Correlation and causation

I wrote this for an audience who isn’t going to appreciate it. So I’ll share it here.

Correlation is simply pattern noticing: “When I observe this. I also observe this.”

The two things can be totally unrelated, the two things can be triggered by the same precursor event or one can be causing the other (note, these are not all the possible states, but we’ll keep it simple for the not-rocket-scientists here ;)). And, well, there’s always observer bias involved. [1}

What the statement correlation does not imply causation means, at the heart of things, is that just because you observe 2 things happening tells you absolutely nothing about the relationship about the two things.

Yes, we observe lots of emails sent by the winning side of an election. We can observe this. It is fact. There is a correlation, in these two elections, between well orchestrated email campaigns and a win.

But the observation alone tells us nothing else. Is it the branding and persuasive effect of the email? Maybe. Is it simply that the campaigns were better funded? Possibly. Is it that the campaigns sending more email were better run? Could be. Is it that the election accurately reflects the will of the voters? Possibly. [2]

That’s what scientists mean when we say correlation does not imply causation. We can observe “these two things seem to act in non-independent ways.” But that doesn’t mean that one causes the other. It could be that they’re totally unrelated. For instance, there is a correlation between the divorce rate in Maine and the per capita consumption of margarine.

It could be that both events are triggered by the same parent event. So it could be that the effectively run campaigns led to effective email usage and led to that side winning the vote. The emails don’t trigger the vote win they’re triggered by the same thing that triggers the win.

And, it could be that the email actually caused the win. To really tell, though, you need to do a LOT more data chugging and controlling for factors that might have affected the outcome of the election. You probably also need to be a statistician to actually do that level of work. You also need to look at more than 2 data points. You especially need to look at elections that were lost and identify how they were using email. But this is a lot squishier science than I did (and I was only a molecular biologist), so I can’t even start to comprehend how you’d collect and analyze the data.

[1] One of the things that was drilled into me as a working scientist is that we see what we want to see. The essence of being a good scientist is looking beyond what you want to see and making sure your own observations are as neutral and as bias free as possible. Or, if they can’t be bias free, design experiments that will negate or reveal your bias. [1a]

[1a] The recent “no such thing as gluten sensitivity” research is a good example. The scientist saw what he expected, but then did further research with much stricter controls and a different study design to see if the results held up. They didn’t.

[2] Here in CA it’s not always the case that the better funded candidate (or referendum) wins. Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina are two examples of this, but there are also a number of propositions that the lesser-spending-proponents won.

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Just… no

Started drafting this for the work blog, but I don’t think it’s really appropriate. But it amuses me, so I’ll put it here.

One of the side effects of our new website is that I’m getting a lot more email asking me to sponsor posts or trade links or have someone write a “special” post for our site. Sometimes I’ll ignore them, because they really do appear to be automatic mail and not actually written by anyone who has visited our site.

Also, the few times I’ve responded, I’ve had bad responses. Sometimes people try to argue with me about saying no. Yesterday was one that made me laugh, though. Someone wrote in to the contact address. The entire mail:

I was wondering — How would someone go about sponsoring or advertising on your website?



I was pretty sure this was just another spammer scraping addresses, but I responded with “You can’t.” Short, sweet, and to the point; much like his original email. Apparently Mr. Partnership Director didn’t like this response and sends me:

Smart of you to turn down $100,000.00 partnership

I have to admit, I laughed, a lot. Mr “oh so innocent inquiry about sponsorship” now turns into someone offering me a $100K partnership. Nice try. I don’t believe you. (Plus, anyone who was going to approach me with a partnership is going to send mail To Me rather than our generic contact address. In fact! THEY HAVE!)

If you approach someone out of the blue, you don’t get to dictate how they respond to you, and sometimes those responses aren’t going to be what you expected. Yes, I probably could have been more polite and spend time explaining that this is not an advertising supported blog and that we don’t accept sponsored posts. But I was running out the door to a meeting when I saw it, and it was pretty clear he hadn’t put much time into thinking about how he was approaching me. So why should I put time into thinking about how I was responding to him?

Sometimes I really wish spammers weren’t so damn stupid.

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Food for this week

I’m looking through recipes to make this week, based on what we have in the house.

Grilled leg of lamb Probably today or Monday (do the marinade today).

I’ll probably make some barley today, since I have the time to make it. Then we have a couple salads to do.

Zucchini, barley and Chickpea salad with warm or cold lamb.

Barley greek salad.

Pork belly

Korean style. This may prompt a trip to the asian supermarket today. Or I can try Emeril’s recipe instead.

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Defeated it

We’ve been so busy lately. Steve’s encouraging me to hire a full time minion so I can actually get stuff done. I would, but I’m too busy to… Yeah, OK. That means that the house is a bit of a mess. I decided to get caught up on a little bit of cleaning so it doesn’t feel like we’re living in such a tip.

What happened turned into a bit of an ADD afternoon, where I lost many battles but possibly won the war.

I decide to start with a simple task. Clean the litterbox.

Grab the box, dump it out, take it outside, rinse it out. I dump the water on the front lawn because drought and leave the box in the sun to dry. Hey the car is a mess, I’ve got the hose. Yes, it’s water, but the car hasn’t been washed in an age and a good rinse will get some of that dust and pollen off it.

Leave litterbox outside to finish drying and sanitizing in the sun.

Go back inside and decide that while the box is drying, I’ll go ahead and vacuum. This is where it starts to go pear shaped. I managed to vacuum up some stealth poop (coated in litter) and… smear cat poop into the carpet. S#!T.

Vacuum 1
Carpet 0
Laura -1

Fine, no biggie, this is fixable. I’ll just get some carpet cleaner and deal. Except we’re out of carpet cleaner. Off to Home Depot (which is so close I should feel guilty driving rather than walking, but I was kinda in a hurry). I did see a pretty hummingbird in the garden center, though.

Get home and get the cleaner on the carpet and the spot bot working and decide to finish vacuuming the rest of the room. I sometimes forget quite how vicious this vacuum is… and got too close to the long string hanging off the scratching post. The vacuum pulled the post across the floor, jammed and quit.

Vacuum 2
Carpet 0
Scratching post -1
Laura -20

The nice thing about this vacuum is it’s really designed to get apart and maintain. This is no big deal. I find a screwdriver and take off the bottom and unwind 3 feet of sisal cord. Then I put it all back together, move the scratching post miles (ok, rooms) away and start vacuuming again. Now the carpet spinner isn’t working.

Vacuum 3
Carpet 0
Scratching post -1
Laura -50

Try again, take it apart, put it back together: still not running. Get a brilliant idea and hit the button to turn on the spinner. It works!

Vacuum 4
Carpet 0
Scratching post -1
Laura -1000

Finally finish vacuuming without destroying anything else. Get all the smeared poop cleaned up off the carpet. Put all the furniture (human and cat) back. Get the litterbox inside, filled and back in its place.

Final Score: Vacuum 4, Laura -1000. But the carpet is vacuumed, so I did win. Eventually.

I decided not to try and vacuum and mop the kitchen floor. I’d probably break a leg or something.

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Happy 4th of July

We spent the day in SF wandering around the touristy areas and then settling ourselves down on the Jeremiah O’Brien to watch the fireworks. There was some fog, but there were only a few that went up high enough that we couldn’t see them.

Fun day. Lots of sun. Took some photos.


Fireworks Barge on it's way out

A fun day out.

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Gee, thanks google!

I’m working on a bit of research for a client. As I’m looking at the data I think “I need to check the key size. I don’t know how to check the key size. Oh, well, I have google. Dear, Google, please tell me how to find a DKIM key size.”

Google says, “Sure! here you go! The top hit for that is a post at word to the wise. Written by Laura Atkins.”

The kicker? That post didn’t actually answer my question.

Thanks, Google!



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A little restraint

I went way overboard at the farmer’s market last week and we still have a bunch of vegetables left over. I fought with myself about going this week. I really, really wanted some cucumbers, tomatoes and corn. But we still have so much in the fridge. And we’re getting a box this week. And… and… but I really wanted cucumbers, tomatoes and corn.

The thing is (and here’s where I go into justification) I just can’t get the same quality of corn, cucumbers and tomatoes at the store. There’s just too much travel involved and these veggies are more sensitive to travel than lots of other things.

So I went to the market this morning. And I really only did get corn, tomatoes and cucumbers. OK. I did hit the bakery on the way home and get apple fritters for breakfast. They were really tasty.

We’re going to grill tonight. Hot dogs with pretzel buns and grilled corn. We’re also going to taste the sauerkraut that’s been sitting on the counter fermenting for the last 3 weeks.

Summer. YUM.

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Salmon season

Growing up I was incredibly spoiled when it came to eating seafood. Mom’s family lived on the Eastern Shore and her uncle was a commercial fisherman. If we didn’t catch it, we didn’t eat it. Even oysters, clams and crabs were something we only ever ate visiting mom’s family. Sometimes Uncle H. would drop off part of the day’s catch on grandma’s front porch and that was dinner. Other times, Granddaddy and daddy would take us out to fish on granddaddy’s little boat. Granddaddy knew where to go, and there were days where I would get 4 or 5 fish in the boat before poor dad and granddaddy got their hooks baited. Sometimes the whole family would go out on Uncle H’s boat and we’d have a day in the sun catching dozens of fish.

As I grew up and didn’t make it down to the shore as often I tried eating shellfish in restaurants. But nothing was really ever as good as I remember. And I’m picky about how it’s prepared. Fried fish? That’s something you do to hide bad fish. Cooking was simple: fresh filets of trout dredged in flour and pan fried; oysters chopped finely and mixed with enough flour to hold it together and fried; blue crabs steamed with old bay and served with heavily peppered cider vinegar. Most restaurant fish just wasn’t that good, and it was over-prepared to my taste.

This summer, though, I’m enjoying salmon season. Early reports are this is the best start of the salmon season and the fish I’ve been buying from the farmer’s market has been amazing.

As I was taught by grandma, I’m cooking it really simply. The other day it was filets seared in the cast iron skillet with a small amount of salt and pepper. Tonight, though, Steve found a simple glaze for the salmon. The glaze actually enhanced the flavor and made the fish even better.

It’s not the blue crab or fresh flounder of my youth. But west coast fauna are different so I just need to adapt to the local cuisine. It is very yummy fish, though, and I don’t even mind paying market rate for it. Well, OK, I kinda do, but I think it’s actually worth it.

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Overboard at the farmer’s market

Ran out this morning to hit the farmer’s market. So much good, good stuff. The biggest challenge is actually not buying everything in sight. I suspect we’ll eat everything this week, but only if we gorge ourselves on fresh veggies.

I don’t menu plan very well, but here are the things I picked up and some recipe ideas.

Fresh, local wild salmon. OM NOM NOM. I got a pound, so there’s probably 2 meals in here. Nothing fancy, just pan seared with some salad.

Mushrooms. baby shiitakes and creminis. Probably use in stir fries this week.

Cucumbers. Persians from my favorite local farmers (Happy Quail Farms) and when I say local I mean I have to drive farther to get to the the farmer’s market than the farm. I also got some of their house made Peperoncini made with their padrone peppers.

Long beans and baby bok choi. Stir fries all the way! Possibly some udon soup.

Tomatoes. Small tomatoes, not big ones. First of the season so I’m not expecting too much. But I want the tomatoes to be good! I want it!

Basil. Currently acting as a bouquet on the counter. Smells so very, very good. Pesto? Tomato salads? Bruschetta with the herb slab bread? All sound yummy. And I did get some mozzarella yesterday.

3 pack of berries. We’ve got a bunch of stone fruit (nectarines and pluots from the last box) but I couldn’t resist the berries. Dessert this week will probably just be berries.

No corn, but we’ve had corn almost every meal for the last 2 weeks (and the corn people weren’t there) so I thought I’d take a pass on that.

I love summer fresh foods. I love winter stews and soups and bakes. But I love fresh summer vegetables.

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Chicken, corn and kale enchiladas

It’s summer, so we eat summer food. Today was chicken, corn and kale enchiladas.


  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 kale leaf, chopped
  • 1 ear roast corn with kernels stripped
  • .5 pound of chicken
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • .5 tsp cumin
  • .5 tsp sweet curry powder
  • pinch ancho chili powder

In cast iron skillet with a little neutral oil, cook chicken, onions, and garlic until veggies are translucent. Then add the chopped kale and cook until done how you like kale. Add the corn. Add the chili powder and ancho. Then freak out because you grabbed the wrong jar. Add a little cumin.

Take the filling and put into flour tortillas with a small amount of grated cheddar. Roll the tortillas and put into a baking dish. Cover the rolls with enchilada sauce – tonight I used Frontera green enchilada sauce, and cheese.

Bake at 350 until done. “Done” meaning the cheese is melted and the sauce is bubbly.

Eat. Marvel at how good this is even with curry flavors. Channel Bob Ross and decide the curry powder was a happy accident. Drink a lot of wine and write a totally passive voice blog post. Decide you can’t be bothered to go back and make the post active tense. Post the blog post and finish watching Iron Chef America.


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