Archive for December, 2007

Getting What We Pay For

Cross posted at Agricola…..

Here’s a bit of good news. Of course, it seems like common sense to assume that federally funded research should be available to the taxpayers, but what do I know?

A slice to entice:

Until now, the placement of NIH-funded research papers into publicly accessible repositories was not mandated, but recommended. However, only about 5% of the authors actually did it, as the process was complex and not always clear. This number is growing, but far too slowly. From now on, authors will have clear guidelines and assistance in making sure that all the research becomes public a year after publication in a scholarly journal.

Not long ago, I read a post wherein the researcher could not get, from the Census Bureau, a consolidated, complete copy of the latest census data. Seems that different organs distribute different parts, and it’s not in the procedures manual for the public or the bureaucrats to see complete, compiled data. When I can find the link, I’ll update this post.

H/T Blog Around the Clock

Inescapable Data

One of my courses this past semester was an introduction to the concept of discovery informatics. Recently, I wrote about one aspect of the discipline. Via WestHawk, here’s a  post that provides another example of massive data collection, disciplined analysis of that data, and the provocative applications that result.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is working on a $1 billion biometric database, containing fingerprints, palm prints, digital face scans, and, in the future iris scans, scars, voice data, and records of peoples’ walking gaits.

After September 11, 2001, the military-technical task changed from precisely targeting a discrete object to finding a discrete person, hidden in either a teeming population or deep in the hinterland. This was traditional detective work. But ancient and highly disciplined codes of silence have long thwarted traditional detective work requiring human sources. Thus the urge for a technological solution, also a classic American impulse.

What are the components of this technical solution to finding someone? First, the person’s biometric characteristics, soon to be found in the FBI’s database. Second, continuous overhead observation, eventually to be provided by long-endurance drones, such as Global Hawk. Third, high-level computing power, now available in abundance. Finally, and still missing, extremely perceptive electro-optical sensors, to be mounted on the overhead drones.

We can be sure that engineers are working on the problem.

This is slightly scary. Applied to an external threat, like Al-Qaeda, or terrorism in general, this sounds like a good idea. Applied to domestic criminal activity, it seems to be an overly aggressive response to a not-quite quantified threat.

And besides, the FBI? They still can’t send each other e-mail, or access the internet. Why should we think that they can manage this project?

Binary People

In celebration of my new status as a programmer and denizen of the computer world, I share with you the t-shirt that I have on order. Consider this the high water mark of the fall semester.

binary-people.jpgGrades are in, and they are nothing to brag about. Calculus, as I feared, managed to outflank us, and we were forced to retreat in disorder. Having regrouped, we are ready to counter-attack, having learnt from the experience. In the immortal words of Pete Townshend, “We won’t be fooled again”. “C” is, however, a wily opponent, and we will have to be prepared and alert at all times.

Astonishingly, my best grade was in computer programming. Between you and me, I think the professor gave me a good grade so that I wouldn’t have to take his class again. We’re, like, brothers now.

After being told by one professor that attendance, effort, and participation would be components of the final grade (and having been close to a better grade), in the end attendance, effort, and participation were not included in the calculation of the final grade. Guess I better not count on subjective evaluations in the future.

Statistically, I did better than most, but worse than some. I prefer the company of some over most.

We’ll get ’em next semester…..

PS…please pardon the inveterate tinkering with the template. With too much time on my hands, I am playing with WordPress. If this site disappears, you will know that I have gone beyond my limited CSS and HTML skills.

Taking Drugs to Enhance Performance

If I cared a whit about baseball, this post might be about baseball and PED (performance enhancing drugs). But I don’t, so it’s not. Instead, here’s a link to a far more provocative idea, that of using drugs to enhance intelligence.

This sentence from the post nicely captures the issue:

So if modern biology is correct, in some ways differences in our ability to learn and think are determined by our genetic inheritance. Now, this is not the whole story of course. Brains do what they do if they are challenged, that is, used, in the process of growing up and developing. Genes do not control everything, but everything involves genes, so the end result is that in a competitive process like education, those who do the same work will not all be equal.

Boy, do I know about not equal. I proved it to my calculus professor this past semester. And, I think, there were a few people in my classes that match this description:

I once knew a fellow who was amazing in his ability to learn and assimilate knowledge. He spoke or read around 20 languages, and when he got bored, as he did one summer, he;d learn a new one (Akkadian in this instance). I’d have hated him, but he was too nice a guy (hi, Jeff, if you’re reading this). Was this just the result of his Calvinist work ethic? Not really. For him, this took little effort. He’d read, revise and then know. I tried to learn Greek (Koine), Hebrew, and Latin and failed miserably at all three. I barely passed German (don’t ask me to speak it now, for pity’s sake). But I worked harder than he did at it. He just had the cognitive skills, and I didn’t.

Prior to the start of this journey, I thought that my intelligence, nestled nicely in the area near the second standard deviation of the bell curve, and some hard work on my part would result in a series of 4.0 semesters. Boy did I get that wrong.

I can still work harder (and smarter?) than other students, but it may not show up in the final score.

Is that enough?

Why I’m Doing This…..

f1615_data_mining.jpgWhen people learn that I am back in school, those that are genuinely interested want to know what I’m studying. Most begin to lose interest once I mention calculus (the single dirtiest word in academe), statistics, and computer science. For those few brave friends and acquaintances that really want to know, the next question is generally of the form, “What is Discovery Informatics?”. And, you know, I struggle to answer in a pithy, cogent way that describes a discipline that doesn’t yet “own” a universally accepted description. Even in our introductory class our professor began by telling us that there is not yet a common definition of the discipline. Which makes it kind of neat to be on the front edge of a process that is so intimately connected with society and technology and the future.

But, sometimes, examples help explain the process. Here is a little something that paints a picture of what part of Discovery Informatics might be…..

Bon-Ton stores recently mined 10 million customer records from its clothing stores nationwide and pulled a sample set of 100 million transactions. From that, it analyzed 200 separate factors, including what types of products customers bought, the associations between products in their shopping carts, and how many discounted products they purchased. The reason for all this data crunching: to create a model for direct-mail campaigns that could better predict which customers are likely to shop at a Bon-Ton store in the next 30 days.

Follow the link for more. Good stuff…..

Exams Are Over…

Why am I not happy? Maybe it’s because I’m exhausted. Maybe it’s because my finals were ALL hard. Maybe it’s because I don’t feel like I did my best. Maybe it’s because I don’t feel like I thoroughly and convincingly understand everything that I should know.

On the other hand, I can write some basic programs. I could teach my 12 year old niece some math, I think. I can, statistically, arrive at some general conclusions about a population or a sample. I know now that the future is going to be about software, wireless connections, and huge amounts of data storage.

Has my education increased my potential earnings power? Don’t think so.

Am I accumulating a body of knowledge that will increase my potential earnings power?

Believe so……


“Life’s hard, son. It’s harder when you’re stupid.” — The Duke.

Education is a companion which no misfortune can depress, no crime can destroy, no enemy can alienate,no despotism can enslave. At home, a friend, abroad, an introduction, in solitude a solace and in society an ornament.It chastens vice, it guides virtue, it gives at once grace and government to genius. Without it, what is man? A splendid slave, a reasoning savage. - Joseph Addison
The term informavore (also spelled informivore) characterizes an organism that consumes information. It is meant to be a description of human behavior in modern information society, in comparison to omnivore, as a description of humans consuming food. George A. Miller [1] coined the term in 1983 as an analogy to how organisms survive by consuming negative entropy (as suggested by Erwin Schrödinger [2]). Miller states, "Just as the body survives by ingesting negative entropy, so the mind survives by ingesting information. In a very general sense, all higher organisms are informavores." - Wikipedia

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