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Statistics and advice on New Year’s resolutions

  • The Statistic Brain offers these two morsels on New Year’s resolutions:
    • Losing weight leads the list of at over 20%. Self-improvement comes in a distant second.
    • Less than 10% of people achieve their resolutions. However, people who make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don’t.
  • “Ditch New Year’s Resolution Day” will be observed on January 17—the most common day that people give up on their goals according to Psychology Today. They recommend going with monthly resolutions.
  • Experimental results reported in this article on “The science of keeping your New Year’s resolution” from yesterday’s Washington Post provide good news for those who make it through one entire month without being derailed from their resolution. It turns out that by doing so, along with being willing to forgive yourself for a few slip-ups, you are likely to succeed over the long run. (P.S. I recommend that you follow the link above and check into two suggestions that will enhance your success for building up good habits:  ‘”Piggybacking” and “Temptation Bundling”.)

All the best in 2018 for accomplishing whatever goals you hope to achieve.

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2017—A prime year for statistics

To cap off the year, I present half a dozen wacky new statistics:

  • 2017 was a “sexy” prime, that is, 6 years beyond the last one in 2011 (six in latin is “sex”).
  • By 2050 the plastic trash floating in the oceans will outweigh the fish. (Source: Robert Samuelson, “The Top 10 Stats of 2017”, Washington Post, 12/27/17.)
  • University of Warwick statistician Nathan Cunningham debunked the “i-before-e except after c” rule based on evaluating 350,000 English words: The ratio of “ie” to “ei” is exactly the same for the after-c words as it is for all words in general. Weird science!
  • After digging into data compiled by the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC), Sam Monfort, a doctoral student in Human Factors and Applied Cognition at George Mason University, concluded that UFOs are visiting at all-time highs. Americans sight UFOs at a rate that exceeds the worldwide median by 300 times. Far out!
  • In May, an Australian cat named Omar was confirmed by the BBC as the world’s biggest at nearly 4 feet long and over 30 pounds. My oh meow!
  • Nearly a thousand people dressed up like penguins at Youngstown, Ohio this October to break the world’s record. Coincidentally, National Geographic reported on December 13 that the fossilized remains of a giant, man-sized penguin, were found in New Zealand. Eerie!

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Weapons of mass destruction scaled down for classroom warfare

During our freshman year in my Christian Brothers military high school, my buddy Bob sat behind me in first-hour home-room in prime position to snipe spit balls at me.  When I reacted to the sting by backlashing at him, the teacher—Brother Thomas—would admonish me for disrupting the class.  Devious!  Nevertheless, I had to hand it to Bob for his ingenuity for classroom warfare—my superior by far.

I shudder to think what Bob could have done with the technology revealed by John Austin in his trilogy on Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction , which begins with spitball warfare and culminates in siege weapons of the dark ages.  For example, check out this video of a classroom firearm sent to me by a PhD student from the Institute of Technology of Buenos Aires.

Inspired by Austin’s books, this Argentinian and conspirators set up a designed experiment that varied three factors:

  1. The length of the arrow (short 20 cm – long 25 cm)
  2. The width of the “barrel” (narrow 11 mm – wide 17 mm)
  3. The initial position of the arrow (p0 the firing pin will slightly hit the arrow – p1 the firing pin will push the arrow along the last 5 cm)

Bob’s spitballs did little harm in comparison to this weapon.  At this rate, turtle-necks will come back into fashion, only now being made from Kevlar.  Anyone who makes it through school at this rate will certainly be the fittest for surviving and ready for the dog-eat-dog corporate world.

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What happens if you walk backward while carrying a cup of coffee?

One would assume that walking backward with coffee, especially when it’s piping hot, would be nearly as dangerous as running with scissors. Not so, according to the 2017 Ig Nobel Prize winning study for Fluid Dynamics. According to Korean physicist Jiwon Han, you will likely spill less walking backward than forward. However, your chances of tripping, or crashing into a colleague (also walking backward with coffee, ha ha) “drastically increase”.*

“Rarely do we manage to carry coffee around without spilling it once. In fact, due to the very commonness of the phenomenon, we tend to dismiss questioning it beyond simply exclaiming: ‘Jenkins! You have too much coffee in your cup!’”

– Jiwon Han

As reported in this “SmartNews” post by Smithsonian Magazine, Han advises a claw-like grip on top of your cup, rather than using the handle. Other tips from University of California researchers, reported here by LiveScience, are to gradually accelerate to a very slow walk, thus avoiding disruptive oscillations, and keep your eyes on the cup, not the ground.

My secret to stop spillage is to use a very large cup and fill it only two-thirds of the way, e.g., 12 ounces of hot coffee in a 16-ounce Styrofoam cup.  The ultimate solution is to use a spill-proof, lidded container. However, I prefer drinking from a cup, if possible.

*(Source: Chemical and Engineering News, 9/18/17, Newscripts—“Curating quirky science since 1943.”)

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Buttered toast lands butter up for once

I cannot recall this happening before today, but when I dropped half a bagel, it landed on the dry side.  This allowed me to apply the 5-second rule and swoop it up for breakfast. That led me to this research from Manchester MET University reported by London’s Daily Mail that this (a fortuitous landing) occurs less than 20 percent of the time. These boffins of butter found that the height from which the bread is dropped makes all the difference.

“If you want to ensure your toast lands butter side up then you should invest in a higher table approximately 8ft high that allows the toast to rotate a full 360 degrees. Failing that – try not to drop the toast.”

– Chris Smith, Professor of Food Science and Technology

More good news from the UK food-science front came in March of this year when germ expert Professor Anthony Hilton of Aston University approved the 5-second rule.  However, I am not going along with the photo of toast being jelly-side down in this report by The Independent. Eating that would be really gross.

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Average American works 3.5 hours a day

This headline statistic makes it seem that Americans are slackers. However all this work is being done by only 60% of our population and on weekends to boot. An alarming downward trend in sleep-time is being counteracted by increased proportion of work being done at home. Based on how I’ve been laboring later and later at my home office, I think these two statistics may be inversely correlated—more work means less sleep. For more details, see this Wall Street Journal briefing on the statistics released by the Labor Department last Tuesday. It includes data on how much cooking and housework the men do versus women. I’m taking a hands-off position on that. ; )

P.S. Bloomberg Business recently reported that Europeans work an hour less a day than Americans. See their statistics here. We really need to take cue from our colleagues across the Atlantic and take more vacation. Also, Europeans retire earlier than Americans. Here in the U.S. more people are working past 65 than at any point in the past 50 years. This strikes close to home with me turning 64 this month and still working full time. However, I like to keep busy and enjoy my work (and the pay), so I cannot complain. Also, I am thankful not to be forced into retirement. But one of these days…

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Errors, blunders & lies

David S. Salsburg, author of “The Lady Tasting Tea”*, which I enjoyed greatly, hits the spot again with his new book on Errors, Blunders & Lies-How to Tell the Difference. It’s all about a fundamental statistical equation: Observation = model + error. The errors, of course, are normal and must be expected. But blunders and lies cannot be tolerated.

The section on errors concludes with my favorite chapter: “Regression and Big Data”. There Salsburg endorses my favorite way to avoid over-fitting of happenstance results—hold back at random 10 percent of the data and see how well these outcomes are predicted by the 90 percent you regress.** Whenever I tried this on manufacturing data it became very clear that our high-powered statistical models worked very well for predicting what happened last month. 😉 They were worthless for seeing into the future.

Another personal favorite is the bit on spurious correlations that Italian statistician Carlo Bonferroni*** guarded against, also known as the “will of the wisps” per the founder of Yale’s statistics school—Francis Anscombe.

If you are looking for statistical insights that come without all the dreary mathematical details, this book on “Errors, Blunders & Lies” will be just the ticket. Salsburg concludes with a timely heads-up on the statistical lies caused “curbstoning” (reported here by the New York Post), which may soon combine with gerrymandering (see my previous post) to create a perfect storm of data tampering in the upcoming census. We’d all do well to sharpen up our savvy on stats!

The old saying is that “figures will not lie,” but a new saying is “liars will figure.” It is our duty, as practical statisticians, to prevent the liar from figuring; in other words, to prevent him from perverting the truth, in the interest of some theory he wishes to establish.

– Carroll D. Wright, U.S. government statistician, speaking to 1889 Convention of Commissioners of Bureaus of Statistics of Labor.

*Based on the story told here.

**An idea attributed to the inventor of modern day statistics—R. A. Fisher, and endorsed by famed mathematician John Tukey, who suggested the hold-back be 10 percent.

***See my blog on Bonferroni of Bergamo.

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One-factor-at-a-time (OFAT) food experiments not very nourishing

Knowing of my interest in experiment design,my son-in-law (a newly minted PhD chemist) showed me his book on Cooking for Geeks. It offers a lot of fun detail on chemistry for a fellow like him. As a chemical engineer by profession, I like that too. Furthermore, I am all for the author’s enthusiasm for experimentation. However, his methodology, quoted below, lacks any sophistication or statistical power.

Make a recipe twice, changing just one thing (cookies: melt the butter or not?), and see what changes (if anything). If you’re not sure which way to do something, try both and see what happens. You’re guaranteed to learn something—possibly something the recipe writer didn’t even understand.

– Jeff Potter, author of Cooking for Geeks

Potter is not alone in remaining mired in OFAT and sample sizes of one (n1). This is also the methodology of the prestigious Cooks Illustrated as seen by this experiment on roasting ribs. Chris Kimball who launched this magazine, and, until recently, hosted “Americas Test Kitchen” on PBS, contacted me soon after Forbes recommended Stat-Ease software for multivariable testing (MVT) in March of 1996 (“The New Mantra: MVT”. I gave him a briefing on multifactor (as I prefer to deem it) design of experiments. However, Chris told me that his cooks were artists, not scientists, and they would not take to anything other than n1 OFAT. That works only when you make gross changes, such as roasting at 250 versus 450 degrees F. Even then, I’d like to see at least 4 of each level done in a randomized plan, and, better yet, a multifactor experiment.

The one nice thing about these poorly executed food experiments is that you can re-do them yourself. I might take on the question of roasting ribs, for example. Yum!

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Slackers rule by a nerd’s law

The of and to a “in” is that it, for you, was with “on”.  Profound?  No.  These are the top 14 most commonly used words according to this Vsauce video by Michael Stevens.  He goes on to reveal a “bizarre” pattern where the second word (“of”) appears one-half as often, the third (“and”) one-third as frequently, and so on, that is, proportionally to one over its rank.  This phenomenon is known as Zipf’s law after the author of Human Behaviour and the Principle of Least Effort published in 1949.

“The” leads the list at 6% for being most used by the reckoning of Stevens.  Another study of 743 billion words found on Google books by their director of research came up with “the” occurring 7.14 percent of the time.  See this Abacaba video for entertaining and informative bubble charts on word frequencies by use, length and gender.

By the way, I learned a new term from Stevens: “hapax legomenon”—a word that only appears once in a book, that is, at the extreme end of the frequency chart ruled by Zipf’s law.  I am now on the lookout for these rarities so I can stop a casual conversation in its tracks by announcing my discovery of a hapax legomenon. ; )

Zipf’s law does not just apply to words, for example, this mysterious rule governs the size of cities as explained by this post on Gixmodo .

The driving force for this regularity in frequency distributions is the tendency for people to put in as little effort as they can, that is, slacking off for the most part.

That is it.

*For bringing this to my attention, I credit Nathaniel Chapman, an undergraduate researcher going for a Master’s degree in chemical engineering at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

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National Beer Day–A fine time for fun facts and paying homage to a wickedly smart brewer from Guinness

Yesterday marked the end of American prohibition of beer in 1933, albeit only up to 3.2% alcohol by weight. This date every year in the USA has become a day to endorse President Roosevelt’s observation at the time that “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”

It’s also a great time to pay homage to master brewer William S. Gossett of Guinness–the “student” of the Student’s T-Test, a method for extracting the essence of discovery from small samples of data, such as that he generated from his experiments on dry stout. For the whole story, see this wonderful writeup by Priceonomics on The Guinness Brewer Who Revolutionized Statistics.

“He possessed a wickedly fertile imagination and more energy and focus than a St. Bernard in a snowstorm. An obsessive observer, counter, cyclist, and cricket nut, the self-styled brewer had a sizzle for invention, experiment, and the great outdoors.”

– Stephen Ziliak

Glory to Gossett—a brilliant boffin of beer! Beyond recognizing him, here are other fun facts and figures that I gleaned from the International Business Times from their post yesterday on National Beer Day :

  • If an empty beer glass makes you fearful, you suffer from Cenosillicaphobia. Say that after having a few.
  • Women “brewsters” pioneered beer making 5,000 years ago. Let’s tip our caps to these wonderful ladies.
  • Guinness estimated that at one time about 93,000 liters of beer was lost in the beards of Englishmen every year. Gross! Along those lines a brewmaster in Oregon developed a brew using yeast collected from his own beard. Yuk!
  • In ancient Babylon if a person brewed a bad batch, he was drowned. Come on, lighten up!

Cheers for beers!

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