Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Taking action, free will, and neuroscience

If you're interested in the science of how we make decisions, here's a link to a "Scientific American" interview with Michael S. Gazzaniga, a psychologist at UC Santa Barbara. It's not so clear, he says, that we even have free will:
Whatever your beliefs about free will, everyone feels like they have it, even those who dispute that it exists. What neuroscience has been showing us, however, is that it all works differently than how we feel it must work. For instance, neuroscientific experiments indicate that human decisions for action are made before the individual is consciously aware of them. Instead of this finding answering the age-old question of whether the brain decides before the mind decides, it makes us wonder if that is even the way to think about how the brain works.
For another view, take a look at "The Neuroeconomics Revolution" by Robert J. Shiller, a professor of economics at Yale.

And if you're really interested in the subject, I highly recommend In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind by Eric Kandel, for a great memoir/explanation of modern brain research.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The limits of prediction, and what you can do about it

As policy makers, managers, and planners, we usually try to make decisions taking account of all the possible circumstances, as best as we can understand them. That is, we try to predict what is going to happen in the future. 

And that's not so easy. A recently released report, "Driving in the Dark: Ten Propositions About Prediction and National Security" by Richard Danzig, of the Center for a New American Security, explains why, and what we can do about it. We need to assume that long-term strategies will be wrong, and our predictive capacities limited, Danzig says. “Planners need to complement their efforts at foresight with thinking and actions that account for the high probability of predictive failure.”

Written with the military in mind, Danzig makes his case in 10 propositions, five descriptive, five prescriptive. Starting with the premise that experience and social science literature demonstrate that long-term predictions are consistently mistaken, Danzig points out that in the long range national security will continue to present unpredictable issues and confound prediction, and that planning across a range of scenarios will not prevent predictive failure. These insights are equally applicable to not-for-profits and governments as well. 

So what to do? Danzig says, “Policymakers are right to attempt to enhance their understanding of the future, but such efforts need to be complemented with a better recognition of likely failures of foresight. I recommend schizophrenia: People must simultaneously predict and plan for predictive failure.” He suggests that policymakers speed up decision making when they can, but insist on making some decisions as late as possible. Adaptability should be a priority. And nurture diversity and competition, because they produce a broad range of potential responses when the unpredicted events happen. Again, these insights are generalizable to public sector and not-for-profit managers (though much of Danzig's second half is more relevant to the US military). But this paper is clearly written, and anyone with an interest in defense, or budget issues, or politics, will find it worth reading.

I found this paper because I read James Fallows' terrific blog about politics at The Atlantic. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Another interactive display of data

This one comes from Jon Bruner of Forbes who writes the Data Driven blog ("I like to answer interesting questions by writing and programming") for Here's a link to an interactive map of American migration patterns based on IRS data (that's a screenshot of moves into and out of the university town of Bloomington, Indiana above). It's worth clicking through as Bruner has essays from a demographer, a geographer, and a couple of other thoughtful experts interpreting the map. I'll be keeping an eye on this blog.

But not for the next few days - I'll be off until next week for Thanksgiving.

Heart rate and fitness monitoring in soccer preparation

Saturday's NY Times had an interesting article about the U Conn soccer team's approach to fitness using athlete heart rates to make the season's workouts as efficient as possible. (The article has a screenshot of a readout, but it won't reproduce well here, so click through to see it.) The focus on individual athlete data means that coaches can see who needs to rest or recover, as well as who could be working harder.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Globaia maps the Anthropocene

Globaia, an organization dedicated to fostering understanding of environmental issues, has released a series of maps and photos documenting our present geological age, which is starting to be called the Anthropocene, or age of human effects upon the Earth. Whether you call it the Anthropocene or Holocene, the pictures and graphics are telling--it's a great use of mapping software--and also eerily beautiful.

Click through the Globaia site, there are very many pictures. If you have any doubt that humans are having an impact on the global environment, take a look at its clickable graphic "The impact of a global temperature rise of 4 degrees C." (Screenshot below).

Monday, November 14, 2011

Using a story to illuminate the statistics

Today's New York Times carries a compelling column by Harvey Araton about Dr. Richard Lapchick and his work examining racial bias in big-time sports, both professional and college Division I. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), which Lapchick directs, has links to many of the reports, including graduation rates in Division I college football and basketball (women's too), and hiring in the front offices of the NBA, NFL, MLB, and MLS. TIDES also produced an interesting report about the racial and ethnic makeup of the ad agency creative directors who made ads for the 2011 Super Bowl (mostly white males) and the content of the ads. As the report puts it,
In addition to the continuing use of gratuitous sexual content, this year's bundle of ads managed to depict some women in an antagonistic manner featuring a number of ads portraying men attempting to appease their overbearing girlfriends. There was also a lack of people of color featured as main characters in the advertisements.
The report goes on to state the (huge) numbers of African-American, Latino, and female viewers of the 2011 Super Bowl.

Lapchick's personal story, as Araton tells it, is just as important. To quote the article:
In a voice measured and firm, he told of being brutally assaulted more than 30 years ago for asserting that sports was a vehicle from which to propagate change — and having the word nigger, misspelled with one G, carved onto his stomach with a pair of scissors.
  . . . In an instant, eyes widened. Jaws dropped. Mission accomplished, Lapchick unleashed his statistical barrage, aiming to quantify how far sports has come in the pursuit of racial and gender diversity — and how far the industry still has to go.
In other words, once he's got his audience's attention with one compelling episode, Dr. Lapchick can relate the bigger story the statistics tell. And that's a lesson worth remembering.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Predictive data modeling using Kaggle

Kaggle is a startup tech site that lets organizations post datasets and ask world wide users to predict how their customers, clients or patients will behave. It's set up as a competition, and the organizations pay for the best solution with a prize. Here's Kaggle's video explanation:

Kaggle claims on its website always to have outperformed pre-existing accuracy benchmarks, because it draws on a wide range of competitors who keep trying to better each other's work. I can see many applications in social services and yes, you can post scrubbed, anonymous data; you can even post variables as A, B, C without stating what the variables are.

Competitors have already improved NASA's algorithms for mapping dark matter; there's a competition under way to predict hospital stays; and there are classroom applications available so that students can use unknown datasets.

I learned about Kaggle from an Atlantic posting called "The 20 Most Innovative Startups in Tech" by Rebecca Rosen. Check out the article for more interesting websites.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Mapping Gothic France

It's still in beta, and not all the data are loaded yet, but even so the website Mapping Gothic France, put together by art historians Stephen Murray of Columbia and Andrew Tallon of Vassar, is amazing. The home page maps the Gothic cathedrals of France, and provides a link to an arch design simulator - you can stretch a Romenesque arch into a Gothic one. There are animated maps showing the spread of Gothic architecture, and links to essays in called "Stories of Gothic."

For each cathedral, the site includes plans, elevations, timelines, a history and chronology, and a monograph. And photos, many high quality, high resolution photos. (The Columbia Record reports that the project used both a 40 megapixel camera, and a gigapixel camera.) The photo is a  screenshot from a panoramic view from the center of the Cathedrale Notre-Dame in Chartres.

Each cathedral also gets a series of plans, from crypt to roof, with images and panoramic photos clickable on the diagram. Here's a screenshot of the Chartres ground level plan:

 (NB: It's a screenshot, so you can't click on it here, but go to the site.)

You can also compare the cathedrals by their various schematics, including nave heights, aisle heights, or floorplans. Here is a screenshot of the parametric sections, sorted by nave height (that's the red figures, too small to see here, though not on the site). There are three stacking options, depending on how you want to look at the photos or data.

The site does more: it allows a viewer to compare the facades of different cathedrals. You can look at groups from different parts of the country. There are definitions of architectural terms. Altogether, it's an impressive way to think about storing and displaying a huge amount of information that exists in different forms.

If you're looking for your favorite cathedral, you may have to wait a bit - Albi's information is partly loaded, Conques and Avignon are not, yet. Surfing the site is not quite a visit to France, but definitely spend some time on it if you're planning a trip. If you're not, it's still a fascinating way to spend a couple of hours days.

Thanks to Dan Richman for telling me about Mapping Gothic France.

Monday, November 7, 2011

NYC Marathon Graphics and Sports Stat Quiz

The NYC Marathon was run yesterday (in case you missed it). In preparation, on Saturday the NY Times carried a graphic showing changes in population and income along the race route since 1976, when the race expanded to all five boroughs. A screenshot of the Times graphic is below.

I watched the race for a while from Fourth Avenue between Carroll and Garfield Streets, towards the end of Mile 8. I saw the runner I planned to meet there, and then I saw two others I hadn't. What are the chances of that? More than 48,000 runners started.

On Sunday, the Times' Education Supplement carried an article about sports statistics classes, and you can try to figure it out yourself. Or you can try some problems with real solutions in the Times quiz here.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Caveat lector

Update: Here is a link to an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the same topic, "Fraud Scandal Fuels Debate Over Practices of Social Psychology."

This is a follow-up to my post earlier this week about the increase in retractions of articles by scientific journals - today's New York Times carries a story about a Dutch psychologist, Diederik Stapel, who appears to have faked a lot of work, including data and entire experiments. There's concern about the students who obtained PhDs under his guidance as well. The Retraction Watch blog has been covering the report the Times mentions, and it all makes pretty discomfiting reading.

As the Times article goes on to discuss, there is a bigger story, especially important for people who use social science data:

The scandal, involving about a decade of work, is the latest in a string of embarrassments in a field that critics and statisticians say badly needs to overhaul how it treats research results. In recent years, psychologists have reported a raft of findings on race biases, brain imaging and even extrasensory perception that have not stood up to scrutiny. Outright fraud may be rare, these experts say, but they contend that Dr. Stapel took advantage of a system that allows researchers to operate in near secrecy and massage data to find what they want to find, without much fear of being challenged.

“The big problem is that the culture is such that researchers spin their work in a way that tells a prettier story than what they really found,” said Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It’s almost like everyone is on steriods, and to compete you have to take steroids as well.”
. . . 
In a survey of more than 2,000 American psychologists scheduled to be published this year, Leslie John of Harvard Business School and two colleagues found that 70 percent had acknowledged, anonymously, to cutting some corners in reporting data. About a third said they had reported an unexpected finding as predicted from the start, and about 1 percent admitted to falsifying data.

Also common is a self-serving statistical sloppiness. In an analysis published this year, [Jelte] Wicherts and Marjan Bakker, also at the University of Amsterdam, searched a random sample of 281 psychology papers for statistical errors. They found that about half of the papers in high-end journals contained some statistical error, and that about 15 percent of all papers had at least one error that changed a reported finding — almost always in opposition to the authors’ hypothesis.

You can find a copy of the Wicherts and Bakker paper here, in English. The Leslie John paper is not yet published, but I will keep an eye out for it.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Using numbers to improve airline boarding procedures

I took two flights over the weekend and neither one boarded efficiently. You may have seen the article in this morning's New York Times about increasing the efficiency of boarding. The online version contains a link to this nifty site, Airplane Boarding, which has animations of different ways to board. (Screenshot below - I can't embed the video). It's created by a U of Colorado Business School professor named Menkes van den Briel.

van den Briel links to another site, Round Peg, showing a better way yet to board, one the creator, Rob Wallace, calls the "Flying Carpet." That page also has an animation. I can't embed it, either, so go take a look.

Increasing numbers of retractions - and graphing them

Here's a link to an article in Nature that describes an increase in the number of retractions of scientific articles worldwide in the past 10-15 years. It's worth a look for at least two reasons.

First, the chart, (or charts, there are three) illustrating the article (screenshot below) is (are) particularly clear. The axis starts at 0, the colors are consistent, and the author, Richard Van Noorden, makes sure to point out that some journals are more influential than others.

Second, the issue of retractions generally is one that deserves broader amplification. I depend a lot on the research of others, and learning that something has changed is a useful reminder not to finish my research too early. Van Noorden makes some suggestions for reform of the non-system we have now for retractions of scientific articles, such as better ways to link retractions to the original reports, and also some mechanism to distinguish honest mistakes from fraud or massive error. Van Noorden also identifies a blog, Retraction Watch, that tracks "retractions as a window into the scientific process." If you're curious, it's a fun blog to explore.

Thanks to Arts and Letters Daily for pointing to the article.

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