Posts filed under Silly (68)

December 23, 2014

What’s the chance of that?

The best law-of-large-numbers scene in modern cinema.

“A spectacular vindication of the principle that each individual coin, spun individually, is as likely to come down heads as tails, and therefore should cause no surprise each individual time it does”


December 22, 2014

Solstice, Christmas, and the Phantom Time Hypothesis

Today (in NZ) is the summer solstice, the time when the sun is the highest in the sky, and the longest day. In the northern hemisphere it’s the winter solstice, the darkest day of winter.

The date of Christmas, as every school child knows, wasn’t even in theory chosen as the anniversary of a particular night when shepherds were abiding in the fields. Views differ on whether it was chosen to match the Roman solstice celebration on December 25th, or nine months after the equinox on March 25th. In either case, though, we seem to be off by a few days. Today is the solstice and nine months after the equinox, but Christmas isn’t until Thursday. Why could that be?

One possibility, advanced by German historian Heribert Illig, is that the date isn’t really 2014 this year. It’s really only 1717, so we haven’t had enough missing leap years since the year 1 CE and the Gregorian calendar is off by a few days. That is, according to Illig, the period from 614 CE to 911 CE didn’t happen. The evidence adduced for this gap, in addition to the date of Christmas, is a shortage of buildings in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in that period, and a gap in Christian theological development.

Back in consensus reality, the Phantom Time Hypothesis provides a nice illustration of how data in different fields interlocks like a crossword puzzle.  For example, the times of historical eclipses and sightings of Halley’s Comet match the standard calendar, and don’t match if you assume there are three missing centuries, and the same is true of tree ring counts, and the last big eruption at Lake Taupo. And while the history of Rome and Constantinople is arguably tidier in some ways, there’s a hole blown in the middle of  the Tang Dynasty, including important events such as the Battle of Talas.

So, is there a better explanation of why today isn’t Christmas? In fact, yes. When the Gregorian calendar was devised, it didn’t try to go all the way back to 1CE, which people already realised was a slightly iffy date at best. It was designed to match the Julian calendar in 325CE: the date of the Council of Nicea, when the formula for the date of Easter was agreed on (and where Nicholas of Myra, aka Santa Claus, was thrown in jail for slapping Arius during a debate)

StatsChat wishes you a happy summer or winter solstice.  Try to refrain from slapping anyone, whatever the provocation.

December 18, 2014

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

In particular, we have the Christmas issue of the BMJ,  which is devoted to methodologically sound papers about silly things (examples including last year’s on virgin birth in the National Longitudinal Study of Youth, and the classic meta-analysis of randomised trials of parachute use)

University of Auckland researchers have a paper this year looking at the survival rate of magazines in doctors’ waiting rooms

We defined a gossipy magazine as one that had five or more photographs of celebrities on the front cover and a most gossipy magazine as one that had up to 10 such images. The Economist and Time magazine were deemed to be non-gossipy. The rest of the magazines did not meet the gossipy threshold as they specialised in, for example, health, the outdoors, the home, and fashion. Practice staff placed 87 magazines in three piles in the waiting room and removed non-study magazines. To blind potential human vectors to the study, BA marked a unique number on the back cover of each magazine. Twice a week the principal investigator arrived at work 30 minutes early to record missing magazines.

And what did they find?




December 14, 2014

Statistics about the media: Lorde edition

From @andrewbprice on Twitter: number of articles in the NZ Herald each day about the musician Lorde


The scampi industry, which brings in similar export earnings (via Matt Nippert), doesn’t get anything like the coverage (and fair enough).

More surprisingly, Lorde seems to get more coverage than the mother of our next head of state but two.  It may seem that the royal couple is always in the paper, but actually whole weeks can sometimes go past without a Will & Kate story.

November 16, 2014

John Oliver on the lottery

When statisticians get quoted on the lottery it’s pretty boring, even if we can stop ourselves mentioning the Optional Stopping Theorem.

This week, though, John Oliver took on the US state lotteries: “..,more than Americans spent on movie tickets, music, porn, the NFL, Major League Baseball, and video games combined. “

(you might also look at David Fisher’s Herald stories on the lottery)

October 13, 2014

Context from everyday units

From @JohnDonoghue64 on Twitter


From the Guardian, a few years ago

Perhaps, as with metric and imperial measurements, such comparisons should be given convenient abbreviations: SoWs (size of Wales), SoBs (size of Belgium), OSPs (Olympic swimming pools), DDBs (buses) and so on. Thus the Kruger national park in South Africa measures 1 SoW (Daily Telegraph), as do Lesotho (London Evening Standard) and Israel (Times), whereas Lake Nzerakera in Tanzania is 2 SoBs (Observer).

At times the most carefully calibrated calculations can go awry. So we learn that Helmand province in Afghanistan is “four times the size of Wales” (Daily Telegraph, 2 December 2009) only to find a few weeks later that it has apparently shrunk to “the size of Wales” (Daily Telegraph, 29 January 2010).

For the benefit of NZ readers, a badger appears to weigh about the same as three female North Island brown kiwi, two typical merino fleeces, or half a case of Malborough sav blanc. That should help you get a grasp on the size of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

September 24, 2014

That’s just a guess


While it’s nowhere near as annoying as Phoenix Organics “Don’t drink science“, Charlie’s could do better than ‘just a guess’ as to whether there are a million oranges in this truck

If there are ten oranges in a litre of juice, there are ten thousand in a cubic metre of juice, so a million oranges would make 100 cubic metres of juice. The little juice bottles probably don’t pack that efficiently, so you’d need more than 100 cubic metres of truck.

So, how big is a truck?  A standard twenty-foot container is 6.1m long, 2.44m wide, and 2.59m high, with a volume of 38.5 cubic metres.  That truck doesn’t look three times as big as a twenty-foot container to me.

There could be a hundred thousand oranges in that truck. I don’t think a million is feasible.

September 23, 2014

I’m not even sure where to begin on this highly important topic

New Zealand’s favourite biscuit.

I just clicked on a link on the homepage of the NZ Herald which says “NZ@Noon: NZ’s favourite biscuit revealed” which took me to an article with a snippet saying:

Bay of Plenty voters have taken to the polls. Find out which biscuit triumphed in the annual nationwide biscuit election.

This lead to another article with the headline: “Mallowpuffs voted Bay’s best biscuit” which includes the following (emphasis mine):

Bay of Plenty voters have taken to the polls and voted Mallowpuffs Original their favourite biscuit in an annual nationwide biscuit election.

Around the country, close to 5,000 votes were cast by biscuit-lovers who also voted Mallowpuffs Original as the national favourite, ahead of 57 other contenders.

Kiwi women were once again more passionate about pledging their support, contributing 94 percent of the votes nationwide.

The 2014 Bikkielections poll was conducted via an application on Griffin’s Facebook page from September 9 to 21 following weeks of campaigning via billboards, radio promotions, polling booths and street sampling. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus zero percent.

That’s a first, right?

July 14, 2014


Why supermoons aren’t a big deal for earthquakes, based on XKCD


May 30, 2014

Trusting your data or your model

Even with large amounts of data, automated predictions must usually incorporate explicit or implicit prior understanding of the structure of the problem. “Look for anything” is not good enough: “anything” is too big.

Here, for your weekend light entertainment, are some examples where the prior structure was too strong or too weak:

The example that prompted this post, from the blog of Melville House Press, is about automated scanning of books to create digital editions

 in many old texts the scanner is reading the word ‘arms’ as ‘anus’ and replacing it as such in the digital edition. As you can imagine, you don’t want to be getting those two things mixed up.

A similar phenomenon was pointed out at Language Log a decade ago

Fear not your toes, though they are strong,
The conquest doth to you belong;

Daniel Dennett recounts two anecdotes of speech recognition, one human and one computer, which err in the opposite direction to the text recognition example. The computer one:

An AI speech-understanding system whose development was funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), was being given its debut before the Pentagon brass at Carnegie Mellon University some years ago. To show off the capabilities of the system, it had been attached as the “front end” or “user interface” on a chess-playing program. The general was to play white, and it was explained to him that he should simply tell the computer what move he wanted to make. The general stepped up to the mike and cleared his throat–which the computer immediately interpreted as “Pawn to King-4.” 

And, the example that is frustratingly familiar to so many of us: mobile phone autocorrupt, which you can search for yourself.