William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 151 of 410

Astrologers See Obama Victory

Alas, our great nation is in retrograde, with the House of Koalemos (Greek god of stupidity) rising, ever rising. Dark cosmic forces have aligned—perhaps maligned is a better way to put it—and caused ill omens which to the adept implies that the shadow which has enveloped us will linger four more years.

Or so says the news emanating from “a meeting of the world’s top astrologers” (which is like saying a conclave of the world’s top intellectual Marxists, but never mind). What’s “astrology”? Well, this report tells us

Not to be confused with astronomy, the scientific study of the physical universe, astrology uses non-scientific methods to predict how the relative positions of celestial bodies may influence human behavior and future events.

Now that that’s settled, let’s meet Chicago astrologist and corporate lawyer (corporate lawyer?) Nina Gryphon, whose musings on the “Aries ingress” indicate that The One will best Romney.

Chris Brennan, pulling a switch, eschewed the Aries ingress and went straight to the “ingress of Saturn.” Which tells us all we need know of Brennan, but it also informs us that Obama will probably definitely win. That is, Obama’s victory is maybe certain.

Naming a particular celestial retrograde, Brennan says, “Most astrologers are pretty certain that this [retrograding] could cause problems similar to what happened in the 2000 election.” He tightens this with the addition that “something” is “up in the air about the election.” You can’t be more definite than that.

And in the end, the ingress speaks forcefully that Romney’s number is up.

I know you won’t scoff because, the report tells us, “Two of the panelists participated in a similar session four years ago when the panel also gave a unanimous thumbs-up to Obama.” However, another report on the United Astrology Conference said “At the last conference, in May 2008, six panelists unanimously predicted Obama’s win over Sen. John McCain [emphasis mine].”

Since these are media reports, both must be right, so we have a mystery how two can simultaneously be six.

Skip it. It’s the predictions and how to make them that counts. For instance, at the conference master astrologer Susie Cox asks us, “Do you know the Sun Signs? I mean Really know them! I thought I knew them too until I wrote the book, Susie’s Sun Signs, and now realize there is so much more to them.”

And it isn’t just ingresses, sun signs, and retrogrades. It’s also horary resolution charts, transiting lunar nodes, and magical rapport measurements. Boil all these together and you have a powerful predictive concoction which says Obama is in and Romney out.

But do not be disheartened! There is good news to be gleaned from this stream of fell forecasts. Astrologists, when they manage to make unambiguous political predictions are wrong more often than they are right. They are like the stock broker who frequently picks stocks to rise which fall and vice versa. They are reasonably accurate negative barometers.

That means their predictions of an Obama romp implies that it is Romney who is likely to win, that the veil will soon be lifted. So be of good cheer and tell the world. Tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies. Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!

Grade Inflation

Via GradeInflation.com via Mark Perry via HotAir comes this telling picture.

Be sure to read the original site. Although Stuart Rojstaczer doesn’t have much data from Community Colleges, he does show that grade inflation has not struck these institutions with equal force.

This trend must continue—not indefinitely, of course: it stops when all earn all As all the time—as long as enrollment increases. The greater the percentage of the population who attends, the more we must see either grade inflation or class simplification or both. Rojstaczer also identifies the “student as customer” grade-inflation driver.

All this is on average, of course. There will still be plenty of isolated schools and courses where students are held to a rigorous standard. See Rojstaczer’s plot on the difference between liberal arts and sciences, for example.

Interesting twists and turns to the curve, no?

More perhaps later. Busy day today.

UpdateFor starters, we’ve dumbed down college.

On The Murder And Death Of Classical Music

It is difficult to discover one word which adequately and non-misleadingly describes what is today called “music” and what used to go by that name a century or more ago. The word should be statistical in the sense that music are the sounds which one encounters more than any other (and not necessarily what one listens to purposely).

For example, the average citizen in these United States is likely to hear rock produced from latter portion of the twentieth century when in grocery stores, houseware shops, and department stores; the same genre but of more recent vintage when in convenience stores or coffee shops, cafes, and the like; and a mysterious headache-inducing pounding emanation by the name of “hip hop” when in bars, or on beaches and other outdoor spaces.

Incidentally, my theory for the latter is that these sounds are generated by algorithm to cause the aforementioned pain, the kind of which can only be relieved by consuming massive amounts of alcohol—sold, of course, at high margins. We must admit that this is more effective than over-salting the free popcorn.

What are we to call this constellation of sound? Modern places it too squarely in time, and leaves our heirs in a jam because they will have to discover a new word to describe what they listen to in the future. Popular doesn’t work, because there will always be a genre which is the most popular (kind of like how there will always be a “leading cause of death”). Perhaps rock suffices if that word is interpreted to mean what is commonly thought of as “rock” plus its many derivatives.

Now what about those sounds from Rachmaninoff, Hayden, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Tchaikovsky and the like? The word most use is classical. And that’s fine, in its way. But it is defeatist, too. Classical means, in part, “that which belongs to antiquity.” Static museum pieces. Mention classical music and one imagines hearing a piece one has heard many times before, a piece from a limited repertoire. Mozart is not, after all, writing new symphonies.

Sometimes classical is labeled art music, but given what has happened to art over the past century, this is an insult. We could use beautiful since most of it is, especially in comparison to such things as this1. But it is only most, not all. There are, after all, folks like Philip Glass lurking in the margins.

And then there is Nico Muhly, subject of a glowing piece in The Telegraph (he has also been praised by the New York Times). The writer is under the impression that Muhly’s work is “classical.” Presumably this is because he does not use the electric guitars or computer programs which churn out today’s music.

Muhly, a sweet-faced young man whose haircut resembles the kind of expensive “designer” jeans which come with pre-ripped holes and bare spots, instead composes with noise.

I’m constantly recording ambient, unchanging noises. I stayed in a hotel in the Netherlands last month where the elevator shaft had this glorious hum of an open fifth. The air conditioner in my house is this sort of E-flat, the hiss of unconnected electronics, the buzz of a halogen lamp…

His best known composition is entitled “Drones & Piano.” And this is exactly what it is. Droning noises and a piano played with a fitful fist, jamming notes into the air in the way today’s poets scatter words across a page. Which is to say, randomly. Don’t take my word for it. The Telegraph embeds this piece at the bottom of its article. I myself was able to listen to nearly one minute of Part I, “Bedroom Community.”

The paper calls the sounds of this Part “a paranoid, hypnotic piano layered over a warm string hum.”

Viola drones continue into Part II jabbed with staccato jerks and pretty chords. Part III moves forward with brio and speed. Here, the string drones become a bee’s nest and the piano, sounding like a nest of wires, gets more and more tangled before a gentle, quiet coda segues perfectly into Part IV. This track feels like a fresh, dewy dawn.

I listened to the opening strains (yes) of each Part and I’m fairly sure that each repeats; the whole thing sounds like a twenty-second loop endlessly repeating.

Now, the reason this is important is that the paper and Muhly himself calls this stuff “classical.” And proudly. He believes himself to be continuing in the tradition of Hayden, Telemann, and so forth. He says, “The internet is filled with people saying that blah blah classical music is dying blah blah.” (This quotation shows that the mental processes which given Muhly his words also supplies his notes.) Of the doomsayers, “Chances are, they are being paid to say this.”

Nobody is paying me, Mr Muhly, but if classical music lives, you are not providing it life support. But least you have provided us something to listen to which is worse than the Beatles.


1Found by searching “hip hop charts”, clicking the first link, and selecting the third most popular song

The Last Cruise Of The USS Iowa

The USS Iowa on its last trip
USS Iowa


I was aboard the SS Jeremiah O’Brien yesterday when the USS Iowa was towed from its berth up San Francisco bay and out under the Golden Gate bridge on its way to Los Angeles. The entire crew, except for those guarding the engine room (four of the eight boilers were operational), of the O’Brien was out watching. And commenting.

The USS Iowa was launched in 1943 at the height of the Pacific war, though she started life in the Atlantic as a giant ferry for President Roosevelt. She was in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, also called the Marianas Turkey Shoot, in June of 1944. And she was there for the last major push on Okinawa in 1945. “The Big Stick”, as she was affectionately known, also carried Halsey’s flag in Tokyo Bay when Japan surrendered. She saw service in Korea. And she became infamous in 1989 when one of her gun turrets exploded under mysterious circumstances and killed nearly 50 sailors.

The Iowa is nearly three football fields long and weighs 58,000 tons. One of the O’Briens claimed that just one of the roller bearings and mount for one the Iowa’s massive gun arrays weighed as much as the O’Brien, itself no slouch. It took several tugs to slowly maneuver the Iowa around the tight corners behind Alcatraz, an area which possess the deepest channel. (The picture above is from my not-so-hot camera phone, at full zoom.)

A private company bought the Iowa and will (thankfully) turn her into a museum. But in LA and not San Francisco. None of the O’Brien’s were pleased that Frisco was losing the Iowa. Politics is perception and all perceived that it was the fault of ex-mayor Gavin Newsom, who was thought to be petulantly anti-military. “All he had to do was to write a letter. But he wouldn’t,” one of the crew told me.

The thinking was that the Iowa will have to see a million visitors a year to turn a profit, which all hope she will. Nobody wants to see the old ship scrapped.

The O’Brien is an ex Liberty Ship, and still a working ship. She will cruise, as she does only a few times each year, today in honor of the Golden Gate bridges’ anniversary and, in greater honor, for Memorial Day. The O’Brien is different than many ship-museums because it is a working, sailing ship. Plus you get to go almost everywhere. Unescorted.

Engine room of the SS Jeremiah O’Brien
SS Jeremiah O'Brien

Most men head for the engine room, which is down several flights of perilously narrow, highly pitched ladders. I saw one husband plead with his wife, who refused to descend, say, “Just 15 more minutes.” He shot down into the gloom before his wife could say no. This must be a common occurrence because there is a set of folding chairs atop the entrance to the engines where another woman was already sitting.

I had a nice chat with the chief engineer who had been with the ship for eighteen years. He said it got to be about 120 degrees in the engine compartment when all eight boilers were going. But it was a pleasant 75 or so yesterday with just four. Topside it was cold and windy. As usual.

He told me that one of the more clever engineers had rigged one of the machine guns with a motor, spark plug, and propane canister that when switched on would make a pleasant pop-pop-pop sound. Another had rigged a fused bomb that fit into the five-inch gun. Had to be fused because the firing pins were removed from the guns. I didn’t get to hear the gun, but the machine gun simulator sounded realistic.

Some of the ship is off limits, including the still working radio room. Nobody was in it yesterday, but they did have a tape on continuous loop with a Morse code message spelling out the name of the ship and its berth. Throughout the rest of the ship were speakers playing Big Band tunes. Was I happy about that.

As we lined the rails watching the Iowa, Spike Jones came on singing Der Fuehrer’s Face (“Not to love der Fuehrer is a great disgrace”, “Super Dooper super men.”). I once got into trouble from trying to sing this song in a German restaurant. Many wives have no sense of humor. A crewman told me that this song was originally written by one of Walt Disney’s musicians, by a man who was Jewish. I had to look it up, but Disney even had Donald Duck croak out the tune. (Also see this.)

Stop by the O’Brien if you are even in San Francisco. You can even arrange a sleepover on board.

From Homochirality In Amino Acids To Conquering Dinosaurs: How Journalists Report Science

Today, just a pointer to a hilarious story by Robert McHenry in The American of how a workaday paper in a chemical journal with the title

Evidence for the Likely Origin of Homochirality in Amino Acids, Sugars, and Nucleosides on Prebiotic Earth

became, after a severe manhandling by journalists,

Do Intelligent Dinosaurs Really Rule Alien Worlds?

Since we’ve so often seen how some obscure paper with dicey conclusions is tarted up in the press to confirm this or that bias, it’s good to read the steps McHenry identifies in the common process:

1. Some scientists publish a report of their work.

2. An alert PR guy who works for the university or institute notices some potentially hype-able words in the report.

3. He writes up a release, under the impression that he is Arthur C. Clarke.

4. J-school grads at a number of media outlets, whose science education ended in 8th grade, pick up the release, change three words to make it their own, and it is published to an unsuspecting public.

5. The unsuspecting public, which is not as dumb as the PR guy believes, dismisses the story as bushwah and blames the scientists.

Go and read the rest.

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