Archive for category Consumer behavior

Breaking free of standard practices that no longer make sense

Building off my previous blog on “Why no one wants to monkey around with how things have always been done” I am passing along an insightful anecdote by David Morganstein, President of the American Statistical Association, about his wife’s standard practice to slice a quarter inch off of every ham and toss it in the trash. Read this amazing story and others like it in “The Slice of Ham, How Do You Know?”.

Most of our assumptions have outlived their uselessness.

– Marshall McLuhan, famed for predicting the World Wide Web almost thirty years before it was invented.

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Fewer kids, more pets—what this world is coming to

NBC’s Today show posted this album yesterday of an Australian dog named Humphrey posing as a newborn baby.  Unbelievable!  This is what the world is coming to—far fewer children and many more animals being welcomed to families.

The latest issue of Bloomberg Businessweek tells this story of a German pet store with a quarter of a million animals—the world’s biggest—to meet the ever-growing demand of empty nesters. I cannot decide what fascinates me more, the video of 32 weird animals for sale, or the “They Never Talk Back” graphic showing how many countries everywhere have increased per capita spending on pets. The United States leads the way with an arrow point well past $120 per person spent on their loved ones, that is, household animals.

“After food, clothing and medicine, the fourth item is cosmetics and the fifth is pets. That’s serious.”

–Pope Francis

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Fisher-Yates shuffle for music streaming is perfectly random—too much so for some

The headline “When random is too random” caught my eye when the April issue of Significance, published by The Royal Statistical Society, circulated by me the other day.  It really makes no statistical sense, but the music-streaming service Spotify abandoned the truly random Fisher-Yates shuffle.  The problem with randomization is that it naturally produces repeats in tracks two or even three days in a row and occasionally back-to-back.  Although this happened purely by chance, Spotify consumers complained.

Along similar lines, I have been aggravated by screen savers that randomly show family photos.  It really seems that some get repeated too often even though it’s only by chance.  For a detailing of how Spotify’s software engineer Lukáš Poláček tweaked the Fisher-Yates shuffle to stretch songs out more evenly see this blog post.

“I think Fisher-Yates shuffle is one of the most beautiful random algorithms and it’s amazing that such a complicated problem can be solved in 3 lines of code in some programming languages.  And this is accomplished using the optimal number of operations and optimal amount of randomness.”

– Lukáš Poláček (who nevertheless, due to fickleness of music listeners, tweaked the algorithm to introduce a degree of unrandomization so it would reduce natural clustering)

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Laws of nature lead to rare events that really ought not surprise anyone

Years ago I traveled to Sweden intending to dig up some Anderson family roots.  Although I had little luck tracing back the tree (too many sons of Anders!) it was great fun touring this Scandinavian country that seemed so much like home in Minnesota.  One thing they had that we did not was a complete wooden warship—the Vasa —which sank on her maiden voyage due to some engineering issues (since then the Swedes have rebuilt their reputation!).  After a dramatic movie-reenactment of this ship’s history, the lights came up and I discovered a dear friend of our family sitting right behind me.  Unbeknownst to me they’d also gone for a holiday in Sweden, decided to go to the same museum, etc. Miraculous!

It turns out that from a strictly statistical view, coincidences like this really are not so unexpected.  As physicist Freeman Dyson put it, “the paradoxical feature of the laws of probability is that they make unlikely events happen unexpectedly often.”  A Cambridge mathematician laid this out in his eponymous Littlewood’s Law of Miracles, which states that in the course of any normal person’s life, miracles happen at a rate of roughly one per month.  Dyson provided a simple proof of this law as follows.  “During the time that we are awake and actively engaged in living our lives, roughly for eight hours each day, we see and hear things happening at a rate of about one per second.  So the total number of events that happen to us is about thirty thousand per day, or about a million per month…The chance of a miracle is about one per million events.  Therefore we should expect about one miracle to happen, on the average, every month.”*

I wrote all this about Dyson and Littlewood over ten years ago in my May 2004 DOE FAQ Alert ezine.  What reminded me of it was this Science magazine review of a new book titled “The Improbability Principle, Why Coincidences, Miracles and Rare Events Happen Every Day” by Professor David Hand, former Chair in Statistics at Imperial College, London.  It lays out these five laws that explain why seemingly rare events are really not that unusual.

None of this surprises me.  In regards to the time I ran into a friend from Minnesota in Sweden, such encounters must be common that with so many of our inhabitants being of Scandinavian descent, most all of whom vacation in the summer, and go to the same popular attractions.  How many of you have unexpectedly met someone you know while traveling far from home?  I’d venture to say it’s the majority.  That’s what these statisticians are trying to tell us.  They really know how to take the excitement out of life. 😉

*Source: This review titled “One in a Million” by Dyson of the book “Debunked! ESP, Telekinesis, Other Pseudoscience” by Georges Charpak and Henri Broch.

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Tailgaters not put off by center high mounted stop lamps

According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) nearly a third of all crashes are rear-enders.  So, when an experiment by psychologist John Voevodsky in 1974 found that San Francisco taxis equipped with a third brake light suffered 60.6% fewer rear-end collisions, it got the attention of the NHTSA.  After replicating these results on a larger scale, they required center high mounted stop lamps (CHMSL) on all new cars in 1986.  However, recent studies show a reduction in accidents of only 5%!*

I suppose drivers now are too busy texting to be deterred by CHMSL. ; )  But now Ford is experimenting on wirelessly warning those following when a driver puts the brakes on.  See more details here.  I suggest it set an alarm off on cell phones too—similar to wireless emergency alerts.

But the only real solution to rear-end collisions would be a system that automatically reduces speed on serial tailgaters.  They are a menace to society in my opinion.  Meantime let’s hope our highway patrols do what these cops did on California’s freeways.

*(Thanks to University of Minnesota Professor Sanford Weisberg of the School of Statistics for bringing this to my attention in his seminar today.)

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Little correlation between pay and how meaningful you find your work

2012-08-31 17.24.00The August 26 issue of Business Week features this chart on median salary versus job meaning developed by salary comparison site PayScale.  See if your profession is listed and, if so, how your colleagues rated their work.

I find it interesting that one of the lowest paying jobs—water treatment plant operator—came in at 100 percent self-rating of high job meaning.  On the other hand, a securities trader makes twice the pay but only 14 percent felt their work meant much.

Neurosurgeons come out tops on both counts—salary and meaningfulness.  That takes brains getting into a position like this. ; )

One of the least-paying jobs listed by PayScale is gas station attendant—it is also, evidently, nearly completely meaningless.  It seems that a person stuck with this work would do well by becoming a dog kennel worker: The pay is about the same but carers for canines rates their job at 64% on the meaningful scale.  My pet Penny (pictured sharing water with my grandson) approves. : )

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Mind over matter—scale malfunction leads to temporary euphoria

I’ve diligently recorded my weight every several days for some years now.  The short-term variation always astounds me—going up and down by a number of pounds from one week to the next.  However, on average month-by-month my weight remains surprisingly stable.  Unfortunately the trend over years is very slightly, but significantly, upwards.  Thus my battle against the bulge continues.

A few weeks ago I stepped up for a weighing and received a pleasant surprise: It seemed that I’d dropped 10 pounds during a five-day business trip.  Although deep down I knew this could not be, I indulged myself for the day with the thought that something magical had whisked away this weight.  Then after getting home from work I got back down to earth by discovering that the base of the scale had got off kilter.  I mentioned this to my wife and daughter.  It was funny seeing them being so crestfallen—they also were hanging on to the belief in a mysterious, but real reduction.

I suppose all this supports the use of control charting* for filtering out common-cause variability (not worth reacting to) from statistically-significant process upsets (special causes that merit attention).  At least that’s what my logical side says.  On the other hand, it was fun to believe for some hours in supernatural forces.  Ignorance can be bliss!

*(See this detailing posted by the George Mason University College of Health and Human Services.)

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Correlation of price of wine with the fineness of its taste–an absurd example

A toast to 2013Behavioral Economics Professor Dan Ariely of Duke University provides an illuminating and humorous example of irrational valuation in his advice column today for Wall Street Journal. It seems that this Christmas holiday weekend may be ruined for a couple who took advantage of a buy-one-get-one-free (BOGO) sale on a fine wine. Actually they paid $17 for one bottle and a nickel ($0.05) for the other. They asked Professor Ariely to help them escape a terrible dilemma: For the holiday party would it be OK to bring the cheap wine? Ha ha!

I hope that for the coming year all of you readers of StatsMadeEasy do not get hung up spurious issues like this relating to correlation and causation or any other statistical kerfuffles. Happy Holidays and New Year!

PS. I leave you with this toast to 2013–a picture taken last week during my tour of a winery in the Colchagua Valley south of Santiago, Chile. Cheers!

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It’s the letter of the law: Stand down with Calibri

Twenty years ago or so I cajoled the advertising rep from R&D Magazine into lending me a binder filled with several inches of ‘white papers’ of the publisher’s research on readership.  Their data came primarily from A/B (split) testing—not very sophisticated but effective for simple comparisons.  One question I resolved was whether to use serif or sans serif font.  The research showed significant advantages to headlines being san serif, such as Arial font, and text in serif—for example, Times New Roman.  I’ve stuck with that ever since,* except for the fonts themselves changing over to Calibri and Cambria—the defaults in current versions of Microsoft Office software.

However, now I am set back by this news from Wall Street Journal that Calibri comes up short—30 percent to be precise—versus Arial and other common fonts, at least so far as the State of Michigan is concerned.  The inventor of Calibri, Lucas de Groot, justifies his type being smaller because of its high readability per square inch.  Although this seems plausible to me, I would like to see the research supporting this assertion.

For an interesting detailing of fonts—serif versus san serif and neo-grotesque versus humanist—see this blog by Laurie Israel Think.

*For writings that will likely be read in printed form, that is.  Having seen research like this recent study from the JOURNAL OF COGNITIVE PSYCHOLOGY, I believe that words written in a sans serif font provide a significant advantage for messages read on computer screens, such as blogs and email.  Thus for these purposes I prefer using Calibri exclusively—ditto for presentations projected on screen, for example—using Powerpoint.

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Irish Times says “serious issue settled” — Guinness does indeed travel badly

Lab Times author Thirsty O’Leary provides this summary of a scientific study by Liam Glynn, et al, that proves Guinness beer does not travel well.  Some say it’s a conspiracy of the Irish—them drawing off the cream from the barrel.  Although Guinness is not my cup of tea, I admire the work that went into this experiment.   These zealots for zymurgy went all out!  And, as those of use students ; ) of stats know, Guinness goes down well with quantitative research of this sort.*

“Each pint is like a child. You have to mind it through the entire process.”

— Fergal Murray, Guinness brew master

*See Guinnessometrics: Saving Science and Statistics With Beer


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