On Nautil.us: How Big Data Creates False Confidence

Another SNF-workshopped article on Facts So Romantic, the blog of Nautilus magazine:

If I claimed that Americans have gotten more self-centered lately, you might just chalk me up as a curmudgeon, prone to good-ol’-days whining. But what if I said I could back that claim up by analyzing 150 billion words of text? A few decades ago, evidence on such a scale was a pipe dream. Today, though, 150 billion data points is practically passé. A feverish push for “big data” analysis has swept through biology, linguistics, finance, and every field in between.

But there’s a problem: It’s tempting to think that with such an incredible volume of data behind them, studies relying on big data couldn’t be wrong. But the bigness of the data can imbue the results with a false sense of certainty. Many of them are probably bogus—and the reasons why should give us pause about any research that blindly trusts big data.

Read the whole article on the Nautilus website.

Not All Waste Should Be Wasted

The heat of an Alabama summer afternoon certainly wasn’t helping the aroma of several million gallons of raw and partially treated sewage.  This field trip to the Auburn Wastewater Treatment Plant was always the worst one I led for my Intro to Environmental Engineering class.  Fortunately, we were near the end of the process and far from the most fragrant part of the plant.  At this point the wastewater had been treated by the sludge, which is a “fancy” name for the bacteria that eat the organics in the wastewater. The sludge had been separated out of the treated water, the bacteria had eaten each other, and the remainder had just been pressed to remove excess moisture.

We were standing next to a twelve-foot-tall pile of biosolids, the dewatered bacteria, when the tour guide pulled his usual stunt.  He took an ungloved hand and stuck it into the pile, pulling out a handful of what appeared to be a dark, rich soil.  The class reacted the way classes on these trip always react:  with revulsion.  That’s how people respond to things recovered from wastewater, completely unaware of how valuable they can be.      

The Great Poop Train

Biosolids look like rich soil because they are rich in nitrogen and organics, which are beneficial for the growth of plants.  But that doesn’t make them any more desirable to keep around, and cities often go to great lengths to dispose of them.  By 1986, New York City completed its 14 wastewater treatment plants.  The resulting wastewater system handled 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater produced every day, creating several thousand tons of biosolids. So the city set out to find somewhere to get rid of it.  At first, it was dumped into the ocean.  But in 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency told the city they had to stop dumping and find a good use for the biosolids to make amends for their previous polluting ways.  

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On Nautil.us: The Most Important Object In Computer Graphics History Is This Teapot

From an article reviewed by SNF and posted yesterday on Facts So Romantic, the blog of Nautilus magazine:

Let’s play a game. I’ll show you a picture and a couple videos—just watch the first five seconds or so—and you figure out what they have in common. Ready? Here we go:

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Did you spot it? Each of them depicts the exact same object: a shiny, slightly squashed-looking teapot…This unassuming object—the “Utah teapot,” as it’s affectionately known—has had an enormous influence on the history of computing.

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A jumping spider leaps towards its prey – a tethered fly

Six ways a jumping spider is cooler than your cat

There’s a hairy beast out on the prowl. It spots its prey from a distance, stalks along the forest floor, and pounces with a mighty flying leap. It then proceeds to suck its prey dry.

This animal is, of course, a tiny jumping spider.

You may not be used to thinking of spiders as strategic hunters, but jumping spiders have cat-like talents, bundled in package smaller than a dime. Take a look at how these spiders make your house cat look like an amateur hunter.

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Cool Your Liquor

One glass of Knob Creek (on the right) with ice, one glass (on the left) with whiskey stones.

One glass of Knob Creek (on the right) with ice, one glass (on the left) with whiskey stones.

Last December, a friend gave me an early Christmas present. The package was a perfect cube, and hefty as a rock. “Whiskey stones!” I exclaimed after tearing off the wrapping paper, and promptly gave my friend a hug.

A week later, I was exchanging gifts with my undergrad friends over our annual Christmas brunch. One friend passed me a heavy gift bag. At the bottom of an assemblage of tissue paper sat a cubed box of whiskey stones. “Oh no,” bellowed a third friend, “I got Djuna whiskey stones too!”

My friends know me well.

Whiskey stones are marketed to fellow drinkers, who have indulged in the vice long enough to prefer the burn of whiskey straight. Whereas ice, the traditional cooling agent, melts and dilutes your cocktail, whiskey stones will chill your beverage without watering it down. Although 3 sets of whiskey stones would require an imbibing of alcohol excessive even for me, one box claimed that whiskey stones could also be used to cool coffee and tea for iced beverages.

Delighted by my new alcohol accessory acquisition, I immediately began adding whiskey stones to every beverage best served cold. I had grand plans of a new life enjoying undiluted tastes, secretly laughing while others unknowingly sipped cooled drinks with a weakened flavor. How disappointing it was when, after a few weeks, I swore I would never use my plethora of whiskey stones again. This was not due to any resolution to quit drinking caffeinated beverages or whiskey (you wish, Mom). Rather, it was simply thermodynamics.
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Finding My Calling At The End Of The World

A worker checks on the repairs to the Large Hadron Collider following the Quench Incident.

Back in November 2009, the physicists, engineers and technicians at the  state of the art CERN facility worked diligently to uncover the secrets of our Universe.  Their work on a series of twenty-one million dollars in repairs to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) following an operating was coming to an end.  They were days away from restarting the particle accelerator when more than 100 terrorists took over the laboratory deep beneath the Alps on the border between France and Switzerland.  The terrorists held more than the facilities, scientists and technicians hostage – they threatened the entire world.  If their demands weren’t met, terrorists would turn on the LHC and create black holes that could destroy the Earth.  The United Nations Security Council quickly tabled its debate over child soldiers and pondered its response to this existential threat.  Fighting the insanity gripping the Council and the terror washing over the world stood an unlikely hero – the delegate to the Security Council from the Republic of Uganda. Continue reading

Life by chocolate

When I was a little girl, chocolate bars were always a special treat I got when I behaved myself. So anytime I got good grades or helped with the chores, my mom would break two little squares out of the chocolate bar in the fridge and hand them to me. Sometimes, for lesser achievements, one square, but never more than two.

The chocolate commercials on television alwaysChocolate had people running carefree through the fields, biting into the chocolate bars as if there were no squares marking out how much you could eat! Having been raised on the ‘two squares a day’ rule, that always shocked me a little.. and made me jealous. Oh, how I longed for the day when I had the freedom to buy my own bar of chocolate and bite into it at will!

However, as I grew up, I was being told repeatedly by my dentist, dermatologist and others that chocolate wasn’t good for me, and every time I had a bite, I’d feel guilty. Turns out, while my doctors were a little right (chocolate does contain a lot of sugar and milk, which aren’t necessarily good for adults), they weren’t wholly right either. Chocolate – especially dark chocolate – does have a lot of benefits, including:
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Eden Hall: An Immersion in Sustainability

An Eden Hall student garden (for a wide range of experiments) sits next to a rolling meadow.

An Eden Hall student garden (for a wide range of experiments) sits next to a rolling meadow.

Dr. Peter Walker pointed to a grassy hillside, where he plans to keep the goats with a protective llama. “It acts as kind of a guard dog against the coyotes,” he explains. The backdrop of the grassy hillside is woodlands, where oyster mushrooms are cultivated. A neat garden sits alongside, with crops such as perennials, hops, even rye for Wigle Whiskey.

“We’ve had many students interested in the Wigle project,” comments Dr. Walker.

In addition to the goats and llama, the property will one day be capable of hosting 1,500 students, with 64 residents in the first dorm. The campus is Eden Hall, home to the Chatham University Falk School of Sustainability, of which Dr. Walker is Dean. Located just 30 minutes north of Pittsburgh, Eden Hall is a fully sustainable, almost off-the-grid campus, where students spend more time experimenting in the nearby woodlands and meadows than in the classroom. “I really don’t want people in classrooms too much,” says Dr. Walker. “You learn by doing. You learn by experiments.”

For future students that dream to learn about sustainability by “doing,” Eden Hall is a rare campus that is built from the bottom up with sustainability in mind. A simple walk through the campus demonstrates that full sustainability takes more than the occasional solar panel and heat-efficient windows. Eden Hall incorporates a remarkable array of technologies that unite to make a self-sufficient campus. What went into consideration when designing a campus completely around sustainability?
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Of Maps and Models

The sun was shining and the birds were chirping in the blossoming trees as we walked along the path, trying to find the BBQ. I pushed the stroller around the bend, eyeing the large park map ahead, and glanced at my wife. Her face was set in an expression that told me she was hungry and losing patience. So was I.

We’d been trying to find this BBQ for the past 30 minutes. And now our 4-month old daughter was screaming because she kept inadvertently pulling the pacifier out of her mouth. We approached the map and I helped my daughter find the pacifier while my wife tried to figure out where we were going. Suddenly, despite the tense situation, my inner neuroscientist perked up. I couldn’t help but notice the uncanny similarity between my daughter flailing for her pacifier and our attempts to navigate with the park map.

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The Institutional Road to Maternity Leave for Carnegie Mellon University

CMU's "Walking to the Sky"

CMU’s “Walking to the Sky”

In July 2014, Megan Leitch, a civil engineering doctoral candidate at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), met with her adviser to negotiate a leave of absence. At the time, CMU allowed graduate students time off during official university holidays, and had a policy for unpaid leave if more than a week was desired. But Megan was interested in a type of leave that was not addressed: maternity leave.

“Even though I knew he would be OK with it, I still was nervous to tell [my adviser] I was pregnant,” says Megan. “I ended up just walking into his office and blurting it out.”
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