science, Technology, Uncategorized

PPFF #167: Minoa


I was travelling last week. I was sitting outside this bar, having just eaten and had a couple of beers when this quite awkward looking middle-aged man approached my table sheepishly and asked if he could sit there. I looked up and as he looked harmless enough I consented with a nod. He sat down and I guessed he was travelling alone and probably looking for someone to talk to. So I struck up a conversation and went through the usual; ‘what brings you here’, ‘what do you do’ etc. He was a little reluctant to tell me at first what he was there for. Perhaps he assumed that I was being polite but would find it rather boring but I pressed on and this is what he actually told me:

The story begins in 1929 when Andrew Douglass pioneered a scientific method called dendrochronology or ‘tree ring dating’. He was the first scientist (in modern times; some say da Vinci discovered it) to discover that tree rings record time. Its concept is simple. You cut down a living tree then count the number of rings which would give you the number of years it has lived as well as from which to which years it lived. But it gets a little tricky if you don’t know when the tree was cut down. It would tell you how long it lived but not necessarily when it lived and died. But by comparing trees across the same region and climate, Douglass noticed that trees develop rings in the same patterns; hence by creating a database of trees with known living date(s), and comparing their rings to the pattern of unidentified tree samples, you could nail down the dates (in years) those trees lived in.

Now moving onto radiocarbon dating – when tree ring dating isn’t possible due to lack of comparable dated tree samples, carbon dating comes very handy. A radioactive isotope of carbon called Carbon-14 or C14 is in every living organism. And since some clever chaps discovered its half-life, it’s possible to date pretty much anything within the accuracy of 50 or 100 years.

Then there is this thing called solar storm. It’s a powerful explosion on the sun, whose energy can be likened to thousands of nuclear bombs exploding at the same time. In 1989 this actually happened when the magnetic forces and a cloud of gas rushed to the Earth at a million miles an hour, and the solar flare from this solar storm shut down the entire power grid in the province of Quebec.

Now researchers found that trees that live(d) through short term events, like solar flares or volcanic eruptions record unusually high levels of radiocarbon content up to 20 times the normal level. Long story short, through calibration by using carbon-dating in conjunction with tree-ring dating, solar flares or volcanic eruptions can act as chronological anchors to more accurately date things.

So why had this guy I randomly met told me all this?

Well, some of you might be familiar with the eruption of volcano in Thera (now called Santorini) in the Aegean Sea, which supposedly happened anytime between 1645 BC to 1500 BC, which historians suspect created large tsunamis that significantly damaged the nearby island of Crete, the then centre of the Minoan civilisation. This makes the date of this volcanic eruption a turning point in the history of Western civilisation. Depending on which year these researchers settle on, they might have to re-write a significant chunk of the history as we know it, rendering a lot of what we know rubbish.

So, this guy was an archaeologist on his way to collect a wood sample they think they found which could potentially determine this date once and for all.

Have a good Friday.

engineering, science, STEM, Technology


Good morning,
I had a somewhat less than pleasant encounter with a teacher who taught one of those STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects at a local school in London. Upon learning that I worked in engineering, perhaps to sound agreeable, she interjected with an air of pride, not dissimilar to the kind of pride displayed by those people who are (worryingly) proud of paying taxes or not littering, “I always encourage my students to go into STEM related professions. At this, I snapped if a little bit. My immediate reaction was “Um. Why would you do that? These kids can and deserve to have a bright future. Why would you actively subject young fledgling hopeful things to a life of dispiritingly, perpetually oversupplied, anxiety-infested market?” Startled and stunned like a deer caught in the headlights, and unable to formulate a quick enough response to these verbal convulsions of temporary insanity, she had no choice but to listen to my ensuing rant. Repeatedly.

In conjunction with a few other minor indiscretions, it turned out a few minutes later that she had had enough of this ‘nonsense’ (or overwhelming enlightenment, depending on point of view); she stood up and left the table.

We often hear about shortages in the science and engineering workforce both in the UK and the US (e.g. here, and here), but I  I wonder if this is generally true at all and maybe the initiative is more about wage suppression; certainly I’ve not personally seen any evidence of skills shortage or hiring difficulties in my line of work. I won’t go into the details as there are articles available online that express this concern in a far more articulate manner (this and this), but from what I’ve read so far, at least this much is true – engineering graduates are more likely to be unemployed after graduation than average. Let that one sink in and if you’re thinking about having kids – first, don’t. If it’s too late for you and you’re already having one or have had one, make sure you keep them out of harm’s way – the STEM way.

Have a good Friday.

Behaviours, engineering, History, science, statistics, STEM

PPFF #162: bias – another one

Good morning,

I work in engineering. By now most of you know that. In fact a lot of people I came to know in the past few years are unfortunately from this field. I say ‘unfortunate’ for a good reason, not to be humorous but because people are made redundant on a regular basis in engineering. Where I work in particular, I’ve seen the number of workers go from circa 1000 to 250 in the space of less than 3 years. Indeed this is what preoccupied much of my mind this week; I think at one point I really stretched the ‘axe’ metaphor, and started visualising it, the direction of its swing, the amplitude of its oscillation, the dampening effect on the oscillation etc.. So I wondered ‘why’ naturally, and after a number of discussions with colleagues, we all agreed that it was because of outsourcing of work to those so-called ‘high value centres’, the decline of the specific industry we work in, automation and the cyclical nature of the market we depend on etc. As true and obvious as that sounds, I wondered further, if there was more to the quagmire in which we currently find ourselves, than the immediately obvious reasons that brought us to that conclusion.

Then this week, I had a pleasant chance encounter with the concept of ‘survivorship bias’. It’s an easy enough concept to understand – whatever data we have, we have (easy access to) them because something survived or succeeded. For those that either didn’t survive or didn’t quite succeed, either we have no access to their data or they are ignored. The example that best illustrates this point is the study conducted by the ‘famous’ Hungarian/American statistician Abraham Wald, the ultimate aim of which was to minimise aircraft losses to anti-aircraft attacks. The available data-set for this study was from the aircraft that had returned from missions, and survived the damages like in the image below (not mine).

Credit: McGeddon

The seemingly obvious recommendation for reinforcement/extra armour would have been for the damaged areas. However, Wald, being quite a clever chap, reasoned that since the returned aircraft had survived despite the damages, there would be no good reason to provide extra armour in those areas. Inversely in the absence of any data from the aircraft that had not survived and never returned, it would make more sense to take chances with providing extra armour in the areas with no or little damage in the surviving aircraft as it was more reasonable to assume that those were the areas of damage that might have caused them to crash. The damages in the returning aircraft represented areas where a bomber could take a hit and still survive. Wald therefore made his recommendations based on this reasoning.

Back to my original engineering/redundancy problem. I agree that outsourcing and decline in the industry are two of the few reasons why there are so many redundancies in (construction-related) engineering as well as the fluctuating nature of the market. But it is also possible that back in the days of our parents’ generation, in the post-war economy, engineers were scarce and that engineering was one of the most stable and abundant work categories to be employed in. Having spotted those opportunities (readily available data) at the time, perhaps they promoted this line of work and encouraged the following generation to be engaged in this sector. Alas, with no access to the missing data set (i.e. future) they had perhaps fallen victim to the ‘survivorship bias’ and made the matters worse by over-crowding the engineering employment market with their ill-thought-through albeit well-intended encouragement.

All this is just a conjecture probably not without inconsistent logical fallacies but worth a thought or two especially when it comes to recommending choices for the future based on the current reality and situations. In my opinion, there’s too much emphasis on STEM subjects at the moment especially in computer-related STEM subjects. You watch this space. In 20 years time, there could be overcrowding of coders and programmers. In any case, whatever you do, remember, all the data available to you isn’t all the data there is.

Have a fully comprehensive Friday; take Saturday and Sunday into account if you need to.



Good morning,

When I arrived in this lovely northern Scottish city of Aberdeen this week, the temperature difference between London and Aberdeen was very noticeable 11 degrees (though it felt more like 20); that in Aberdeen being -3 degrees. Believe it or not, the week before, the captain of the Aberdeen-bound flight I was on, announced, as we landed, in an (understandably) incredulous tone, the temperature was +15 degrees – all the more reason for being so ill-prepared for the shock to my system as I walked out onto the aircraft jetty. That was long 15 metres from those steps to the entrance of the airport. Luckily that walk only lasted a few seconds.



As we approach December (and what looks set to be a cold winter), I thought maybe I’d do a public safety announcement about hypothermia – sort of.

While reading about hypothermia, I learnt about something called ‘pre-terminal-burrowing, paradoxical undressing’, which sounded pretty insane. Basically, hypothermic humans make an instinctive last ditch effort to minimise heat loss, by burrowing into a tight enclosed space much like hibernating animals. Hence, the term ‘terminal burrowing’. In urban settings, this ‘burrowing’ happens in closets, large bins, under beds etc. – strange but nothing that defies immediate logic; cold-> minimise heat loss -> reduce surface area-> burrow.

‘Paradoxical undressing’, however, is rather puzzling to say the least; it’s a behaviour observed in many victims of extreme hypothermia (as many as 50%!) of undressing, removing most or all items of clothing, which speeds up heat loss. This happens apparently just before terminal burrowing. From what I’ve read, this is explained by the body’s reflexive mechanism called ‘vasoconstriction’, which contracts blood vessels to minimise heat loss from the body surface. But then after a while the muscles engaged in contracting the blood vessels collapse from overworking and this causes warm blood to rush from the core to the extremities, fooling the confused hypothermics into feeling really hot (I’m guessing similar to feeling warm after a few drinks in the cold) – so they get naked and burrow and (mostly) die.

So if you ever end up in this unfortunate situation, having hypothermia, remember, even if you feel hot, you’re not! (also might apply when you’re looking too intensely in the mirror) So don’t get naked. Wrap up and burrow.

Have a warm Friday!


PPFF #133: Taste

Good morning,

I remember many years ago, having the TV on and mindlessly flicking through the five channels on offer in the UK, probably on a Saturday afternoon, lazing around and/or trying to cure a hangover when I stumbled upon a re-run of a short programme where the presenter took to the streets and invited random passersby to come and taste different wines or ice cream (or any other edible products) from different brands of varying perceived qualities. Being mischievous, I guess ultimately to be entertaining to a wider audience, the presenter would either swap or give out the exact same wine in different packaging to the unsuspecting participants and ask them to give a rating on each. As expected (or not), most people rated the wine generally perceived to be the most expensive the highest and so on and so forth. It was quite a devious stitch-up, of course, and when the presenter revealed that what they had just tasted were exactly the same, these poor, miserable sods were either in disbelief or dead embarrassed (or both) – all the while I was chuckling at their stupidity of not being discerned enough to be able to tell the difference and their pretentiousness for wanting to appear to have better taste that they actually did, with a good dose of ridicule and judgment on my part, which in my mind they obviously deserved.

Little did I know the joke was on me (and other viewers who adopted the same view); a number of researches in the recent few years (e.g. Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response) have proved that perception alone actually changes our body’s response to external sensory stimuli, and in the case of that TV progeamme, perception changes the taste that we experience.

Take this study for example, titled “The Role of Auditory Cues in Modulating the Perceived Crispness and Staleness of Potato Chips“, which published the results of this experiment where research subjects were invited to taste Pringles crisps (the blandest crisp/cake/chip imaginable) and spit out to give a rating on how crisp/fresh they were. The twist here was that the participants wore a headset to which their own crunching sound was fed from a nearby microphone. Whilst all the crisps were of exactly the same freshness/crispness (as consistent as quality-control of the then-owner, Procter and Gamble could have them), the volume and pitch of the crunch were carefully controlled and varied from one participant to another. They were then asked if all the crisps were the same; nearly all of them reported that they were different in their freshness. The research conclusion was that the Pringles with the loudest or highest pitched crunches were perceived to be fifteen percent fresher than those with the softest crunches.

And here’s a non-lab-based example, instead of sound, of colour affecting taste. Apparently in 2011, the Coca-Cola Company (or CCC) released in the US special edition white-coloured Coke cans to raise funds for endangered polar bears. Soon after the release the cans were recalled, however, when consumers complained that the CCC had also changed its formula. The CCC later claimed they did no such thing.

Being a little carried away, I managed to dig up this anecdotal evidence in someone’s blog, mainly about racism but I thought the following was pertinent to this whole perception thing:

“I once had a voice-over job offer rescinded because when the director saw me in person, she suddenly claimed my speech had a Chinese accent — despite having heard my tape and claiming my American voice was exactly what she needed only a few minutes earlier.”

This was from an ethnically Chinese, American traveller.

I know this is a lot to read/digest on a Friday but take this away if nothing else; if you happen to be serving a wine of a universally accepted inferior quality to your guests tonight, pour the content into a fancy looking carafe, preferably with lots of bends and curves, which would add a perception of exquisiteness. The wine will actually taste better as long as the guests don’t see the cheap bottle from which the wine was poured. But if you’re serving a decent enough wine, leave the wine in the bottle and make sure your guests see it.

Have a good Friday – believe/perceive that it is a good one, it will be.


PPFF #131: Happiness

Good morning,

Unless you have been sworn into a religious order, anti-sex cult or self-imposed celibacy for the rest of your life, chances are that you have at some point wondered whether your current/future relationship with that special/imaginary person would be a lasting one or not. Perhaps you are/were in a relationship that seem(s/ed) to be going nowhere or it was going so well that it made you wonder how long it would last. In any case you are not alone. Many an hour has been spent by individuals wondering, as well as scientists in research toiling to figure out how to predict the future of relationships, based on observations of individuals’ interactions and psycho-metrics etc. but no one has ever come close to being as uniquely simple, and/or controversially simplistic as the conclusion of this research.

Published in 1976, Linear Prediction of Marital Happiness, by John Howard and Robyn Dawes from University of Oregon went on to explain a pretty accurate way of predicting whether a relationship would last or not; they came up with the following formula.

  • (Frequency of Sex) –  (Frequency of Querrels)
  • +ve = marital happiness
  • -ve = unhappiness

This might be misleading as it does not imply that if your relationship is already on the rocks and suddenly you bring yourself to have unpleasant intercourse with your partner that it will fix all problems and bring about happiness; the authors suggest that this is only a quantifiable self-monitoring technique and a mere indicator. Remember; correlation does not imply causation.

As frivolous as the result might seem, this was actually a part of a wider body of serious studies and discourses with regard to clinical (intuitive) vs statistical methods in psychology, medicine and linear models, whereby the (shockingly) definitive conclusion was that pretty much professional intuition (e.g. physicians, and later, stock market traders) can be dangerously inaccurate,and often so-called professional intuition is easily surpassed by simple linear formulae in terms of accuracy. This conclusion was again corroborated by further subsequent researches, which leads me to believe that a Huxleyan brave new world has finally arrived.

In any case, for those of you brave enough to try to reverse the negative trend in your relationship, please report back to me how that pans out for you.

Happy Friday!






PPFF #126

Good morning,

This morning’s article is my response to the suggestion that came in this week from Tin-Tin (not his real name). As usual I had planned on something else but I allowed mine to be gazumped by Tin-Tin’s suggestion; being such a quirky little gem, it was an instant attention grabber (well, grabbed my attention), which led to reading a few articles in an attempt to form an understanding of the background, which I must admit I still don’t fully understand. But one good thing from reading about it was that I was somewhat comforted by the apparent encouragement and leniency offered by this organisation in permitting someone to carry out an academic exercise that is this random, frankly quite vain and nearly mad on the organisation’s paid time.

It’s akin to asking the following question:

“what colour would they end up being if we managed to gather all the carbon-based materials on earth, dumped them into a giant blender (much like recycled material processing plants but bigger) and switched it on until everything was recognisably mingled together into a body of mushy sludge?”.

Why such absurd pondering, you might ask but apparently a similar question had been asked, researched and answered, incorrectly at that initially and then the original answer corrected/adjusted, for ‘the universe’. You read that correctly. The universe – more precisely the average colour of the universe has now been found. Truly groundbreaking and almost as profound as the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything (ref.: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy); the number 42. Well the answer to this question (what is the colour of the universe?) is:


I know folks under 25 might be tempted to think that’s the hashtag for ‘Friends Forever by Fate from E7 postcode area in East London (Forrest Gate/Stratford)’ but no – that is the hexadecimal RGB value for the average colour of the universe in the system called Hex Triplet, or ‘Cosmic Latte’ –  that is the colour of the universe as named by astronomers from Johns Hopkins University, Karl Glazebrook and Ivan Baldry in 2002. Ironically the blandest shade of beige one can see in the universe actually happens to be the colour of the universe, visually, probably the least offensive colour, fit for any living room in a typical sales picture of the dullest house in a Foxton brochure, probably in E7 .

Anyway, here it is; Cosmic Latte.


Have a good Friday.

P.S. subtly derisive tones of this morning’s PPFF aside, I can appreciate the research efforts and scientific processes and methods involved in answering this sort of question. Additionally, I believe this kind of research is perfect for promoting science and engineering to the general public, and more of this sort should be done. You can read more about it here and here.