# Camera Lenses by the Numbers

The Official Sweetie of MR&HBI has been getting behind the camera quite a bit lately and is starting to get a feel for it. She knows, for instance, that when the f-stop is lower, the picture is brighter. She knows that the 85mm lens is zoomed in closer than the 12mm lens is. But why? What do the numbers actually mean?

As a thought experiment, imagine poking a pencil through a piece of paper, then holding the paper up to your eye. When you hold the paper far from your eye, you can only see a little tiny bit of what is beyond. As you move the hole closer, you can see more. A “wider angle”, you might say. That distance from the hole to your eye corresponds to the focal length of the lens. A lens with a short focal length will show a wider angle of the world beyond it, while a long focal length will just show a tiny detail.

So far, so good. Perhaps the most mystifying number in photography is f-stop. I think the “stop” part of the term comes from the mechanics of early cameras, and doesn’t help matters. Let’s get back to the pinholes.

Let’s say your pinhole camera was built around a really, really big pin. In fact, let’s say your hole is a whole damn mile across. Obviously that’s going to let a lot of light through. You’ll overexpose your shot for sure!

Unless your mile-wide pinhole is 100 miles away. Suddenly that hole doesn’t seem so big, and the amount of light hitting your sensor is actually pretty small. In fact, your f-number is 100 – tiny tight. To get f-50 you could either double the diameter of the hole, or move the hole so it’s only 50 miles away. Either way, four times as much light will reach your sensor – the apparent diameter of the hole is doubled, but the amount of light is a function of the area of the circle. The f-number is a simple ratio, aperture/distance, and each integer you go down quadruples the amount of light that reaches the sensor.

A more reasonable pinhole camera would be a 0.3mm aperture at 50mm distance, or f-166. Light is slowly leaking through. To take a picture with a pinhole, you have to be ready to wait for a while.

Knowing where those numbers come from, we can appreciate the glass in our lenses all the more. Here at Muddled Central we have in our stable several (well, four) lenses that can go to f-numbers 2 or below. To accomplish that with a pinhole camera is simply preposterous. A “pinhole” 25mm across, mounted 50mm from the camera just wouldn’t work. Imagine holding a card with a hole the size of a quarter two inches from a white piece of paper. Do you see an image? You do not. But with glass we can make a lens that acts as if it were a 25mm pinhole 50mm from the sensor, and that’s pretty damn awesome.

Similarly, we can create lenses that don’t physically change in length, at lest not all that much, but with a twist of a ring act as if they could be stretched from, say, 24 to 105mm, the way my favorite Swiss-knife lens does.

What the glass in the lenses allows us to do is virtually create a huge pinhole and focus that light on the sensor.

As if has a sweet spot. In modern SLR’s the back element of the lens is about 45mm from the sensor, give or take. That means for those cameras it’s easier to create a lens with a focal length in the neighborhood of 45mm — there’s less magic to do.

In general, the creators of modern lenses choose to provide flexibility in one of the two measurements: They will create a lens that can cover a wide range of focal lengths (a zoom lens), or they will create a lens fixed at one focal length that has a wide range of apertures (often called a “fast” lens because it can let in enough light to allow faster shutter speeds, but Sigma has starting calling them “bright” lenses, which I like better).

Finally, and critically, there is a side effect of aperture that can turn you from a snapshot-taker into an artist*. I learned it as “depth of focus”, but others call it “depth of field”, and I might like that term better. Here’s an oversimplification: The more different ways light from a thing that’s out of focus has to get to the sensor, the blurrier it will be. When you close down the aperture, you reduce the “wrong” paths the light can take from the object to the sensor, so it is less blurry. When you open things up, objects even just a tiny bit out of the focal plane start to smear all over the place.

That observation ties us to the math of the photographer’s intent. The photographer who did my brother’s wedding had that mastered. In every shot there was no doubt who the subject was. I watched him for a while at that event, as he moved around, ghostlike, his camera in a sound-suppressing enclosure.

Not everyone has that luxury. When a lens is wide open, it lets in more light. That means you can shoot with a faster shutter, but your depth of field is reduced. What if you’re a sideline photographer at a sports event? You need the fast shutter to freeze the action, but you also need to capture all the action; usually you’re not trying to isolate one athlete in a blurry, confused world. For these people, even the most expensive lenses can only do so much.

That leads to the third leg of the exposure triangle that I’ve been dancing around (the first two being aperture and shutter speed). If you open up the lens, you get more light, but you get a shallower depth of field. If you need to stop action, you have to have a short time your shutter is open. So if you can’t take a long exposure, and you can’t open up the aperture too much, what are you going to do?

If you distill the question, you see that it really asks. “How can I take a good picture with less light?” We are asking our cameras to build a picture with less input, which to them means less information. This is the biggest difference between digital and film photography (other than the film). With film, you choose the tradeoff between quality and expedience before you even loaded your camera — you could choose a high ISO film that sacrificed image detail for speed, or you could choose film that would take abundant light and really reward it. If conditions change in the middle of your roll, you’re out of luck, Bunky. With digital, you just push a few buttons.

On the other hand, back then if you needed yet higher sensitivity you didn’t have to buy a new camera to get it. Before, light sensitivity was intrinsic to the film, now it’s intrinsic to the camera’s sensor.

Almost all digital cameras have an ISO adjustment — the name not accurate but harkening back to the ratings of film sensitivity. And super-high ISO (that doesn’t suck) is a little corner where camera manufacturers really throw down. “I can make that picture with three photons!” For a while Nikon really had the pixels but Canon had the ISO and then Nikon jumped ahead and then Sony said “hey guys, we’ll be waiting at the finish line.” It will never end.

Mostly, I just use lights.

I hope this was useful to someone. There is math in photography; it is a convergence of art and technology, as Steve Jobs used to say. You won’t be doing algebra on your shoot, but understanding the math and the fundamental tradeoffs can inform your decisions when you’re in the shoot, and provides new opportunities to make something great.

___

* In my early days in Prague, I walked around a sprawling cemetery while it snowed, and took a lot of pictures. Reviewing the results, I lamented that I could not isolate the subjects of my shots from the tangled trees in the background. Had I only understood!

# Ah, Irony

In an article at I Fucking Love Science, about strange references in hundreds of scientific publications to a paper that doesn’t exist, is this sentence:

Nevertheless, it seems that the phantom reference is a symptom of wider problems within academic science publishing, such as low-quality control, careless editing, and – the real bugbear – predatory journals.

The article’s actually pretty interesting, and worth the thirty seconds it would take you to read it. But man. Low-quality control, in a sentence about low-quality editing. If you’re ever going to be really, really careful about a sentence you write, it should be the one critical of others’ editorial standards.

# Going All-Out for the Finals

We’ve applied a lot of science to ritual cannibalism in this house, trust me. It started a few seasons ago when we had roast duck for dinner on the first night of the season when the Sharks hosted the Anaheim Ducks. The duck didn’t turn out as well as it might have, and the Sharks lost. In the ensuing seasons, the duck has been ever-more delicious, and the Sharks have won the season opener against the rival Ducks by ever-more comfortable margins. Last year, after stuffing the duck with orange quarters, we shut them out. Orange county, you see.

The science of ritual cannibalism is, therefore, irrefutable. We eat the duck, we beat the Ducks.

This year, as the home team has progressed through the playoffs, we (and by ‘we’ I mostly mean the Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas) have explored the proper dishes required to vanquish ever-more-fearsome foes. For Nashville, whose fans throw catfish onto the ice, we ate catfish.

St. Louis was a little trickier: They are the Blues. How do you eat a musical style? We went with the color, which is slightly less tricky. We started with (yummy) Blueberry Crumble, but of course that didn’t work: we took their crumble, leaving them steadfast. We switched to a (delicious) blue cheese sauce on pork chops and never looked back.

Of course, there’s plenty of other Fan Science at work as well. Official Sweetie’s old-school Sharks t-shirt is banned from the living room at game time. When things aren’t going well, a glass of Canadian Whiskey will reverse our fortunes. The list goes on.

Pittsburgh has proven to be our greatest challenge yet. You don’t just pop down to Costco and grab a family-size tray of frozen penguin. Happily there are gummy penguins, and where there’s a will there’s a sauce.

For game one it was chicken (a flightless bird) with penguin sauce, and while it was most tasty, it was not effective. The Sharks started the game poorly, and though things stabilized after I turned to the whiskey it was too late. A heartbreak goal in the waning minutes sent our boys back to their hotel with heads bowed.

The menu for game two: Game hen with penguin sauce, with black and white rice. Really, really, tasty. Another close game; the whiskey brought the team back but they gave up a goal in overtime and were down in the series 2-0. Either game could have tilted the other direction, and while the Penguins seemed to be in charge much of the time they weren’t scoring very much. It wouldn’t take much to turn things around.

More research was required.

Thank goodness for the Internet. Sidney Crosby, the captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins and a darn good hockey player, is a man of ritual. On game day, he always has a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Aha! we had found the chink in his armor.

And speaking of science, pork chops are a proven winner. Forget the symbolism of the flightless birds; go with what works!

For game three tonight, we pulled out all the stops for victory. Pork chops grilled outdoors with a peanut butter and jelly and melted penguin sauce. Do not cringe, my friends, it was absolutely delicious. The char from the barbecue added the perfect bitter note to work with the sweet/salty sauce. Rice and grilled green beans rounded out the meal. I wore the black t-shirt, not the gray one. Canadian Whiskey, as always, stood at the ready.

We found out not long before game time that one of the Sharks’ best young players would not be playing due to injury. Tomaš Hertl had hit the iron frame of the net three times in the game two heartbreak; had any one of those three shouts bounced the other direction the Sharks could well have won. It was going to be up to the pork chops to make up for the critical loss for San Jose.

It was a nail-biter, I have to tell you, but in the end the good guys prevailed, scoring in overtime after steadily looking more confident all game. Joonas Donskoi, or “Donkey” as we call him, slipped a shot past the Pen’s excellent net minder as the home crowd made enough noise to be heard in space.

As we celebrated at home the Official Sweetie said, “I hope we have more pork chops.”

# Language and Perception

Recently I came across an article with what I thought was a ridiculous title: No one could see the color blue until modern times. What what what? Color perception is a function of physiology, right?

Or maybe not. Training may play a larger role than we (or at least I) thought. If you don’t have a word for a color, maybe you don’t learn to see it.

If the above article is not bullshit, it would seem that ancient languages are unified in their lack of a word for the color blue. If you trace the introduction of color in ancient literature, it follows a general pattern with blue coming last. Interesting enough, but a study (you know how I love those studies) of tribesmen in Namibia, whose language still does not include “blue”, found that those who could not say blue could also not see blue.

Crazy, right?

Way back in college I participated in a classroom experiment to show the every-psych-major-knows fact that people respond to red lights faster than they react to green. I asked the professor (one of my favorite teachers ever) if the experiment had ever been conducted on people who had never seen a traffic signal or a brake light. I got the eyebrow-raised “good question” response, but not an actual answer.

And then there’s the widely-accepted fact that women perceive colors differently than men do. I have always assumed that there is something intrinsic to the Y-chromosome that allows men to see true color the way God intended, but maybe it’s just that ‘mauve’ is not part of the standard male vocabulary until it’s too late. Lacking training in mauve perception, we just never get it.

In another thousand years, what colors might people see? I’m not sure, but I suspect women will see them first.

The image above was hoisted from the referenced article. I hope they don’t mind.

# The One Thing that will Make You Healthy

There’s a guy out there right now flogging a diet book, who, along with a few poignant anecdotes, points to scientific studies which show that foods that cause your blood sugar to spike lead to more organ fat. The one and only thing you need to do to be healthy is eat more veggies and nuts, and avoid sugar and white flour.

Another diet says (pretty much) if you eat a lot of fat, your body will learn to burn fat.

There are plenty of other diets that show that fewer carbs, or less fat, or whatever, will lead you to the better life you’ve been craving. Each of those diets will claim to be based on science, and delve into insulin, glucose, neurotransmitters, and so on.

Each diet says there’s ONE THING you have to do to be healthy. Well, mainly one thing, but it doesn’t hurt to adopt other healthy habits as well.

Some of the diets are downright contradictory, but they all claim to have science on their side. How can this be?

There’s something remarkably cool going on, right now: In the last fifteen years we’ve learned a lot of really interesting stuff about how the body responds to the food we eat and even the mechanisms that make us feel hungry in the first place. If nutrition and health is a puzzle, we are finally getting to understand what shape the pieces are. It is conceivable that in a couple more decades we’ll have a pretty good look at what the puzzle actually looks like.

In the meantime, folks with medical degrees are choosing individual pieces of that puzzle and they are selling them as a complete answer. They’re not wrong, really, but they are absolutely overselling the facts. Activity X leads to hormone Y and therefore you get fat.

A scientific survey of the experiments testing the diets, which, alas, I can no longer find the link to, discovered an interesting thread: All the diets, when carefully followed, were beneficial, and none of the diets was clearly better than any of the others.

In the end, it came down to the same thing your mother told you when you were a kid: eat more veggies, and get more exercise. You just didn’t know at the time that you mother was that far ahead of science.

The one thing you can do to be healthier? Listen to your mother.

# Junk Science — A Telltale Sign

The other day a friend of mine posted a link to a peer-reviewed scientific study concerning the effects of a vegetarian diet. He posted an excerpt from the paper’s abstract:

Our results revealed that a vegetarian diet is related to a lower BMI and less frequent alcohol consumption. Moreover, our results showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with poorer health (higher incidences of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders), a higher need for health care, and poorer quality of life.

Before I even clicked the link, alarm bells were going off. Just in those two sentences, they list seven things measured. That’s not science, kids, that’s shooting dice in the alley. If you measure enough things about any group of people you’ll find something that looks interesting. Holy moly, I thought, how many things did this survey try to measure, anyway? (I believe the answer to that is eighteen.)

It’s possible that some of the correlations these guys found actually are significant, and not the result of random chance. It’s not possible to tell which ones they might be, as it’s almost certain that many of the conclusions are completely bogus.

And then there’s selection bias. I read elsewhere (link later) that in Austria, many vegetarians eat that way on Doctor’s orders, because they’re already sick. That will skew the numbers.

But the paper was peer-reviewed, right? I spent a little time trying to figure out who those peers might be, but there’s no sign of them I could find on the site where this paper is self-published. And, frankly, “peer-reviewed” doesn’t mean shit anymore. Peers are for sale all over the place. If you can’t see the credentials of the people who reviewed the work, it may as well not be peer-reviewed at all.

And none of the authors seem to have any credentials or degrees themselves. Perhaps they just didn’t feel compelled to mention them, but that strikes me as odd — especially for Europeans, who traditionally love to lay on the titles and highfalutin name decorations.

The site has 53 references to that article being mentioned in the media. Some of the places that quote this nonsense actually have “science” in their titles. Sigh. Apparently Science 2.0 is Science where you believe every press release that crosses your desk. Perhaps Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas will make number 54 — although I suspect the keepers of PLOS ONE might not want this reference promoted. But to their credit they do show the link to an article in that Bastion of Science Outside Online, where at least one journalist took a sniff before pressing the “publish” button.

Outside Online, you do science better than Science 2.0. You have my admiration.

So is this research totally useless? Actually, no. It’s possible a grad student somewhere could find ONE of the claims made in the paper interesting enough to do REAL science to improve our understanding of nutrition and health. The study might be to test the hypothesis “a vegetarian diet increases the chances of lymphoma,” or something like that. A single question, while keeping the rest of the variables as controlled as possible in a human study (which is really tough).

That work would take years to accomplish and would not show up in The Guardian or probably even Outside Online. It would be a small brick in our edifice of understanding, a structure that has been growing for hundreds of years.

So when you read about “a study” that shows many things, look at it with squinty eyes and you’ll see behind it a group of people rolling the dice, and there’s often no telling who their master is. It’s not really a study at all, but a press release with numbers.

# Comparing Mileage

Today I rode past a billboard advertising a Jeep SUV of some sort, proclaiming the beast gets 39 miles per gallon. That’s not too shabby — build a carpool around that vehicle and you have decent efficiency. It made me wonder, as I pedaled along: what sort of mileage am I getting?

Strava estimates that at my rather-slow cruising speed along a straight, flat road (fair for comparing “highway mileage”) I’m putting out about 150 watts of effort (or less, but I’m rounding in favor of cars). Pessimistically I’m burning about five times that in stored food energy (my gasoline equivalent); the rest of the energy winds up as heat in my muscles. So I’m consuming about 750 watts to roll along at 15 miles per hour. That’s fifteen miles for 750 watt-hours, or 20 miles for one kilowatt-hour.

A gallon of gas has the energy equivalent of about 37 kWh, so were I running on gasoline, I’d get about 20 x 37 miles, or roughly 740 miles per gallon — let’s call it 700 to avoid any pretense of precision.

700 mpg! Not bad! If I lost a little more weight my mileage would get even better (or more likely I’d just ride faster).

# Calculating Calories is Hard!

I’ve been using both MapMyRide and Strava to track my bicycle rides recently. In addition, I’ve been using the activity app on my slick new Apple Watch. Each estimates how many calories I burned on my ride, but the numbers are very different. For example, on my ride to work yesterday morning:

MapMyRide: 814 Calories
Strava: 643 Calories
Watch: 757 Calories

Dang – those are quite different numbers, especially when you consider that MapMyRide and Strava are using pretty much the same data and coming to very different conclusions. What gives? CAN I EAT THAT DONUT OR NOT?

Strava and MapMyRide use speed and (maybe) elevation change in a formula with the rider’s weight to come out with an estimate of how many calories the rider burned. Strava lets me set the weight of my bike; I don’t know what MapMyRide assumes. I’m pretty confident that neither really uses elevation changes well. And headwinds? Forget it.

Both services can come up with a better wild-ass guess if you use a special crank or pedals that directly measure how hard you are working. They directly measure the output of your muscles, so the only remaining guesswork is how many calories you burned to do that work (some people are more efficient than others). There’s a Garmin setup that will tell you if one leg is doing more work than the other. I have no such device.

The most accurate way available to measure calories burned is to measure how much carbon dioxide one exhales. Rather than measure the work you did, you’re measuring how much exhaust you produced. This is impractical on a bike ride, however.

Which brings me to the gizmo strapped to my wrist. It estimates calories based on my heart rate. I have no idea what formula it uses, but hopefully it incorporates my resting heart rate (which it measures throughout the day) and my weight (which I have to remember to tell it), and maybe even my age. The cool thing is that heart rate is directly related to carbon dioxide production. When I’m riding fifteen mph with a tail wind, I’m barely working at all. When I’m pushing against gale-force breezes at the same speed, I’m huffing and my heart is thumping. To Strava and MapMyRide, the rides look the same. The watch knows the truth.

When WatchOS 2 comes out (the “features we couldn’t get perfect in time for WatchOS 1” release), Strava will be able to access my heart data. I’m interested to see what that does to the numbers.

In the meantime, I’m listening to my watch.

# At Last, An Answer to One of Life’s Burning Questions

Many, many years ago, in a time called the 1980’s, my roommates and I were sitting in our little house in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, talking about this and that. There may have been beer present. The conversation stumbled upon this question:

If you bounce a ball bearing off a steel plate and measure the height of the bounce, will it bounce higher or lower if you cool down the plate?

Before skipping to the end of this episode to see the answer, think about that question for a minute. On the one hand, you could imagine that the warmer plate is squishier, and would absorb more of the kinetic energy of the ball. Or would it be springier, and act like a trampoline? Does the fact that there is more energy in the overall system when the ball and the plate are warm mean more energy for bouncing?

We were stumped, and at the time there was no Internet. We did have one ace in the hole, however, because my good friend and former college roommate was an expert in… material science! So we called him up, fully aware that he was three time zones ahead of us and it was pretty late even in California.

That night, our Science Expert didn’t seem that enthusiastic about the mysteries facing mankind. It was a pretty short conversation.

I began to look like we might never find the answer to this burning question. Little did I know, but NASA engineers were also curious about the bounciness of steel balls as a function of temperature, and ’round about 1994 they built this gizmo to run some tests:

Device to bounce metal things on other metal things.
Source (crooked and everything)

I ran across the phrase “coefficient of restitution” when reading an example of how to calculate standard error in scientific measurements. The example used was about bounciness and temperature. Zounds! With fevered brow and shaking hands I pasted that into duck-duck-go and found this NASA paper, scanned and recorded for posterity by some underpaid intern.

To be honest, the paper is more an Engineering exercise than a real scientific paper (I’ll discuss another NASA ‘research’ project at a later date), but it does have graphs and whatnot, and here is the conclusion: metal balls bounce higher when they are colder, except for the occasional case where they do not. But MOSTLY, colder metal means higher bounce.

Whew. That’s a hell of a load off my mind.

# Junk Science is Everywhere

You would really expect better from Prevention Magazine (image lifted from the linked article on io9)

Perhaps you remember the headlines a while back: “Eat Chocolate to Lose Weight!” Every week we learn about a new study that shows that X helps you lose weight. And right there is the first problem:

A study.

Singular. Let’s get something straight right now: A single study has never proven anything, ever. This is a fundamental part of science. When someone makes a discovery, it’s exciting. When enough other people confirm that discovery, it’s knowledge. “A study” is useful to guide future research and to provide fun anecdotes on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”. But that’s all.

Back to the chocolate. The finding that chocolate helped weight loss was discovered in a laboratory study with the proper protocols, and published in a peer-reviewed journal. So, that’s real science, right? Even if it hasn’t been independently reproduced, isn’t it still important health news? You can’t blame the health press for jumping on something as sexy as “chocolate makes you thin”.

But then the people who did the study came forward and told the world that it was all bullshit. They’d done it to prove how easy it is to get junk science into the mainstream. Even they had not imagined how easy it would be.

Let’s start with the scientific study itself. It’s generally considered scientifically significant if the result of the test is less than 5% likely to be the result of random chance. Yep, it’s considered acceptable that one in twenty scientific experiments is incorrect just based on random chance. Madness? Not really, when you consider that all the studies in a field eventually have to work into an interlocking puzzle that forms a bigger picture. The studies that were incorrect either by blind bad luck or poor procedures get weeded out when others cannot reproduce the results.

But what if you test twenty things at the same time? Statistically now you’re very likely to hit a false positive. To quote the article:

Here’s a dirty little science secret: If you measure a large number of things about a small number of people, you are almost guaranteed to get a “statistically significant” result.

In the jargon of the junk-science industry, this is called “p-stacking”. An incredible number of the health claims you read are likely the result of this film-flam.

“But,” you might ask, “aren’t there systems to filter this shit out before it goes mainstream?”

Well… yes, but those systems are pretty much broken. First off, science is a discourse, and all new ideas have to run a gauntlet of “peer review”. Ideally, the peers may not agree with the conclusions, but you damn well better dot your i’s and cross your t’s. If you take shortcuts in your process, your peers will keep you out of the journals. In the major journals, the reviewers take their work really seriously.

But now there are journals that, for a price will publish whatever twaddle you wish to sell. While they claim to be peer-reviewed, the peers seem only to be reviewing whether your check clears, and have little interest in the scientific validity of your study.

Academia may not be fooled, but the fifth estate certainly is. Journalists who are trusted to sort through the garbage and bring important health information to their readers instead just blare the sexiest headlines. In some cases, the online comments by the readers of those articles ask the questions the so-called journalist should have asked before even running the story.

In the chocolate scam, they recognized another important fact: if the press release is actually written as an article fit for a magazine, even fewer questions are asked. It’s jut cut, paste, and print.

The press is making hay selling junk science to you and me. We trust them to vet the information they bring us, and they are doing a terrible job. It’s not just health science, but that’s where most of the crap seems to be flying these days.

So if what passes for journalism these days won’t ask the hard questions, we have to. Don’t change your diet because of “a study”. Even honest studies are found to be false later on, and damn few of the health articles we read are based on honest studies. (That “damn few” assertion is totally baseless. I have no statistics to back it up. But you were right there with me, weren’t you?)

For your homework assignment, I’d like you to Stop And Think when you see something on Facebook, especially in the health industry. Maybe do five minutes of research on the people making the claim. Then CALL THEM ON IT. Say, “Hey! I call Junk Science on you!”

Get double-serious when you read the shit in magazines. Let’s publicly shame the so-called journalists who dump this stuff out without asking the hard questions first. Demand footnotes. Check sources. Someone has to teach those bozos their jobs.

# Better Feet and the Conquest of the Galaxy

There’s an ad going around right now, for a car of all things, that features a woman who does not have the feet she was born with. It’s a cool ad, non-sequitur notwithstanding, but there’s a message there that maybe the car company didn’t intend.

The message is this: for certain well-defined purposes, we can build better feet than the ones we were born with.

We haven’t come close to matching the versatility of the human foot, and in my lifetime we probably won’t reproduce the feel of my toes wrestling with those of my sweetie, but if you want to sprint 100 meters there’s nothing like having springs for feet. People without human-born feet aren’t allowed in our races anymore.

So while the car company is trying to tie us to their brand through the undeniable awesomeness of this woman, there is another message, possibly more germane to their product: We can build some amazing shit these days. Technology that transforms lives.

It’s only a matter of time before folks start asking to have their weaker flesh-feet replaced with a socket that can accommodate a wide variety of specialized appendages. Once we develop muscle replacements that can be controlled by our nervous systems, things get crazier. And more powerful. There’s no reason to think that won’t happen in the moderately-near future.

Which leads, if you’re willing to follow me, to the Fermi Paradox. Fermi asked, “if there are so many stars, and presumably so many planets, where are all the civilizations?” The assumption is that any technological civilization will eventually send ships out to the stars, and even if it takes 10,000 years to get to the next place, that over a couple million years you can fill up a galaxy. It’s that exponential thing. And with millions of starters, one at least ought to succeed.

The ability to create a person who is powered by a nuclear reactor or solar cells, who can endure the hardships of empty space, makes that conundrum all the more perplexing. Better feet, better lungs, better heart. They’re all just machines serving our brains. We can give them galactic lifespans.

So the brains have to be the weak link, right? A car is just a way to get your brain to another location. Rocket feet are the same thing, but way cooler.

There’s an event that the Science Fiction crowd calls ‘The Singularity’. It’s the point at which we silly humans build something that surpasses us. It might be through genetic engineering, it might be though cybernetics, or whatever. Usually it’s presented as a scary thing; hell, nobody wants to become obsolete. But maybe better really is better.

But if it could happen here, doesn’t it stand to reason that it has happened a million times before? So where are those guys?

I have theories, but none I’m terribly convinced by. Either we are really unusual to reach the point of making custom feet, or there’s something ahead we’re really not going to like. Statistics favors the latter, but there’s a lot we don’t know. Meanwhile, let’s just keep on making things better.

# Belly Fat and Elusive Causality

Recently a couple of scientific studies like this one have caught the headlines. The studies conclude that people who drink more diet soda tend to gain more weight, especially gut fat, which is the worst.

This is an important and interesting fact, but almost right away people were saying, “diet soda causes belly fat.” While that may be true, that conclusion is not supported by the studies. The studies show exactly one thing: people who drink more diet soda tend to gain more weight. That is all the studies show. There could, for instance, be a fundamental genetic twist that makes diet soda tastier to some people, that also makes them more inclined to gain weight. Sound farfetched? Possibly it is, but the human animal is complicated, and wacky stuff turns out to be true all the time. There are enough alternatives to the conclusion that diet soda causes belly fat retention that we have to pay attention to them.

Brief aside: Here’s my unscientific take on artificial sweeteners. I avoid them, mostly, but not fanatically. I’ll stick with the known health consequences of the foods my organism evolved eating. I am (unscientifically) confident that those fancy chemicals come with a gotcha — even though the beer next to my elbow right now has far more proven negative health consequences. I am fully aware of the dichotomy in my reasoning.

Anyway, as the press picks up on the story of diet fatness, journalists flip through their electro-rolodexes to S-for-Scientist to find someone credible willing to comment on the story. On the record, respected people speculate on how diet soda and fat could be linked. Perhaps people stop associating sweet tastes with feeling full, one says. Another mentions gut bacteria in rats, and so forth. The press is (generally) careful to present these speculations for what they are.

Then those honest speculations hit Facebook as full-blown fact, and some asshole writes a book selling the shit from Facebook back to the same wide-eyed consumers, and you have another thing everyone knows that may not be true. That person will make a bunch of money, get on talk shows, and…

Hang on a sec, I have a book to write. I think I’ll call it “The Sugar-Free Plague: How Artificial Sweeteners are Destroying Everything You Love”. I probably need a sub-subtitle about big corporations and the government.

This cycle happens all the time, especially in the health fields. Any time you read “X boosts your immune system” you’re probably reading bullshit, or at the very least unproven wish fulfillment. How about this from Harvard Health:

For now, there are no scientifically proven direct links between lifestyle and enhanced immune function.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any, hell, that would be a crazy proposition. But the thing is, out of the dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of purported immune-boosters, only a relative handful will ever prove to be effective. Overall, “do healthy things” is the advice Harvard gives. Vitamin C, the one everyone knows helps the immune system? Jury’s still out — direct evidence has been elusive, and unfortunately there’s a lot of bad science surrounding this critical nutrient.

The good news is that there’s a lot of good science focussed on this stuff now, and the folks in the labs have tools now that would make Watson and Crick green with envy.

Back to the original theme: There is an entire category of scientific study devoted to finding correlations. Diet soda and belly fat have been shown to be correlated. That’s important, but primarily as a guide to future research. It doesn’t mean that if you switch back to regular Dr. Pepper you’re going to lose weight. Far from it. It does mean that physiologists and psychopharmacologists have a very interesting fact to explain. And when they do, it will help a lot of people.

The correlation studies get the headlines. By the time the nitty-gritty details are worked out, finding causality in the correlation, we’ve already moved on to the next wide-eyed incredulous breakthrough, published first on Twitter.

# California’s Drought and Climate Change

We had a nice storm pass through this week, but it’s going to take a lot more to end California’s water woes. The state is simply running out. The Official Residence of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas has gone into full-on conservation mode, and we hope all our neighbors do likewise.

I hear people around me saying, “Take that, global warming deniers! Here’s your proof!” The thing is, that’s not actually true. I did some reading recently, and the gnomes in their supercomputing centers, honing their climate models ever-sharper, still think that Northern California will be getting more rain as a result of global warming, not less. Farther south there will be less rain, and where the inflection point lies is the subject of much analysis. Current best guess out of UCLA is that the line is around Los Angeles.

But wait — we’re supposed to be getting more rain? Then what’s up with this drought? Does it disprove global warming? A well-informed global warming denier could get some mileage sowing doubt in the climatologists’ computer models.

The thing is, this drought is weather. Just as you can’t calculate the mileage of your car based on a single drive to the store, you can’t form meaningful conclusions about climate based on a couple of years of weather.

And the drought isn’t really contrary to the climate models, anyway. While California may get more water in any given twenty-year period, the weather is likely to become more extreme in both directions — very dry periods followed by very very wet ones. The weather on a given day is almost never average, and will be average even less in the future. So in fact we are more likely to have droughts, but there will be floods between them.

Right now, a flood seems like a pretty good thing. It would take a lot of rain before California couldn’t find a use for it. Hell, if it rained enough, people in the cities could have grassy lawns like they do in other places.

Wait? They do have grassy lawns in desert cities even as the state’s farms dry up? Why, that makes no sense at all. Maybe we need this drought to last a while longer, so we can end that crazy habit and change the way water is allocated. It will probably take a true emergency to turn that boat around. (I feel obliged to confess that I had a small grassy lawn in San Diego and I liked it. I like grass. But it’s time we found alternatives in places where lawns don’t grow by themselves.)

So while Northern California might be getting more rain in the future, we are powerless to control when that rain will fall. Conservation may be different going forward, more about efficient storage during the wet years (and the will to not squander the water when it’s in the reservoir), but conservation will still be critical to the state’s continued prosperity — and its ability to help feed a nation.

# Big Wednesday

I got on the scale yesterday morning, and all I could say was, “ugh.” Feasting on Chinese food the night before had its consequences. “What is it about Wednesdays?” I asked myself. It seemed like I’d seen a few Wednesdays like this.

But had I? This is how urban legends are born. You start to get a feeling that something is true: “I tend to gain weight on Wednesdays” or “More babies are born when the moon is full.” Then every time you see something that corroborates the impression, the more sure you get. Meanwhile, you don’t notice the unremarkable Wednesdays when weight follows its usual pattern.

However, having measured and recorded my weight consistently since last June (well, mostly consistently – more on that in a bit), I had the data to actually measure whether Wednesdays were Big Wednesdays or not. It took a little fiddling (I am not the spreadsheet-jockey that many of my coworkers are, and Apple’s spreadsheet, Numbers, lacks an obvious function that would have made this much easier), but I ended up with this graph:

My weight change by day of week. (For me, negative is good.) The horizontal blue line is the average for all days.

It turns out Wednesdays are net-gain days, but not as bad as Mondays or Tuesdays. It’s odd that despite my having lost 13 pounds over that time, the first half of the work week still shows a net increase in plumpness. Notice also the shorter error bars Wednesday and Thursday; for whatever reason (or for no reason at all) the numbers are in a closer range on those days.

As you look at the graph, keep in mind that I weigh myself first thing in the morning, so the weight change is a reflection of the choices I made the day before. So while I show the most weight gain on Mondays, it’s actually what I do on Sunday that leads to it.

There’s also a subtle measurement bias that makes the weekend look better at the expense of Monday. I sleep in on the weekends, so my body processes a measurable amount of extra water before I climb on the scale. So, Saturdays may not be as good as they seem in this graph, and Mondays may not be as bad. Even so, it’s hard to ignore the trend that shows up here, and it makes me wonder a couple of things.

First, I’m not aware of anything I do substantially differently on Thursday than I do on Monday, yet the outcome seems quite different. This suggests to me that the lag time between decision and consequence is often more than twenty-four hours. That bulge early in the week may be the previous weekend catching up to me. Or it may not; there’s no way to tell from this data. I may try to research this further out there on the Internet.

Second, is this information actionable? Can I look at this little graph and make better life choices on Mondays? Probably I can, but honestly, I probably won’t. This graph will likely remain for me a mildly-interesting little factoid, and as long as my week-on-week numbers stay in the green, I’ll not worry so much.

# Like a Duck

Let’s pause for a moment to talk about Quack Science.

We’re all about facts here at Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas, so this afternoon I went in search of a factoid I’d heard tossed out in an advertisement, upon which I hope to one day base an episode. That little bit of analysis will have to wait, however, because I stumbled across another, shinier trivium, and while “researching” that (also known as drifting through Duck-Duck-Go results), I stumbled across a Grand Conspiracy.

The interesting nugget: 99% of the molecules in your body are water. Most of the time we hear about the composition of the body in terms of mass, where water can account for somewhere in a very broad neighborhood of 60% (how much fat is in your body being the major variable). But water molecules are relatively small, compared to all the proteins and whatnot, so if you just want to count the sheer number of molecules, well, they’re mostly water.

While digging into my research I discovered that just by telling you that little fact, I am a rebel. It seems Modern Science doesn’t want you to think about the water in your body that way. I found a site that leads with

Settled Science has some very strange fixations about water and mass.

Uh, oh, I thought. I believe I hear ducks in the distance. Apparently comparing body composition using the masses of the constituent chemicals is a fixation. Using Wikipedia as the reference for what Settled Science wants you to believe, the blogger goes on about how widely the number varies from person to person, and so forth. He doesn’t say why this is bad, just that it’s “quantitatively meaningless”.

Step one to selling people quack science: pick a straw man and throw insults at it. “Science says this! But that’s not true! So trust me instead!

I kept reading, because I was curious what the guy was selling.

Apparently, it’s much more quantitatively meaningful to count the number of molecules rather than their mass. The reason for this is unclear. Never mind that his number is based on exactly the same measurements, with exactly the same variation, just doing a little math on the results. His own tables even show this.

Step two in selling Quack Science: baffle them with bullshit. The numbers look different. He’s got more decimal places (a sign of bad analysis). He must be on to something!

Presumably, this curious charade of mainstream misdirection is undertaken so that the casual reader doesn’t realise that 99% of molecules in the human body are water.

First, I love the phrase “curious charade of mainstream misdirection”. I’m gong to use it, I promise. Second, what a bizarre presumption. Why in the name of all that’s holy would anyone bother to prevent casual readers from pondering this mildly-interesting trivium? Curious indeed. Perhaps even nonsensical.

Step three in selling Quack Science: Set up the Establishment to be toppled by the white-night rogue scientist.

Thankfully, Dr Gerald Pollack [University of Washington Bioengineering] is far more direct.

OK, then! Now we’re about to get the sales pitch.

Only what we get is a video by Dr. Pollack showing how he can make water do crazy stuff, and thoughts on ways his discoveries might be useful, increasingly speculative as the presentation continues. Desalination definitely got my attention. (If I were a billionaire, I’d spend my lucre building bulletproof, low-maintenance solar desalination facilities in communities around the world that need them most.)

And our colorful blogger who spent all this time tilting at windmills? He just fades away, leaving me without a final conclusion to mock. Rebellion was his only product, and in the end, doing an extra step of math on the mainstream numbers and calling it rebellion was his only trick.

But then for bonus points I found a whole bunch of products that are loudly quoting (or misquoting) Dr. Pollack to sell fancy water bottles and crap. Often they will have a sentence that starts out with his quote, then adds to it, putting words in his mouth.

Because if you’re 99% water, that makes what you drink that much more important. Some of the products are blink-blink ridiculous, some are just portable water softeners. One kickstarter offered “Living” water. Yikes.

Get this: “Far-infrared emitted by the <product’s magic beads> enliven your water to improve your bodies natural healing capabilities” Never mind that every object at room temperature emits infrared; what does that even mean? What’s the difference between enlivened and non-enlivened water? How does that affect you, physiologically? IS IT SAFE? Are people going to start having aliens explode from their guts because of ‘enlivened’ water? And dudes! LEARN SOME FUCKING GRAMMAR!

That company also thought oranges were alkaline, and conveniently glossed over the part where the water is immediately dumped into a pool of acid when you swallow it. The more alkaline the input, the more acid your stomach creates.

I’ll let you research those products on your own; I don’t want to boost their search engine ranks with a link.