Sunday, December 8, 2013

Better Living Through Charts and Graphs

Back in March 2013, I decided I'd lose some unwanted 10 pounds I had gained and go back to what I considered my ideal weight and waist size so that I can fit into my favorite pants and shirts I simply refused to give away or replace. I managed to reach my goals in 6 months, with the help of a couple of smartphone apps that allowed me to monitor my caloric intake and expenditure through diet and exercise, respectively. But just as important, if not more, was simply measuring on an almost daily basis my weight and waist size. It gave me a solid and immediate readout to how well I was eating and working out. Ultimately, it was trying on those clothes and not feeling them too tight to button that showed it had all worked.

But suddenly, things started fitting tight again. What happened?

I looked back at the chart of the numbers I had been tracking all these months and saw that I had suddenly gained both weight and inches. But why then all of a sudden? The graph of my data gave me some clues.

As I've indicated by the two icons, my sudden gain in pounds and inches coincided with two things: the autumnal equinox (September 23), after which the days get progressively shorter, and Halloween (October 31), around which candies become excessively and too easily available.

Click on graph for larger view.

Every year, around this time of year, my body and my spirits slow down. I start to eat more and move less. I feel less motivated to do anything and I sleep more. So this, coupled with very easy access to large amounts of sugary candy, probably combine to explain my sudden gains.

Knowing this now motivates me to crank up my exercise routine, something I should have done earlier in the fall in anticipation for my annual slow down. And also keeps me from munching on the leftover Halloween candy in my office.

Many people track fitness and other progress by taking pictures, which is great. But there's nothing like a graph, a picture of the actual numbers that measure what matters, to tell you what's going on, and how you're progressing, as well as offer you a handle on unexpected changes in course.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Monthly music video: Chartsengrafs by Grandaddy

Chartsengrafs by Grandaddy
No video. Just the song, and a graph.

From the album "The Sophtware Slump" (2000)

"birds come...and then they go"
i traded laughs
in for charts & graphs
but all that's only fun
until evening comes
your guess as good as mine
as to just what kind
of trouble i might find
tonight out of my
my mind
my mind
my mind
my mind

Sunday, October 20, 2013

ART and SCIENCE breakthrough contest - DNA, in your face!

The PAX3 gene is involved in the development of the face. Toronto based scientist Dennis McCormac had his PAX3 gene sequenced, and in collaboration with an artist, had his particular sequenced of A, C, T and Gs compose a portrait of his face. Edward Tufte, are you seeing this? Talk about making a visual connection between genotype and phenotype, between DNA and the trait it determines! This is gold to me.

This collaborative art and science work is in the running in a science visualization contest. If you like this as much as I do, please VOTE HERE for this piece by scientist Dennis McCormac and artist James Fowler!

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Genesis Tank

A few weeks ago I went to a flea market looking for a lamp and chairs, and came back with a 10-gallon fish tank instead. I filled it with water, added some gravel, and turned on the water pump. I also went to a nearby pond and grabbed a few pieces of aquatic plants to add to the tank.

A few weeks later, some of the plants had grown, but the duckweed, which I had hoped would have been covering the surface, were not doing so hot. I thought maybe it was that the current was too strong, so I turned off the pump so the water would be more still.

A few days later, the duckweed had indeed grown a little tiny bit better. But the water surface was now filmy. And on that surface film was a constellation of tiny organisms moving around.

I can't be sure, but under a magnifying glass, I spotted what I think were Daphnia (tiny crustaceans also known as water fleas), and tiny baby Planaria (little flatworms with triangular heads), gliding on the bottoms of the surface of the film (I had seen bigger ones gliding on the aquarium walls a few days before.) Since I was a kid, I have always been fascinated with both of these organisms. Daphnia, because as a tropical fish hobbyist I learned they were a favorite food of fish, and Planaria because of the well know regeneration properties: cut them in half and they form two new worms.

Suddenly I felt like Lisa Simpson, in the Treehouse of Horror VII segment called The Genesis Tub, where she performs a science experiment with a corroding tooth in a small tub that results in the creation of a tiny universe.

I can't wait til I've created Lutherans!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The "official" Fun vs. Effort Graph of Pets

I like this graph. It uses the actual subjects of the graph as representations of the values reported. Edward Tufte would be so proud!

Which is why it's a shame they violated what to me is a fundamental rule of graphs. Ah well. Good effort College Humor. This other "official" version corrected some of the mistakes of the above version (though they did away with the cool size proportionality of the first graph).

Monday, June 3, 2013

The lewdness of trees

Upon arriving to my new place in Ohio, I noted a film of dust on surfaces which I assumed was from the clay soils of the region. But since arriving, my allergies have been the worse I have ever experienced, and this is a recurring story among people who move to the area. So I wondered, is that layer of particles outside on the porch (which one can leave footprints in) not clay dust but rather enormous amounts of pollen? I took a swipe with my finger and dipped the dusty fingertip into a drop of water on a glass slide and took a look under my microscope. And lo and behold, the dust was mostly pollen! So yes indeed, this Spring we have been swimming in a sea of pollen, in the midst of a massive plant orgy.

80X magnification. Photo taken with an iPhone.
320X magnification. Photo taken with an iPhone.


I can't tell what plant species produced the pollen, but judging from the different sizes and shape, it's a variety of plant types. I noted some strange "Princess Leia"-like pollen grains (not shown, but like the ones here) and these are apparently from pine trees. Coincidentally, this week Science magazine which arrived in the mail also had a micrograph of a pollen grain, in this case a fossilized pollen grain from the ancient supercontinent Pangea.


Next Spring I will take samples across time to see if I note a change in pollen types from early to late Spring. It's fun having a microscope at home to do this sort of investigating. I thank my friend Chris M. in Boston for the amazing gift.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Myrmecochory - Seed Dispersal by Ants

I learned today that the state flower of my new home state of Ohio is the carnation. I was surprised that this non-native plant was the state flower. Ohio does, however, also have a state wildflower, which is the Large White Trillium.

Upon researching the Large White Trillium, I learned (and was shocked to know this even exists) that the seeds of trillium species are dispersed not by wind, or birds, or mammals, but by ANTS! So fascinating.

This little video explains it all:

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Science in several languages

There are different versions of this old joke (the one with "butterfly" is the most common), but as this one is about science, and foreign languages is another love of mine, I thought I'd post this one.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

What caused the meth epidemic? The answer was hidden in a graph.

Source: Derrick Quenzer, Steve Suo/The Oregonian. Y-axis indicates magnitude of increase, 1 = starting value, 2  = doubling, 3 = tripling.

Reporter Steve Suo of The Oregonian was investigating the dramatic worsening of the meth epidemic, asking, what caused the dramatic rise of methamphetamine abuse in the western United States?

The answer came from the graph above. Suo gathered extensive amounts of data from numerous sources and compiled what he found. He noted a rise and decline of various meth abuse indicators over time. One surprising aspect of the pattern is that it occurred in different states across the western US, and the patterns seemed synchronized. Further investigation revealed the rises were positively correlated with the purity of meth on the streets, and the decline of purity was negatively impacted with increased regulation of the raw materials of meth (see shaded boxes in graph).

Thus, the numbers clearly indicated that with proper regulatory intervention, the meth epidemic can be controlled. Too bad these regulations get in the way of fat profits for companies that sell cold medication, or else we would have wiped out the meth epidemic ages ago.

For a fantastic piece of investigative journalism, watch Frontline and The Oregonian's story on "the unnecessary epidemic". The facts, the numbers, and the stories will shock you. One thing that struck me is how much the graphs, the math and the numbers speak to policy formulation, and how much they are ignored in the face of large profits for a few.