Stats Made Easy

Practical Tools for Effective Experimentation

Friday, January 25, 2008

The real reason why results always vary?

Many experimenters are plagued by variation. Physicists cite Heisenberg for uncertainty in their measurements. However, most engineers prefer to blame their troubles on the devilish Murphy or elusive gremlins.

Those of us in the computer business swear by, or rather – at, bugs as the culprit for anything that does not go as planned:
“Things were going badly; …Finally, someone located the trouble spot and, using ordinary tweezers, removed the problem, a two-inch moth. From then on, when anything went wrong with a computer, we said it had bugs in it.”
-- Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, pioneer computer scientist

PS. The Admiral lived her life at ‘full steam’ as evidenced by this quote : “It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” (I advise extreme caution if you ever feel compelled to take action on this basis!)

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Fun fling with discs in sunny Southern California

This week sadly marks the demise of Whamo co-founder Richard Knerr – the company who popularized Fred Morrison’s Pluto Platter, re-branded as the “Frisbee.” Plastics were the thing back in those halcyon days of my youth in the 1960’s (the one word advised by the business man in the film The Graduate). However, Whamo’s Hula Hoop failed to ignite my interest, whereas the Frisbee kept me running for hours on end. The older fellows up the hill would float it far down our street for me to happily retrieve.

Throughout my life I’ve kept these plastic discs at hand for impromptu flings. I always brought several along on family camping trips we took throughout Minnesota in the 1980’s. I would designate a tree down the State park’s lane as flag number one and challenge my two boys to hit it before me. When they bonked the bark first, it was the winner’s prerogative to choose the next destination.

Evidently this proved to be a hit with my oldest son Ben, because he became an avid disc golfer. I’ve accompanied him on occasion and been privileged to see Ben make two aces, that is, the first toss going directly into the basket. These typically feature chain link ‘catchers’ that provide a very satisfactory ‘kachink’ when hit straight-on by the flying lid. By dint of keeping my throws short and accurate, I sometimes enjoy this sensational sussuration before my long-tossing offspring, but not often.

The week before last I enjoyed a great buddy trip with Ben doing some disc golfing in Southern California. We stayed with my aunt and her son (my first cousin) at their homes in Corona Del Mar. She found it amusing that grown men would play “Disco” golf, perhaps imagining a Travola-like stroll down the fairway to the tune of the BeeGee’s Stayin’ Alive. For me it was more of a good walk soiled by my ultimately successful attempt at retrieving a disk before if floated away on a muddy pond (pictured above) at Emerald Isle Golf Course outside Oceanside, CA. Ben ran into problems at another disc golf course in La Mirada's Regional Park. I think it was hole 22 where his ‘driver’ floated over the fence into a back yard guarded two dogs – a little yapper and an ominously silent pit bull. I hope they enjoyed their new toy.

Like the more traditional golfing with balls, one must learn to move on from lost or irretrievable disks and remain mellow. To me, that’s what Frisbee was all about, so it really is an end of an era now that Whamo’s co-founder has passed on -- to greener pastures, I hope.

PS. My daughters all enjoy doing the “disko” too. For example, Katie and her cousin did an experiment on a variety of brands and configurations, such as rings, which I documented in a Stat-Teaser article titled Sixth-Graders Experiment with Flying Disks. It generated a surprising number of responses, including:

- Support for the girls’ hypothesis that color might create an effect (an expert on plastics pointed out that pigments vary by weight)*

- A picture sent by University of Nevada Las Vegas Professor D. W. Pepper of a 10-foot wide disc made by an engineering student who purportedly threw it 1000 feet outside Reno, which generated reports of UFOs.** (I would enjoy the look of the La Mirada pit bull seeing this sky-blotting saucer sail over the fence!)

*See item #5 in my October 2002 DOE FAQ Alert

**Details reported in #6 of November 2002 DOE FAQ Alert

Thursday, January 03, 2008

“Random” banished by Lake Superior State’s grammar guardians

I see that the 2008 List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness by Lake Superior State University (LSSU) includes a word that will be hard to avoid by statisticians: “random.” My youngest daughter is still in high school so I hear this word very frequently, but up until last semester, when she took a statistics class, it annoyed me greatly.

As an experiment, I typed in “this random guy,” which I’ve heard my daughter say quite often, as the subject of a Google blog search. (This was mentioned by LSSU too.) Here’s a small sample (selected – not random) of what came up:
“…so I got in the hot tub. it's a shared hot tub, so this random guy joined me after I had been there a while. awkward!”

“…this random guy we saw though totally free styling the mountain! so scary!!!”

“Random” evidently has become synonymous with “unknown” – a frightener for girls describing an encounter with a guy. As the father of three daughters, I admit that this is very scary!

It turns out that I keep a random guy in my office. His name is “Clocky” (see picture). He goes off at proscribed (not random) times, but even though I control this, it always scares me. You see, Clocky was diabolically designed to be most annoying. First he jumps off his shelf. Then he whistles and squeaks while moving at alarming speed in random directions. One day I left work early before Clocky went berserk. This caused quite a commotion at the Stat-Ease office before one of our programmers deciphered the sequence of buttons required to defuse this runaway terminator of peace and quiet.

For the story of the MIT student who invented this clock with a built-in microprocessor that randomly programs its runaway speed and routes, see this article from the Boston Globe . Clocky can be purchased from Think Geek. (I got mine as a gift from my geeky gadget-loving younger brother.) Their web site for Clocky features a video of some random guy wearing a “Toxic Waste” shirt.

Wouldn’t it be nice if alarm clocks could be banished? Making one act randomly is either a stroke of genius or a criminal act – I cannot decide which.