Recently in Art Category

Missed Friday the 13th Zombie Plot Update


The revised paper

Slightly improved figures

And just the history part from my thesis - that some find interesting.
(And to provide a selfish wiki meta-analysis entry pointer)

I have had about a dozen friends read this or earlier versions - they split into finding it interesting (and pragmatic) versus incomprehensible.

The reason for that may or may not point to ways to make it clearer.


Bechdel wasn't kidding


Regular readers of this blog know about the Bechdel test for movies:

1. It has to have at least two women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man

Amusing, huh? But I only really got the point the other day, when I was on a plane and passively watched parts of the in-flight movie. It was something I'd never heard of (of course) and it happened to be a chick flick--even without the soundtrack, it was clear that the main character was a woman and much of it was about her love life. But even this movie failed the Bechdel test miserably! I don't even think it passed item #1 above, but if it did, it certainly failed #2.

If even the chick flicks are failing the Bechdel test, then, yeah, we're really in trouble. And don't get me started on those old Warner Brothers cartoons. They're great but they feature about as many female characters as the average WWII submarine. Sure, everybody knows this, but it's still striking to think about just how unbalanced these things are.

Scott "Dilbert" Adams has met Charlie Sheen and thinks he really is a superbeing. This perhaps relates to some well-known cognitive biases. I'm not sure what this one's called, but the idea is that Adams is probably overweighting his direct impressions: he saw Sheen-on-the-set, not Sheen-beating-his-wife. Also, everybody else hates Sheen, so Adams can distinguish himself by being tolerant, etc.

I'm not sure what this latter phenomenon is called, but I've noticed it before. When I come into a new situation and meet some person X, who everybody says is a jerk, and then person X happens to act in a civilized way that day, then there's a real temptation to say, Hey, X isn't so bad after all. It makes me feel so tolerant and above-it-all. Perhaps that's partly what's going on with Scott Adams here: he can view himself as the objective outsider who can be impressed by Sheen, not like all those silly emotional people who get hung up on the headlines. From here, though, it just makes Adams look silly, to be so impressed that Sheen didn't miss a line of dialogue, etc. The logical next step is the story of how he met John Edwards and was impressed at how statesmanlike he was.

5 seconds of every #1 pop single


This is pretty amazing. Now I want to hear volume 3. Also is there a way to download this as I play it so I can listen when I'm offline?

P.S. Typo in title fixed.

P.P.S. I originally gave a different link but was led to the apparently more definitive link above (which allows direct download) from a commenter. Thanks!


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Pete Gries writes:

I [Gries] am not sure if what you are suggesting by "doing data analysis in a patternless way" is a pitch for deductive over inductive approaches as a solution to the problem of reporting and publication bias. If so, I may somewhat disagree. A constant quest to prove or disprove theory in a deductive manner is one of the primary causes of both reporting and publication bias. I'm actually becoming a proponent of a remarkably non-existent species - "applied political science" - because there is so much animosity in our discipline to inductive empirical statistical work that seeks to answer real world empirical questions rather than contribute to parsimonious theory building. Anyone want to start a JAPS - Journal of Applied Political Science? Our discipline is in danger of irrelevance.

My reply: By "doing data analysis in a patternless way," I meant statistical methods such as least squares, maximum likelihood, etc., that estimate parameters independently without recognizing the constraints and relationships between them. If you estimate each study on its own, without reference to all the other work being done in the same field, then you're depriving yourself of a lot of information and inviting noisy estimates and, in particular, overestimates of small effects.

Don't try this at home


Malecki's right, this is very cool indeed.


P.S. Is it really true that "4.5 million Parisians" ride the Metro every day? Even setting aside that not all the riders are Parisians, I'm guessing that 4.5 million is the number of rides, not the number of people who ride.

Brow inflation


In an article headlined, "Hollywood moves away from middlebrow," Brooks Barnes writes:

As Hollywood plowed into 2010, there was plenty of clinging to the tried and true: humdrum remakes like "The Wolfman" and "The A-Team"; star vehicles like "Killers" with Ashton Kutcher and "The Tourist" with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp; and shoddy sequels like "Sex and the City 2." All arrived at theaters with marketing thunder intended to fill multiplexes on opening weekend, no matter the quality of the film. . . .

But the audience pushed back. One by one, these expensive yet middle-of-the-road pictures delivered disappointing results or flat-out flopped. Meanwhile, gambles on original concepts paid off. "Inception," a complicated thriller about dream invaders, racked up more than $825 million in global ticket sales; "The Social Network" has so far delivered $192 million, a stellar result for a highbrow drama. . . . the message that the year sent about quality and originality is real enough that studios are tweaking their operating strategies. . . . To reboot its "Spider-Man" franchise, for instance, Sony hired Marc Webb, whose only previous film was the indie comedy "(500) Days of Summer." The studio has also entrusted a big-screen remake of "21 Jump Street" to Phil Lord and Chris Miller, a pair whose only previous film was the animated "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs." . . . Guillermo del Toro, the "Pan's Labyrinth" auteur, is developing a new movie around Disneyland's Haunted Mansion ride. . . .

"In years past," said Sean Bailey, Disney's president for production, "most live-action films seemed like they had to be either one thing or the other: commercial or quality. The industry had little expectation of a film being both. Our view is the opposite."

Huh? Standards have certainly changed when a Spiderman sequel, and a 21 Jump Street remake, and a ride at Disneyland are defined as "highbrow."

The cultural products described in the article--big-money popular entertainments that are well-reviewed and have some association with quality--are classic middlebrow. Back around 1950, Russell Lynes and Dwight Macdonald were all over this.

Of course, Lynes and Macdonald would've identified the New York Times as Middlebrow Central and so wouldn't have been surprised at all to see uber-middlebrow items labeled as highbrow. That's the whole essence of middlebrow: to want the "qualiity" label without putting in the work. 21 Jump Street, indeed.

P.S. I agree with (the ghosts of) Lynes and Macdonald that these middlebrow movies are just fine if that's what people want. It's just funny to see them labeled as "highbrow," in what almost seems like a parody of middlebrow aspiration. So "edgy."

Attractive models (and data) wanted for statistical art show.


I have agreed to do a local art exhibition in February.

An excuse to think about form, colour and style for plotting almost individual observation likelihoods - while invoking the artists privilege of refusing to give interpretations of their own work.

In order to make it possibly less dry I'll try to use intuitive suggestive captions like in this example TheTyranyof13.pdf

thereby side stepping the technical discussions like here RadfordNealBlog

Suggested models and data sets (or even submissions) would be most appreciated.

I likely be sticking to realism i.e. plots that represent 'statistical reality' faithfully.


Too much blogging



Lauryn Hill update


Juli thought this might answer some of my questions. To me, though, it seemed a bit of a softball interview, didn't really go into the theory that the reason she's stopped recording is that she didn't really write most of the material herself.

Congressman Kevin Brady from Texas distributes this visualization of reformed health care in the US (click for a bigger picture):


Here's a PDF at Brady's page, and a local copy of it.

Complexity has its costs. Beyond the cost of writing it, learning it, following it, there's also the cost of checking it. John Walker has some funny examples of what's hidden in the almost 8000 pages of IRS code.

Text mining and applied statistics will solve all that, hopefully. Anyone interested in developing a pork detection system for the legislation? Or an analysis of how much entropy to the legal code did each congressman contribute?

There are already spin detectors, that help you detect whether the writer is a Democrat ("stimulus", "health care") or a Republican ("deficit spending", "ObamaCare").

D+0.1: Jared Lander points to versions by Rep. Boehner and Robert Palmer.

This looks cool:

Ten years ago researchers in America took two groups of three-year-olds and showed them a blob of paint on a canvas. Children who were told that the marks were the result of an accidental spillage showed little interest. The others, who had been told that the splodge of colour had been carefully created for them, started to refer to it as "a painting".

Now that experiment . . . has gone on to form part of the foundation of an influential new book that questions the way in which we respond to art. . . . The book, which is subtitled The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, is not an attack on modern or contemporary art and Bloom says fans of more traditional art are not capable of making purely aesthetic judgments either. "I don't have a strong position about the art itself," he said this weekend. "But I do have a strong position about why we actually like it."

This sounds fascinating. But I'm skeptical about this part:

Humans are incapable of just getting pleasure from the way something looks, he [Paul Bloom, the author of the book described above] argues.

What is it about art that makes people say such silly things? This above sentence is not a direct quote from Bloom, though, so maybe it's just a misunderstanding coming from Vanessa Thorpe, the author of the above-quoted news article.

There are a few more contradictions floating around here. As noted above, at one point, Thorpe writes:

The book . . . is not an attack on modern or contemporary art and Bloom says fans of more traditional art are not capable of making purely aesthetic judgments either.

But look later on:

"Traditional art is about what is in the world; more modern works are about the very process of representation," he writes. "An appreciation of much of modern art therefore requires specific expertise. Any dope can marvel at a Rembrandt, but only an elite few can make any sense of a work such as Sherrie Levine's Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp), and so only an elite few are going to enjoy it . . . Any schmoe can buy, and appreciate, a pretty painting. . ."

I wonder if the author of this book (and the author of the news article) have read Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word, which tells a story that's pretty coherent to me. I worry about the circularity of defining modern art as abstract stuff that's hard to follow. To me this seems to have a lot more to do with the history of the academic/museum art world in the 20th century than with psychological perceptions of art.

I'd really hate to generalize from statements about Jackson Pollock (whose "drip" paintings I, personally, see no merit in whatsoever, but, hey, that's just me talking here) to claims that "humans are incapable of just getting pleasure from the way something looks." I'm hoping to go to Lascaux in August (yeah, I know, they don't let you into the real Lascaux, but the tour guides say that the fake one nearby is pretty good) so can report back to you then.

In the meantime, the psychology research looks great, and I suppose the author of an academic book can hardly complain if an overwhelmingly positive newspaper article gets a few things wrong. I'm looking forward to reading the book myself, that's for sure.

I see that somebody wrote a book about 4'33". It would be cool if the book were completely empty, but I have a horrible feeling that there are actual words in it. For one thing, the Amazon listing says it's 272 pages and retails for $24. If it were really what I hope it was, it would be 433 pages long and retail for $4.33, a low enough price that it might actually sell a few copies as a gag.

P.S. A few years ago Bob and Mitzi, I think, performed 4'33" at the gong show. The crowd totally didn't get it. After about 30 seconds, everybody was getting completely uncomfortable, there were shouts of "Gong Them!," and the judges duly complied. Cage was ahead of his time, and he's ahead of our time too.

1. From what I read, 2012 is a big-budget, low-brains remake of Miracle Mile, while completely missing the point of the original. So sad.

2. Meryl Streep was totally wasted in Fantastic Mr. Fox. And I don't mean she was drunk--well, maybe she was, who knows?--but her talent went largely unused. Seems like a crime to have Meryl Streep in a movie and not make more use of what she can do.

On the other hand, everyone deserves to relax now and then. If Streep is going to be taking a break, there's no harm in her doing it in the context of a movie.

And, on the plus side, they didn't let Gilbert Gottfried or anyone who sounds like him get anywhere near the place.

Silly stat-based music video

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Richard Morey writes:

I don't know if you are into this sort of thing, but I came across it on the web and thought it was entertaining. Essentially, it is a music video made up of visualizations of quantitative information. It follows a day in a workers life. I suspect some of the data is real. Anyway, it is a creative use of data visualization. I don't know anything about the artist(s).

Num Pang


Luc Sante has a blog

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Here (I found it through a link from Jenny Davidson). Only one update in the past six months, but still, it's the great Luc Sante...

Aleks was nice enough to pass this on to us.

A wacky clock


Could someone build me a physical version of this?

Two kinds of book


One of the things Brad Paley talked about the other day was the computer program he used to make a visualization of the text of Alice in Wonderland [link fixed]. (Click on the "Alice in Wonderland" link; it's really cool.)

My first question when I saw this was, why is the book presented as a circle rather than a line? The circle places the end of the book at the same place as the beginning. There are some reasons this might make sense--after all, Alice wakes up from her dream at the very end of the book, returning to where she was at the start--but, overall, I don't see the circularity making sense. I asked Brad during his talk, but he did not have time to respond (too many questions were being asked, a problem I'd love to have at my own talks!). He indicated that he did have a good reason, though, so if he lets me know I'll report it here.

People asked what was the point of the TextArc display (other than it looking pretty), and Brad gave a bunch of examples of what the plot showed. In some way it was similar to some of my statistical research efforts, in that the results were impressive but ended up confirming things that made sense and that, ultimately, we already knew. In my case, my colleagues and I found that American Indians are not randomly distributed in the social network; in Brad's case, he found that Alice is a central character in Alice in Wonderland, that the words "Mock" and "Turtle" go together, and so forth. (See here for more.)

When pressed further, Brad justified TextArc as a souped-up index. This made a lot of sense to me: his graph tells you lots of information that's not in a conventional index and also allows you to map straight back to the original text. I agree that it's silly to criticize the program for what it doesn't do. It's an automatic program and does a lot. I'm also impressed by any program written more than 5 years ago that still works!

Anyway, one of Brad's remarks about using this tool to understand text made me think that there are two kinds of books:
1. Books that you want to read straight through, from beginning to end.
2. Books that you use for reference, flipping through and looking for what you need.
The horrible thing is that I write all my books as if they will be read from beginning to end, but I'm pretty sure most people read them as reference books. For most people--even most statisticians--reading Bayesian Data Analysis from beginning to end would be like me reading the instruction manual for my washing machine. I pick up the instruction manual when I need it, and then I look for what I need.

Anyway, I thought this might be relevant to TextArc and similar projects. Maybe Alice in Wonderland is not the best example; it might make more sense to use TextArc for a book such as Bayesian Data Analysis that has a sequence but is primarily used for reference. (I went to the TextArc site but can't find the program; at least, there's no easy way to feed in a book and have it produce the TextArc picture.)

Nathan Yau makes some good points in response to my belated comments on his "5 Best Data Visualization Projects of the Year."

First off, I'd like to apologize for saying the projects "suck," That was just rude. Would I like it if somebody said that the examples in Bayesian Data Analysis "suck" because they're not completely realistic, or if somebody said that the demos in Teaching Statistics "suck" because they're not tied closely enough to the lecture material? A better thing for me to say would've been: "I don't particularly like these as data displays, but I'm impressed by the effort that went into them, and I'm glad to see these sort of data-based displays getting a broad audience."

In the interest of constructive discussion, I'd like to make a few points.

Fun sounds

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Click over and check it out.

Forecasting the future


Carpenter's 1981 movie Escape from New York was a dystopian vision of the 1997. There was plenty of technology shown, but I was struck by Lee Van Cleef making a call using a two-handed cell phone:


For comparison, an actual 1997 cell phone on the right (via Niels Hoffmeyer).

Science fiction tends to imagine new technological developments along a particular track, but in reality those developments have been made cheaper and widespread. William Gibson has a good quote: "The future is already here - it is just unevenly distributed." It's true that we've lived through 50 years of development guided by consumer economy. To be fair to the science fiction authors, it was military and government that guided development before that, and that's where they got their extrapolations from. Things might change.

Another pattern seen in science fiction is that the negative trends tend to get extrapolated and throwing the world off balance. In doing this, they scare the people and get them to change their ways, often overcompensating and driving the trends in the exact opposite direction. Escape from New York warns about crime running wild, but in reality it was the opposite, it became safer. When people think it's bad, it's never that bad, because they're making things better. When people think it's good, it's never that good, because they're making things worse.

Science fiction authors should know their statistical modeling.

I had lunch with Fred Lerdahl, a guy in the music department who does research in expectations--what motifs might be expected next in a musical piece--and I was reminded of the Bugs Bunny episode where Yosemite Sam rigs up the piano to explode when a certain note is played, then puts up the sheet music for Bugs, who annoyingly keeps playing the tune but getting the last note wrong. Yosemite gets increasingly frustrated until he finally bangs out the tune himself--causing the piano to blow up, of course.


Anyway, my lunch companion hadn't heard of the episode so I found it on Youtube and sent it to him. His reply:

Thanks, it's terrific! One thing, though: Bugs is supposed to hit C for the TNT to explode; on the soundtrack he hits C# and then Eb instead; but in the video he hits C both times (as does Sam, but in his case the soundtrack hits C, too). The cartoonists should have shown Bugs hitting the different notes (unless one wants to get metaphysical about it).

P.S. Fred adds that he just showed the cartoon to his wife, and she noticed that the dynamite is attached not to C but to B (that is, to one key to the left of the exploding note).



I don't see the humor here, but two different people emailed this to me so I think there's some sort of legal requirement that I blog it. . . .

Comic books about statistics?

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Slashdot has a review of "The Manga Guide to Statistics". Here is a snippet:


The story is silly and sets up some humorous examples of how to use statistics. Ramen noodle prices get graphed, Rui looks at grading on a curve and explores why her and a class mate get different grades for identical scores. Cramer's coefficient is used to examine how boys and girls prefer to be asked out. I thought that this was helpful not only because it helps to keep the readers interest but because it also moves the problems from the abstract to more concrete applications.

I haven't seen the book, but I like the tagline: "Statistics with heart-pounding excitement!"

"Miseducation" was so awesome, how come Lauryn Hill has done essentially nothing since then?

Tyler Cowen links to a news article about David Galenson, an economist who is "convinced that the type of economic analysis that explains the $4-plus gas at the pump can also explain the greatest artists of the last 100 or so years." I assume that this line about gas prices is just something that the reporter added: at least, the factors that explain gas prices seem much different than the factors that explain great art.

The article continues to say that his "statistical approach . . . is based in part on how frequently an illustration of a work appears in textbooks." That sounds cool to me. I'd also like to see some cross-time analysis, since it seems to me that an analysis of textbooks would also be measuring what's currently trendy in art history. The article says that he analyzes 33 textbooks published between 1990 and 2005; I don't know if that's long enough to get enough variation in trendiness. But he should give it a try and not just lump all the years together.

Galenson then says, "Quantification has been almost totally absent from art history. Art historians hate markets." Whoa! How did he jump from "quantification" to "markets"? It sounds like he's limiting himself it he doesn't also apply quantitative methods to non-market situations.

Continuing, Galenson writes, "Important artists are innovators whose work changes the practices of their successors. The greater the changes, the greater the artist." Who says this sort of thing? Is this a way that art historians talk? It sounds like circular reasoning: it's his personal definition of "greatness."

The article then quotes art professor Michael Rushton as saying that in science or art, he said, "innovation really requires a market." Huh? Wha?? Tell that to my friend Seth, who spent 10 years self-experimentation. Heck, tell that to the cave painters. Or check out the American Visionary Art Museum.

It's so frustrating: I think much can be learned from quantitative study of just about everything, but why do people have to overreach and say such silly things?

P.S. Galenson's work on the trajectories of artists' work by age looks interesting. I'm reminded of Dick De Veaux's statement, "Math is like music, statistics is like literature": Why are there no six year old novelists? Statistics, like literature, benefits from some life experience.

I've always felt that Joe Queenan has gone straight downhill since "If You're Talking to Me, Your Career Must Be in Trouble," but, following this link from Fabio Rojas, I see an interesting recent article from Queenan. I didn't know he did serious stuff too. (Yes, I know that Queenan's claims are debatable--in particular, I'm not sure where he would put fit Stravinsky's work (up to the mid-1920s) in his system--but he makes interesting points.) Mainly, I'm just interested to see that he's writing something closer to his earlier standards.

Our publisher is putting together our new book (no, not Red State, Blue State, I'm talking about our next book, A Quantitative Tour of the Social Sciences), and we need a cover design. Now. Any ideas? Free book to the person with the best idea. And anybody with a particularly good idea, I'll take to lunch. (Or maybe Jeronimo, my coeditor, will take you to lunch if you're in Houston...)

Some background: The book has sections on history, economics, sociology, political science, and psychology, and each section has a different author (or set of authors). It's not a statistics book; rather, it's a set of discussions and case studies, giving the reader (most likely a student of one of the social sciences) a sense of how to think like a historian, economict, sociologist, etc. It's based on a course I created for our Quantitative Methods in Social Science program at Columbia. Anyway, there will be plenty of time for book promotion later; now, I'm just trying to give you enough information to come up with a good cover design for us.

Here's the table of contents:

Congrats to our Applied Statistics Center art contest winners!

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We've chosen the winners of the ASC art contest!

A sad but true fact


The New Yorker has a circulation of a million and this has a circulation of zero (rounding to the nearest million). The winner and finalists are just so, so, so, so much funnier than anything the New Yorker ever has for these things. Not even close.



"Fuck, it's the dream again. I'm on trial, surrounded by tiny non-whale mammals, and I don't even know what I'm being tried for. Wake up, don't worry, you'll wake up, wake up." — Snazzy Spazz


"Did I mention that my client's last name is Kennedy?" —Kathy H

"Objection! ANOTHER request for production of documents? Your honor, I believe this discovery process is excessive. And frankly, my client has been made to jump through too many hoops already!" —Stevo Darkly

See index here.

P.S. I linked to this a couple years ago but it's worth mentioning again. I guess I should put it in the "Cultural" links on the blog.


I'm talking about actors who are undeniably talented but are almost always in bad movies, or at least movies that aren't worthy of their talent. Sure, Whoopi was in The Color Purple, but that's it. Other examples: Martin Short. Michael Keaton (well, I liked Mr. Mom and Johnny Dangerously, but they're still not worthy of his talent).

Do they have bad taste, or just bad luck?

What's the opposite? William Holden. (I can't think of any more recent examples of mediocre actors who've appeared in several great movies, but I'm sure there are some.)

P.S. This goes in some sort of series with Objects of the class "Weekend at Bernie's" (which, as the commenters said, include Heathers and Zelig as well).

Rockumentaries are the best


I first twigged to this when that Theremin movie came out. That was really cool. Then the Brian-Wilson-o-mentary, which was excellent also (although it could've used some interviews with skeptics who said that Brian is no big deal). The Keith-Richards-produced Chuck Berry movie was fascinating in a different way. And Monterey Pop, Gimme Shelter, Don't Look Back. Even that doc a few years ago about the Funk Brothers--that was really pretty lame, but it was still great. I'm left to conclude that all rockumentaries are the best. I think there are a few zillion more I haven't seen.

Nutsy Squirrel




Possible statistics-related art includes pretty mathematical functions, interesting data displays, patterns of migrating birds, complicated high-tech signals, playful pointillist paintings made out of little 4's and 7's, . . .

More information here.

Howard pointed me to this cool page of artwork by Chris Jordan. Here's one example:

Plastic Cups, 2008 60x90"

Depicts one million plastic cups, the number used on airline flights in the US every six hours.


Partial zoom:


Detail at actual print size:


Several more are at Jordan's website.

Color tile visual illusion


Since I'm taking things from BoingBoing now, check these out:


To quote: "The 'blue' tiles on the top face of the left cube are the same color as the "yellow" tiles in the top of the right cube."

No statistical content here at all. But maybe you could draw an analogy to hypothesis testing, the idea that two studies could give identical results, but one could be statistically significant and the other non-significant, if the two studies were embedded in different experimental designs. Or in meta-analysis, two different studies could be interpreted differently if surrounded by different sets of other studies in a hierarchical model. In that case, though, the perceptions of difference would be real and the fact that the two studies were, in isolation, "the same color," would miss the point.

P.S. Regarding Bill's comment below: the illusion is not new, it's just a cool presentation of a result that is well-known among vision researchers.



I don't know what this is about, but on the other hand I'll link to irrelevant things if they seem irrelevant enough. . . Tim Penn writes,

I [Penn] thought I would just alert you to a little project I’m working on using the blog. I have some photos I took twenty years ago of Russian rock icon Viktor Tsoy. Scott Page told me the other day he was just chatting with someone about Tsoy’s band Kino, so I make no assumptions now about how well known they are outside Russia by well-informed people like yourself.

Anyway, I am trying to spread the word and draw people who like Kino to the blog over the next few weeks as I put more of the pictures up. But also I’m trying to tap into networks which are more knowledgeable about that old underground culture than I am.

There is a taster up there at the moment, which 3quarksdaily linked to the other day. If you are Led Zep fan, there is sweetener in there too. Hope you’ll find it interesting and will share it with any Russian friends or Russophiles around Columbia. I think students should have an obligation to know about him, but then I’m biased. I have enough material to create a single-track flash video of the clandestine concert stills, and will do that once I feel able.

Today I put up another non-scientific stab at non-linearity. It starts with surfing and ends with Monty Python. There’s a fantastic scandal behind one of the hyperlinks at the point where I’m standing in the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. Yes I knew that man.

Naturally, I've heard of neither Viktor Tsoy nor Scott Page. (Yes, I'm sure I could search for them on the web but that would be cheating.)

Errol Morris update

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Regarding this story, Antony Unwin sends the following graph with a note:

The second-coolest puzzle ever


It's 27 identical blocks, each of which is 4x5x6, to be placed inside a 15x15x15 box. 24<25, and so it should be possible to put all the pieces in the box with room to spare. And indeed it is possible, but it's tough--it took me a couple hours to figure out how to arrange the pieces. I think it's just a beautiful puzzle because all the pieces are identical.

Some guy showed me this puzzle once--he pointed out that the 2-D version (with 4 identical rectangles) is trivial and he claimed that the 4-D isn't hard but that he didn't know if the 5-D version had a solution. Anyway, 3-D is hard enough for me.

I'm sure someone manufactures it, but I don't know who, so I took a board and sawed it into 27 little pieces one day and made my own version, where it sits in my office inside a little plastic box. If I had one of those digital cameras, and if I were in my office, I'd post a picture of it here.

P.S. It's only the second-coolest puzzle because Rubik's cube is the coolest.

Some of you will remember that a few months ago this blog mentioned Errol Morris's New York Times article about two famous old photographs, both of which show the same stretch of road on the Crimean peninsula. One photograph shows the road covered with cannonballs, with additional cannonballs strewn around the ground on both sides of the road; the other shows the road clear of cannonballs. As Morris discusses, it has long been assumed that the photo with the clear road --- the "off the road" picture --- was taken first, and that the photographer and his crew then moved a bunch of cannonballs onto the road to take the "on" picture. In his article, Morris questioned whether this ordering was in fact correct.

As Morris discusses in another article, the traditional wisdom was in fact correct: "Off" came first. This can be determined pretty conclusively by looking at the cannonballs that are lying around on the ground: many of them have shifted position slightly, and in every case they are slightly farther downhill in the On photo than in the Off photo. The only story that makes sense is that the Off photo was taken, and then these cannonballs were disturbed (presumably by the photographer and his team

Before the answer was known for sure, Morris asked his readers to send in their opinions and reasons. In a new article, Morris summarizes the reasons, using some of the worst statistical graphics I have seen in 2007 (it's worth taking a look). And he likes them (the graphics, I mean)!

If anyone would like to make a better display, here are Morris' data. (Sorry, he doesn't really discuss what the reasons mean, so you'll just have to work with what's here). The first line is a header line; subsequent lines give the reason, the number of people who cited this reason in describing why they think "On" came first, and the number who cited this reason in describing why "Off" came first. ("Off" is the right answer).

# and Position,155,75
Ball Properties,17,8
Practical Concerns,60,25

Hey, a statistician did that!

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Oddly enough, I didn't know until clicking on the Flowing Data blog that Mark Hansen's installation at the New York Times building is up. Mark is a statistician at UCLA who I know from back when he was a grad student at Berkeley. (He didn't take my class, but he still did ok.) Here's the New York Times story on it.

The funny thing is, I was talking with some statisticians a few years ago about this project, back around when it was at the Whitney Museum and one guy said, "That doesn't seem like art to me." (But nobody said, "My kid could do that.")

I don't know if it's art or not, but it's pretty cool. I'd like it even more if it had a bit more statistical content, for example dynamic histograms or scatterplots of word frequencies, sentence lengths, etc etc.

Web 2.0

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Aleks writes: "worth watching this movie on information in the age of the internet, and the prequel."

My impression: they were fine, but I'm just too impatient to watch a video. I can scroll through text much faster. One thing I did learn, though, is that I should be using XML rather than HTML, which is how I write my webpages now.

Counting the lost qalys


Daniel Lakeland writes,

What I [Lakeland] would like to see is a graph that shows the importance of diseases relative to the number of expected person-years they eliminate each year. A disease that kills 1000 people age 10 eliminates about 680000 person years, whereas a disease that kills 100000 people age 85 eliminates about the same 660000 person years. . . . this means that a really important killer in the US is automobile accidents, suicide, and childhood cancers, even though many many more people die of cancer and heart disease.

I imagine this has been done somewhere but I've never seen it tallied. You also have to decide where to draw the line, for example do you count diseases that kill fetuses.

P.S. His art is ok but these other paintings are more my style.

Errol Morris is a genius. He's just so persistent and hard-working, something notable in his films. He writes here on the question of which of the photos below came first? (Link from Jenny Davidson.)



Gabor gets the grab

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Actually a few weeks ago.

NYC paintings

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These are cool. (Also in blog form, apparently.).


This was just annoying


The New Yorker ran an article about an origami guy (Robert Lang) without any pictures of origami. Lang's webpage is here and has lots of pictures, including this tarantula:


with the following crease pattern:

A puzzle from Laurie Snell


From Chance News (scroll down to "A Challenge"), Laurie Snell writes:

The mathematics department at Dartmouth has just moved to a new building and the previous math building is being demolished. The students called this building "Shower Towers" suggest by this picture of one wall of the building.


For at least 30 years we walked by this wall assuming that the tiles were randomly placed. One day, as we were walking by it, our colleaugue John Finn said "I see they are not randomly placed." What did he see?

This is sort of a funny quote, though, from a statistician's perspective, because those of us who do survey sampling know that random assignment is hard: in this case, they'd either have to have a pile of tiles that they randomly select from, or else take tiles and put them in random locations. Neither of these is easy, as it requires picking random numbers from a long list, or physical randomization of a really heavy pile of tiles!

Sometimes statisticians use the word "haphazard" to represent processes that do not have any known distribution and so would not be called "random" in the usual statistical sense.

Cool Lego stuff




Apparently people now make Lego sculptures with moving parts:


My favorite quote is about the desk:

The most interesting thing about this project was not the design of it . . . No, the part that took the most thought was the economy of pieces. While this desk was obviously costing the company a pretty penny, they still had a budget to consider, so I had to design the color scheme such that the bricks were used in a proportion which matched the Blue Tub distribution as closely as possible.

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