Thursday, July 31, 2008

How crowded is the Netherlands

Koninck - Distant view of cottages lining a road Friends often tell me that the Netherlands is the most densely populated spot in Europe, with 16.4 million people in an area of 16,000 square miles: an average density of over 1000 per square mile (1). Yet it feels spacious to Americans: the drive from Utrecht to Arnhem consists of fields and forests, punctuated by occasional low-rise villages. Even approaching the Arnhem city center, there is little evidence of a city until you reach the final kilometer before the central ring road. And the surrounding neighborhoods are mostly low-story row-houses and offices, bordered by parks.

The general impression is of a much less dense country as compared to most American city / suburb regions. (reinforced by the Dutch Masters: the Philips Koninck's painting "Distant view with Cottages Lining a Road" (1655, above) is typical)

Time to put it to the test.

Washington state, my home, has 6.4 million people in an area of 71,000 square miles, an average density of 88.6 per square mile, less than a tenth of the Netherlands. (2) Still, I would argue that the state has large areas of rugged mountains running up it's center and arid deserts covering half the state to the east. This crowds people into the narrow coastal lowlands running through Seattle and Tacoma, perhaps making it seem denser than it is.

The King County area, extending through Seattle east across suburbs like Redmond (home of Microsoft) to the Cascade mountain foothills, might be a better comparison. It has an area of 2,307 sq miles and holds 1.7 million people, for an average density of 816 per square mile, much more comparable to the Netherlands. (3)

At a city level, the King County registrar publishes detailed density maps (4) for Seattle (6,901 per square mile (5)). But, even at a city level, Amsterdam has a total area of 84.6 square miles with 0.751 million people, for a density of 11,548 per square mile, 14 times denser than King County (4), and half again as dense as Seattle.

At least New York City is greater at 27,000 per square mile (6)!

The conclusion is that, by most measures, the Netherlands is, indeed, much denser than corresponding American regions. It does leave me wondering why the feeling is so uncrowded (off of the A12, at least...).

NL Pop Density King co pop densityWa state pop density

PS: 'Headed to the Ardennes for the weekend, so I want to close the week on an up-note (and map related). A University of Leicester psychologist has published the World Map of Happiness, based on her research. The Netherland's (before the recent heat wave) scored 15th; the US was number 23; UK was 41. The variables correlating most with happiness were wealth, health, and education (of course, what is causal amongst the group?).

'enjoy the weekend!

World Happiness

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The end of the scientific method

Start ProCKSIWired Magazine has published a provocative article in this month's issue, The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete. The author, Chris Anderson (who also wrote The Long Tail), argues that the growth of massive databases and faster computing has enabled conclusions to be derived from statistical analyses whose quality rivals the traditional scientific method of "hypothesize, model, and test". More isn't just more, he asserts: more is different.

The argument is buit from techniques used in traditional data mining, where the variables in the data sets were examined to locate high correlations suggestive of causal relationships. The conclusions were unreliable, though, because the size of the data sets was insufficient to support the number of tests being done. Statisticians like to see about 30 cases of data for each relationship tested. So, for example, if there were 10 variables, there would be 56 unique correlation coefficients to calculate among the variables, requiring a data set of over 1500 cases to yield a trustworthy outcome. Even so, some spurious correlations might be expected, noise which must be eliminated by treating the conclusions as further hypotheses, requiring still more confirming data collection.

Gene alignment This problem is seen most clearly in the work done in bioinformatics, where long sequences of genetic code are compared with one another to measure how similar they are. Which of the sequence at the right, for example, are most similar? What criteria do you should be used to decide? If, for example, the sequences differ in less than 1% of genes are they similar enough create identical organisms? If they differ more than in 5%, are they different enough to explain an inherited disease? Is the data itself reliable enough in all of it's particulars to have confidence in the unive4rsality of any derived conclusion without further experiment?

Chris believes that the sheer size of the databases overcomes both of these objections. There is sufficient data to overwhelm any random errors that it might contain, and to support very accurate correlation measurements among large numbers of variables. Still, I don't think that it's enough to substitute for traditional science.

I'm concerned that any mathematical operations on data sets are deductive: they can't draw any conclusions that aren't contained in the original data set. Science often leaps by making inductive hypotheses: those that put a new interpretation to the data that motivates further experiments. Induction is often done through association, drawing together analogous facts from unrelated domains to generate new hypotheses. While these cognitive operations might be simulated in future computer systems, artificial intelligence techniques have not advanced to that level.

Large databases and fast computers have tremendous value in facilitating discovery of relationships in data, and of testing inductive hypotheses. In my work,they act as mediators, help me to reach conclusions faster (and occasionally to get me lost over a wider area). I don't think that they are able to stand alone as substitutes for the symbiotic interaction between mind and nature that lies at the center of the scientific process.

...there are copious data available, effective tools for retrieving what is necessary to bring to bear on a specific question, and powerful analytic tools. None of this replaces the need for thoughtful scientific judgement.
Lesk, AM (2008) Introduction to Bioinfomatics 3rd ed p31.

Photo credit ProCCKSI Protein (Structure) Comparison, Knowledge, Similarity and Information

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Updating progress

Arnhem Summer 1 I think that the occasional rain evaporates as steam when it reaches the ground, enhancing the humidity rather than drawing moisture from the air.  Under the circumstances, it's hard to get a lot of drive behind any task except soaking in a pool or sitting in the shade.  Nonetheless, life moves on...

The first-phase job hunt is winding up: I think that I've talked to most of the people in the company that I need to, and have bits of motion in some interesting areas.  Echoing TH, several folks asked me to answer the question "What job are you looking for?":

  Ideally, an entrepreneurial position in medical devices / diagnostics / medical informatics where I can lead a talented group creating a new business opportunity.

  Our company is a mature, technology-based, global business that grows by partnering with innovative startups having effective methods for disease management.  We can offer established strengths in clinical trial management, manufacturing, marketing, distribution, and branding, but first need to establish their market potential and technical feasibility, organize a business team, and create an evidence portfolio.

  My interests and demonstrated experience lie in bringing them through those first steps.

  There are clear advantages to doing this preliminary work in Europe: its peripheral to competitor's awareness, demands significantly less time and cost, and draws on established technical talent and clinical networks.  My Dutch work visa is good through 2009, and I'm flexible to relocate to work with a new team.

  Attractive areas to develop include spinning new therapies out from research centers, collaborating on diagnostic sensors and classification algorithms, demonstrating the impact of telemedicine, or mining risk stratification strategies from clinical study data.

I haven't pulled the trigger on talking to other European companies yet, but if there's no movement, I may have no alternative.  There is still the possibility of combining several small-company opportunities under a single consulting umbrella, but the requirements for establishing working residency here with my own business seem very steep.

I need to decide whether to step left and stay with the company or right to go elsewhere within the next few weeks, based on whether I can find an opportunity in the time that I have.  So it's still a critical time.

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Arnhem Summer 2 My son is half way through Basic Training, and it appears to be going well.  He's made a few 3-minute calls home, and sounds like he's adjusted to being yelled at by drill sergeants instead of parents.  He has almost met his physical fitness qualifications, he is doing well on the tests and assignments, he has a job cleaning the outside of the dorm instead of the bathrooms or showers.  They don't get much news (they didn't know about Hurricane Dolly until they were herded into a basement to wait it out), but he sounds happy and healthy.

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My daughter is staying out all night and seems to be having an obnoxious phase prior to pushing off to college.  it's too bad; she was always the nice and sensible one.  With three weeks left before she's gone, I hate for her to leave the house in the middle of a fight, so I've been on the phone nights trying to get everyone to settle down and play nice.

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They are trading out the Mondeo car for something else tomorrow.  It's not war and peace, it's not life and death, but I'm tired of filling it up every week to support a car big enough for a whole football team.  I borrowed a bike from a friend and plan to start riding to work in any case next week, heat or no heat...

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Men are (?) boring

Dave Sculpt You never listen!

You just don't hear what I'm saying!

Why don't we ever talk?

Despite being literate, open, engaging, and witty, I will admit that (even) I (gasp!) get these questions from time to time.

And they now merit better discussion, following Sabine Durrant's article Are Men Boring? in the summer issue of Intelligent Life. She maintains that men just don't say anything in social settings, and, even when they do talk, tend to hammer on self-centered or tiresome topics. Either way, she asserts, men are poor conversationalists: they don't engage and they are incapable of making small talk.

While the article goes on to make various Mars / Venus rationalizations from neuroscience to sociology about why this might be the case, I'll diverge a bit today to a) admit the fact, b) offer three thoughts about why it might be true, and c) promise to try to do better.

I will admit Sabine's point that I often miss the signals that a conversation is being started.

I know that I answer simple questions with simple answers: "What do you think of that sculpture?" (I like it.) or "What do you think you'll have?" (I'm deciding between the steak and the chicken.). I don't extend the talk if it's simply a thrust ("I'm glad we came here." Me too!) or parry ("Are we lost?" I think I recognize the next street...). And I don't like to offer opinions if it could bite me later (examples omitted for self-protection).

But, given a bit of context and encouragement, I'm happy to have a sparkling conversation about travel, cinema, current events, the arts, investment, podcasts, philosophy, programming, clinical monitoring, or narrative parsing.

Okay, 'maybe that latter stuff is part of the problem.... But, beyond that, why is there so little high-quality small-talk?

First, I think that Sabine confuses communication within couples vs. social conversation. In her hypothetical dinner party, seated next to someone I hadn't met, I do open a conversation. My small talk tends to be a search for common ground: a shared travel experience or a current news item. If that goes well, then I am comfortable finding out more about who they are and an interesting work or hobby interest they enjoy sharing.

As a couple, though, I admit that familiarity and immediacy lead to practical, focused conversations at the end of the day: what's been done, who did it, what needs to be done, and who's going to do it. It is, unfortunately, different than with familiar friends, where there's more 'pub talk', laughing or complaining about the day's activities, swapping bits of sports or pop culture, telling jokes and stories, and catching up on events. It's a stupid distinction.

Sabine further notes that women like to 'chatter' ("we gabble away nineteen to the dozen"), but that's really a negative quality among men. In business settings, we're always encouraged to be clear and direct, to stay on-topic, and not to waste one another's time. Being an expatriate accentuates these qualities: we're advised to keep remarks short and simple so that they are understood by everyone. Be honest and direct; avoid telling illustrative stories that may not translate across cultures.

On reflection, these habits do unfortunately carry across to non-work settings. I get my best insights from seemingly random stories that successfully circle back around to illustrate a point. But associative diversions rarely enhance understanding or close the deal in a pitch or presentation. Even in social settings, I find myself assuring people that what I'm about to say does, indeed, relate to the conversation.

Finally, I have to admit that I'm not at my social best in the evening after a long day of formal work interactions. It's easy to be worn down by the day's events, distracted by unresolved issues, and focused on the agenda for the next day.

I make a conscious effort to leave work at work, but I recognize that I don't make the corresponding effort to shift into picking up alternatives. I probably fall into even worse habits from living alone. It's too easy to just relax by disconnecting, shutting the door and tuning out distractions.

So, I do take the point that everyone desires clever, funny, insightful companions, and that I can fall into bad habits that (can even) make (literate, open, engaging, and witty) me into an (occasionally) boring alternative. This is probably even more important to recognize and try to correct in familiar relationships, where conversation has a tendency to degenerate into a verbal shorthand. I'm trying to follow some of my own advice from the notes above, re-engaging with alternatives as I set work aside, being willing to tell a little story, and answering questions with a compound sentence to keep the exchange open.

I'm tending towards chicken, but it may not be as good as at the restaurant last week.

That isn't so hard...

Sunday, July 27, 2008

When is a sport not a sport?

Speedo_lzr_twoI was watching the Olympic trials on BBC yesterday; the track and field events are always remarkable. The way the hurdlers flow over the jumps without breaking stride, or the pole vaulters know just how to bend and when to push to arc over the bar, demonstrates the years of practice and dedication behind the competition.

There are over 400 events in the Olympics, listed on the IOC website. Most are of exactly this type: sports where the athletes must be in superb physical and mental condition, have practiced to the limits of their endurance, and meet the competition at a very basic level of muscular strength, flexibility, technique, and endurance.

Some of the sports seem out of place, though. Shooting, for example, would seem to be based on having the better equipment; Equestrian on having the better horse. In each case, the competitor isn't the one primarily determining the outcome in a physical sense. The sailing competitions divide among eight classes of boats: it's physically difficult to control them, but how much depends on the equipment rather than athletic prowess?

Wikipedia defines Sport as any competitive activity governed by rules. By this measure, all of the Olympic events are clearly sports. But, for that matter, so are auto racing and poker. I'd be less inclined to take this broad definition: sports should embody athleticism: head-to-head, person-to-person, physical and mental engagement.

However, I concede that I think of archery and skiing as sports (which might lie outside my definition), and am less inclined to think of ballroom dancing or synchronized swimming as sports (which clearly lie inside my line). It's genuinely hard to be consistent.

And, in an increasingly technical world, winning at even traditional sports can seem driven by equipment. The issue of swimsuit design in this year's Olympic competitions shows how fine the line can actually be.