Category Archives: Curiousity

Do potatoes need drugs? No.

As a follow-up to this post and this post, I wanted to link to a recent SciAm article about antibiotics in vegetables. According to the article, 70% of all the antibiotics used in the United States are fed to livestock pre-emptively to prevent disease. Since 90% of the drugs then come out as excrement or urine, which is then used to fertilize vegetable crops, antibiotics are showing up in vegetables at alarming concentrations, including in organically grown vegetables.

[Steve] Roach [public health program director for the non-profit Food Animal Concerns Trust] said “the clearest public health implication” from treating livestock with antibiotics is the development of resistant bacteria that reduces the effectiveness of human medicine. Past studies have shown overuse of antibiotics reduces their ability to cure infections. Over time, certain antibiotics are rendered ineffective.

The Do Bugs Need Drugs campaign gives no indication that the drugs used by prescribed-antibiotic users constitute the minority of antibiotics produced, nor does it give any indication of what impact the rest of these drugs has on drug-resistant bacteria due to their gratuitous use in the farm industries.


Newscast chartjunk: a totally unscientific analysis

“When a graphic is taken over by decorative forms or computer debris, when the data measures and structures become Design Elements,  when the overall design purveys Graphical Style rather than quantitative information, then that graphic may be called a duck in honor of the duck-form store, ‘Big Duck.’ For this building the whole structure is itself decoration, just as in the duck data graphic.”


This was written by Edward Tufte, a Yale statistician who could be tentatively called the world’s biggest expert on the design of information graphics. Using the concept of a duck, he developed the terms “chartjunk” and “data-ink ratio” in his beautiful book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information to describe graphic displays of information that overwhelm the information itself with extraneous and irrelevent design elements.

For some reason, chartjunk is a mainstay of the information graphics featured on network television newscasts. I will use the term “signal-to-noise ratio” to refer to the ratio of the information content of a newscast to all of the extraneous production factors that go into broadcasting that information, like elaborate sets, advanced green-screen technology, gimmicky re-enactments, fancy graphics, and other frills. I have an unproven hypothesis that the signal-to-noise ratio of informational graphics displayed during a newscast  directly correlates with the signal-to-noise ratio of the newscast as a whole.

For example, the following graphic was played on The National during a story about Maple Leaf foods and its newly revamped factory.




The entire sequence took about 23 seconds, during which the narrator introduced the survey and read out the results. All of this information can easily and clearly be represented with this small table:


Taking in this amount of information would probably take under 5 seconds for the average human, especially considering that it’s not really that interesting (who cares what the difference is between people who no longer buy Maple Leaf and people who no longer eat Maple Leaf?). The salient point, that people are still wary of Maple Leaf meat, hardly requires any quantitative information at all.

But conceding that the producers of the program thought this graphic was a worthwhile addition to the story, let’s analyze it a little further. Tufte gives the following equation for the data-ink ratio:


Giving the CBC the benefit of the doubt and ignoring TV screen size, the data-ink ratio of their graphic is probably less than 0.1, much less if we take into account the time dimension. That means that not only does 90% of the graphic have no information content whatsoever, but that the 90% is competing with the 10% that actually is information for the viewer’s attention.

An important thing to note at this point is that I consider The National to be one of the best newscasts available, and it’s sobering every time I see a dumb graphic like this one and imagine all of the time and expense that goes into producing fancy animated backgrounds and other junk instead of actually producing good information. The most sobering aspect of these graphics, though, is the fact that CBC is actually near the high-end of the newscast hierarchy;  graphics on other channels are often much, much worse, and they reflect quite accurately the abysmal quality of other newscasts in their entirety.

We can compare the CBC to newscasts like Fox and CNN to get a better idea of the correlation I’m talking about. Here is a screenshot of CNN’s election night coverage, courtesy of djspyhunter (here‘s the Youtube clip):


As you can see, the signal-to-noise ratio here is much worse than that of the CBC graphic, and it is exacerbated by the fact that several different data sets are being displayed concurrently, with no clear boundaries between them. This kind of graphic is very characteristic of CNN’s overall signal-to-noise ratio, which is aptly exemplified by a feature they introduced on November 4th that they refer to as a “hologram”:

Obviously this system adds nothing to a traditional split-screen other than much more superfluous junk that distracts from the actual conversation, and suggests that the content of the conversation is only incidental to the delivery system.

Here is a graphic from Fox with only one data point:


As always, the background is heavily animated in order to be as distracting as possible. Here is a table showing the same data:


It was shown for about half the time that the CBC one was shown for, but it also has less than half the information, which gives it roughly the same data-ink ratio. As in the case of CNN, this kind of graphic is indicative of the signal-to-noise ratio of the rest of the channel’s programming:

Okay I admit that may have been slightly unfair, but I think my point is clear. Tufte states succinctly,

The conditions under which many data graphics are produced–the lack of substantive and quantitative skill of the illustrators, dislike of quantitative evidence, and contempt for the intelligence of the audience–guarantee graphic mediocrity.

And, as I have been arguing, these same factors often affect the entire newscast as well. We can assume that good newscasters respect their audience enough to treat them like intelligent adults. This would involve the assumption that intelligent adults can handle small amounts of statistical or numerical data without becoming bored, that they can appreciate the news-value of the numbers themselves, and that they consider bombardment with useless information to be an insult to their intelligence. Good newscasters, we would assume, try to devote as much of the time and space available to them to disseminating timely, accurate, insightful and thought-provoking information. Fox and CNN clearly do not respect their viewers, nor do they consider them intelligent adults. Much more of their time and energy goes into developing new, advanced forms of chartjunk to clutter their screens and obscure their information, rather than into increasing the quality of their journalism and the accuracy of their reporting. While viewers do always have the option of changing the channel, it is unfortunate that the Fox and CNN approaches to newscasting seem to be taking over all the other stations as well, including the CBC; many media critics would cite this tendency as a symptom of the struggle for market share and advertising revenue where the desire to raise viewership numbers always trumps the importance of good broadcasting.

Chic Quattro

According to the Chicago Tribune, drying your razor blades out after use makes them last an average of 122% longer than leaving them wet. This appears to be the case because blades become dull primarily due to the edges becoming oxidized, rather than due to repeated abrasion against your skin. Storing the blades in mineral oil, as the article also suggests, achieves a similar result by protecting the blades from oxidation. My particular interest in this matter came during a conversation I had recently where I noticed that I hadn’t changed my Schick Quattro blade for about two and a half years, even though I use no special technique for keeping the blade sharp.

Contrary to the content of the last paragraph, this post actually has nothing to do with razor blades. It does have to do with the word “Schick,” however. Apparently, during World War II, the German clothing industry was overhauled in order to raise its status in the world. Since France was more or less the world capital of Fashion, and Germany hated France’s guts, a huge part of the overhaul involved cleansing the industry of all vestiges of French influence. Germany had a reputation of homely, portly and decidedly unfashionable hausfraus, whereas France was essentially the center of the fashion universe, known for its slim, childless and exceptionally chic young women.

Needless to say, this made Germany angry. Germany had been angry about this issue for quite some time, in fact; as early as 1628, Germans had circulated a satirical pamphlet aimed at stopping the scourge of fashion, with its vanity and loose morals. In 1653 a German poet opined that “fashion, only fashion, allows the devil to come within.” The Napoleonic occupation and the Franco-Prussian war both had their share of fashion-related confrontations. By the time the inter-war period rolled around, not only did France have a humongous thumb in the world’s fashion pie, but they were taking every opportunity to declare their superiority over Germany by publishing cartoons depicting dumpy, saggy German women wearing hideous and ridiculous outfits. Germany had had about enough.

So, during World War II, they launched an aggressive and multi-faceted campaign to rid Germany of the tyranny of French fashion and elevate German fashion onto the world stage. Predictably, this manifested in vast amounts of propaganda encouraging women to buy domestic products, to banish treasonous French outfits from their wardrobes, and to take pride in their German nationality and heritage. What the French saw as dumpy homebodies, the Germans elevated to strong, capable, culturally rich and morally fortitudinous patriots. According to Irene Guenther,

It was time that German women cleansed themselves of harmful French influences. It was time that Germany stopped imitating and, instead, start creating its own “German fashion.” The nation would benefit both culturally and economically, and pride in German products would be restored.

So, like anyone else would do in their position, they promptly wiped out all French words from the German language. Confection became Konfektion. Silhouette became Silhuette. Bleu became bläulich. And, of course, chic became schick.

In hindsight, the German campaign had little lasting effect. Although Germany did produce the dirndl during this period, which enjoyed a short-lived burst of popularity even outside of Germany, France remains to this day a leader in the global fashion world. Germany still carries the dumpy homebody stereotype. The German versions of French words were never borrowed into any other languages. And heck, the Germans lost the war anyway.

Thus, an uneducated and historically ignorant person like myself could make the claim that “schick” is the single most long-lasting remnant of that propaganda campaign. But there’s a curious twist:  linguists have been unable to decide if the word it was derived from, chic, originated from the French word chicanerie, or if it was actually borrowed into French from the German word–that’s right–schick, for “skill” or “fitness.” Considering that the propagandists of the Third Reich may have just switched the word back into its original German form, after the French spent years embarassingly using it to describe their own fashion prowess, schick is truly a word that Germany can, and should, be proud of.

Perceptual insight and speech recognition

I bought a book for a dollar the other day called New Horizons in Linguistics that was published in the early 70s. Regardless of how out if date it is, one of the articles was discussing the concept of speech perception and how our brains are highly educated in recognizing tiny variations in frequency, timing and intensity in order to identify certain phonemes as meaningful. One section in particular that caught my eye was this:

If we take a sample of the ‘same’ word uttered by a man, a woman, and a child, and make acoustic measurements on each of these, we shall not obtain absolute measurements that are identical or even particularly close to each other. There will be marked differences in overall intensity, spectral distribution of energy, fundamental frequency and duration. The fact that any listener will recognize the same word in all three cases is due to his reliance upon acoustic cues based in relative values, relations within each utterance, relations between the three utterances and, most important of all, relations between this particular utterance and others which might have come from the same speaker, for there is good evidence that the listener is able, on the basis of a very short sample, to infer a whole frame of reference for dealing with any individual’s speech. (D.B. Fry, “Speech Reception and Perception” 37)

It reminded me of this example of “perceptual insight” graciously hosted by the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit near Cambridge. If you listen to this clip: it should sound like a bunch of squeaks and bleeps. But if you listen to this clip:then go back and listen to the first one, you should easily be able to recognize the sounds in the first clip as meaningful words. As Matt Davis explains, the first clip is a simplified version of the spectrogram of the clear speech that tracks the center of the formant frequencies of the clear speech. If you go to his site and listen to the other four sine-wave/clear speech pairs, you should notice that it doesn’t take long to learn how to recognize the sine-wave speech as meaningful, even without listening to the clear speech first. This is an example of what Fry was pointing out, that human brains are very capable of synthesizing a whole frame of reference for the relative judgments of frequency, timing and intensity from only listening to a short sample of speech. This is similar to the process that occurs when you first meet someone with a thick accent, or you speak to a young child who is learning to talk – by developing a frame of reference based on what you do understand from their speech, you are able to recognize the patterns that make the sounds coming from their mouth into meaningful utterances.

Mindful education and secular dogma

Rick Cluff had a couple of guests on the Early Edition this morning who were discussing a pilot program in Coquitlam called “mindful education,” which uses mindfulness techniques, breathing exercises, visualizations and affirmations in an attempt to positively influence elementary schoolchildren’s focus, socialization and academic achievement. One of the guests was Ken Kavenagh, who pulled his son from the program and appealed to the parental advisory council on the grounds that the program violates the B.C. School Act by teaching religious practices in public schools.

While the utility of practicing mindful meditation several times a day may be debatable, criticizing this program on the grounds that it’s teaching religious dogma is unnecessarily alarmist and only belies Kavenagh’s ignorance. Kavenagh is concerned in particular with the fact that the breathing exercises used in the curriculum are derived from the Buddhist meditative practice anapanasati; he contends that since the goal of Buddhist meditative practice is to “attain enlightenment or nirvana,” children involved in this program are being indoctrinated into a particular “philosophical or religious approach to life.” Kavenagh continues by by claiming that

because Western science has never trained itself up into the contemplative path, or the buddhist- or the meditative path, they don’t know what’s going on in the person’s mind, they haven’t- they haven’t- we don’t know the science of it […] At the core, we’re taking in a very specific religious approach to meditation – the methodology of this quiet time – and we’ve just snarfed it right out of Buddhism, and now we’re putting it on our kids, and there’s no actual research understanding why this is working.

Kavenagh’s wife, Rebecca, similarly told the Tri-City News on Thursday that “mindful education is a Buddhist practice masquerading as science at the school.”

I can identify two parallel lines of argument in the Kavenaghs’s statements. First, they are concerned that the origins of this breathing technique in Buddhism are grounds for characterizing this curriculum as religious dogma; second, they are concerned because the neurophysiological or psychological etiology of mindful meditation’s benefits are not fully understood.

Mindful meditation is no more religious dogma than decorating a Christmas tree or wearing robes to a graduation ceremony. In linguistics this kind of thinking is called the “etymological fallacy” – using a word’s origins to determine its contemporary meaning. Many Eastern “religious” practices, like yoga and tai chi, have been appropriated by westerners as secular forms of mental and physical exercise in the same way that Christmas has become a secular holiday for millions of people, and graduation is marked by a secular ceremony for millions of graduates. In fact, thousand of babies are named Christopher and Mary every year without anyone blinking an eye; people christen ships and fanatics cheer for the Titans. The breathing techniques borrowed from anapanasati weren’t selected because of their origins, of course, they were selected because of their effectiveness in treating anxiety and promoting mental and physical relaxation.

One thing Kavenagh fails to mention in his second line of argument is that mindful meditation is extremely effective for all of the things that it’s being used for in the curriculum – and that is, in fact, backed up by hundreds of empirical studies. A quick search of Google Scholar for “meditation+academic,” for example, returns hundreds of articles examining the effects of meditation on academic performance and anxiety reduction in schools, and PsychINFO returns hundreds more. If Kavenagh is concerned with the use of meditation for these puposes because the causes of the outcomes are not fully understood, then he is demonstrating a serious lack of understanding about the way modern science, and especially modern medicine, works. Ignaz Semmelweis advocated that doctors wash their hands long before people knew that germs transmitted disease. Antibiotics were used successfully on animals before anyone knew anything about cell-wall synthesis. More recently, EMDR has had remarkable success treating posttraumatic stress disorder since its discovery in the late ’80s, but researchers still aren’t sure why it works. It’s only if claims of the effects have no empirical basis that we need to be concerned – think homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, ear candles, prayer, etc.

Interestingly, UBC researcher Kim Schonert-Reichl’s presentation to the parental advisory council was Kavenagh’s basis for his second concern. I had the pleasure of talking to Schonert-Reichl when she was involved in studying a program called Roots of Empathy, which brought babies into elementary school classrooms to teach children empathy and reduce aggression. (My article can be read here, more info about Roots of Empathy can be found here.) As I said at the beginning, the utility of regular meditation in the classroom may be debatable, but Schonert-Reichl and the UBC researchers who are studying mindful education are taking care of that.

Kavenagh’s concern seems to be more than anything the opposite of the concerns surrounding intelligent design being taught in US schools. If he can’t come up with a more reasonable explanation for why mindful education is a dangerous thing for children to be involved with, I can’t help but write off his concerns as secular humanist dogma. Too bad the Coquitlam school district doesn’t have that same privilege.

Indigo = violet, or something

My girlfriend pointed out to me that my dad and I both cited the colour of the sky after sunset as our favourite colour, although we called it different things. Over at the bone marrow blog, he expressed a desire to “sit there [on the rim of the Grand Canyon] till the darkening sky turns to indigo, my favourite colour, and the first stars appear,” whereas I stated that “My favourite colour is violet – not purple, which seems to be what people think violet is. Violet is the last colour before night-time.” Obviously there’s a misunderstanding here, and my goal is to get to the bottom of it.

I looked up violet on Wikipedia, which reproduced the problem I stated on the About page, that people think violet is purple. Not only does Wikipedia say that the colour was named after the flower, which is obviously purple, but it also lists a number of RGB approximations of violet which are also clearly purple, even to my colour-blind eyes. In fact, the citation from Etymonline clearly says the colour was named after the flower:

c.1330, small plant with purplish-blue flowers, from O.Fr. violette, dim. of viole “violet,” from L. viola, cognate with Gk. ion (see iodine), probably from a pre-I.E. Mediterranean language. The color sense (1370) developed from the flower.

The use of violet as a colour in 1370 that Etymonline reflected the use of the word to denote a cloth pigment with a purplish colour, according to the OED:

1370 Bury Wills (Camden) 5, j violett toga. c1440 Promp. Parv. 509/2 Vialet, yn colowre, violaceus. 1464 Maldon (Essex) Court Rolls Bundle 40, No. 6, ii togas blewe et vyolette, 1 dobelet.

The sense of the word violet that I am referring to as my favourite colour is the spectral colour violet, which is right at the edge of the blue end of the spectrum. I’ve heard it described as “bluer than blue,” which is a description that jives with the fact that violet can’t be reproduced on an RGB monitor, since blue is the bluest colour available on an RGB gamut. The distinction between the spectral colour violet and the shade of purple violet is key to describing my favourite colour, since any approximation of spectral violet using mixtures of red and blue is necessarily going to be purple, not violet.

As to the matter of what indigo is in relation to violet, Wikipedia claims that indigo has been traditionally defined as the colour between blue and violet on the spectrum, although “modern color scientists do not usually recognize indigo as a separate division,” usually lumping it in with violet as a colour with a wavelength of less than 450nm. Since indigo is lumped in with violet, to the point where Wikipedia lists indigo as a shade of violet, it is unfortunately subject to the same conflation with purple that violet is.

Since it would take a spectroscope to determine if the colour after sunset really is violet, or if it’s a mixture of red and blue (or red and violet, for all I know), I would have to say as a disambiguation that my favourite colour is, in fact, the colour at the end of the spectrum, and my brain is simply equating that with the colour of the sky after sunset. Whether or not my dad feels the same way is a matter unresolvable by simple recourse to semantics.

The Cellphone Effect

I’m a little behind the times here. Please don’t hold it against me. This is a graph that shows Obama’s lead in various polls on November 2:

It’s courtesy of the great non-partisan poll aggregator Here’s Nate Silver of fiverthirtyeight describing it:

The polls in the Cingular-y orange color include cellphones in their samples; the polls in gray do not. The cellphone polls have Obama ahead by an average of 9.4 points; the landline-only polls, 5.1 points.

This disparity is known among pollsters as the “cellphone effect,” “the cellphone problem,” or “cellphone bias,” and it represents one thing that pollsters are having trouble adjusting to lately about emerging demographics – it’s taking a while for pollsters to realize the differences between landline-only and cellphone-only voters, and incorporate those differences into either their respondent distribution or their weighting strategies. While there are correlations between cellphone use and factors like race and sex, the most obvious correlation is with age; this correlation clearly comes through in the bias of cellphone polls toward Obama. Here’s a similar table from Pew:

While different pollsters come up with different numbers describing how much of an error this effect usually introduces into their outcomes, the error usually ranges between 1 and 3 points. According to Pew,

These problems are all the more pressing as the number of Americans who are reachable only by cell phones increases. U.S. government surveys estimated that about 15% of adults were “cell only” in the fall of 2007 and the rate of increase since 2004 has been at least 2% a year, meaning that the number may be as high as 17% in this election cycle.

If you’d like to learn more about this problem, check out some of Nate Silver’s discussions or this great twopart article by Mark Blumenthal at