Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Pushing back against Weapons of Math Destruction

I'm such a huge Cathy O'Neil fan, that I put Doing Data Science: Straight Talk from the Frontline on my very short list of recommended books for scientists and data scientists. I wrote:
The most hands-on of the meta books or the most meta of the hands-on books? Not many introductory books include a chapter on ethics but more should.
Weapons of Math Destruction is the book about data science ethics that I've been waiting for.

Listen to the interview with author Cathy O'Neil on All Things Considered.

I especially like this exchange:
MCEVERS: So it sounds like when you're saying, you know, we have these algorithms, but we don't know exactly what they are under the hood, there's this sense that they're inherently unbiased. But what you're saying is that there's all kinds of room for biases.

O'NEIL: Yeah, for example, like, if you imagine, you know, an engineering firm that decided to build a new hiring process for engineers and they say, OK, it's based on historical data that we have on what engineers we've hired in the past and how they've done and whether they've been successful, then you might imagine that the algorithm would exclude women, for example. And the algorithm might do the right thing by excluding women if it's only told just to do what we have done historically. The problem is that when people trust things blindly and when they just apply them blindly, they don't think about cause and effect.

They don't say, oh, I wonder why this algorithm is excluding women, which would go back to the question of, I wonder why women haven't been successful at our firm before? So in some sense, it's really not the algorithm's fault at all. It's, in a large way, the way we apply algorithms and the way we trust them that is the problem.
I hope you read or listen to the interview. Perhaps we can do a virtual book club and read it together?

In case you were not a reader of this blog in 2008, I wrote about my experiences using a proto credit-scoring algorithm while in high school student working part-time for Citicorp in the mid-1980s.  I did (with my boss' support) what I could to push back against arbitrary scoring algorithms when I felt they did not accurately capture an applicant's credit-worthiness.  It's also a time capsule for a time when we could assume that health insurance companies would eventually pay so that healthcare liabilities did not count against employed people.

What I didn't write in 2008 and should have, was that I applied to both Kelly and Kelly Technical Services. Kelly sent me to do the lower-skilled clerical work for slightly above minimum wage. Kelly Technical Services sent a male former classmate (who needed my help to debug one of his homework assignments) to work on implementing the software algorithm that eventually replaced the clerks like me. He got paid more. A lot more.

Bias was not created by algorithms.  We built the algorithms in our own image.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Low-carbon laundry

When I posted the picture below on Instagram, several people asked for more info about this Nina Soft centrifuge/extractor.
Yesterday, the Nina Soft spun over a liter of water+residue out of three loads of laundry.
My condo doesn't have an in-unit washer or dryer.  I have to walk all the way to the other side of the building to use the washer ($1) or the dryer ($0.75 for 50 min).  Moreover, the washer doesn't have a second rinse option, which I need because my skin is so sensitive to detergent.

When sharing a washer with others, I have no control over what kind of products they use.  They might put in perfumed detergents or fabric softeners.  That leaves residue in the washers and dryers.

In Los Angeles, I use a clothesline.  I hang most of my laundry on the line, but put small items like socks and sturdier underwear in the tumble dryer along with shirts.  By the time I am done hanging up the clothes on the line, I can hang up the slightly damp shirts to finish air-drying.  The undies and socks take just a few more minutes to complete.  I probably run the dryer for about 15-20 minutes per load of wash.

At the condo, the dryer won't start until you put at least $0.75 cents.  It doesn't matter if I want to run it for 1 minute or 50 minutes, it costs $0.75.  Each additional quarter provides an additional 20 minutes.  The clock runs even when the dryer isn't.  That means you pay for time when the machine is idle and the next person can't use your unused time.  The contractor that has the monopoly on our building is not interested in changing his pricing scheme.

My home laundry equipment.
Over the last year, I developed a system that works for me.

The Nina Soft is a home version of the extractor that you find in laundromats.  It's essentially a big centrifuge for your clothes.  The Nina Soft spins out water, detergent, chemicals and hard mineral deposits that would otherwise bake into your clothes.  It also reduces dryer time by ~50%.

I originally bought it for tie-dyeing.  Spin the excess dye out before rinsing, and you save tons of time and water.

I hand wash small amounts of laundry in the green baskets in my bathtub with the Breathing Washer.  It's a plunger-like thing used by campers, dyers and felters.  Unlike plungers, the Breathing Washer doesn't splash.  It does make a wheezing sound that gives it it's name.  It's a good 10-minute upper body workout.

When I wash things in my tub, I can rinse twice.  Then I spin it in the Nina Soft and air-dry it.  This also helps humidify my condo in arid Colorado.

When I have a lot of laundry, I use the shared machines in parallel.  At 7 AM, the earliest we are allowed to start laundry, I can usually find three open washers on consecutive floors.  (Dark, Light and Medium colors.)

When I take the laundry out of the washer, I spin all of it in the Nina Soft.  Then I either tumble dry them or hang them up.  I found this large maple folding drying rack at McGuckin Hardware.  It's made in the US and much sturdier than any other racks I've seen at any price (including the one from LL Bean).  It's not expensive, either.

In this way, I limit my exposure to detergents and reduce dryer use to about an hour for all 3 loads of laundry.

I got my Nina Soft from Dharma Trading, my preferred supplier of all dyeing/fiber art goodies.  I have no affiliation with them other than ordering from them for 20+ years and wanting to make sure they remain in business.

I bought the Breathing Washer and a plastic washboard from Japan from Amazon.  They also sell the Nina Soft.

The green baskets and laundry octopus come from IKEA.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

The case against antibacterial soap

Yesterday's big environmental news was the FDA ban on triclosan, triclocarban and 17 other toxic chemicals commonly added to soaps.  Scientists' reactions ranged between "Huzzah!" to "Why did it take 40 years for the FDA to listen to us?"

Bad Dad and I both earned BSs in chemistry so we are familiar with the issue.  However, I realize that most families don't have even one BS in chemistry, especially because chemistry is one of the least popular majors in the United States.  (Which is a shame, because chemistry is truly the "central science" that bridges the life and physical sciences, and gives people a great foundation for understanding the world.)

Here's some stuff to think about and discuss around your dinner table.  OK, we are comfortable discussing bioreactors and biosolids around the dinner table, but maybe you want to wait until after everyone has finished eating in your home.  ;-)

Any soap or body wash that says "antibacterial" probably contains one of the newly-banned substances.

For these to work effectively, you have to wash with them much, much longer than most people do.  You know how long surgeons and surgical nurses scrub their hands (until they are red and raw?); that's how long.  That means, outside of hospitals, antibacterial soaps are not doing anything but going down the drain.

What happens to stuff that goes down the drain?  Glad you asked!  I wrote a series of posts about that.

Think about all the stuff you send down the drain (kitchens, bathrooms, laundry).  Think about everything you ingest and then excrete.  BTW, waste water is a great way to find out how much and what type of drugs/pharmaceuticals people are ingesting.

Your sewage is sent through a screen to separate solids from liquid. The solids are often sent through a bioreactor with bacteria that breaks down the solids. The biosolids (with or without the bioreactor step) are either spread on agricultural fields as fertilizer or incinerated.

This can be a good thing. Incineration reduces waste AND produces energy. Biosolids are cheaper for farmers (about 1/4 the cost of petrochemical fertilizers) and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

The problem is us. We send too much non-necessary chemicals down the drain.

ASU Professor Rolf Halden gave a plenary talk last month at the American Chemical Society's meeting in which he showed that just two chemicals, triclosan and triclocarban, make up 60% of the pharmaceuticals found in municipal biosolids.

This chart is a screen shot from his article in Nature. Note that the horizontal axis is logarithmic so a difference of one tick mark is a factor of ten.  Click to make the graph bigger.

The US produces (and we presume, use) about 2,000 metric tonnes each of triclocarban and triclosan.  4.8-48.2% of the triclocarban ends up in biosolids.  The rest probably remains in the water.  1.8-18% of triclosan ends up in biosolids; more of it remains in the water than triclocarban.

Excerpt from Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products in Archived U.S. Biosolids from the 2001 EPA National Sewage Sludge Survey:
Of the more than 7 million tons of sewage sludge produced in the United States in 2004, about 50% was applied to land as fertilizer or soil amendment, and 45% was disposed of in landfills or as landfill cover.
 I've already written about how triclosan can photo-degrade into dioxin under UV light. ("Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.") It doesn't matter whether the triclosan is applied through biosolids or irrigation water. This finding has now been replicated in labs around the world and is accepted scientific fact.

But, incinerating triclosan is also extremely risky.  Excerpt from Halden's research home page:
In addition to toxins in wastewater, Halden’s team is researching the emission of toxic dioxin into U.S. air from incineration of triclosan-laden municipal sludge, or biosolids
Furthermore, these newly-banned substances have all been found to bio-accumulate, not just in earth worms and frogs but in you and me.  These are hazardous chemicals that should not be in our ecosystem.

Antibacterial soaps have their uses--in hospitals--but should not be in widespread use in homes.  They do nothing beneficial under normal home use, but cumulatively do great environmental and health harm.

 Read more:

Friday, September 02, 2016


September is both National Preparedness Month and National Sewing Month.

I'm spending September updating the NCAR Upper Air Database, which can be used to help assess weather hazard risks, and sewing my daughter's back-to-school wardrobe.
There is a Fall wardrobe in here.
#natlprep is giving me the kick in the pants I need to discuss with my family our disaster plans.

What are you doing in September?

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Feeling Patriotic

Another in the long list of reasons why I love this country...
Anyone can ftp into this NOAA server to download weather and climate data for free! Check out how easy it is to anonymously ftp into the data server.  Use "anonymous" as your username and an email address as your password*.
Grace> ftp nomads.ncdc.noaa.gov
Trying 2610:20:8040:2::166...
Connected to nomads.ncdc.noaa.gov.
220 2610:20:8040:2::166 FTP server ready
Name (nomads.ncdc.noaa.gov:Grace): anonymous
331 Anonymous login ok, send your complete email address as your password
230 Anonymous access granted, restrictions apply
Remote system type is UNIX.
Using binary mode to transfer files.
And look at the available data:
ftp> ls
229 Entering Extended Passive Mode (|||62934|)
150 Opening ASCII mode data connection for file list
drwxrwxr-x 20 3682 nomads-prod 4096 Feb 16 2016 12
drwxrwxr-x 14 3682 3682 4096 Aug 16 11:43 32
drwxrwxr-x 23 3682 nomads-prod 4096 Sep 12 2012 33
drwxr-xr-x 3 root root 4096 Mar 30 2015 CFSR
drwxr-xr-x 2 root root 4096 Mar 30 2015 CFSRR
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 7 Aug 26 2013 GDAS -> 12/GDAS
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 7 Jun 6 2013 GENS -> 32/gens
drwxr-xr-x 2 root root 4096 Jun 6 2013 GFS
drwxrwxr-x 11 3682 3682 32768 May 8 2015 model
drwxr-xr-x 2 root root 4096 Jun 6 2013 NAM
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 7 Jun 6 2013 NARR -> 12/narr
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 10 Jun 6 2013 NARR_monthly -> 12/narrmon
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 7 Dec 18 2012 NDFD -> 33/ndfd
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 8 Aug 23 2013 NDGD -> 33/ndgd/
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 3 Sep 23 2013 RAP -> RUC
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 15 May 6 2015 reanalysis-2 -> 12/reanalysis-2
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root 26 Oct 13 2010 robots.txt
drwxr-xr-x 2 root root 4096 Dec 16 2015 RUC
drwxr-xr-x 2 root root 4096 Jun 6 2013 SST
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root 610 Mar 23 2011 welcome.msg
226 Transfer complete
Now what do you want to see?
This is where all the weather apps and websites get their data. They just package it up and add advertising or charge you. You can do this yourself with a computer by getting the data from NOAA and the easy-to-use Panoply software from NASA for free.

* You don't have to use your email address, but it is standard courtesy in anonymous ftp to use your email address as a password so that they can log where users are coming from. For instance, if you are a teacher or student, use your school email address so they can log you as an education user. This is how we discover needs and allocate funding.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The perennial dilemma

Air is a common resource. Each of us suffers from degradation of the air quality, but we have no little control over what others do to the air that we personally breathe.

When people think of the Boulder, they don't often think of air pollution. But, the elevation and topography (mountains to the west and northwest and the Louisville Rise to the east and southeast), and the automobile traffic in this small town, mean that the nose-level pollution in central Boulder is usually higher than the western coastal neighborhoods of Los Angeles. (My doctors had recommended in the 1990s that I move away from Boulder for my health and suggested coastal LA as a good alternative.)

You can't see ozone, but it is created by a combination of automobile exhaust and sunlight, specifically UV radiation.  At high altitudes, we have plenty of UV (and cosmic ray) radiation.

Ozone is a lung irritant.

We can't control sunshine, so the only way to keep the ozone from reaching dangerously high levels is to refrain from driving.  That means you AND me.

But, sensitive people are cautioned from strenuous outdoor exercise during high ozone days.

What does an asthmatic do when an Ozone Action Day is called?  Ride my bike and possibly have an asthma attack?  Drive solo and pollute the air even more?

The combination of pollen and ozone is particularly irritating.  People with pollen allergies can be affected by lower levels of pollen when ozone is present.  The only time I ever ended up in a clinic gasping for breath was when I went for an after work run (in grad school in the 1990s) up Boulder canyon during a day with both high ragweed pollen and high ozone.  I now get allergy shots and that has helped somewhat.  But, I still avoid outdoor exercise when pollens are especially high.

Fortunately, my bike and I can pick up a shuttle bus to work 2 blocks from my condo and be whisked up to the main entrance of Mesa Lab.

So many of my coworkers did the same, we filled up both the front and rear bike racks of the van.

Some even took the RTD bus to meet the shuttle.

The best part of leaving the driving to someone else is that my hands are free to take pictures like this.
The ride home is an 800 foot elevation drop, so it is not the strenuous type of exercise that would be dangerous for me.


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Wildfire PSA

Image courtesy of NASA

With wildfires burning all over the western United States and floods ravaging Lousiana, this is a good time to reread Fire is a river that runs uphill.
One major reason that fire fighting in the western forests has become more expensive is the number of structures (homes) being built in the trees. One Colorado newspaper had the guts to run a story questioning if our firefighters should risk (or lose) their lives protecting the vacation homes of the rich after twelve firefighters died in the Storm King Mountain fire.
My Wildfire series.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Sewing in Series: Simplicity 2263

Why reinvent the wheel if something works?

I know that 'indie' and 'designer' patterns are all the rage in the blogosphere, but the 'Big 4' (but now really 6?) put out some solid patterns without much fanfare (e.g. blog tours.) Take Simplicity 2263, which looks rather pedestrian.

Prosaic pattern envelope.  The ASG symbol is a clue.
All patterns are 'designed' by someone.  Bold face names do not have a monopoly on good design.  I've had more misses than hits with indie patterns and their instructions.

However, I pick up some signals that others may overlook.  Have you heard of American Sewing Guild (ASG)?  ASG probably doesn't have a booth at 'Maker' faires, but ASG members know quality sewing.  (Disclaimer, I used to belong, but am not currently a member.)

Patterns with the ASG seal of approval tend to be very well drafted and extensively tested.  When I see a new pattern with the ASG seal, I pay attention.  This blouse with a back that extends over the shoulder to the front is a winner.  I've sewn it three times.

Three versions of Simplicity 2263
I made the first version in 2013 with a 1/2 yard remnant of rayon challis that I purchased at Britex at PR Weekend SF 2012.  1/2 yard is obviously not sufficient, so I improvised a yoke with a scrap of ponte.

Not faithful to the pattern, with a yoke and knit neckband.
When I saw this gray and red rayon challis at Elfriede's in Boulder, I snapped up a yard to sew another one for an upcoming MIT alumni event. (Is it the female version of a school tie?)

I used the serger for version 1.  Version 2 and 3 got the full french seam and bias binding clean finish.

I love a neat inside.  
I recently made a third version, with a rayon crepe I bought at SAS Fabrics in Hawthorne (near LA.)  Rayon crepe is rarely found in fabric stores.  When I found this small piece in a pretty print, for only $3, I brought it home without any immediate plans for it.  After I made version 2, I knew this remnant wanted to be version 3.

Version 3 with bonus view of kitchen.
Shoulder pleats instead of gathering.
You want to see them out in the wild?

Version 1 at the Getty Center in Brentwood.
Version 2 at the Petersen Museum in LA.
Version 3 outside my office.
A great, easy-to-make and easy-to-wear basic.  What's not to like?

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

More statistical nonsense

I'm bereft that Serena lost today.

There's also the matter of a presidential candidate suggesting or joking that people assassinate his opponent and the judiciary.

Let's talk about something that makes me mad, but only mildly so.  This also gives me a chance to jump up and down on my soapbox about bad data crunching.

Exhibit A, this piece of click bait from the NY Times with a tone of schadenfreude toward engineering majors:
I clicked and read these counter-intuitive numbers.
This doesn't jibe with my personal experience. Physical scientists that I know are very, very civically engaged. How could we be such slackers when it comes to getting to the voting booth when I see "I voted" stickers on everyone in lab on election day?

Do I know a very atypical set of physical scientists?  I had a hunch that, perhaps, it is because (outside of school and student jobs) I have always worked in national labs that require US citizenship?

I did a little research.

First, I went to The National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) website and read about the project. There appears to be a database accessible from that website. Because I'm not a participant in the research, I lack access to it.

There also appear to be some scholarly articles, which might have the summary data cited by the NY Times.  Again, I lack access to the articles.  (I'm not going to pay $41 for 24 hours of access to an article that may or may not have the data I seek.)

Search for "The National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement report". I was able to find several, including reports for Columbia and Long Beach Community College students.

In each report, I saw that the figures for % of eligible students voting by major was calculated using IPEDS and the same percentage was applied to all majors at a school, given the schools' overall demographics.
This is based on the percentage of non-resident aliens reported by your institution to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), and is more reliable than the demographic data campuses provide to the Clearinghouse at this time.
Do you see the statistical flaw? The reports gave the numbers with this caveat at the top:
Your students broken down by field of study. Please note that we are not able to adjust these voting rates by removing non-resident aliens.
The NY Times' poorly-researched and reported listicle did not include any methodology or context.

OK, now let's read what the National Science Foundation has to say about Higher Ed in Science and Engineering.
  • About 60% of all foreign graduate students in the United States in 2010 were enrolled in S&E fields, compared with 32% at the undergraduate level.
  • Foreign students earned 57% of all engineering doctorates, 54% of all computer science degrees, and 51% of physics doctoral degrees. Their overall share of S&E degrees was one-third.
  • In 2009, temporary visa students earned 27% of S&E master's degrees, receiving 46% of those in computer sciences, 43% of those in engineering, and 36% of those in physics.
Moreover, physical science and math students are vastly outnumbered by business and other students; the US graduated 19 business majors for every math or statistics major in 2011.

Let's list what we know:
  • Statistics tying individual students majors and voting behavior are difficult to obtain for privacy reasons.
  • They had to make estimates based upon school-wide statistics.
  • Each school reported the % of their students that were not on temporary visas.
  • NSLVE then applied the same % to all majors, even though they know this is inaccurate. They reported that this is a source of error.
  • They also removed students that were younger than 18 and not eligible to vote.
  • The % of students studying STEM is quite low compared to other majors, particularly business.   That gives larger error bars to STEM voting numbers, even without the eligibility estimation.
  • STEM students as a whole make up ~20% of the total undergraduate (UG) population, but 30% of the foreign UG student population; their voting participation is underestimated by the NSLVE methodology.
  • This means non-STEM students are more likely to be US natives; their voting participation is overestimated by the NSLVE methodology.
  • Foreign-born permanent residents are a wild card.  They do not need a temporary visa.  Yet, they cannot vote.  They are also disproportionately likely to be studying STEM.
  • Foreign students make up a disproportionate share of STEM students at every level, but particularly so at the graduate level.  They dominate in many STEM fields.  Thus, their voting participation is VASTLY underestimated by the NSLVE methodology.  (That 40% of physical science students could very well be 90% of eligible students.)
I found all sorts of interesting information, especially at the National Center for Education Statistics:
Anyway, after examining the data, I think it is very, very likely that physical science students that are eligible to vote do so at higher rates than journalism students.  I'm sure The average physical science student is better with data than the average journalism student.  We might even be better than the average NY Times journalist.

Another piece of bullshit debunked.


Sunday, August 07, 2016

Harley Quinn sadness

Remember the Harley Quinn costume I made for my daughter?

And my ambivalence about the hyper-sexualization of females in comics?

Check out the slide show about Harley Quinn cosplay in the LA Times. Look at the difference in (un)dress between the male and female cosplayers.

Then check out this tweet from David Helder pointing out the sexism at #defcon, a computer security conference. Please note, this is happening in 2016.
Hacker Jeopardy. Category is "Dicks". Men play. Women give them beers. Why aren't there more women in security?
Click to see the questions on the screens. To play this game, you have to have encyclopedic knowledge about p@rn.

Scroll down to read the discussion.  This is the state of one corner of tech.  I am not sure other areas of tech are any better.