Channels ▼

Jocelyn Paine

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

On Handling the Data

March 15, 2009

Against a student's faulty program, I might scrawl "infinite loop" or "uninitialised variable". Against a broken SF story, a Turkey City Lexicon reader might scrawl "Cozy Catastrophe", "Signal from Fred", or "Squid in the Mouth". Or "AM/FM". The classic AM/FM story must be Heinlein's The Day After Tomorrow: six men in an underground citadel, sole remnant of the US Army after invasion by the PanAsian Empire, take up a dead colleague's discovery of the electrogravitic spectrum, the magnetogravitic spectrum, and the electromagnetogravitic spectrum. Maxwell via Hertz to tractor beams and transmutation in a month: ultimate humiliation of the PanAsians, and I wish my hardware behaved like F*ck*ng Magic rather than the backlash and hysteresis of Actual Machinery. So, and with last week's Murphy's Law comments in mind, I want to point you at a very non-AM/FM short story that I was pleased to rediscover online: M.I. Mayfield's On Handling the Data.

That link is courtesy of Project Gutenberg; if it doesn't work, you might try the copy at Perhaps I feel an affection for this story because of my time doing Chemistry. I once heard an anecdote about an inorganic chemistry practical given to new first-year students. This was a long and tedious titration of some barium compound, intended to verify the student's ability to manipulate delicate glassware without dropping it or emptying something toxic into their shoe.

At the end of the practical, the demonstrator collected the titration results; and as customary, plotted them on a histogram which he pinned up at the end of the lab. All students had the same solution to titrate, so in an ideal world, the histogram would have been a single vertical line. In our non-ideal world, one usually gets a Gaussian. Though because students don't trust their results, so "fiddle" them to agree with their neighbours' results, it tends to be an unnaturally narrow Gaussian. But in this histogram there were two peaks, separated by a wide trough.

For several days, the demonstrator couldn't work out why. Then he realised it was due to the geometry of the lab. There were two long files of benches separated by a wide aisle. The students up one side of the aisle had been mutually fiddling their data. And the students up the other side of the aisle had been mutually fiddling their data. But nobody had bothered to compare results across the aisle.

Related Reading

More Insights

Currently we allow the following HTML tags in comments:

Single tags

These tags can be used alone and don't need an ending tag.

<br> Defines a single line break

<hr> Defines a horizontal line

Matching tags

These require an ending tag - e.g. <i>italic text</i>

<a> Defines an anchor

<b> Defines bold text

<big> Defines big text

<blockquote> Defines a long quotation

<caption> Defines a table caption

<cite> Defines a citation

<code> Defines computer code text

<em> Defines emphasized text

<fieldset> Defines a border around elements in a form

<h1> This is heading 1

<h2> This is heading 2

<h3> This is heading 3

<h4> This is heading 4

<h5> This is heading 5

<h6> This is heading 6

<i> Defines italic text

<p> Defines a paragraph

<pre> Defines preformatted text

<q> Defines a short quotation

<samp> Defines sample computer code text

<small> Defines small text

<span> Defines a section in a document

<s> Defines strikethrough text

<strike> Defines strikethrough text

<strong> Defines strong text

<sub> Defines subscripted text

<sup> Defines superscripted text

<u> Defines underlined text

Dr. Dobb's encourages readers to engage in spirited, healthy debate, including taking us to task. However, Dr. Dobb's moderates all comments posted to our site, and reserves the right to modify or remove any content that it determines to be derogatory, offensive, inflammatory, vulgar, irrelevant/off-topic, racist or obvious marketing or spam. Dr. Dobb's further reserves the right to disable the profile of any commenter participating in said activities.

Disqus Tips To upload an avatar photo, first complete your Disqus profile. | View the list of supported HTML tags you can use to style comments. | Please read our commenting policy.