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Thursday, September 7, 2017

Missingness at the Museum

Explanation on the title: Missingness is the term for missing data. I may come across it more than
most people because I've read a lot of blogs on data scraping projects. It occurred to me that it really fits the context for this post.

The museum in question is the AMNH, which is world-famous for its dinosaur exhibits, though not so famous for its pricing structure. This is just one aspect of missingness in place.

The lines to purchase tickets get fairly long at this museum, though this past Sunday was not nearly as bad as another summer Sunday in which the line extended outside and around the block. Perhaps the special exhibit on mummies is not such a great draw. (BTW if you are interested in mummies or anything else Egyptian, you really have to take a trip to Brooklyn to see the exemplary collection of the vastly underrated Brooklyn Museum.)

I'll talk briefly about the problem with pricing information because it is related thematically to missingness, though it is not my main point. As I said, the lines to pay get very long despite the fact that there are various options to purchase tickets without waiting on that line. They include buying them online and buying them at the machines right next to the lines in front of the human cashiers.

On this particular trip, the family behind me on line made two attempts to purchase tickets via machine and then gave up and returned to the line. I noticed only one group that got off the line, purchased the tickets there, and then went straight in. Why is that? Wouldn't everyone want to cut out the wait time and go straight in?

There are a number of reasons why people persist in waiting for humans, but the primary one seems to be confusion. The entrance to the museum offers various ticket levels, from basic, to plus-one, to all-inclusive. Those prices themselves also vary by age and status: adult vs. student and child. But there are two additional factors that complicate the selection even more: One is that some of the "specials," which include both temporary exhibits and films call for times entry. The other is that really the basic admission price is supposed to be "pay what you wish" just like at the Met. However, any time you add on any special, the basic "suggested" price is rolled in.

 You may be willing to forego the specials to knock down your basic admission price from $23, but that's not an option you have when you pay at the machine. It will only accept full payments. It also will not issue you a ticket for showing your Bank of America card on the first weekend of the month. Yes, this museum is among the ones that participate in the Museums on Us program, but if you didn't check this out on your own, you'd have no way of knowing it from your visit in person. Consequently, it seems that people rarely take advantage of the program. In addition, due to the pricing structure in place, the museum does not allow visitors to count the Museums on Us entry as covering the basic cost and allow for an add-on price just for specials, something other museums do allow.

Given the fact that most of the people in the line appeared prepared to pay full suggested amounts, though, it becomes clear to me that they either don't realize that the machines will help them complete their transactions faster or that they want the person to provide information and guidance on the profusion of alternatives available. This is a major flaw in informing the public about how thing work there ahead of time in order to expedite entry.

Now to the main point of missingness, which some people fail to grasp altogether: the missingness in basic numbers that are accepted as the basis of data.

On this trip, we took a guided tour of museum highlights (though we've seen them all before). This guide included a stop in the Hall of Ocean Life, pointed out the blue whale (which you really can't miss) and spoke about how scientists come up with the population numbers now versus what they were in the past. He explained that in the past, when whales were hunted, the numbers were a function of the number killed with an extrapolation for how many must still be out there. Now that hunting whales is illegal, they use other methods to come up with an estimate of the numbers, and so they conclude that the population has diminished.

Now, I recall years ago reading about people who used a similar method to justify catching and killing wild mustangs. They figured that there were several that they didn't see for each one they did. At the time, that approach came under fire from those who considered it to favor the hunters by allowing them overstate the numbers. So if the same was the case for whales, the numbers estimated in the past were likely overstated. Even if there were not, comparing that system of counting with a count that is based on completely different assumption of counting is the proverbial comparison of apples to oranges. In other words, you're mixing two completely different systems with their own sets of missingness to come up with conclusions about numbers, and that is both inconsistent and misleading.

There is a great deal of guesswork in science. Certainly, the guide admitted this in showing the Titanosaur. Not only is it not the actual fossil but a 3D printed replica, but the replica head is based off of a completely different fossil because no head was present. we see things put together as one and assume that they are accurate. But that is often not the case, so we have to bear in mind that even visualizations that appear compelling may not reveal the whole story of the data. Misssingness  can be dealt with, but one has to know which approach was taken and whether that solution contributes to better understanding or pushes to a particular outcome that is not truly objective. For true scientists, getting things to fit alone is not the answer. That's why you see reworkings of dinosaurs exhibits every once in a while. 


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

My take on "Wait, What?"

This is not an actual review of James E. Ryan's book Wait, What?: And Life's Other Essential Questions. You can read 70 or so of those on Amazon. It's just some of my impressions, the kind of things that my husband would likely dismiss as nitpicks.  He's the one who told me to read the book after he finished himself today. I agree it is a good read, though I wouldn't consider it really life-changing.

Here's my most nitpicky nitpick: it's about a question marks. The book is set out as an exploration of 5 essential questions, and most are set as such like the question in the title. Among them is a paired set: "I wonder if .../ I wonder why..." He believes those are essential to remaining curious and engaged in life, and I do agree with the thought. I just don't agree with the punctuation that he opted for. He placed question marks after each of them, and I would punctuate them as statements because they are not really formulated as questions but as assertions about what one is thinking about.

There is a way to set the equivalent as a question, and that would be, "What would happen if ....?" or "Why does ...?"  Those are expressions of curiosity that are about the things happening rather than how one feels about them -- wondering.

He brings up that kind of curiosity as resulting in positive benefits in recounting the story of finding his birth mother. It's a nice story, though I didn't really find it as surprising as he made it out to be. What actually did surprise me is that he could claim credit for his pursuing this out of curiosity when he admitted to being perfectly content not to find out until he was 47.  I would think a really curious adopted child would have thought about finding his mother at a much younger age.

And now my final nitpick, which is not really a nitcpick but an understanding of reality that eludes the author. One of the key questions is "Could we just...?" He presents that as how his wife gradually won him over to considering having a fourth child. Now here's the thing: generally if a woman is the one who really wants the child-- barring fertility issues -- it will happen. The odds of his thwarting her ambitions in that area were slim to none. In that area the mother's wishes carry a lot more weight than the father's, so it was not really a question of if but merely of when he would agree with her.  In retrospect his agreement extends to her observation that until then the family did  not seem complete. But in reality, parents (who are not averse to being parents)  would feel that way about any child, whether it was the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, or even twelfth, as the case may be.

In terms of really useful advice, I'd say the sections on asking people how they want to be helped and the insight he gained from being shown what to do by a girl named  Cindy are worth noting.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

History in Einsenhower Park

On a visit to Eisenhower Park, I went into the the Veterans Memorial section. You can read about it here. Some have distinguishing features, like the one with an attached helmet pictured below:
Others are reminders of some aspects of history that are not included in standard curricula on WWII, like the memorial to the 4 chaplains. 

picture and text from
The information on the memorial is the following:

To learn more about the 4 Chaplains, read this: While there are over 300 memorials to their self-sacrifice, it appears that no one has ever dramatized the event.

Should you find yourself in the vicinity of the park, you can see the various memorials in person. They now extend recognition to those outside the usual parameters of army duty that were victimized,  including the "Comfort Women."

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

To Boldly Go Beyond Barriers

In the 1964 picture below, the computer is on the right, and her name is Melba Roy She went on to become Program Production Section Chief at Goddard Space Flight Center. The machine next to her was referred to as an IBM then.
pic from

Melba Roy does not appear in the film Hidden Figures, which concentrates its attention on just three of the African-American women who worked as computers in the space program, though she is mentioned in Margot Lee Shetterly's book on which the movie is based. The book covers a much longer span of time and more characters than the main three: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson.

One female of color who doesn't make it into either the film or the book is Janez Lawson. In fact, it's hard to find anything about her at all beyond what has already been unearthed by Nathalia Holt in her book The Rise of the Rocket Girls.  In truth, I found Shetterly's book a faster read, but there is more information in Holt's about women in the industry and how the role of computer became a sort of pink collar career.

In fact, though,, you need to go even further back in time to see women emplolyed as computers. And they were also focused on the stars. That's the topic of  Dava Sobel's book The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Sky . Working painstakingly through photographs of telescopic view of the heavens, these computers observed differences in spectra and worked out the classification system that shifts the alphabet around. The mnemoic device became "Oh be a fine girl, kiss me." New discoveries have contributed to new letter placement, leaving some question as to how to complete that famous mnemoic. I have to admit this book can be slow going, though it does have some nice photographs to illustrate the history, something that is also in Holt's book but missing in Shetterly's.

Another thing in those two books that Shetterly doesn't detail are some details about what the women were paid. One of the key women in the Observtory notes that she was only paid $1500 when men in comparable positions were paid $2500. Other women employed as computers were paid hourly, at the rate of 25 - 30 cents. This hourly rate must have remained the standard, as Holt says that's how the women working at NASA got paid. As a result, some of the women earned more than their husband because of the long hours they had to work. In contrast, Shetterly's book always states their earnings in yearly amounts, and the film indicates that Katherine would not have been paid any more for staying later at work. It is possible that her pay grade was changed even though she was still called a "computer."

As the Hidden Figures  book picks up the history of the computers in the 40s, it includes Miriam Mann, a contemporary of Vaughan who is described as a woman as petite and fearless. Mann repeatedly ripped down the paper sign designating a section of the cafeteria for the "colored" women. It would go back up, and she'd rip it down again until it stayed down.

Katherine Johnson with celestial Training Device
Pic from

 If you've seen the film, you'd realize how her defiance was translated into a somewhat different context with a great deal of dramatic license. For instance, Katherine Johnson achieved major recognition as the first female computer to get her name on a report as early as 1959 (published in 1960) that predates the movie. But as the center of the film, her character is subjected to Jim Crow practices in ways that didn't happen in real life. In the book, she is the "unflappable" Katherine who was never driven to an outburst about the bathrooms because  didn't question her own right to use the restroom in the building in which she worked. In light of the fact that Shetterly comments on the myths that have arisen about what Johnson encountered because the film ends up reinforcing some of them and inventing new ones.

In point of fact, it was Jackson who experienced that kind of humiliation. But she only put up with it once (Shetterly 108). Once was enough to get her to rant about her situation (not in a room full of people) in front of one man who offered that she work for him. She accepted. One really cool thing about Jackson's achievement as an engineer was not  breaking the color barrier at the school for her classes, but serving as an inspiration for her children. It's a pity the movie didn't include this episode in the book. When Jackson's son won the Virginia Peninsula Soap Box Derby, he declared, "'I want to be an engineer like my mother'" (200).

Dorothy Vaughan gets a lot more coverage in the book than in the film, as she began her computer career about two decades before the the movie opens. She actually did earn official recognition as head of the West Ara Computers unit" but lost it at the end of the decade when the unit was disbanded.  It's ironic to note that near the end of the book (264) Shetterly notes that Vaughan never learned to drive, making the carpooling scenes thrown in to show the closeness of the characters to have been historically impossible.  The library book event is not in the book either. FORTRAN was actually taught to the employees, and the on-site classes were open to all races (139). But again, that's dramatic license for you.

Dramatic license isn't necessarily bad, one just has to realize that events were a bit different in fact. On the plus side, the film is very engaging and actually presents the story in a way that works well as an introduction of the subject that can work even for young children. They would not be subjected to hearing racial epithets and they won't even see a single character smoke, though the sixties was a time when most people held a cigarette at some point during the work day.

BTW the title's Star Trek reference is deliberately placed because Shetterly refers to the popularity of the show with the NASA set as well as with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She refers to his encouraging Nichelle Nichols to stick with her role as Lt. Uhura  when she wanted to quite the show because he saw her as such a positive role model. That's somethine the actress recouted in her autobiography and even gets quoted the Wikipedia entry about her. Fictional characters can be inspiring, but sometimes real people prove equally impressive.

Additional online resource: 

 Interesting link about other women's roles in space:

On the Hidden Figures Exhibit

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Decisions, devices, data, and doctors: should you keep them away?

Some time ago, I read Eric Topol's  The Patient Will See You Now: The Future of Medicine is in Your Hands.  I also read the somewhat less bullish on technology  Robert Wachter's
The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age. Now I've just completed H Gilbert Welch's Less Medicine More Health: 7 Assumptions that Drive Too Much Medial Care with its even less sanguine view of the possibility of generating a lot more data on one's health.

It's good to read all three to get a sense of the developments in the brave new world of digital health (see Healthcare Analysis: Doctor vs. Deviceand why it's not all good.  When someone first told me about Welch's book,I envisioned something like this:

Dr. W: One of the best things you can do to improve your health is to engage in regular exercise. My father, for example, walked 2 miles to and from work each day.
Random person: That's great, how old is he?
Dr. W: He died at 60 from pneumonia he developed after becoming sick from colon cancer.
Random person: ??

That may be your intitial reaction, but if you think about it, you realize his father's early death doesn't disprove his general guidelines for health, which also include the old wisdom of "everything in moderation and nothing in excess." Dr. Welch wasn't claiming that anyone who walks is guaranteed a long life. It is just one of the factors that contributes to good health. Cancer can happen to anyone, and that doesn't disprove the fact that walking is good any more than the smoker who lives to 100 proves that smoking is not at bad for you. People have to remember that there are general rules and loads of exceptions. Dr. W. bets on the rules and what you can do for your health without taking extreme action or obsessing over every bit of health data you can access. 

He certainly offers a contrast to Topol's celebration of increasing patient access to their health data with technology. For example, Topol was thrilled with the fast blood lab analysis offered by Theranos, which has since the book's publication fallen very much out of favor with the public and the law. Topol also consider Angelina Jolie effect a very good thing, a sign of women taking charge of their health. While Welch doesn't say the star was wrong for her own situation, he argues that that kind of testing and pre-emptive surgery doesn't make sense for most people.  

Welch devotes a great deal of his book to the downside of too much data,  not just because of the irrevelant noise, but also because the information it provides can prove more harmful -- in raising anxiety level and prompting invasive actions that don't really improve one's health or wellbeing -- than helpful. This is particularly the case with breast cancer which has been selling "early detection saves lives" to push yearly mammograms on the entire female population, screenings that often raise alarms, prompty biospsies, and sometimes lead to removal of what would not have spread to pose a real threat in any case. 

Some of these issues have already been explored in books like Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women's Health (Oxford University Press, 2011). They also have gotten those in the know to change the recommendations for women's mammograms. Nevertheless, the most recent government guidelines for women's health still push that outdated information in its guidelines that allow for regular mammograms for all women 40 and up and that states unabashedly, "The good news is that mammograms can help find breast cancer early. Most women can survive breast cancer if it’s found and treated early." This dangles a false promise of saved lives that often were not in danger at all and completely ignores the harm that can result, something more and more experts are admitting as studies like this one covered by PBS, "One in three women may receive unnecessary mammograms, study says" come to light.

What's true of screening for breast cancer is also true for other forms of screening that lead to invasive tests and treatments in the attempt to "fix" problems that would not cause any ill effects if just left alone.  But even when the screening doesn't necessarily entail harm, Welch says, we should ask if it does actual good. This is important to know because the right to say "no" to  a suggested test  because there is no benefit to be derived because the information is not going to be actionable in any case is empowering for patients or their caregivers.

Here's a case in point: a couple of years ago, I brought my son in to a doctor when he had signs of a cold just to be sure it wasn't strep or something else that would require medication. The doctor decided to also test him for flu. Though both rapid tests were negative, he wanted to be sure and put in for overnight lab test for both. They, too, were negative. Now here's the thing: it may have made sense to do the strep test in case the rapid was inaccurate because someone with strep should take antibiotics, but the extended flu test made no sense at all because the results take days, and by then 1) it's too late to try to take Theraflu or any other prescribed medication to mitigate symptoms and 2) you'd know you'd have the flu or not yourself at that point based on the extent of your suffering. So the doctor had put in for a test that cost over $10

0 (not covered by insurance because after ACA went into effect, it added on a deductible for all diagnostic labs)  with no tangible benefit for the patient. The only ones who stood to benefit from the lab data are the people in NY state who collect data on flu. But they were not the one given the bill.  

It's very hard for some of us to resist the recommendations of doctors for tests, treatments, etc. That's because we have to break through our own biases that convince us the doctors know what they're doing and always acting in our own best interests. That's not to say that doctors are completely ignorant or that they are deliberately jacking up their incomes with more procedures (though some are or do them to cover themselves in case of suits)  but that they are conditioned to automatically run these tests and make the standard recommendations in a one-size-fits-all approach to medicine. It's up to individuals to get informed and empowered.