Good News Monday #35: Randomness, Songs, and Billionaires

I admit, I’m getting a little overwhelmed by political ads, upcoming debates – I mean, do I really need to know how each candidate prepares? – wildfires, and deaths. I need some good news. Or even something that make me chuckle.

There is some really good news. And lots of evidence of people doing good things. Here’s some I found this week.

A million random digits

This one isn’t exactly good news. Still, it tickled me when I read it. Maybe it will tickle you, too. Perhaps the good news is that we humans are persistently curious. Or maybe, I just like the idea of a number-nerd puzzling away in the midst of a pandemic.

Sometimes people need random numbers. You can’t really just pull them out of your head. That doesn’t matter much if your kids are picking a number from 1-10 to determine who sits in the front seat. But, if you’re an engineer inspecting welds on a rusting bridge, it’s really important, or a quality control chemist taking samples before shipping a batch of flu-vaccine filled syringes.

Not to worry, there’s a table for that. For 65 years, you could turn to Rand Corp’s reference book “A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates.” (For some reason, Normal Deviates gave me my first giggle on this one.)

From the Wall Street Journal

Legend has it that a submarine commander used the book to set unpredictable courses to dodge enemy ships.

Now comes Covid-19 and Gary Briggs twiddling his analytical thumbs during a quarantine. He decided to verify the randomness of the numbers. He wrote a program to generate the tables the same way IBM did in the 1940s, when it took piles of punch cards.

Gary discovered that the book had mistakes. In the first 50,000 digits, his numbers were off by two digits. (!!) He hypothesized that someone dropped a handful of punchcards and stacked them back out of order. (Randomly?) So, Gary wrote a program to test his theory. According to Gary, the results were “soul crushing.”

Gary stunned the Rand staff when he told them their beloved publications had errors. “Nobody,” he told them, “has actually opened the book in many years.” (That’s because we can get those numbers on our phones now.)

Student test, test, test…

This piece of good news caught my eye because it takes place in New Braunfels, Texas, where my brother lives. The Wall Street Journal, described New Braunfels as a “leafy town,” which caused my brother and I some fun talking about the difference between a seedy town, a leafy town, and a town turning over a new leaf. None of which has anything to do with Graham Weston and his goal of screening children for COVID-19.

Graham is a billionaire with a home in New Braunfels. He caught COVID-19 and almost died. Graham brought his son home from school in the U.K. and immediately quarantined him for two weeks. It turned out that his son was asymptomatic and probably transmitted it to Graham on the way home from the airport. Graham almost died.

Photo from The Wall Street Journal

Now Graham is on a mission to test asymptomatic children as a way to accelerate getting back to normal. He helped bankrolled a $2.4 million nonprofit lab so more than 4, 000 students can be tested at about $35 per test. His streamlined testing process cost about 15% of the standard cost. Graham’s plan is to test every student every week and, of course, send positive students home.

This sounds a lot like what University of Illinois is doing, only for the K-12 kids. Getting ahead of the virus and stopping the spread is the best way to get back to normal. I’d add contact tracing to the mix.

To read more go here.

Sing a new song

Have you noticed that birds are singing sweeter? Researchers in the San Francisco Bay are have.

It turns out that birds have been virtually shouting to each other to be heard. During the COVID-19 shutdown, they have less traffic and fewer people to compete with. As a result, songs are sweeter.

University of Tennessee behavioral ecologist Elizabeth Derryberry compares what she discovered to people at a crowded party. We can’t really have deep, nuanced, and meaningful conversations when there’s a lot of noise. Our conversations are reduced to simple chit-chat or small-talk. If we’re at a political rally, we’re reduced to platitudes. However, when we are in a quieter environment, we can look in each other’s eyes and have deep meaningful conversations.

Elizabeth discovered that male birds voices become sexier, more intricate, and better at warding off competitors.

“They double their communication distance. And they also have these really wide-bandwidth songs, which means they contain a lot of information.”

Wired Magazine September 2020
beautiful bird bloom blossom
Photo by Pixabay on

I don’t know about you, but that seems like sweet, good news to me. In this case, what benefits the birds, makes my day more delightful, too.

What’s on your good news radar this week? I’d love to hear. More is always better.