-Explore about?)

My eighth grade son H brought home his Illinois ACT Explore Score Report today.  It intends to counsel plans for education, career and work after high school, and in our school district, test scores influence curriculum choices in High School.   

In full disclosure of pride before a fall, I'll report that H tested above 99% of other students taking the test in the United States.  His score in mathematics was above 100% of the students in the united states (which should bring to mind rounding error).   His lowest score was in English, still better than 89 percent of his peers.

What career counseling does ACT offer my son on their World of Work Map?   He is apparently unfit for careers in management, marketing and sales, politics, education, communications, health care, law, the arts, the financial sector, medical technologies.   Instead he should consider Truck/Bus/Taxi driver,  Construction and Maintenance,  Dry cleaner,  Agriculture or forestry, Auto mechanic.

Looking at the "Understanding your EXPLORE results" booklet showed an example score at the 69th percentile in English,  the 36th percentile in mathematics and 15th percentile in Science and suggested they might aim for careers that include management, law, health care, education.  

So, this made me think, what do the ACT EXPLORE results mean?  Is the councel it offers for the benefit of the child, the benefit of society, the benefit of the school counselor, or for the benefit of former Hawkeye Iowa City ACT child development hipster psychologists that may (may?) have goodwill but really don’t have a f-ing clue and mostly wish to sell a new products to one governing bureaucracy or another.  

So, to my son H:  Your ACT Explore results are busted, bogus smoke being blown right up your ass.   It won't be the first or last time someone tries to do that.  Don't let that hurt you, informed opinion isn't knowledge.   If you want to know why your results are that way it's probably because you are an edge case their models don't understand and because you answered preference survey questions in a guarded way.  So please H, Do what-ever you want with your life.  Unlike some of your peers that haven't worked as long or as hard to get perfect grades and haven't earned your skills and talents- I'm pretty sure you can do anything you want with your life.  Nothing is beyond your grasp.  No career is unsuited to you - should bus driver or dry cleaner inspire your passions, go for it.  But please find that passion and make it happen.  I've seen what you can do.

Thursday
Jan172013

Mathematica 9

The new version of Mathematica is better - almost fun.  I'm not certain I can chalk it up just the HoeffdingD function.   Lovely function that one tho, actually fantastic, and I'm glad to have it*.   Perhaps I've mellowed, I enjoy Mathematica a lot more than I did a just a while ago.  I feel more like I'm collaborating with the program and less like I fight for it do my bidding.

Thinking about it a bit, my number one feature of Mathematica 9 that increases happiness must be the little spelling-function-variable reminder window - a thing that as a version 8 user three months ago I would of told you was worth $0 to me.  In fact, I'm getting older, and there's that long healed ski concussion to consider.  My old step-1 workflow of "memorize everything" just isn't low effort anymore - So when I wonder, "did I call that thing rowselectiongenepopulation or something less verbose?" I only have to type a few letters / cursor down and enter.  This little change makes it effortless to stay with the thought flow and avoid my natural misspellifications.    

 Syntax error highlighting in the notebook is improved, but not quite praise worthy.  It is much easier to see brace, bracket and parenthesis given messy-pile-of-shoelaces nesting, but there is not quite enough highlighting for Function[SubFunction[List[[item3]][[elements2;;60]] ]]; to have unique highlights for each brace combo or type of semicolon use.  I won't claim to be a normal mathematica user- I almost never use anything in the "Palettes" assistance menu or Format pull down menu so there may well be great ways to customize auto-syntax highlighting and make it more like an "integrated developer environment".  

The second serious improvement in Mathematica 9 is that Mathematica has gotten better about telling you what it can do.  At first glance the "more functions/common commands" palette hardly seems like more than a toy and typically doesn't prove me with a forward workflow - BUT - it is good at introducing code functions or concepts that otherwise would of been scattered in the ?four thousand++ pages of online help.  And when used occasionally as an alternative to the online help, results can be brilliant. 

I work with largish data sets and Mathematica is awkward.  Branched nested data structures, polling data, creating tables, selecting specifics-- its still a chore to code so as to keep memory use and CPU load minimized.  All the same, my problems with data and perfectly reasonable looking code that runs 420 times slower than obscure arcane methods probably are not typical critisims of Mathematica.  Still, I wish Mathematica naturally tended toward fast and lean with regard to datasets.

All together, Mathematica 9 almost introduces a feel of play.  And I mean 'play' as extraordinary praise.  My only disappointment is that my own children (about 11 and 14 year old math wizards, but not computer wizards) don't connect to the joy.  Dad's just a little out there when it comes to crunching numbers and searching for unusual statistical relationships.   I hope that future versions of Mathematica will continue to expand on the concept of playful discovery and accessability - this particular dad wants his kids to discover the same sense of wonder that I found back in ?88 when mom was building Cray supercomputers and a nifty ?NSA? analyst affiliated somehow with Cray introduced me to Mathematica 1.0.   Or maybe my kids just don't get it because there are no spy agencies or super computers in their humdrum lives... hmm... could work on that I supose.  Seems like that would be complicated tho.  Hmm... better not.

 

 

 *The new function, HoeffdingD[list1,list2] seems to take issue when comparing a target with a list that has near underflow differences between its values, and this unusual situation may sometimes result in reported correlations outside of the expected range of -0.5 to 1.0 for this function (I have found results greater than  1.4), but all this messyness is avoided with Round[lists, 0.0000001].  Or Round[a few less zeros than machine precision]

Saturday
Dec292012

Interstellar Travel Takes a Lot of Time and Energy

Oddly enough, there's a gent named Dustin Doud that works for Space X.  This Dustan Doud doesn't know anything else about him except my occasional self-googles brings him up.  That got me thinking slightly odd thoughts about space travel and brought me to the idea experiment of "how big of a space station could we send out of our solar system by detonation of all the nukes in lossless efficiency way."  

(1)Worlds nuke stockpile energy = 5000 Million Tons of TNT equivalent.  At 4.181*10^3 joules per gram of TNT, that is 1.90 * 10^19 Joules of energy for thrust.  

(2)Solar System escape velocity = 525Km/second (estimate from wikipedia, starting from the sun) but that looks like enough speed to actually get nearly anywhere in the Milky Way galaxy to this non-rocket scientist.  But that's the minimum inital speed, and the whole solar systems gravity makes the trip act like a stalled car going up over a hill.

(3)Kinetic Energy = 1/2 MV ^2.  Rearrangement with knowns goes to 2*1.90*10^19J/(525000m/s)=137,834,812 kg mass.  

So... by my terrible math, all the worlds nukes can push a 137,834,812kg object out of the solar system.  And that sounds like a lot of mass, thousands of people.  Visions of pushing big asteroids come to mind.  But reality check... not so much.  That's about half what a very large oil supertanker weighs.  So the spaceship would have to be no heavier than a medium sized oil supertanker.

At 525 kilometers per second... well Proxima Centauri is 4.2light years away.  Thats 3.97*10^13 kilometers, so the trip would take 2396 years if there was extra fuel to keep the speed up.   Perhaps it wouldn't be so terrible to be trapped on a giant cruise ship for your entire life... and 60 more generations besides.

Of course, nuclear explosions aren't exactly directional 100% efficient thrusters even in a parabolic reflector.  Or low-shock.  Or biologically friendly.  And you'd need to bring along additional "thrusters" to slow down unless you got very clever with speed sapping orbital dynamics close in to large hot stars.   

What about if the spaceship weighed less, say no more than a Boeing 747, (333,900kg)?  With somewhat more realistic nuke'em thrusters that were 50% effective?   That airplanes gonna fly at 7524km/second... and a 4.2 light year trip would be 180 years.   Take a second to imagine being stuck inside a Boeing 747 for four generations, living in constant fear that hitting a single stationary snowflake at that speed would cause damage equivallent to 29 sticks of TNT.  Looking out through the cabin window at the long rope teathering you to your nuke fuel stockpile thruster triple-bolo-gravity-style and the spinning blazing stars.  

It makes me think that the easy way to get there from here is with cellular biology.  10kgs of human cells could represent a cell from every human on the planet.  It would be a wet mess to grow up those human embryo though...   but someday they might go out in many small ships.  Not just to one star, but lots of stars.  And with the hope that a few miss any deadly high speed snow flakes between here and there.    

I have a feeling that space exploration is an endurance sport and nothing like the dreamy romance of Hollywood.  Like any long trip, getting there is gonna hurt.  This is all very disapointing... I resisted doing a more complete analysis because the rough numbers were bitterly disapointing.  All in all, I really hope it can be done far more easily.

Good luck out there!   

Monday
Dec172012

A Ramble: Zero water, sulfate chemical sensitive skin and Elk Hunting in Colorado 

I have sensitive skin that makes a borderline case for prescription medication interventions.  I've found that a distilled water rinse or a zero water rinse (ion free filtered water, 0.00% total dissolved solids, available in a pitcher filter that provides slow on demand deionized water.) as a cold rinse after showering significantly improves my skin and reduces itchiness.  If you get mild to moderate skin irritation from soaps or hard water, a distilled or deionized water rinse might help.

Possible mechanism:  Examine the wildly different physical properties of native casein, sodium caseinate and calcium caseinate (milk proteins, not skin proteins, but proteins none the less).  Hard water or high salt water may result in changes to the ionic composition of the skin protein and thereby change its physical properties - and soaps can denature specific protein folding structures rendering them unrecognized by the human immune system.  Second possible mechanism:  DI water rise removes trace ions (copper, iron) and thereby stunts normal bacterial or yeast metabolism resulting in reduced cell counts of an irritant natural floria.

Boring, off topic, testimonial: My sister has complained that she has sodium laurth (lauryl?) sulfate sensitive skin, and it greatly limits her choice in soaps, shampoos and even toothpastes brands she buys.  

I have had similar problems with soap- itchy skin, painless blistering, peeling, dermatitis.  
After years of problems with soaps I started an arbitrary rule of "shower daily, soap and shampoo weekly.-  That rule helped enough that I could avoid frequent trips to the dermatologist.  But honestly, I always chalked my problems up to trace levels of triclosan in soaps- a persistent chlorinated disinfectant that moderately irritates my skin as discovered on an Elk bow hunting trip with "scent away human odor neutralizer" after liberally applying the product to my hair, armpits, groin and feet as well as most of my clothing.  

My skin's symptoms after that error were not nearly as bad as the mending broken rib I had at the time, just something similar to cradles cap on my scalp with full body itch and a mostly painless sunburn peel.  A cosmetic disaster if not actually painful.  In part because of full body itch from triclosan, and hunt shack weirdness that turned out to be undercover FBI agents engaged in some kind of sting and the desire to make my child's birthday party - I left the guide and hunt camp a few days early without an elk.  

That turned out to be to be very smart.   The outfitter and guide "D" was busted by the FBI and colorado game and wildlife and the successful hunters had charges brought against them, forfeit property and payed additional fines to restock the Elk herd that was being hunted for herd management.  And the hunters were compelled to testify against the guide in exchange for getting off "easy."   For my part, I never realized the guide was doing anything dirty to boost business, or that the FBI/Wildlife guys were anything other than creepy awkwardly hick rednecks.   ?I'm off topic, but if you want more info about my hunting trip disaster click.)

So, when little sister told me about her sulfate sensitivity a lot of data points fell into place.  But it took me a little bit of time to think about the "why."  SLS is a small molecule - maybe even too small to invoke a direct allergic reaction.  Perhaps the problem was that it just denatures my skin proteins and that causes the irritation.  And that led me to the idea that denatured skin proteins caused my itchiness, so how could I keep the proteins in their natural shape?  I knew from experience that there were places I could visit that had water that made my skin feel fantastic.

And that led me to try a full body deionized water rinse after the shower for a week.  And poof- the skin irritation was almost entirely banished.  Better than any OTC creams and moisturizers I've tried almost like the root of the problem was gone. 

At least I hope so... my winter dry irritated skin hasn’t set in yet.    Dec-Feb Good so far.

July 2014 - After a few months I gave up on Zero Water Filters and installed a proper RO / DI filtering system.  A cold post shower daily rinse greatly reduces itch, elimates scalp flaking, speeds healing and improves my skin.  My wife notices if I go skip two days without a RO rinse.  For me this is a big deal and has been  therapeutic.

Can't say expensive water offers only positives - aside from the cost and RO water waste, without metal ion cofactors my body odor shifts from "reassuringly masculine" (at least to me) to an odd bouquet that invokes my own memories of awkward teenage make-out and dry humping.  Unusual funk, yes, hand me that cologne.  I'll deal with it for happy skin.

Sunday
Sep162012

What "Plausible" might be able to teach a stuffy scientist

So, yea, you probably know my story... I wrote a computer program that generates statistically plausible models even though relevant models were grown out of nonsense.  And I've been working with those models for some time now.  When you build enough models this way - even though they are nonsense, there seems to be very real insight.

But I happened upon something a bit less obvious.  Most of human science happened in much the same way, truths grown out of mysteries.  And plausible models are easy to find in a big multivariate space, even if they are really rare.  Give me an experimental space with 10^300 combinations and one in a trillion chance of finding a model and I can tell you there still are a insanely huge number of plausible models in that space.  

So what I'm saying is that most of the sciences are probably "best known truth" and not "absolute truth".  It occurs to me that there might be trillions of almost perfect ways to put the universe together into a grand unified theory.  

Some might be very similar (say the same idea but expressed differently via both information network theory and say 11 dimensional holographic string theory.)   Other plausible theories might be quite different structurally but give essentially the same results (say a fated deterministic model vs. a choice and free will based model.)  

Clearly humanity isn't there yet with a grand unified theory, gravity doesn't quite seem to fit into the quantum world, dark matter and dark energy appear to be very real things that make up about 95 percent of the universe and both still have foggy edged definitions.  Scientists talk about the quantum world as a sea of crazy discrete possibilities without seeming to consider that probability might well be a dimension just like time or space, and the observed reality is commonality of sorts built out of unions and intersections of entangled parallel probabilities.  

There are physical realities that grow out of pure mathematics - Heisenberg uncertainty for example.  But I wonder about the theories that grow out of data and observation.  Models of perfection probably rest in a candidate pool of giga-billions, among whom even the ugliest roughest pretender might still look nearly perfect.

Be kind to skeptic's, that might serve us well in the long run...