Well, Butter My Biscuit! Baking good biscuits knows no geographic bounds

American biscuits are known for their simple ingredients, humble origins, and delicious buttery flavor. Contrary to some opinions, they can be made anywhere in the US with enough attention paid to process and basic, not-so-special ingredients.

The hot topic of 2018 (discourse on which triggered by a well intentioned Atlantic article) was the flour used to make the biscuits. True to their low maintenance form, biscuits quire a low-protein more-refined flour: all purpose flour, the most accessible throughout the US. This flour enables a flaky, crumbly texture, closer to a pastry or croissant (optionally made with pastry flour) rather than gluten-full bread (bread flour). For a more delicate texture (but not necessarily more delicious or authentic), you could mix the AP flour with pastry flour.

Next, cold ingredients are key, especially the butter. If the butter is not icy cold, it will combine completely with the other ingredients, and an over mixed dough will lose the flakiness and lightness moisture and fat pockets provide.

Finally, one must not work the dough for more than 10-20 turns. Too much more would melt the butter, over mix, build too much gluten, and toughen up the dough. Rather, once the dough is mixed enough so there are little flour pockets but there are still clear little chunks of butter, roll out the dough and cut out circles using a jar lid or glass. Place on a lightly buttered pan and bake!

As an eager and experimental baker, I love a good baking challenge. So when Amanda Mull of the Atlantic wrote the article that inspired this piece, “Why Most of America is Terrible at Making Biscuits,” I had to test to see if her claims were true. Was most of America terrible at making biscuits? Was I not up to the challenge?

I tested her hypothesis. On first try, my biscuits were terrible and I subscribed to her statement that White Lily flour, not available in most of the US, was key. Upon a second attempt and some follow up research inspired by this NPR article, found her claims to be false.

Elizabeth Warren on Confederate Monuments, via Breitbart

I fact checked a Breitbart piece documenting a Jake Tapper-Elizabeth Warren interview in which Warren agrees with Tapper that Mississippi should change its flag.
My fact-checking annotation of the article, via Bounce, is here. The CNN piece on which the article is based is here.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this exercise was that the text of the Breitbart piece is not factually incorrect (most of it is verbatim quotes from the CNN piece that broke the story). But the title is vastly misleading. There is a big difference in Warren agreeing with a statement made by Jake Tapper and saying “Get Another State Flag”

Climate Delayism

Climate change is an issue that needs to be addressed now.

Global greenhouse gas emissions need to start declining now to reach the 2°C goals to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Source: Climate Action Tracker

195 of 196 state parties signed the 2015 Paris Agreement with the aim of “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change” [1].

Although communication of climate science has been able to refute falsehoods used by denialists, a new group of “climate delayers” is trying to forestall regulation by downplaying the urgency of climate change and role of regulation.

The Cato Institute, a well-funded think tank with a history of climate change misinformation, claims that there is “ample time” to develop technologies necessary for emissions reduction.

Climate delayers may make similar claims to stall progress on climate change in order to maintain their (or rather their anonymous funders’) profits. For example, the Cato Institute was founded in part by Charles Koch, whose wealth largely originated from oil refining and chemicals.

Debunking a Myth About Encryption

During the debate over whether Apple should help the FBI unlock the iPhone involved in the San Bernardino shooting investigation, there was a lot of misleading information going around about encryption, including a call for a “golden key”, which a Washington Post editorial claimed could be created through Apple and Google’s “wizardry”. Most pieces attempting to debunk these myths were very technical, long reads. I am attempting to debunk a small part of a myth about encryption in the simplest format I could think of – an infographic.


Is it cancer?

Screen Shot 2016-03-07 at 10.42.27 AM

Cyberchondria refers to unfounded health concerns perpetuated by medical information found online. WebMD is a popular website and often a top search result for people seeking to self diagnose conditions and symptoms. Its tendency to increase concern for potential conditions and exaggerate the seriousness of symptoms is found at the center of jokes. Specifically, articles online have referred to how easy it is to arrive at a cancer diagnosis on the website.

We cannot determine the validity of the entire WebMD site by fact-checking the answers given by each page, but we can perhaps answer this question – given a symptom, how far away is a person from a diagnosis of cancer on WebMD?

So here is an experiment that attempts to use the physical properties(text and links) of a website to determine it’s message. The goal is to investigate the structure and content of webmd.com in order to determine if and how much it perpetuates the diagnosis of cancer.

The site is a big nest of links so the scope is limited to be the A-Z common topics page. This section lists 482 health related topic pages from Acid Reflux to Zoster (Herpes) Virus. The content examined is further limited to the main article of each of the conditions.

The experiment looks at each page’s center content section for 2 things – cancer related words(a limited list I found on the internet), and all the out links from that section of the page. It continues to search through the pages until it arrives at either a page with cancer, a page with no links, or a page that is outside of WebMD.

Using this method, the simple web scraper picked up 9714 web pages. Of these,

  • 7976 pages do not have cancer related keywords on them.
  • 726 pages are cancer related conditions because keywords were found in the main content.
  • 1012 information pages had either no outlinks such as liver, or out-links that redirected to a sponsored page like this.

A rat’s nest of a directed network graph was made with a force directed layout from the resulting pages where each page is a node, and each edge a link between pages. The cancer related pages here are colored in red. It is not immediately noticeable which categories of pages have more prominence. However it is clear that there are central nodes in the network where almost every page eventually leads.

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 9.14.56 AM I calculated pageRank for each page(node) to determine its prominence.

PageRank, the more famous part of the google search algorithm measures the relative importance of the page given its links based on one of the algorithms that determines the order of search results. Below are the top 1000 pageranked pages in descending order. We can see that pages with cancer do not have the highest scores, and are distributed throughout the ranking.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 11.32.15 PM

Unfortunately, this is a much more complicated project than I expected, so I can only tell you that given what I have seen of the network, cancer related pages do not act differently or hold prominence over other topic pages. However, it is not clear that the scope of the website’s conditions covers cancer related topics proportionally more than it should. Nor is it clear that if a cancer diagnosis occurs, how much of it is driven by the behavior of the medical advice seeker who may tend to travel the path toward the worst scenarios.

If webMD is not about diagnosing cancer, then where are the most likely places that any given webMD query will lead? A few pages with significantly higher centrality and pageRank stood out far from the rest. And these pages focus on 2 things – policy and medicine.

The page which every page eventually leads to is as expected – the disclaimer that states webMD information “are for informational purposes only. The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment…”

A equally prominent page is a tool to identify medication. The drug index comes in 3rd, but has the most user input on the website with its thousands of reviews of specific drugs..

And subsequent prominent pages serve similar purposes: privacy policy, and conditions of use.

… to be continued

Donald Trump should/should not be president

By Jorge Caraballo, Monica Guzman, Carolyn Libby, Brittany Parker, and Wendi Thomas

Our team applied debunking and persuasion strategies to the debate over whether Donald Trump should be president of the United States.

We were inspired by this L.A. Times editorial against Trump, which dismissed Trump supporters in the first three sentences. We thought it’d be interesting to make the case against Trump in a way that would make Trump supporters feel heard, and make the case for Trump in a way even Trump detractors could pause to consider.

So this is what we created:

  • a slideshow message to Trump supporters aimed at gaining their attention and persuading them not to vote for Trump (Wendi Thomas and Monica Guzman)
  • A graphic that elaborates on and clarifies the argument made in the slideshow  (Jorge Caraballo and Carolyn Libby)
  • a comment or response to a Los Angeles Times’ editorial rejecting Trump in which the author argues that Trump actually would make America great again (Brittany Parker)

First up, the slideshow (click on the pic to open it, and read the whole thing before you move on!)…

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 9.15.24 PM

And here are a few graphics to strengthen the point…



Trump Kasich agree

And finally, our pro-Trump comment:

This election goes far beyond Donald Trump.

Over the past century, the office of the presidency has slowly usurped power from the legislative and judicial branches of government, distorting the system of checks and balances enshrined in our Constitution.

We, as a nation, must DEMAND a return to congressional primacy over the republic as our founders intended. From Ronald Reagan, who abused his authority to provide executive legalization to tens of thousands of illegal immigrants, to Barack Obama, who used federal funds that weren’t appropriated by Congress to fund Obamacare, neither Republicans nor Democrats are immune from the seduction of power. Hillary Clinton, the embodiment of a professional politician who prizes shamelessness and ambition over virtue, would only further poison the well.

For the first time in many, many moons, power truly lies at the ballot box. In order to combat executive overreach and its gross consolidation of power, we must force Congress to act. And to force Congress to act, we must vote for Donald Trump.

Donald Trump is a line in the sand. If our elected officials truly believe that a Trump presidency would be a disaster for this great nation, then they will fight to re-calibrate the balance of power to ensure that the Congress regains its role as the prime legislative authority in the United States.

Our founders understood the danger of tyranny. Executive overreach, growing more rampant with each passing administration, is a threat to our civil liberties and to the rule of law. Our democracy will be best served by voting in a candidate who can break the wheel that rotates Democrats and Republicans out of office, and finally inspire strong bipartisan action in government.

Vote for Trump: let’s make America great again.

Note: To get a better understanding of what drives Trump supporters, we studied their statements in these and other articles:

Thanksgiving Dinner: A Role-Playing Game for Handling Controversy

Creating the Game

Christina Houle and I decided to team up for this assignment. We tossed around a few ideas for creating something interactive, and she mentioned that she’d previously used Muzzy Lane to create an online interactive game (Muzzy Lane builds software that in turn allows teachers and educators to create games for learning). Christina and I wanted to capture the ways that discussions unfold in real time, while at the same time offering people feedback on argumentation strategies. We thought it would be interesting to allow people to role play a difficult conversation online. By offering players multiple response options (as well as feedback on those responses), we thought the exercise could become more interesting and demonstrate practically how to lead arguments with values.

We decided that our role play scenario was going to be Thanksgiving dinner with a friend’s family. Why Thanksgiving dinner? When we started talking about our own experiences with controversial conversations, we found that these tough conversations often happened with family members. What makes disagreements in this context so difficult is that we care about the people involved, and can’t just walk away even when disagreements can be profound.

The topic we wanted to explore: paid family leave. This is exactly the kind of subject on which members of a family might have very different views. We wanted to bring out the family dynamic, as well as allow different family members to share their experiences.

Our scenario:

“You’re visiting your friend Rita’s family for Thanksgiving Dinner. You’ve never met any other member of the family, and don’t know what people’s political beliefs are. After a warm welcome, you all sit down to dinner. The topic turns to paid family leave – a discussion that has been much in the news. As you navigate the conversation, your goal is to learn what other people’s values are, and use what you’ve learned to guide your responses to what other people say. Hopefully, you’ll learn something new while still advocating for your own position – which is that paid family leave in the United States should be expanded.”


Rather than grading responses as right or wrong, we allowed players to earn points for “judgment” or “values.” When players choose to lead with values – which means understanding another character’s point of view – they get a point for values. If, however, they opt to go straight for fact-based confrontation, they earn a point for judgment. At the end of the game, they get a total score and some general feedback on strategy.

Link to the beta version of our game:


Our process:

Muzzy Lane’s interface is fantastic! Here’s how we created our exercise, followed by a few screenshots from the actual gameplay.

MMR Vaccine Actually Prevents Autism–By Preventing Congenital Rubella

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a study in The Lancet that has since been repeatedly and widely discredited, claiming that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine might cause autism. No such thing is true. It later came to light that Wakefield had violated ethics in many ways and deliberately lied about the results, and The Lancet retracted the paper in 2010.

Unfortunately, much damage was already done, as thousands of parents had decided not to vaccinate their children. In recent years, measles epidemics have been making a comeback, especially in Europe, where the MMR autism scare was greatest. In 2011 alone, measles outbreaks in Europe sickened 26,000 people and killed nine.

The irony of all this is that the MMR vaccine has been preventing autism all along, by protecting pregnant women from rubella.

Image by Sanofi Pasteur. Used under Creative Commons license.

The rubella virus

Rubella—the virus putting the R in the MMR vaccine since 1971, when the combined vaccine was licensed—is not generally a fatal or even severe disease. Like the common cold, it is transmitted by airborne droplets. Patients can be contagious for a week before showing symptoms. In children, rubella can cause a fever, sore throat, and a rash of pink spots that spread from the face across the body. In adults, it may also cause headaches, pinkeye, and arthritis.

But the greatest danger is if a pregnant woman contracts rubella, especially during her first trimester. Rubella can cause congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) in the fetus. CRS is characterized by permanent birth defects, including hearing loss, cataracts, heart abnormalities, diabetes, liver damage, and autism.

A study led by Bryn Berger at Emory University estimated that, between 2001 and 2010 in the US alone, rubella vaccination prevented about 1200 cases of autism spectrum disorder. The study was published in the journal BMC Public Health in 2011.

Based on research in Jamaica and mathematical modeling in Norway and Australia, the researchers conservatively estimated that the incidence of CRS in the US without the rubella vaccination would be about 4 per 10,000 births. Taking that number and multiplying it by the number of births in the US from 2001 to 2010, they estimated that 16,600 cases of congenital rubella syndrome were prevented by rubella vaccination in the US just those 10 years.

Berger and his colleagues then used a 1971 study by Stella Chess that looked at 243 preschool children with CRS. This was just after a worldwide rubella epidemic from about 1963 to 1965—the US alone saw 12.5 million cases of rubella, about 11,000 babies who died after contracting the disease, and 20,000 children born with CRS. Chess’s study found that 7.4% of the 243 children with CRS had either full or partial autism.

If the rubella vaccine prevented 16,600 cases of CRS, and roughly 7.4% of those would have had autism, then the vaccine prevented autism in about 1,200 US children over ten years.

The authors of the study point out that by using Chess’s numbers for the percentage of CRS children who have autism, they are actually underestimating the number of autism cases being prevented, because the diagnostic criteria for autism have widened since 1971.

Rubella was declared eliminated in the US in 2004, and in the Americas in 2009, thanks to the rubella vaccine, first developed in 1969 by Maurice Hilleman and later improved into the form we use today by Stanley Plotkin.

But rubella has not yet been eliminated completely. Worldwide, about 100,000 babies are born with CRS each year. Even in the US and other places where rubella has been eliminated, people from areas where rubella still occurs can travel or immigrate here, bringing the virus with them. So women who are thinking of becoming pregnant are advised to get a rubella vaccination four weeks before pregnancy if they haven’t already been vaccinated or developed immunity. Once a woman is pregnant, the rubella vaccination is not recommended until after she gives birth.

Clearly not everyone who becomes pregnant has four weeks of advance warning to get a rubella vaccination. So what happens when all the kids who haven’t gotten the MMR vaccine grow up and begin getting pregnant?