William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Reader Poll: Mayan Apocalypse, For or Against?

A sad world it would be without sausage

In just over a week, on 21 December, it will be the glorious End of Times or it will be just over a week from today. Which is to be preferred?

Now I know we don’t get a vote, but we can air an opinion. Assuming the event will go off as planned1, and that we do not brave the Fiscal Cliff but instead careen headlong over the Edge of Doom, what are your thoughts?

My initial inclination was to vote Good Riddance. No more the endless toil of drumming up consulting! No more outlet malls! No more hip hop, acid rock, Beatles, Carpenters, or musak! More than a few who finally get their well deserved comeuppance. The end of cars, banks, tiny airline seats, IRS agents, and petty totalitarians like Hizzoner.

But then no more black pudding, Guinness, or whiskey either. No Mozart or Oscar Peterson or Bach. Quiet walks in the woods or along the quay in a light drizzle: gone! Cigars and pleasant conversation would be no more! All those books finally consumed! And what about cheese!

No, not good riddance, but a sad good bye. My first reasoning to throw the good out with the bad was wrong. The world being in a fallen state, the latter will always outnumber the former, but the good always outweighs the bad by an infinite amount.

Since we have assumed the Event will occur, my last feeling is one of melancholy regret.

But perhaps all this is brought on by my knowledge that I yet again have to squeeze my bulk into a seat designed for a super model on a diet and hurtle myself through space in a thin aluminum tube towards a destination I do not wish to be at. Sigh.


1This means those who argue “The Mayans were wrong!” cannot follow instructions and thus deserve oblivion.

What Can We Learn From A Crude Model Of Sexually Transmitted Diseases?

One of many STDs

It’s Statistical Modeling Day, so let’s look at one dealing with sexually transmitted diseases. Why this subject? Well, according to New York’s CBS 2, “Study Shows Soaring STD Rates In Many Areas Of New York City: 181 Zip Codes Analyzed And Surge In HIV/AIDS Is Alarming In Some Areas.”

The report said the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene canvassed the city’s neighborhoods for the “concurrence in rates of HIV/AIDS, chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and hepatitis B, as well as two non-sexually-transmitted diseases — hepatitis C and tuberculosis.” TB is transmitted many ways, but “Hep C”, as it is affectionately known, passes all too often through drug use. However, there are too many transmission paths for these diseases for us to consider simply, so we’ll concentrate on STDs.

This are important, too, for as the report indicated:

The study said 33 percent of all the ZIP codes in New York City were in the top quintile citywide for multiple sexually-transmitted diseases during a survey taken in 2010. Among the most severe examples is ZIP code 10474 in Hunts Point, the Bronx, where rates of hepatitis C, chlamydia, gonorrhea and HIV/AIDS all ranked in the top 20 percent of all New York City ZIP codes.

Faring even worse was ZIP code 10457, in the Tremont section of the Bronx, which ranked in the top quintile for all seven diseases surveyed. Forty-three percent of residents in the neighborhood live below the federal poverty line, the report said.

Here’s our model. Suppose capital and lower-case letters represent the two sexes; it doesn’t matter which is which. Suppose A mates with a, B with b, and so forth, with the latter letters not mating with anybody (X,x,Y, and so on become priests, nuns, or New York Times subscribers). Also, an AA (so that we have more than 26 pairs of individuals) might even mate with another AA, etc. Let’s be clear: A does not mate with b, nor c with E. That is, once a letter matches its mate, it sticks to it and never switches.

We have the sexual mating piece, and now need the diseases. Sprinkle them liberally among our “people”, with fractions of HIV/AIDS, chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and hepatitis B equaling that of reality. Maybe, say, 25% of our population have these diseases, let us suppose in equal amounts, and randomly.

This is a model, and therefore like all models only tenuously connected with reality; nevertheless if cautiously approached it can give us hints about reality—as long as we don’t take it too seriously.

Now if A has (say) gonorrhea, then a is likely to get it, too. But A (and a) can trundle off to the doctor and cure it. They might not, and so there is a chance that their offspring catch this disease through pregnancy. However, it’s not a sure thing; and then the offspring will probably seek out treatment (STDs are routinely screened for at pregnancy). HIV is different: it is not curable and can be passed to offspring (but only when capital and lower-case letters mate; if equally cased letters mate there are no offspring, of course).

B and b and C and c and even EE and EE etc. (suppose) have nothing. Since they have matched their letters, it is impossible they should catch anything—unless by the rare chance via drug use or contact with specimens. If, on these unlikely occasions one or both of the pair do contract a disease, they move to the category of A and a above.

Well, that’s it, really; that’s our entire model. You can see how far from reality it is, because if people stuck to the model, then STDs would rapidly die out or become as rare as cases of scurvy. A benefit not to be overlooked is the enormous cost savings of a program (even, yes, a government program, but better originating in the family) which encourages people to emulate the model.

But since I am a realist, and as I have already warned, there is no chance this model will ever hold for the entire population. Notice, though, that it can hold for subgroups of the population, even subgroups as small as “A and a.”

See? Something can be learned from this model after all.

Transhumanists Gather In San Francisco

David Pearce, transhumanist and vegan

My first thought when I read the title of today’s post (from Bioedge) was that it was some kind of warning. Look out! It’s the transhumanists! And then I figured what better place than San Francisco?

The only interesting comment, and the subject of today’s brief entry, was by somebody called David Pearce, who Wikipedia assures us “believes there exists a strong ethical imperative for humans to work towards the abolition of suffering in all sentient life.” Good luck with that, as the kiddies say.

Bioedge summed up Pearce’s contribution, which he calls “paradise engineering”, thusly:

the coming evolutionary transition could have three stages. In the first biological humans will rewrite their genetic source code and bootstrap their way to super-intelligence. In the second, cybernetic brain implants will allow us to fuse our minds with artificial intelligence and to “upload” ourselves onto less perishable substrates. In digital nirvana, the distinction between biological and non-biological machines will effectively disappear. In the third there will be an ultra-rapid “Intelligence Explosion” and an era of non-biological super-intelligence.

Comments which culminated in these ominous words:

Post-human super-intelligence may or may not be human-friendly.

So it appears the warning might not have been out of place after all.

The Superpower I’d Most Like To Have

This is written in earnest; my desire is sincere. And not uncommon: I mean, the longing for a superpower and the announcing of same are not rare.

No less than President Obama was asked on the campaign “trail” about his power. He said he’d like to communicate in any language: read, write, speak. This is good, and one I have shared. My version of it, but not the power I most pine for, is that whatever book I touch, I immediately assimilate its contents, in whatever language. I have visions of running through libraries, rubbing the books as I shoot down the aisles.

But this “power” has a significant and regrettable downside. Reading is pleasurable and I’d be forever depriving myself of re-re-reading Rumpole or O’Brian at nights. Airplane rides would become even more horrifying with nothing to do to pass the time but watch on the seat-back miniature cinematographs story-less bouts of computer animation, all narrated by choruses of lifeless dialogue.

I also don’t want to fly (under my own efforts; a aeroplane is just barely tolerable). Because then I’d be tempted, like any citizen who owns a car, to use that method of conveyance in lieu of walking, and there would go another pleasant hobby. Amazing strength I don’t need, because there’s nothing heavy I should want to lift. Being bullet proof is somewhat appealing, but since I no longer live in Detroit, it’s not necessary.

No, the power I wish to have, the capacity that would trump all others, is selective deafness!

Ain’t you amazed?, as Jack Aubrey (a character in those O’Brian books) might ask. To be able to switch on and off hearing at will would be a talent most enviable.

Think of it! There you sit, exiled in yet another endless committee meeting: switch off! Then sit back with a countenance indicating concern, but where you are blissfully left to your own thoughts. If enough people gesture your way, switch on!, and consider if it’s something with which you have to deal.

You’re at your desk, beavering away, and in the street from five blocks and a vehicle begins to back up, all the while emitting an ear splitting beep-beep-beep. Why? Lest a hoard of innocent bystanders get run over, that’s why. Switch off!

The radio is playing an interview with an important personage, but a commercial break is necessary. “We’re conducting a marketing trial in your area”, “Donate your car to us and we’ll give ten cents of the profits to our sponsoring charity”, “Are you fat or in debt? Call us today!” Switch off! These breaks are all roughly the same length, and with some practice you’ll be able to switch back on when the program resumes.

You finally discover, after years of patient searching, a public house which does not insist its drinks must be served with gut-wrenching doses of incredibly loud, yet stupefyingly bad, music, and some clown sits next to you, whips out her cell phone and then shouts into it with all the vigor of a calvary officer leading a charge. This being a lady, you can’t do anything more than stare blunted daggers, so…switch off! and enjoy your Guinness in peace.

A cheery stroll down the street, until you come upon the shopping district. Doors of the establishments are open, and out pours, in terrifying quantities, gut-wrenching doses of incredibly loud, yet stupefyingly bad, music. Switch off! Incidentally, the last government sponsored survey shows that there are no known stores left in America which do not play music; shop owners conclude people cannot buy unless their brains are first pulverized by peppy bass lines.

A picnic on the Sheep Meadow, on a fine July day; the sun warm, the champagne cold. And then Summer Stage, set half the park away, starts up and yet another diverse band begins pumping gut-wrenching doses of incredibly loud, yet stupefyingly bad, music. Switch off!

I challenge to you come up with any power which has as many benefits and little to no negatives. Just don’t tell your wife of your talent, or she’ll forever accuse you of using it even when you’re not.

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