Sunday, July 28, 2013


Dear Madame L,

Have you ever heard of "earthing"?  I was at the dentist's office the other day, and, while waiting, picked up a book on the end table titled Earthing.  The premise of the book is that there is a lot of energy in the earth that can help our bodies as long as we make some kind of contact with it.  That means being barefoot on the ground or concrete (having something to do with conductivity), or making direct contact with a source that is grounded.  Supposedly, this energy helps people with chronic pain, depression, stress or people who just want to feel better in general.  I was only able to read 3 or 4 pages before I went in for my appointment.  My dentist found out about it from a patient, and he got the plug-in grounded sheet to put on their bed because his wife deals with chronic back pain.  She thought the idea was crazy, but she felt so much better after her first night of sleeping with it.
Do you think or know whether there is energy in the earth's surface or below that can help our bodies in this way?  Does it make sense scientifically to you?
For the moment, I've been sitting outside barefoot a little more.  I don't know if it's helping or not.  The idea of going barefoot is relaxing to me anyway, so I do it all over the house, but the wood doesn't help.  Now, I've been traipsing around barefoot more outside.
Dear Grounded,
This is the first time Madame L has ever heard of this idea, and, frankly, her first response was, and her later responses continue to be, that the idea is far-fetched and completely indefensible from any known science. On the other hand, Madame L can see how enjoying nature while walking around barefoot would make anyone feel better, physically, mentally, and emotionally. 
For those Dear Readers who want to go to the source, Madame L found the Earthing Institute's website and an interview with the guy who came up with the idea. 
Madame L also asked Jeff for his opinion. Here's what he wrote: 

     "Earthing has no physical basis to it as far as I know - the human skin is a powerful insulator for a number of reasons. However, I DO know that there are powerful effects from placebos, and this is what people apparently are reporting. Someone with little or no education writes something foo-foo like this, someone else believes it, and then says that it helped them. It probably did, but not for a reason that can be measured in any way. Because of the 1st Amendment, anyone can write nearly anything they want in a magazine in this country and get away with publishing pure nonsense...

     "NONE of this Earthing stuff has any scientific basis behind it (double-blind tests that are repeatable, etc.). When electrocutions happen, it is because as resistive as the human skin is, if there are sufficiently high voltages and no alternative lower-resistance path for a current, it can (rarely) pass through the human body. Cardiac arrest happens because the atrial sinus node is de-sync'd or even damaged... and the person dies because oxygen no longer can suffuse the body (the heart goes into ventricular fibrillation and just flutters - doesn't pump blood). A lightning strike does a lot of burn damage, also, but we are talking millions of volts and hundreds of thousands of amps here. AED's work in THIS way: they provide high-voltage, but low-current spikes that reset a scrambled and mis-firing atrial sinus node.

     "There IS something called telluric current, large sheet-like currents that passes in the subsurface Earth (generally along the water table). It generally passed south to north, unless there is a conductive body (like a massive sulfide deposit) that can focus it for part of its path. These currents are not very big locally, but over a broad area can move large amounts of current. They are induced by the fluctuating magnetic field of the Earth. This induction doesn't amount to much locally - usually - but when you see northern lights it means that the Solar Wind is battering the Earth's magnetic field and causing fluctuations in it. In basic physics, an alternating (fluctuating) magnetic field gives rise to current flow if there are free electrons hanging around. This translates to very low-frequency electromagnetic waves that I use, for instance, to look deep inside Mount St Helens.

     "Under very rare circumstances, such as coronal mass ejection events (CME's) there can be enough of a burst of charged particles from the Sun that can lead to sharply increased telluric currents. When these happen, the "ground" of one electrical network gets shifted with respect to another part of it - and this can lead to current surges in in powerlines between them - and can blow large transformers in power substations. A CME shut down the Quebec and Ontario electrical grids for this reason several years ago - right in the middle of winter. If you depend on electricity to stay warm in a very cold place, this sort of thing can be potentially life-threatening. More on this at:

So, Madame L hopes you'll continue to enjoy walking barefoot and enjoying nature. Madame L has found that it helps her, too, except on very hot days, in areas with a lot of stickers, and in places where people walk their dogs a lot.


Madame L

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Problems Reading Posts

Dear Madame L,

I receive email notices whenever you post a new blog entry, but I'm having trouble reading the posts.

Why is the text always partially blocked out, so I have to go thru hoops to copy, paste, change it all around so I can read it?  Inquiring minds want to know.


Your Cousin M

Dear Cousin M,

The problem is the blog template Madame L uses, which has a dark background with light type. Even when Madame L changes this to make the posts easier to read, it doesn't look right.

Now that she knows this is a problem for you,  Madame L has changed to a new template so you and all of her Dear Readers can read more easily.

Please let Madame L know if this works better for you. If not, she can try some other templates.


Madame L

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Guest Reviewer Jeff on "The Signal and the Noise" ------- Part 5

Panties and Bayes Theorem

Nate Silver, author of “The Signal and the Noise”, is a Bayesian. This requires some explanation.

Silver is a great writer (despite persistently referring to “data” in the singular). One example: he explains Bayes Theorem (and Bayesian thinking) with a startling example: one morning you open your dresser drawer and find some strange underwear there. The immediate train of thought then goes towards: is my partner cheating on me? Maybe he just likes wearing panties! How to figure this out accurately and not emotionally goes straight to Bayes Theorem.

Thomas Bayes was born around 1701. He was a modest clergyman and is often overshadowed by R.A. Fisher, whose statistical thinking in the early 20th Century overtook and now dominates modern statistics. The Fisherian view in simplest terms is that the data drive the interpretation. The flaw here, according to Silver, is that this means all data - any data - including noise are being twiddled with, and this is used then to drive interpretation and arrive at conclusions. If you wonder if this really works, just read all the articles in the next month that you can find on drug development and testing. It’s truly frightening, and goes a long way to explain some of my family’s aversion to accepting new drugs to deal with a minor problem. No heuristics (modeling) is involved with this sort of analysis: one is just seeking correlations, the assumption being that from these alone we can discern the true state of something. A metaphor here: one can do the same thing by looking for animals or faces in clouds. Silver shows why statistical significance tests (the “T-Test”, etc.) implicitly acknowledge that noise is a problem, but these tests are essentially worthless in isolation, says Silver, and should never be taught to impressionable students. Interestingly, this is still the core of the teaching of most biology departments in the United States here in the 21st Century - however this is changing. Fisher himself had increasing qualms about his approach towards the end of his life (he died in 1962). Silver considers Fisherian statistical significance teaching to be abuse verging on the criminal.

Instead, Bayes Theorem is a simple alternative (with a simple equation) that requires a previous assessment called a prior probability. The equation is simple algebra:

xy + z (1-x)

This gives the probability (in this case for cheating, but it could be for anything whose likelihood you are trying to assess). In this equation x is the prior probability: your initial estimate of how likely it is that your partner is cheating on you before you found the strange underwear. The variable y is the probability that the underwear appearing in your dresser drawer is conditional on him cheating on you. The variable z is the probability that the underwear appearing in the drawer does NOT mean that he is cheating on you (in other words, there is another explanation - perhaps he likes wearing panties). This equation can be continually updated as you gather more information. In other words, one way to NOT make something huge out of a lot of noise (or a single questionable data-point) is to fit previous understanding into the assessment. This implicitly involves incorporating an understanding of the system - how things work in the real world - into the assessment process. Fisher’s contribution was well-intended (to make analysis as objective as possible), but the effect was to divorce system understanding from everything but the raw data. Implicitly, this means accepting the idea that the data tells us everything there is to know. This might work if there was no noise in the system, but then the answer would be obvious, right? This kind of thinking lies behind the vast NSA data-gathering exercise exposed by Edward Snowden in June 2013. It has had its successes, but these come at a significant cost, both financially (a brand-new, $5 billion data center in the Utah desert), and in terms of privacy.

Another crucial advantage of Bayesian thinking is that as you gather additional data, you update the simple Bayes Theorem equation, and your estimate or assessment will then be better. Do this iteratively, and you can theoretically approach a perfect or close to perfect assessment or forecast.

Does this actually work? Silver walked the walk in the most amazingly effective way: he predicted the outcome of two presidential elections to within a fraction of a percent (Gallup and Rasmussen polls were off by as much as 8 percent from what actually happened – the hard proof of what the “truth” was). One success of that order might have been just extraordinary good luck, but Silver did this many times, including senatorial and governor’s races - and he got virtually all of them correct.

Bayes Theorem works. Statistical significance tests on data alone are so 20th Century.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Guest Reviewer Jeff on "The Signal and the Noise" ------- Part 4

Part 4 - Predicting terrorist attacks

Silver ends his book by taking on a daunting task: how to forecast a terrorist attack. This entails all of the content and insight of the previous 411 pages of the book (there are a fascinating 75 pages of detailed footnotes at the end that are worth reading by themselves). Here again we find ourselves sorting signal from noise. Though Silver doesn’t use the expression, he documents a lot of after-the-fact armchair-quarterbacking that took place following the 9/11 attack.

In hindsight, there was also a lot of signal out there about the impending Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 - hindsight is always 20/20. The mind-set of the American forces in 1941 was that there was probably trouble brewing in the Pacific. Japan was invading China and Korea, and had allied itself with the German-Italian fascist Axis. However, there had not been an attack on the US since 1812, and a sneak attack was just not in anyone’s mind. Instead, the racism of the day led planners to expect sabotage by the large Japanese population on the Hawaiian islands (people who were slightly newer assimilating Americans - and who had left Japan for a reason). To that end, the US military put their battleships and aircraft close together to make them easier to guard. What a gift to Admiral Yamamoto! Incidentally, my dad saw the writing on the wall on December 7th, and enlisted a week later as a soberly-thought-out means to protect himself from becoming sacrificial infantry in the conflagration that was certainly to come. On that same day as the Pearl Harbor attack, Donald Rumsfeld (the Secretary of Defense during 9/11 and its aftermath) was an 8-year-old boy listening to a broadcast of his beloved Chicago Cubs. The game was interrupted with the news bulletin of the sneak attack, which left a life-long impression on him. It turns out in hindsight that there were an extraordinary number of warnings out there - too many to include in this review.

Similarly, the official 9/11 commission providing the hindsight for the attacks on the Twin Towers found an extraordinary number of warnings before the attack. They were all lost in the noise. The commission correctly identified a number of systemic problems, including the distrust and lack of data-sharing among agencies, and these have largely been corrected. However, the over-reaction to 9/11 has led to a hugely expensive and overblown airport security apparatus euphemistically called the Transportation Security Administration. I could be mistaken in this, but I believe that it has not prevented a single aircraft-based attack since its inception (however, airline passengers have). The response to 9/11 has also led to the extraordinary intrusiveness of data-gatherers like the FBI and the NSA, exposed recently by Edward Snowden. You see, one of the directions people reflexively charge, when trying to predict something important to them, is to gather even more data. In almost all cases this translates to vastly more noise.

In both cases these horrific events were not detected in time. The American Airlines Flight 93, aimed apparently at the White House, was brought down by fearless passengers whose flight departure had been delayed by 45 minutes, so they had time to learn what was going on - and the courage to do something about it.

The common denominator between these two attacks was the “unknown unknowns” of the famous Rumsfeld quote. We just didn’t know that there was an unanticipated unknown out there, and fell into the trap of assuming an unknown was an unlikelihood. It was NOT an unknown to the passengers on AA 93.
However, Silver does a cold-blooded analysis of the data, and shows several important things about 9/11 attack precursors:

1a. The number of suicide attacks worldwide had been growing for the previous 30 years at an accelerating rate. Terrorist attacks against the West had started in 1979 - Silver correlates this with the Iranian revolution. Irrespective of cause, the power law curve would say such an attack was inevitable.

1b. However, the real “origin event” behind this increase is something that Nate Silver completely misses.  This was the take-over of the Grand Mosque in Makkah by ultra-conservative Wahhabis, rebelling against the obscene corruption of the al-Saud family who ruled Saudi Arabia. To keep their position on top of the Arabian Peninsula Fount of Eternal Wealth, the Saudi royal family made a momentous strategic decision: we will be more Wahabbi than them - we will get ahead of the curve. This included the Kingdom paying to export Wahabbism. The result is Salafism (mistakenly called “jihadism” in America). Saudi money paid for Madrasas (schools for boys of poor families) that taught no useful life-skills in places like Pakistan and Somalia and Indonesia. Instead, they had boys memorize the Qu’ran and preached the most ultra-conservative and Christian-hating form of Islam to them. In effect, they exported and gave us the Islamic radicalism that lead to 9/11. In 1979 the dominant form of Islam in Pakistan was Sufism - a gentle, mystical form of Islam. Today Sufism bears the brunt (along with Shi’ites and Hazaris and women) of the murderous hatred and violence of the Salafists. Bin Laden, in retrospect, was just a minor side effect of that terrible 1979 Saudi strategic mistake.

Can we make use of this better understanding of what created the Salafist system? I think we can, and I’m aware that people have bent a lot of thought to it in the Intelligence community.

2. The number of terrorist attacks and their kill-rate follow a power curve - just like earthquakes. Plotted on a linear graph of frequency of attacks vs fatalities, there seems to be no pattern. However, plot these on a log-log curve, and the 9/11 attack can be seen to be inevitable.

Sure, there was signal in the vast ocean of international electronic noise, but we were blinded by what Silver summarizes this way:

“There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable....When a possibility is unfamiliar to us, we do not even think about it.... In medicine this is called anosognosia: part of the physiology of the condition (for instance Alzheimer’s) prevents the patient from recognizing that they have the condition.”

In hindsight, the warning signs were there in abundance. But in hindsight, we didn’t have a chance to do anything about it.


In summary, this is a wonderful book. It’s fun to read, and Nate Silver misses little and teaches a lot. It has crystallized areas in my own understanding that previously were somewhat amorphous. It shows why ALL forecasting can only be probabilistic - and how to wrap our heads round this. The book helps me understand my own data better as a professional scientist - or more to the point, it has helped me to understand how to interpret my data more correctly.

I must conclude with a few favorite quotes from the book:

“A conspiracy theory might be thought of as the laziest form of signal analysis. As the Harvard professor H.L. Gates says, ‘Conspiracy theories are an irresistible labor-saving device in the face of complexity.’” (...used as a crutch by mentally lazy people, I would add. ) (p. 417)

“But the number of meaningful relationships in the data - those that speak to causality rather than correlation and testify to how the world really works - is orders of magnitude smaller <than the burgeoning data out there>. Nor is it likely to be increasing at nearly so fast a rate as the information itself; there isn’t any more truth in the world than there was before the Internet or the printing press. Most of the data <are> just noise, as most of the universe is filled with empty space.” (P. 250)

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Guest Reviewer Jeff on "The Signal and the Noise" ---- Part 3

Part 3 - Predicting earthquakes and next week’s rain: forecasting successes and forecasting failures

I have a number of friends and colleagues in the Earthquake Science Center of the US Geological Survey. As a group, they are some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Most of them have PhD’s, and they have spent their lives pouring almost all their thought and effort into one quixotic quest: to predict earthquakes. The ultimate goal is laudable at the highest level: to save human lives.

However, the 220 scientists in that science center, along with at least twice that more in east and southeast Asia, as well as Europe, have little to show for their efforts after 50 years or more of trying. One estimate I’ve heard suggests that upwards of $70 billion dollars have been spent in earthquake prediction research. Sadly, we are just as far away from predicting earthquakes after all that money has been spent than we were a half century ago, and every scientist I’ve talked to about this readily agrees. We understand faults better - we understand (after the fact) why the Great Tohoku earthquake of 2011 was so massive, so devastating, for instance. The thrust-fault was shallow, meaning there was a much larger than usual fault-plane lying above the high-pressure-high-temperature “plastic” zone of the upper Mantle that could accumulate strain. Enormous resources have been poured into a drill-hole project (“SAFOD”) that snakes down past and then into the deep San Andreas Fault. This has been done to better understand the physics of what is happening to rocks in and adjacent to a major transform fault.

After all this, we still cannot predict earthquakes.

But in this research effort an interesting observation popped out (yes, if you apply thoughtful analysis to vast amounts of data there sometimes CAN be a payout). The crucial discovery: earthquakes follow a power law. This is also called the Gutenberg-Richter Law. There is a verbal way to explain this and a graphical way to explain this. The verbal way is this: if you have X number of magnitude 4 earthquake events, you will have less magnitude 5 earthquakes by a certain factor (about a tenth as many). You will then have even less magnitude 6 earthquakes by the same factor. Larger earthquakes will be proportionally fewer, until magnitude 8 earthquakes happen only about once a year on average worldwide. Magnitude 9 earthquakes (like Tohoku in 2011 and Chile in 1960) are very rare - but they happen. There does appear to be an upper limit on earthquake magnitude: they are roughly proportional to the fault surface disrupted. To this end, the San Andreas fault is in most of its length roughly perpendicular to the earth’s surface. This means that down around 10+ kilometers, the rock is so hot and under so much overlying pressure that it turns plastic. It won’t break, but instead deforms and flows, so no more earthquakes. So a magnitude 7.3 is about all you will get from the San Andreas. It’s more than enough to flatten most houses and pancake most hospitals, however.

With this power law behavior there comes the inevitability of more and more smaller and smaller earthquakes, until you literally have millions of tiny events that most humans will never feel - they are only picked up by the most sensitive instruments. Think: sensing a garbage truck driving by your house.

The graphical way to show this power law behavior is again by using a log-log plot. If one axis is magnitude and the other is frequency of occurrence, then all earthquakes fall on a straight line

With this you can give a probabilistic estimate of the likelihood of an earthquake of a given size happening on, say the Hayward Fault east of San Francisco (about a 31% chance for an M = 6.7 event in the next 30 years). But you cannot predict WHEN. You CAN budget funds to retrofit your home against such an event, however, and the power law (and some basic information about the length and dip of the fault) will give you a maximum bound for the event.

Forecasting weather is one of the bright spots of the forecasting story. Twenty years ago weathermen generally avoided admitting to people what their jobs were at cocktail parties. They would get flogged for a failed forecast - yesterday, or last week, or on that person’s birthday or planned party. Today TV weathermen still have the same abysmal forecasting success record - less than the 50% coin-toss - but now the failure is deliberate. Like Fox “News” or MSNBC talking heads, the object is NOT to dispense truth, but to make people feel better. If a TV weatherman gave the same predictions as (a free service available to everyone), they would miss some of the rain squalls that hit in nearly every community when the percentage chance of rain is given as, say 20%. They get flogged for missing these. However, if they deliberately over-predict wet weather and it doesn’t come to pass, there is no punishment, no societal memory of a failure. This is just human nature. And advertisers follow the Nielsen Ratings closely.

However, the National Weather Service has gotten dramatically better with weather predictions. In part this is because of better and faster computers, computers that permit modeling (Silver calls this “heuristics”) of ever-finer weather cells. The more pressure, temperature, and wind-speed data available, the more resolution they can provide. But weather is not the same where you are now standing as it is at the top of your highest neighboring volcano. And THAT weather (temperature, wind-speed, wind-direction, pressure, humidity) is not the same as at the altitudes where a commercial jet flies. 

This difference for different elevations gives rise to lenticular clouds forming over volcanoes - often the source of 911 calls about a flying saucer or a volcanic eruption. It’s simply caused by warm, humid air being lifted from lower elevations to higher elevations where lower-density and colder temperatures prevail, causing the humidity to drop out of solution to form droplets: a cloud. These disappear as the air passes down the other side of the mountain. What you see, however, is a cap cloud that appears to be more or less stationary (or, in the case of this double-lenticular cloud over Mount Hood, two stationary clouds).

This is a long way of saying that computer models of the atmosphere must take into account the fact that there is not just a horizontal grid, but a 3rd - vertical - dimension that has to be modeled. Converting any model from 2D to 3D dramatically amps up the computing time necessary - everything is multiplied by the number of vertical levels you want to use. However, Moore’s Law (that computing power doubles about every 18 months) has come to the fore in recent years, and the models have become more and more sophisticated.

But any model implies that you understand the relationships - the physics of how the global weather system works. This is stunningly complicated; weather modelers also have to incorporate effects of mountains (rain shadows), metropolitan “heat islands”, and large water bodies. The temperature is always moderated near a coastline because water has such a high heat coefficient. 

Another water-body effect is the so-called Lake Effect. Buffalo, New York, for instance, gets far more snowfall than Toronto on the other side of Lake Ontario (in the opposite direction of the prevailing wind). To an increasing degree, these physics and geographic details - these system understandings - can be folded into the modeling algorithms. 

But the critical recent successes have come from making the weather forecast both local and hybrid, by incorporating human beings within the forecasting process. Experienced weather experts, familiar with a local region, can refine any prediction by a computer model (those blurry-looking green clouds rapidly moving over your metro area map on TV), and tell you when the precip will hit, and do this in a probabilistic way.

This probabilistic expression of what will unfold in the future is a hallmark of sophisticated modern forecasting, and builds into it a crucial bit of information: the uncertainty in any model.

What about the other weather forecasters out there? Here’s a dirty little secret: they use the same  government weather forecasts and provide “value added” information like pollen counts and advertising (e.g.,  They are good at presentation, but the substance is borrowed from the US government, whose minions never complain.

Next: Predicting terrorist attacks

Friday, July 19, 2013

Global Warming (Again)

...With more to come!

Thanks to Linda for her comment about the issue of global warming. Madame L apologizes to Linda and to all her Dear Readers for posting such a long video the first time she wrote about this.

Here's a shorter video with most of the essential information from Michael Mann's TED Talk.

Madame L hopes this shorter length as well as the TED format will make it easier for readers to enjoy the video.

Madame L will be writing more about this soon. She is currently reading Michael Mann's book, "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines"; and will write a review of it within the next week or two.

Guest Comic on Getting Out of Purgatory

Madame L welcomes Jared, who sent her this comment on the news that following Pope Francis on Twitter will reduce your time in purgatory:

Now, from the people who brought you the the Sin of Onan and Fishy  Fridays, we are proud to announce... Digital Indulgences! Also known as rePentPal, iPray and the Blessed Bitcoin of Antioch. If you follow the pope on twitter, you too can receive time off in purgatory. And if you retweet his holiness, you can attain eternal salvation - 140 characters at a time!
Some restrictions may apply. Offer not valid for purgatory time accrued through murder, apostasy, nun tossing, or masturbation. Does not apply to atheists, polytheists, pantheists or Lutherans. Actual Cash Value: 1/100th of one cent. This offer cannot be combined with any other offers, and is not available in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Chechnya or Florida.