The signal and the noise

I like “Ask Marilyn.” She usually has an interesting take on a simple question. Last week in Parade magazine she addressed the phenomenon of pareidolia, which is seeing or hearing things that aren’t there.

I will often think I am hearing a song or a radio commercial when there is no source for either. When I track the sound source down it is often something like the hum from fluorescent lights or a ceiling fan. Even the rumbling of a refrigerator’s compressor will do the trick. Somehow my brain is creating a signal out of the noise.

It’s sort of like seeing a giraffe in the clouds or a dragon in an aurora. We do it all the time. Humans like patterns and we like to make meaning out of the sensory barrage we experience. Unfortunately we experience a lot of noise, that is, a lot of random stuff. We don’t like random stuff, we like order and structure, so (apparently) our minds supply the missing pieces and give us a meaningful picture or sound instead of a mess.

In radio telephony the signal-to-noise ratio is a comparison of the strength of the desired information (signal) to the background interference (noise). Think of the signal as what you desire to hear or otherwise interpret and the noise as the rest of the crap that you have to filter out.

We do this in a crowded bar when we focus on our neighbor’s words and tune out the cacophony produced by the rest of the patrons.

But pareidolia is the opposite. In this case we are supplying the signal. It’s not there! All that’s there is noise but we are determined to make sense of it and so we plug in some kind of hallucination.

Gamblers do this. Lousy gamblers, anyway. They see a randomly generated sequence like throws of the dice or fall of the cards and imagine a pattern emerging. Then they bet on an expected outcome based on that pattern. The pattern isn’t there, of course, that’s why Las Vegas casinos make so much money. Assuming the roulette wheel is “fair,” that is, every number has an equal probability of having the ball land in its slot, there is no pattern to the results. No one can guarantee the wheel is perfectly random, but it can be made random enough so that the outcomes are indistinguishable from pure randomness.

Even random number generators are just approximations of randomness. “True” randomness would have to be something natural, or perhaps I should say something physical. These days “natural” is too loaded, making one think of hand-churned butter or turd-fertilized tomatoes.


A really good physical phenomenon to use is a radioactive source. The points in time at which a radioactive source decays are completely unpredictable, and they can quite easily be detected and fed into a computer, avoiding any buffering mechanisms in the operating system. The HotBits service at Fourmilab in Switzerland is an excellent example of a random number generator that uses this technique. Another suitable physical phenomenon is atmospheric noise, which is quite easy to pick up with a normal radio. This is the approach used by RANDOM.ORG.

These folks are looking for the noise! That’s un-natural, man. People are much better at seeing the signals.

I think we all like to believe that there are meaningful patterns in things that are really closer to being random. I like crime fiction and cop shows and a well-worn trope in both is the grizzled vet who always says “there are no coincidences” or something similar. The problem is that in real life there are heaping piles of coincidences. Things that are mostly just luck (random chance can be good or bad) take on significance because of nothing more than coincidence. A quick look at the probabilities of each (independent!) event would make the coincidence just that, something remarkable but not otherwise meaningful.

I like baseball. Baseball fans attach significance to almost everything. A batter is 60-for-300 on the season but gets a start against a pitcher because he went 5-for-11 against him last season. A guy gets six hits in two games and he’s “on a hot streak” and you just know he will get three more hits in today’s game. It turns out that if you make a chart of a guy’s hits, like hash marks on a calendar each day, it will be indistinguishable from one generated by a computer that knows the player’s batting average. You could even simulate it with dice rolls. The “patterns” created by the human player won’t look any different from the “patterns” in the simulations. They will differ in the details, but overall you won’t be able to pick out a chart made by dice or by a real hitter.

So I say beware of the signal and the noise. It is hard enough to sort out what you want from the background of everything else, and now we know that our brains don’t help because they like to make shit up!


The United States of America has about 340 million people. There are about 3.4 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection.

That’s 1 in 100.

For some places, like here in Siskiyou County, the ratio of cases to the population is quite different. We’ve got about 43 thousand folks here and 43 positive tests.

That’s 1 in a 1000.

Obviously there are places where the rate is much higher. LA county has 10 million residents and 140 thousand cases.

That’s 14 in a 1000, or 1.4 per 100.

That’s the problem, of course. Urban areas are more naturally impacted by a pandemic. Viruses don’t move, they need a host to get around. In crowded places (like New Orleans and New York City) it stands to reason that the virus will spread more easily.

So when I say 1:100 Americans have been infected that’s a broad generalization. It doesn’t apply to every region.

That does not make it any less alarming!

Germany has 83 million people and 200 thousand cases or 1:415.

The UK has 67 million people and 300 thousand cases or 1:223.

Sweden has 10 million people and 76 thousand cases or 1:134.

We may be, at this time, relatively safe here in Siskiyou County. After all, 1:1000 is ten times better than 1:100! But people move around. They travel. They visit friends and family. They do business outside of their homes. Not to mention that people in “hot spots” like to get away from there and go someplace safer. Someplace like Siskiyou County!

I like 1:1000 and I hope we can keep it that way. But I’ve got my doubts. I feel the inexorable pull of 1:100.

Tell me I’m wrong. Tell me I need not be concerned.

(Here’s the source of the country numbers. I used the county public health websites for the in-state numbers.)

An apple a day

That’s me. Well, most days. Monday through Friday, when I’m home, I have the same lunch: quesadillas, sweet peppers, and an apple.

We see mostly Fuji and Gala in the organic produce section at the supermarket. They come a dozen to a bag and are usually on the shelf all year. They grow apples all over the world so you can have ones ready to eat regardless of the season. That’s one of the benefits of globalization. The relentless corporate pursuit of cheap labor, which spurs globalization, has some rotten consequences for local economies, no question. But the flip side is the enlarged marketplace and the increased movement of goods which feed our consumer needs.

American consumers need a lot. Not only are our energy requirements per capita high, the United States is the world’s biggest importer.

But I don’t want to talk about economics. I want to talk about apples. Apparently the next big thing in apples is the Cosmic Crisp®. Yes, that’s right, it’s a registered trademark. Apparently you can patent an apple!

This apple variety was invented at Washington State University and is now a licensed product. They have a marketing arm, Proprietary Variety Management, that expects to generate millions from this patented fruit.

This is not new. People have recognized the need to patent cultivars since the 1930 Plant Patent Act. Many varieties of agricultural products have been bred for commercial exploitation. Cosmic Crisp apples are not GMO, they were “classically bred” which should help their marketing.

Biotechnology firms generally patent a particular technique for modifying an organism, a so-called utility patent which has a different scope than a plant patent. Much of the controversy about GMOs involves what can or can not (or should or should not) be patented under existing laws.

But if you are a kick-ass botany nerd and can come up with a new plant the old-fashioned way you can get a patent and make some money. That’s assuming your new plant is commercially viable, that is, somebody wants to take a risk on planting it and trying to sell the harvest.

The Cosmic Crisp took twenty years to make it to market. You can’t just cross-pollinate and graft and all that stuff, you have to test and test and test again to see if your novel variety can handle the rigors of production. And it better taste good as today’s consumers are much fussier, and there are a lot of competing products.

I’ll report back if I ever get a chance to eat a Cosmic Crisp®!

Interdependence Day

I propose that the day following Independence Day should be celebrated as Interdependence Day. July the Fifth shall henceforth be the day we acknowledge our hopeless interdependence on everyone else.

Here’s why:

That’s where we live. We have no other place to go. We are all here sharing the same lifeboat. Outside of Spaceship Earth there is the void of space which is hostile to our kind and the other kinds of life we know about.

Think about what it takes for you to read these words. The infrastructure necessary is vast and complex and requires the efforts of many, many people to keep working. Imagine, at breakfast, how many people, how many machines, how much electricity and fuel, and how many businesses and other entities are required to provide you with toast, eggs, and orange juice.

One of the biggest commodities the human race needs to prosper on this planet is iron ore. From iron ore we get steel and steel is needed for way too many things for me to list.

The world needs about two billion tons of iron ore every year. Two billion tons! Most of it comes from Australia, Brazil, and China, but both the US and Canada each produce about 50 millions tons of iron ore annually. That 100 million tons from us and our neighbor is only five percent of the world supply, but every little bit counts.

There’s a mine in Canada in northern Quebec that needs a 261-mile (420-kilometre in Canadian) dedicated railway just to haul the products (ore concentrates) to the port for shipping. And that’s nothing: there’s another rail line in Brazil for iron ore that’s 554 miles long (892 km)!

And those represent a small fraction of the world’s production of just ONE commodity. Look at all the effort and trouble, not to mention expertise, that people put into digging this stuff out of the ground! It’s amazing, if you think about it. That computer case at your feet and that car in your driveway would not exist without the many thousands of people working in the mining sector. Plus all the people who turn the raw materials into products and ship them all over the world.

The human race lives a precarious existence on this third rock from the sun. All the stuff we need to survive is made by all of us, all over the world. And it takes all of us to pass it around and make sure it gets where it needs to go.

We are hopelessly interdependent. Our societies are too complex for any one person, they only survive and thrive because of the sum total of all of us.

July the Fourth celebrates our need for identity and personal liberty. Those are beautiful things.

But those aren’t possible without the human social structures underneath and the web of connections that bind us all together and make us dependent on each other.

Happy Fifth!

Re-imagining school

Everyone had to do something different this semester. School wasn’t school-as-we-knew-it since the middle of March. Now school’s out. Or at least the school calendar has ended around here, I suppose there are a few weeks of difference across the state. But we are close enough to graduation for most folks to say that school is out for the summer. And speaking of something different, graduations across the land have taken on different forms, and even if they adhered to old models, those models had to be updated due to the pandemic.

Other than the presence of computers, a walk through a typical high school classroom in today’s world will look familiar. Schools haven’t changed much. The factory model is still alive and the machinery chugs along stamping out parts from 8:00 to 3:00 before the final bell. It’s a top-down system that views students as wards (in loco parentis) and not as clients.

I suspect most folks want to think about the upcoming fall semester as “back to normal.” And I suppose, if we get a handle on the virus, that could happen. There’d be football and dances and thirty kids stuffed into a poorly-ventilated classroom getting a lecture on economics. And kids failing algebra. You know, the usual stuff.

I think the COVID-19 crisis could be an opportunity to re-think schooling. Why does it have to be the same as before? I’m not an anarchist—I don’t want to tear things down. But it is pretty obvious that much of our school structure is obsolete and in need of serious up-dating.

This is the 21st century. We need creative, think-outside-the-box people. Herding kids like cattle and running them from room to room every 57 minutes is not conducive to creativity, that much I know! And too many bright young people are turned off by school and have a hard time finding a fit. They are square pegs in a sea of round holes and the system often fails them. In college, you design your own schedule and chose your own hours. Many college students have to work or have other responsibilities (much like many high-schoolers) and they can do that because they aren’t forced to be in the same damn seat at the same damn time every damn day.

Many parents have opted for homeschooling and charter schools because they allow more flexible schedules and more personalized learning. There’s no reason why all schools can’t do the same things. Clearly on-line learning is here to stay. Just as clearly it cannot replace in-person learning. But it can certainly complement it! Much of the ordinary BS of schooling (curricular materials, syllabuses, instructions, calendars, deadlines, blah-blah-blah) can be taken care of without actually attending. Imagine that! Much schoolwork can be done without being in a classroom. When kids come to class, they should do things they need to be in class for, not stuff they can do on their own.

In chemistry we had labs. Those are great times to get together and do something the school is uniquely equipped to do. And the discussion afterwards needs lots of time for give-and-take. You can’t do that as well over Zoom. You need the personal contact, especially with younger kids.

You can learn a lot of Spanish with workbooks and apps and all the things out there accessible to anyone. But having a real-life conversation with a fluent speaker, who can guide you towards your own mastery, that’s the kind of thing you get in a classroom.

I’m sure you can think of many other examples, those are just a few quick thoughts.

We have a chance to make schooling more open, more democratic, and more individualized. We can stick with the 19th-century institution we currently have, and do what we’ve always done which is tweak it a little here and there, or we can create something better. Don’t you think?

Choke point

The COVID-19 pandemic is making us aware of some serious problems with our supply chains. Toilet paper, hand sanitizers, and iso-propyl alcohol are still hard to find on store shelves. Personal protective equipment shortages have been felt by everyone. Potato farmers, losing their huge commercial market with restaurants, bars, and cafeterias shut down, have given away or dumped their crop. Dairy farms are pouring out milk they would normally have delivered to schools. The international market for crude oil collapsed and created a storage shortage, forcing producers to pay people to take the stuff off their hands.

And those are just a few examples.

I’m not informed enough about the global supply chain to make judgments. I’m not looking to point fingers, unless it is squarely back at me and you. We want all this stuff and we depend on a goofy global mess to make it work. I’m amazed it works at all! One factory in China, for example, could make a part needed by several industries all over the world and if that factory shut down all of those businesses would be impacted. Another example is the consolidation of the meat-packing business here in the States. It’s more efficient but the food supply is more vulnerable. When plants closed due to sick workers stores ran out of meat. Big chunks of our economy depend on systems that have real bottlenecks. If something plugs up that bottleneck everyone downstream gets hurt.

If you read naval history (like A.T. Mahan, for example) they always talk about choke points. A choke point is a narrow passage, like a strait, or an entrance to a bay, that could be defended by a relatively small force. Control of the choke point could thwart a superior enemy’s plans by closing off their access to your waters. The land equivalent would be the Spartans defending the pass at Thermopylae.

Our intertwined global economy is full of bottlenecks and choke points. Clearly we have to become more robust, with multiple sources for raw materials and other products. Industries have to plan better for disruptions and be more flexible.

You can get a great picture of the long and narrow threads that hold our world together at You can zoom in on any part of the globe and pick out a ship. You can see Liberian oil tankers, Singaporean bulk carriers, and Maltese container ships plying the sea lanes in real time. Or check out and find a plane. Did you know a large amount of cargo is delivered by passenger jet? When flights were cut it lead to delays and shortages. Look overhead and track down that contrail. For me it’s probably the Los Angeles (LAX) to Portland (PDX) run.

We are all knitted together by marine diesels and aircraft gas turbine engines! Not to mention the ribbons of asphalt and concrete that snake across our lands, and the motors of all sorts that power the rubber-tired beasts that prowl them. Like I said, I’m amazed it works as well as it does. People don’t seem to be that organized, but somehow they get this whole thing to hold together, even in a pandemic.

Thank goodness.


Thrash, Doom, or Death?

Here are some awesome lyrics for a heavy metal song called Oh I Fear! All I need now is some bad-ass double-kick bass drum lines, thermonuclear guitar riffs, and alien mutant screaming vocals. It will be a hit, I know it. Here it is:

Oh I Fear

Verse 1

Oh I fear

With the devil in my mind

My heart’s in flames I pray for nothing

My lungs filled with smoke

Oh oh oh my heart is aflame

Oh I fear


With the Devil in my mind

I feel his arms around my neck

He caresses all my flesh

My veins full of blood

Verse 2

And I can feel no light

Oh oh oh my heart is aflame

Oh I fear

As my heart is burning

Oh oh oh I fear

With the devil in my mind


With the Devil in my mind

I feel his arms around my neck

He caresses all my flesh

My veins full of blood


I didn’t actually write these lyrics. No one did. Or, everyone did. There’s a website called Bored Humans that uses AI (artificial intelligence) to create passable fakes of human creations like songs and stories. These programs pick out text from millions of web pages and use machine learning to figure out what to write. I’ve always wanted to write a heavy metal song. This will have to do.

Oh, you should really check out the computer-generated (by competing neural networks) paintings. Here’s one that will make a dandy heavy metal album cover:

hm album cover


I’m calling my band Dagon’s Minions and I’m titling the album The Abyss. I’ll use blood-red Olde English script stamped in an angry diagonal across the front of this bitchin’ art. On the back will be pictures of the band flipping off shocked school teachers.

Whaddya think?

Heapin’ piles o’shite

That’s what I’m reading about these days. Infrastructure fascinates me. How do we move all the stuff we move from place to place? How do we store all that stuff and process it? How do we get rid of it when it becomes a nuisance? How do we get more of it?

Stuff is the most important subject. I’ve long lamented the lack of good Stuff Management courses at the high school and college level. Living here in the States even those near the bottom of our economic pyramid can accumulate one hell of a lot of stuff.

And that’s the stuff we make outside of our bodies. What about all that stuff we make inside of our bodies? You know, shit. How do we deal with all the shit we generate each day? Seven billion people you have to figure seven billion turds per day and that’s not including the two-a-day types, the dogs and cats, the cows and chickens, you get the idea it’s a hell of a lot.

This book An Underground Guide to Sewers by Stephen Halliday plunges into the subject of shit removal. There’s a lot of pictures, and they are all really cool, but other than the occasional fatberg there are no pictures of shit. Instead you get pictures of the remarkable and beautiful structures people created to deal with their shit over the centuries. The subtitle of the book is Down, Through & Out In Paris, London, New York &c. so you get a lot about those cities in particular. (Note the very British ampersand-c. instead of our preference in the States for etc.)

book cover


My dad was a plumber and pipe fitter so I have an appreciation for things like drains, sewers, pipelines, pumps, valves, and whatnot. Toilets, too. How can you not appreciate the toilet? Think about what a remarkable societal advance that is! Now think about the fact that millions of people in the world still shit outside.

Proper disposal of urban sewage is an enormous engineering task. But it is largely hidden from us. In fact the only time we think about it is if the toilet backs up and we have to call the plumber. After that it is out of sight, out of mind. That’s OK, of course. But be glad we have folks who keep that vast network of underground things working so that our shit keeps flowing.

A million

The US now has over one million confirmed cases of COVID-19. Over 60,000 people have died. Those are shocking numbers, but it does appear that the spread may be slowing down. The doubling time for new cases is now 19 days and for deaths it is 15 days. Let’s hope the first two numbers don’t grow much more and that the last two numbers keep increasing!

So how big is a million? A thousand times a thousand! Does that help? Probably not. If you go to the beach and pour a handful of sand on to your open palm you will have about a million grains in that small heap.

A million seconds is just short of 12 days (60 x 60 x 24 x 12 = 1,036,800).

If you take the thickness of a dollar bill to be 0.0043 inches, then a stack of one million one-dollar bills would be 358 feet high. Sather Tower, aka The Campanile, on the UC Berkeley campus is just over 300 feet tall. The tallest tree in Redwood National Park is about 380 feet tall.

A baseball is between 9 and 9-1/4 inches in diameter. If you laid out one million baseballs end-to-end (I’ll use the larger number) they would stretch 1,752 miles! That’s the distance from San Francisco to Lincoln, Nebraska.

A trip to the moon and back is only about half a million miles. You’d have to make two trips to get your spaceship odometer to cross 1,000,000.

If you lined up a million people shoulder-to-shoulder (let’s say 24 inches apiece) you’d need nearly 400 miles of space.

A million people is 1/340th or about 0.3% of the US population. That doesn’t seem like a lot unless you think about the fact that you easily know 340 people. There’s a good chance you know someone infected by the corona-virus or at least you know someone who knows someone. Two degrees of separation is what they call that. That’s pretty damn close. Certainly if you lived in NYC or LA you’d have a better chance of being personally impacted by this disease. Those of us fortunate to live in a rural area have been somewhat isolated from the pandemic compared to our urban brethren, but we’ve experienced, like them, the economic fallout.

It bears repeating: we are all in this together. My good luck—i.e., my reduced risk compared to family and friends in the metro regions—is not immunity! Much is still unknown and uncertain about COVID-19. It will be hard to make good decisions without good numbers. But good numbers have been really hard to pin down! There seems to be a lack of coordination among the various epidemiological studies. Ideally, each data set would be added to a global repository that everyone could access. That way each new model of the disease can be better than the previous one because it can be updated with the latest information.

Scientists and other “experts” have taken a bit of a beating with this pandemic. That’s because all models are wrong. And you have to be wrong a bunch of times before you can get closer to being right. But you have to remember that all models are wrong, so you have to keep adjusting and that means letting go of a lot of previous work and previous assumptions. That’s hard to do. People get invested in their ideas and they are reluctant to part with them. Solving a problem like COVID-19 requires a tremendous amount of intellectual flexibility. You have to be able to see where you were wrong in order to improve your work. The public doesn’t like it when experts are wrong and experts don’t like to be wrong, so people fight over who is “right” because they don’t have the patience to stick with the process. It’s not about who is right or who is wrong. It is about how to work together and build the best knowledge base.

Public policy decisions are political, not scientific, but getting the best information into the hands of the decision-makers still needs to be done. What are the odds of that?

Oh, I can’t resist: a million-to-one!

Grim milestones

Over half a million infected. That’s one American in seven hundred. Do you know 700 people? There’s a good chance you do.

More than twenty thousand dead. That’s four percent of the half million. That’s a lot, 4%. Four out of every hundred. How many times have you been in a group of 100 people?

We saw an Easter gathering on our walk this morning. The service was in the church parking lot with people in their cars. The preacher was up on a platform with a microphone. That’s a tough racket—being a preacher. You have to sell stuff that isn’t there! You have to convince people they’ve received what you’re sending them. I was a schoolteacher and I know that’s no mean feat.

It made me happy that folks figured out a way to celebrate. This pandemic has us imagining new ways to do things, and I like to see solutions to problems.

I suspect we will come through this crisis in due time. It’s the length of time that I can’t get a handle on. The distancing measures and lockdown strategies seem to be working. I’ve no idea when the timing will be right to ease off on those. Let’s hope the epidemiologists get a good model of the disease progression and can make better estimates. That way any public policy decisions can at least have some decent numbers to work with instead of just a bunch of useless opinions.