Stats Made Easy

Practical Tools for Effective Experimentation

Sunday, October 28, 2007

TV show misguided in mocking triangle graphs

One of my favorite TV shows, NBC’s Emmy-winning 30 Rock, stepped over a line last night with this sarcastic dialog:

Liz (comedienne Tina Fey) says to her boss Jack: You are a suit who feeds off creativity and hard work of other people and turns it into…pie charts and triangle graphs!

Jack (actor Alec Baldwin): What is a triangle graph?

Liz: I don’t know. It sounded real!

I remember being astounded at my first exposure to a triangle graph in a materials science class taught by University of Minnesota professor Chris Macosko . It was a ternary phase diagram showing the recipe for 18-8 stainless steel – commonly used for knives, spoons and forks – kitchen flatware. Virginia Tech’s Laboratory for Scientific Visual Analysis provides pretty pictures and explanation on how to read triangle graphs. They are a wonderful tool for pinpointing optimal formulations of foods, paints, chemicals, cosmetics, plastics and all sorts of products. For example, see this primer on mixture design that details a fun experiment I did with Pat on making a bouncier play putty .

However, I can appreciate how it must seem totally weird to the vast majority of people that a graph could be triangular. This episode of “30 Rock” had Jack getting after Liz to get on the fast track for attaining his elite financial level by making some investments. That got me thinking of how our company’s 401k advisor always promotes the changing mix of where to put your money, depending on how many years remain to retirement. I used our Design-Expert software to produce this triangle graph showing how the balance between stocks (A-X1), bonds (B-X2) and money market funds (C-X3)might change with age. It shows a flag set at age 30, which being near the top of the triangle is heavily weighted (77 percent) toward stocks. A second flag shows an investment portfolio for a 58-year old, mostly in money market funds.

Note how the triangle graph forces the mix to one-hundred percent. That is what makes them so neat for a chemical engineer like me – the kettle is always kept full, no more and no less. This financial example is just off the top of my head, but maybe a smart New York City business guy like Jack in “30 Rock” could make something out a triangle graph like this. Food for thought…

PS. I visited General Electric’s corporate R&D center in the mid ‘90s to help their Six Sigma Tiger Team leader for DOE get approval for installing Design-Expert. I was amazed to see big displays of NBC’s lineup of new. Ironically, one of them was “3rd Rock from the Sun,” which I realize now must have been a play off 30 Rockefeller Plaza – NBC’s headquarters.


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