William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Top 10 Manly Jobs: Popular Mechanics’ Cool Gigs List

Popular Mechanics published a list of four dozen or so “Coolest Gigs on Earth.”

They ought to have said “manliest.” This isn’t The Atlantic or Time. This is Popular Mechanics!

The catalog is admirably inclusive, but it smacks of padding. For example, “Food Scientist” is pegged. This is a job which I’m sure is at least interesting—the guy profiled develops, among other things, blended iced coffee—but it isn’t manly.

Like “Food Scientist”, “Statistician” can be interesting. But is it a manly gig? “Don’t mess with him, Jim. He’s a statistician!”

Before laughing, try swapping your own title for mine. See if the sentence becomes less ridiculous. We “Account Managers”, “Financial Specialists”, “Insurance Brokers”, “Customer Relation Managers” are all in the same meek boat.

What’s a manly job? One that if you were to announce it at the bar—a drinking establishment where Pinot Grigio is not on the menu—the men sitting there would not smirk. Preferably, it is something that is done with your hands. Bonus points if it requires dangerous tools. A manly job is one that makes something tangible. It does something noticeable. It’s one that, at the end of the day, you can look back and actually see progress.

Here, then, are my entries. I’ve taken as many as I could from Popular Mechanics (marked with PM) and made inclusions where they were negligent. The entries are in rough order of what I’d rather be doing. Daydreaming is, of course, the real purpose of the list.

  1. PM Try that “Don’t mess with” sentence with “Bladesmith” as the occupation. It’s a fancier name for Blacksmith. Few titles sound manlier. PM profiles Burt Foster, who can make knives “that can chop through a 2 x 4, shave hair off an arm and bend 90 degrees.” He can also snap your neck in two and is impervious to heat.
  2. PM Stuntman. If you’ve seen—and appreciated—Burt Reynolds in Hooper, then nothing more need be said.
  3. PM Baseball Bat Maker. Johnny Damon steps up to the plate and takes the first pitch for a strike. Inge is on third from an earlier single, Ordoñez walked to first. Tigers are down by two runs. Crack! Home run! Tigers win! And it was your bat that did it. That’s both cool and manly.
  4. PM Field Mechanic. Any kind of mechanic, to include tool and die men, is surely manly. But fixing flats under fire ratchets up the required testosterone. This is one of the military professions PM included without resorting to admitting the necessity of soldiering.
  5. PM Grand Canyon River Guide. River Guide—Outback Guide, Tundra Guide, Jungle or Steppe Guide, any kind of expert of navigating nature’s nastiness—just smacks of a movie waiting to be. Here’s rugged Walker Mackay, who has lived on the river all his life. He’s taken hundreds of tours. But something is different about this one. Maybe it’s a chase, maybe it’s hidden treasure, maybe even something about a modern Hole in the Wall Gang. Adventure is just around the next bend.
  6. Soldier. The profession of arms is nowadays seen as low class when it’s not downright despised. People say, “We support our troops” by which they mean, “Those fools couldn’t find any other job.” An army is an indulgence and not a necessity. History is filled with societies anxious to beat their swords into plowshares only to find their neighbors have done the opposite. But what of men like Alexander, Patton, Ceasar, Joshua, Nelson, Washington, Wellington. That I can just write their last names and that you know exactly who I mean and why, shows the true importance of this profession.
  7. PM Demolition Blaster What true man doesn’t like to blow stuff up? And to get paid to do it? Sheer bliss.
  8. PM Fisherman On the open, raging sea. Trying not to be washed overboard. Drinking rum. Hauling in tons of smelly fish. Gutting, scaling and hacking them into Mrs Paul’s you leave to others.
  9. PM Distilleryman Drink up, men. Anybody can make beer: too many have. These days, microbrew ingredients more closely resemble fruit pie than beer. But it takes a real man to make whiskey.
  10. Astronaut. A rocketman on a mission to the stars! Even the training is brutal. Nothing is manlier. Unless on that mission, aliens are attacking and you are the Last Hope. Staving off an alien invasion must be the pinnacle of manliness.

Athlete is not on the list because it’s not a job a man can keep much past thirty. Unless it’s golf or curling. Fine sports. But manly?

Gladwell, Gottman, and Abraham on Predicting Divorce

Despite the best efforts of their wives, some married men remain recalcitrant and uncooperative. They refuse to or are incapable of taking their training seriously. Some of these men, who remain just on the pliant side of incorrigible, are talked into attending therapy or marriage counseling.

Men, incidentally, wouldn’t need this therapy and could avoid all marital strife if they followed the two simple rules known to the husbands in my family: (1) Do what you’re told, or when that becomes too distasteful or burdensome, (2) Feign deafness and hide.

It also helps to have at least two children so that when something is found to be put away in the wrong place, or when the bread bag is found to be improperly sealed, then you have somebody who can take the blame. You don’t need rigorous proof that whatever is wrong was not your fault, you just need a momentary distraction so that you can make your escape.

Anyway, for the men who haven’t learnt these lessons and for their wives, Laurie Abraham has written The Husbands and Wives Club: A Year in the Life of a Couples Therapy Group.

An excerpt of that book was recently on Slate: Can You Really Predict the Success of a Marriage in 15 Minutes? In it, Abraham look critically at the work of John Gottman, a “marriage researcher” who claims to be able to predict which couples will divorce within six years, with 80% accuracy.

Gottman was featured, every so lovingly, in Malcom Gladwell’s Blink. Gladwell tells how Gottman filmed several couples discussing, or arguing, some topic for as short as five to fifteen minutes. He used facial recognition techniques that he said could distinguish between coyness, genuine happiness, or combativeness. He also coded the speech content into various categories.

He then fed all this information into a computer—is there nothing these miraculous devices cannot do!—and out popped a prediction whether or not the couple filmed would divorce. He then wrote up his results, went through peer review—peer review!—and found his fame after Gladwell found him.

He also told good stories. Vivid, with plenty of detail, like a novelist. Hot tip: a rattling good yarn is a necessity if you want your theory to gain acceptance.

Abraham, however, was suspicious of Gottman. Were his fancy statistical models better than just guessing? Gottman claimed to be able to fit his model like a glove to old data. But Abraham knew that what was “absolutely required by the scientific method…is to apply your equation to a fresh sample to see whether it actually works.” This, Gottman never did.

She continues (I wept with delight when I read this):

The fundamental problem is that no matter how many equations, even quite similar ones, Gottman generates, we have no real idea of his forecasting power because of the way he reports his data. In statistics, you can’t judge the predictive oomph of anything without knowing the population prevalence of the event or condition you’re studying…Gottman talks about his equation’s “accuracy rates,” but scientists typically don’t use such language. They report false-positive and false-negative rates and then use those figures with prevalence to ascertain the effectiveness of whatever test or method is at issue.

Abraham gives an example of how Gottman’s claims fare, which I’ll modify a bit. In 1998, 160 out of every 1000 couples divorced (that’s the base rate). That means 840 did not divorce. I now introduce my patented Briggs’s Divorce Predictionator™: it says that, for every couple that comes to me, they will not divorce. I repeat: my prediction for any couple is that they stay married. I will be right 840 / 1000 = 84% of the time. Correct?

Gottman should be able to beat this prediction if his model is any good. That is, if his facial-recognition-speech-encoding-Gladwell-impressing model can’t beat 84%, then he has no skill. We already saw that Gottman claimed only 80% accuracy, so his model is in deep kimchi.

It has no skill. Skill is a formal statistical concept which we can formally calculate. For base rates less than 50%—ours is 160 / 1000 = 16%—the formula is:

    Skill = (True positives – False positives) / (True positives + False negatives).

In Gottman’s case, “True positives” are those divorces he correctly predicts. “False positives” are those couples he said will divorce but don’t. And “False negatives” are those couples he said will remain married but that actually divorce. In order for a forecast to be skillful, skill must be greater than zero, or True positives must be larger than False positives (skill is bounded by +1 and -infinity).

We don’t know Gottman’s false positives and negatives because he never reveals them. But we do know that since his accuracy rate is less than Briggs’s Divorce Predictionator™, it must be that his skill is negative.

And so we have another in an already enormous, and ever growing, fund of beautiful models that are worthless.


Thanks to Harvey Motulsky, author of Intuitive Biostatistics, who suggested this article.

Update Harvery also sends along this article, The Hazards of Predicting Divorce Without Crossvalidation, from the Journal of Marriage and Family. Worth a browse for the technically minded reader.

Update Thanks to Chuck for noticing the typo in the skill formula.

Obamacare & Climate Change: Temperature, Health Targets

There it was, hidden on page 1,323 of the 2,700-page health care bill: a proposal to define the ideal climate for the Continental United States and Alaska. For no reason I can see, Hawaii is excepted.

Maybe because of skittishness over this bill that would grant “native” Hawaiians sovereignty recently passed in the House of “Representatives.” In the name of the secular god Sensitivity, nobody wants to make Hawaiians angry.

Anyway, I’m no lawyer, so I can’t understand the blah-blah-blah, but the law says that each State will be required to meet a “temperature target.” If the yearly averaged temperature deviated from that target, then certain penalties would kick in. More on those, and the targets, in a moment.

Why a “temperature target” in a health care bill? The language points to scientific studies which purport to show that deviations from “ideal temperatures” result in “challenges to and deviations from homeostasis, which puts undue stress on the immune system”, therefore resulting in greater rates of illness.

Greater rates of illness mean, of course, more sick bodies. And more sick bodies means higher medical and insurance bills, and so forth. We knew these kinds of things were coming: since the government will be taking over health care, it must seek to reduce the costs of that care. And in regulating climate, they think they have found a way to do so.

Supplying insurance against climate change doesn’t work. As I have pointed out until I was sore in my typing fingers, insurance is not health. For example, suppose some lethal new bug is making its way through the population. You can treat the bug via vaccination, antibiotics, by removing the vector that transmits it, or whatever. But it would do no good to announce a policy of insuring the infected.

If you’re sick, you don’t want insurance, you want health; you want a cure, not insurance. You cannot insure your way out of an epidemic. Insurance is just a way to add costs to health care.

So the Obama administration will attack the “vector” that they say will bring increased rates of illness. That vector is “changes in climate”; specifically, temperature change.

The Environmental “Protection” Agency will be in charge of setting both the ideal temperatures and the allowed deviations. The EPA will also be allowed to suggest penalties for when those allowed deviations are exceeded.

There are some constraints the EPA must follow.

The country will be divided into climate “zones.” That is in quotes, because the zones aren’t contiguous; they appear to be climatically gerrymandered. For example, Vermont, California, New York, and Massachusetts are “Zone B”. Texas, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Alaska are “Zone C.” Strangely, Arkansas is its own zone. And so forth.

Each zone will have its own temperature ideal. Like I said, these ideals aren’t yet specified; that will be left to the bureaucracy. But what’s fascinating is that each State in a zone must meet the same ideal. Texas and Alaska, therefore, must have the same yearly averaged temperature.

I’m happy to report that “yearly average temperature” is reasonably defined. The “max minus min divided by two” for the dailies, and then the dailies are averaged. There are words for how to handle missing data. These appear to be lifted directly from the National Climate Data Centers’ boilerplate.

The deviations aren’t specified yet, either. But they are allowed to be different for each zone. And there is a grace period. Ideals won’t have to be met until 2014, and the harshest penalties won’t kick in until 2020. Again, I’m no lawyer, but it appears that if any State in a zone fails to meet it targets, all States in the zone are punished equally.

Those penalties aren’t yet specified, but the law did suggest possibilities. There is the usual “denial of federal funds” language, apparently for highway monies. There are also words about increased health care payout burdens: I gather that each State would be reimbursed for Medicare etc. at a lesser rate.

There are some unique punishments. One is mandatory Earth hours. That is, each State would have to prove that it reduced energy consumption the year following its deviation from the ideal temperature. To do that, citizens would be forced to disable their electrical service for up to “twenty-four hours for each calendar month.”

Another penalty is enforced reductions of flights out of (by not into) a State. A third is that a State must demonstrate that its “highway usage” decreased by some set amount. Presumably, this would mean limiting driving in some way.

Look for these new regulations soon. The EPA is expected to reveal them to the public on April 1, 2011.

“Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change” Lovelock

James Lovelock knows of what he speaks: personal experience allows him to say that a lot of humans aren’t that bright.

But Lovelock forgets that while there are many—half!—who are below average on the IQ scale, it takes an academic to say something really stupid.

Take the Gaia hypothesis—now elevated to “theory”—Lovelock’s creation. Life forms a complex web of interactions, Lovelock says. Has anyone in all of history ever disagreed with that? It is trivially true, and noticing it is not the least worthy of praise. Yet several grant-awarding agencies still gave Lovelock a hearty pat on the back after he gave that banal observation a cute name.

James Lovelock and his pal Gaia

And a healthy dose of pre-civilized mysticism, without which Gaia theory would never have caught on. The Earth itself is “alive”; it is one self-regulating organism, says our sage. In which, Gaiaists (Gaiaers? Gaiaphytes?) say, humans are a “cancer” that ma Earth would like to rid itself of. Etc., etc.

Since it is Lovelock’s comment about human ignorance that is our subject today, it is well to point out that Lovelock himself lacks the mental capacity to see the inconsistencies in his theory, despite being given plenty of time to notice them, and being given the able assistance of many critics.

Take the statement “humans are too stupid to take care of themselves.” This implies that Lovelock has somehow discovered a way to become non-human. By which I mean, he has found a way to circumvent his humanity, to rise above it. He has found Enlightenment! He is Earth’s Prophet!

There is no avoiding this simple conclusion. Lovelock must not be one of us. How else can he know that we “[h]umans on the Earth behave in some ways like a pathogenic micro-organism, or like the cells of a tumor or neoplasm.” Gaia must have told him. He could not have figured it out as a human because, as a human, he would be part of the organism.

For example, the heart doesn’t know it’s a heart. It doesn’t even know it’s a mass of muscle tissue. It doesn’t know anything. It’s just one piece of a body. And it cannot decide whether the body would be better off without it. Neither can a cancer cell. It, too, is just mindless tissue. In order to judge it harmful, we have to be above it, to be something greater than cancer.

Now, it is logically possible that Lovelock has become something greater than human. The universe, as it has been said, operates in a mysterious way. He might be the key to our future. It is also logically possible that the Gaia theory is true and that we human beings are a cancer.

But if so, Gaia is one sick planet. She’s as cancer-prone as a four-pack-a-day smoker. Tumorous species are regularly cropping up, and just as regularly being purged from the body Earth. And talk about fickle? How about the radical cosmetic surgery Gaia did to herself 250-million years ago? The old Permian look was out; Triassic was in. So she ruthlessly carved out 90% of her own species! This was way before George W. Bush was elected to any office.

Think I’m joking? Prophet Lovelock himself wrote The Revenge of Gaia. Although it sounds like something that would have ran on channel 50 during Monster-Movie week, it is instead a book which lovingly details how our Earth goddess will pick us humans off, one by one. John: “I think I just saw the Earth move.” Sally: “Don’t be silly. We’re invincible.”

But I’ll tell you what. I agree with Lovelock about one thing. Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change. The climate will change and there is nothing we can do about it.

Forget that we’re powerless to quiet Earth’s orbital variations, or to quell the as-yet unknown cycles of old Sol, the very fact of our existence is enough to change the climate. No amount of intelligence can change this. Every breath we take, or movement we make alters the climate. Not by much, and a lot less than the sun does even when it isn’t trying. But alter it we do.

So what? Do I win an award for this commonplace observation? All I have to do is name it and success is mine! Titles and catchy names aren’t my specialty, unfortunately, so the floor is now open for suggestions.

It’s national Pass On The Briggs month here at wmbriggs.com. If your interpretation of this phrase is on the generous side, email a link of this page to a friend who hasn’t been here before. The best kind of friend is one who has need of a statistician and who has a lot of money.
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