Archive for category pop

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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If you finish reading this headline, your attention span beats a goldfish

Jo Craven McGinty in her column The Numbers in today’s Wall Street Journal, debunks this report by Statistic Brain that our attention span has eroded to below that of a goldfish, presumably due to so many distractions nowadays.

My feeling is that the average person truly can only concentrate on one thing for 8 seconds. Where Statistics Brain goes wrong is by overestimating the attention span of a goldfish. I put my pet Pancho (pictured) to the test with a very attractive lure. He came nowhere near 9 seconds of focus, despite me yelling “pay attention!” repeatedly. In fact, he never stopped long enough for me to get a good photo—notice how it’s out of focus.

OK, hold on, I’m getting a text message…

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Reject love at first sight until you achieve sufficient sample size

Ok, this headline is a bit misleading. It’s not how quickly you fall in love that’s the problem, according to statisticians, it’s falling for the first potential mate that comes along. In other words, they calculate that only fools rush in. ; )

The optimal process for finding the love of your life is this:

  1. Estimate the number (“n”) of people you will date in your life.
  2. Take the square root (√) of n. This is your minimum (“m”).
  3. Keep records on the first m people you date and rank them by attraction—this is your benchmark (“b”). (I advise a 1-9 scale—the odd number allowing for those who are so-so, them being rated a 5.) Dump every one of them.  (Statisticians have no heart when it comes to algorithms like this.)
  4. After you dump m dates, settle down with the first one who exceeds b. Ideally they will rate 10. (Yes, I know this goes above the scale but that is true love.)

I credit the Wall Street Journal last Friday (Feb. 10)* for alerting me to this recipe for finding a soul mate. However, this 2014 article by Slate breaks it down a bit better, IMO. They report that out of a choice of 10 people (n), the √n method (dictating you dump the first 3-4 potential partners) will get you someone that’s three-quarters (75%) perfect. Not good enough? Then go for 100 candidates (ditching the initial 10 suitors) and increase your score to around 90 percent.

Still not satisfied? Revert to the original benchmark of 37% rejection (the reciprocal of Euler’s number e—the base of the natural logarithm) based on the first calculations for the marriage problem that came out in 1960. However, I suggest you make it easier on yourself (and those who desire you but have no shot) by opening up your search sooner by the square root rule. Just keep reminding yourself after settling down that it could have been a lot worse if you had been a fool by rushing in on your first love.

“If you end up marrying the second best person, life is probably not going to be rotten.”

– Neil Bearden, Decision Behavior Laboratory, University of Arizona, author of “Skip the Square Root of n”, Journal of Mathematical Psychology, 9 June 2005.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

* “In Love, Probability Calculus Suggests Only Fools Rush In”.

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Beware–eating like a king is not healthy

With Tthe-seven-pillars-of-statistical-wisdomhanksgiving coming up I am looking forward to a feast beyond all others throughout the year.  Therefore, I did not want to know that eating like a king has been demonstrated to be unhealthy.  I learned of this while reading The Seven Pillars of Statistical Wisdom by Stephen M. Stigler, one of the world’s foremost experts on the history of statistics.  In his chapter on the pillar of Design, he relates (p. 150) a story from the Old Testament of how Daniel eschewed a rich diet of meat and wine offered by King Nebuchadnezzar.  Daniel proposed what may be the earliest clinical trial—he and his three companions eating only pulse* and water for 10 days.  Meanwhile several followers of the King enjoyed his fare for the same period.  In the end Daniel and his friends fared better, at least on the basis of health.

The lesson here is to polish off the bounty of Thanksgiving before 10 days are up, in other words, do not lay off those lovely leftovers!  Then eat like Daniel for a few weeks in preparation for the year-end holiday feasts.  That will keep you healthy by my interpretation of Daniel’s pioneering study on diet. ; )

*Dried beans and peas (yuk!) as seen here.

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Scary statistics about Halloween

I am torn whether it will be scarier to dress up as the nightmarish Freddie Krueger from Elm Street or as a statistics instructor.  Which would you rather be locked in a windowless room with?  Hmmm… best you not answer that.

Anyways, here are some frightful facts about the upcoming holiday reported in yesterday’s USA Today:

  • 171 million Americans plan to partake in Halloween festivities. Crazy!
  • On average, women will pay double for “non-sexy” Halloween costumes. The “sexy” costumes cost on average around $30, while the demure ones (boo!) go for near $60.
  • Witch and pirate are the first two costumes of choice, followed by Trump and Clinton. Hmmm… is this a case of perfectly opposite correlation?

Happy Halloween!

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A curve in the road to grade inflation

The New York Times Sunday Review features an opinion by Wharton School Professor Adam Grant as to Why We Should Stop Grading Students on a Curve.  He asserts that his peers now give over 40% of their grades at A level—a percentage that has grown steadily for the last 30 years as detailed in this March 2016 report by GradeInflation.com.  I am not surprised to see my alma mater the University of Minnesota near the top on the chart of Long Term Grade Inflation by Institution, because, after all, we pride ourselves on being nice.

During my years at the “U” most classes were graded on the curve, which Prof. Grant abhors for creating too much competition between students.  However, it worked for me.  I especially liked this system in my statistical thermodynamics class where my final score of 15 out of 100 came out second highest out of all the students, that is, grade A.  Ha ha.  This last week President Obama chastised the U.S. press for giving Trump a pass based on grading on the curve.  I see no problem with that. ; )

I do grant Grant an A for creativity in coming up with a lifeline for struggling students.  He allows them to write down the name of a brighter classmate on one multiple choice question.  If this presumably smarter student gets it right, that question earns full credit. My only suggestion is that whomever gets called in the most for providing lifelines should be graded A for being on top of the curve. But then I see nothing wrong with rewarding the best and the brightest.

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“Bright line” rules are simple but not very bright

Just the other day a new term came to light for me—a “bright line” rule.  Evidently this is commonplace legal jargon that traces back to at least 1946 according to this language log.  It refers to “a clear, simple, and objective standard which can be applied to judge a situation” by this USLegal.com definition.

I came across the term in this statement* on p-values from American Statistical Association (ASA) on statistical significance:

“Practices that reduce data analysis or scientific inference to mechanical ‘bright-line’ rules (such as ‘p < 0.05’) for justifying scientific claims or conclusions can lead to erroneous beliefs and poor decision-making.”

The ASA goes on to say:

“Researchers should bring many contextual factors into play to derive scientific inferences, including the design of the study, the quality of the measurements, the external evidence for the phenomenon under study, and the validity off assumptions that underlie the data analysis.”

It is hard to argue that if the p-value is high, the null will fly, that is, results cannot be deemed statistically significant.  However, I’ve never bought into 0.05 being the bright-line rule.  It is good to see ASA dulling down this overly simplistic statistical standard.

I can see the value for “bright line rules” in legal processes, a case in point being the requirement for the Miranda warning being given to advise US citizens of their rights when being arrested.  However, it is ludicrous to apply such dogmatism to statistics.

*(The American Statistician, v70, #2, May 2016, p131)

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Models responsible for whacky weather

Watching Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen sashay across the Olympic stadium in Rio reminded me that, while these fashion plates are really dishy to view, they can be very dippy when it comes to forecasting.  Every time one of our local weather gurus says that their models are disagreeing, I wonder why they would ask someone like Gisele.  What does she and her like know about meteorology?

There really is a connection of fashion and statistical models—the random walk.  However, this movement would be more like that of a drunken man than a fashionably-calculated stroll down the catwalk.  For example, see this video by an MIT professor showing 7 willy-nilly paths from a single point.

Anyways, I am wandering all over the place with this blog.  Mainly I wanted to draw your attention to the Monte Carlo method for forecasting.  I used this for my MBA thesis in 1980, burning up many minutes of very expensive main-frame computer time in the late ‘70s.  What got me going on this whole Monte Carlo meander is this article from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.  Check out how the European models did better than the Americans on predicting the path of Hurricane Sandy.  Evidently the Euros are on to something as detailed in this Scientific American report at the end of last year’s hurricane season.

I have a random thought for improving the American models—ask Cindy Crawford.  She graduated as valedictorian of her high school in Illinois and earned a scholarship for chemical engineering at Northwestern University.  Cindy has all the talents to create a convergence of fashion and statistical models.  That would be really sweet.

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Studies on the intelligence of cats versus dogs and their owners

It is a demonstrable fact that dogs know calculus as reported here by The Mathematical Association of America.  On the other hand, everyone knows that cats, while obviously intelligent, are too lazy to learn any tricks like all dogs do, at least until they become too old.  Therefore, for these two reasons, dogs must be smarter than cats by my reckoning.

But now comes news that felines fathom physics, or at least they naturally grasp the principles of gravity.  This conclusion comes from an ingenious experiment on thirty cats done by Japanese researchers.  The creatures were found to be inordinately curious about magnetic balls that did not fall out of an overturned metal container.  For more details, see this recap by phys.org.

Then to make matters worse for dog lovers like myself, a recent study by a Wisconsin researcher indicates that cat owners are smarter than dog owners.  Read it here in Psychology Today and whimper.  If it’s any consolation, the study shows that dog people are less neurotic.

“The greatest pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him, and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself, too.”

― Samuel Butler

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