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Sodom and Gomorrah–Boom Towns December 6, 2018

Posted by stuffilikenet in Awesome, Brilliant words, Science.
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This delicious rumor just in from archaeologist Phillip Silvia of Trinity Southwest University and published in a paper by Silvia and co-author (and archaeologist) Steven Collins called “The Civilization-Ending 3.7KYrBP Event: Archaeological Data, Sample Analyses, and Biblical Implications”: the Twin Sin Cities were wiped out 3700 years ago by a meteor burst.1

The paper has a lot of juicy facts to corroborate Silva and Colins’ version of events: little glassy bits on surfaces that were exposed at the time (too hot to have been made by fires, but not long lasting enough to melt more than the top layers of things); “large-scale absence of tumbled mudbrick that would be typical of earthquake damage. The mudbrick super-structures of buildings at Tall elHammam and its neighbors are totally “missing” as if they were blown entirely off of their foundations.”2; “signature markers of an airburst event include high levels of platinum, typically 600%above normal background levels, and a high platinumpalladium ratio. (Both of these occur in asteroids and meteors, but are not common on Earth.) Signature markers also include a high incidence of scorialike objects (SLOs), frequently in pelletized, spherule forms or agglomerations of melted materials, and a high incidence of magnet-ic spherules.”3

There is also a delicious discussion of the effects of such an airburst on the nearby Dead Sea the shock wave would have deposited a layer of salts onto the top soil, destroying it and making it unable to support agriculture for hundreds of years. It only takes a salt content of 13,000 ppm to prevent wheat from germinating, and a salt content of 18,000 ppm to prevent barley from growing. Those thresholds were easily exceeded (60,000 ppm): enough to wipe out an entire civilization’s food supply.

What I personally find so interesting in this business is the ancient city itself, not the colorful destruction thereof and subsequent taking of credit by Jehovah’s nutbags; this was 3700 years ago, and the city was already 2500 years old.  The city itself was the administrative center of the kingdom of Middle Ghor4, and was protected by a perimeter wall up to 30m (100 ft) thick and up to 15m (50 ft.) high, for a linear distance of over 2.5km. That’s not cheap; must have been quite a sight but I can’t find any population figures for 3700 years ago.

Homework: The CivilizationEnding 3.7KYrBP Event: Archaeological Data, Sample Analyses, Southwest University, 7600 Jefferson NE, Suite 28, Albuquerque, NM 87109

  1. The Tunguska thing is apparently not all that rare.
  2. Boom, baby!
  3. Present in Tunguska, too.
  4. Was there an Inner Ghor and an Outer Ghor?

Crisis Management Down Under November 8, 2018

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"Where have all the bloody teaspoons gone?" is an age old question in the workplace. In an article in the BMJ [not concerned with scatology, but British Medicine] from 2005, researchers at the Burnet Institute in Australia attempt to measure the phenomenon of teaspoon loss and its effect on office life. They purchased and discreetly numbered 70 stainless steel teaspoons (54 of standard quality and 16 of higher quality). The teaspoons were placed in tearooms around the institute and were counted weekly over five months. After five months, staff were told about the research project and asked to complete a brief anonymous questionnaire about their attitudes towards and knowledge of teaspoons and teaspoon theft.

During the study, 56 (80%) of the 70 teaspoons disappeared. The half life of the teaspoons was 81 days (that is, half had disappeared permanently after that time). The half life of teaspoons in communal tearooms (42 days) was significantly shorter than those in rooms linked to particular research groups (77 days). The rate of loss was not influenced by the teaspoons’ value and the overall incidence of teaspoon loss was 360.62 per 100 teaspoon years. At this rate, an estimated 250 teaspoons would need to be purchased annually to maintain a workable population of 70 teaspoons, say the authors.

The questionnaire showed that most employees (73%) were dissatisfied with teaspoon coverage in the institute, suggesting that teaspoons are an essential part of office life. The rapid rate of teaspoon loss shows that their availability (and therefore office life) is under constant assault.

One possible explanation for the phenomenon is resistentialism (the theory that inanimate objects have a natural aversion to humans), they write. This is supported by the fact that people have little or no control over teaspoon migration.

Given the widely applicable nature of these results, they suggest that the development of effective control measures against the loss of teaspoons should be a research priority

Hilarious. But wait; there’s more.

Exasperated by the disappearance, the scientists decided they would measure the phenomenon. Do the teaspoons really disappear over time? The answer was a resounding yes: spoons in research institute tearooms seem to have legs. While good fun, the research is a good example of a study design referred to as "longitudinal".

A longitudinal study uses continuous or repeated measures to follow particular individuals – in this case, teaspoons – over prolonged periods of time. The studies are generally observational in nature: the scientists simply watch and collect data over time. Typically, no external influence is applied during the course of the study. Beyond just working out where all the teaspoons have gone, this study type is also useful for evaluating the relationship between risk factors and the development of disease (for example, heart disease), and the outcomes of treatments over different lengths of time. In this study, the main questions posed by our researchers were to determine the overall rate of loss of teaspoons, and to work out how long it took for teaspoons to go missing.

They purchased 70 teaspoons (16 of which were of higher quality), each one discretely numbered and then distributed throughout the institute. Counts of the teaspoons were carried out weekly for two months, then fortnightly for a further three months. Desktops and other immediately visible surfaces were also scanned for "misplaced" spoons. After five months of covert research, the study was revealed to the institute, and staff were asked to return or anonymously report any marked teaspoons which may have found their way into desk draws or homes.

Good study design

This type of data collection provides a simple example of what makes a good longitudinal study. If we break it down, a longitudinal study needs to:

  • take place over a prolonged period (this study was done over 5 months)
  • be observational in nature (teaspoons were observed and counted, there was no intervention)
  • conducted without external influences (teaspoon users/thieves were not aware they were being studied until the conclusion of the study itself).



The results show that 56 (80%) of the 70 teaspoons disappeared during the study, and that the half life of the teaspoons was 81 days (that is, half had disappeared permanently after that time). The study also showed the half life of teaspoons in communal tearooms (42 days) was significantly shorter than for those in research group specific tearooms (77 days). The rate of loss was not influenced by the teaspoons’ value. All of these pieces of information directly answer the main question posed by the researchers.


A longitudinal study is terrific at following individuals or teaspoons over a period of time and observing outcomes. But, by definition, the design means there can be no intervention (as we are just observing a phenomenon). The researchers could not employ a tool or an intervention to prevent spoons from being "misplaced", and the researchers could only report a spoon missing. As the study is observational only, there is no way of finding out what has happened to the spoon, just that it is lost. The authors were able to conclude that the loss of workplace teaspoons was rapid, and their availability in the tearoom was constantly under threat.

Homework: Megan S C Lim et al. The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute, BMJ (2005). DOI: 10.1136/bmj.331.7531.1498

I’m Pretty Sure Nobody Reading This Watches Music Videos, But… October 30, 2018

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Fit Any Scatter Plot June 7, 2018

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A wonderful paper in the archives of the University of Rochester  shows how any random scatter plot can be fit to a curve with enough parameters, and thence a lower number of same is often thought to be a good measure of an expression’s fitness for use…until now. “The mathematician John von Neumann famously admonished that with four free parameters he could make an elephant, and with five he could make it wiggle its trunk…The aim of this short note is to show that, in fact, very simple, elementary models exist that are capable of fitting arbitrarily many points to an arbitrary precision using only a single real-valued parameter θ. This is not always due to severe pathologies—one such model, studied here, is infinitely continuously differentiable as a function of θ. The existence of this model has implications for statistical model comparison, and shows that great care must be taken in machine learning efforts to discover equations from data since some simple models can fit any data set arbitrarily well.”

Tall claim?  Nope.  The author, Steven T. Piantadosi, shows two examples of data points fitted with a simple equation



can be fit to any arbitrary set of data plots……like these:


Mind you, the parameter θ needs to be calculated precisely: ”Both use r = 8 and require hundreds to thousands of digits of precision in θ.”.

Gee whiz (and hilarity) aside, the paper demonstrates the fallacy of using unreasonable models for this sort of algorithmic from-data derivation to create meaning from what might be noise, or Joan Miro’s signature.

Just Two Guys Talking June 7, 2017

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Best Used Car Advertisement Ever April 30, 2017

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Beauty and the Beast With a Better Gaston March 24, 2017

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Drawing the Wrong Conclusion March 6, 2017

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…or, how we got to now.

Why Trump? February 20, 2017

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https://medium.com/@DaleBeran/4chan-the-skeleton-key-to-the-rise-of-trump-624e7cb798cb#.jmnimypj1 contains the answer to that puzzle.  Be warned: it is a long, thoughtful piece with some uncomfortable ideas for both left and right alike (but not alt-right).

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? November 23, 2016

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Too Much Science to Read, Let Alone Review November 15, 2016

Posted by stuffilikenet in Awesome, Brain, Brilliant words, Geek Stuff, Science, Star Trek Technology, Toys, Uncategorizable.
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It’s been a banner week for science geeks, nerds, and squints. The locked-in lady gets to at least shout from her prison quietlyGoogle has radar sensitive enough to not only find objects but identify them by their radar signature and perovskite is once again breaking solar-conversion efficiency records.

Ordinarily I would give you a breakdown of each of these nifty developments, but more are coming and I may want to return to these later when I am not pressed for time.  Follow the links above; there are others as well that you will find more well constructed than my chicken scratchings, I’m sure.

How Statistics Can Predict the Future November 10, 2016

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The X Axis on the graph is the percentage of GDP spent on R&D and the size of the balls is the amount of spending. The Y Axis is the scientists and engineers per million people.


Notice that the 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th largest amounts are spent by Asian countries.  And notice that Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Singapore and Finland have the largest number of scientists per capita, but look at the volume of South Korea and the number of scientists…those guys are going to eat the world.

Excuse me; I have to go buy a Samsung phone.

I Have Stopped Longing For Death November 1, 2016

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But that’s just the medication talking.  Here’s a delightful little romance featuring a youngster who longs for death.

Of course, he eventually gets his heart’s desire.

Universal Molecular Diagnostics by Affinity October 10, 2016

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Rice University researchers have invented a technology that could potentially identify hundreds of bacterial pathogens simply, quickly and at low cost using a single set of random DNA probes. Richard Baraniuk, Amirali Aghazadeh and Rebekah Drezek whomped up a batch of five random probes and used them to identify 11 known strains of bacteria, providing a genomic-based test for identity of pathogens.  This is a big deal because usually each species required its own DNA probe.

Their new study includes several computer simulations, including one that shows how a random selection of five probes can identify 40 different strains of bacteria, and another that demonstrates how the system can accurately differentiate between 24 different species of Staphylococcus.

Rather than identifying a target strain based on a 100 percent match with a specific probe, Rice’s system tests how well the target DNA binds with several different random segments of complementary DNA. UMD uses a mathematical technique called compressive sensing, which was pioneered in the field of digital signal processing. With compressive sensing, the disease DNA need not bind with 100 percent of the probes. Instead, the new system measures how well the disease DNA binds with each of the random probes and creates a specific binding profile for the test organism. It then uses deductive reasoning to determine whether that profile matches the profile of any known pathogens.

With larger numbers of probes, it works even better:

No special hardware is required for this approach, other than the tried and true PCR with which we have become familiar over the last twenty years (thank you, Kary Mullis and LSD). The special sauce is the computer code which figures out the relative affinities.  This can be made available everywhere pretty cheaply, versus specialized DNA probes which require expensive facilities and a lot more regulatory testing.

Homework: Universal microbial diagnostics using random DNA probes, Amirali Aghazadeh1,*, Adam Y. Lin1,*, Mona A. Sheikh1,*, Allen L. Chen1, Lisa M. Atkins2, Coreen L. Johnson2, Joseph F. Petrosino2, Rebekah A. Drezek1 and Richard G. Baraniuk1, Science Advances  28 Sep 2016:Vol. 2, no. 9, e1600025 DOI:10.1126/sciadv.1600025

Experimental Design Review—Before Results September 25, 2016

Posted by stuffilikenet in Awesome, Brain, Brilliant words, Geek Stuff, Science.
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BMC Psychology has taken a novel (actually, a scorched earth) approach to the problem of irreproducible results in psych studies. Peer reviews of submitted studies will be checked for experimental methods only, until the end of the review process.  The thinking is, reviewers may be unconsciously biased by seeing results they agree with (or disagree with), rather than the value of the methods by which they were derived.

Given that as many as one-third of psych studies in a recent review (of a thousand studies) could not be reproduced, I think this is an excellent first step to cleaning house of cognitive biases.

Sadly, BMC Psychology is not one of the larger players in this field; it may be that this will enhance their prestige.

The Madness of Crowds September 18, 2016

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A thoughtful dissection of crowd psychology is currently running in one of my feeds (ribbonfarm.com), which answers my questions about how persecuted folk end up in cultish groups.  It’s another long-form essay (and uh, book report : ) ), so only go there when you have time.

The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin September 4, 2016

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The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin is another beautiful exploration of the enslavement of talented beings at the hands of merciless monsters, the (frightened) merely human.  The talented beings are oregens, who have the instinctive ability to use the energy of the earth in many often destructive ways. Usually they are killed like witches, but an empire made them slaves instead, to quell earthquakes and volcanoes. Usually successful, oregens nevertheless sometimes failed to keep Father Earth from causing volcanic winters, or Seasons.  This book is about one of them, and how it came about as a direct result of slavery.

It’s a damned good read (or listen, in the case of the link above), filled with pathos and sympathy for the abused and the foolish, and understanding of the wronged. It is thematically nuanced enough that you forget you are reading a polemic against slavery. In this sense it is very similar to N. K. Jemisin’s first book The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (lovingly reviewed by me earlier), which also got a boatload of award nominations (Hugo, Nebula, Tiptree and Sense of Gender). Given her astounding writing it is hardly surprising that The Fifth Season was nominated for Nebula and won the Hugo last year.

This is a trilogy, and you will buy into the main character so thoroughly you will pay for the next two books, so the commitment-phobic among you should probably stay away.

They Are Here Somewhere August 28, 2016

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From reddit.com.

Why Your Life is Not a Journey August 25, 2016

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Snippets from the film “Tree of Life”.  .

Fluke, by Christopher Moore August 1, 2016

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Fluke, by Christpher Moore, is another hilarious tale of a, well, tail, specifically the fluke of a humpback with the words “Bite me” on its fluke. The first person to witness this unusual coloration is Nathan Quinn, a whale biologist with a great fascination with whale song.  He and his terminally cute but too young-for-him research pixie Amy Earhart photograph the whale in the course of research… and the frame of film containing it goes missing.  And his sound recordings.  And his boat. And, finally, him.  He is pursued by his colleague and photographer Clay, Clay’s mean sex-fiend schoolteacher girlfriend Claire, a surfer-Rastafarian hybrid named Kona1 (nee Brad Thompson or something not very Jamaican, Hawaiian or surfish, but more New Jerseyish) and The Old Broad who funds them and who insisted that the whale called her to tell him to bring him a pastrami sandwich.

Much funnier when he tells it, of course; Moore’s signature humor is gentle and mocking  and wry and just silly sometimes. Basically, I would die to be a tenth as funny at any time.  Fluke had me laughing in crowded doctor’s waiting rooms.

Available on Amazon, naturally, but I got mine at sfpl.org.

WARNING: contains some actual science.  Does not detract from the story in the slightest.

1Kona refers to the research pixie as “the snowy biscuit”, for her fair complexion and, well, biscuitness