Friday, September 27, 2013

Google's Tubes in pictures.


The Internet may be a series of tubes - and wires and pipes that hold them. They are big. And, at the moment, colorful, as you can see in this series of pictures of Google's data centers from Forbes Magazine. Here's one more, of cooling pipes:

 

The series as a whole is spectacular. Take a look.


Thursday, September 26, 2013

Is wine tasting reliable and consistent? Study says no

Think you can tell good wine from less good wine in a blind tasting? Think again. Robert Hodgson, a professor turned vintner, has published a study analyzing the performance of expert judges in the California State Fair wine competition for the years 2005-2008. His conclusion? In about half the cases the wine, and only the wine was the deciding factor.

How could he tell? Judges try wine in flights of about 30 wines each. The researchers included three different pours of four wines in one of the flights, so each judge tried four wines three times. The wine was poured from the same bottle each time. You can read the full article here. Interestingly, the article suggests that judges were more consistent at judging wine they thought was of very low quality.

But wait, there's more. Hodgson was able to compare judge performance from year to year. According to this article in the Guardian:
"The results are disturbing," says Hodgson from the Fieldbrook Winery in Humboldt County, described by its owner as a rural paradise. "Only about 10% of judges are consistent and those judges who were consistent one year were ordinary the next year.
 Wine is complex, and a lot goes into tasting it, including the wine's temperature and what the taster ate earlier that day. So if you pick wine by the medals it has won, well, maybe you'll like it but maybe you won't.

According to the Guardian there does appear to be a scientific basis for the practice of drinking white wines while eating fish.
Researchers from Japanese drinks firm Mercian tested 64 varieties of wine with scallops, and concluded that the iron content of red wine speeded up the decay of fish, resulting in an overly ‘fishy’ taste.
How do you pick wine?

Thanks to Eli Molin for the article in the Guardian. Image via Clown Fish Wines.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Last week, Eduardo Porter of the New York Times wrote this column about how hard it is to become - or remain - middle class in this country. The article is illustrated by those graphs in the screenshot. One statistic Porter calls staggering is that "the typical household made $51,017, roughly the same as the typical household made a quarter of a century ago." Sure, according to the graph, the median household income had ticked up above that during the late 1990s and early 2000s, but the trend has been down again since the 2008 financial crisis. Equally, shocking, we still have approximately 15% of our population living below the poverty line, a number that has been increasing over the last five years.

The surface explanation is also in those charts: the richest quintile has increased its share of income to 49.9 percent of total income, from 42.1 percent starting back in 1967. According to this article, in terms of net worth, the top one percent owns 34.6% of the wealth, and the next 19% owns 50.5%. The bottom 80% owns 15% of the wealth. That makes the middle mighty small.

And that fact has had some repercussions. In 2012 Porter gathered some statistics about social well-being here.
It is not just that income inequality is the most acute of any industrialized country. More American children die before reaching age 19 than in any other rich country in the O.E.C.D. More live in poverty. Many more are obese. When they reach their teenage years, American girls are much more likely to become pregnant and have babies than teenagers anywhere else in the industrial world.
We understand the importance of early childhood development. Yet our public spending on early childhood is the most meager among advanced nations. We value education. Yet our rate of enrolling 3- to 5-year-olds in preschool programs is among the lowest among advanced nations. Our 15-year-olds place 26th out of 38 countries on international tests of mathematical literacy, according to the O.E.C.D. The first nation to understand the value of widespread college education, the United States has dropped from the top to the middle of the pack of our economically advanced peers in terms of college graduation rates.  
Porter has also gathered statistics about economic inequality here. We pay lower taxes than other industrialized nations, and we seem not to mind giving up government services as a result. 
The big exception has been the United States. In 1965, taxes collected by federal, state and municipal governments amounted to 24.7 percent of the nation’s output. In 2010, they amounted to 24.8 percent. Excluding Chile and Mexico, the United States raises less tax revenue, as a share of the economy, than every other industrial country.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Biblical Floods in Colorado

You've probably been hearing about the epic-Biblical-thousand year floods that Boulder, Colorado is experiencing. The cause is record rainfall - as you can see from the chart, above, developed by Climate Central. In fact, according to Weather Underground and Climate Central, Boulder, which normally gets 1.7 inches of rain in September and 20.68 for the year, got half a year's rain in less than half the month of September. (The forecast has a small chance of rain today, and then sunshine for the next few days.)

What might be causing all the rain? The Pacific. According to Climate Central:

During the past couple of weeks, the weather across the West has featured both an active Southwest Monsoon and a broad area of low pressure at upper levels of the atmosphere, which has been pinned by other weather systems and prevented from moving out of the region. It was this persistent low pressure area that helped pull the moisture out of the tropics and into Colorado. Signs point to the tropical Pacific being the source of the abundant moisture according to the University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies. From there, the moisture plume was transported northeastward, over Mexico and into Texas, and then northward by upper level winds.

This tropical air mass, which is more typical of the Gulf Coast than the Rocky Mountains, has been forced to move slowly up and over the Front Range by light southeasterly winds. This lifting process, known as orographic lift, allowed the atmosphere to wring out this unusually bountiful stream of moist air, dumping torrents of rain on the Boulder area for days on end.
That's a screen shot of the satellite images loop CIMSS released showing the tropical air mass. (I couldn't find it to embed it, but click on the link to Climate Central - you can see it moving there.)

Is climate change involved? No one weather event can be traced back easily to climate change, but there is at least one suggestive factor: the magnitude of the change from past events. And, of course, temperatures are rising around the globe. Generally, warmer temperatures mean more water vapor in the air, which means more extreme rain or snowfall. Stay tuned.



Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Measurement of intangibles at Harvard Business School


I read this article, published in the New York Times on September 7, about the administration's efforts to ensure gender equity at Harvard Business School with a great deal of interest. It's partly for the detailed glimpse into another world, and it's partly due to some of the great comments people made.
But during [graduation] week’s festivities, the Class Day speaker, a standout female student, alluded to “the frustrations of a group of people who feel ignored.” Others grumbled that another speechmaker, a former chief executive of a company in steep decline, was invited only because she was a woman. At a reception, a male student in tennis whites blurted out, as his friends laughed, that much of what had occurred at the school had “been a painful experience.”
The article is relevant here because of the focus of the administrators on measurement. Here's what they did:

* Turned what was subjective into an objective measure:  Women in the B School lagged in class participation - but participation grades are both subjective and dependent on memory. The business school administrators posted stenographers in every class so faculty no longer had to rely on their memories.

* Provided information quickly: As the reporter describes it, "[n]ew grading software tools let professors instantly check their calling and marking patterns by gender." Information was used to identify and change behavior, not to punish. In fact, it appears that the administrators pushed responsibility for change down to the front lines, making it a team effort. One professor stated that the message he got from the administration was: “We’re going to solve it at the school level, but each of you is responsible to identify what you are doing that gets you to this point.” Management trusted workers to get the message, and to change.

* Developed a theory and tested it: the article reports that an additional factor, one the school really couldn't control, was contributing to the women's minimal participation. Social success was as important as academic success, possibly more important, and class participation could hurt social capital.

As you have probably surmised, all this was expensive and time consuming. At least so far, the B School administrators haven't been able to try other approaches. And it's too soon to tell whether salaries for men and women will be comparable 10 years or more after graduation. The atmosphere, as reported, sounds a lot better, but, as the article points out, the experiment brought with it unintended consequences and helped other issues - like class differences - surface. The story's not done yet, but the tale so far makes for fascinating reading. (The graphics online are much better than they were in the physical newspaper.) And so do the comments.

Update: This post has been updated to correct a typo.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Data Mining and You

You may have read the article in Sunday's New York Times or other news coverage about the efforts of Acxiom, a data mining company, to make an individual's data available to him or her. The site went live today in beta - that's a screenshot of the opening page - and I checked it out.

You have to provide some information about yourself: address, birth date, and the last four numbers of your social security number. That's so Acxiom can authenticate that you are really you. When you do so, you get data in several categories, what Acxiom calls core data (address, phone number, age) and derived insights (inferences derived from your core data - eg, whether you like cooking).

So what happens when you explore the data? It was kind of interesting. When I looked myself up, it had the basics of age and address right. There's not a lot of data about our housing, but our housing type means that the records are corporate, not individual, so it makes sense that there wouldn't be much information. Our car is in my name, so finding nothing about the car was a bit more of a surprise. The records indicated the presence of one of our children, with an incorrect age. There was some incomplete information about my online shopping habits - a bit skewed by the fact that we bought a lot of bed linens online when one of the kids left for college. Two years ago.

Things got more interesting when it came to my spouse. He has been conflated with someone with the same name and a similar birthday who is 20 years older. That person bought an expensive condo in 2007, is of a different religion, owns a car and plays golf. So what's our conclusion? No one here is going to lose any sleep over consumer data mining.

The Aboutthedata site allows you to correct the information. There seems to be little downside in doing so, but also little need to. The company argues that more accurate information means that you'll get more relevant offers in all those annoying little side ads that appear when you do web searches (or go on Facebook). I try to ignore them but sometimes find them entertaining. You also have an opt-out option, but that won't give you any fewer ads, the site explains. It will just make them less relevant.

What do you think?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

That picture is moss growing on what we once thought of as a cold, snow-covered continent: Antarctica. I wrote a post earlier this summer about a plants that had come in from the cold and that seemed kind of exciting. Almost sweet, in a way, that plants that had lived under the ice for so long could still bloom. But, as grist.org points out, this patch of moss is yet another signal of long-term climate change. Scientists report in the underlying article, available here, that "growth rates and microbial productivity have risen rapidly since the 1960s, consistent with temperature changes. . . " though growth seems to have tapered off in the most recent years. (They don't say why, but don't assume it means that the global climate has finished changing.)


Image via grist.org

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