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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Top 10 reasons my daughter (and I) are both better than Santa

In 2008, I wrote the post below, waiting for my daughter to come home from college for Christmas. Now I'm waiting for her and her husband to drive in from Vermont, but the sentiment is still the same (and my daughter has responded in kind).  Merry Christmas!

When I was a small child, I waited for Santa to come.
Now, I’m waiting for my youngest daughter Abby to come back from college.
This is a big improvement, because Abby offers several advantages over Santa.

TOP 10 REASONS ABBY IS BETTER THAN SANTA

1. Abby won’t come down the chimney, so there’s no risk of needing an emergency rescue team.
2. Abby can spread sunshine and joy the whole year around, not just at one time of the year.
3. Abby’s willing to play Monopoly or Risk or Rummicube, unlike Santa.
4. Abby doesn’t abuse animals, such as reindeer, by making them work too hard.
5. Abby will help take down the Christmas decorations. Santa’s never any help.
6. You can reach Abby on a cell phone, at least sometimes.
7. It may be a tossup comparing Santa’s “Ho, Ho, Ho” and Abby’s laugh with a snort occasionally thrown in. I’ll go with Abby on this.
8. Abby’s name can’t be re-arranged to spell “Satan”.
9. Abby’s better to talk about bikes with.
10. Santa’s hair always looks the same. Abby provides more surprises. Will it be blue? Pink? Shaved off?

ABBY'S REPLY: Top ten reasons dad is better than santa:


1. He provides year-round puns, Santa just writes a couple in dad's handwriting once a year


2. "Ho ho ho" is not nearly as good as jumping up and down shouting "BONUS BONUS BONUS" for reasons neither of us can remember

3. Nothing better than his full bodied laughter when I try to convince whimbly not to poop in the neighbor's yard (especially when my tactic is yelling "DONT POOP DONT POOP" as loud as possible).

4. Santa may be clever to visit all those houses, but nothing beats the satisfaction of teaming up with siblings to prevent Dad from trading sheep for wood and land locking him in traders of Catan (no houses HERE, DAD).

5. Santa doesn't go on long walks and up my step counts with me

6. Nothing like family photos full of rabbit ears (this includes Beth Kranders)

7. Santa eats all the milk and cookies. dad "accidentally" makes wrong turns and winds up at the ice cream store.

8. dad drinks all the beer i dont want to, and leaves all the nice light beers for me.

9. I can reach dad on the phone, sometimes

10. Nothing like forgetting to call dad in a while and checking your messages to him singing "Oklahoma" loudly and out of breath in the middle of a train station

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Looks like daughter #2 turned out OK


Providence, Permissions, and Probability


This is a work in progress, but I want to get some thoughts down.

A traditional Christian view is that things in the world occur according to God’s providence.

Here's a theological definition: Providence is the means by which God directs all things — both animate and inanimate, seen and unseen, good and evil — toward a worthy purpose, which means His will must finally prevail. http://www.oneplace.com/ministries/thru-the-bible-with-j-vernon-mcgee/read/articles/providence-is-the-hand-of-god-11044.html

Often there’s an activist view of Providence.

Providence means that the hand of God is in the glove of human events. When God is not at the steering wheel, He is the backseat driver. He is the coach who calls the signals from the bench. Providence is the unseen rudder on the ship of state. God is the pilot at the wheel during the night watch. As someone has said, "He makes great doors swing on little hinges." God brought together a little baby's cry and a woman's heart down by the River Nile when Pharaoh's daughter went to bathe. The Lord pinched little Moses and he let out a yell. The cry reached the heart of the princess, and God used it to change the destiny of a people. That was providence. That was the hand of God.  (same source)

So why do bad things happen to good people? Why is there evil in the world? God permits this to happen (permission) for various reasons, depending on the particulars of one’s theology.  In particular, bad things may happen to us so that we may become better for the experience.

God can allow bad things to happen to good people in order to teach them lessons, to discipline them, to improve their character, to encourage them to depend on Him, etc. We know from the Scriptures that nothing occurs without God's permission (Ephesians 1:11). We also know that God is good, so we must conclude that He allows bad things to occur because they are according to His sovereign plan, and ultimately it will work out for good--especially for those who love Him (Romans 8:28). https://carm.org/why-do-bad-things-happen-good-people

So, we might deserve it due to our past sins, or it may be sent to teach us a lesson. But what lesson?  Isn’t it hard enough to deal with the disaster that’s befallen us without trying to figure out how we might have deserved it, or trying to figure out what lesson we are to be learning?

Clearly in the Old Testament we have the idea that God’s providence leads to positive outcomes for those who live a good life, and negative outcomes for those who do not lead a good life.
10 The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.
11 So that a man shall say, Verily there is a reward for the righteous: verily he is a God that judgeth in the earth. (Psalm 58)

In our time, this can lead to abominations, such as the prosperity gospel

Prosperity theology (sometimes referred to as the prosperity gospel, the health and wealth gospel, or the gospel of success)[A] is a religious belief among some Christians that financial blessing is the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations (possibly to Christian ministries) will increase one's material wealth. Based on non-traditional interpretations of the Bible, often with emphasis on the Book of Malachi, the doctrine views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver his promises of security and prosperity. Confessing these promises to be true is perceived as an act of faith, which God will honor. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosperity_theology

The flip side of the prosperity gospel is, of course, that if you are poor or sick, it’s your own fault.

Not falsifiable

The providence / permission theological view is similar to many systems of theology in that it is not falsifiable – there is no conceivable set of circumstances which the theory will not fit. It might not fit them well, but it will fit them.  Not all such non-falsifiable theories are theological: similar criticisms have been made of Freudian psychology and string theory in physics.

In terms of science, if it can’t be falsified it can’t be supported, either. That’s why it’s called faith.

Probabilistic interpretation of reality

We can make an alternative interpretation in terms of probability theory. We can think of the universe as being set up in a certain way (e.g. by God) so that certain things happen probabilistically.

Let’s look at an example from my own life.  In 1985, my wife and I had a child that lived only 28 days due to a rare birth defect, trisomy 18.  Trisomy 18 occurs about 1 in every 6,000 births.

One can conceive of this as providence/permission, in which case God has chosen to have this happen to us. Why? To test us? To make us better people? There is no clear answer to this. If God was trying to make a point, it wasn’t clear at all. 

One can also conceive of this as a random, probabilistic event. There is no particular meaning to this being our child, and our cross to bear, other than the fact that this happens 1/6000 of the time and unfortunately it was us.  This is similar to buying a lottery ticket and winning – not because providence/permission intended you to win, but because of random chance.

In my case, thinking of our child as being a random event was liberating.  I could use this as a learning experience, as a chance to grow, as an opportunity to be of service to my family, without trying to figure out some deep inner meaning that I might never find out.

Willful Ignorance

These views of providence/permission and probability may seem inconsistent, but they are not necessarily so.  In Herbert Weisberg’s book Willful Ignorance:The Mismeasure of Uncertainty he notes that making probability judgments involves putting events into classes. So we can make a class of births and a class of Trisomy 18 births and compare the size of the two classes in order to come to a probability.  The willful ignorance part comes from the fact that in putting these events into classes, we ignore the differences between the individual events.  We put all Trisomy 18s in a class, regardless of individual differences in the individual births, in order to measure the size of the class.

We might draw the classes up differently. We might look at female births and male births, and female Trisomy 18s and male Trisomy 18s and get somewhat different probabilities (because females with Trisomy 18 are more common), but we are still showing willful ignorance in putting these events into classes in order to determine a probability.

Note that by using such willful ignorance (and putting things into the right classes) we gain new knowledge about what will probably happen under some circumstances.  But only probably happen – not certainly happen.

Not Necessarily Inconsistent

Here’s how we could resolve the apparent inconsistency:  to us, things may appear to occur randomly, with a certain probability.  This may be because they actually are random, or because they aren’t random, but we can’t see what’s really happening.

Weisberg uses the example of a roulette wheel, where each number on the wheel has a 1/38 chance of being the number. A roulette wheel is a random process, with the probabilities of occurrence clear.
Suppose, though, there was a genius who figured out a way to make the ball go into a specific slot, so he or his confederate could always win.  But, in order not to make the casino suspicious, he picked his random winning numbers using a random number table, so he would decide “this time it is going to land in 7” and then “this time it is going to land on 25”.  In this case, he would be perfectly in control, but the results would look random to both the casino and the other players.  In this case, we have the genius controlling (providence/permission) but our best interpretation of this roulette universe would be that it is random.

That’s the key sentence there: our best interpretation of the world may be that it is random, within certain rules. One in 6000 births is a trisomy 18.  1 in X people will get lung cancer – a higher probability if you smoke, but still possible even if you don’t smoke. By now smoking, we are just improving our odds.

This finds an echo in the New Testament in Romans:. “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Romans 11:34).  Or, much earlier, Isaiah: “Who can fathom the Spirit of the LORD, or instruct the LORD as his counselor?” (Isaiah 40:13) But, of course, the probabilistic view does not require there to be a religious interpretation.  Things could be random or from completely natural causes. A religious interpretation isn't falsifiable.

The probabilistic view at first seems cold and hard, but I don’t think it is.  It seems better to me than to have good people try to figure out why God sent some bad thing their way, which seems an awful lot like blaming the victim, just as the Prosperity Gospel blames the poor for being poor.

A Clockwork Universe?

At this point, you might think this is similar to the clockwork universe of Laplace and Newton.

Laplace next stated his conception of a deterministic universe, arguing that blind chance, or fortune, is only “an illusion of the mind.” He subscribed to the principle of sufficient reason, according to which “a thing cannot occur without a cause which produces it.”

Weisberg, Herbert I. (2014-06-23). Willful Ignorance: The Mismeasure of Uncertainty (Kindle Locations 5158-5160). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Laplace made many developments in probability theory, regarding probability as a way to approach our lack of complete understanding of causes.

But, after the development of quantum theory we now think Einstein was wrong when he contended God does not play dice with the world. At some subatomic level, things may indeed be probabilistic rather than deterministic.

Clockwork or not …

But this is a digression.  In personally interpreting the world around us, it does not matter much if the randomness is due to our limited understanding, or if the randomness is really there at the heart of the matter.

Nor does it matter much if bad things are truly probabilistic, or if there is a God whose inscrutable ways we cannot understand if behind it.  Bad things are best understood on a personal level as a probabilistic process, rather than God’s punishment or desire to teach us some lesson we can’t understand.  Learn from the experience, but don't try to figure out why you were picked. 


Saturday, December 19, 2015

Cheap time filler takes over media.

In a way, this is a golden age of publishing and the free press. "Freedom of the press" only meant you were free if you had a press. Now everybody does.  If I want to self-publish a book, I can so that easily at sites like Smashwords.  I can put this blog out there and, in theory, have it read by billions of people. I say "in theory" because I'm not sure my own family even reads it

But it's not a golden age of quality. The same few stories get endlessly repeated, then disappear, seldom to be followed up on.  It's like watching kindergarten soccer, where there's a scrum around the ball around all times, with few kids staying in position.

And, this time of the year, there is a proliferation of "year's best" lists.

Why? 

My theory is “cheap time filler”. Think of a 24 hour news channel, or a newspaper columnist now forced due to cutbacks to turn in more material per week. How to fill it?

A top 10 list doesn’t demand a whole lot of work — just review your own old stories, or Google “top Paraguayan vacation spots” and there you are — editor ready copy.

[I made up “top Paraguayan vacation spots” on a whim. But I did, in fact, Google “top Paraguayan vacation spots”. The second and third search returns were:
The Top 10 Things to Do in Paraguay 2015
The Top 10 Things to Do in Asuncion 2015]

My “cheap time filler” explains a lot about what’s on TV and other media these days. 

Celebrity coverage is cheap to produce. 

Sports opinion shows are cheap to produce (not the rights to the games themselves). 

Bemoaning Donald Trump is cheap to produce. Even getting Donald Trump on your show is cheap, and gets good ratings. 

Covering the latest poll results is cheap to produce. 

Having two “experts” yell over the top of each other is cheap to produce.

Investigative journalism? Coverage of foreign countries? Not so cheap.

Personally, the only time I made a “top 10” list is when I wrote my list of accomplishments for my annual personnel reviews, and only then because it was required. Do people who aren’t in the media actually make such lists?

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Lynching headlines

Jay Leno isn't doing "Headlines" on the Tonight Show any more.  He's missing the all-too-abundant headlines involving Attorney General Lynch, such as

Chicago Tribune, Wednesday December 16, 2015 page A17

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Intermission time at Illinois pension theatre

In our last episode, http://www.truncatedthoughts.com/2015/05/another-act-coming-to-illinois-pension.html  the Illinois Supreme Court had just struck down the pension agreement the legislature had pieced together.

This was no surprise.  That legislation was unconstitutional on its face and was mainly designed so the legislators could claim they had taken action, without actually accomplishing anything.

That was in May, 2015.  It's now December 2015. What's been accomplished in the last seven months?  Nothing.

The theatre this time involves the lack of a budget for the state of Illinois. Illinois is supposed to have a balanced budget beginning July 1, but we don't have a balanced budget or any budget at all.

Despite no budget, the rate of spending that's actually occurring will leave Illinois in the hole for the 2015-2016 fiscal year.

The attention on the budget story is a distraction from another seven months of failure to deal with the larger fiscal crisis.  It's more theatre.  Neither Rauner nor the legislature has to take the flak for actual activity. It's just more theatre.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Political pretending, pandering

Yes, we're all in a panic.

We're afraid of mass shootings, or just being shot by a stray bullet, period. That's pretty understandable.

Part of this is watching too much TV news. Now that I've moved into a condo and joined the fitness center next door, I often watch TV while I'm on the cardio equipment. Even watching Fox, CNN or the network news will scare you out of proportion.  And so much of it is just to fill air time with idiots speculating.  Probably more informative to watch Wheel of Fortune.

But I digress.  We are afraid.  So we have knee-jerk reactions


  • Ban all Muslim entry to the U.S.; maybe put the ones who are here into internment camps like we did the Japanese during World War II.
  • Build a fence; deport 11 million Mexicans
just to take two easy examples.

A moment's thought should be enough to disabuse one of the notion that these ideas are either desirable or workable.  So, I won't give another digression on that point.

Politicians who pretend they will do these things are pretending.  If elected, they might take a few steps along this way, but basically won't do it. They are just pandering to a base of people who they hope will elect them. 

Political pretending and pandering is as old as democracy, maybe older.  But in this particular case, it's causing a lot of harm to those outside the base, 

For example, it encourages the sort of microagressions that Muslim women face, e.g. http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/12/what-being-hijabi-really-like/ 

Hijabi women are consistently subjected to stares and pervasive microaggressions (subtle forms of discrimination, from strangers, friends, and co-workers).
In the past, I’ve been asked loaded and offensive questions: Strangers want to know if my father or husband forces me to wear the hijab or if I will be beaten for uncovering.
Even though I’ve lived in Texas my whole life, I’m often told I’m “exotic” and asked where I am “really” from. I frequently use the word “y’all” and don’t have an accent, but I still have to defend my right to be just as American as everyone else.
These questions can be harmless, a curiosity about the scarf I wear around my head, but they’re also constant reminders that I do not belong. I’m forever marked as an outsider.
It's in that sense that these actions are insidious.  To oversimplify our domestic mass killers, they tend to be young men who feel alienated.  (Another degression: young men feeling alienated covers perhaps a large majority of young men at some point in their time as young men.)  So, are we increasing this dangerous alienation among immigrants (and those whose grandparents were immigrants)?

How's that going to help? Answer: it isn't.

And it's always somebody else

 One of the major rules of tax politics is summarized in this doggerel:

Don't tax you,
Don't tax me,
Tax that fellow behind the tree.
So, by contending that what we need to do is act against Muslims or Mexicans, we're taking measures to counter American problems that will have minimal impact on us white folks.

This avoids realistic actions on gun control (which might make a dent in domestic terrorism and gang violence).

It avoids realistic discussions on privacy versus protection -- how much FBI, NSA (etc.) spying do we need to allow to protect ourselves? How much is just intrusion with few benefits and many costs?

It avoids trying to figure out what the heck our foreign policy should be in the future in the Middle East (and elsewhere).  Sure, we have messed up terribly for 15 years.  WHAT NOW? DO WE EVEN HAVE A CLUE?

Jingoistic slogans are not a coherent, executable policy.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Both the Bible and the Koran contain terrible passages reasonable people ignore

These Dutch pranksters took a bible and disguised it as a Koran and then had people read passages.  The reactions are predictable. It's worth 3 minutes of your time to watch the video using the link at the Friendly Atheist blog.


This is a bible we don't really know about. Wisely and appropriately, it isn't much read at Sunday services or studied in Sunday school. But the passages are there.

Slavery and homosexuality


I remember reading the ten commandments in Exodus 20 to my daughter at bedtime one night. 

Predictably, she asked me to continue reading. Right after that is a number of rules about slavery / servitude, including 

"[God speakingThese are the rulings you are to present to them: 
2 “If you purchase a Hebrew slave, he is to work six years; but in the seventh, he is to be given his freedom without having to pay anything. ... 
4 But if his master gave him a wife, and she bore him sons or daughters, then the wife and her children will belong to her master, and he will leave by himself. 5 Nevertheless, if the slave declares, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children, so I don’t want to go free,’ 6 then his master is to bring him before God; and there at the door or doorpost, his master is to pierce his ear with an awl; and the man will be his slave for life." 

Not good bedtime reading. 

My daughter being an inquisitive girl (and, as usual, wanted to delay bedtime for a bit) asked a bunch of questions that I wasn't quite prepared to answer completely.  Why is God talking about slavery? Is slavery OK with God? Do we still do this? (etc. etc. etc.)

There are complicated apologia for this from religious thinkers, but the apologia seem to involve saying these passages are "in line with the times" or "progressive for the times" or "that's all the Hebrews were able to understand at the time" -- i.e. making these passages relative to the times in which they are written.

Well and good, but should we not approach the passages on homosexuality the same way?

We are in a time of overpopulation. We don't need more people on earth.

The ancient world is a different story. They needed to populate the earth. They needed more children so they would have enough people to defend themselves against larger tribes.  

We are in a time of antibiotics.

The ancient world has no antibiotics, so some sexual practices would be more dangerous than they are now. I am not going to provide a list.

Women

And it is obvious that the temper of the times involves patriarchy / misogyny.

That's not news, so I won't give detail other than  to cite the 10th commandment:

17) “Do not covet your neighbor’s house; do not covet your neighbor’s wife, his male or female slave, his ox, his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
This is obviously directed at a male audience, and lumps wife into other forms of property.

Of course, by the time I learned the ten commandments in school they didn't express it this way. Following Augustine, the commandments was split into 9 (covet wife) and 10 (covet property). Still sexist, but an improvement.  

So the Bible (and the Koran, and likely other ancient religious texts) contain a variety of anachronistic passages. We might look for them for inner meanings and inspiration (e.g. Swedenborg's writings), but should avoid looking at them for literal guidance in a world that is much different than the ancient near east.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

McMansions and long term housing appreciation

For years, baby boomers were urged to buy housing. In the long run, it's cheaper than renting, and that was true, and likely is true for most people who are staying in the same place for a long time.

But we also heard housing was a good investment. And, in the current market where I'm at (upscale suburbia), the market is going to toward larger homes, teardowns, what are called McMansions.

http://blogs.wsj.com/briefly/2014/09/30/5-reasons-new-houses-are-still-getting-bigger/

Well-heeled buyers have typically gone for larger, new homes. They haven’t typically been the only portion of the market buying new houses—until recently. “The market has shrunk to a level where a very small segment of buyers is driving what the market looks like,” according to Rose Quint, assistant vice president of survey research at the National Association of Home Builders. “Until there’s a more representative sample of buyers [for new houses], they will continue to dominate how the market looks.”
 So, the current market is being driven by wealthier (generally older) buyers, i.e. by baby boomers. But baby boomers are getting older, and sooner or later will want to sell. And, in general, they will want to sell to the generations below them. These generations are smaller (that's why they call it the baby boom) and more saddled with debt and expenses (student loans, rising health care costs, etc.).

So baby boomers will be able to sell, but there will be more sellers than buyers and the buyers may have less money they can / want to spend on housing. That means prices will be depressed. This is similar to any situation in which there are more sellers than buyers.

This same situation is likely  to occur with stocks.
 When people retire, their income drops much more sharply than their consumption. As a result, they stop saving and start drawing down the assets they’ve acquired during their high-saving years. That could start to put upward pressure on interest rates and downward pressure on stock prices.
But each market is different. Stocks are really an investment decision. If I buy an index fund, I don't really know much about the individual stocks. I just want to try to get a return. And stocks are an international market, so anyone in the world can buy Procter and Gamble stock.

Housing sits in one location, and is subject to taste. What I want out of a house is different than what my children or grandchildren want. So that big suburban McMansion may be out of fashion in 20 years.

So it's best to think of housing as a consumption good.  If you want a big house to enjoy now, enjoy it.  But it's not likely to be a great investment over the long haul. You may not care if that's your heirs problem.

Creepy degree of advertising targeting


In the sidebar of CNN.com I saw an interesting thumbnail picture of a cyclist in yellow, and clicked on the advertising link. This led to a Merrill Lynch page, shown above.  I once had a small account at Merilll Lynch, but that was closed in the 1980s.

This is a creepy degree of advertising targeting, or an incredible coincidence.
1. I am a cyclist. Note that in addition to the yellow-clad cyclist in the main picture, there's a cyclist at the bottom of the page.  And they are showing a road bike, too, which is the type I usually ride (although hybrid bikes are probably more common).
2. Yes, I am in the early stage of retirement -- so the ad is more relevant to me than, say, preparing for retirement or saving for college.
3. Note the chess players in the background. I also play chess online.

There's also some science to the handsome guy in the picture. He could be any ethnicity.He looks fit, but the jacket could be hiding a bit of extra belly around the middle (as I am).

So the ad is tailored so well to appeal to me that it's a bit creepy.



Better to be bad at office politics

I think we underestimate the important role in society played by people who are bad at office politics.

If you are good at office politics, you are likely to end up in a position beyond your competence (the Peter Principle). This is less likely to happen if you don't have the political skills to lobby for a better position.  This means you are more likely to be qualified, maybe a bit overqualified, for your position.  Obviously, having competent people in jobs is better than having incompetent people in jobs.

But that's societal outcomes. Even for personal outcomes, there are advantages to being bad at office politics.  I spent the last 24 years of my career working at IRI, a company which started doing badly about 1994 and went through continual rounds of layoffs.  Then we were sold to an entepreneur who owned an Indian outsourcing firm, and reduced the staff from about 4400 to about 1500 over about four years -- making the company profitable again, and himself even more wealthy.

So, how did I survive all these waves of cuts?  I like to think it's because I was competent, but there was a lot of sheer luck involved.  In addition, I usually had jobs requiring technical skills, and jobs which nobody else wanted. Working on projection systems, for example. If they worked well, they were forgotten and nobody noticed.  When they didn't work quite well enough, there was heck to pay. So very little praise and a lot of downside.

If I'd had better political skills, I would have used my statistical skills to work on client-facing analytics.  This would have paid better, but those jobs also turn out to be more of a revolving door.  This isn't bad -- they pay well at our competitors as well -- but does mean moving around a lot.



Sunday, November 29, 2015

Two days ago, I posted my #OptOutside hike on the Friday after Thanksgiving.  This included pictures of the passive flood control system at Techny Basin taking on water.

The rain stopped Friday just after noon, so what does Techny Basin look like two days later?

The river is now going through the culverts.
The basin is now mostly drained.

There's still some water remaining below the spillway (there's always a small pond there, but not nearly as much as this).

 The pumping station is pumping the remaining extra water out into the river below the basin.
which creates a bit of a rush into the river.  Note there's a steel wall to absorb the force of the water.


Friday, November 27, 2015

REI #OptOutside Day: Walking to REI!

REI is closed today, Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. They are urging people to go outside today rather than shop. It's a good idea (and probably a good marketing stunt).

People spend much less time outdoors than they used to -- few of us are farmers, more of us work in offices, we live in climate-controlled houses, and kids play video games rather than pickup games at the playground.  So we forget. And we forget that there's outside, and there's OUTSIDE.

So, I decided to walk to REI today. It's about a five mile round trip.  I'm going to walk there the way that provides the most contact with nature, and walk back the way I'd drive there. Let's see the contrast.


Going there the natural way

So here I am in front of the condo. I'm in fleece with an REI windbreaker made for cycling.  The rain has just stopped and it's in the 30's. I hope REI orders better weather for OptOutside day next year.

I quickly get to a city park, with a path around the lake.
There's a bird's nest in a tree next to the path. I wonder where those birds are now.

There are few other people out.
 But there are more ducks! (and geese and seagulls). I don't see any blue herons or egrets today, though.
 I cross the tracks at the station (after the train passes).
 Just south of the station there's another path to the east.
 This is the Navy Ditch, which drains the lake above into the river.

The drain from the lake to the ditch is busy today, since we've had quite a bit of rain in the last 24 hours.


On the right, the path passes a light industrial area.

 Intersecting paths, arrows not quite pointing in the right direction, and no map.  The signage could use some improvement, but is adequate.
 Here;'s why the sign above says "low water crossing only". Can't cross here, even with waterproof boots!

But I hack through the underbrush and find a crossing point.
 The path continues.
 Now, on the right, there's a golf course connected to a condo development.
 Even on this "woodland" path, there's a reminder that this is not really a natural environment. There's no real wilderness in the Chicago area. Even the natural areas require care to keep invasive species such as buckthorn under control.
 We're at the river, and we'll walk around a flood control basin.  This is 1.25 miles around and basically is a big hole in the ground. Ordinarily it's empty except for a small pond below the spillway.

The river ordinarily goes through culverts under the yellow fence.  But only so much river is allowed through


The rest of the water is diverted passively over this spillway and into the big hole.



Here it is from the other side.  Does it ever fill up? Yes. What then? It overflows. How does the water get out? It gets pumped back into the river after the river levels go back down. UPDATE: what does this area look like 48 hours later?

There's a recreational path around the basin, and a playground.  A trailer park is behind the playground.
Now we'll cut through a subdivision and cross to the shopping center REI is in.

 This might be called a "God and Mammon" shot.  This whole area used to be a farm for the Divine Word Missionary Priests, whose monastery is in the background.  But in order to generate funds, they are now leasing the land for corporate headquarters (Kraft, Crate and Barrel), subdivisions, and this shopping center.
 Lots of cars in the parking lot today -- except here.

Returning on the Roads


Now, we'll return home by walking next the roads I'd use if I was driving here. The roads aren't particularly ugly -- this is a wealthier area that has paid a lot of attention to improving appearance.  But it's still a combination of strip malls, residential developments screened off from the road, some car dealers, and auto repair.



 This is the front side of the trailer park.
 Lots of salons, nail and pedicure, yoga, tutoring, and some fast food. Pretty much suburbia.
 The residential developments are screened off from this busy road, and can't be seen. The first one is the development with the golf course we saw earlier, from the other side.






Yep, two yoga studios in the same block.

 Crossing the tracks again.


And back home.

So what am I trying to say here?

First, that getting outdoors, even on a bad weather day, can be fun.

Second, that the choice of your route is important.  Of course, every cyclist is well aware of this. You usually don't cycle or walk using the same route you drive. It's a matter of safety and enjoyment to choose a route that's better suited to cycling or walking. Get out and explore your own neighborhood!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Benford's Law in Consumer Packaged Goods: More Categories, More Patterns

In our previous posts in this series, on package sizes and product sales, we found that Benford's Law (in which a first digit of 1 is more common than a first digit of 2, etc.) held for unit and dollar sales at the UPC-store-week level, but not when we aggregated further to the category-store-week level for two categories, beer and yogurt.

I've taken the earlier graphs for beer and yogurt and combined them so we have one graph for each category.  The Benford's Law expectation is shown in the dashed blue line.

As we noted before, the first digits of units (UPC-store-week units) and dollars (UPC-store-week dollars) show a good fit. A UPC is a unique product with a specific Universal Product Code on the label, so it's very low level.  When we aggregate up to category level, to sales of the entire product category, the fit isn't as good.



I looked at two other categories in the IRI Marketing Data Set [7] to see if this pattern generalizes.

For household cleaners, we see a reversal.  The UPC level has an excess of first digit 1s and 2s for units, which isn't surprising since these items tend to have low weekly movement. The dollars fit at the UPC level is good, but shows a bit of divergence.

The fit at the category level for both units and dollars is excellent.
For frozen pizza, we see a result that's similar to beer and yogurt: the fit at the UPC level is good, but at the aggregate level has divergence.

Does this mean anything?

There are some pretty graphs here, but do they mean anything?

The generalization from this analysis is that the degree of fit of actual data to Benford's Law is variable, and depends on the degree of aggregation.  Aggregating the data to a higher level may produce a better fit. We found this with product sizes and with household cleaners. Or, it may degrade the fit. We found this with beer, yogurt and frozen pizza sales.

The degrading of fit when aggregation occurs is different from the degrading of fit when mixing occurs. [If we have 10 observations of A and 10 observations of B, we have 10 observations of aggregated A+B, but 20 observations of mixed A B.] The effect of mixing is understood [e.g. 1, appendix 3] but I need to look at more literature to understand the aggregation effect. It's a bit surprising, since the sales of the entire category tend to be much higher than the sales of individual products, and "As a rule, the more orders of magnitude that the data evenly covers, the more accurately Benford's law applies." [8]  However, Benford's Law is more likely to apply when there are multiplicative fluctuations (numbers multiplied together) than additive fluctuations (numbers added together). [8]

Benford's Law is mostly a curiosity, but is cited as one way to test for fraud. Examples of this are claimed in financial statements [1], Iranian elections [2,3,4,5,6] and other cases.

But we have to apply caution here. What fits in one context (e.g. one company) may not fit in another -- as we see here with household cleaners showing the opposite pattern from the other three categories.

In addition, there's the obvious implication that using Benford's Law patterns to test for fraud only works until the fraudsters get smarter.


[1] Amiram, Dan, Bozanic, Zahn and Rouen, Ethan. Financial statement errors: evidence from the distributional properties of financial statement numbers.  Rev. Account Stud (2015) 20:1540-1593.

[2] Roukema, Boudewijn F.  Benford's law anomalies in the 2009 Iranian presidential election. (2009) Submitted to the Annals of Applied Statistics.
http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/0906/0906.2789v1.pdf

[3] Gelman, Andrew. Unconvincing (to me) use of Benford’s law to demonstrate election fraud in Iran. Blog post, June 17, 2009. http://andrewgelman.com/2009/06/17/unconvincing_to/

[4] Gelman, Andrew. Combining findings at the Province and County Level from Iran's Election. Blog post, June 20, 2009. http://andrewgelman.com/2009/06/20/combining_findi/

[5] Gelman, Andrew. The Devil is in the Digits. Blog post, June 20, 2009. http://andrewgelman.com/2009/06/20/the_devil_is_in/

[6] Beber, Beermd and Scacco, Alexandra. The Devil is in the Digits: Evidence That Iran's Election was Rigged.  Washington Post, June 20, 2009 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/20/AR2009062000004.html?hpid=opinionsbox1

[7] Bronnenberg, B. J., Kruger, M. W., & Mela, C. F. (2008). Database Paper—The IRI Marketing Data Set.Marketing Science27(4), 745–748. http://doi.org/10.1287/mksc.1080.0450
[8] Wikipedia, Benford's Law. Retrieved November 29, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benford%27s_law