William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

A day in the life of a statistician

24 March 2009

3:01 am. Up. Not that I want to be, but I am. I have to give a lecture at 6:30 am to a bunch of surgical residents. But since I spent all day yesterday writing one of those new, stimulusified NIH “Challenge” grants (me and 42,000 other people are writing them, making the chance of getting funded near zero; so why write one? politics), I did not have a chance to think of what I’ll say in my lecture.

3:18 am. Coffee circulating through blood stream nicely. Before I get started on that lecture, I have to learn what’s new on the George Webber murder. He was a news guy on the old Curtis & Kuby radio program. Found bound and stabbed in his Brooklyn apartment the day before. Turns out he was trolling for S&M activities over Craig’s List. I have never yet heard of even one thing going right from the use of that site.

3:42 am. Check comments from yesterday’s post on “What technological or scientific advance you’d like to see?” Once again, my excessively bright readers make my heart soar like a hawk.

3:51 am. Before I get to that lecture, I decide to cruise by Arts & Letters Daily to see what Dennis Dutton has up today. Still the old post; too early. What time is it in Australia? I go to Google to check.

4:03 am. Time for eggs (cooked in bacon fat, the only way), more coffee, a few cookies.

4:30 am. Decide to futz around with some code that I wrote the day before. I improve the time of a function by a good millisecond and I feel satisfaction.

5:00 am. Papers are here. Better read them before I have to get ready. I decide to think about lecture in the shower. No new news on the Webber murder.

5:29 am. Time for the three Ss.

5:55 am. Out the door and to the F train! I only have to wait eight minutes for it. Going to be a good day. Start reading the end of a chapter in Brody’s The Philosophy Behind Physics. I figure once I finish that, I’ll think of the lecture.

6:44 am. Just a bit late, but residents don’t mind. They don’t really want to hear about how fascinating statistics can be so early in the morning. They have to take their boards on which there are over two hundred multiple choice questions. Three to four of these might be on statistics. So the department requires them to hear two yearly lectures. As I open the doors of the white board (I hate PowerPoint), I finally decide what I’ll lecture on. The so-called difference between means. I walk back and forth like a caged ape waving my arms about and try, vainly probably, to explain the proper interpretation of a p-value.

More and more statisticians are beginning to agree with me that we should abandon teaching classical statistics to newbies: it’s just too damn confusing, and nobody can ever remember any of it (e.g. see this paper). Inertia is against us. If I don’t teach classical stuff, then those surgeons will get their board questions wrong, because they were all written by real-life surgeons who half misremember the classical statistics they were taught by somebody like me. Death spiral.

7:35 am. Not too many of them fell asleep—I am too loud and intimidating anyway. Back upstairs to answer a slew of emails.

8:00 am. One of the emergency residents gets off shift and brings over a paper we’re revising. The reviewer of the original paper must have had ambitions to be a copy editor, one with an obsession with misplaced commas. The only substantial comment is that the reviewer wants an enhanced “Table 1”. Which, of course, is my job.

9:15 am. Original caffeine dose depleted. Decide to opt for tea from the machine.

10:02 am. Boss in. Go over the grant I wrote the day before. I misspelled his name. Also, I misspelled a few other words, too. Orthography and me are perpetual enemies. Spelling doesn’t count!

10:43 am Work on various things. A colleague emails and asks about the arules package in R. It returns an object of the itemMatrix class and he can’t figure out how to write it out to disk. He can’t coerce it to a simpler form. Turns out its not meant to be written out but to be input to methods that plot it, give summaries, etc. etc. Never seen the package before. Data mining rules finder. Looks interesting enough to check out again.

11:35 am. Emails are stacking up. Don’t have time to answer. Figure I’ll do it in the afternoon. Run down to cafeteria to buy a salad. Pay to the women who looks like the captain of that crashed ship in the original Alien movie. She’s a sweetheart. But I have never seen her move from that chair.

12:13 pm. Many people coming by asking questions. This is easy for them because I got kicked out of my chair earlier and I’m sitting in the lobby and thus easy to see. A drug rep who is sponsoring one of our clinical trials is here for a site visit and he gets my chair. Note closely that I said “chair” and not “desk”. I do not have the later. I have a chair that is wedged into a corner that abuts a desk. If the research nurse (whose husband is a gun-carrying FBI guy) doesn’t have too much paperwork, she lets me put my coffee/tea cup on the desk. Good thing I have a laptop and a long lap.

1:01 pm. One of the vascular surgeons calls me and asks “if I have a minute.” I wrap up some code and head upstairs. Nearly three hours later, I leave. We are working on re-submitting a paper to a surgical journal. So we answer the reviewers comments one by one, making sure we don’t let the reviewer know what a putz he really is. No, not really. But it is always an adversarial process and you can’t help but think the guy on the other end has it in for you.

The publishing companies now make you do all the work from editing to typesetting; their websites are a mess. But they at least had the grace to raise the fees they charge libraries to carry their journals.

I notice the book Case Studies of Surgeries in Iraq and Afghanistan (I might have the exact title wrong) on this desk and take a look. Every type of wound is in there: blown off faces, missing skull caps, missing arms, legs, manhoods, etc. The bottom of one guy’s legs look like an octopus’s. One guy’s back is peeled away revealing a huge blanket of orangey-yellow fat cells. We talk about the difference between vascular surgery and field surgery. Turns out he will be going to Germany in a week to put in a month of volunteering at one of the Army hospitals—which is where everybody is shipped after they’re stabilized in country. We end up talking of lawyers…and you know what that means.

3:10 pm. Back in the ED. Something going on with the database. Have to run some reports, write some SQL. Do a quick check of email. Dan Miller from the Heartland Institute is looking for somebody who lives in Manhattan to talk to an Italian TV company about cap & trade regulations. Don’t have time to answer and figure I’ll do it later (turns out he emails again much later in the day asking for a quick response: I obviously didn’t give one).

4:22 pm. Oops. Have to go because I’m going to dinner. Have to be back in the city and at the restaurant by 5:30 pm.

5:29 pm. I’m actually early! Dinner progresses, but I was tired and not full of my usual wit and charm. I had some kind of fish. I think.

7:30 pm. Back home. Plugged laptop in to charge, brushed my teeth, laid down in bed, and picked up a John Ringo book, which is the last thing I saw until 6:11 am this morning (where I awoke to emails saying the database is on the fritz, the paper is due, something is wrong with this website’s log files; was the site even up last night…).


  1. Cruelty to statisticians is a punishable offence, long lap or not, I’d be having words
    about the desk sitch’.
    It’s not cricket to correct someone’s spelling, looks churlish; numbers, on the other hand? Hmm.
    Hope you didn’t miss your opportunity there to be famous!
    They might even have let you wear your cape, the Italians are fond of fashion.

  2. Wow, and we thought you lived an ascetic’s life. Who knew you had so much fun going on about you all the time? Running from one academia bash to another. Envious.

  3. Briggs

    March 25, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    From xylkt we have this update on the Webber murder. Jesus, George. Sixty bucks?

  4. SteveBrooklineMA

    March 25, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    I am tempted by the Challenge Grant call too. Last time I heard though, there are 40 going out from our department (Radiology) at our hospital alone. In this context, my colleagues and I joke about what “shovel ready” means.

  5. Briggs

    March 25, 2009 at 5:37 pm


    Italian thing didn’t pan out. I was under the very natural assumption they were talking about next week—and I even didn’t agree to do it because I said I knew nothing about cap & trade policies—but it turned out to be today. When I was in Brooklyn (Nicholas Cage and his producer were blocking the 8th avenue F train exit, which is my exit; some damn movie I’ll never see; I don’t go to movies where the leading actor who is bald doesn’t act like or doesn’t wear a toupe old school style) they were expecting I’d be in Manhattan. Anyway, miscommunication on somebody’s part.

  6. I’ve only just realised that you never saw men with receded hair in old movies. They must mostly have been wearing wigs or toupes. The female actresses according to my hairdresser, often have extensions or wigs. It’s what the audience wants to see.
    As long as “the collar and cuffs match”, To quote Roger Moore.

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