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XKCD's brilliant explanation of Fermi Estimation

The latest installment in Randall Munroe's XKCD "What If?" series is called Paint the Earth and it is amazing. One of Munroe's readers wanted to know "Has humanity produced enough paint to cover the entire land area of the Earth?" and Munroe uses this as a springboard for explaining Fermi estimation, a powerful, counter-intuitive tool that has applications in many fields.

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XKCD's "Frequency" - using blinking GIFs to visualize the relative frequency of the momentous and trivial

In Frequency, the latest XKCD cartoon, Randall Munroe has assembled a grid of animated GIFs representing various events in the universe, each keyed to blink in the frequency in which they occur in reality. As with the best of Munroe's work, it's a mix of the trenchant and the silly, and the juxtapositions are smart and provocative. There's real genius in putting "50,000 plastic bottles are produced" and "50,000 plastic bottles are recycled" next to each other, the former blinking much more often than the latter -- but the best part is "A Sagittarius named Amelia drinks a soda," just above them, mixing up the alarming and the humorous.

The other juxtapositions are just as delicious -- one birth/one death; China builds a car/Japan builds a car/Germany builds a car/US builds a car/someone else builds a car; someone buys "To Kill a Mockingbird"/someone's cat kills a mockingbird -- and so on. This being XKCD, you can be sure that Munroe has an absurdly well-thought-through process for establishing and documenting his numbers, too.

The tool-tip notes that he wanted to include pitch-drops in the chart, but "it turns out the gif format has some issues with decade-long loops." Frequency (via IO9)

Representation of women in games and movies: the awful numbers

Catriona tumbled these enraging statistics about gender and representation in games and films for 2013:

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MPAA asks judge to exclude evidence on piracy losses

In a crowded field of talented practitioners, MPAA piracy figures are standout examples of misleading, silly, outright BS. No wonder then, that the MPAA has asked a judge to exclude any data on losses due to piracy from its lawsuit against Isohunt.

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Statistics explained with the help of modern dance

If you're the type of person who really needs some good visuals to make a concept stick in your head, this series of YouTube videos made by the British Psychological Society Media Centre will help you remember the meanings behind statistical concepts like "correlation", "frequency distributions", and "sampling error". There are four videos in the series so far, and they do a great job of painting pictures around abstract ideas. Bonus: Soothing music.

Via Openculture

Death and the Mainframe: How data analysis can help document human rights atrocities

Between 1980 and 2000, a complicated war raged in Peru, pitting the country’s government against at least two political guerilla organizations, and forcing average people to band together into armed self-defense committees.

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Solving Monopoly with Markov chains

Business Insider's Walter Hickey did the math on Monopoly, calculating the most frequently landed-up squares (taking into account dice probability, Go To Jail events, and Community Chest/Chance cards) and conceived of a supposedly optimal strategy for buying and building upon property. I still hate Monopoly, but I suspect that this would make it less boring (for a while, at least).

How To Use Math To Crush Your Friends At Monopoly Like You've Never Done Before (via MeFi)

Decline in fertility after age 30 may be vastly overstated

As a woman, you do become less fertile as you get older, eventually culminating in menopause and the end of your potential babymaking years. But what does "less fertile" mean, and at what age, and how quickly does the drop-off in fertility happen?

According to this really fascinating piece by Jean Twenge at The Atlantic, some of the commonly cited scare stats — that one in three women ages 35 to 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying, say — are based on extremely old data collected from historical birth records that don't necessarily reflect what's happening with real women who are alive right now. That statistic mentioned above, for instance, comes from French records (likely those collected by local church baptismal registries) for the years 1670 to 1830.

That matters because fertility is affected by things like quality of nutrition, infection rates, and even childhood illnesses — all of which have changed drastically for the average Western woman since the 19th century.

Look at more modern records, and the outlook for post-30 babymaking is completely different.

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The mathematics of tabloid news

Leila Schneps and Coralie Colmez have an interesting piece at The New York Times about DNA evidence in murder trials, the mathematics of probability, and the highly publicized case of Amanda Knox. What good is remembering the math you learned in junior high? If you're a judge, it could be the difference between a guilty verdict and an acquittal. Maggie

Why "cancer clusters" are so hard to confirm

This excerpt from the new book, Toms River by Dan Fagin, has me instantly intrigued. The book is about one of the rare places where scientists were able to prove that not only was there a cluster of cancer cases, but that those cases could be linked to a cause. The excerpt explains why this is such a rare thing. Turns out, just because it looks like a town has more cancers than it should, doesn't mean that's always what's going on. Maggie

Sloppy statistics: Do 50% of Americans really think married women should be legally obligated to change their names?

Jill Filipovic wrote an opinion column for The Guardian yesterday, arguing against the practice of women taking their husbands' names when they get married. It ended up linked on Jezebel and found its way to my Facebook feed where one particular statistic caught my eye. Filipovic claimed that 50% of Americans think a women should be legally required to take her husband's name.

First, some quick clarification of my biases here. Although I write under a hyphenate, I never have legally changed my name. I've never had a desire to do so. In my private life, I'm just Maggie Koerth and always will be. That said, I personally take issue with the implication at the center of Filipovic's article — that women shouldn't change their names and that to do so makes you a bad feminist. For me, this is one of those personal decisions where I'm like, whatever. Make your own choice. Just because I don't get it doesn't mean you're wrong.

But just like I take objection to being all judgey about personal choices, I also take objection to legally mandating personal choices, and I was kind of blown away by the idea that 50% of my fellow Americans think my last name should be illegal.

So I looked into that statistic. And then I got really annoyed.

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Tallest possible Lego tower height calculated

The good folks on the most-excellent BBC Radio/Open University statistical literacy programme More or Less decided to answer a year-old Reddit argument about how many Lego bricks can be vertically stacked before the bottom one collapses.

They got the OU's Dr Ian Johnston to stress-test a 2X2 Lego in a hydraulic testing machine, increasing the pressure to some 4,000 Newtons, at which point the brick basically melted. Based on this, they calculated the maximum weight a 2X2 brick could bear, and thus the maximum height of a Lego tower:

The average maximum force the bricks can stand is 4,240N. That's equivalent to a mass of 432kg (950lbs). If you divide that by the mass of a single brick, which is 1.152g, then you get the grand total of bricks a single piece of Lego could support: 375,000.

So, 375,000 bricks towering 3.5km (2.17 miles) high is what it would take to break a Lego brick.

"That's taller than the highest mountain in Spain. It's significantly higher than Mount Olympus [tallest mountain in Greece], and it's the typical height at which people ski in the Alps," Ian Johnston says.

"So if the Greek gods wanted to build a new temple on Mount Olympus, and Mount Olympus wasn't available, they could just - but no more - do it with Lego bricks. As long as they don't jump up and down too much."

How tall can a Lego tower get?

More or Less: Opinion polling, Kevin Pietersen, and stacking Lego 30 Nov 2012 [MP3]

Everything you eat is associated with cancer, but don't worry about it

Image: Shutterstock. Fried chicken gave the model in this stock photo cancer of the double chin.

Sarah Kliff at the Washington Post digs into new research out today from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. She writes about correlation and causality, and how to read statistics more intelligently.


“I was constantly amazed at how often claims about associations of specific foods with cancer were made, so I wanted to examine systematically the phenomenon,” e-mails study author John Ioannidis ”I suspected that much of this literature must be wrong. What we see is that almost everything is claimed to be associated with cancer, and a large portion of these claims seem to be wrong indeed.”

Among the ingredients in question for their purported relation to cancer risk: veal, salt, pepper spice, flour, egg, bread, pork, butter, tomato, lemon, duck, onion, celery, carrot, parsley, mace, sherry, olive, mushroom, tripe, milk, cheese, coffee, bacon, sugar, lobster, potato, beef, lamb, mustard, nuts, wine, peas, corn, cinnamon, cayenne, orange, tea, rum, and raisin.

Now: combine all of them into one recipe and do the study again, I say.

Nate Silver's The Signal and The Noise

Nate Silver's been in the news a lot these last few days: looking at some stories, you'd think he'd won the election, not Mr. Obama. A statistician, his rigorous polling analysis riled, then humiliated political pundits, whose imaginary political horse-race was rejected by Silver's cold, hard numbers.

And what numbers they were. His "prediction"--though really just the most likely probability among many scenarios offered by his model--nailed the electoral college total on the night.

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Particle physicists not yet willing to call the election for Obama

Sure, there's a 99.2% probability that he will win, but that is several standard deviations away from the 99.99995% confidence that the particle physicists would need to declare the election won. (This is satire, obviously.) Via Jennifer Ouellette. Maggie