Category Archives: magazines

What correlation means

From Maria Konnikova’s New Yorker piece on Randall Munroe and what makes science interesting:

In a meta-analysis of sixty-six studies tracking interests over time (the average study followed subjects for seven years), psychologists from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign found that our interests in adolescence had only a point-five correlation with our interests later in life. This means that if a subject filled out a questionnaire about her interests at the age of, say, thirteen, and again at the age of twenty-one, only half of her answers remained consistent on both.

I think it’s totally OK to not say precisely what correlation means.  It’s sort of subtle!  It would be fine to say the correlation was “moderate,” or something like that.

But I don’t think it’s OK to say “This means that…” and then say something which isn’t what it means.  If the questionnaire was a series of yes-or-no questions, and if exactly half the answers stayed the same between age 13 and 21, the correlation would be zero.  As it should be — 50% agreement is what you’d expect if the two questionnaires had nothing to do with each other.  If the questionnaire was of a different kind, say, “rate your interest in the following subjects on a scale of 1 to 5,” then agreement on 50% of the answers would be more suggestive of a positive relationship; but it wouldn’t in any sense be the same thing as 0.5 correlation.  What does the number 0.5 add to the meaning of the piece?  What does the explanation add?  I think nothing, and I think both should have been taken out.

Credit, though — the piece does include a link to the original study, a practice that is sadly not universal!  But demerit — the piece is behind a paywall, leaving most readers just as unable as before to figure out what the study actually measured.  If you’re a journal, is the cost of depaywalling one article really so great that it’s worth forgoing thousands of New Yorker readers actually looking at your science?

 

 

 

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Conservative commentators on education are mad about the new AP US History standards.

The group’s president, Peter Wood, called the framework politically biased. One of his many complaints is about immigration: “Where APUSH sees ‘new migrants’ supplying ‘the economy with an important labor force,’ others with equal justification see the rapid growth of a population that displaces native-born workers from low-wage jobs and who are also heavily dependent on public services and transfer payments.”

Here’s the full text of the relevant bullet point in the standards.

The new migrants affected U.S. culture in many ways and supplied the economy with an important labor force, but they also became the focus of intense political, economic, and cultural debates.

You can decide for yourself whether the standard sweeps under the rug the fact that many people wish there were fewer immigrants.  But shouldn’t Newsweek print the whole sentence, instead of letting its readers rely on selective quotes?  Why do I have to look this stuff up myself?

How do you share your New York Times?

My op/ed about math teaching and Little League coaching is the most emailed article in the New York Times today.  Very cool!

But here’s something interesting; it’s only the 14th most viewed article, the 6th most tweeted, and the 6th most shared on Facebook.  On the other hand, this article about child refugees from Honduras is

#14 most emailed

#1 most viewed

#1 most shared on Facebook

#1 most tweeted

while Paul Krugman’s column about California is

#4 most emailed

#3 most viewed

#4 most shared on Facebook

#7 most tweeted.

Why are some articles, like mine, much more emailed than tweeted, while others, like the one about refugees, much more tweeted than emailed, and others still, like Krugman’s, come out about even?  Is it always the case that views track tweets, not emails?  Not necessarily; an article about the commercial success and legal woes of conservative poo-stirrer Dinesh D’Souza is #3 most viewed, but only #13 in tweets (and #9 in emails.)  Today’s Gaza story has lots of tweets and views but not so many emails, like the Honduras piece, so maybe this is a pattern for international news?  Presumably people inside newspapers actually study stuff like this; is any of that research public?  Now I’m curious.

 

 

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Baseball’s triumph in Japan

I always thought the popularity of baseball in Japan was a post-WWII thing, but no — “Baseball’s Triumph in Japan,” part of the LA84 Foundation’s collection of digitized back issues of Baseball Magazine, tells me that Japanese baseball is much older.  According to this 1918 article, baseball teams in Japan were made up of sumo wrestlers who wanted to keep up with Western trends in sport!  If you want to see a bunch of sumo wrestlers in baseball uniforms, click through — there’s a photo.  It looks about as you’d expect.

The wrestler-baseball teams in Japan would look pretty crude, I suppose, to an American audience. Perhaps it will take the wrestler two or three generations to develop teams of skilled ball players who will be able to compete on an equality with crack American nines. But, after all, the beginning is the main thing. The Japanese have begun to take baseball seriously. They play it everywhere and with increasing interest and enthusiasm. Who can say that in some future decade the champion baseball club of the world can justly claim that honor without a trial of strength with the crack nine of Nagasaki or Tokio?

In case you were wondering how I happened to be looking at old numbers of Baseball Magazine, it’s because one of the founders was a member of the Harvard class of 1906.  More Harvard ’06 blogging upcoming — there’s some crazy stuff in this book.

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Is anybody still editing the New York Times?

From the John Jeremiah Sullivan piece on massage in the NYTimes magazine:

When you feel like that, you don’t leap to be naked in rooms with an assortment of strangers while they rub their hands all over your bare flesh — there’s probably a fetish group for becoming as physically disgusting as you can and then procuring massages, but that’s not my damage. Also, there’s something about massage in general that makes me more, not less, relaxed.

He means “less, not more.”  If you click through you’ll see it’s been corrected in the online version.  So someone noticed it at some point.  But someone should have noticed it before the piece was posted and printed!

See also my complaint about Justin Cronin’s The Passage, which besides being carelessly edited — when you vomit because a vampire bit you, you are retching, not wretching, dammit! — failed to live up to the promise of its very good first 300 pages.  Executive summary:  it starts out as The Stand and ends up as The Dark Tower, and if you think that is not a downgrade then we shall fight.

Back to Sullivan:

But that’s true for so many of us — we fall into our lines of work like coins dropping into slots, bouncing down off various failures and false-starts.

has a nice cadence but does not actually describe a thing that is like the way a coin drops into a slot.  Before the coin goes in the slot, it doesn’t bounce off anything, and after it’s in the slot, it may bounce down off things inside the mechanism (is that what he meant?) but it does so while travelling down a well-defined rigid channel, exactly the opposite of what Sullivan is going for.

Finally:

The yellowish gray-green circles under my eyes had a micropebbled texture, and my skin gave off a sebaceousy sheen of coffee-packet coffee.

Most of this is great, especially “micropebbled,” but “sebaceousy” isn’t right — I’m not sure the “add -y to informalize a word,” move, a lexical way to indicate “kind of” or “sort of,” applies to any adjective, and if it does apply to some, I’m sure it doesn’t apply to “sebaceous.”

 

 

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Gaileo, Schrodinger, countability, and the golden age of newspaper math

I somehow never realized that the puzzling fact that infinite sets could be in bijection with proper subsets was as old as Galileo:

Simplicio: Here a difficulty presents itself which appears to me insoluble. Since it is clear that we may have one line greater than another, each containing an infinite number of points, we are forced to admit that, within one and the same class, we may have something greater than infinity, because the infinity of points in the long line is greater than the infinity of points in the short line. This assigning to an infinite quantity a value greater than infinity is quite beyond my comprehension.
Salviati: This is one of the difficulties which arise when we attempt, with our finite minds, to discuss the infinite, assigning to it those properties which we give to the finite and limited; but this I think is wrong, for we cannot speak of infinite quantities as being the one greater or less than or equal to another. To prove this I have in mind an argument which, for the sake of clearness, I shall put in the form of questions to Simplicio who raised this difficulty.
I take it for granted that you know which of the numbers are squares and which are not.
Simplicio: I am quite aware that a squared number is one which results from the multiplication of another number by itself; this 4, 9, etc., are squared numbers which come from multiplying 2, 3, etc., by themselves.
Salviati: Very well; and you also know that just as the products are called squares so the factors are called sides or roots; while on the other hand those numbers which do not consist of two equal factors are not squares. Therefore if I assert that all numbers, including both squares and non-squares, are more than the squares alone, I shall speak the truth, shall I not?
Simplicio: Most certainly.
Salviati: If I should ask further how many squares there are one might reply truly that there are as many as the corresponding number of roots, since every square has its own root and every root its own square, while no square has more than one root and no root more than one square.
Simplicio: Precisely so.
Salviati: But if I inquire how many roots there are, it cannot be denied that there are as many as the numbers because every number is the root of some square. This being granted, we must say that there are as many squares as there are numbers because they are just as numerous as their roots, and all the numbers are roots. Yet at the outset we said that there are many more numbers than squares, since the larger portion of them are not squares. Not only so, but the proportionate number of squares diminishes as we pass to larger numbers, Thus up to 100 we have 10 squares, that is, the squares constitute 1/10 part of all the numbers; up to 10000, we find only 1/100 part to be squares; and up to a million only 1/1000 part; on the other hand in an infinite number, if one could conceive of such a thing, he would be forced to admit that there are as many squares as there are numbers taken all together.
Sagredo: What then must one conclude under these circumstances?
Salviati: So far as I see we can only infer that the totality of all numbers is infinite, that the number of squares is infinite, and that the number of their roots is infinite; neither is the number of squares less than the totality of all the numbers, nor the latter greater than the former; and finally the attributes “equal,” “greater,” and “less,” are not applicable to infinite, but only to finite, quantities. When therefore Simplicio introduces several lines of different lengths and asks me how it is possible that the longer ones do not contain more points than the shorter, I answer him that one line does not contain more or less or just as many points as another, but that each line contains an infinite number.

This came to my attention because I’m procrastinating by looking at the August 1951 issue of The Times Review of the Progress of Science, a quarterly supplement to the British newspaper.  This issue features an article by Schrödinger which lays out the modern theory of transfinite cardinals, including Cantor’s diagonal argument, the bijection between the line segment and the square, and the hierarchy of infinities obtained by iterating “power set.”  Can you imagine a mathematical exposition of similar depth appearing in the Science Times today?

Schrödinger’s closing paragraph is striking:

While these higher infinities have not hitherto acquired half the importance of the two that we have been studying here, the physicist is keenly interested in the probable bearing of the startling properties of the continuous infinite on the theories of atoms and energy quanta.  I consider these theories a weapon of self-defence, contrived by the mind against the “mysterious continuum.”  This does not mean that these theories are pure invention, not founded on experiment.  It is, however, fairly obvious that in their historical development some part was played by the desire to replace the continuous by the countable infinite, which is easier to handle.  To disentangle the influence of this mental urge on the interpretation of experimental evidence is a task for the future.”

Can someone with more knowledge of quantum theory than me explain what Schrödinger might have meant?

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David Foster Wallace did not write Catcher in the Rye

William Deresiewicz drills into the soul of the modern hipster, or purports to, but in his capsule generational roundup we get this:

As for the slackers of the late ’80s and early ’90s (Generation X, grunge music, the fiction of David Foster Wallace), their affect ran to apathy and angst, a sense of aimlessness and pointlessness. Whatever. That they had no social vision was precisely what their social vision was: a defensive withdrawal from all commitment as inherently phony.

This is in fact the exact opposite of what happens in the fiction of David Foster Wallace, unless somehow the phrase “late ’80s and early ’90s”means that WD is using the phrase “the fiction of David Foster Wallace” to refer to The Broom of the System only — and even in this case a better argument would be “their affect ran to obsessive self-examination and an overreliance on analytic philosophy as self-help,” which, let me tell you, would have made for a much more awesome early ’90s than the one we actually had.

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Should science journalists check copy with their sources?

I have often heard mathematicians complain — most recently, last night — about their work being mangled when it gets covered in the press.  Why don’t science journalists check with their sources to make sure that the science is presented accurately?

There’s a great discussion of this issue at PLOSBlogs, featuring many well-known science writers and highly-placed editors in the comments.  It’s a tough issue.  On one side, journalists are quite likely to make mistakes about technical subjects (not only science) even if they’re very diligent when conducting the interview.  On the other hand, journalists are not public relations officers, and I tend to agree that it’s important to preserve that distinction, even when there are some costs.

As for me, I would never show copy to a source prior to publication.  Then again, because I mostly write about math, I think people cut me a lot of slack — if I oversimplify somebody’s work, they know that I know that I’m oversimplifying, and respect that I’m bowing to journalistic necessity.

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98% sounds like it means “almost all” but it doesn’t always

From The Economist:

Michael Spence, another Nobel prize-winning economist, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs agrees that technology is hitting jobs in America and other rich countries, but argues that globalisation is the more potent factor. Some 98% of the 27m net new jobs created in America between 1990 and 2008 were in the non-tradable sector of the economy, which remains relatively untouched by globalisation, and especially in government and health care—the first of which, at least, seems unlikely to generate many new jobs in the foreseeable future.

You should never say “98% of X” in a context where “150% of X” or “-40% of X” would make sense.  Let’s say I run a coffeeshop.  My core coffee business just missed breaking even this month, losing $500.  On the other hand, the CD rack I put up made $750 in profit, and so did my pastry case, so I came out $1000 ahead for the month.

So CDs accounted for 75% of my profit.  Pastry also accounted for 75% of my profit.

See why this is weird?

(Imagine if I’d lost 500 more bucks on coffee — then I’d be making infinity percent of my profit on CDs alone!)

See also:  the Wisconsin GOP’s June press release asserting that Wisconsin had accounted for 50% of the country’s job growth in June.  Great!  Until you realize that California accounted for almost 200% of the country’s job growth…..

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Stephen Burt interviewed in Publishers Weekly

Steve Burt interviewed in the PW series, “The Art of the Review:”

Classes can reveal the properties of their members more fully (to understand the differences between calcium and magnesium, for example, you should know why they are both alkaline earths) but classes can also obscure them (the Pagans and the Germs were both American punk rock bands, but to me their songs sound nothing alike). Classes should be used with care everywhere; there’s probably no way to fully avoid them.

But you aren’t asking about classes in general; you are asking why poetry critics and reviewers seem to classify and classify, whereas fiction reviews try to avoid it. Perhaps it’s because few books of poetry can count on a buzz produced by their authors, or by a publicity campaign, or by grassroots, independent-bookstore-sales-driven chatter, all of which can justify (to assigning editors, to casual readers) space and time for extensive reviews of single volumes. Poetry reviewers, poetry critics, even very academic ones, need other pegs on which to hang their claims.

Novelists, necessarily, work in sustained solitude, when they are working (however gregarious they become otherwise), whereas poets can work in solitude in short bursts and then come together to discuss—and make programs and slogans about—what they made.

Poets also seem to attach themselves and their work more often either to their peer group, or to their teachers; some poets can tell you where and with whom they studied almost in the way that classical musicians can tell you about their teachers, and their teachers’ teachers.  If novelists do that, I haven’t seen it.

For more, buy Steve’s book, Close Calls With Nonsense.

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