Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How old is old?

This is related to a post I want to put up later in the week, but also is just a topic I'm generally curious about.

As culture has shifted over the last 100 years or so, we have been increasingly upping the age at which people are considered "adult".  When I was in therapy school, we learned that the stages of development that were written even 20 years ago were pretty much invalid now.  The two main stages that are developing are the time period post-retirement but prior to physical decline...the Baby Boomers have started redefining this from a blanket "retirement" to a time for second careers and such...and then the time after classic "young adulthood".  This time period has been expanding because of later marriage/baby making.  Whereas my mother got married 2 years after college graduation and had babies 2 years after that, I got married 6 years after graduation and had babies 3 years after that.  Thus, my twenties were nearly entirely responsibility free and thus a distinctly different time of life than it was for my mother's generation.  From what I can tell, my trajectory was not terribly deviant from the norm.

All that being said, it's getting harder to pinpoint exactly when someone stops being "young".  I've noticed a tendency for people to push the age where youth is an excuse for less than advisable behavior higher and higher.  I'm trying to suss out a consensus on this, so it's time for a poll!  Or rather, polls!  There's a few angles here:

I'll talk about the results later this week, and hopefully link them to another topic I've been pondering.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Friday Fun Links 4-26-13

From Brett Keller's blog...there's apparently an ICD-9 code for "accident involving spacecraft".  I'm pretty sure that's proof that THE GOBMENT IS HIDING SOMETHIN!!!  It's E845, if you're curious.

Flowingdata links to a cool video that shows how much food you can buy for $5 (US) around the world.  Spoiler alert: the US winds up looking pretty reasonable.

Oh, here's a fun one...30 things to tell a book snob.  I might be forwarding this directly to a few people I know.

Another good one...what happens when a UCLA prof lets all of his students cheat on their final?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Jobs for STEM grads, are there enough?

On Tuesday I griped about a woman at a conference complaining that there were no jobs because she didn't have one.  I was not so much annoyed with here assertion - that STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs are not as plentiful as everyone would have you believe - but more with her complete conviction that data was irrelevant because it didn't match her experience.  

I still think she was being ridiculous in her phrasing, but I saw an article today that reminded me that she may not have been ridiculous in her claim.  Apparently a report was just released stating that our country is producing more than enough STEM graduates, and in fact many of these graduates are not finding jobs.  This is in response to the lobbying around making more H1-B visas available to bring more foreign workers to fill jobs caused by a lack of qualified domestic workers.  Critics argue that there is no lack, but that H1-B visa holders are paid less, so companies want more of them.

Now I'm not sure what to make of all this.  I work in healthcare, which is excluded from pure STEM by most definitions, even though I love me some stats.  Regardless, I don't really know much about employment in IT, etc to know if this is true or not.

I was however, quite fascinated to look at the report that was put out and note a few things:
  • They cite a statistic that only one out of every two grads with a STEM degree is hired in to a STEM job...but I've blogged before about how "STEM" is really narrow.  My brother has a biology degree, but as a biology teacher, he's considered "education" not STEM.  I have an engineering degree, but because I'm in healthcare, I'm not STEM.  
  • It's really hard to capture people's situation in narrow categories.  At one point they mention that 53% of IT grads (who don't work in IT) found better opportunities elsewhere.  Does this mean they only found lousy IT jobs, or that they got a really great offer outside IT?
  • One big argument is that wages have stagnated, so there can't be a shortage...but I would like to see what that looks like compared to other industries.  The dotcom bubble bursting might be playing games with the data
On the other side though, I get somewhat skeptical of companies saying "there's no one for these jobs!"  I'd like a better definition there...do you mean actually no one qualified?  Or no one qualified at the price you're willing to pay for them?  I've worked in more than one workplace where I've seen managers get frustrated when they're told they can't get everything they want for the salary they're offering (and potentially then post the job anyway).  Many employers these days seem to be suffering from the same issues as those doing online dating have...when someone gives you thousands of options, why shouldn't you hold out for absolutely perfect?  That thought actually came up at the talk that I started this post with, and the recruiter said she'd actually had to sit down with execs and tell them they were being too picky...that 90% right for the job was good enough (and she was a recruiter who worked strictly with scientists).  

Anyway, economic data like this always makes me a little crazy.  Too many things going in too many directions.  Like herding cats. 

Sigh.  Stay sane out there.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Wednesday Brain Teaser 4-24-13

Alright, so you have a scale that looks like this:

You want to use this scale to measure the weight of various widgets you have that could weigh as little as 1oz, or as much as 1000 ozs. Now you want to purchase a set of weights so that you can get the weight on any of these to the closest oz.  You don't have much money, so you want to buy the fewest number of weights possible...but you have to be able to measure all the individual weights that might fall in the 1-1000 range.

How many weights do you need, and what units should they be?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Who needs facts when I got my gut?

When I get in to arguments with people about data, most of the conversation is pretty predictable.  Sometimes people counter with contradictory data, claim my data is biased, is from a bad source, is outdated, irrelevant, or otherwise not worthy of consideration.  I can accept this.

The one thing that really baffles me is when people just say "No, that's not true", and when pressed for why explain that their personal feelings lead them to believe that what I said can't be true. 

I was thinking of this today during a talk at a conference I was attending.  The speaker was giving an interesting talk about the phenomena of having many STEM jobs open during a time when there was high unemployment, and why there was a "talent gap".  She finished her talk, and a woman raised her hand and said "You say there are jobs, but there aren't.  I know because I'm unemployed, and so are two of my friends."  

The speaker (who works for a recruiter, btw) sort stammered with a bit of confusion, and repeated the numbers she had shown originally that showed there were jobs out there in these fields (at least in this city), and the length of time many of them had been unfilled.  The woman repeated "Yes, I see that, but I don't have a job, so it's not true."  The speaker did pretty well from there, putting a few more things out there until it became entirely clear the woman believed that all economic activity rested on whether she personally had a job or not.

Now of course we all have cognitive biases.  That's why we have science and data...because humanity has realized our eyes deceive us at times.  What baffles me is when people are willing to pipe up in public and say directly "no, I will only believe what I see".  

Perhaps I should appreciate that it's not subtle and insidious ignorance, but it still gets me every time.

Monday, April 22, 2013

And this little elite stayed home....

I'm catching up on my reading after a week of under-connectivity, and I was interested to see this piece linked to from the AVI's site.  It's about a recently published paper comparing the rates of "opting out" of the workforce for mothers who graduated from elite vs non elite institutions.  Apparently the better the school you went to, the more likely you are to stay home with your kids.

I had a couple of things to point out about the original article about the paper, but first I'd like to point out something that reminds me why you always need to dive in to the original data tables (if provided).  

First, here's how the article from Charles Murray characterizes one of the papers stats:
But as soon as Hersh separates out women with children from those without, it becomes obvious that women from tier 1 schools are significantly more likely to be home with the kids than the others — 68% of mothers from the tier 1 schools were employed, compared to 76% of those from the other schools.
Sounds straightforward right?  8% more women from elite schools are home when their kids are young as opposed to everyone else.  Well, lets see what the actual paper said:
The employment rate for married mothers with children who are graduates of the most selective colleges is 68 percent, in contrast to an employment rate of 76 percent of those who are graduates of less selective colleges.
Pretty much the same thing right?  I mean, if you were to just read that second statement, you'd think the first one paraphrased it pretty well.  But when I looked at the data tables, that's not what it said.  The 68%-76% jump is not between elite schools and everyone else, but between elite schools and tier 4 schools.  Here are the numbers (page 50 of the pdf from the link above):

                        Tier 1            Tier 2            Tier 3               Tier 4
Children           67.7               71.9              71.6                 76.3
No Children     87.9               90.9              89.6                 89.8

I tried to parse through the methodology for assigning tiers, but honestly I got confused.  It seems to be a mash up between Carnegie ratings and Barron's.  In other words, the categories may not necessarily mean what you think they mean.  It seems private research I and II universities were considered tier 1, private liberal arts colleges are tier 2, public research universities are tier 3, and all others are tier 4.  This would put my alma mater as tier 1, and I would hardly consider it "elite".

Anyway, there's some good commentary going on about this article, but I thought the exact definitions being used were interesting.  I think it is interesting to see how people behave when they have money vs when they don't.  Also, I thought it was equally interesting that much of the difference came from women who had earned degrees in law or MBAs.  These women quite their jobs at much higher rates than those with MDs or teachers.  It struck me as interesting because people do not generally love business or law the way people love medicine or teaching.  It seems to me that this data suggests that when women have their druthers, they keep jobs they love, and ditch jobs that are more status driven.

Moral of the story: find a job you love, and always read the data tables.                            

Sunday, April 21, 2013

You can say this about life...it goes on

Well, it's been quite the week here at Bad Data Bad.

I appreciate all the kind words (both here and on Facebook and IRL) in response to my last post.  As some of you know, I ended up modifying that post and delivering it as the family eulogy at his funeral.  The fire chief also delivered a eulogy, and I think my uncle would be happy to know that the last line of both of our speeches ended with a hope that the farming equipment in heaven was more reliable than what he had here on earth.  He really did hate that baler.

We heard about the Boston Marathon bombings in our brief break between the fireman's wake and the regular wake.  It was difficult for me because the marathon is one of the biggest fundraisers of the year for my workplace, so I knew dozens of runners and volunteers, not to mention possible members of the crowd. 

I returned to work on Thursday.  The bombings still hadn't registered, but reality hit when I got off the train and ran right in to a group of MPs.  My bus took me within viewing distance of one of the blast sites, and by lunchtime, the Obama's were at my workplace, visiting victims*.  

I worked from home on Friday, safe in the suburbs.  My hospital was on lock down, so they encouraged all who could stay home to do so.  I was happy to oblige. 

All in all, not one of my better weeks.  However, I'm safe, my family's safe, and life is going on.  I think I have enough mental energy back to resume blogging this week (provided the world holds off on any more disasters), but I wanted to make sure you all had the update.

Thank you again for your kindness, and for reminding me how much good still exists in the world.

*the hospital I work at is oncology only, but located in the middle of two hospitals they were visiting, so they walked through our halls to get between the two.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Lt James Clark, RIP

It is with tear filled eyes and a heavy heart that I write this post.  On Thursday, April 11th, 2013, my uncle, Lt James Clark of the Bedford NH Fire Department, was found dead in home. He was 56 years old.

Jim was my uncle, my mother's best friend and our neighbor for 25 years.  The space he leaves behind is large and will not be easily filled.  Words cannot express how unfair or untimely this death is.  He died of a massive heart attack shortly after getting home from a busy shift at the fire station, and was found by his 16 year old daughter.  Based on the coroner's findings, it has been ruled that it was likely his work is what triggered the heart attack, and he is considered to have died in the line of duty.

On Tuesday, I will attend my first fireman's funeral.  Because he is considered to have died serving, the funeral will most likely be the most elaborate I have ever attended.  This is ironic, as he was the most humble man I have ever met.

I'm posting this here for two reasons.  First, I wanted to give an explanation for the lack of posts over the last few days, and why they may be spotty in the days ahead.  Second, I wanted to share some thoughts on intellect and how we judge it.

There are two ways of judging the intelligence of another person.  The first is to sit someone down with a well designed test and to see how they do.  Depending on the test, this should give you some sense of intellect.  The second, more common way, is the assessments we make about those we meet when we don't have a test on hand and have to rely on our own senses and their accuracy.  While this is what we are called on to do most often, our assessments here often have more to do with us than with the person we are assessing.

My uncle was the one who taught me the utter fallibility of my own sense of other people's intelligence.  He was a man who was too often typecast: he was a farmer, a fireman and a runner.  He was who you called on when you needed wood chopped, a fence mended, or to borrow a truck.  He was a true Yankee: thrifty, hard-working, reserved, but kind. In crowds, he would let himself fade to the sides, too often marginalized by our societies obsession with degrees and it's frequent perception of both conservatives and country dwellers as lesser minds.  This stereotype is wrong.

My uncle was in possession of one of the rarest and most amazing minds of anyone I have ever met. He communed with animals and the land as though he were made of more primal stuff than the rest of us.  He was the type of man who can look at the sky and tell you if the weather's good for haying, or identify which chicken is laying the good eggs.  He read widely about history, politics, philosophy and poetry.  He could converse easily on the intricacies of the Affordable Care Act, and ruminate about the nature of God and life in a way very few could.  He was not a numbers guy, but he had a keen sniff test.  He was the sort of guy who could hear of a study and just say "something's not right".  His sense was always spot on.  He was a painter, and he left behind a treasure trove of watercolors of the farm he worked and the land he loved.  He was a poet, and had put together a full volume of his work in the year before his death.  

As people filed in and out of my parents house for the last few days, it's become clear how few people knew how much was going on in his head.  The most common phrase in our house these days seems to be "I never knew Jim did ______".   In a world obsessed with status and accolades, my uncle never offered more than he was asked, never asked for credit if it wasn't offered.  He taught me that the musings of a man after a few hours on a tractor can be more interesting than those of someone locked in an ivory tower for years, and that the farmer philosopher is not limited to characters in a Robert Frost poem.  

So I'll miss you Uncle Jim.  I never told you that you changed the way I speak to people, that you made me slower to judge, more eager to listen, and reminded me that still waters run deep.  I'm sorry that too often when we talked I got hung up on proving how smart I was instead of taking advantage of the time I had to hear how smart you were.  I'm sorry you had to go so soon, and I hope that you are in a great field in the sky, where the weather's always right for haying and the baler never breaks down.

Rest in peace.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Wednesday Brain Teaser 4-10-13

Apologies in advance, but this has nothing to do with math...but I thought it was fun, so it's going up.

This mental floss link gives you 8 minutes to name as many of the 43 presidents as you can.

I got all but 12....apparently my memory cuts out in 1881 and picks back up in 1933.  It's one of those tricky things where you flat out can't remember some, can't believe you never entered others, and kick yourself for at least one or two.  I'm not naming names because I don't want to skew your results...because of course we need a poll here:

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Do scientists need math?

I was exactly one sentence in to this Wall Street Journal article about how you don't need math to do science when I thought "huh, I bet this guy's a biologist".  I was right.

EO Wilson is a Harvard biologist/naturalist who leads the world in the study of ants, and he wants people to know that you don't need math to be a scientist.  Now this is a good point.  From the acronym STEM to the more colloquial ways of referring to geeks, we tend to conflate being good at math with being good at science and vice versa.  For some sciences, there really is not a good reason to do this.

On the other hand, I'm not sure I loved the execution in this article.  A few things about this:

  1. What seems to annoy Wilson most is calculus requirements.  I won't quibble with him on that.  However, I think a basic understanding of statistics is critical for any scientist...otherwise how will you read/interpret nearly any paper in your field?  Statistics is often lumped in with math, so I would have liked to hear his thoughts on this.
  2. As so often happens, Wilson left the entire field of medicine out of his discussion about science.  Walk in to any group of freshmen bio majors, and you'll find a huge percentage of them are pre-med.  Many med schools require math/stats classes for admission.  That's a big reason why these kids are taking math classes to begin with.
  3. It's not until paragraph 11 that Wilson mentions that if you're bad at math, you should pretty much stay away from chemistry and physics.  So while the headline says "scientists don't need math" what he means is "some types of biologist don't need math".
  4. He estimates that only 10% of mathematical models of biological phenomena hold any water.  Given my blog posts last week, I thought that was really interesting.  
Overall, I actually ended up agreeing with Wilson quite a bit, the caveats above notwithstanding.  Making science accessible only to those who pass several bars of intelligence is a bad move.  However, I did have to wonder if he view was skewed just a bit by being at Harvard.  I mean, how many people get in to Harvard every year who are truly bad at math?  Harvard has had a grade inflation problem for years, and it's no surprise to me that people migrate out of subjects where the grading is harder/more objective to those subjects where the grading is more subjective.  I have friends who went to Harvard.  I've seen this happen.  

It may be a nice thing to tell your professor "I'm scared of math" but how many really meant "I got a C in that, but an A in my psych class?"  A sense of wonder and curiosity about the world is wonderful, a fear of challenging yourself and failure is not.  

I guess what I'm saying is, I'd like to see some data on this before I buy this explanation.  

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Kill your television

I saw an interesting headline today: "Broadcasters Worry about 'Zero TV' homes".  At first, this confused me...why was "Zero TV" in quotes?  Is this some new grammar issue I'm not aware of?

So despite my better judgement, I decided to read the article.  I discovered that "Zero TV" does not, in fact, mean a house with zero TVs.  Apparently it's a marketing category for people who don't pay for cable, satellite TV, or a digital antenna.  Thus, they can own a TV, but must use it in a "non-traditional" way...like for watching movies on DVD or streaming online or something.

I was pretty disappointed by that definition.  I mean, when I think of using a TV in a non-traditional way, I think of things like this:
or this:

But using a TV for watching movies or shows that you're downloading or streaming as opposed to buying cable?  That's hardly avant garde.

Also, anyone with a TV, should not be called "zero TV".  That's just annoying.

I was, however, happy to find out that the Nielsen Company apparently has a "Senior Vice President of Insights".  That manages to sound both pretentious and like something out of a cartoon all at the same time.

I like it.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Friday Fun Links 4-5-13

I have a very narrow taste in April Fools Day jokes.  I don't like jokes that attempt to humiliate others for laughs, make people looks stupid, etc.  I do however, like a good kitty in a backpack joke.

Who pays for daycare?  This article covers the issue of headlines that state that the cost of childcare is a mother's problem/women's problem.  Kudos for mentioning that this leaves dads out of the picture.  Language matters, give fathers their due!

With all the de-extinction talk lately, I think we need to ponder this article.  Could you outrun a t rex?

If you can't out run them, take a cab.  Here's a visual of how cab drivers earn their money.

For your education this week: 7 misused science words.

Now just for the hell of it, infomercial gifs.  I kind of really love gifs.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Wednesday Brain Teaser 4-3-13

This is one of the more interesting puzzles I've seen in a bit.  I liked it.  Also, I put up the rationale for the second answer to last weeks problem in the comments section there.  

Alright, read this left to right, top to bottom, and tell me what the next two rows are (the question marks show the current number of numbers for the missing rows:

      1 1
      2 1
    1 2 1 1
  1 1 1 2 2 1
  ? ? ? ? ? ?
? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Sex, models and housework

Sorry, not sex with models (or models doing housework) but mathematical models about sex and housework.  The first study I wanted to look at in my discussion of the use of models in data reporting actually got sent to me a while ago.  The headlines around this were things like "Want to have more sex?  Men, stop helping with the chores!", and a concerned (male) reader sent me the link with a "what's up with this???".

Essentially, the study took answers from a large survey that asked people about their household division of labor, their marriages in general, and their sexual frequency.  The authors were attempting to prove or disprove several notions about how housework and sex relate in marriage. They came to the conclusion that the more housework conformed to traditional gender roles, the more sex was had by all.  A few notes about the study up front:

  1. The data was collected in 1992, with a mean age of 43 for women/46 for men.  This is notable because people's expectations for marriage have change dramatically over the past few decades (divorce rates peaked in the 80s), so the generalizability may be limited.  However, this data set was used because it's the largest in existence that has all this information.  The authors acknowledge this limitation.
  2. The authors divided chores in to traditionally female (core) and traditionally male (non-core) tasks.  Core tasks include meal prep, cleaning, grocery shopping, etc and non-core tasks include lawn maintenance, bill paying and driving.  The finding was that the more men did the core work, the less sex the couples had, but the more non-core work they did, the more sex they had:So the headlines that more chores = no sex are wrong...it was the "wrong" kind of chores that influenced things.
  3. The authors never studied (nor claimed to study) the effects of changing chore arrangements on sexual frequency.  In fact all of their conclusions are based on the entire marital arrangement, so do NOT take the headline writers advice and start shaking things up assuming that this will have a particular result.  
  4. I found it fascinating that the authors specifically ruled out coercion as a factor here.  Satisfaction was fairly high across the board. 
  5. As the data is presented here, I do not argue with their conclusion.  While I think we could all quibble about the mechanism that causes this to be true, the data as presented in the paper supports what they say it does.
Getting back to the modelling stuff....the graph above shows the model they came up with, after controlling for all other factors.  Kind of nifty, right?  But what concerns me about this is that it's so nice and linear.  When I look at graphs that are supposed to model certain phenomena, I take a look at the extremes.  Now, I know quite a few super-egalitarian couples, but I actually don't know any couple in which the male does 100% of the cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc.  Even with over 4000 couples in this survey, how many did they really have at that end?  What would cause that arrangement to evolve?  Unemployment? Disability? I would be very suspicious that any couple would actually settle in to that arrangement long term...so I'd wonder how things would really behave at that end of the chart.  

Another note on this model: the key phrase is "controlling for all factors".  From a research perspective, the researchers appear to have done this quite diligently.  From a real life perspective though, people attempting to extrapolate this data for their own lives would do well to remember we don't live in vacuums (no pun intended).  Spending time with your spouse, having a higher income, not having small children, and being religious all are positively correlated with higher sexual frequency.  When I was researching this article, I was interested to find that the WSJ had taken a different tactic with their article, and mentioned that those who do more total chores also have more total sex.  Work hard, play hard they called it.

Finally, we have to consider why the researchers likely went with a mathematical model at all over just reporting the data directly.  My guess is outliers.  When I followed up with the guy who sent me the study, I mentioned that it was key to remember that this was not a straight up reporting of data, but rather an extrapolated model.  He asked why they would do that.  The only response I could think of is that it's likely the data simply wasn't this clean when they put it together the other way.   That doesn't mean the conclusions are wrong, it just mean the reporting isn't quite as direct as we might presume from the headlines.  

Blame the journalist.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go do some dishes.