26 April 2010


Two more arguments for learning statistics

One of my repeated themes here over the years is how genuinely lousy the human brain is at intuitively understanding probability and statistics. Two articles this week had me thinking about it again.

The first was Clive Thompson's latest opinion piece in Wired, "Why We Should Learn the Language of Data," where he argues for significantly more education about stats and probability in school, and in general, because:

If you don't understand statistics, you don't know what's going on—and you can't tell when you're being lied to.

Climate change? The changing state of the economy? Vaccination? Political polls? Gambling? Disease? Making decisions about any of them requires some understanding of how likelihoods and big groups of numbers interact in the world. "Statistics," Thompson writes, "is the new grammar."

The second article explains a key example. At the NPR Planet Money blog (incidentally, the Planet Money podcast is endlessly fascinating, the only one clever enough to get me interested in listening to business stories several times a week), Jacob Goldstein describes why people place bad bets on horse races.

After exhaustive statistical analyses (alas, this stuff isn't easy), economists Erik Snowberg and Justin Wolfers have figured out that even regular bettors at the track simply misperceive how bad their bets are, especially when wagering on long shots—those outcomes that are particularly unlikely, but pay off big if you win, because:

...people overestimate the probability of very rare events. "We're dreadful at perceiving the difference between a tiny probability and a small probability."

In our heads, extremely unlikely things (being in a commercial jet crash, for instance) seem just as probable, or even more probable, than simply somewhat unlikely things (being in a car crash on the way to the airport). That has us make funny decisions. For instance, on occasion couples (parents of young children, perhaps) choose to fly on separate planes so that, in the rare event that a plane crashes, one of them survives. But they both take the same car to the airport—as well as during much of the rest of their lives—which is far, far more likely to kill them both. (Though still not all that likely.)

Unfortunately, so much of probability is counterintuitive that I'm not sure how well we can educate ourselves about it for regular day-to-day decision-making. Even bringing along our iPhones, I don't think we should be using them to make statistical calculations before every outing or every meal. Besides, we could be so distracted by the little screens that we step out into traffic without noticing.

Our minds are required be good at filtering out irrelevancies, so we're not overwhelmed by everything going on around us. But the modern world has changed what's relevant, both to our daily lives and to our long-term interests. The same big brains that helped us make it that way now oblige us to think more carefully about what we do, and why we do it.

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30 May 2009


Luck and randomness

Randomness works in strange ways, at least as far as our minds are concerned. The stars in the sky are distributed essentially randomly (from our viewpoint), yet we see patterns in them—that's because a random distribution is clumpy, not even.

Since our brains seek patterns, we tend to see patterns in random things, like clouds, stains, or the browned surfaces on pieces of toast.

Now check this out: New Jersey grandmother Patricia Demauro played craps at a casino, and rolled a pair of dice 154 times without ever rolling a seven, over the course of more than four hours. The odds? 1.56 trillion to one against. But it happened.

It wasn't impossible, just supremely improbable. Yup, that's random.

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06 March 2008


It is a puzzlement

For a nerd, I'm surprisingly uninterested in puzzles and games. I have rarely played cards, was never into Dungeons and Dragons (didn't even read Tolkien, for that matter), don't generally do crosswords or Sudoku, get little enjoyment from jigsaw puzzles, don't enjoy chess, and never went in for those mind-bender style mathematical games from Martin Gardner and Douglas Hofstadter in my dad's Scientific American magazines. My wife taught me my first poker skills just a couple of weeks ago.

Yes, I own some M.C. Escher prints, and I was part of a regular weekly Mah-jongg game (not for money) for several years. My brain does tend to hew to stereotypically geeky pursuits. I have a science degree. I used to read a lot of science fiction, am fascinated by gadgets, have always preferred non-fiction to fiction in my reading otherwise, loved Star Wars and 2001 and Alien, was a young computer nerd (duh), and so on.

I understand why people like games and puzzles; I'm just not one of them. (Similarly, I understand the appeal of practical jokes, but personally dislike most varieties and rarely find them funny.)

But I like solving problems, if they're real ones. Getting all the gear from my band to fit just so into the car, tweaking web page code so it validates, editing audio transitions in a podcast, making a poster, taking effective photographs, or editing some writing—these are things I enjoy. They are puzzles and games too, but the kind that exist to accomplish something, not for their own sake. Maybe related, I discovered early on that I'm not really suited to computer programming, even though that is problem-solving that is practical.

I'm not sure what all that says about me, or whether that question is a puzzle worth solving. It's interesting, though.

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07 November 2007


Nintendo Wii remote jacket unboxing

I received my four free wiimote jackets today. (I guess there was a whole lot more unintentional TV- and head-bonking than I've experienced.) Here's how the unpacking went:

Wiimote jacket unbox - 01 - bag Wiimote jacket unbox - 02 - contents Wiimote jacket unbox - 03 - side by side Wiimote jacket unbox - 04 - front Wiimote jacket unbox - 05 - side
Wiimote jacket unbox - 06 - back Wiimote jacket unbox - 07 - top IR transceiver Wiimote jacket unbox - 08 - bottom connector Wiimote jacket unbox - 09 - four jackets Wiimote jacket unbox - 10 - leaning towers

I like Nintendo's "puffy parka" silicone design better than the third-party skins I've seen up till now. The only problem? The wiimotes no longer sit upright in Nintendo's own organizer tray that we have.

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11 October 2007


Awkward but workable

Wii System at Flickr.comYesterday, Nintendo released some software updates for the Wii that permit you to make reasonably full use of a USB keyboard to type stuff like URLs and text in the Opera-based Internet Channel browser and other places.

In fact, I'm using my old Apple Pro Keyboard on the Wii to type this right now, and it works pretty well. I needed an extension cable to reach the Wii (a wireless USB keyboard would be good), and I still need to use the Wiimote to click buttons. Plus there is no way to select or copy and paste text, as far as I can tell, which is annoying. But it works, and it's a lot better than pecking the onscreen keyboard with the Wiimote as I had to do before.

Ideally, Nintendo or someone else would come out with a wireless keyboard that includes some of the Wiimote features to make the process work better, but for now it's an acceptable experience.

It would be even better with an LCD HDTV instead of our old CRT unit, but if I want to browse the Web for real, I really should use one of our computers anyway. At the moment, browsing Flickr and Facebook works well enough that it is no longer painful. Good job, Nintendo.

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10 October 2007


Wacka wacka!

Pacman at Flickr.comYour friend and mine, Pac-Man turns 28 years old today.

I never had a full-fledged case of Pac-Man Fever, but I did spend a good amount of time playing clones like Gobbler, Snack Attack, and Taxman on my Apple II. Plus I had the September 1982 Mad magazine with Pac-Man on the cover.

The Nintendo version is now available as a cheap download or disc for our Wii, or even for my iPod—maybe I should give it a spin for nostalgia's sake.

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24 May 2007


Pac-Man skeleton

This is both scary looking and too awesome...


...but I think most people, like me, never thought that Pac-Man had teeth. (Via Bidi.)

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