Thursday 20 December 2007

Maybe Steroids Don’t Work?

Well the Mitchell report is making lots of press, and enough names have been named to generate some interesting questions. An Article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel compares the results of 46 baseball players named in the report in the first two seasons they have allegedly used steroids, with some surprising results.
Of the nineteen pitchers named in the report, fourteen had better than career average performances in the first year after the suspected first-use date. Now that is pretty significant if we assume that the chances of a better than average year is 50-50, like a coin flip. If you flip a coin nineteen times, the probability you get 14 or more heads is about 3% or one in thirty. For the hitters, a similar effect occurred; nineteen improved out of twenty-seven players. As a coin flip simulation, that is even less likely. The probability is about 2 ½ % or about one in forty chances.
Now those results would make a great case for steroid use, but when we look at the second year, we find that only nine of the nineteen pitchers were above their career average, and only seventeen of the twenty-seven hitters were above average. The results for hitters is still positive, with about a 12% probability of chance, which is definitely not a strong statistical significance; but for the pitchers, less than half improved on their career average.
One world-class statistician, Professor Paul Velleman of Cornell, suggests that the result could just be the well-known placebo effect. Hitters and pitchers performed better in their first year because they assumed that steroids would make them perform better.
I wrote recently about Pete Rose, who was banned for life for gambling. I don’t remember any suggestion that he ever was suspected of trying to cheat as part of that. He just loved to gamble. Now we have a bunch of players who actually cheated in many people’s eyes and some of them will be going to the hall of fame. So what is the message we send to young athletes with this result? If we are confused, I bet they are too.

Sunday 9 December 2007

Counting Down

December 9th, and there are only 22 days left in the year, which means 16 more days till Christmas. Lots of people involved with counting involved with this date. This is the day on which statistician Herman Hollerith installs his computing device at the United States War Department. Math and science students of my generation remember him for two other inventions he used to make his computing machine work, punched cards, called Hollerith cards, and the keypunch machine to put holes in them. The company he formed went on to become one of the largest counting compnies in the world, IBM. He got the idea from the mechanical looms of a Frenchman named Jocard.
Speaking of computers and the internet, it was on this day that the NLS, or the "oNLine System", was introduced, It was a revolutionary computer collaboration systemdesigned by Douglas Engelbart and the researchers at the Stanford Research Institute. It was this project that led to the invention of html, and the ubiquitous computer “mouse”.
Of course the statistics which was at the heart of the work done by Hollerith and the big IBM computers were indebted to the work of a great Russian mathematician who died on this day in 1894, Pafnuty Chebyshev (ok, I know there are 20 spellings of the name, sorry if this is not YOUR favorite). The Russian name has been translated as both Chebyshev and Tschebyshev, as well as several other spellings, which can lead to confusion. It is said that Besicovitch used to declare, “We use the letter T for the class of T-polynomials because it is the first letter of Chebyshev”, which he was also known to claim had no letter T. His famous inequality is rememebered, and mis-remembered by each successive year of introductory statistics students. But my favorite is a little ditty I learned in college:
Tchebyshef said it
So I'll say it again
There's always a prime
between N and 2N

From the age of computers, the need for programming and compilers became essential, and so we point out that this was also the day in 1906 that Grace Murray Hopper was born. The lady Admiral is remembered as the creator of Cobol, and even has a cruiser named after her, but the greatest influence she has on modern computing comes from a failure. One of the large Mark I computer/calculator she worked on failed to operate one day, and the cause of the disaster was traced to a dead moth on one of the computer relays. The bug can be seen in the log book where she pasted it in the Smithsonian Museum of American History. It is, so they say, the creation of the term “bug” for a computer malfunction.

Another mathematician born on this day is related to both counting and disasters. William Whiston was a British Mathematician born on this day in 1667. the year after the great fire of London. He was headed for the top, and rubbing elbows with the best for a while. He served as Newton’s deputy at Cambridge, where he was a fellow, and followed Newton in the prestigious Lucasian professorship. He was also one of the earliest proponents of the theory that comets had a periodic behavior, along with Halley.

His contribution to came in the form of a translation of the works of Josephus, the first century Jewish-Roman historian, who survived the Jewish-Roman war perhaps due to his mathematical talents. In his book The Jewish Wars Flavius tells that he was one out of 41 Jewish rebels trapped by the Romans. His companions preferred suicide to escape, so they decided to draw lots to see who would kill whom so that they could avoid both capture and the sin of suicide. The idea that they decided to form a cycle and to kill every third person and to proceed around the circle until no one was left is probably a myth. According to the problem Josephus wasn't excited by the idea of killing himself, so he calculated where he has to stand to survive the vicious circle. The general Josephus problem involves deciding how many people will stand around a circle and how many shall be passed over before the next one is killed and predicting the last to survive. You can find a java applet to “play” at death at that same link.
Comets were also part of the disaster in his life. He had become famous for his studies that stated that the Biblical flood had been caused by a comet, and gave support for other geological impacts of comets on the Earth. Whiston was removed from his position at Cambridge, and denied membership in the Royal Society for his “heretical” views. He took the “wrong” side in the battle between Arianism and the Trinitarian view, but his brilliance still made the public attend to his proclamations. When he predicted the end of the world by a collision with a comet in October 16th of 1736 the Archbishop of Canterbury had to issue a denial to calm the panic.
For those who are wondering, the world did NOT end on that date, at least not according to Wikipedia, and they would know. Not sure what calculations Whiston used to make his prediction, but maybe his computer had a “bug” in it too.

Friday 7 December 2007

A passing comment (or not)

Well, report card time again... And along with grades comes the difficult task of trying to find a quick short comment that summarizes 9 weeks of a student's life into a single sentence; Always hard to do. It is a time of year that brings out the humor in teachers, and I got the following from a colleague who, I assure you, meant them only in jest.

OK, so most of my kids did well, and I didn't have to use anything even close to the comments below, but I did chuckle at several of them, and one or two actually made me think of students I had known. The source said they were actual comments sent out by New York City teachers, but I hope that is just one more of those urban legends that is totally false. Whatever the source, I hope you can enjoy them for the tongue-in-cheek, sometimes too close to true, humor that prompted them.

These are actual comments made on students' report cards by teachers in
the New York City public school system.

1. Since my last report, your child has reached rock bottom and has
started to dig.
2. I would not allow this student to breed.
3. Your child has delusions of adequacy.
4. Your son is depriving a village somewhere of an idiot.
5. Your son sets low personal standards and then consistently fails to
achieve them.
6. The student has a "full six-pack" but lacks the plastic thing to hold
it all together .
7. This child has been working with glue too much.
8. When your daughter's IQ reaches 50, she should sell.
9. The gates are down, the lights are flashing, but the train isn't
10. If this student were any more stupid, he'd have to be watered twice
a week.
11. It's impossible to believe the sperm that created this child beat
out 1,000,000 others.
12. The wheel is turning but the hamster is definitely dead.

OK, there must be a thousand of these 0ut there, so send me your additions to the list....

Thursday 6 December 2007

Call it MIS-education

For anyone interested, the NAEP just release the 2007 results for 12th graders, and the results indicate that the "child" they did not want to leave behind is farther behind than in 1992.
I have made some comments, and even tried to attribute some share (all) of the blame in that truest of American traditions (if we can't fix it, find someone to blame)...
If you want to read it for yourself, the document is at...

Section headings for the 12th grade scores include titles like:

>>>Overall Performance in Reading Declines in Comparison to 1992

>>>Twelfth-graders in 2005 scored lower than in 1992, but their score was not significantly different compared to 2002.

Except for the highest-performing students (90th percentile), declines were seen at all levels of performance since 1992.
In particular, the gap between the students at the 90th percentile of the nation and the 10th percentile, grew from 84 points to 98 points. The 90th percentile achievement level was still the same as 1992, but the 10th percentile score dropped 14 points. Notice in the chart that students in the bottom 50% of the population continue to decline, and the lower the level, the greater the decline.

Trend in twelfth-grade NAEP reading percentile scores

In math, the new test made it impossible to compare with previous years, but looking at overall success as judged by the NAEP competence levels, the nation is more at risk in math than ever. While 73% of seniors met "basic' level standards in reading, and 35 percent were "proficient", in Math only 60 percent were at "basic" level, and only 23% were " proficient".

In both tests, while there were differences in scores from different regions, different income levels, different parental educational levels, and reading backgrounds, no factor so greatly predicted a lack of achievement in reading or learning math as race. Blacks and Hispanics still fall far below white and Asian students on both tests.

Only 6% of blacks and 8% of Hispanics reached the proficient level in math (25% -33%of national average achievement level) and 16% of blacks and 20% of Hispanics reaching that level in Reading. And while both whites and blacks had lower reading scores than in 1992, the "gap" has grown from 24 to 26 points.

The net impact of fifteen years of educational reform has been a stagnation or very mild decline of the best students and a faster decline of the lower ones. It is not just teachers whining that "Kids ain't what they used to be." The weakest 50% of the population of seniors today really do read more poorly than 15 years ago. Measurably worse, statistically significantly worse, and the cure seems to be killing them.

BTW.. scores in fourth grade continue to improve, and 8th grade is steady. So what has happened in high schools in the last fifteen years that is markedly different than the trends in elementary and middle schools. Teacher, how do you spell BLOCK?

NO event has so crippled student success in recent years in the areas of Math and foreign language as much as the block schedule. Teachers like it because it is less classes to prepare for. Student's like it because they get half as much homework (check the statistics, that is a conservative statement), and administrators like it because, as one clever principal told me in justifying his love of the block schedule, "this year our tardy rate dropped by 40%". When I tried to explain that the number of opportunities to be tardy had dropped by 50%, his eyes just glazed over.....

Thursday 27 September 2007

Farm Subsidies Make You Fat,

Farm Subsidies Make You Fat,
and other UN-conventional Wisdom

The percentage of obesity is inversely related to income. How can that be? How can the poorest people be the ones who take in the most calories? The un-obvious answer, food subsidies. Ok, you think I’m kicking at the poor farmer’s last chance of making an income at a time when family farms are disappearing just because subsidies are an easy target… but hear me out.
Walk down any supermarket aisle, and pretend you had ten dollars to spend for food. How could you get the most calories to sustain your poor family? Not with fresh fruits and vegetables. For your ten dollars, you cold buy 2,500 calories of carrots, but if you spend it on potato chips or Twinkies, you can buy 12,000 calories. If you buy orange juice for your hungry munchkins, you can get 1,750 calories, but if you buy them soda pop, you can get 8750 calories.
How can the worst foods be made more cheaply than a root? Subsidies! Sing it children. Subsidies, that starts with S and that rhymes with Mess and that’s what we’re in. We got a mess, my friend, right here in River City. (OK, my apologies to everyone whose enjoyment of The Music Man has been destroyed by that line. Let’s follow the chain of evidence. A Twinkie is a complex manufactured item produced from more than 35 different separate products, some of them from complicated production process of their own. Carrots are pulled from the ground and sent to the market. But the Twinkie is a complicated mis-mash of carbohydrates, a multitude of assorted fats, and sugars, almost all made from one or more of corn, sugar, wheat or soybeans (didn’t you ever wonder as you drive by miles of Illinois soybean fields, “Who eats all those beans?”. And Corn (which makes the sugars) and Soybeans (which make the fats) and wheat are all subsidized… heavily subsidized. The best thing to come out of the ethanol movement may be that it raises the price of corn enough to force food manufacturers to switch back to Cain sugar (healthier, less fattening), as some already have started to do. And so we reach the point when two of the top three priorities of James Holsinger, President Bush’s nominee for Surgeon General, would be “tackling childhood obesity, and making America a smoke free nation.”

And the crazy part is, the farmers who are crying to keep their subsidies so they won’t lose their farms may be shooting themselves in the foot. Up until 2002 the US subsidized Tobacco (try to figure that logic). Since they quit, amid decreasing tobacco product sales in the US, the farm land devoted to growing tobacco has INCREASE (not a typo, it went up, got bigger) by 20% (STOP, that is one additional new acre growing tobacco today for every five acres growing it in 2002, maybe more, because my statistics come from 2006) What? WHY? Simple Economics, my friend. AS the price decreased, suddenly American farmers became competitive in the international market where lighting up a Marlboro to kill yourself and your family is still considered to be ultra chic. And so the American farmers are suddenly, even at higher labor cost, able to sell to the world market at a profit. What kind of a profit? Well, the poor guy growing corn for Ethanol makes about \($250\) an acre; not bad, but the guys growing tobacco to share our cancer culture with the underprivileged of Asia and Africa is knocking back \($1,800 \) an acre WITHOUT the subsidy.
Surely there is an economics lesson in this somewhere. Can you imagine sales in the snack bar if Twinkies were a dollar and apples were twenty-five cents instead of the other way around? Would it change consumption patterns in our youth if Orange juice was cheap and sugar filled junk juice was expensive?
And perhaps way down at the bottom line there is a moral question involved in promoting the export of home grown tobacco on one hand and pledging to make our country smoke free on the other.

Tuesday 25 September 2007

Four Dinks and You're Out

From the “Whatever happened to common sense?” file.. A man in Oregon named Mike Udink decided to personalize his auto plates seven years ago with his last name, so he got a vanity plate with Udink 1 on it. A couple of years later the family added wife Shelley’s license, Udink 2. And then only a couple of years ago when young son Kalei came of age, they got him a car and …. Yep, you guessed it, Udink3.

This year, another child ready to drive, the family added a fourth car, and Mike and Shelley applied for …YEP, Udink 4. But guess what? The state refused the license. It seems that the Dutch name Udink, is offensive to the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles. So offensive, in fact, that they are being ordered to turn in the “offensive” plates they have had for up to seven years!

"DINK has several derogatory meanings," Yvonne Bell, who sits on the Department of Motorvehicles panel that approves vanity plates, told the Daily Courier newspaper. She went on to add that the word can be treated as a verb, which gives it a sexual reference, and also can be a racial slur targeted at the Vietnamese, and then, to show she was “jiggy” with the urban lingo, states that the "U" in the front could be construed as "You." Wow, no wonder it went unnoticed for seven years. You have to admire those clever Nederlanders. And I thought Dink was a term for Yuppy couples from the 80’s, Double Income No Kids.

Ok, I teach in a high school, and honestly, I doubt there are three words in the unabridged dictionary that do not have some sort of sexual or derogatory reference. Given half a chance they can make something obscene out of EUK 347. I can imagine the straight faced official who walks out to tell Mr Udunk that he cannot have such an obscene name on his new “Hummer”. Perhaps wearing the new “fcuk” logo shirt his children gave him for his birthday. 
Just saw that Calfornia, it seems, does not know or care about the pejorative meanings of UDINK? This guy has 14 of them>>>>>>>

Sunday 23 September 2007

It’s a GUY Thing

Strange pattern to articles I have been reading lately, maybe a sign of changing times, or maybe a sign of how hard it is to get real change to happen. I just came across a really interesting 1859 study on childbed fever. Two sections of a maternity hospital had very different mortality rates for mothers and babies. It seems the sections were all mid-wives in one section and all doctors in the other. The mortality rate for midwives was much lower than the doctors. WHY? The suggestions were incredible. Many believed that the disease was caused by the shock to the delicate system of the ladies when they were exposed to male doctors and interns viewing their “delicate” parts. The real result was found to be that the doctors frequently went from handling cadavers directly to the delivery room without washing their hands, or doing so poorly. Part of the interesting statistics; when asked, 73% of doctors reported they washed their hands before delivery every time. Nurses who were asked to observe and report back if the doctors REALLY washed their hands, reported a greatly different result. Only 9% of doctors coming into delivery washed their hands. Note to Statistics Class: A survey reports what people want you to think about them, not what they really think or do.
Then there was the headline on a Newmarket newspaper laying in the teacher’s lounge when I went down to run off a quiz that one of (perhaps the) last men-only clubs in Newmarket would be forced to admit women. And then out of the blue, a woman invades the dohyo (the raised platform where sumo rikishi do battle) at the Kokugikan, Japan’s principal sumo stadium. The ring is considered sacred, and rebuilt by the Yobidashi for each basho (a series of fifteen matches that occur every month) and blessed by the priests. If it is contaminated by anything unclean the matches must be halted while the dohyo is purified by the Yobidashi, usually with salt. It is not just women who are considered unclean; I have seen five to ten minute delays often when the blood of a rikishi is spilled in the ring. But it is not JUST the dohyo where women are excluded in Japan. The last line of the article pointed out that ,”Women were also banned in the past from climbing mountains or entering mines in Japan.” Yeah, nobody has enough salt to purify a mountain.
And then back to hand-washing, A report from a recent meeting of the American Society for Microbiology says that hand-washing has declined by 6% since 2005. According to the study, the counts were made by “discrete observers” in restrooms. Perhaps Senator Craig could have claimed he was helping confirm the study for his pals in the senate. And who is the culprit? It’s the guys. Men have dropped to 65% on exiting the “loo” from a previous high of 75%. Women have also slacked off a little (he adds defensively) from 90% in 2005 down to 88%.
Strangely, in a telephone survey, 83% of all people report washing hands after using the bathroom at home, but only 75% after changing a diaper???? If all men are pigs, as women protest, sports fans are the biggest pigs. Men observed at Atlanta Braves ball games at Turner Field dropped to 57%. Pass them hot dogs the OTHER way please.

I think my next doctor will be a woman. Preferably one who doesn’t like baseball.

Wednesday 12 September 2007


That is the thesis that is sweeping through some town councils in Holland and Germany. Routers reports:

A town council in Germany has decided the best way of improving road safety is to remove all traffic lights and stop signs downtown.
From September 12, all traffic controls will disappear from the center of the western town of Bohmte to try to reduce accidents and make life easier for pedestrians.
In an area used by 13,500 cars every day, drivers and pedestrians will enjoy equal right of way, Klaus Goedejohann, the town's mayor, told Reuters.

The idea is called “shared space” and has already been tried by the city of Drachten in Holland, where it is reported that accidents have been reduced “significantly.” (I am reminded of my recent “How Many is That?” blog.)

For over five years I have held fast to the opinion that a student in my school (and in most others) was more likely to be harmed by a fire drill than by a fire. It is a matter of simple mathematics. Not one person has been harmed in any school I work at by a fire, and I have worked in schools for thirty years. Have they been spared because they were so well prepared by the drills that in the real fires they were able to exit safely? NO!, They were spared because in that time there has been one fire, a smoldering trash can that set off the smoke alarm but never actually burst into flame. In seven years at my present school one alarm went off when girls celebrating a birthday lit candles on a cup cake and the smoke alarm went off (had to be a very delicate setting).
In that thirty years as an educator, I have had something like ten fire drills a year, at no less than ten minutes each. Do the math. 30 years times ten drills is 300 fire drills. With an average of 600 students per school that makes 180,000 congested mass exits and entrances from a building. To avoid ???? zero fires. I teach HS kids, actually very smart ones. They are the best and brightest in our school. Is it really reasonable to presume that they would fail to extract them selves from the building in the event of a real fire?

So what is it that makes people feel that they need to make rules for other people to follow? Somehow, one envisions council members sitting around their tables discussing the carnage that may ensue if people actually cross the street where ever they want to, drive across the road when it looks safe, rather than when the light turns green. By instituting rules, we are able to avoid the risk that employees will use common sense. And so, we come to a situation in which, before your 747 jumbo cruiser can take off on your well-earned holiday to some far-away tropical isle, we pause, while stewards and stewardesses stand in the aisles to show us how to hook a safety belt.

Sunday 9 September 2007


A few years ago I had a young man in statistics class who told me that the class had “polluted” his mind. He said that he and a friend were sitting in church, and on looking at the board that had the number of people who had attended Sunday school and such, he had turned to his friend, also in the class, and wondered, “How accurate do you think those numbers are?” This, he claimed, was typical of how my course had caused him to question the numbers he saw each day in a way that had caused him to loose his sense of trust and innocence . His statements were mostly in jest, and intended as a compliment, I think (weren’t they Isaac?)(he was after all, the minister's son, so he may have taken this more in earnest than I suspect.)

In truth however, one of the things I hope will happen to my students in stats is that they will start to question data in just such a way. Having taught math for a really long time, I know how superficially people generally think about the numbers they see. This all came back to me today as I read a headline on a news feed on my computer:
Teen Suicide Rate: Highest Increase In 15 Years

Science Daily — Following a decline of more than 28 percent, the suicide rate for 10- to-24-year-olds increased by 8 percent, the largest single-year rise in 15 years, according to a report just released in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).(Emphasis added)

The article was full of statistics, frequently about different age groups, often given in rates per 100,000 people, more helpful,or percentages, less helpful. But after reading the article carefully, I was left with one still unanswered question; “How many people is that?” It doesn’t have to be exact, but I would want to know within a power of ten or so. A hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? With pencil and calculator in hand I set out for the CDC data base on violent deaths, population, etc.
So here are some of the bullets from the article, with some numbers added to the percentages and death rates about the actual number of deaths.

The decline took place from 1990 to 2003 (from 9.48 to 6.78 per 100,000 people), and the increase took place from 2003 to 2004, (from 6.78 to 7.32), the report said.

Ok, so how many people are there in that 10-24 age group. Well, the estimates for 2004 from the census bureau give about 21 million in the 10-14 age group, another 21 million in the 15-19 age group, and almost 21million in the 20-24 age group. That makes pretty easy math, 63 million in all, more or less. So at the same population the 9.48 per 100,000 people in 1990 was about 5972 young people. By 2003 the number would have dropped to about 4271. So in 2004, the increase back to 7.32 would be an increase of about 340 young people. That is about one every other month in each state. Ok, even one suicide is terrible, but I wondered if this is the kind of number people visualized when they saw the headline. This seems to pale somewhat in the face of almost twice that number dead from the same age groups by motor vehicle accidents in the same year. (slightly over 11,000)

Particularly perplexing was a reference to a huge change in the number of deaths by suffocation in young girls, perhaps because there have been reports of middle school kids playing “choking games” in several health and education bulletins.
The analysis also found that changes had taken place in the methods used to attempt suicide. In 1990, firearms were the most common method for both girls and boys. However, in 2004, hanging/suffocation was the most common method of suicide among girls, accounting for 71.4 percent of suicides among 10- to-14-year-old girls (70 deaths in 2004) and 49 percent among 15-to-19 year-old girls (174 deaths in 2004) ( From 2003 to 2004, there was a 119 percent increase in hanging/suffocation suicides among 10-to -14-year-old girls.(an increase from 33 deaths to 70 deaths) (CDC reports of actual counts added) (Side note, there were a total of 1,356 total Female deaths classified as suicide by suffocation in 2004. The largest number of them, 250, was in the 45-55 age group)

I wondered as I read this how many of the extra “suicides” were actually accidents while practicing or playing their “game”.

The most alarming statistic in the whole article might have been tucked away at the bottom almost as an aside:

Among young adults ages 15 to 24 years old, there is 1
suicide for every 100-200 attempts (Goldsmith et al.
• Among adults ages 65 years and older, there is 1
suicide for every 4 suicide attempts (Goldsmith et al.

Amazingly, young people are very inept at killing themselves, but if they became as efficient as the senior citizens, they would be producing numbers so large the percentages would look like mistakes. At a success rate of 1 for every four instead of one for every hundred (conservative estimate) the number of deaths in 2004 would have been over 100,000 deaths, just in the 10-24 age bracket.

The rate of suicide for adults aged 65 years and older was 14.3 per 100,000, so there were also about 5005 seniors who killed themselves in 2004. Their increased chance of success (only in statistics can killing yourself attract the label “success”) at their self destruction makes their numbers almost reach the 10-24 group deaths.

I was rereading this in 2014 and wondered what the CDC might offer for more current years since the above was  posted... soooo.......
First thing on the page labeled "Five Leading Causes of Deaths Among Persons Ages 10–24 Years,  United States, 2010 was this graph.
I was amazed to see that the number of Homicides was almost exactly equal to the suicides.  The number is also slightly more than the app 4600 I estimated above for the deaths in 2004, or about a 6% increase in six years.

A suicide fact sheet (Facts at a Glance) contained the following two seemingly paradoxical statements. 
    Suicide among males is four times higher than among females and represents 79% of all U.S. suicides.1 • 
Females are more likely than males to have had suicidal thoughts. (I think perhaps what they could have said is that "females are more likely than males to discuss their suicidal thoughts.")

Suicide Rates* Among Persons Ages 10–24 Years, by Race/Ethnicity and Sex, United States, 2005–2009

Note that in actual numbers, the number of non-hispanic males far outnumbers any other deaths in the graph, possibly exceeding the total of all the others.  (In 2010, for example, there were 4907 suicide deaths in the 10-24 yr age group in all; 3260 were non-hispanic males. )

So my original thought still seems valid, a 10% increase can be a very  large thing, or not so very. 

Friday 7 September 2007

Sad Country Music Makes Me Cry

Ok, absolutly nothing to say...but I found a link to this and think it is a GREAT song... thought I would share. Like the old saying goes, "When you're not with the one you love.... open a beer, turn out the lights, and turn up the country."

Go ahead, close your eyes.

Wednesday 5 September 2007

OK Mattel, I'm on to Your Clever Plot

Mattel announces third Chinese toy recall
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The world's leading toymaker, Mattel Inc, on Tuesday announced a third recall of Chinese-made toys, saying it would take back more than 800,000 units globally that contain "impermissible" levels of lead.
Uh huh, That's what they want you to think! But I've been to the future, and this is a headline from 2015.

Mattel Corners Market on Lead

Remember you read it here first.

Monday 3 September 2007

Appalachian State Stuns Michigan

I don't like football (American football that is, I love soccer), but I love underdog stories, and this is a bigone... Here it is from the AP:

ANN ARBOR, Mich., Sept. 1 (AP) — Dexter Jackson sprinted through the secondary early in the first quarter, taunting nearly 110,000 Michigan fans by putting a finger over his lips en route to the end zone. Nearly three hours later, he got the desired result and the Big House was silent: Appalachian State 34, No. 5 Michigan 32.

For those who know even less about football than I do, Appalachian State is a Div I-AA school, which means, they are not even in the same class as Michigan however you interpret class. How outclassed were they? Well, No Division I-AA team had beaten a team ranked in the Associated Press poll since at least 1989.

I guess the recruiting video is right..Appalachian State is HOT, HOT, HOT... You gotta love folks who will go to school there even after they saw this video; that's the kind of determination that wins football games ...

Sunday 2 September 2007

All That from Looking at Genes

OK, read slowly and carefully... this came off a news site from a professional journal:

Genetic study proves humans have pushed orangutans to the brink of extinction;

Now a genetic study must look at genes somehow,,, RIGHT??? So they looked at Human genes, or Ape Genes, or both,,, and decided that the demise of the orangutans is our fault??

WAIT... I'm not denying that humans are the most likely culprit in the demise of most of gods little (or even large) furry creatures, but proving it with a gene study???

Ok, so I read it, and here is the critical line..."For their study, the researchers collected hair from tree nests and feces found under nests or near orangutans encountered along the Kinabatangan River. Two hundred orangutans were identified using genetic markers called microsatellites." Ok, they DID really do a genetic study...
"We used the DNA information to simulate population history and detect evidence of a population decline," Goossens explains. Michael Bruford, and their colleagues report that the collapse occurred within the past hundred years, and most likely within the past decades--coinciding with massive deforestation, which began in the region in the 1890s and accelerated in the 1950s and 1970s. "
Aha, and they have found evidence that the population is decreasing. And they narrowed it down to 40 to 110 years ago (seems like a pretty big margin of error, but I'm OK with that).

So what's missing? Did you catch the part where they "proved" the extinction was caused by humans. Ummm, NO! What we have is a correlation between two things.

Now I suspect that they are right. I suspect the loss of habitat is probably what has caused a major part of the decline, and probably they are right that continued "massive deforestation" , if unchecked, may well lead to their demise. What I object to is the use of the word PROOF. Send them boys back to Stats class for the lectures on causation and correlation.

Sell the Sizzle

When I was much younger, and thinking economics was the kind of field in which a bright young man from Texas might find happiness, I read a book by Elmer Wheeler, the self proclaimed Greatest Salesman in the World. His thesis was that you do not sell the product you sell the image the consumer wants to find with the product. His most famous advice to businessmen, “Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle.” The idea, over fifty years old, has not diminished in time. Only a few blogs ago (Are Women Who Want Big Breasts Crazy) I mentioned the quote from the recently deceased Theodore Levitt, a long-time distinguished professor at Harvard Business School and former editor of the Harvard Business Review. He was famous for teaching that people did not buy goods or services because of what those goods and services were, but because of the jobs they did. No one wants to buy a quarter-inch drill, he would say; people really want to buy a quarter-inch hole.”

The folks at Starbucks are believers. In a recent article about Starbucks new expansion into the Russian coffee shop market, a Russian owner of coffee shops says they have already missed the boat, “"If I were Starbucks, I would have done it five years ago," says Vladislav Dudakov, president of Coffee House, Russia's largest cafe chain. In parts of Moscow, his 160-store chain has locations every few blocks. Adds Mr. Lozitsky: "They missed their time." The article explains: “As Starbucks waited -- spending several years trying to win back the rights to its name from a Russian trademark squatter -- local coffeehouses built heavily in large cities, real estate became more expensive, and the labor market tightened, making it difficult for restaurants to find good workers. And Starbucks won't be competing only against homegrown rivals, but against other giant Western chains: McDonald's Corp. is putting more McCafe sections in its restaurants to serve cappuccino and dessert.”

Maybe, but Martin Coles, president of Starbucks Coffee explains their continued effort to expand there with a unique marketing approach, “We do not spend a great deal of time focusing on our competition“. Perhaps this explains the loss of confidence that has dropped their stock by 30% since its November high.

But Mr. Coles confidence must have a basis, and it seems it is a confidence based on a cross between P T Barnum (“You can never go wrong underestimating the public taste.”) and Elmer Wheeler’s Sizzle. Starbucks's executives predict its beverages will appeal to Muscovites' affinity for Western brands. They say the experience of sitting at a Starbucks will attract customers regardless of whether they like the taste of coffee.

"What we've found everywhere we've opened is we become a landmark overnight." Ummm, Mr. Coles, What about China, where you were “asked” to remove you store in Beijing because it was “offensive”? What about the planned introduction that was going to sweep through India, but has now been delayed (cancelled?)?

Perhaps we can come up with an introductory TV slogan for Starbucks introduction to the Russian market. Does anyone know how to say “Drink this swill even if you don’t like the taste” In Russian?

Contrary to Popular Opinion, You can NOT prove ANYTHING (to most people) with Statistics.

Honest, the first day back at school, and barely half way though the day, at a school improvement meeting, someone quotes the oft cited, “You can prove anything with statistics.”. I’ve always felt that was untrue, and held a sort of Lincoln-ish idea that “You can fool some people with bad statistics all the time, and you can fool lots of people with bad statistics most of the time, but you can’t fool everybody with bad statistics all of the time. But today I found evidence to suggest that in fact, you may not be able to prove anything to the general public with statistics.
Ok, so it is the start of the year and I’m searching out stories with data for my classes and along the way I came across studies (good ones mostly) that suggest a whole bunch of stuff that you probably couldn’t “prove” to folks in general. Here are four in particular that might seem to go against the “common intelligence” , and some of the evidence that supports them. How many do you belive?
1) Participation in Sport may actually increase crime, and most certainly does not reduce it!

2) Seventy-five thousand people (raise your hand if that is more than the population of your home town) in the US could have been saved from Hospital caused Death if Doctors had applied an inexpensive treatment that has been available (in Medical Journals) since 2004.

3) Your GM and Ford car dealer has the option of marking up the rate on your financing from the rate that GMAC or FOMOCO would offer you, and give them a big percentage for cheating you. Average jack-up for white males is about $300, and minorities get soaked two to three times as much. (Think before you read below, how you might find this out with statistics).

4) The number of citations a law review article gets is reduced if the length of the title is long, or (wait for it) if the article has an equation, it gets cited way less (OK, math teachers knew this already).

1) This is one that has come up several times in the past few years, the most recent by a French political scientist, Sebastien Roche. He has come out in opposition to the proposition that sport is a constructive socializing tool for young people. He was writing in opposition to a French Govt. motion to increase funding for sports in neighborhoods that were involved in the rioting in 2005. His research suggests: “the practice of sport never reduces the number of crimes” and, he extends the statement to add that sports “give the opportunity to develop physical abilities useful for street crime: running, how to use impulsive behaviour, how to master the use of force.” He also points out that a large percentage (so large perhaps, it was not included) of the young people interviewed
WOW, but wait, in case anyone on the coaching staff is still talking to me, he also wrote, “As well as sport can be a time of gathering, a time to party, practising sport can involve moments of high emotion that can push people to get their revenge after a humiliating loss or when they consider that the referees are responsible for their loss. This is the logic of the hooliganism: “They won but didn’t deserve it. Justice must be done”. For this young and alert population, it is the logic of the escalation of violence”.

There is even a (tongue in cheek) video

2-4 all came about from a new field of statistics and economics made possible by the power of computing and the availability of large amounts of data about… well, about everything… The process is called “data mining” and come from a new book out called Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-By-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart.

The article on life saving (or the failure to save) health practices comes from an article at the Freakonomics blog site and states:
“In December 2004, [Berwick] brazenly announced a plan to save 100,000 lives over the next year and a half. The “100,000 Lives Campaign” challenged hospitals to implement six changes in care to prevent avoidable deaths. He wasn’t looking for subtle or sophisticated changes. He wasn’t calling for increased precision in surgical operations. No … he wanted hospitals to change some of their basic procedures.

Berwick’s most surprising suggestion, however, is the one with the oldest pedigree. He noticed that thousands of ICU patients die each year from infections after a central line catheter is placed in their chests. About half of all intensive care patients have central line catheters, and ICU infections are deadly (carrying mortality rates of up to 20 percent). He then looked to see if there was any statistical evidence of ways to reduce the chance of infection. He found a 2004 article in Critical Care Medicine that showed that systematic hand-washing (combined with a bundle of improved hygienic procedures such as cleaning the patient’s skin with an antiseptic called chlorhexidine) could reduce the risk of infection from central-line catheters by more than 90 percent. Berwick estimated that if all hospitals just implemented this one bundle of procedures, they might be able to save as many as 25,000 lives per year. “

The article on Car Loan rates comes from the same book and he explains the process :
many do not know that auto lenders, such as Ford Motor Credit or GMAC, often give dealers the option of marking up a borrower’s interest rate. When a car buyer works with the dealer to arrange financing, the dealer normally sends the customer’s credit information to a potential lender. The lender then responds with a private message to the dealer that offers a “buy rate” — the interest rate at which the lender is willing to lend. Lenders will often pay a dealer — sometimes thousands of dollars — if the dealer can get the consumer to sign a loan with an inflated interest rate …

They used the fact that many states now allow you to pay a fee to obtain drivers license information, and plugged in the ethnicity of thousands of buyers to get the minority differences. And they wonder why people don’t trust car dealers!

The section of the book that deal with the number of citations (references in other articles) that a law article gets is heavily correlated with a small set of data variables. They found, in general:

Articles with shorter titles and fewer footnotes were cited significantly more, whereas articles that included an equation or an appendix were cited a lot less. Longer articles were cited more, but the regression formula predicted that citations per page peak for articles that were a whopping fifty-three pages long…. (you see, the rate of increase, decreases until a point is reached in which the derivative of the citation function is equal to zero…….WAKE UP!)
Law review editors who want to maximize their citation rates should also avoid publishing criminal and labor law articles, and focus instead on constitutional law. And they should think about publishing more women. White women were cited 57 percent more often than white men, and minority women were cited more than twice as often. (Hey, one for the ladies...and you thought we weren't paying attention)

I figure it is the equation aversion that probably explains why doctors were not aware of the new Catheter cleaning details, they used statistics to explain the results. And I think it is why you can not prove ANYTHING to most folks without statistics. Prove comes from a process nested in trust, and the average person deals with statistics from a position of fear, loathing, and occasionally irrational hatred. Hence, you explain about the distribution of the data, talk a little about correlation coefficients, and their eyes are rolling back in their heads as they comtemplate chocolate sauce drizzling over a mountain of ice cream... (don't laugh, don't you know we're in the middle of an Obesity Epidemic?)

Oh well, Smile, School starts on Monday....