Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Friday, June 15, 2012


"An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign, and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas." 
Matthew 12:39
"And he that seeketh signs shall see signs, but not unto salvation... behold, faith cometh not by signs, but signs follow those that believe."
Doctrine and Covenants 63:7,9

Because my bike was doing a triathlon in Delta Junction, my good friend Cody lent me his road bike for the Tour of Fairbanks last week. This was particularly generous since Cody's wheelset is worth more than my whole bike.

Before the race on Thursday, While switching my pedals to Cody's ride, I noticed that his bar plugs didn't match. Easton right side, no-name left side. I got a stupid numb-cheeked grin and pulled my bike off the wall to make sure that, yes, I had the same Easton plug on my right bar, mismatched with a Bontrager plug on the left.

As I double checked the contents of Cody's saddle bag I noticed that he had a Topeak Hexus II multitool with a broken tire lever. Just like I do. Unlikely things happen all the time. But do they carry any special meaning or are they just coincidence? 

I remember talking with my Grandpa during my first semester camping out at Utah State. After telling him about sleeping on the NR building and getting stepped on by an early morning jogger, he mentioned that fifty years before as a student at Utah State he camped out too. He lived in an abandoned dumpster corral and then squatted in the field house which had been converted with freestanding dividers into overflow housing for the flood of WWII veterans on the GI bill. I felt like a prisoner to my genes. My cool and edgy idea turned out to be nothing but an unfortunate family history of homelessness. I was an echo of my grandfather, who was likely an echo of an earlier grandfather.

The fundamental purpose of statistics is to answer one question: how likely is it that this event happened by chance? Is this pattern real or just coincidental? If your question was, do joggers really live longer, you would collect age at death data on a bunch of joggers and non joggers and calculate the averages for the two groups. Then you would have to ask, "how likely is it that the differences in longevity between the jogger and the non jogger groups are due to chance?" After all, if you randomly sorted 100 joggers into two groups of fifty, you still would get two different average lifespans. You want to know if the joggers are more different from the non joggers than two randomly selected groups would be from each other.

Your statistical answer doesn't come back as an unconditional yes or no, however, it comes back with a likelihood. Siri's soft voice might say, "Based on your data, there is a 6% chance that the difference in longevity between the joggers and non joggers simply due to chance." This means that there is a 94% chance that the difference is real (or "significant" in science talk). Is that good enough? It depends. Before you plug in your numbers you pick a cutoff value, for example 5%. If the likelihood limbos under that line, you say the joggers live significantly longer than the non joggers. Otherwise, you say there is no difference between the groups. This cutoff, called an alpha value, should be determined by the nature of your question and the seriousness of the possible outcomes (you want to be really really really sure that there's not radioactive dust in your ice-cream, but you only need to be somewhat sure that Romney beat Santorum in Iowa). However, since 1925, most of natural science has used a set alpha value of 5%. The great English biological statistician Ronald Fisher started the convention of using an alpha value of 5% (check out Fisher's Wikipedia article to learn about this brilliant and wacky man and his support of eugenics and denial of the link between smoking and lung cancer) and it has stuck.

Before lending me his bike, Cody dropped off the May edition of the Journal of Plankton Research.

While I'm not a regular subscriber, Cody's article on Alaskan zooplankton was the featured article and a picture I took of his study site made the cover. His article ended up in the Journal of Plankton Research after being rejected by several more prestigious periodicals because he used an alpha value of 10% in his study.

A conservative alpha reduces your chances of detecting a pattern when there isn't one in reality, but it proportionally increases your chances of missing a pattern that is real. Dayton points out in his great paper Sliding baselines, ghosts, and reduced expectations in kelp forest communities, that virtually every fishery worldwide has experienced a crash in the last 50 years because managers have been too cautious in identifying change (for a less colorful but also excellent treatment, check out Peterson's Statistical power analysis can improve fisheries research and management). If we wait to limit harvest until after we are 95% sure that the population is tanking, the population is gonna tank. This is especially true in situations with limited data where it takes a long time to be that sure. On a side note, this is what kills me about claims that scientists are being hasty or irresponsible about ascribing climate change to human activity. Scientists won't make even the most cautious interpretations until it is 95% sure. These people wouldn't admit that Justin Bieber has something going on until Baby gets 800 million views (748 and counting!), and you're faulting them for being premature?

All of this brings me back to my life and my opinions. I went to Utah State because I slipped on a scholarship pamphlet at my high school. I believe in God because a bush caught on fire up Green Canyon. I got a job in Alaska because I played mandolin at the College of Natural Resources awards banquet. I married Rachel because we ran into each other in a dry mountain village after biking 700 miles from Mexico. Was there a purpose or a plan behind those events? A flock of supporting coincidences have convinced me that for at least some of the linchpin coincidences in my life the answer is yes.

I remember driving up to Utah State with my dad before classes. We talked about intellectual humility as we rolled up the I-15 in his dark brown Astrovan. He said, "Ben, you know something that most people will never let themselves know: that no one ever really knows anything." That said, each of us has to decide when we effectively know. What alpha value should we use when evaluating patterns in our lives?

Sarah, her sled, and the Trans Alaska pipeline.

Last spring I was up at the Toolik field station collecting snow and water samples with my friend Sarah. One day on our way back to camp we got to talking about "impossible" coincidences that had happened in our lives and how to interpret them. I told her about the time I felt like I should bring an oil filter wrench up from Orem and then the same day ran into a stranger who asked me for an oil filter wrench. Sarah proposed that you can have just as much wonder and gratitude for a situation without attributing it to a higher power. "That's true," I said, "but it somehow feels truer when I do. Plus they seem to happen more often when I do."

The next day we were fifteen minutes out of camp on our way to the Toolik river thermokarst to check on the weather station when Sarah said, "Shoot! I forgot the zipties."
"I wonder if there are any in here?" We were driving the Lizard, a fifty year old truck from the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole Massachusetts. 
"I need the really big, industrial sized ones, we'll have to go back." I opened up the glove compartment and there was nothing there, except a ziplock bag full of industrial sized black zipties. We had to pull over we laughed so hard.

In other news, Ingrid told me yesterday that she could blow her nose all by herself.

"For I am God and mine arm is not shortened; and I will show miracles, signs, and wonders, unto all those who believe on my name."
Doctrine and Covenants 35:8


  1. Ben, this is a very interesting set of thoughts, at least for me.

    I recognized the thought you attribute to me, but written the way you have it there it feels like it needs, at least, to look like this:

    "Ben, you know something that most people will never let themselves know: that no one ever really KNOWS anything ABSOLUTELY."

    That said, and as your essay suggests, we have to decide to know all sorts of things on at least somewhat limited information. When we're timid and unable to risk, we're paralyzed.

    I just taught a wonderful text from 18th-century Germany called Nathan the Wise, written by a fantastic thinker and writer named Lessing (I bet I have told you the parable of the ring that is at the heart of the play).

    Near the beginning there's a scene in which your exact question is addressed. Nathan returns with a caravan from a trip (it's Jerusalem during the crusades) and finds that his daughter Recha has been saved from a fire by a crusader who himself was saved from beheading when Saladin, the Muslim ruler, happens to think his face looks like his dead brother's face. Here's the scene in an old translation:

  2. part two of the comment:
    NATHAN (embracing her).

    My child, my darling child!


    You had to cross
    The Jordan, Tigris, and Euphrates, and
    Who knows what rivers else. I used to tremble
    And quake for you, till the fire came so nigh me;
    Since then, methinks 'twere comfort, balm, refreshment,
    To die by water. But you are not drowned -
    I am not burnt alive.—We will rejoice -
    We will praise God—the kind good God, who bore thee,
    Upon the buoyant wings of UNSEEN angels,
    Across the treacherous stream—the God who bade
    My angel VISIBLY on his white wing
    Athwart the roaring flame -
    NATHAN (aside).

    White wing?—oh, aye
    The broad white fluttering mantle of the templar.

    Yes, visibly he bore me through the fire,
    O'ershadowed by his pinions.—Face to face
    I've seen an angel, father, my own angel.

    Recha deserves it, and would see in him
    No fairer form than he beheld in her,

    Whom are you flattering, father—tell me now -
    The angel, or yourself?

    Yet had a man,
    A man of those whom Nature daily fashions,
    Done you this service, he to you had seemed,
    Had been an angel.

    No, not such a one.
    Indeed it was a true and real angel.
    And have not you yourself instructed me
    How possible it is there may be angels;
    That God for those who love him can work miracles -
    And I do love him, father -

    And he thee;
    And both for thee, and all like thee, my child,
    Works daily wonders, from eternity
    Has wrought them for you.

    That I like to hear.


    Well, and although it sounds quite natural,
    An every day event, a simple story,
    That you was by a real templar saved,
    Is it the less a miracle? The greatest
    Of all is this, that true and real wonders
    Should happen so perpetually, so daily.
    Without this universal miracle
    A thinking man had scarcely called those such,
    Which only children, Recha, ought to name so,
    Who love to gape and stare at the unusual
    And hunt for novelty -

    Why will you then
    With such vain subtleties, confuse her brain
    Already overheated?

    Let me manage. -
    And is it not enough then for my Recha
    To owe her preservation to a man,
    Whom no small miracle preserved himself.
    For whoe'er heard before that Saladin
    Let go a templar; that a templar wished it,
    Hoped it, or for his ransom offered more
    Than taunts, his leathern sword-belt, or his dagger?

    That makes for me; these are so many reasons
    He was no real knight, but only seemed it.
    If in Jerusalem no captive templar,
    Appears alive, or freely wanders round,
    How could I find one, in the night, to save me?

    Ingenious! dextrous! Daya, come in aid.
    It was from you I learnt he was a prisoner;
    Doubtless you know still more about him, speak.

  3. part three of the comment:

    'Tis but report indeed, but it is said
    That Saladin bestowed upon this youth
    His gracious pardon for the strong resemblance
    He bore a favourite brother—dead, I think
    These twenty years—his name, I know it not -
    He fell, I don't know where—and all the story
    Sounds so incredible, that very likely
    The whole is mere invention, talk, romance.

    And why incredible? Would you reject
    This story, tho' indeed, it's often done,
    To fix on something more incredible,
    And give that faith? Why should not Saladin,
    Who loves so singularly all his kindred,
    Have loved in early youth with warmer fondness
    A brother now no more. Do we not see
    Faces alike, and is an old impression
    Therefore a lost one? Do resembling features
    Not call up like emotions. Where's th' incredible?
    Surely, sage Daya, this can be to thee
    No miracle, or do THY wonders only
    Demand—I should have said DESERVE belief?

    You're on the bite.


    Were you quite fair with me?
    Yet even so, my Recha, thy escape
    Remains a wonder, only possible
    To Him, who of the proud pursuits of princes
    Makes sport—or if not sport—at least delights
    To head and manage them by slender threads.

    If I do err, it is not wilfully,
    My father.

    No, you have been always docile.
    See now, a forehead vaulted thus, or thus -
    A nose bow'd one way rather than another -
    Eye-brows with straiter, or with sharper curve -
    A line, a mole, a wrinkle, a mere nothing
    I' th' countenance of an European savage -
    And thou—art saved, in Asia, from the fire.
    Ask ye for signs and wonders after that?
    What need of calling angels into play?

    But Nathan, where's the harm, if I may speak,
    Of fancying one's self by an angel saved,
    Rather than by a man? Methinks it brings us
    Just so much the nearer the incomprehensive
    First cause of preservation.

    Pride, rank pride!
    The iron pot would with a silver prong
    Be lifted from the furnace—to imagine
    Itself a silver vase. Paha! Where's the harm?
    Thou askest. Where's the good? I might reply.
    Is nonsense, Daya, if not blasphemy.
    But it does harm: yes, yes, it does indeed.
    Attend now. To the being, who preserved you,
    Be he an angel or a man, you both,
    And thou especially wouldst gladly show
    Substantial services in just requital.
    Now to an angel what great services
    Have ye the power to do? To sing his praise -
    Melt in transporting contemplation o'er him -
    Fast on his holiday—and squander alms -
    What nothingness of use! To me at least
    It seems your neighbour gains much more than he
    By all this pious glow. Not by your fasting
    Is he made fat; not by your squandering, rich;
    Nor by your transports is his glory exalted;
    Nor by your faith his might. But to a man -

    Why yes; a man indeed had furnished us
    With more occasions to be useful to him.
    God knows how readily we should have seized them.
    But then he would have nothing—wanted nothing -
    Was in himself wrapped up, and self-sufficient,
    As angels are.

    And when at last he vanished -


    Vanished? How vanished? Underneath the palms
    Escaped your view, and has returned no more.
    Or have you really sought for him elsewhere?

    No, that indeed we've not.


    Not, Daya, not?
    See it does harm, hard-hearted, cold enthusiasts,
    What if this angel on a bed of illness -



    Ill! sure he is not.


    A cold shudder
    Creeps over me; O Daya, feel my forehead,
    It was so warm, 'tis now as chill as ice.

    He is a Frank, unused to this hot climate,
    Is young, and to the labours of his calling,
    To fasting, watching, quite unused -


  4. part four:


    Thy father only means 'twere possible.


    And there he lies, without a friend, or money
    To buy him friends -

    Alas! my father.


    Without advice, attendance, converse, pity,
    The prey of agony, of death -



    He, who, for one he never knew, or saw -
    It is enough for him he is a man -
    Plunged into fire.

    O Nathan, Nathan, spare her.


    Who cared not to know aught of her he saved,
    Declined her presence to escape her thanks -

    Do, spare her!

  5. part five:NATHAN.

    Did not wish to see her more
    Unless it were a second time to save her -
    Enough for him he is a man -

    Stop, look!


    He—he, in death, has nothing to console him,
    But the remembrance of this deed.

    You kill her!


    And you kill him—or might have done at least -
    Recha 'tis medicine I give, not poison.
    He lives—come to thyself—may not be ill -
    Not even ill -

    Surely not dead, not dead.


    Dead surely not—for God rewards the good
    Done here below, here too. Go; but remember
    How easier far devout enthusiasm is
    Than a good action; and how willingly
    Our indolence takes up with pious rapture,
    Tho' at the time unconscious of its end,
    Only to save the toil of useful deeds.

    Oh never leave again thy child alone! -
    But can he not be only gone a journey?

    so what do you think?

  6. That took me completely off guard and I may have peed a little in my pants. I mean, the whole thing was great, I was totally primed, but the booger really clinched it.

  7. I've scrolled down to look at that last picture about 18 times in the last 2 days. I could just go to our iPhoto, but the subheading makes it even better. love you.

  8. My friend emailed me a poem entitled "Coincidences" the day that you posted this entry. It's full of grief, but clearly I'm meant to share it here: http://howapoemhappens.blogspot.com/2009/07/jeffrey-harrison.html

    1. Wow Sarah. Thanks for the link. An amazing poem.

  9. "A prisoner to my genes." Sounds like a great title for a song (you could change the spelling of genes to jeans to appeal to shoppers).

    That phrase also reminded me of something my mom and I talk about often: nurture vs nature. Someday I think we'll get to ask the Creator, "Nurture or nature?" And He'll be like, "Yep."