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Eclipse chasing a total success

Some time ago I hatched a plan to take a Sunday drive down to mid-Iowa from where our party of Andersons could shoot off south or east and catch today’s eclipse. Little did I know how wily the weather gods can be for obscuring the heavens. For the last week, the forecasts ping-ponged me unmercifully between Nebraska and Missouri. I went to bed last night with Nebraska in my sights, but just before hitting the road the updated outlook pointed clearly to Missouri as our only chance, albeit very slim, to get a view of the sun at totality.

Heading south through very heavy rains we went off-interstate south of Iowa once we hit the path of the eclipse, and then zig-zagged tortuously through the back-country of Missouri until we finally reached the edge of the cloud deck near Columbia—just in time for the awesome sight of the sun being snuffed out by the moon.

From a statistical perspective, it is ironic how astronomers can be so precise in their predictions of the moon shadow, whereas the meteorologists cannot provide very accurate forecasts of cloud cover. This made this whole venture of eclipse chasing very challenging, but, given the thrilling conclusion, a great experience.

“Keep your face to the sun and you will never see the shadows.”
― Helen Keller

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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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Statistics to make distracted drivers more aware this month

April is now the Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month (formerly it was just math–no stats). It also is Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

Putting these two themes together brings us to data published this month by Zendrive, a San Francisco-based startup that uses smartphone sensors to measure drivers’ behavior. They claim that 90% of collisions are due to human error, of which 1 in 4 stem from phone use while driving.

These statistics are very worrying to start off with.  But, according to this blog, it gets far worse when you drill down on Zendrive’s 3-month analysis of 3-million anonymous drivers, who made 570-million trips and covered 5.6-billion miles:

  • Drivers used their phones on 88-percent of the trips
  • They spent 3.5 minutes per hour on calls (an enormous amount of time considering that even a few seconds of distraction can create dire consequences)

About a third of US states prohibit use of hand-held phones while driving. Does this reduce distraction? The stats posted by Zendrive are not definitive.

It seems to me that that hands-free must be far safer. However, this ranking of driving distractions* (benchmarked to plain driving—rating of 1) does not provide much support for what is seemingly obvious:

  1. Listening to the radio — 1.21
  2. Listening to a book on tape — 1.75
  3. Talking on a hands-free cellphone — 2.27
  4. Talking with a passenger in the front seat — 2.33
  5. Talking on a hand-held cellphone — 2.45
  6. Interacting with a speech recognition e-mail or text system — 3.06

For all the fuss about talking on the phone, whether hands-free or not, it does not cause any more distraction than chatting with a passenger.

This list does not include texting, which Consumer Reports figures is 23 times more distracting than talking on your cell phone while driving.**

Please avoid any distractions when you drive, especially texting.

*Source: This 10/16/15 Boston Globe OpEd

**Posted here

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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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A good New Year’s resolution: If you do not exercise, start now–a little goes a long way

I read a cheery Associated Press report today by their Chief Medical Writer Marilynn Marchione that It’s all good: Any exercise cuts your risk of death.  What impresses me is the sample size of 64,000 adults who the UK researchers interviewed and then tracked for death rates.  Another surprise is that almost two-thirds of these individuals did not exercise.  These slackers could reduce their risk of dying by 30 percent if they would just get out for a walk now and then.  Come on people!

“A particularly encouraging finding was that a physical activity frequency as low as one or two sessions per week was associated with lower mortality risks.”

– Researchers from the National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine–East Midlands at Loughborough University

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Jittery gauges making people crazy on election night

Early last Tuesday evening I went to the New York Times elections website to check on the Presidential race.  It had Clinton favored, but not by much—just a bit over 50% at the time, with the needle wavering alarmingly (by my reckoning) towards the side of Trump.  A few hours later I was shocked to see it at a plus 70% for Trump.  By the time I retired for the night the Times had him at near 100%, which, of course turned out to be the case, to my surprise and many others, even President Elect Trump himself, I suspect.

Being a chemical engineer, I like the jittery gauge display—it actually is less unsettling for me than a needle that is fixed (which usually happened only when a measuring instrument failed).  Even more important, from my perspective as an aficionado of statistics, is the way this dynamic graphic expressed uncertainty—becoming less jittery as the night went on and returns came in.  However, the fluctuating probabilities freaked out a lot of viewers, leading to this explanation by NYT as to Why we used jittery gauges.

For an unbiased, mainly positive, review of this controversial graphical approach by the Times to report election results see this Visualizing Data blog.

“Negativity expressed towards the jitter was a visceral reaction to the anguish caused by the increasing uncertainty of the outcome, heightened by the shocking twist in events during the night, [but] I found it an utterly compelling visual aid.”

— Andy Kirk, author of Visualizing Data

P.S. Here’s a new word that I picked up while researching this blog: “skeuomorphism”, meaning the designing of graphics to resemble real world counterparts, for example, Apple Watch’s clock-like interface.  Evidently battles have been raging for years in the tech world over using this approach versus flat, minimalist, designs.  I had no idea!

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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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Obscurity does not equal profundity

In 1989 I attended a debate where George Box defended the standard approach for design of experiments against the Taguchi method.  In summary he simply put up a mathematical equation on three scraps of transparencies that projected “Obscurity” “not equal to”  “Profundity”.  This created a memorable uproar from the Taguchi disciples in the audience.”

I am reminded of this upon the news that the winner of the 2016 Ig Nobel Peace Prize is this paper by University of Waterloo Ph.D. psychology candidate Gordon Penny et al On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit.  This treatise sorts out what is serious bullshit versus simply nonsense or harmless mundanity.  It provides this example of pseudo profundity from an actual tweet sent by a well-known New Age healer and advocate of alternative medicine:

Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.

Evidently many people are not only prone to eating up stuff like this but they also lack to ability to sniff it out.  The Waterloo researchers tested a large number (280) undergrads on a Bullshit Receptivity (BSR) scale.  They then completed several follow up studies, going all out to shovel the BSR.  ; )

It composts down to bullshit not only being more ubiquitous than ever before (being a big part of internet) but also increasingly popular.  The authors’ hope by their study to reduce BSR and thereby the generation of it due to this improved detection of obscure pseudo profundities.  That would be good!

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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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Stand up now and then while working at your desk and do half again more than sitting the whole time

According to this Wall Street Journal report, call-center workers given “stand-capable” desks were 46% more productive than their peers who remained sitting.  This astounding improvement in output is attributed to the benefits of moving around.

“We hope this work will show companies that although there might be some costs involved in providing stand-capable workstations, increased employee productivity over time will more than offset these initial expenses.”

-Mark Benden, Director of the Texas A&M Ergonomics Center

P.S. It seems to me from what I gather off the internet that sitting or standing all day at work may not be as healthy as varying positions, e.g., see this essay from 538 blog.

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