Light My Fire / Smite My Fire



Earth, air, fire and water.

So many possible combinations. So many possible stories.

One story we all know is that air feeds fire while earth and water smother it. Natural antagonists. A fair fight – two against two.

Turns out it’s not that simple.

Viet Tran and Seth Robertson are students in the electrical engineering program at George Mason University. For their senior project they designed and built a device that extinguishes fire using low frequency sound. In early February they uploaded a video that demonstrates their fire extinguisher in action. In late March the news media found it and their story went viral.

Tran and Robertson didn’t discover that low frequency sound can extinguish fires. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) administered a program from 2008 to 2011 that explored how sound can be used to put out a fire. Here’s a video showing their fire extinguisher.

Tran and Robertson’s achievement, and it’s a valuable one, was to turn DARPA’s unwieldy sound production system into a portable unit that may well be the first step in adapting this technology for use outside the lab.

How does it work? Sound is a wave that moves through fluid (air) much like waves in the ocean move through water. The wave doesn’t carry the fluid along with it, it moves and disturbs the fluid as it passes through. Low frequency sounds make bigger waves and disturb more air than high frequency sounds. If the low frequency sound is tuned correctly, it can disturb enough air to put out a fire.

Wait a minute. Isn’t air supposed to feed fire? How can pushing more air at the fire put it out? DARPA and the two students both used a flammable liquid to test their devices. When the liquid burns, combustion takes place at the boundary layer between the liquid and the surrounding air. Disturbing the air around the fire with a low frequency sound has two effects on the boundary layer that contribute to putting the fire out. First, the air movement thins the layer which decreases the density of the flame and makes the fire easier to extinguish. Second, the surface of the liquid is disturbed which increases its surface area.  This has the effect of spreading the heat out over a larger area which lowers the temperature over any part of that area. In other words, the low frequency sound both thins and lowers the temperature of the burning surface thus making the fire easier to extinguish.

Wait another minute. We’re talking about how fire can be affected by low frequency sound. That’s the bass! Bass isn’t supposed to put your fire out, it’s supposed to light you up!

When faced with a conundrum like this it’s time to turn to the experts. Who knows more about earth, air, fire and water than Earth Wind and Fire? Their bass player was Vernon White. What does his bass have to say? Click Play.

You groovin’? Does that bass sound like a fire extinguisher or a fire starter to you?

spinning coinFire and air.

Light my fire / Smite my fire.

Two sides of the same coin.

Love the bass.

(This one is for my friend and brother Bob Strawn who turned me on to Viet Tran and Seth Robertson’s acoustic fire extinguisher and who also loves the bass.)

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WAR: Wins Above Replacement – What is it Good For?

werth sliding

“WAR! Huh! Good God. What is it good for?

“Absolutely nothing” according to the song by Edwin Starr.

Many major league baseball analysts  disagree.

WAR (Wins Above Replacement) has become one of the most oft-cited statistics among those who take an analytics or sabermetric approach to baseball. The 2015 baseball season begins next week so it’s a good time to take a look at WAR. What is it and what is it good for?

Division Series - San Francisco Giants v Washington Nationals - Game Two

Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon

WAR grew from the desire to have a single statistic that would allow players to be compared to each other in terms of their value to their team.  The basic question WAR tries to answer is how many more wins could a team expect to get over the course of a season if their best player at a position plays every game as opposed to a replacement player playing every game. The difference between the number of wins expected with the best player playing and the number of wins expected with a replacement player playing is the best player’s WAR score. The higher the WAR score, the better the player is thought to be.

The first question that must be asked is who is the replacement player? In the real world replacing a player means replacing him with someone who is actually available to the team. This makes a player’s WAR partially dependent on how good his backup is in addition to how good he is. While this might provide a reasonable estimate of the player’s actual value to a team, it doesn’t provide a way to evaluate a player in general terms so that different players can be compared.

silhouetteWAR addresses this problem by defining the replacement as a player who has something like the minimum level of skill needed to play major league baseball. Fangraphs (one of the two organizations that computes WAR – more on this later) defines the replacement player as “a freely available player such as a minor league free agent or very poor MLB bench player.” In other words, WAR compares players to a replacement no one would use if they had any other option.

Baseball is a complex game. Position players must master a variety of both offensive and defensive skills. The defensive skills that are needed differ with position; infielders and outfielders need very different skill sets, for example. Pitchers must command a unique set of skills that are not shared by any other player on the team. Different ballparks have different characteristics that can have large and important effects on the statistics that measure performance for both pitchers and position players. One of the strengths of WAR is that it can take all of these different factors into account.

strasburg pitching

Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg


Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos

How does WAR do this? WAR is derived from a large set of statistics that measure or attempt to measure a wide variety of offensive and defensive skills. Because the skills demanded of pitchers and position players rarely overlap, WAR for pitchers and position players is derived from different sets of statistics. The same is true for different types of position players. For example, WAR for catchers makes use of a statistic that measures how successful the catcher is at throwing out base runners that try to steal, a statistic that does not contribute to WAR for other position players. The great strength of WAR is that it is able to estimate overall value for players that play different positions in a way that allows  players from different teams, leagues, and eras to be compared. It can do this because of the wide variety of statistics that go into deriving WAR, the different sets of statistics that are used to derive WAR for different positions, and WAR’s use of the abstractly defined replacement player as a common basis for comparison.

Many of the statistics that are used to calculate WAR are newer statistical measures that have been developed with the rise of the sabermetric or analytic approach to baseball. These statistical tools have been gaining widespread acceptance among fans and analysts and are often used by professional baseball teams when making player personnel decisions.

While these tools can be very useful and can provide insights into the game that are unavailable without them, they are not all powerful. Every statistical measure rests on a unique set of assumptions that must be met for the statistic to provide a valid measure of whatever it is that the statistic is supposed to be measuring. The need for assumptions to be met is a source of difficulty for WAR.

When assumptions are not met for any individual statistic, the error in that measure increases. Errors in the different statistics that go into computing WAR don’t cancel each other out. Instead, they combine to produce a larger error in WAR than will be found in any of the individual statistics that go into computing WAR. This is especially a problem for defensive statistics because they have been developed more recently and are usually not as refined as the statistics that are used to measure offensive performance.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that there isn’t an officially accepted definition of WAR. WAR is calculated by two organizations, Fangraphs and Baseball Reference, and they each derive it from a different formula.

baseball reference

When many commentators or analysts talk about WAR they often don’t tell you which version of WAR they’re talking about and they don’t consider whether the two versions give significantly different results for the player they are talking about.

WAR has aroused controversy in baseball with some claiming it is the best statistic ever created for measuring a player’s value while others claim it’s absolutely worthless. As is usually the case, the truth lies somewhere between these extreme positions.


Fangraphs calculation of WAR for all major league baseball players in 2010

An estimate is not as precise as a measure and Fangraphs provides good advice when they point out that WAR is an estimate of  worth, not a measure of worth. How precise is the estimate? Fangraphs again gives us a useful guide when they advise considering a +1 and -1 range around a WAR score as an estimate of a player’s worth. For example, the value in terms of wins above replacement for a player with a WAR of 6.8 is likely to fall somewhere in the range between 5.8 and 7.8.

It’s useful to remember that this is a sliding range. This means that a player with a 6.8 WAR (5.8 to 7.8 range) could have roughly the same value as a player with a 4.9 WAR (3.9 to 5.9 range) because their WAR ranges overlap. The 6.8 player could also have substantially more value than the 4.9 player. WAR indicates that the 6.8 player is likely to be more valuable to his team than the 4.9 player but the uncertainty that is built into the statistic means that this conclusion about the relative value of the two players is uncertain as well. As long as you can live with this uncertainty, and you remember to translate WAR scores into +1/-1 ranges, WAR can provide a limited but useful estimate of a player’s value to his team.

(Full disclosure: I’m a Washington Nationals fan. Could you tell?)

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Ride a Satellite and Orbit the Earth


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NASA has created an interactive AAA app called Eyes on the Earth.  AAA? Awesome? Amazing? Absolutely!  If you are interested in earth-orbiting satellites and the information they gather, beautiful pictures of the earth, or cool things on the internet, check this out.

What is Eyes on the Earth? Start with a gorgeous image of the earth built from satellite imagery.  You can zoom in and out and rotate the planet as you please so that you can see any area of the globe.

Add Motion

A button sets the app to the current time and then the earth starts to rotate on its axis. There’s a slider that controls speed so you watch what’s happening at whatever speed you like. Watch the terminator line sweep to the west as city lights bring the surface to sparkling life behind it.

Add Satellites


SMAP satellite that takes high-res pictures of soil moisture that are used to monitor water availability around the earth.

Here’s where things start to get interesting. Eyes on the Earth follows 21 satellites as they orbit the globe. The orbital tracks of the satellites are shown circling the rotating planet with results that are often mesmerizing. Clicking on a satellite removes all of the other satellites from the display and pops up a window that gives some information about the satellite you clicked. The window has a “Compare Size” button that zooms you in on the satellite so you can see what it looks like and lets you add a picture of a person or a school bus next to the satellite so you have an idea of the satellite’s size. These pictures are displayed over the rotating planet which gives you an over-the-shoulder, ride-along view on the satellite’s journey around the earth. As with the main display, you can rotate and zoom this view to get just the view you want.

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Eyes on the Earth’s relief map of the Himalayan mountain range.

Add Viewpoints

You can toggle city names on and off. You can change the image of the earth from a flat representation to a relief map that looks terrific. There’s also a telescope function that let’s you click on any location on the planet and see the sky from that location with the constellations mapped out. The telescope image also rotates so you can watch how the constellations move through the sky at your location. If you care about someone who is far away, you can make use of the telescope viewpoint to feel closer to them by seeing what the nighttime sky looks like wherever they are. The telescope viewpoint does not work if the relief map viewpoint is activated.


Add Overlays

Eyes on the Earth includes many overlays that show information that has been gathered by the satellites. Examples include the latest photos of earth taken from space, daytime surface air temperatures, monthly carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide levels and many more. The earth still rotates when an overlay is active and the satellite that gathered the data shown in the overlay is shown orbiting the planet in the display .

hotspot 2

Add Hotspots

The red dot in the picture above is a hotspot at the location in the French Alps where the Germanwings airplane was crashed by its copilot on 24 March, 2015. Clicking on the hotspot zooms in on the location, pops up a window with information about what happened or is happening there, and shows a recent satellite photo of the location. The German airline crash is part of the category Big Events. There are also categories for fires and storms, and for events that involve the land, water, ice or the oceans. You can examine the hotspots in any of these categories for each year going back to 2012.

nasa logoEyes on the Earth was built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.  The still pictures shown in this article don’t begin to do it justice. The movement of the earth and the satellites is what makes it so initially appealing. Then, as you delve into the app, it keeps getting richer and richer. You will have to download and install the app first but it doesn’t take long and it’s well worth it.   Check it out.

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The Safety in Numbers Effect


Does the chance of a cyclist being involved in a fatal accident increase as the number of cyclists on the road increases? The answer may surprise you. While the raw number of cycling fatalities does increase as the number of cyclists on the road increases, the chance that any one of those cyclists is killed is likely to decrease. This negative correlation between the number of cycling fatalities and the number of cyclists on the road is called the safety in numbers effect.

Safety in mumbers

The graph above illustrates the safety in numbers effect by plotting the number of kilometers cycled per inhabitant along with the number of cycling fatalities for every billion kilometers traveled for various countries. The graph is from a research report published by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development) titled “Cycling Health and Safety.” The safety in numbers effect generally holds for pedestrians as well as cyclists.

OECD_LOGO_1The OECD report cautions against thinking that the negative correlation seen in the graph leads to the conclusion that an increase in the number of cyclists in and of itself causes a decrease in the likelihood of cycling fatalities. The report also mentions that there has not been very much research into the possible causes of the safety in numbers effect and goes on to suggest several factors that may be involved.

  • Awareness: The more cyclists there are on the road, the more drivers will be aware of them. The more aware drivers are of cyclists, the less likely they are to hit them.
  • Expectancy: The more cyclists there are on the road, the more drivers expect to see cyclists. The more drivers expect to see cyclists, the more likely they are to actually see them and avoid hitting them.
  • Collective vigilance: The more cyclists there are on the road, the more likely it is that potentially dangerous or threatening situations will be noticed by at least one of them. Those who notice potential threats will communicate this information to the other cyclists who then have a greater chance to avoid the threat.
  • Knowledgeable leaders: The more cyclists there are on the road, the greater the chance that at least one of them will be knowledgeable about route and traffic conditions. The knowledgeable cyclist may lead the others along safer routes.

It may also be the case that safety and the number of kilometers ridden are linked in a causal loop. The safer cycling is, the more people are likely to cycle, and the more people cycle, the more opportunities there are for awareness, expectancy, collective vigilance or knowledgeable leaders to have an effect in reducing fatal accidents.

Hovenring 3

The Hovenring in the Netherlands is the world’s first suspension bridge designed to allow cyclists and pedestrians to safely cross a busy highway intersection.

Another factor that almost certainly plays a role in both increasing the number of kilometers ridden and in reducing fatalities is the presence of a well-developed cycling infrastructure. The Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany, the three countries with the best fatalities to kilometers ridden ratios shown in the graph, also have exceptionally well developed cycling infrastructures.  The Netherlands and Denmark are especially notable in this regard. The United States, on the other hand, has generally lagged behind the rest of the developed world in building well-designed and well-maintained cycling infrastructure.  The better the infrastructure, the more people are likely to use it to cycle safely.


Dutch cyclists

There is an additional factor to consider that is highlighted by the Netherlands which has by far the lowest ratio of fatalities to kilometers traveled of any of the countries shown in the graph. In addition to having an excellent cycling infrastructure, the Netherlands has a long-established cycling culture.

As early as 1911 the Netherlands had more bicycles per capita than any other European country. When privately-owned cars became more affordable after Word War II, cycling became less popular as a means of transportation in the Netherlands. The decrease in the number of cyclists  was accompanied by an increase in the frequency of cycling fatalities as the safety in numbers effect would lead you to expect. During the 1970s widespread demonstrations took place in the Netherlands protesting the number of child cyclists who were killed on the road. The government responded by restricting the use of motorized vehicles in cities and towns, building cycling infrastructure, and embarking on a program of safety education for both cyclists and drivers.

These efforts placed the Netherlands at the forefront of countries that make serious efforts to incorporate cycling into people’s daily lives. Children in the Netherlands are taught how to cycle safely from a very young age; adults are tested on their ability to share the road with cyclists as part of the process of getting a Dutch driver’s license. The Netherlands Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management issued a press release which stated that in 2004 the Netherlands was the only European country in which there were more bikes than people, and in 2007 26% of all trips made in the Netherlands were made by bike. The Netherlands has embraced a culture of cycling and this has played an important role in producing both the very large number of kilometers traveled by bike per inhabitant and the very low number of cycling fatalities shown in the graph.

Any or all of these factors – a strong social and cultural history of cycling, the presence of an excellent cycling infrastructure, driver awareness and expectation, cyclist vigilance and leadership – may have a role to play in explaining the safety in numbers effect. The negative correlation between fatalities and the number of kilometers ridden is simple and easy to see, the causal factors that produce this correlation are complex and difficult to tease apart.

(This article has been cross posted to Tuned In To Cycling.)


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Brilliant Data Visualization Tool for Cities in the UK

full screenDuncan Smith, a researcher with an interest in urban geography, has created a “mapping platform designed to explore the performance and dynamics of cities in Great Britain.” It’s called Luminocity-3D and it’s awesome.

Luminocity is presented as a set of maps that display different information about urban areas in England, Wales, and Scotland. There are 39 individual maps that are organized under the headings Population, Transport, Housing, Society, and Economy. Some examples include maps that show the average distance that people who live in an area travel to work or the average distance that people who work in an area travel to get to their jobs (found in the Transport section), domestic energy use (found in the Housing section), and how the number of jobs has increased or decreased in an area from 2001 to 2011 (found in the Economy section).

activity density map

Section of the activity density map showing London and surrounding areas.


activity density key

The color key for the activity density map

The maps in Luminocity are overlaid with a grid of 1 km-square hexagonal columns. Each hexagon displays information using both a color code and the relative height of the column. A particularly interesting use of color coding is shown in the image above. The map displays what is called an “activity density matrix” that combines where people live with where people work in a single display. Residential density is shown in shades of yellow, occupational density is shown in shades of blue, and areas where people both live and work are shown by mixing the relevant shades of yellow and blue to make shades of green. The map contains a lot of useful information in an elegant and easy to understand manner.

indicators box

Indicators Selection box that is used to access the different maps in Luminocity.

The different maps can be quickly accessed through a box in the upper right corner of the display. A box on the lower left of the display summarizes the information shown in the entire map in a graphical format. The urban areas shown in the map are represented by circles in the graph and hovering the mouse over a circle pops up detailed statistics for relevant urban area.

The color key for reading each map is in a box in the lower right corner.  This box also contains information about the source of the data displayed in the map and in most cases provides a link to a website where users can download the data tables themselves or query the data tables with their own set of variables.  This is an exceptionally useful feature of Luminocity because it allows the user to ask questions of the data that may be suggested but not answered by the different maps.

london age group

Section of a map showing adult age distribution in London and surrounding areas.

Luminocity is a brilliant example of how new and creative data visualization tools and techniques can bring valuable and interesting information to people using a visual format that is straightforward and easy to understand. The only problem with Luminocity is that once you’ve spent some time with it, you want to see other countries get the same treatment.


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Are Digital Skills Useful in the Middle-Skill Job Market?

digital workforce 2

It’s mid-March of 2015 and unemployment in the US is at it’s lowest point (5.5%) since May of 2008. But you don’t have a job. You also don’t have a college degree. Is there a decent job with a future for you in the United States as it recovers from the Great Recession?

ed attain graphThe proportion of Americans with a college degree has steadily increased for 75 years and you might be feeling like a member of a minority if you haven’t graduated from college. You’re not. According to the US Census Bureau  56.4% of Americans aged 25 and over have a high school diploma and do not have a college degree. Employment opportunities for this large group of people have traditionally been referred to as the middle-skill job market.

Burning Glass Technologies recently released a report that examined the skills that are in demand in what they called the middle-skill job market. Burning Glass is a company that analyzes the labor market based on data they compile on a daily basis from close to 40,000 internet sites that advertise employment opportunities. Their report is based on the data they acquired from December 2013 to November 2014. There are important issues to consider about the way they analyzed their data which we’ll return to later in the article.  But first, what did they find?

MultiDevice_excel_350pxThe take-home message from the Burning Glass report is simple and straightforward. Basic digital skills are in demand. What are basic digital skills? The ability to work with productivity software such as Microsoft’s Word and Excel.

What are the advantages of having basic digital skills in the middle-skill job market? There are at least four according to the Burning Glass report.

First, there are more job possibilities open to you if you have these skills. Burning Glass estimated that 78% of job postings in the middle-skill market demanded at least basic digital skills.

comp workersSecond, the demand for these jobs is growing faster than the demand for middle-skill jobs that don’t demand basic digital skills.  From 2003 to 2013 digital middle-skill jobs experienced a 4.7% growth rate while non-digital skill jobs only grew at a rate of 1.9%. In other words, from 2003 to 2013 there were slightly less than 2.5 digital middle-skill jobs added to the workforce for every additional non-digital middle-skill job. As the US economy has recovered from 2010 to 2013, digital middle-skill jobs have grown at roughly the same rate (4.8% job growth) as high-skilled jobs that demand at least a college degree (4.7% growth).

Third, digital middle-skill jobs pay more. Burning Glass reported that non-digital skill jobs paid an average $20.14 per hour while basic digital-skill jobs paid an average $22.66 per hour, an increase of approximately 12.5%.

career advancementFourth, digital skills jobs provide more opportunity for advancement after you have a job. Skill with basic digital productivity software like Word and Excel is a gateway to entry into the workforce where more sophisticated digital skills can be learned. For example, companies will often train their personnel to work with customer relationship management software such as SAP CRM, graphics and design software such as Photoshop, or analysis applications such as Google Analytics. These more advanced skills can then be used to move up into more attractive jobs. Few companies are willing to train people to use Word or Excel; you need these basic skills to get in the door.

The clear message is that basic digital skills provide a gateway to landing a decent job that has the opportunity for future advancement. However, if you do not have a college degree, the situation may not be as straightforward as the Burning Glass report makes it appear.

BG logo

Burning Glass

Earlier it was noted that there are important issues to consider related to how Burning Glass made use of their data in compiling their report. The Burning Glass report is focused on a set of jobs that have traditionally been defined as middle-skill jobs where “middle skill jobs” was understood as referring to jobs that required a high school diploma but not a college degree. In a different report Burning Glass pointed out that the degree requirements for many of these jobs have increased in recent years. One example they cite is that 65% of the Executive Secretary or Executive Assistant jobs that are posted require a college degree while only 19% of the people who currently hold these jobs actually have a college degree. This shift in requirements combined with their focus on the jobs themselves led Burning Glass to redefine the middle-skill job market in their report.

Burning Glass defined the middle skill job market as the set of jobs that pay a median of $15 per hour for which more than 20% of the job postings do not demand a college degree. This change in definition makes sense if you are fundamentally interested in the jobs themselves. However, if you have a high school diploma without a college degree and you are fundamentally interested in finding a job, then the revised definition of the middle-skill job market used by Burning Glass devalues their report insofar as it applies to you in your search for a job.

15 hourThere are two consequences of the Burning Glass definition of the middle-skill market that job seekers should be aware of.  First, limiting consideration to jobs with a median wage of $15 per hour may have left a lot of jobs out of the analysis. Depending on how many of these lower paying jobs were left out, and on how many of the jobs that were left out require basic digital skills, the comparisons of job availability and job growth over time that Burning Glass reported may overestimate the benefits  of acquiring basic digital skills.

The second concern arises from the Burning Glass definition of the middle skill market as including jobs for which more than 20% of the job postings did not demand a college degree. This means that jobs in their middle-college gradsskill job pool may come from job categories in which as many as 79% of the postings demand a college degree.  This definition may have led them to select a group of jobs for which a large proportion, perhaps a significant majority, require a college degree. Burning Glass did not provide an analysis of their data based on the traditional view that defines middle skill jobs as those that require a high school diploma without a college degree. Without that analysis it is impossible to tell whether there is a demand for digital skills in jobs that are available to people who do not have a college degree.

There is a third concern that does not stem from the way Burning Glass defined the middle -skill job market. Burning Glass compiled their data from online job listings.  However, there may be many jobs that demand at least a high school diploma that are not listed online. If there are a lot of these jobs relative to the number of jobs that are listed online, then it is important to keep in mind that the conclusions drawn in the Burning Glass report apply to the limited group of middle-skill jobs (as defined by Burning Glass) that are listed online rather than to the entire group of middle-skill jobs that are available to the job seeker.

These three factors – the absence of jobs that are not listed online, the absence of jobs that pay less than $15 per hour, and the inclusion of jobs that demand a college degree – substantially weaken the value of the Burning Glass report for job seekers who are in the traditional middle-skill job category defined as having a high school diploma without a college degree. They do not undermine the value of the report for those interested in the skill requirements for types of jobs that once demanded a high school diploma and now demand a college degree. The Burning Glass report is very useful for one group and not very useful for the other. Burning Glass could have provided a report that was useful to both groups had they analyzed their data using both the traditional and their modified definitions of the middle-skill job market and compared the results.

Are basic digital productivity skills useful for the middle skill job market? For the middle skill market as defined by Burning Glass, most definately. For job seekers with a high school diploma and no college degree, having these skills certainly can’t hurt. However, for people without a college degree the Burning Skills report provides no useful information for answering this question one way or the other.


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Ronda Rousey and the Gracie Brothers: Skilled Fighting and Skilled Teaching

Rousey arm bar

Ronda Rousey is an MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighter of exceptional skill. She is an Olympic Medal winner in judo and the current UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) Women’s Bantamweight Champion. At the time of this writing, Rousey is undefeated in  11 professional fights. Nine of those fights ended in the first round and 8 of the 9 were over in less than a minute. Her most recent fight was against Cat Zingano who was also undefeated. Rousey won that fight in 14 seconds, the fastest win ever recorded in a UFC champion match. She is in a class by herself.

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Ronda Rousey

Zingano 1 crop rotated

Cat Zingano

The Rousey – Zingano match was heavily hyped because it was thought that Zingano was the only fighter in her weight class who had a chance to beat her. At the time I knew nothing about MMA fighting, the hype attracted my attention, and I decided to learn something about Ronda Rousey. I quickly discovered that the technique she has used to defeat almost all of her opponents is called an arm bar. Rousey is using an arm bar on an opponent in the picture at the top of this article.

I had no idea what an arm bar is so I looked into it. I found the last thing I expected – a video explaining the arm bar that is an outstanding example of high-quality teaching.

At its best, teaching takes a topic and makes it easily comprehensible to an audience that did not know about or did not understand the topic beforehand. Sounds simple, right? It’s not. Think of all of the bad teachers you’ve had. The more complex the topic, the more difficult it is to present in a manner that makes it easy to understand. It turns out that what’s going on when Rousey grapples with her opponents is complex indeed.

Gracie brothers

Ryron (left) and Rener Gracie

The video is presented by two brothers, Rener and Ryron Gracie and is part of a series called Gracie Breakdown. The Gracie brothers, who are members of a very prominent Brazilian family of martial arts practitioners, established an online school of martial arts instruction that they call Gracie University.

If you thought MMA fighting was nothing more than brutal thugs pounding each other into submission, prepare to have your eyes opened. The sport is brutal but these are highly skilled and highly trained athletes who have to think as quickly as they fight in order to succeed. Take a look and appreciate both Ronda Rousey’s skill in the cage and the Gracie brothers skill in explaining what’s going on in the cage.

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Broadway the Digital Way

On broadway

Sometimes amazing things happen when you give people tools and let them loose. On Broadway, “a visually rich image-centric interface” is a good example. What’s a visually rich image-centric interface? It could be a lot of things.  In this case it’s something like a data and image-loaded walk from one end of New York City’s Broadway to the other.

On Broadway stacks 13 data panels on a horizontal line that moves from the south end of Broadway on the left to the north end on the right.  Reading from the top, the 13 panels show the following.

panel 2Landmarks and cross streets to tell you where you are

Google Street-View facades

Colors from the Street-View facades

Average number of taxi drop-offs per day

Average  number of taxi pick-ups per day

Google Street-View overheads looking straight up

Average  number of Foursquare check-ins per day

Average  number of Twitter messages per day

Average  number of Instagram photos taken per day

Median household income per year

Colors from Instagram photos

A selection of Instagram photos

The Manhattan neighborhood you’re in

The information in each panel is compiled from data gathered every 30 meters along Broadway’s 13.5 mile length. You can click-and-drag with the left mouse button to scroll-stroll along Broadway and use the mouse wheel to expand a panel such as the one from Columbus Circle on 59th Street that is shown on the left.

The data compiled in On Broadway are not drawn from the same time periods although all of it is recent. The taxi data are based on 22 million trips taken in 2013. The Foursquare data are based on a bit more than 8.5 million check-ins from 2009 t0 2014. The Twitter data is from all publicly shared tweets with images between February 26 and August 3, 2014. The Instagram data is from all publicly shared photos from the same time period as the Twitter data. There are 713 individual panels and 661,809 Instagram photos in On Broadway.


installation 2

On Broadway is an interactive installation which is on display at the Public Eye Exhibition at the New York Public Library until January 3, 1916. The New York Public Library is located about a block east of Broadway between 40th and 42 Streets. If you’re in the area, check it out.  If you’re not in the area, you can check out the web version. There’s a lot of data in On Broadway so loading the app in your browser may take some time if you have a slow internet connection.

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Population Movement Within the United States

DC pop move NY times

About a month ago The Info Monkey took a look at the sources of population growth in the United States in 2012 with the aid of an interactive map developed by the US Census Bureau. Recently the New York Times took a different look at population change in the US with a collection of interactive area charts that track population movement into and out of every state in the US as well as the District of Columbia from 1900 to 2012.

Movement into and out of each state is shown on separate charts with a toggle to switch back and forth between the two. Regions – West, Midwest, South and Northeast – are shown with color-coded bands. For movement out of a state, the bands in each chart show the proportions of people who remained in the state, moved to one of the four regions, or, if the proportions are large enough, moved to other states. The charts for movement into a state give similar information and add the proportion of the state’s population that was born outside of the US and then moved into the state. Mousing over the charts produces a pop-up that gives the numerical proportion for each of the bands shown in the chart at 10-year intervals.

Virginia symbol


south crolina symbol

South Carolina

Every state has intriguing or interesting stories to tell. For example, compare emigration from Virginia and South Carolina, two of the states most strongly associated with the South in the American Civil War. In 1900, 35 years after the Civil War ended, 13% of the people born in Confederate Virginia had moved to states in the Union Northeast while only 7% had moved deeper into the South. This is in direct contrast to South Carolina where less than 2% of the people born in the state had moved to the Northeast while 15% moved to other states in the South. Why were Virginians more willing to move to the hated North than their compatriots from South Carolina?


Here’s another example. Which state had the lowest proportion of residents who were born in the state in 2012? Florida, which is widely seen as a destination for retirees from the Northeast and Midwest, is up there with only 36% of the 2012 population born in the state. The clear winner, however, is Nevada with only 25% of the state’s resident’s born in Nevada. The native-born Nevadans are swamped by residents who were either born in California or outside the US. Together these two groups made up 40% of the population of Nevada in 2012.


Given current fears about immigration it’s interesting to look at the proportion of people in each state who were born outside the US. Most states had higher proportions of immigrants in the early 1900s than they do today. This is even true of Arizona, a hotbed of anti-immigrant sentiment. From 1900 to 1920 approximately 25% of the state’s population was born outside the US. From 2000 to 2012 that proportion had shrunk to approximately 15%. The exceptions are Texas, Florida and most of the South which have higher proportions of immigrants living in-state today than they did in the early 1900s.

These population movement charts from the New York Times are an excellent example of how the current interest in data visualization can display information in a useful and easily understood manner. Time-sink warning: If you are a curious person, it’s easy to get lost in these charts wondering about the causes and consequences of the movement patterns that the charts so clearly illustrate.



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What Goes on in Your Head During Creative Musical Improvisation? Part 2

improv fmri slices

This is the second of a two-part article about what goes on in your head when you’re improvising music. In the first part we looked at what’s happening in the brain during creative musical improvisation. In this part we’ll take a speculative look at how the conscious experience of creative improvisation might be tied to what’s happening in the brain.

How do musicians describe what creative improvisation feels like? Sometimes when you ask this question you get what appear to be conflicting answers.


Charles Mingus

At times musicians talk about creative improvisation as expressing something essential about themselves.  Here are some examples.

Louie Armstrong: “You blows who you is.”

John Coltrane: “My music is the spiritual expression of what I am: my faith, my knowledge, my being.”

Charles Mingus: “In my music, I’m trying to play the truth of what I am.”

Miles Davis

Miles Davis

At other times musicians describe creative improvisation as something that takes them beyond themselves. Here are some examples of this idea.

Dave Brubeck: “There is a time where you’re beyond yourself, better than your technique, better than your usual ideas.”

Charlie Hayden: “Creative Arts raise a person to another level of consciousness.”

Miles Davis: “Play what you know & then play above that.”

These two ideas about creativity are often echoed by artists in other fields of creative endeavor when they talk about how the practice of their art involves putting their deepest selves on display or when they speak of their art flowing through them from a source outside of themselves.

There appears to be a conflict here. On the one hand it sounds like creative improvisation involves going beyond or outside of yourself while on the other it sounds like creativity involves expressing who you truly are. Are these two ideas contradictory? The research in neuroscience  that was described in What Goes on in Your Head During Creative Musical Improvisation? Part 1  suggests that they may not be.

study-driving-to-work-packs-on-poundsMost people spend most of their time doing something.  Most of these activities are ordinary every-day affairs like going to work, walking the dog or playing a musical instrument. In almost every case doing something involves carrying out behavior that is designed to achieve a goal. For example, we engage in the behavior necessary to drive a car and navigate it safely through traffic in order to achieve the goal of arriving at work on time, or we carry out the sequence of movements involved in playing a musical instrument with the goal of playing a passage through without making a mistake.

Because we spend most of our time doing something, we usually experience ourselves as a person engaged in an activity. In other words, our experience of ourselves usually involves a combination of our overriding goals and the behavior we are carrying out to achieve those goals. One way to think about this is that we know and are familiar with ourselves as a person engaging in fairly ordinary, goal-directed behavior.

medial prefrontal cortexdeactivated areasAs we saw in What Goes on in Your Head  During Creative Musical Improvisation? Part 1, goal directed behavior involves activation in both the medial and lateral areas of prefrontal cortex. Medial prefrontal cortex is involved with maintaining goals and intentions independently of the behavior that is carried out to achieve the goals or realize the intentions. The orbitofrontal area of lateral prefrontal cortex is involved with consciously monitoring ongoing behavior and inhibiting actions that are thought to be incorrect or socially inappropriate. The dorsolateral area of lateral prefrontal cortex is involved with monitoring and adjusting sequences of learned behavior that require keeping the sequence in memory while the entire series of actions is carried out.

This means that our experience of ourselves when we’re engaged in ordinary goal-directed behavior coincides with levels of activation in the areas of prefrontal cortex that are actively involved with carrying out the behavior. However, creative musical improvisation is not ordinary goal-directed behavior and it corresponds to a very different pattern of activation in prefrontal cortex. Medial prefrontal cortex is more active and the orbitofrontal and dorsolateral areas of prefrontal cortex are less active when improvising than they are when playing a well-learned passage.  The musician is literally in a different state of mind while improvising.

Being in this different state of mind means that the improvising musician experiences him or herself in a way that is different from normal.  This difference may be an important factor in explaining why musicians sometimes talk about creative improvisation as going beyond yourself and at other times talk about it as expressing who you truly are.

you_are_what_you_do_by_luiz_petronilho-d38sdm9If a person’s sense of self is strongly grounded in the way they experience themselves during the ordinary goal-directed activity that takes up most of a person’s time, being sensitive to the decreased level of activation that occurs in lateral prefrontal cortex during improvisation may contribute to a sense of going beyond yourself. The ordinary self is experienced as a combination of goals, behaviors carried out to achieve those goals, and constraints placed on those behaviors to insure that they are carried out correctly, in proper order, or in socially acceptable ways.  Relaxing the constraints through deactivation of the orbitofrontal and dorsolateral areas of prefrontal cortex might give the musician a sense of self that is unfettered, separate and distinct from particular behaviors, and different from the way the self is normally experienced. This sense of self as experienced during improvisation might be described as going beyond yourself (Dave Brubeck), playing above yourself (Miles Davis), or rising to a new level of consciousness (Charlie Hayden).

aspireConversely, if a person’s sense of self is strongly grounded in their goals and aspirations, being sensitive to the increased level of activation that takes place in medial prefrontal cortex during improvisation may contribute to a sense of expressing who you truly are. Again, the self is typically experienced as a combination of goals, behaviors, and constraints. An increased level of activation in medial prefrontal cortex where goals are maintained independently of behavior might give the musician a sense that their self is being expressed in a way that is more real or more true than the way it is normally expressed when intentions and aspirations are more closely associated with behavior. This sense of self as experienced during improvisation might be described as playing what you are (Louis Armstrong), the truth of what you are (Charles Mingus), or the spiritual essence of what you are (John Coltrane).


Miles Davis

When jazz musicians and other creative artists talk about creativity they may say things that seem to be contradictory about how creativity relates to the self. However, the pattern of increased activation in medial prefrontal cortex combined with decreased activation in lateral prefrontal cortex that is observed when musicians are improvising indicates that the contradiction may be an illusion.  Rather than being in conflict, characterizations of improvisation as either expressing the true self or going beyond the self may be reflecting different aspects of what’s going on in the brain during creative musical improvisation.


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