“Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all.”--Bodhisattva vow
ivart was one of the first scientists to call attention to the observation that major transitions in evolution do not involve a single organ changing; rather, whole suites of features across the body have to change in concert.
Some Assembly Required Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA--Neil Shubin
If you aren’t familiar with St George Jackson Mivart, today is your lucky day. In a nutshell, Mivart was trolling Darwin’s findings in his seminal work, "On the Origin of Species".
But his question was important:
If entire bodies have to change for any great transformation, and many features need to change simultaneously, then how could major transitions happen gradually?--Some Assembly Required Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA--Neil Shubin
Charles Darwin responded thoughtfully and respectfully...
All of Mr Mivart’s objections will be, or have been, considered in the present volume. The one new point which appears to have struck many readers is, ‘That natural selection is incompetent to account for the incipient stages of useful structures.’ This subject is intimately connected with that of the gradation of the characters, often accompanied by a change of function.”--Neil Shubin
Lungs aren’t some invention that abruptly came about as creatures evolved to walk. Fish were breathing air with lungs well before animals ever stepped onto terra firma. The invasion of land by descendants of fish did not originate a new organ--it changed the function of an organ that already existed...the change did not involve the origin of a new organ; instead the transformation was, as Darwin said more generally, “accompanied by a change of function.”--Neil Shubin
My thesis was in population genetics so this book is a win for me but it also reminded me of data. We take a class and are often surprised when the skills or tools are not easily assimilated into a work flow. It reminds me of the fish with the genetic equivalent of a lung.
He doesn’t effortlessly stroll onto the beach and become a land dweller. There are gradients of success. There needs to be changes in a whole host of functions. Suddenly his watery environment has a drop in dissolved oxygen--mysteriously he relies on his lungs to weather the storm.
Perhaps our data skills are like air sacs. They exist--we simply need to challenge them to innovate and evolve along with us.
I don’t. Next question? I am only partially joking. The most common format for the output of most non-proprietary large datasets (at least in healthcare) seems to be CSV. Occasionally I can grab a SAS file but I think spreadsheets are here to stay. A CSV file has all of the formatting and formulas stripped out of the file so although they are still cumbersome--they work.
This data is from the Household Pulse 2020 COVID household survey from the Census. You can readily see that the ability to gather any information about the shape of this data is limited.
Writing a few lines of Python code can provide information about the shape of data and the variables included although unless you are familiar with the data, you will also need to download the data dictionary. This particular survey contains 82 columns and 132,961 entries or rows.
You can also explore data on CENSUS website and use their interactive tool. I usually start here and formulate data questions as I go. Reach out with any questions. The newly launched newsletter will be designed to included links for deeper dive tutorials or a focused narrative for less tech orientated subscribers. You can subscribe here. Because I am switching my existing list of subscribers to the old format over to the new format--anyone subscribing to the new format before the end of September will continue to have access for free.
One thing many of us working in statistics and data literacy can agree on is the broken pedagogy and misalignment between maths and the existing teaching curriculum.
Now, because of COVID-19 we are taking that broken foundational model and moving it to remote learning--what could go wrong?
When I teach underlying mathematical principles in statistical or data science course I am leap-frogging over the memorization and boring bits and moving right to the application. Perhaps not ideal, but if the goal is to teach a team how to reach the part of the workflow where they can begin to curate insights from their data--a few corners are going to need to be cut.
Here is the rub though. They often learn more in the over-simplification because they never knew what they were doing down in the weeds anyway. For example, when you are data modeling--what is the shape of your data? We talk about linear, sinusoidal, or quadratic relationships. I write about it briefly in this blog--Maths in the real world.
We all have heard the lamenting about why take calculus. “When am I ever going to use it?” Did you know derivatives can tell you a lot of information in the real world? How about whenever you think about rate of change of a function? Most recently while calculating the COVID-19 rate of positive tests for example. Also when we think of population growth in biology or marginal functions in economics.
I like to introduce the brilliance of maths that we can stand back and marvel or appreciate. Recently, a post On apple trees and man described Benford’s Law. Discovering the not so random nature of big data provides a glimpse of the complexity but also mystery of math. A look beyond the rote memorization introduction that led many of us to avoid math simply out of principle.
The quote below is from an informative discussion about online-instruction and how we need to Teach Better.
Anyway. the key thing there is that the relevance has to be there for people to engage, and we also have to think about how do you kind of shape knowledge in the discipline? You know, how does a novice look at things? And chemistry is a great example because when you're a chemist, you get good at dealing symbols.
I think the problem with symbols and not knowing the storytelling of their shorthand stops so many of us in our tracks. If you are integrating classroom response systems or “clickers” where you can respond to student gaps and questions in real time you can avoid the tendency to gloss over esoteric terms and abbreviations and mistakingly assume that all students are joining you on the journey.
Online workshops and webinars have taught me that we can’t do any of it in a meaningful way without engagement. Here is an article, The Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS): A New Instrument to Characterize University STEM Classroom Practices. I use it as a model for teaching technical topics remotely. I hope you will steal these ideas to make your work more engaging.
Here is the podcast episode where they provide a bit more context to the work being done in STEM specifically in Chemistry but you can easily connect the ideas to how we our teaching statistics for example.
It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man.-- Henry David Thoreau
I’m not judging but I am not typically a binge-watcher of TV. A few notable exceptions would be Better Things (I watch it on a loop) and a new Netflix series, Connected. Latif Nasser is a science journalist with a likable foppish personality that intentionally or unintentionally hides a complex and thinking human.
Okay maybe “hide” is the wrong word. He is definitely packaging knowledge by distracting us from the "veggies in the sauce". You aren’t aware of how important and technical these topics are because they are seasoned with a bit of graphic artistry and film noir. All of the episodes will draw you in. The 3rd episode about “Dust” explains how the archaeologic remains in a dried lake in the Sahara desert replenishes phosphorus washed away by the rains in the Amazon basin. And other fun facts I had no idea about. These dust storms are visible from space and influence weather systems as well as our health and wellness.
Connected: Digits (episode 4 in series)
The connection running throughout the series is attributed to the “Hidden Science of Everything”. If you work in science or with data you likely are familiar. We know that skills in data science or research findings for example are not homogenized and isolated bits of information. But too often we create silos of knowledge any way. Instead of thinking cinematic we think linear. Learn this skill. Now this one. Okay here is another. A piecemeal attempt to understand the chaos and intersectionality of everything. I am a big advocate of pushing around the edges of seemingly disparate ideas until we detect a slight alignment.
The episode about digits introduces us to Benford’s Law. Back in the day before calculators, books of logarithms were published. Observation of a wide variety of data sets yielded something interesting. The random numbers were not random after all. Their distribution was following an unknown pattern. Unknown--but quietly present in all of the data. Impossible to not see once you become aware of its presence.
You can read more about the history of Benford’s law over at The Conversation. Or explore by visiting the page below (simply click on the image). There is a wide variety of datasets available for you to apply the law and see what happens.
You can dig deeply over on Wikipedia as well. Benford's law, also called the Newcomb–Benford law, the law of anomalous numbers, or the first-digit law.
Thinking outside of our specific box not only broadens our awareness but allows us to see the vast number of “boxes” on the horizon.
There are certain tasks that I have been doing a certain way forever and ever. I did not realize how complex I was making some of these work flows until I was asked to teach a class over on Teachable. Faced with creating a recipe I noticed that perhaps--in some cases--the juice was no longer worth the squeeze. Too many steps to explain to a heterogenous audience. It is one thing to slog through content if you know everyone has been baselined and we are starting from the same spot.
It is quite another thing to know that some will be yawning while others are likely to be gnashing their teeth in frustration. I won’t pretend to know the right balance but here is what I know.
The best approach is to have mini conversations. These are general to be sure but allow exposure to the vastness of a complicated subject. I realize that it is your filter for information that matters--not mine. I imagine you will learn the way I did. Collecting little bits of information here and there, retaining the glittery bits to “feather your nest” as it were.
I had this epiphany while working with Census Data. Like many of you, I have been working on a work flow ahead of the 2020 Census. Unless you are teaching, you tend to fly through certain steps and only realize your error once you are reviewing the webinar or recording. Over on Teachable the learning curve was steep but not unsurmountable.
One day I might wear makeup or add style but for now it is all about content.
This week, we will build a map. Stay tuned...
There is a commercial that says something like, “Savoring the moments that were always there.” It reads like a silver lining to self-isolation during a global pandemic. The trouble with many of us--we have been working remotely for a long time. Now the secret is out. Depending on your sensibilities this has been perhaps an “aha!” moment or a glimpse into a reality that isn’t for you.
I lean toward the savoring side. In fact, one of the reasons I consider myself “unemployable” is I would never consider traveling to an office. Unless it is down a set of stairs, through the foyer and dining room and into a quiet small office. Actual traditional employment was off the table before Covid-19. Now it is quite banned from the table and I would argue not even allowed in the house.
Technology often laments about slow adoption and implementation but carefully avoids the responsibility the people have shirked by still going about business like a pack of luddites. If you don’t believe me go apply for a job. Take a rich history of successful collaborations and outcomes and cram it into the equivalent of a chiseled stone plaque. The portals for submitting CVs are outdated, inefficient, and ask you to replicate information or experience already outlined elsewhere...a specially fun task if you work as a data scientist or analyst.
Job descriptions for technical professionals are often compared to finding a mystical unicorn. I am not sure who is responsible for writing the job description fodder but I want whatever they are imbibing that stimulates the delusion. Many requirements for certain expertise using a platform or software exceed the existence of the platform or software.
I receive dozens of messages from recruiters and HR “professionals” offering me wonderful opportunities specific to my skills. Except they have no idea what my skills might be. It would take them 5 seconds to find out that I run my own consultancy in data analytics--not likely I am going to chuck it all for a 9 to 5. But they persist.Think I’m Mad as Hell from Network.
On the other hand, if I was a recruiter or similar professional, why not use LinkedIn like the resource it could be? Read what folks are posting, look for the diamond in the rough and start identifying prospective employees with harpoons instead of wide nets.
The scene from Network reminded me of David Mamet because I confused it with Glengarry Glen Ross which he actually did write. Part of my savoring what has always been, was to actually watch MasterClass. I bought my husband a class a few years ago and managed to parlay that into a yearly subscription at a reduced rate.
It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen- what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.--Aristotle
My decision to no longer write manuscripts for publication weighed heavy on my mind for several months. This audio of David Mamet was like a nice tidy bow. I recently broke my vow to remove myself from the dubious role of medical writer. In the era of Covid-19 pandemic public speaking engagements dwindled or died on the vine. I said yes to work that should have been a hard no. I haven’t been a full-time medical writer in over a decade. Historically, a writer would pull together resources and summarize the existing data. Next, we helped develop the research question but not so specifically as to leave opposing data out of the conversation. We developed an annotated outline where the actual collaborations kicked off in high gear. Typically these conversations were so informed and nuanced that they were the meat on the bones of a strong outline. The authors' voices were the point of the manuscript--my role was simply to create a unified voice and narrative for submission.
Well, that was then, this is now. Now the ring leader is the client of the client. Companies spring up for hire to write whatever it is you envision--long before a patient has enrolled in a clinical trial--and often way upstream from FDA approval. The goal is for them to please their client, not inform at the point of care to improve cost, quality of life, or outcomes. Profit rules not people. I get it. I am and was well-paid to do this. Ridiculously compensated for an even more ridiculous task. And we all pretend we are doing good.
We are not.
Show up, shut up, do your job. That is all they want. Its secretarial. Its marketing.
My normal routine has been disrupted. I am betting you can relate. What remains though is vital and can illuminate the foundational elements that can moor us and keep us sane--or at least keep the crazy bits to a minimum.
Most days a group of National Press Club members gather for 30 minutes on Zoom. The Journalism Institute hosts our discussions and presents a quick writing prompt to focus our discussion. Often timely or pulled from the community at large we share thoughts, laughs, outside resources, and a nontrivial amount of camaraderie and support.
One of my contributions was a glimpse into how I am managing to conduct workshops, speak at virtual events, and keep a bold working life in the face of grounded flights, cancelled venues, and unmitigated chaos. I thought I would share some of the tools and resources that have been monumental in this shift. Most, if not all, internet resources have a free option for exploring before purchasing. And the majority of these suggestions are reasonably priced. I think about it like wearing Prada boots with a pair of Target jeans. Make the necessary investments when and if you are able.
HyperDrive hub for managing additional ports
I purchased portable USB LED Video lights on adjustable tripod stands. You don't need to get them all at once but a pack of two was less than $60. You might have seen the loop/circular variety but I think they would get crushed during travel unless you are hyper vigilant. You will be surprised about how much better you look with proper lighting.
You can see the set-up in the corner of my office. It has the yellow filter (comes with white also) and I have it adjusted so it is right behind the webcam tripod when I am standing at my desk. You can turn on your camera and the play with the lighting as it is fully adjustable and see where you look less like a zombie and more like your best self. I also have another one to my right that either sits on the desk or on the floor with the tripod fully extended.
On top of my laptop you can see the webcam. It quickly clips onto the laptop or slides into the top of the tripod immediately behind it int he photo.
The last few things are subscription based tools I discovered along the way. A few I am trying out to see if they are useful enough to warrant a yearly subscription. Simply agree to a monthly trial for now--your mileage may vary.
For example, Noun Project offers icons and other useful graphics for building data visualizations, online courses, reports, and any customizable deliverable where you want to add a little polish.
You are going to thank me for this one. I have hours and hours of conference sessions recorded--some where I am speaking but others on interesting topics in unique venues or with notable experts. I meant to transcribe them or repurpose those Zoom talks I have given but who has time for that. Although this would be the perfect task for an assistant, I don't have one at the moment.
Try Descript. I primarily use it for simultaneously editing video and audio but think about creating a podcast or editing interviews.
My experience with Descript introduced me to Loom. Loom is asynchronous tool that allows me to teach data analytics or survey design for example by screen casting. A simple workflow might be something like this. I record sessions on topics, and then edit them on Descript, and upload to my Teachable course. Boom.
In all honesty I have limited experience with Canva but I am also exploring perhaps integrating it into my workflow. I am starting to gravitate away from outside platforms and hoping to rely on my blog to share, message, and link to opportunities for engagement. I don't think I would need both Noun Project and Canva but I am exploring.
This has been a quick review of my foundation or roots in this time of upheaval and uncertainty. I hope buried here is an insight or suggestion to make your road a little smoother.
There are a lot of ways to support the blog if you found something monumental or time-saving. Share with a few friends, respond with a few of your own favorite tools, donate, or connect over on twitter.
I have been working on a course on Teachable that isn't ready for primetime just yet but newsletter subscribers and sustaining donors will get links to courses for free. I will keep you in the loop.