Thursday, February 12, 2009

spring is just around the corner

.. and we know what that means: Continuing Education courses through

Make your plans now to attend "Fundamental Statistics Concepts in
Presenting Data:
Principles for Constructing Better Graphics" in warm and cheerful
Alexandria, VA on Friday April 17.

More information available at

(Lifted from an e-mail from Rafe Donahue. Long-time readers of the blog may remember the day I meant to go to the gym, got a 102-page handout from Rafe and sat devouring the document for the next two hours. This is the course for which the unputdownable handout was written. Post here. Link to handout here.)

The ASA is doing its best to exclude credit-crunched riff-raff from the course:

$475 for ASA Members
$375 for Students
$615 for Nonmembers
*Registration fee includes course material and lunch on both days

but, well, if you can get sponsorship from big pharma or your local drug dealer it looks like a good day out.

(On a separate but not unrelated subject, I've just been reading Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. Readers charmed by the logical incoherence and slapdash anecdotal style of The Tipping Point and Blink will not be disappointed by the new book. (Yes, yes, I know, a reader who failed to be charmed by Mr Gladwell's previous two books had no business buying the third; the title seemed to promise more in the way of statistical substance.) Anyway, the source of grievance is not really the existence or shortcomings of this particular book, but the non-existence of the brilliant book the Man from Tennessee could have written if given the nod. Outliers is on sale at Gatwick, "Fundamental Statistics Concepts in Presenting Data: Principles for Constructing Better Graphics" is available on PDF at Rafe's website and to anyone with $615 burning a hole in their pocket who happens to be in the DC area on April 17. But.

Look, the question ostensibly being addressed by Mr Gladwell is not
"How can I make lots of money selling intellectually underpowered blather to intellectually underpowered readers?" The question being addressed is "What are the secrets of success?" Mr Gladwell's view is that talent is being squandered; many more people could achieve excellence than actually do so. And one of the "secrets" is that success comes to be people who work hard, who persevere with difficult subjects, who come from a cultural context where hard work is valued. Another is that cultures where the language of mathematics is simple, requiring little cognitive processing to learn and deploy, achieve strikingly better results in mathematics. But in that case surely Outliers itself was an opportunity to push the mass of readers toward a level of excellence not on offer in the educational system, a level their culture had persuaded them was confined to those with exceptional mathematical gifts. Edward Tufte has argued that if information design is used well it can support analysis in a way that a general audience can follow; instead of cluttering up the book with the textual equivalent of chartjunk, Gladwell could have shown readers that they had the capacity to deal with presentation and analysis of complex material. That is, he could have done what RD does in his hand-out. Well, we are the hollow men, we are the stuffed men, leaning together, headpiece filled with straw. Alas!)


kate said...

thank you for reading and then posting about Outliers! I have seen it crop up over and over again (which is, in itself, very strange since I don't tend to hear much about books like this) and I was suspicious of the author simply because the way in which the book was framed in every article I have read seemed illogical, inconsistent, and targeted in a very strange way. I almost picked it up though, because it was on my radar. But now that you've made the sacrifice, I'll breathe easier knowing it was exactly as I suspected - a mishmash of analysis that could have been interesting had he tried.

Mithridates said...

A few years ago I was forced to teach a chapter from Tipping Point. The argument of the Bernie Goetz chapter - as I recall and as you may recall even better - is that context (by which he seems to mean the physical look of a place, as well as a general sense of the level of crime-tolerance in a given area) is largely responsible for crime. I have no way of knowing whether this is true or not; his example certainly didn't help. He wrote about Bernard Goetz. He says that Bernie Goetz lived in the Union Square area, which was filthy and crime-ridden, and that Bernie claimed to have been attacked several times. So he brought a gun with him on the train and opened fire on some muggers (I think they were muggers, can't remember; in any case, they were minorities). But Gladwell also points out that Bernie Goetz was lonely, angry, disturbed, and racist. Which considerably weakens his case, I think, for the importance of "context." Wouldn't the argument have worked better if Gladwell had laid out some examples (backed up by statistics and some beautiful Tuftian graphs) of fairly well-adjusted people committing similar crimes? It's all - or largely - a matter of
"context": which means that it shouldn't really matter if the subway vigilante wasn't lonely, angry, and a racist, it should only really matter that the place looked and felt crime-ridden. If a man who wasn't lonely, angry, or a racist committed the sort of crime that Goetz committed, that might be interesting - but then again, perhaps not: it would still be only ONE GUY. The fact that we all remember Bernie Goetz probably means that his case was not the norm - which in turn should tell us that it is not necessarily the case that context matters one way or the other. Bernie Goetz was a special case, AND he had enough personal problems and enough of a history to have committed such a crime, so how can one persuasively emphasize context as the predominating factor? Ockhamm's Razor, no?--he clearly has a motive to commit this crime, so why then blame it on the graffiti? Context does matter, but it seems to be the context of Goetz's life, not the larger and much vaguer context of a general sense of crime-riddenness in a given area, that matters most in this particular instance.

In a more perfect world, I would have had the pleasure of discussing Erving Goffman or Zygmunt Bauman or Jane Jacobs. Instead they had me waste two weeks and two papers on Malcolm Gladwell.

Andrew said...

I don't know if this makes you feel better or not, but these short courses are run as a way to raise money for the ASA. The instructor only gets a nominal payment for teaching it.

Helen DeWitt said...


I'm all for raising money for the ASA - though for that matter I would be equally happy if every penny of the proceeds ended up in the pocket of RD. It's not where the money ends up that bothers me, it's the fact that people who might otherwise be drawn to the subject are the left to the likes Mr Gladwell.