Archive for April, 2012

“Randomistas” building steam for government to do better by designed experiments

“Businesses conduct hundreds of thousands of randomized trials each year. Pharmaceutical companies conduct thousands more. But government? Hardly any.”

–David Brooks, The New York Times, 4/26/12 editorial seen here

For those of us in the know about statistical tools this statement provides light at the end of a long tunnel.  However, this columnist gets a bit carried away by the idea that an FDA-like agency inject controlled experiments throughout government.

Although it’s great to see such enthusiasm for proactive studies based on sound statistical principles, I prefer the lower-profile approaches documented by Boston Globe Op-Ed writer Gareth Cook in this May 2011 column.  He cites a number of examples where rigorous experiments solved social problems, albeit by baby steps.  Included in his cases are “aggressively particular” successes by a group of MIT economists who are known as the “randomistas”—a play on their application of randomized controlled trials.

Evidently the obvious success of Google (12,000 randomized experiments in 2009, according to Brooks) and others reaching out over the internet has caught the attention of the mass media.  Provided they don’t promote randomistas running wild, some good will come of this, I feel sure.

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Where the radix point becomes a comma

Prompted by an ever-growing flow of statistical questions from overseas, Stat-Ease Consultant Wayne Adams, recently circulated this Wikipedia link that provides a breakdown on countries using a decimal point versus a comma for the radix point—the separator of the integer part from the fractional side of a number.

For more background on decimal styles over time and place see this Science Editor article by Amelia Williamson.  It credits Scottish mathematician John Napier* for being the first to use a period.  However, it seems that he wavered later by using a comma, thus setting the stage for this being an alternative.  Given the use of commas to separate thousands from millions and millions from billions and so on, numbers can be misinterpreted by several orders of magnitude very easily if you do not keep a sharp eye on the source.

So, all you math & stats boffins—watch it!

*As detailed in this 2009 blog I first learned of this fellow from seeing his bones on display at IBM’s Watson Research Center in New York.

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Marshmallows measure the speed of light (and get put to other good uses)

One of my favorite blogs, Flowing Data, provided me the heads-up on a great lecture by Adam Savage (the Mythbuster’s guy) called “Simple ideas lead to scientific discoveries”.  I really enjoyed all of his stories, but especially the one on Hippolyte Fizeau’s measurement of the speed of light in 1849.  Ingenious!

Coincidentally, my brother Paul forwarded me a detailing of how one can measure the speed of light with a tray of mini-marshmallows!  Check it out at this Science Blog written by theoretical astrophysicist Ethan Siegel.  This sharp-fingered fellow (if you view his blog you will see what I mean) goes on to tout a marshmallow-made diorama that ‘peeps’ recent claims of particles going faster than the speed of light.

That leads me to puffing up my daughter Emily, who achieved the “peeple’s choice” award in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press Ninth Annual Marshmallow Peeps Diorama Contest.  She and two of her closest peeps produced The Mupeeps Take Minnepeepolis.  It looks very much like the view out of my window from Stat-Ease headquarters east of downtown Minneapolis.

By the way, my favorite Muppets are Bunsen and Beaker.  See them demo their invention of fireproof paper here.  At the Muppets Lab one should always be prepared with fresh marshmallows on a stick. I advise going for two at a time. o——<8

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High rollers beat the lottery odds

The $640 million jackpot in the Mega Millions lottery Friday night created a huge buzz.  Unfortunately this fizzled out for all but the three big winners in Illinois, Kansas, and Maryland.  Even we analytical types get swept up in the frenzy, seeing as how the money sunk in prior drawings brings the expected value over 100 percent.  Yes, the odds of 1 in 176,000,000 remain daunting, but it sure is fun to have a few numbers to play with.

The really gutsy lottery wonks focus on other games where situations arise that make huge bets nearly a sure thing.  For example, see this Boston Globe heads-up on “a game with a windfall for a knowing few”.  Imagine showing up at your corner gas station with $100,000s in cash for lottery tickets—that would be a great day for the own, especially given the seller earns a commission that can grow to $100,000 for some jackpots.

“Bettors like the Selbees, who spent at least $500,000 on the game, had almost no risk of losing money.”

– Mark Kon, a professor of math and statistics at Boston University

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