Archive for the ‘news’ Category


Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

I have lived in the Bay Area since 1979. I have never personally seen the Lexington Reservoir off Highway 17 near Los Gatos as low as it is currently, although historically it has been lower both due to construction and previous droughts.

The East side is currently at 18.1% of capacity.

[photo of Lexington Reservoir, East side, at low water levels, taken Monday, July 21, 2014; photo by Stephen Mack]

The West side is drained:

[photo of Lexington Reservoir, West side, at zero water level, taken Monday, July 21, 2014; photo by Stephen Mack

Someone has started an art project in the lake bed. Or finished one, I’m not sure which.

[photo of Lexington Reservoir, West side, with the words I MISS written in stones, taken Monday, July 21, 2014; photo by Stephen Mack

I’ve heard news reports that water boards across the state aren’t setting penalties for wasting water — because when water usage is reduced, they lose money.

So it’s up to us.

At my house, we’re flushing less, trying to reduce bath water use, and not watering the lawn at all. I wonder what more we can do.

30 years ago, the murder rate in the U.S. was twice what it is today — thoughts on the Aurora tragedy

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

I was deeply disturbed by the recent theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado and have closely followed the story.

As a parent, I’m most affected by the fact that a 4-month-old baby was injured and a 6-year-old girl was killed. I can only imagine the thoughts and emotions of their families.

But I’ve had many other reactions as well.

I am disturbed by those who suggest that the movie theater attendees were insufficiently armed and brave enough to prevent the tragedy. As Slate points out, the suspect was heavily armored. Given the speed of the attack, the fact he started with a gas canister, and that the theater was darkened and quickly became a chaotic scene, I feel certain that anyone who tried to shoot back would have been likely to injure or kill innocent bystanders.

Inevitably, we’re now on the topic of guns and gun control. While I personally do not wish to own a firearm, I have many friends who feel strongly on the matter, and over time I’ve become convinced that outright prohibition is no solution, and that any gun control measures should be minimal and extremely well-considered.

As a moderate on this issue, I despise the polarization of the debate. Most on the left seem to feel that the only acceptable solution is to completely ban all firearms. And on the right, the default seems to be the NRA’s apparent position of absolutely zero gun control legislation, no matter how reasonable or effective, under any circumstance.

The Second Amendment to the Constitution exists. Guns aren’t going away. Hunters will hunt, and those who are hobbyists or gun enthusiasts have the right to bear arms. While I feel the data on keeping a gun (or guns) in the home for self-defense has far greater risks than benefits, I don’t deny the right of a person to keep a gun for self-defense (and, in fact, one third of American households do have a gun in the home). So we clearly aren’t going to ban guns.

On the other extreme, despite the Second Amendment, there are going to be laws, and we need them. Every state in the U.S. has some form of limit on the purchase, possession and use of guns. So, just as we agree guns will exist, we also agree gun laws will exist: I don’t think anyone would argue that, say, a criminally-insane 13-year-old should be allowed to purchase a gun whenever desired without any restriction.

So, as with every issue, it’s about where we set the line. The Second Amendment isn’t commonly interpreted to mean that individuals should be allowed to own tanks, or nuclear weapons, or instruments of biological warfare. So clearly there are limits. I believe it’s reasonable to argue that certain types of guns, including the assault rifle with the 100-round magazine used by James Holmes in Aurora, should be prohibited for sale and possession. Perhaps waiting periods need to be beefed up as well. However, none of that seems like it would have prevented the tragedy here.

All of this is actually preamble to my main point: I think it’s rational for there to be a certain amount of fear after an event like this. But it’s also important to keep in mind that, statistically, we in the U.S. are all at less risk of being murdered today than at any point in the last 46 years.

The “intentional homicide rate” (basically, the murder rate) in the U.S. is 4.8 in 2010, per FBI data compiled and displayed at Wikipedia. That means that in 2010, per every 100,000 people living in the United States, 4.8 were murdered.

(Compare that 4.8 rate for the U.S. to the most dangerous country for murder in 2010, the Honduras at 87, or the least dangerous, Japan at 0.35. The worldwide rate is 6.9. The U.S. is about four times more murderous than the U.K. at 1.23, and about three times worse than Canada at 1.62.)

Despite 4.8 being a relatively high number compared to many other Democratic countries, the rate in the U.S. (and for most of the world) is much lower today than it was in the recent past. Looking at the data for the last 110 years, from 1900 to 2010, the 4.8 result for 2010 is lower than 88 of those 110 years. It’s twice as low today as where it stood around 30 years ago. It’s 49% lower than 20 years ago. It’s 13% lower than 10 years ago. Here I’ve charted that data:

[chart showing the U.S. Intentional Homicide Rate, 1900 to 2010. Data from FBI (via Wikipedia)

(click to enlarge)

(I do wonder why the rate was lower in the ’50s and early ’60s.)

It’s easy to let media reports influence our thinking and panic us. Fear-mongering is a big part of mainstream media activity today, and I feel it’s mostly done in order to garner eyeballs. But the fact is, the murder rate is headed down. Events like the one in Aurora are a tragic aberration.

Celebrity deaths: A statistical analysis

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

Twice before I’ve written about the “celebrity deaths come in threes” superstition, in 2008 and 2009.

With the recent passing of Art Linkletter, Gary Coleman, and Dennis Hopper, this superstition has again resurfaced.

I feel my previous arguments have already been quite persuasive, but now let’s add a statistical debunking.

To analyze the superstition, we need to define it. That includes two tasks:

  1. Who is and isn’t a celebrity
  2. The timeframe for the deaths to occur

I extracted the data of all 1,422 celebrity deaths that have occurred between January 1, 1995 and May 31, 2010 from a site called, which is the location of a death pool contest. (The contest has entrants predict which celebrities will die in the upcoming year and assigns points for correct guesses. Last year’s winner took away over $3,000.)

This addresses the first question, who’s a celebrity. At they have a panel of judges determine whether or not a person who passes away is famous, based on simply whether or not five or more members of the panel have heard of the person. They then create a list of celebrities ahead of time, and then monitor that list to see who has passed away.

You may well disagree with the fame assessments of Certainly the data included plenty of people I personally had never heard of. But it’s a list that exists independently of the superstition, and is pre-existing, so it doesn’t suffer from the selection bias that arises when you assess whether or not a person is famous only after they have died.

As for the timeline, I decided to analyze it with as much leeway as possible. One day between each death? Up to two days? Three? Five? Seven? Who knows. I analyzed with a number of tolerance days all the way up to 10.

Before we get into the numerical analysis, let’s visualize the data.

[A timeline chart showing all celebrity deaths from 2004-01 to 2010-06, using data extracted from

(Click to enlarge; depending on your browser, you may need to click again to view at 100% and then scroll from left to right)

As you scroll back and forth in the listing of deaths from 2004 through today, your mind can certainly pick out groups of three. But is it ALL groups of three? Is it even MOSTLY groups of three? Your eyes already tell you the truth, that of course it’s not.

The numbers back up that visual refutation.

There are quite a few ways to analyze the data, and I tried to be comprehensive. Here are the approaches I took:

  1. Rolling timeline: This is probably the best method. (It was suggested by Patri.) When a death occurs, I start a counter. The counter lasts up to x days. (I analyzed with x from 1 to 10.) I keep track of how many celebrity deaths occur within that period. The counter resets after x days, and starts again whenever the next death occurs. With x at 7, for example, it’s basically an analysis of how many deaths a week, using rolling weeks.
  2. Continuous grouping: When a death occurs, start a count. Look at the next death. Is it within x days? If so, increment the counter. If not, start over at 1. Again, I analyzed with x ranged from 1 to 10.
  3. Separate tests: For each death, I calculate if it’s part of a group by looking at the date of death of the first member of the group, and see if it’s within x days of the last death. For the first death, it should be more than x days. For the subsequent deaths, it should be within x days. I then judge “pass” or “fail” for each death. I applied this analysis to groups of 1, groups of 2, groups of 3, groups of 4, groups of 5, and groups of 6. I also let it “roll” by varying where I started the counter. This analysis also looked at x ranging from 1 to 10.

So, what are the results?

For rolling timeline, we see the following results:

Tolerance Days (x) Groups of 1 Groups of 2 Groups of 3 Groups of 4 or more
1 75.7% 19.0% 4.6% 0.6%
2 47.6% 35.3% 12.4% 4.6%
3 28.3% 40.8% 20.0% 10.8%
4 18.8% 39.8% 23.6% 17.8%
5 12.7% 31.9% 23.8% 31.6%
6 9.7% 26.0% 24.7% 39.6%
7 7.5% 22.9% 25.1% 44.5%
8 6.0% 18.0% 22.6% 53.4%
9 4.7% 14.9% 20.5% 59.9%
10 3.7% 12.1% 19.4% 64.8%

No matter how many days of leeway you give, groups of three never actually best explain the data. If you give a lot of leeway, such as 10 days, larger groups occur. If you give only a little leeway, most deaths happen alone or in pairs.

The best performance for groups of three is when you allow a leeway of 7 days, but even then the superstition fits for just 25% of the deaths. (Groups of two deaths are not far behind, at 23%.) A superstition that’s only right one time out of four — and does no better than several of variants of the superstition — well, that’s not a useful superstition.

So, for this methodology, groups of three never really succeeds. With 7 or more days of leeway, three is the average and median for groups of deaths, but only with a 23% success rate. No interpretation of this data with this method would lead one to agree that celebrity deaths come in threes.

For the second method, continuous grouping, the results are similar. You can get some pretty big groups with this method — using three tolerance days, the largest group turns out to be a group of 21 celebrity deaths. And with 10 tolerance days, the largest group is of 243 deaths!

However, no matter how many tolerance days you allow, groups of three never amount to more than 14.3% of all groups. So at best, groups of three explains about 1 death in 7 with this method.

The third method I used was separate tests. To be honest, this is a pretty stupid method, since if, say, two deaths in a group of three fit the pattern but one doesn’t, it still scores as two out of three when really the entire group should fail. And the groups are highly dependent on previous groups, so if there’s a missing celebrity or a person included who isn’t really a celebrity, it throws off the entire test.

Under this method, groups of three still score very poorly. No matter how many tolerance days you allow, from 1 to 10, it always turns out that some other grouping (such as groups of 2 or groups of 6) beat out groups of 3. Groups of 3 performed best with 10 days of tolerance, but with that high a tolerance, groups of 4, 5, or 6 fit even better. At most, 64% of celebrity deaths would pass a group of three test but at the same time 72% fit a group of 4.

The data, analysis, and chart are all available for you to examine (Google docs share, 6.6 megs, Excel format).

If you asked me, the best method is the rolling timeline method, and the most reasonable number of days of tolerance is three. Going with that, we find that, on average, the group size is 1.7.

But “Celebrity deaths come in 1.7s” doesn’t have a winning ring to it.

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster: Terminology, a silver lining, and a graph

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

I have three things I want to say about the BP oil disaster.

First, a note on terminology. Let’s not call it a “spill.”

A “spill” is when my son knocks over his glass of milk. A “spill” is when you slip on some ice and graze your knee. A “spill” is what you do to the beans, as in someone accidentally letting slip the date of a surprise party.

BP’s CEO Tony Hayward is happy to call this a “spill,” because that word fits his position that this is only a “relatively tiny” event.

The truth is, of course, that it’s already been over a month, and this is now the world’s second worst oil disaster ever (probably) — and it’s not over.

BP’s original estimate of the flow rate was between 1,000 to 5,000 barrels per day. Current estimates suggest it was actually 95,000 barrels per day. So far, up to 491,000 tonnes of oil may have been released. In comparison, Exxon Valdez was 37,000 tonnes, and we’re still seeing the effects of that 20 years later. The current disaster is already more than 13 Valdezes.

So I reject “spill.” I use “disaster” and am considering “catastrophe.”

Second, there is a sliver of a silver lining. That formulation is this:

Three Mile Island is to nuclear power
Deepwater Horizon is to offshore drilling

Now for the record, I support nuclear power. I believe today’s nuclear power plants are safe and efficient. (France, the world’s leader, generates more than 75% of their power via nuclear plants.) Just 300 new nuclear power plants would end our dependence on fossil fuels for powering our cities — eliminating the need for coal mining, ending mining disasters. But because Three Mile Island happened, almost no politician will ever risk their career by advocating more nuclear power plants. That one accident, which killed no one, slowed our adoption of nuclear power dramatically.

In contrast, I oppose off-shore drilling, mostly due to spills and environmental factors. Because of Deepwater Horizon and the public outcry, it’s likely now that moratoriums and state-by-state bans will be enacted that last many decades. I’m glad of that, at least.

Finally, let’s do a quick comparison. Oil company profits are obscene. BP earned $6.1 billion in profit for Q1, which ended 20 days before the disaster began. As of May 24, they estimated they had spent $760 million on the recovery. However, it appears that about a third of that is the lost profit of $6 million per day because Deepwater Horizon isn’t operating. Separately, they also pledged $500 million for research into the environmental impact of the disaster.

So they’ve managed to find it in their hearts to spend a mere 17.3% of their Q1 profit on the disaster.

A pie chart showing a comparison of BP's Q1 profit of $6.1 billion versus the $500 million research pledge and $550 spent on recovery efforts

That’s insulting.

The Bicycle Accident of Yichao Wang at Stanford, California on February 3, 2010

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Picture of Yichao Wang, as published in the Palo Alto Daily (no photo credit)(This essay was written by Kimi, and I’m posting it here on her behalf. There is news coverage of the accident from the unofficial Stanford blog, the San Jose Mercury News, Stanford University News, The Stanford Daily, and The Palo Alto Daily News. To donate to Yichao Wang’s family, please see the Chinese Mutual Aid International Network site.

My friend X and I were leaving a night class at Stanford University. We had been learning about “how to raise balanced children in a fast-paced world.” We were discussing some of these ideas as we left class. I had parked off campus because we had carpooled to class. As we turned out of the parking lot and drove down Palm Drive toward El Camino, her Audi’s headlights swung out onto a body lying in the road. The body’s arms and legs were splayed out in a terrible, unnatural pose. At that moment, every cell in my body was perked. I tried to attach thoughts to my observations. “This can’t be real,” my mind told me.

My friend slowed her car down, and I tried to get out. She said sternly, “Wait!” and then “OK, now you can get out.” She parked her car and turned on the hazard lights. She started to wave the cars behind her away from the scene.

I leaped out of the car and could not believe what I saw and heard. I walked past an SUV parked on the side of the road and noticed another car parked in front of it. I think it was a white BMW. I never saw the driver inside. After I noted the body’s odd position again, I saw a man in blue scrubs. He had dark brown hair and wore glasses. He was on his cell phone, intensely describing the body to someone, “Male, about 30 years old…yes, I think he is seizing.” The top of the man’s head was facing me. As I walked around to face him, the breath was knocked out of me. His head was swollen to 2-3 times its normal size. His eyes were swollen shut. The top-right corner of his forehead near the temple was a matted clump of blood-soaked hair. There was a huge dent in the forehead, where his skull was smashed. “A person’s brain should not be outside of their head,” I told myself. His arm was turned away from him, and he did seem to be having some kind of seizure. He was moaning, gasping mightily, and sputtering with each breath; his chest rose and fell heavily, and eruptions of blood and phlegm shot straight up like a geyser.

I wanted so badly to clear his mouth and turn his head to the side. I reached my arms out toward him. “Don’t touch him! He might have a spinal injury!” the man barked.

I mumbled something about his ability to breathe.

“See those bubbles? That means he’s breathing,” he snapped.

“Mean,” I thought. I forgave him instantly.

He explained to the 911 dispatcher, “I am a fourth-year medical student.” He shot a glance at me, as if to see that I heard.

I grabbed the man’s left hand instead. He had thick fingers, and his skin was rough. “It’s going to be all right,” I said soothingly. I glanced at the dark, wet hole in his head and pushed my doubt aside. “Help is on the way.”

Then something clicked. I let go of the man’s hand for a few moments, and I picked up his bicycle from the opposite lane. The thick metal handlebars were crumpled, and I couldn’t wheel it. I had to pick it up. I noticed that it was black and did not have lights on it. I dumped it on the side of the road. Then I saw his backpack. It was heavy, black, and quite far from where the bike and body were. In fact, all three items made a large triangle. I understood why his head was so damaged. The car must have hit the front of the bike and sent the man and his backpack flying. He landed on his head where a helmet should have been; he should have had a cracked helmet and not a cracked skull. I tried to ignore these disturbing thoughts as I moved intently. I had to shoo away another intrusive thought: “This is Stanford! This shouldn’t be happening at Stanford!” I flung the backpack near the mangled bike.

Then the medical student had orders. “There should be a box of rubber gloves in the back seat of my car. Get them.”

“Lucky, someone who carries around medical gloves in his car,” I thought. I retrieved the purple gloves and concentrated on the task. There was only room for one thought in my head at a time. “Get the gloves,” I recited to myself as a mantra. I returned to the scene with the box in hand. We both put them on.

A blond woman yelled to us, “Do you need help? Should I call 911?”

“Someone already called 911,” I yelled back.

“Should I help direct traffic?” I finally noticed the cacophony of honks and yelling from the cars stopped behind us.

“Yes!” I responded, and then I turned back to the body on the ground. I spoke to him once more, “The ambulance is coming. Everything is going to be all right. They are going to help you. Don’t worry.”

At that point, the medical student thrust his cell phone at me. “Here, take this!” he said. I held the man’s hand in mine as I spoke to a dispatcher on the phone.

“Where are you?” she asked.

I said, “About halfway between the Oval and El Camino.”

“Is anyone there yet?” she asked.

I told her that no one was on the scene yet except for us. She told me help would be there soon. Moments passed like hours, and then I heard the sweetest sound in the world: sirens. I told her, and she said, “OK, hang up and flag them down. They are not exactly sure of your location. Good luck.”

I hung up the phone and looked for the flashing lights. “Do you hear those sirens?” I told the man. “The ambulance is coming, and they will help you! Hold on!” Then I stood up and waved my arms at the sound and flurry emanating from police cars in different directions. The police immediately blocked traffic from both ways with their cars, and they were filled with questions. The medical student answered them curtly. I was holding the man’s hand tightly. He was struggling harder than ever to breathe.

Moments later, we heard the ambulance pull up. “The ambulance is here!” I screamed at the man. You could almost see the relief wash over the small group then, as if we were done with our leg of the race and were passing the baton to a teammate. But this relief affected the man on the ground differently. At the exact moment that I announced the ambulance’s arrival, the man stopped breathing.

The medical student and a policeman reached out for his wrists. “Does he have a pulse?” someone asked. Instinctively, I started screaming a stream of questions at the man’s face, “HEY! What is your NAME? How OLD are you? WHAT IS YOUR NAME? HEY!!! WHAT IS YOUR NAME?!!!”

The man suddenly took in a huge breath and exhaled with a giant splutter. We all sighed with relief. Then the paramedics approached with their equipment. We all took a step back to give them room. The paramedics moved with a kind of relaxed calm. They put a cervical collar on him, turned his head to the side, and put a suction tube in his mouth. It was attached to a little vacuum. Someone put a long board next to him, a sort of gurney. Then, inexplicably, they started cutting off his clothes with a large pair of scissors. He lay in his underwear, but his limbs weren’t strangely positioned anymore.

I became aware of the medical student’s cell phone in my hand. I forced myself to walk to his SUV and place his cell phone in the cup holder. “I put your phone in your car,” I told him. He looked in my eyes and thanked me. We really saw each other for the first time.

As I wandered to the side of the road, I noticed a thick puddle of blood from the man’s head that stretched several feet beside him. I placed the man’s black backpack near the paramedics and told them it was his. They accepted it. Then, my friend X was standing next to me. We both stared at the blood. Then, a policeman asked if we saw what happened. The medical student said, “I saw it happen. I am a witness.”

Then the cop turned to us and said, “You can go now.”

I was completely torn. On one hand, the man was a vision of horror — human roadkill twitching on the asphalt. On the other hand, he was a human being: a son, a student, and maybe a husband or father. I wanted to be sure he would survive, but I couldn’t bear to ask if he would be OK. In fact, because of the smooth calm of the paramedics, I was worried that there wasn’t much they could do and that they knew something I didn’t about the possibility of his survival. So my friend and I walked back to her car, and she drove us away in the opposite direction of the man. I had to let go of my concern as abruptly as I had been moved by it. I felt shock, sadness, and anger. I was angry that the driver of the car hadn’t even stepped out to see if the man was OK. My friend explained to me that the driver was probably in shock and facing the prospect of being responsible for someone’s death. The anger subsided. Then, I noticed his blood on my hands. I started to panic. My friend gave me some baby wipes, and I cleaned off the blood. I was left with a queasy feeling in my stomach, which lasted for a week, and a wish for hope and strength among all the strangers.

Afterward, my friend and I searched the web for weeks. We even sent a detailed e-mail to the campus police. We never got a response. I searched for information about the survival rate of bicyclists who do not wear helmets, the chances of recovering from brain injury, and news stories of accidents. At first, I thought no news was good news because the newspapers would be all over a story that involved death. But then I talked to several people, and a friend whose opinion I respect simply shook his head and hugged me when I told him about the experience. I knew he didn’t think the man had survived. So I started to think about the possibility that the man did not survive. Then, two weeks later, my friend X e-mailed a news link to me. The Stanford web site had a story about a visiting researcher from China who had been hit by a car while bicycling. X’s e-mail was titled, “This is our guy!” And it was him! His name was Yichao Wang. I thought he was half black and half white, but he was Chinese! He came from the same town that my friend X’s mom was from. The story had a link to a photo of him in a coma and a request for donations to cover his medical care. I was excited to discover that he had survived the accident. I donated to his recovery fund through the Chinese Mutual Aid Society. However, the day that I donated, he died.

Now, I think about his wife and parents who must miss him terribly. They are probably in shock. He was 25 years old, married for three years, and on a promising path as a research scientist. Now, he is gone.

I feel sad, but I also feel angry. Stanford Hospital has charged one million dollars for the brain surgery that kept him alive but in a coma from which he never woke. It seems like it was an unnecessary surgery. Certainly, asking two retired Chinese parents who just lost their son to pay one million dollars seems ridiculous and cruel.

I wish that Yichao wore a helmet that day, had blinking head and tail lights on his bike, wore bright clothes with reflective stripes, or left his lab during daylight hours. I wish the driver had been more aware and careful. You have to be a defensive driver at all times in this area. I wish Stanford had a no-car zone around the campus and shuttled people in. I wish that this man was living, loving, and discovering. I wish he died after his parents and not before. But, again, he is gone.

He will not have died in vain if we learn this lesson: YOUR HELMET IS PART OF YOUR BIKE. IF YOU RIDE A BIKE, ALWAYS WEAR YOUR HELMET.

Data on U.S. airline crash fatalities: Is 2009 a terrible year for air travel?

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

A few minutes ago, I saw the following news flash from Breaking News Online jump across my screen:


My immediate reaction was, “Wow, what an awful tragedy, and what a terrible year this is for American airplane safety.”

But once I saw the details behind that alert, and learned that fortunately it was only a crash between two small planes with only one fatality (instead of the hundreds I feared), I wanted to check my impression that we were having a bad year.

I found a site that tracks airplane crashes, and filtered their database for U.S.-only crashes.

In 2009, there have been 6 incidents so far. All told, 81 have died this year in plane crashes, and the year is not yet over. Everyone is probably familiar with the events in New York on January 15, 2009, where, thanks to the heroic landing in the Hudson by Captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, 149 lives were saved following an engine strike by birds. Less than a month later, a horrible accident during bad weather on February 12, 2009, in New York claimed 49 lives. And a little more than a month after that, on March 22, 2009, another terrible accident in Montana killed 14. Then things were quiet until August 8, when a helicopter accident in New York led to 9 more fatalities.

Together, those four incidents created an impression in my mind that 2009 was a terrible year for air travel.

However, then I looked at the data for the previous four years.

In 2008, there were 15 accidents recorded in the U.S. The worst was on August 5, 2008, in California, and caused 9 fatalities. In total, 60 airplane accidents caused 60 fatalities last year.

For 2007, there were 11 accidents causing 46 fatalities, the worst being a crash in Washington state killing 10 in October.

In 2006, there were 9 accidents killing 65 air travelers, and the worst was a crash in Kentucky that killed 49 people in August.

2005 was a relatively safe year, with 7 accidents causing 37 deaths (20 from a crash in Florida in December).

Charted data (from for 2005-2009 showing U.S. airplane accidents: Number of incidents and number of fatalities.

Charted data (from for 2005-2009 showing U.S. airplane accidents: Number of incidents and number of fatalities. Click to enlarge.

(I shared the spreadsheet on Google docs if you want to see the raw data.)

So, while 2009 has seen some terrible and tragic accidents, it’s not really the case that it’s orders of magnitude worse than previous years. It’s true that there have been more fatalities this year (and there are still three months to go until 2010), but the number of accidents was actually higher in the previous three years.

Airplane travel remains much safer than car travel and other travel in terms of passenger miles. The III analysis of NCHS statistics for 2005 shows that your odds of dying in a car crash in a year are 1 in 6,539 while in a plane it’s 1 in 502,554 (compared to the odds of dying in a “cataclysmic storm” which are 1 in 339,253).

The CDC says I should presume my kids have swine flu (plus graph update)

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009
Sophie rests with her mom

Sophie rests with her mom

Sammy, sick with the flu, rests on the couch

Sammy, sick with the flu, rests on the couch

My daughter, Sophie, who turns two in September, woke up on Sunday morning with a 101-degree temperature, low energy, runny nose, and a cough. This was the return of a fever she had beaten a week before.

A day later, on Monday evening, my son Sammy (who turns four in September), began exhibiting the same symptoms.

I kept them home with me on Tuesday and again today. We have a doctor’s appointment this afternoon. In the meantime, we’re treating with Tylenol, lots of fluids, rest, and applesauce.

News reports keep quoting CDC officials in saying that we’re well over a million cases of swine flu. But at the official CDC site, there’s still zero data or statement I can find to support that. More recently, the WHO is being quoted as saying that any flu or fever at this time of year can be presumed to be swine flu. This LA Times article (“Just assume it’s swine flu”) is representative, and also suggests that the WHO may discontinue their ongoing reports with the official cases. But at the WHO’s official H1N1 site, again, there is absolutely nothing to support the statements being made to the press.

So, do my children have swine flu? They’re suffering from classic flu and fever symptoms — if anything, milder than what they’ve experienced in the past. But summer flu is not unheard of, so it’s not a given that it’s swine flu.

The latest official H1N1 WHO update, #58, from July 6, reveals 94,512 confirmed cases, from 135 countries, with 429 fatal cases (for a fatality rate of 0.5%). While there was a levelling off between updates 57 and 58, prior to that the number of new cases per week has indeed again doubled, to over 30,000. At this point, if this data means anything, the number of confirmed cases does appear to be approximately doubling in a two week period.

But I find it disheartening to see the massive disconnect between statements made to the press by the CDC and WHO versus what they make available at their own sites. Why even keep up this pretense of the “official” count with ongoing updates if it’s all meaningless?

Official WHO data showing H1N1 (swine flu) case data, including number of cases, deaths, and cases per day. (Click to enlarge.)

Official WHO data showing H1N1 (swine flu) case data, including number of cases, deaths, and cases per day. (Click to enlarge.)

Swine flu graph update #3: A(H1N1) modest rate increase

Friday, June 26th, 2009

I last updated this graph 15 days ago. In that time, the number of worldwide confirmed cases doubled from nearly 29,000 to nearly 60,000, according to the World Health Organization.

These are not the number of fatal cases. The official count of worldwide fatalities has risen from 144 to 263. That’s a fatality rate of 0.4%, or 1 in 250.

Various news reports this week stated that there were 1 million cases in the U.S. (for example, this article on the Discovery Channel’s site). Those reports are based on projections, not confirmed cases, and honestly to me the figure simply does not seem credible. The 1 million number is not backed by the CDC data, which matches the WHO’s report for U.S. cases. I do believe reporters have confused the concept of “number of vaccines needed in the worst case” with “number of people who have been infected.”

However, it does seem apparent that the rate of new cases has increased. Previously we had seen about 4,500 new cases each week, for a period of three weeks in May. That increased to around 6,500 cases a week in early June. We’re now seeing about 15,500 cases per week for the last two weeks.

It’s hard to say if we’ve seen the point where the number of cases is doubling consistently. It took two weeks to get from 15,000 cases to 30,000, then two weeks more to get from 30,000 cases to 60,000. It will be very interesting to see if the number of cases double again to 120,000 in the next two weeks. At that point, I predict news cycles would start to take things very seriously again.

(Click to see full-size chart.)

Swine flu graph update — A(H1N1) hits phase 6 and “moderate” severity

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

I wrote about A(H1N1) (alias “swine flu”) last week.

A reader requested an updated graph, so I’ve provided that below. Significantly, today WHO declared that A(H1N1) entered phase 6 and was “moderately” severe. Since the new phase system WHO has developed really doesn’t consider severity and only looks at how far widespread an influenza outbreak is, phase 6 (and all of the phases) are, in my uneducated and biased opinion, relatively meaningless.

The graph shows that the merely-linear increase in cases is still in place. No signs (yet) of exponential growth.

[graph showing A(H1N1) swine flu cases through 2009-Jun-11

Influenza A(H1N1) cases: graph of WHO data, discussion of media coverage

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

In the next 30 years, seismologists have determined that the chance for a magnitude 6.7 or later earthquake in California is over 99%. One can easily see based on the historical record that this is a safe prediction. In the last several hundred years, Californians have not had a period of 30 years go by without such an earthquake.

Similarly, influenza outbreaks follow a regular pattern. Roughly every 50 years one can expect a influenza pandemic that kills a million or more people worldwide. (What’s less frequently cited is that every year, the regular flu kills up to 350,000 people worldwide, mostly the elderly.) In recent history, the Hong Kong flu of 1968 killed up to 1 million people. The Asian flu of 1957 killed up to 1.5 million people. And the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak killed up to 40 million people worldwide.

It’s understandable, then, why people were concerned with swine flu and why there was so much media coverage. What if it turned out to be one of those catastrophic pandemics that kills millions of people? What if we couldn’t (or can’t) create an effective inoculation? It’s rational to be cautious, and to pay attention to the news.

On the other hand, in recent years we’ve seen coverage of previous threats from SARS, avian flu, and others, and they turned out to be relatively minor events. In some cases we overreact. It certainly seems to me that mainstream media overhyped the threat from swine flu and created a sense of panic that was unwarranted from the facts. Now that coverage has faded, I’m sure most people aren’t really thinking about swine flu any further.

The thing is, it’s not really over. Worldwide cases have climbed to nearly 20,000, and the number of deaths is over 100. In the U.S., there are currently 17 fatalities. (The media really only covered the first two victims.)

From here, swine flu could fade away into nothing, or it could suddenly explode. The latter outcome seems increasingly outcome, however. And here’s some data to support why I believe that.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has been releasing data for 41 days; over that time, they’ve provided 43 updates as I write this. Earlier they released two updates a day. Currently the updates come every few days.

WHO update swine flu case data, including number of cases, deaths, and cases per day

WHO swine flu case data, including number of cases, deaths, and cases per day (click to enlarge)

The graph above shows the number of new cases reported per day, as a line. In addition, as an area, the number of confirmed cases (yellow) and confirmed deaths (red) are also included.

By profession, I’m a numbers guy. Quantifiable analysis is my preferred approach for investigation. So starting from the beginning, I monitored the numbers of confirmed cases, countries, and deaths from the WHO updates and analyzed how many cases per hour, day and week.

With a pandemic, what we worry about is exponential growth (100 cases becoming 200 cases becoming 400 cases becoming 800 cases). Even linear growth can be scary for a pandemic if the numbers are large enough (50,000 cases becoming 100,000 cases becoming 150,000 cases). But that’s not what we have here, judging by the WHO’s numbers.

In fact, the number of new cases per week has been steady for the last three weeks at about 4,400 new cases a week.

There are many disclaimers that should be associated with the WHO’s numbers. Who knows what politics play into the process, and who knows if the count of confirmed cases is constrained by laboratories crushed with tons of undiagnosed cases that are even now uncounted. And the number of as-of-yet unreported cases (especially from third world countries) is a total unknown. You can tell from the extreme variability in the number of cases per day that human factors influence the reports.

However, after looking at nearly five weeks of data, it’s easy to assert what the media has already decided — there’s no exponential growth, and not even significantly increasing linear growth. Note instead how the cumulative number of cases appears to be very smoothly linear.

Given the relatively small number of cases compared to other threats, it’s clear the news cycle for swine flu is dead and not returning unless something completely unexpected happens, despite scattered reports of ongoing school and business closings.

So before this story fades into the sunset, the question to ask is if the media and health workers reacted appropriately. Was the coverage sufficient or insufficient, was it overblown or underblown or exactly right?

The June issue of Lancet contains a story (reprinted here) arguing that the amount of coverage was proper, and that due to quick action from health workers and cooperation from a fearful public, a crisis was averted.

I’m not qualified enough to disagree, but it seems to me the most important factor was the nature of the swine flu itself, and just how contagious it was. The evidence shows that it just didn’t spread that quickly — it wasn’t that virulent.

But it’s quite possible that because of the coverage, we put in place behaviors that saved ourselves. By analogy, consider Y2K (where we worried that computer code that used 2-digit years instead of 4-digit years would lead to buggy behavior when the software assumed the year 1900 instead of 2000, and that these issues would affect critical facilities and cause widespread technological disasters). There was enormous media coverage. Speculation was rampant, including fears of widespread power failures and nuclear facility mishaps, and some predicted wholesale societal breakdown. Yet of course when January 1, 2000, rolled around, very little happened (other than some big hangovers). So, overblown, right? Maybe not. I know first-hand how much effort engineers and developers put in ahead of time to certify certain systems, reprogram others, and generally make sure that everything would continue to work. To an outsider, Y2K certainly seemed overhyped. And much of the speculation (including the concept that embedded chips in cars and toasters would malfunction and shut down) was in fact ridiculous. But most computer professionals know that, while the coverage was certainly hysterical at times, there were instances of genuine bugs (that could have affected paychecks and so on), and that most of these genuine issues were averted due to foresight, prudence, and hard work.

I’m no medical professional. While I immediately dismissed swine flu fears and coverage as overblown, maybe that’s because I’m an outsider, not seeing all the hard work that took place to make sure the disaster was averted before it became a deadly pandemic.

Aside from those very unfortunate people who died due to swine flu, in the end, the economic impact may be swine flu’s longest-lasting legacy. Several reports show that Mexico tourism dropped by huge percentages, even in regions where there were zero swine flu cases. Recovery to previous levels will take time. (I’m told there are some amazing travel bargains to Mexico now.)

EDIT: Based on feedback from Kevin Fox, I updated the graph to simplify it a bit, and to use just regular calendar dates instead of dates and WHO update number. That corrected the problem whereby the variable number of days between updates made the cumulative number of cases look to be accelerating.

Mountain View stinks

Sunday, March 1st, 2009


Did anyone else gag on the strong sewage smell permeating Mountain View yesterday and today? I smelled it from just outside my house Saturday evening, and in downtown Sunday morning. Kimi called me to say she thought our toilets were backing up, but it wasn’t us. Other people seemed to notice it too. But after the noon time rains today, it seemed to clear up.

Did the city sewage system overflow? Swamp gas? Acid reflux rain? What gives?

Understanding the financial meltdown

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

[…]if you want banks to make smart, prudent loans, you probably shouldn’t give money to bankers who sunk themselves by making a lot of stupid, imprudent ones.

When you shout at people “be confident,” you shouldn’t expect them to be anything but terrified.

These are two memorable quotes from a NYT Op-Ed piece called “The End of the Financial World as We Know It” published on January 3, written by Michael Lewis and David Einhorn. It’s the most terrifying thing I’ve read in years.

Episode 355 of NPR’s “This American Life” is called “The Giant Pool of Money,” and it’s one of the most informative, straight-forward and similarly frightening stories about the disaster. A must-listen. (If you don’t have an hour to spare, the 13 minute version from May 9 on All Things Considered, “Global Pool of Money Got Too Hungry” is similarly excellent.)

Variegated miscellany

Saturday, May 24th, 2008

Today I attended Jack and Andy’s fifth birthday party at Hoover park, and watched Bob get pelted by water balloons and shaving-cream-filled sponges by ten ecstatic kids. (How I escaped that fate, given I’m a co-godparent? Dunno! But I am oh so grateful.) Aunt Beth made two cakes, one a race car, and the other a chocolate volcano with lava made from melted orange lifesavers. Amazingly beautiful cakes.

* * *

While I was feting twins, Kimi took Sammy and Sophie to the Hiller Airplane Museum, which never gets old for Sammy.

Me: Sammy, what did you see at the airplane museum today?
Sammy: Airplanes.
Me: What kind of airplanes?
Sammy: Old airplanes. With wings!

* * *

Yesterday was Sophie’s eight month birthday. She babbles incessantly now, has the tiniest of teeth buds coming in, gives a smile to everyone, likes to wave somewhat erratically at people, and can roll over, but seems to show no interest in crawling. We’ve started the ferberizing to break her of her 3 a.m. feedings, and so far so good; she slept through the night for the last two nights.

* * *

Yesterday was also photo day at Sammy and Sophie’s school, and in addition, teachers’ lunch out for Sophie’s class. This semi-annual event asks the parents to donate their time and a little money for the teachers to get an escape, while parents come in during the lunch hour to watch the kids. There are eight kids in Sophie’s class, ranging from four months to almost a year old. For the noon to 1 shift where I helped out, we had five parents. When we first started our shift, the teachers had left us well-fed, happy, clean-diapered kids. Within about, oh, ten minutes, half of the kids were bawling, and most had dirty diapers. We parents just looked at each other and laughed. What a profoundly difficult job. The two teachers handle four infants each, with aplomb. We parents were having difficulty with less than two each. Things soon settled down though, and the hour ended up flying by.

* * *

While the photographers set up outside the school and we lined the kids up to have their individual and class photos taken, smoke and haze filled the sky from the nearby Santa Cruz mountains fire. Yesterday morning over 3,400 acres had burned, dozens of homes were destroyed, and the fire was less than 1% contained. Even though we were fifty miles away, kids rubbed their eyes and coughed; and the strange air reminded me of a smell from my childhood, in London: walking down the street in winter evenings, with seemingly every house having a fireplace with a blazing wood fire, smoke pouring out of chimneys, getting on your clothes.

Chim chimminee, chim chiminee, chim chim cheroo.

I was very glad to see the unexpected and unseasonable light rain today, giving the firefighters the break they needed to control the mountain blaze. The dull weather was not so much fun for five-year-olds attending a birthday party, but everything in life is a trade-off.

* * *

Earlier in the week, I caught Speed Racer and then snuck in to a showing of Prince Caspian. It took me about thirty minutes to catch on to Speed Racer’s vibe, but once I did, I loved it. I think this is a vastly underrated movie. The critical smackdown is somewhat intense; I guess most of the critics never watched the original cartoon, because I think the movie catches the goofy tone of the movie pretty much perfectly. And the visuals do not disappoint, exceeding even the hype.

Prince Caspian, on the other hand, is a dreadful bore, missing all spark of charm and whimsy of the first Narnia movie, laying the religious theme on over-thick, and really missing the point of the book (which I read probably twenty times before I was 12).

Speed Racer is over two hours but feels like 60 minutes. Prince Caspian is over two hours but feels like three or four.

* * *

Rob and I have been playing a new card game, Race for the Galaxy (which Steve and Larry introduced me to when they visited a couple of months ago). We play whenever we get a chance. I love this game. It’s a bit fiddly to learn, and the fact that you’re not directly interacting with your opponents takes a few plays before you understand how you can actually have a huge effect on your opponents’ play — but it’s such a short and intense game, I find myself even dreaming about it. Get this game!

* * *

Kimi gave me the new Flight of the Conchords CD for my birthday (among a lot of other CDs, thanks sweetie!). Although I loved the first season of the HBO show, I had thought some of the songs were hit or miss. But I was able to really listen to the lyrics (thanks to the iPhone making it easier for me to carry around music), and now I love all the songs. Buy this CD. Please mister, you won’t regret it.

* * *

There’s a friends-and-family deal at TiVo right now for a TiVo HD. If you’re a friend or family and want a new HD DVR, drop me an e-mail.

* * *

While I do aim to generate content, rather than pass along content from elsewhere, here’s a link. I have to say I applaud these two for their convictions and avocation.
* * *

Kimi: “Your blog is so random. No one likes all the content. No one!”

Guilty — variegated miscellany is what this is. I do tend to be all over the place. Everything’s connected, somehow. Just think though — there are half of the categories listed on the right not even touched by this post. But comments are what I like best, so let me know what you’d like to see more of, and less of.

Monday’s 7.9 earthquake in China, very moving story on NPR

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

Driving home from work today I was listening to NPR and heard this story, which reduced me to tears. Reading the words has nowhere near the same impact as listening by clicking their “Listen Now” link (11 minutes, 44 seconds).

People often talk about how it’s very hard to relate to a large number of deaths that are very far away, of people who you don’t know personally. I did not think much about the earthquake when I heard the news Monday, and it didn’t occur to me to contribute to the Red Cross. All that changed after hearing the story.

Because I have a 2 year old son, like the Fu’s, I’m sure the story had an extra impact on me. But right now I cannot think of anything else.

“The tiger is loose, the tiger is loose, the scene is not safe”

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

As much as I hate getting distracted from real news by things like this, I’m pretty much obsessed over the tiger-escaping-from-the-SF-Zoo story.

As an operations guy, my first thought on 12/26 when I read the headlines was, “Woah, the zoo is open on Christmas day? Wonder how they manage that.”

Either one of my Loyal Readers may recall our visit to said zoo a while back. If you’d asked me after that visit about the possibility of a tiger escaping, I would have said it wasn’t possible. I mean, those tigers were so far away you could barely see them.

Yesterday’s Merc featured a transcript of the 911 calls. (Audio links on the right of that article.)

I know a lot of people haven’t had a lot of sympathy for the victims, arguing they provoked the tiger or possibly used a slingshot or were drinking vodka or whatever. But once you listen to that audio, I don’t really think you can view the zoo and authorities as blameless.

If a jury hears that audio, it’s all over. The zoo will be sued into oblivion. The only thing they’ll have left is a couple of rats and a bunny rabbit. And they’ll be required to have an armed guard standing next to the bunny to make sure no one gets bitten.


Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

Talk about a spooky Halloween’s eve. Sammy, Sophie, Kimi and I were sitting on the couch and enjoying a fire at 8:04 when everything started shaking. It seemed to last a long time, but wasn’t too violent: Some clanking pots, but nothing fell down. Kimi thought it was cats on the roof. I had everyone stand under the door frame.

Looks to be a 5.6 near Alum Rock in San Jose (about 25 miles from here).

Normally (when there’s not an infant in the house), tonight would be a poker night. Glad that I wasn’t away from home.


Wednesday, August 8th, 2007

Look, I don’t care about sports at all, and least of all baseball, a sport that remains entirely alien to me. (Growing up in England we played rounders, which is somewhat similar to baseball, and cricket, which seems like a distant cousin, and soccer, which I’ve always preferred).

For Bonds to say, as he is quoted in this AP article, that “This record is not tainted at all. At all. Period” is willfully ignoring a deep-stained muck of festering controversy.

Besides, he’s got a ways to go to catch this guy.

But hey, congrats*** to the home team and to Barry for his new world* record**

*, **, ***, **********: Insert disclaimers here.

James Kim

Tuesday, December 19th, 2006

Even now, weeks after the events, I still find myself thinking about James Kim and his family and what happened to them in the remote Oregon wilderness. I catch myself wondering how I’d be able to handle myself if I ever found myself in the same situation — and if I, like James, would be able to save my family. Imagine being trapped with your family in the middle of nowhere for a full week, running out of food, almost out of gas, not knowing if help will ever arrive. It’s horrifying to me. Right or wrong, I too probably would have left in search of help.

TiVo Inc. is contributing to the James Kim family donation fund, and if you, like me, were hit by this story on a personal level, I just wanted to encourage folks to be aware of the CNET donation page.

CNET’s latest episode of “CNET’s Tips for Digital Living” includes a tribute to James (starting around the 13 minute mark). You can download it for your Series2 DVR connected to broadband using TiVoCast, or watch it in a browser at CNET’s site. I personally could not watch it without getting choked up. James was a very talented guy, and his reviews were fun to watch.