Using Predictive Analytics for Flu Prediction

The NYTimes did a piece today about the use of predictive analytics in analyzing the spread of the flu virus.  The source of the data?  Google searches.  The algorithm could accurately predict when the virus would peak 65% of the time.  That’s not too bad, and just think about it–the analysts are predicting this without drawing any blood, having any doctor intervention, etc.  This is based purely on Google searches!

Click here for the story.

Continually impressed by humanity’s ingenuity!

I sort of hope that I am not easily impressed, but I will say that mankind continually impresses me with its ingenuity to apply knowledge to create things from blank sheets of paper and investigative curiosity.  Take, for example, a new self-stabilizing flying object that is based on mathematics discovered at NY University.  Click on this link for a video.

Humans first tried to fly by creating flapping wings.  Only when they went to fixed wings creating lift with a separate power source did they take off.  A completely artificial form of flight even if we know now that bird wings share a airfoil shape and how that works.  In the same way, these academics looked at objects and math, not objects in nature.  That’s pretty inventive.  I am impressed.  I’d sort of like to get a tiny motor and make one of those things. 🙂

Started my Masters in Predictive Analytics

Today I started the program at Northwestern University.  My first two courses are a strategy course in Predictive Analytics (business side) and a Statistical Methods course (numbers side).  I am really looking forward to the deep dive into the subject after a number of years of using some of these technologies.

The other students look highly qualified and accomplished, with many coming from senior positions at Fortune 500 companies, consultancies, predictive analytics vendors, and others.  Click here to see the program.

New Year’s Letter

For anyone who did not get a copy of this years end-of-year newsletter, click here to download it.

Over the years, I have found many holiday letters force the reader to read everything and then they can decide afterwards what parts they did and did not have an interest in reading.  We decided to let the reader pick and choose up front and to put in a variety of content themes.  We hope you like it.

Technical note: For those of you who are techies, I hand-edited all of the photos in Photoshop and created each of the five pages in Photoshop.  The pages were printed to PDF using the Adobe printer driver as it makes for smaller pages than the “Save As” feature in Photoshop.

Review: Beautiful Evidence by Tufte

I read Tufte’s early works many years ago, but I had not seen any of his more recent work and so I bought a hard copy of Beautiful Evidence (2006) this past month.  He is a man who talks about design and it shows in the fabrication of his book which is a physical pleasure to pick up with its high quality paper, selection and fonts, and wonderful images from a variety of disciplines.

The book can be picked up by a beginner to the subject of visualization.  It starts slowly talking about how information is mapped into the visual space.  It’s interesting, though a bit on the esoteric side.  For example, he shows diagrams from the 18th century on how to perform a dance.  While intricate and clever in their notation, I find such materials to be completely antiquated.  A properly edited video showing closeups of real people combines melody, rhythm, and dance moves in ways that printed diagrams cannot come close to replicating regardless of their sophistication.  Clearly, for some forms of communication, the printed word or picture is not the best medium.

However, when he moves into the discussion of word-sized graphics which he calls sparklines (a term he invented), his discussion is both persuasive and compelling.  Graphics don’t need to be half pages with 99.9% white space.  They can be the height of type and 7-10 characters long and convey a massive amount of information.   Likewise, when he moves to analysis of Feynman diagrams, he shows that small, colorful, symbolic, and notated graphics compact a great deal of information.  Think of electronics diagrams.

His section on principles of analytical design is equally illuminating.  He uses a 19th century diagram of Napoleon’s troop movements to illustrate a number of principles.  I think this is particularly brilliant because we tend to assume that we are smarter than people 150 years ago instead of just knowing more.  An insightful design 150 years ago still shines upon brilliant analysis.

I’m not sure that I really understood the importance of including the last section on sculptural pedestals.  It struck me as more of the author’s personal interest than really adding to the content of the book he was writing, and I would have preferred more reading on some of the other subjects.  But this is minor, and does not diminish the insights or obvious effort that he spent creating the work.


Could have been killed

Today my girlfriend and I were to take off in a plane from topside Molokai to Honolulu for a few days away from the settlement.  The plane was a single engine Cessna, and one of the very few to be certified to carry commercial passengers over water since it only has one engine.  Anyway, we had to wait from 10:30 until about 2:30 because the plane was dead on the tarmack.  The engine would not start; we were told it was the igniters, and the second set of the them had failed.  We had to wait for the mechanic to come over from Honolulu and bring parts.   Anyway, I took special note of where the life vests were located and decided it was OK since the mechanic was in the seat next to me.  The pilot was in a rush to get the plane over to Honolulu as he said it needed to turn around in Honolulu to come back and do another run.

Photo of the plane taken by another plane traveling by.

Well, the story is predictable.  The plane returned to Molokai and picked up a full load of passengers at the settlement.  The engine failed shortly after lift off and the plane ended up in the ocean with a tragic result.  One passenger, the governer’s Health Director (who approved Obama’s birth certificate), died in the water before being picked up.  As someone who has worked a lot with electro-mechanical systems (see article about my old car), I know how hard it is to properly diagnose such problems.  That’s why I had the concern about getting in the plane.  Whether or not the plane should have been placed into the hangar for close examination and maintenance is something the FAA and the courts will determine.

FYI, one passenger, a former marine, swam an hour against the current to get to the rocks of the island where he reportedly pulled out a waterproof phone and called his wife.  Semper Fi!

Mind Boosters

I read a NY Times article today about tDCS or Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation.  Basically, it involves putting on a thinking cap.  This thinking cap has external electrodes on it which will transmit electro-magnetic radiation directly into your brain.  This causes the neurons in the targeted regions to fire.  Result: Improvements on mental performance tests.  As I recall, these technologies were initially conducted with deep brain implants for helping patients with chronic depression who did not respond to medication, and the results bordered on miraculous.  Now they are testing these technologies to help the elderly forestall conditions like Parkinson’s disease.   See:  Maybe they will come out with just a thinking cap for the rest of us who like to relax in the cool of the evening and consider the universe.

For what it is worth, there are do–it-yourself neurologists who are building homemade versions of these stimulators.  That strikes me as inherently risky since it is important to know precisely where you are pointing the stimulation.   However, just search on “Youtube DIY transcranial” and you will probably see some.

Finally, if you are looking for an over-the-counter brain booster, there are two no-prescription items that I can suggest.  The first is a chemical compound known as Piracetam, and the Wikipedia article describing it is here.  I don’t take any vitamins or prescriptions, but I have taken some Piracetam and can say that it actually works for me.  The chemical enhances acetylcholine uptake which is necessary for memory formation.  I have found that it not only helps with memory, but provides a “lift” like caffeine without any of the jitters, and for some people it seems to have almost an anti-depressant effect.  Anyway, because the body tolerates the compound so well and is safe, the FDA deregulated it almost 10 years ago.  It has had double blind placebo controlled studies as I recall that showed effectiveness for aphasia.  If you buy some and take it, you may also want to buy some choline or lecithin (natural source of choline) which is the precursor for the acetylcholine which you will burn up.  Note: You might ask how I found out about this compound, and the answer is simple.  My mother had a stroke and she took this to help her overcome some of her aphasia and other loss.  Years later, when I saw that the FDA had deregulated it and made it like aspirin, I decided to give it a try.

Second, a natural (i.e., not man-made) alternative is flower pollen.  This is sold as “bee pollen” since the bees collect it, but it is simply pollen from flowers.  It’s rich in amino acids.  If you have pollen allergies, it would probably be a bad idea to consume it.  A whopping tablespoon of that with some orange juice will enhance your thinking one to two hours later.  Or, if you want to dream in technicolor, take a teaspoon about an hour before you go to bed.   (Don’t take more than that or you may not get a good night’s sleep.)  You won’t have an altered state, but don’t be surprised if you have a wonderful insight into a topic of consideration.