science, Technology, Uncategorized

PPFF #167: Minoa

Morning,

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 of 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.

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; the impending ax to be sharpened and to be deployed, the direction of its swing, the amplitude of its oscillation, the dampening effect on the oscillation etc., to stretch the metaphor. 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).

survivorship-bias
Credit: McGeddon

The 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 with 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.

 

Mobile apps, Technology

PPFF #136: FindFace

Good morning,

Remember this scene?

1429_4

That’s from Terminator 2. I remember watching it many years ago, which just blew my mind at the time. As random as this might seem, I have a good reason for recalling it this morning, and the reason is FindFace, a mobile app that allows users to take pictures of anyone with a profile (and pictures) and figure out their identities, with 70% accuracy. For now, it only applies to 200 million people in Russia but the current face recognition technology has come a long way since Terminator 2 was released, to almost rival the Series 800 Model 101’s ability to identify individuals/threats.

Honestly, combine FindFace with the now defunct Google Glass, then privacy/anonymity in public as we know it, is well and truly over, unless you wear a mask that is. Like this lot.

facemasksflavorsofjapan

And we thought they looked stupid! Try FindFacing any one of them, I dare you. 

Read more here have a good Friday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

science

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:

#FFF8E7.

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.

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.