Monday, September 2, 2013

Gone but not forgotten

It's been a long summer.  In April, I wrote to let you know my uncle had died unexpectedly.  A few weeks later, a different uncle of the same name also passed away.  On Tuesday, my grandfather died.  It's an interesting coincidence that these three men were all named James, and that despite their disparate ages (56, 60, 89) all died within such a short time period.

I've done a lot of reflecting over the past several days, and I wanted to say a few words about my grandfather, then write a few things about where I go from here.  I've subdivided this so you can skip parts you're not interested in.

James R King
My grandfather was the original stat-man in our family.  He quite literally wrote the book on it.  As we went through his stuff this weekend, I was amused to find that he had also been the original stats blogger in the family.  Apparently he had spent years running a stats newsletter where he wrote about stats topics that interested him and then sent it out to those who payed him $10 or so for the privilege of reading his thoughts. Judging by his archives, it seems to me quite a few people were interested in what he had to say.

My grandfather was truly a man of his time in many many ways.  He was hard working, hard drinking, driven by duty to God, country, family, intellectual curiosity and deep desire to see things work correctly.  He served in two wars (WWII, Korea), helped put a man on the moon, and had a deep disdain for stupidity.  As recently as a few months ago, he was grilling me about how to apply quality principles to health services environments.  He was annoyed that the administration of his assisted living facility wouldn't take him on as an operational consultant.  He wasn't trying to get money, he was just annoyed that things could be done better.  I'm not sure they ever knew how much free brain power they lost.

Since I got the new on Tuesday, I've been reflecting on what it means to watch another member of the greatest generation slip away.  For me, I have lost not only a grandfather, but someone who understood my way of viewing the world.  For all that "geek culture" has become mainstream, it's still a bit of a lonely life for those of us who prefer to view the world through numbers and systems, and my grandfather was one of the few people I could count on to always know how I felt.  I'll be raising a martini or two over a spreadsheet or three in his memory, I'm sure.

The Future of this Blog
Three deaths in 5 months is a lot, especially when the people involved were meaningful to your family structure.  I've been slow in posting this summer, and at this point, I've realized I need a complete break.  I started this blog as a fun project to work out some frustrations I had about political campaigns, and it worked well for that.  I've loved the readers I've had and the conversations that took place here.  I hope to get back to this at some point, to renew those conversations, but right now I don't have it in me.

On the other hand...
I have some projects in the works you all might be interested in.  First and foremost, this blog has helped start an ongoing conversation with my (science teacher) brother about what it would take to give kids a good sense of how to apply math and science to the media that bombards them, and give them a good sense of practical scientific literacy.  These discussions have led to us start collaborating on an e-book/curriculum guide of sorts.  The idea is it would be a bit like this blog adapted for a classroom setting....a sort of "here's how you take the dry concepts you're hearing and here's when you should use them in the real world".  I'll be posting periodic updates on this project, so you can check back for those.

Also, I know many of my readers have pretty awesome blogs of their own.  I'm always available for guest posts and/or random stats commentary if you miss me :).

Again, I want to thank everyone who has made this blog such a fun place for me to write.  The internet certainly has it's ups and downs, but (in the words of the AVI) I have been happy to be part of this "small but excellent corner" of it.

Keep being 2SD above the norm, and good luck out there.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Autism and Labor

Commenter Erin brought up the recent hubbub regarding induced labor and autism, and while I'd like to comment on it, Science Based Medicine has already done a pretty thorough job.  They put the breakdown quite succinctly:
In the case of this study, either inducing/augmenting labor triggers autism in some children, children with autism are more likely to require induced labor, or some other factor(s) is a risk factor for both developing autism and needing to induce or augment labor. This current study does not contain data that can differentiate among these possibilities.
Induced labor is a hard thing to study because (unlike c-sections) induction is very rarely completely elective. It is almost always precipitated by some other complication.  It's an interesting study though, and definitely indicates a need for more research.  Anything that gets people off the vaccine thing makes me happy.

30 Days of Data Storytelling: Day 4 and 5

Two videos for today, a long-ish one that gives more details about how to do things, and a Hans Rosling video that is a great example of a story with data.  I've seen the Rosling video a few times, but it's worth a look just to see how he shows his data off.

The other video is a good primer of what to do and what not to do when presenting data.  If you have time, worth a watch.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Literally Unbelievable

In 2013, I'm pretty sure it's a pretty universal experience to have at least one Facebook friend who is a bit of a train wreck.  I have one such person on my list, and for a variety of reasons I cannot delete him.  He is quite prone to daily postings of dozens of ridiculous political comments/links/cartoons that range from condescendingly disagreeable to outright offensive.  A large part of this offensiveness, IMHO, comes from the fact that a decent amount of what he posts isn't actually true.

He seems to be a deep sucker for a story that fits his pre-existing narrative, and at least twice a day I see something out of him that doesn't even pass a basic sniff test.  To be fair, he at least occasionally gets called out on this.  Apparently this has been getting to him though (the "hey that story's not true" part), because last night he posted quite the disclaimer that let everyone know that he "thoroughly researches" every story he posts.  

A mere 10 hours later, with no irony and lots of anger, he posted this article: Lance Armstrong Fails Drug Test for Job at Target.

On the bright side, just a few posts down on my newsfeed, a different friend posted this list chronicling the 35 best times someone on Facebook thought The Onion was real.  These two friends don't know each other, so it was pretty serendipitous.

It's a great list, and apparently it's drawn from a whole website of this sort of thing called Literally Unbelievable.

Check your sources people, check your sources.  

Monday, August 12, 2013

30 Days of Data Storytelling: Day 3

Doubling up on the posts since I got behind.

Today's entry was this awesome data simulation/graph/narrative about Olympic long jumping.

I remember watching a few of these around the Olympics last year, and it was pretty cool.  It's a good overview of raw data, with visuals and comparisons to put it in context.  Context is one of the most underutilized aspects of data presentation.  Hearing "he jumped 26 feet" is impressive, but hearing "he jumped from the edge of the court past the 3 point line" gives context.

It's a short video, definitely worth a watch if you have the time.

30 Days of Storytelling: Day 2 (Pixar version)

So after posting the first two articles last week, I realized those were supposed to be a combined Day 1, making this the real day 2.

Day 2 was two interesting Pixar related a list of their rules for great storytelling and the other a short (about 3 minutes) video where they tell a story with no words.  If you've ever seen a Pixar movie, you know they can tell a fantastic story, so it was interesting to read their take on the craft.

A few of their rules particularly stood out as relevant to data stories:

#2 You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
#11 Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
#17 No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

I'm sure there are others that could apply, but those are the 3 that really struck me.  Sometimes I find fun and funky data that no one else is interested in.  I'm always having to refocus on the question at hand.  When you analyze data a lot, the "normal stuff" can get boring, but normal is interesting to someone who's seeing it for the first time.  That bleeds in to can't always know what's interesting to people until you start to share it.  Testing reactions and assessing opinion is valuable.

When something flops, that's when #17 comes in.  I store all the data I come across for future use.  It's interesting how often something no one was interested in can later become critical.

The video's just cute.  Show it to the small child in your life.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

McDonald's wages: not what they appear

Last week I saw a HuffPo headline peppered on several facebook/twitter feeds/etc that claimed that "Doubling McDonald's Salaries Would Cause Your Big Mac To Cost Just 68¢ More."  It was an interesting claim, but ultimately I didn't click on the link, as I tend to find most economic analysis pretty dubious from the get go.   Now, I know nothing about economics, but as a systems person, I generally believe you can't change things dramatically in one area  of a business (such as doubling salaries) and expect to fully know the results just by adding a few numbers (the cost of a Big Mac going up just $0.68).  

I actually almost blogged about it, when I saw a snippet on Volokh about the lack of thought about the repercussions of such a change on the type of person McDonald's hired.  Most people seemed to be assuming that all the poor folks currently working at McD's would get raises, but isn't it more likely the jobs would become more competitive and the population they hired would change?  Interesting thought.

Well, I'm now glad I didn't post on any of it, because apparently the whole analysis was crap anyway.    Apparently the guy who was looking at it left out the 80% of McDonald's that are franchises (but included the franchise fees as profits), and it excluded a bunch of other accounting issues I don't understand.  Oh, and the "study" that had shown this originally was the work of an independent undergrad and the HuffPo didn't recheck it.  

HuffPo has a retraction up in the place of the original article.

What baffles me most about their retraction is that they ask a blogger they have on their own staff to review it, and he calls BS immediately.  How did that conversation not happen before you put up the sensational claim?