NEWSTRACK PROPUBLICA #4

Adam_Eve_fracking

This time on Newstrack, I’ll compare an interview published in August about fracking by researchers affiliated with the sustainability program at UT Austin, with a Forbes interview about a new lean startup.

Both interviews cover established trends about which the public is relatively aware. Although, I had not heard of the lean startup business model before this, so I am assuming that knowledge of this is less widespread. This is likely, further, because the lean startup movement is more recent.

First off, Propublica places all hyperlinks providing background information in the introduction itself.  But once the actual interview commences, not a single hyperlink jumps out at you, as if the words of the researchers being interviewed were were hallowed ground.  Forbes does not do this, and every time the person being interviewed says something that the reader might be curious about, the relevant URL is referenced.

As expected, the propublica interview breaks down the investigative process of the researchers concerned. More specifically because their methodology is being questioned. (Big surprise)

When the UT Austin researchers say “The closest analog that I could find to our type of study are the things that have been done in the Marcellus Shale, with Rob Jackson’s group out at Duke University. ” I want to know immediately what that is. I don’t want to have to open a new window and google them. And it’s not like I’m sitting in front of my laptop with a notepad, or a note-taking software open every time I browse the internet. I felt this way several times while reading the interview.

Reading the fracking interview requires background knowledge — typical of propublica — while the forbes interview introduces us to a topic.  Again, considering the length of the propublica interview, and the huge white blank chunks on either side of the page, I could have used some blown-up quotes which highlights the important parts, like:

It’s not necessarily that we’re saying fracking fluid getting out. We don’t have any evidence of that….we were unable to actually sample any hydraulic fracturing fluid, so we can’t make any claims that we have evidence fluids got into the water.

And…

We noticed that when you’re closer to a well, you’re more likely to have a problem, and that today’s samples have problems, while yesterday’s samples before the fracking showed up did not. So we think that the strongest argument we can say is that this needs more research.

When scientists are grilled about their methodology to this extent– a rarity outside environmental studies — I’d rather have their main conclusions mentioned at the top. But then again, for a subject like fracking, having blow up quotes would imply a bias on propublica’s part in presenting the information. (That’s what print magazines are for.) But this brings us to a question why this is even an interview. Why not a science article?

And why does the heading address the fracking ‘issue’  without a mention of the site where the study was conducted, and therefore the population likely to be affected?

The Forbes interview, in contrast, is short, informative, with an engaging introduction in first person. More importantly, the formatting….

Forbes

The relevant background information is presented on the side in a visually engaging manner, without interfering with the actual reading. The text itself, moreover, is sufficient to get a grasp of what the new startup is trying to achieve in an emerging business environment, so the extra information is optional. We are not left with lingering questions after reading the interview. Perhaps propublica wants the reader to ask questions and take notes while reading things, but hey, not everybody has the time.  This is the internet, not a library.

NEWTON, GOETHE AND DARKNESS

renoir1

Renoir’s ‘Woman at the Garden’

“No shadow is black. It always has a color.” – Renoir,

Impressionists depicted shadows with colors, and rejected the Newtonian description of darkness as simply an absence of light. In doing so, they were challenging something fundamental.

Neither the Impressionists, nor Newton had the advantage of knowing, or even thinking that perhaps an insect looked at the world differently. That an insect did not perceive the same colors as us.

Insect versus human vision

Insect versus human vision

To this day the Newtonian view is written as gospel in physics textbooks. What I used to find strange was why no one wanted to call l light the absence of darkness.  Having had a a non-Abrahamic  upbringing, as a child, I thought this linguistic play was harmless. I did not yet know that  ‘Darkness’ was synonymous with evil, at least in Western culture.  That it  could only ever be absolute. That there could be no such thing as ‘degrees of darkness’ even though there were ‘degrees of light’ which we perceive as colors.

As a college senior, I stumbled onto Goethe’s Theory of Color, where the writer tabulated a series of experiments to disprove the Newtonian conception of the color spectrum.  Newton’s mistake, according to Goethe, was not looking through the prism. In doing so, Newton, according to Goethe, missed the dynamic interaction between what we call ‘light’ and ‘dark’ to co-create  the spectrum. Using Goethe’s system, colors are different admixtures of ‘properties’ we call ‘light’ and ‘dark’.

A quote attributed to Goethe about his realization of the ‘incorrectness’ of Newton’s theory runs thus:

“Along with the rest of the world I was convinced that all the colors are contained in the light; no one had ever told me anything different, and I had never found the least cause to doubt it, because I had no further interest in the subject…But how I was astonished, as I looked at a white wall through the prism, that it stayed white! That only where it came upon some darkened area, it showed some color, then at last, around the window sill all the colors shone… It didn’t take long before I knew here was something significant about color to be brought forth, and I spoke as through an instinct out loud, that the Newtonian teachings were false.”

Anyone who’s read a high school physics textbook (or middle school, depending on which part of the world you’re in) can tell you that Goethe is ‘incorrect’ because he is ‘confusing’ color produced by chemical interactions in the white paint, with colors found in light waves.  Therefore Goethe is ‘wrong’.

The truth is, no one in the scientific community has been able to come up with an  ‘explanation’ for why mixing color pigments produce different combinations from those produced by light rays.

COLOR CIRCLES

   Why did scientists reject Goethe out of hand and continue to do so?

Typical arguments I’ve heard against Goethe is “If this was true scientists would’ve found out by now. Just pass the steak along.” 

Would they really? Scientists and artists like to think of each other as living in alternate universes.  An artist has a naturally endowed ‘instrument’ that can detect the nuances of color far better, and yet, if they paint shadows blue or red, they’re being ‘irrational’? Why? Because artificial instruments that compute in numbers are superior? Because being able to measure the input at the back of your eye is superior?

The scientist believes in numbers. The scientist believes that the senses are ‘weak’.  Also, if they did acknowledge Goethe, certain theories would topple. An example of this is:

Are stars emitting ‘Light’ due to chemical interactions inside them, or reflecting ‘Light’ like mirrors?

“FLY YOU FOOLS!”

hugoweaving460

What’s your first impulse when its raining hard and you don’t have an umbrella? You run for cover.

But my high school physics textbook touted it didn’t make a difference.

Whether you ran or walked, the number of raindrops hitting you would be the same.

I was stumped.

If you heard something similar, your head no doubt started doing all kinds of philosophical gymnastics, as did mine. But this seemingly ‘simple’ — whatever that means — problem, isn’t so ‘simple’ after all.  Here are some alleys of thought this stumper sends our minds down…

1)     “That’s frigging impossible!”

The above approach solves it by leaving containers in the rain and ‘showing’ they acquire more water with time. When this container is on a cart that can be moved, the slower it moves, the more water it acquires.  (The mathematical proof there goes through a lot of trouble just to establish this.)

2)    What about the wind?

We think of everything natural as chaotic and unpredictable. So the wind is ‘spoiling’ an  ‘ideal’ situation. Hypothetically, if there was no wind, and it was raining hard enough, then maybe it wouldn’t make a difference.

3) 

The above approach imagines what it would be like to be able to take a ‘photograph’ of each and every ‘moment’ one spends in the rain. Then, reducing the volume of space the runner  covers into cubes of the same volume. Then counting the number of raindrops inside of each cube at any moment, and calculating how  the number changes between photographs.

I didn’t find it as convincing. Mathematically, it was a valid argument. But is there more?

Is it really about the number of raindrops? Is the problem really about how wet you get?

I remember sitting by the window as a high school student, watching the rain, contemplating… then  suddenly, I thought of Neo.

Remember the scene in the Matrix, where Neo goes to visit the Oracle, and runs into this bald kid?

Spoon Bend...or Mind Bend?

Spoon Bend…or Mind Bend?

Bald kid: Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth? 
Bald kid: There is no spoon. 
Neo: There is no spoon? 
Bald kid: Then you’ll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself. 

Remember when Neo finally figures out what the kid meant?

Neo_stops_bullets_2

Imagine doing the same thing to the rain what Neo does to bullets.  You just see a curtain of rain, frozen, hanging there. And realize it makes no difference whether you run or walk. The same number of drops will hit you regardless.

It’s not difficult to guess  the philosophical counter arguments to this approach, but the arguments are more concerned with themselves than the underlying truths such thought experiments reveal.

I remember staring at the never ending curtain of rain as a high school kid, and wondering if math really made complex things more simple, or simple things more complex.

BROAD INSTITUTE DATA SAMPLING LAB

The Cancer Cell Stash

The Cancer Cell Stash

"I got stuck in there once, and it was scary."

“I got stuck in there once, and it was scary.”

"...sucks at explaining biology."

“The automation guy sucks at explaining biology.”

"...but totally geeks out over datasets."

“…but totally geeks out over datasets.”

"This here, right there is my favorite part..."

“This here, right there is my favorite part…”

The giant data sampler that's been stealing grad student jobs.

The giant data sampler that’s been stealing grad student jobs.

Captain Hook

Captain Hook

...or the robotic arm will get you. .

..or the robotic arm will get you.

5 - edit2

Well, what do you think of my system?”

13 - edit

“It’s still 9 o’ clock in the morning, but we’re just blooming!”

12 - edit

A lab tour can get serious

Do Not Disturb

3 - edit2

whirrrr….

CAN TIME MOVE BACKWARDS: THE EXONERATION OF PHILIP K DICK

PKD Had Philip. K.Dick’s personal journals seen the light of day while he was alive, it would’ve been the last straw.  Near the end, even his well wishers must have believed he was unraveling after decades of substance abuse.  Dick would’ve spent his last days in in an asylum, looking like this for sure.

But you, reader, who  probably found this post by googling your deity– who you probably google once a week anyway– must be wondering  why I twaddle and waste your time with things you already know. Well, sorry to disappoint. This isn’t really about Philip K Dick, but about one of the least controversial concepts grappled in his journals, and in late novels like VALIS: that we may actually be moving backwards in time.

Please watch the following video first.

If you lasted till the end, you’re likely  wondering what the hell just happened, whether you’re dreaming and what not.  It’s been circulating online for some time and the experimenter recently  posted  an ‘explanation’.

“The effect that you are seeing can’t be seen with the naked eye. The effect only works through the camera.” Or a strobe light, the post points out.

After the initial confoundment passes, the philosophical implications become a bit more obvious.  Specifically, a thought experiment attributed to Einstein when still a teenager – where he visualized what it would be like to ‘catch up’  with light.

Light would be stationary.

And what happens if the observer exceeds light speed? The light wave appears to recede.  And the impressions carried to the observer’s eye by the light starts reversing. That is, time appears to move backwards.

But  special relativity never actually prohibited this, contrary to popular assumption.  It would just mean that causes don’t necessarily have to appear before effects. That cause-effects together form a whole and the order is not important.

A popular example in physics is the shooter and his/her relation to the bullet/victim. If an observer of the shooting exceeds light speed while passing, they see the victim get shot before the bullet is fired.  (Philip K Dick would probably have argued that in purely philosophical terms, there was nothing wrong with this. In that it is no different than an image projected onto the retina which is upside down, but still perceived by the brain as ‘straight’)

The beauty of the Water and Sound experiment is in how simply it ‘proves’ Einstein’s original thought experiment. The camera is 24 FPS, meaning it sends 24 photographs to your eye per second. The camera’s ‘blink rate’  does not change.  When the sine waves produced by the tone generating software (which is creating the pulsations of sound on the speaker, which in turn ‘vibrates’ the water) ‘blinks’ at the same rate as the camera, the water droplets appear stationary and suspended in space.  This is catching up with light speed.

When the tone generator falls behind the camera’s blink rate, to 23 pulsations per second, the observer(camera) has exceeded light speed and time seems to move backwards.

But this isn’t actually happening you say. Without the camera, nothing strange happens…

What I learned from this experiment was not to treat light and sound as completely separate. It may seem that an infinitely undulating rope (light) and an infinitely long inflating/deflating accordion(sound) are completely different. But they are both vibrations.  Both have highs and lows. And it is possible for them to intersect as they do here. The implications of this experiment is that the universe itself maybe ‘blinking’ but too fast for us to perceive, so we see the universe as it is. If we were to catch up with the universe’s blink rate, we would see all time as stationary and all events as navigable, arranged in the same way as the ‘stationary’ water.

Here’s another video that’s been around.

An example of how matter can be made to ‘self organize’. Notice how the sand organizes into specific geometric arrangements only at specific frequencies, and nothing  in between. There is no gradual build up for rearrangement. (Not so different from glass shattering only at a specific, signature frequency)

Where am I going with all this?

Now that it’s proven that DNA arranges itself in fractals…what if its molecules self-organized following principles similar to the sand, except in three dimensions. What if these ideal frequencies could be uncovered?

What if our perception of time is reflected within our DNA in the form of aging? What if imperfections creep into the musical notes (frequencies)? If we knew the frequencies, shouldn’t it be possible to correct them? Reversal of agins is after all, the most tangible form of time moving backwards…

Now someone just needs to find these frequencies. I wonder how many decades that will be.

RAGE CONTROL

rage-attack33Q: What happens when your emotions become a factor that decides your success in a video game?

A: Therapy

On 27th September, at the National Pediatric Innovation Summit, where pediatricians display their wares, a particular exhibit caught my eye: a 2D video game.

A cartoon version of the earth, complete with eyes and mouth floated in space, under ferocious attack from little circular enemies of different colors. They came from all directions, at seemingly random intervals.  They had eyes and mouths.

The player had a limited number of ‘missiles’ to shoot them down, but only the red ones counted, as the others did not cause harm. As their speed of approach and numbers increased, it became increasingly difficult, on a cognitive level, to distinguish the colors and shoot the right one at the same time. The game was on a tablet.

Sounds like a straightforward game. Except, there was a breathing component.

The player breathed into the microphone. The feedback created a circle around the earth. How far out it expanded depended on the force of the outbreath. After which, it contracted back.

The game is called RAGE- Control.  Neuropsychologists at Boston Children’s Hospital designed it, and others like it to help children deal with anger issues.

According to the exhibit, teaching the brain to regulate negative emotions isn’t too different from “learning to ride a bike.”  When angry, our brain has learned a sequence of neurons for anger. And the key is to disrupt this circuit.

Deep breathing helps alleviate stress , but “targeting relaxation alone is not enough, since the child needs access to these skills during the fast paced challenges of everyday life.”  So the child must be taught to make “fast paced decisions.”

But wait. As novel as all of this undoubtedly sounds, there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned– the breathing isn’t integral to winning the game.

You’d expect an expanding force-field around the earth to actually do something, like slow down the enemies, or cause some damage. But no. It does absolutely nothing. The brain only receives the visual cue for the expanding force field.  If it doesn’t do anything in the game, how will the child associate it with calming anger?

And ‘breathing’ into the microphone is not the right description of the experience. ‘Blow into’ is more appropriate.  The microphone’s feedback sucks. (Or was it intentionally programmed that way?)

All this made no sense. So I went up to Jason Kahn, the go-to guy for the exhibit.  “I hadn’t really thought of that.” Dr. Kahn said. “To do it, what I’d need to figure out, is how to measure the in-breath and out-breath.”  Or something on those lines.

In its present form, the game won’t help a child long term. I’m sure that under controlled conditions a child will breathe because asked. Alone, it will take a child two seconds to realize that the breathing is not helping him win the game and his brain will ignore the cue for breathing thereon.

The philosophy behind this game is to assist in activating parts of the pre-frontal cortex which helps regulate our emotional outbursts and tames the amygdala.

 

But this is like yanking the plug from anger. Without the breathing integrated into the game mechanics, the child isn’t ‘learning’ to control rage long term. The game becomes a crutch on which the child has to depend from time to time, to defuse the amygdala. Without the game, how hard would it be to put the plug back in?

If I made a game like this, breathing would have been the central component. The cognitive distractions would be exactly that – distractions. The child would have to figure out how to use breathing to make the game easier as the levels increased in difficulty gradually.

Moral of story: concentrating too much on the brain circuitry can distract from the welfare of patient welfare.

Apparently, there was a previous version where heart-rate was a variable instead of breathing. If I was a kid, I would’ve liked that one better.

PROPUBLICA #3: FINDING OSCAR

This week I’ll concentrate on a single post. Rather, a series of updates compiled under one title: FINDING OSCAR In Our Investigations.

The story of a refugee from Guatamela, allegedly orphaned by war but too young to remember the atrocity he survived.  Also the story of bringing the perpetrators of a horrific war crime to justice, and how tedious this process can be when these perpetrators have sought asylum in the United States under pretense of being victims of war in their immigration applications.  While reading it, one thing stuck in my head was how this story was worthy of film treatment, yet how the nuts and bolts of the entire investigation, which would typically be downplayed in film, were just as important.  The descriptions of the rapes, tortures and murders were difficult reading. It is impossible not to feel wrathful at how calmly some mass murderers go about their business under protection of ‘law’.

But first, the organization:

FINDING OSCAR_UNDERLINED

The essentials are highlighted. The number of updates since last visit is mentioned along with total number of posts. The slideshow of images summarizing Oscar’s story is  included, but I missed it the first time because of the minute font.

Commendable though this is, I find the following organization more convenient to the eye:

Oscar_alternate_organization

It divides sections up into chapters like propublica, but also provides the summary of each. Propublica on the other hand, presents everything like a long short story. Not reading it all in one go will make it difficult to keep track.

Also, this one makes it less about Oscar and more about what happened at Dos Erres.  This is advantageous because the reader will not think the content is digressing when political and investigative nuances are elaborated.  Propublica makes up for this by including a page of faces to help us keep track of a constantly expanding character list. What_happened_at_Dos_Erres

STRUCTURE   

“The call from Guatamela put Oscar on edge.”  – The first sentence is straight out of a short story.  And the crucial email where Oscar learns the truth, sent by the prosecutor begins “You don’t know me…”  Effective use of narrative….but  propublica also provides the actual email as a separate URL. The content is not in fictional style and reading it disrupts narrative flow. (The fact that Propublica needed a separate page  to explain its narrative technique and to create a roadmap for the reader suggests they are aware of the limitations of this style. )

But when the article links to actual US embassy cables exchanged when monitoring the Dos Erres incident, this is not disruptive. Because the article simultaneously tells us what to watch out for in the cables – the drab, apathetic language which is in stark contrast to the horror unfolding.n The UN report from where most of the historical context was pulled, is also presented.  Although, presenting it earlier than it was would have been more effective. I kept wondering whether half of the information was from wikipedia.

US-EMBASSY-CABLESFurthermore, every time a new character is introduced in the narrative, there is a link on the side with their picture, to previous reportage of their role, which may or may not be independent of their role in Oscar’s saga.  I’d say this was good use of the blank space along both margins of the text, except it isn’t.

There were sentences in the narrative that should have been quoted in larger font, not because they were memorable but also to assist in creating a roadmap for the reader.  E.g :

“Murderers tend to confess more readily on television than in real-life. Especially veteran commandos versed in stealth and psychological warfare.”

In a movie, a wronged character would seek vigilante justice, since the law would not permit a naturalized citizen to be extradited for crimes they committed in a different country.  Here, the prosecuting team goes about its business trying to find loopholes in immigration law.

Overall, propublica does well striking a balance between fictional techniques and reportage. All the characters, even the inhuman ones are fleshed out well.   But the story could have used more multimedia. Video links and photographs of the incident. For instance, I spent quite some time sidetracked searching for the ‘Kaibiles and their psychopathic tendencies. Simply placing a couple of photographs of this commando regiment (and there are enough around that aren’t copyrighted) would have resulted me not wasting time.

The article lost out some in trying to be ‘balanced’ in regard to its characters. A short story must always focus on a select number of characters. This is what distinguishes it from a novel. In trying to compress too many characters into limited space, and trying to do justice to them all isn’t realistic. Sara Romero, the lead prosecutor  specially, I felt, could have used more elaboration. Since her unwavering efforts and indomitable will to overcome all obstacles were central in apprehending the criminals.

Dos Erros is not yet a closed chapter. A couple of key perpetrators of the incident, high up in the chain of command still elude the prosecutors. They are out there now, hiding like rats in a hole, counting their days…

I would like to end this post with an iconic, if gruesome image of the well where all the victims were killed and dumped.

propublica_nerdblog                                                                                                                                   May their souls rest in peace…