Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Zoos Take a Step Backward in Pangolin Conservation

05 Jun

In mid-May, a group of 20 pangolin experts, scientists and conservation professionals gathered in Washington, D.C. to plan a way forward for further protecting pangolins—the most-trafficked wild mammal on earth. One of the points they agreed upon was that there is no conservation value in taking pangolins from the wild and bringing them to North American zoos, since they typically die very quickly in captivity.

Source: Zoos Take a Step Backward in Pangolin Conservation


Highest Mountains, Deepest Trenches, and a Doughnut

01 Apr

Highest Mountains, Deepest Trenches

A while ago something broke inside me. My deepest held beliefs were shattered. I started drinking again. Absinthe. I love absinthe. 69% ABV.

It started when I saw it. A glorious pie chart displaying growth rates. Growth! At first, I couldn’t believe it. I took off my glasses. Yes, growth rates. In a pie chart. I had to try it. Unemployment rates. Growth rates above 100%. Apples and oranges. Trends. Pies, pies, pies. And absinthe.

Now I’m playing with doughnuts. Mountains and trenches, from the Wikipedia. I don’t like it. It murmurs. Too much signal. I want pure noise. Maybe a 3D effect can help. I’ll try again.

Bye, Tufte. Bye, Few. Bye, Bertin. I’m almost free.

Oops. April 1 is almost over. Back to business then.



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Post from: Excel Charts Blog.

Highest Mountains, Deepest Trenches, and a Doughnut


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An Airport Encounter

18 Mar

It was only the third time it had happened to me in my nearly thirty-five happy years as a priest, all three times over the last nine-and-a-half years.

Other priests tell me it has happened to them a lot more.

Three is enough.  Each time has left me so shaken I was near nausea.

It happened last Friday . . .

I had just arrived at the Denver Airport, there to speak at their popular annual “Living Our Catholic Faith” conference.

As I was waiting with the others for the electronic train to take me to the terminal, a man, maybe in his mid-forties, waiting as well, came closer to me.

“Are you a Catholic priest?” he kindly asked.

“Sure am.  Nice to meet you,” says I, as I offered my hand.

He ignored it.  “I was raised a Catholic,” he replied, almost always a hint of a cut to come, but I was not prepared for the razor sharpness of the stiletto, as he went on, “and now, as a father of two boys, I can’t look at you or any other priest without thinking of a sexual abuser.”

What to respond?  Yell at him?  Cuss him out?  Apologize?  Deck him?  Express understanding?  I must admit all such reactions came to mind as I staggered with shame and anger from the damage of the wound he had inflicted with those stinging words.

“Well,” I recovered enough to remark, “I’m sure sorry you feel that way.  But, let me ask you, do you automatically presume a sexual abuser when you see a Rabbi or Protestant minister?”

“Not at all,” he came back through gritted teeth as we both boarded the train.

“How about when you see a coach, or a boy scout leader, or a foster parent, or a counsellor, or physician?”  I continued.

“Of course not!” he came back.  “What’s all that got to do with it?”

“A lot,” I stayed with him, “because each of those professions have as high a percentage of sexual abuse, if not even higher, than that of priests.”

“Well, that may be,” he retorted.  “But the Church is the only group that knew it was going on, did nothing about it, and kept transferring the perverts around.”

“You obviously never heard the stats on public school teachers,” I observed.  “In my home town of New York City alone, experts say the rate of sexual abuse among public school teachers is ten times higher than that of priests, and these abusers just get transferred around.”  (Had I known at that time the news in in last Sunday’s New York Times about the high rate of abuse of the most helpless in state supervised homes, with reported abusers simply transferred to another home, I would have mentioned that, too.)

To that he said nothing, so I went in for a further charge.

“Pardon me for being so blunt, but you sure were with me, so, let me ask:  when you look at yourself in a mirror, do you see a sex abuser?”

Now he was as taken aback as I had been two-minutes before.  “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Sadly,” I answered, “studies tell us that most children sexually abused are victims of their own fathers or other family members.”

Enough of the debate, I concluded, as I saw him dazed.  So I tried to calm it down.

“So, I tell you what:  when I look at you, I won’t see a sex abuser, and I would appreciate the same consideration from you.”

The train had arrived at baggage claim, and we both exited together.

“Well then, why do we only hear this garbage about you priests,” he inquired, as he got a bit more pensive.

“We priests wonder the same thing.  I’ve got a few reasons if you’re interested.”

He nodded his head as we slowly walked to the carousel.

“For one,” I continued, “we priests deserve the more intense scrutiny, because people trust us more as we dare claim to represent God, so, when on of us do it – even if only a tiny minority of us ever have — it is more disgusting.”

“Two, I’m afraid there are many out there who have no love for the Church, and are itching to ruin us.  This is the issue they love to endlessly scourge us with.”

“And, three, I hate to say it,” as I wrapped it up, “there’s a lot of money to be made in suing the Catholic Church, while it’s hardly worth suing any of the other groups I mentioned before.”

We both by then had our luggage, and headed for the door.  He then put his hand out, the hand he had not extended five minutes earlier when I had put mine out to him.  We shook.

“Thanks.  Glad I met you.”

He halted a minute.  “You know, I think of the great priests I knew when I was a kid.  And now, because I work in IT at Regis University, I know some devoted Jesuits.  Shouldn’t judge all you guys because of the horrible sins of a few.”

“Thanks!,” I smiled.

I guess things were patched-up, because, as he walked away, he added, “At least I owe you a joke:  What happens when you can’t pay your exorcist?”

“Got me,” I answered.

“You get ‘re-possessed’!”

We both laughed and separated.

Notwithstanding the happy ending, I was still trembling . . . and almost felt like I needed an exorcism to expel my shattered soul, as I had to confront again the horror this whole mess has been to victims and their families, our Catholic people like the man I had just met . . . and to us priests.


A Million Random Digits: review of reviews

04 Mar

Recently on his blog (here), Robin mentioned an amazing book, called "A Million Random Digits" published by RAND corporation. The book was initially published in 1955, but RAND published a nice (and expensive) second edition.

A great thing is that on Amazon, there are several extremely interesting reviews of the book. E.g.

4.0 out of 5 stars Didn’t like the ending, February 10, 2009  By Damien Katz

Even though I didn’t really see it coming, the ending was kind of anti-climatic. But overall the book held my attention and I really liked the "10034 56429 234088" part. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who feels that way.

5.0 out of 5 stars I found a typo, September 14, 2007  By fanfan

To whom do I write to report typographical errors? I noticed that the first "7" on the third line page 48 should be a "3". The "7" that’s printed there now isn’t random. Other than that, this is really an excellent book.

5.0 out of 5 stars Superb and original plot, April 21, 2007  By Herr Tarquin Biskuitfaß

This one has a very unpredictable plot, sublime character development in a style that stubbornly defies any sort of development in its rare and iconoclastic brilliance, and is told remarkably with numbers instead of letters. Take, for example, this passage on page 202, "98783 24838 39793 80954". I’m speechless. The symmetry is reminiscent of the I Ching, and it approaches a rare spiritual niveau lacking in American literature. It not only reads well, but it looks great too. I have a tattoo of page 214 on my arm, and I’m hoping to get 202 on my belly to celebrate my next birthday. It is an injustice that Rand Corporation has not received the Nobel Prize for Literature, nor even a Pulitzer.

3.0 out of 5 stars A serious reference work?, October 16, 2006  By BJ

For a supposedly serious reference work the omission of an index is a major impediment. I hope this will be corrected in the next edition.

1.0 out of 5 stars Not Nearly A Million, September 3, 2006  By Liron

This book does not even come close to delivering on its promise of one million random digits. My expectations were high after reading the first sentence, which contained ten unique digits. However, the author seems to have exhasted his creativity in this initial burst, because the other 99.999% of the book is filler in which those same ten digits are shamelessly reused!  If you are looking for a larger offering of numerals in various bases, I highly recommend "Peter Rabbit’s ABC and 123".

3.0 out of 5 stars Wait for the audiobook version, October 19, 2006  By R. Rosini "Newtype"

While the printed version is good, I would have expected the publisher to have an audiobook version as well. A perfect companion for one’s Ipod.

5.0 out of 5 stars Wait for it…, February 10, 2009  By Cranky Yankee

It started off slow, single digit slow in the beginning but I stuck with it. I eventually learned all about the different numbers, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 and 0 and their different combinations.  The author introduced them all a bit too quickly for my taste. I would have been perfectly happy with just 1,2,3,4 and 5 for the first 20,000 digits, but then again, I’m not a famous random-number author, am I?  After a while, patterns emerged and the true nature of the multiverse was revealed to me, and the jokes were kinda funny. I don’t want to spoil anything but you will LOVE the twist ending!  Like 4352204 said to 64231234, "2242 6575 0013 2829!"

OK, I have to admit I tried to check a few of them (that's my freaky part). For instance the first one is a fake: the two first numbers - for instance - never show up together (consecutively),

> DIGIT=read.table("
> DIGIT=DIGIT[,2:11]
> k=1
> I=apply(DIGIT[,1:2]==c(10034,56429),1,sum)==2
> for(k in 2:9){
+ I=cbind(I,apply(DIGIT[,k+0:1]==c(10034,56429),1,sum)==2)
+ }
> I0=which(apply(I,1,sum)>0)
> DIGIT[I0,]
[1] V2 V3 V4 V5 V6 V7 V8 V9 V10 V11
<0 rows> (or 0-length row.names)

Nevertheless, I did have some fun reading those reviews. About the book, unfortunately I have to confess I stopped after 99998 appeared (the first time).

This post was kindly contributed by Freakonometrics - Tag - R-english - go there to comment and to read the full post.


Finally out of Watson material!

25 Feb

I imagine public interest in the idea of IBM software winning a quiz show is starting to wane–and remember, I taped these shows a month in advance, so I’m thirty days ahead of the attention-waning curve. Here, while anybody might still care, are six Watson stories I never told.

1. IBM research labs have no dressing rooms for some reason! As a result, Brad Rutter and I took over two HR conference rooms to change clothes, get made up, etc. I’ve already emailed the HR department a little chart showing which parts of their desks I sat on naked. Sorry guys! Hope the basket of muffins made up for it. Also, the whole place was designed by superstar midcentury architect Eero Saarinen…but it’s got like two men’s rooms in it. What, in Finland nobody needs to pee? Because Brad and I were supposed to be strictly sequestered from the Watson team, keeping IBMers out of “our” men’s room became a full-time job for the contestant coordinators. One guy who got yelled for trying to use his own restroom turned out to be senior vice president John E. Kelly III. “I don’t think anyone’s said no to him in years!” said one white-faced IBM employee.

2. Watson is mostly written in Java. After one of the practice games wound up, I sat down in the auditorium behind Watson’s operators, hoping to sneak a peek at what they were up to. The first thing I saw was a whomping Java error trace someone was trying to debug. As a Java programmer for many years, this was both exciting and horrifying: my own tools had turned on me! Luckily, like any good craftsman, I choose not to blame my Yogi Berra.

3. Garry Kasparov didn’t make the cut. In the first game, Watson nailed a clue about Garry Kasparov’s defeat at the “hands” of Deep Blue, eliciting a burst of applause from the deeply-in-the-tank studio audience. Unfortunately, home viewers never got to see this IBM bloodlust in action. The Kasparov clue, like maybe half a dozen others over the course of the taping, had to be tossed out for technical reasons. The Jeopardy! crew’s 26 years of experience doing their show means they normally run a pretty tight ship, but the added complications of (a) doing the show on the road, and (b) connecting to a computer opponent for the first time meant endless glitches. I think Brad and I both wonder if I we could have eased into a better buzzer rhythm if we hadn’t had to stop tape every category or two.

4. Jerome Vered was pissed. I wrote in Slate that I was the first human made obsolete by Watson, but that’s not strictly true. Jerome Vered has that honor. You may recall that the last time Brad and I played Jeopardy! was the finals of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions, in which the third man was L.A. gadabout and quiz show veteran Jerome Vered. One of the Jeopardy! contestant coordinators said that, just hours after the lineup for the Watson match was announced, she got an email from Jerome: “So you replaced me with a computer?!?” For some reason I like to imagine him saying this with gloomy equanimity, like Eeyore.

5. Alex Trebek was pissed. Between the practice rounds and the televised game, Watson switched up its strategy dramatically–most notably, it started hunting for Daily Doubles instead of marching down the categories in order. The reason was simple: Watson comes with a practice mode and a game mode, and it wasn’t playing in game mode yet. I don’t think Brad or I felt like this was unfair–after all, we could have concealed strategy from Watson in the practice rounds as well–but some of the Jeopardy! powers-that-be felt the change-up was a bit of a hustle, since presumably one of the reasons for the practice rounds was to let us see Watson’s gameplay in action. “Alex is pissed,” Stephen Baker told me the weekend after the taping, right after he got off the phone with a still-hot-under-the-collar Trebek.

6. Alex Trebek was messing with my head! Jeopardy! “Clue Crew” stalwart Jimmy McGuire stood in for Alex as host of the practice rounds, so that audiences seeing clips wouldn’t assume they were watching the actual match. Alex, though, was so interested in watching Watson in action that he drifted into the crowd in his shirtsleeves and watched the practice rounds from the front row. This was oddly disconcerting! “Alex, I can’t play with you watching!” I shouted to him. “You’re in the wrong spot.” It was, I thought, exactly like trying to pee at a urinal with someone watching you. Or with a Jeopardy! contestant coordinator kicking you out of the men’s room, I suppose.

(Watson likeness by Matt “Matsby” Page.)


IBM Researcher Explains What Makes Watson Tick [VIDEO]

18 Feb

Humanity took a beating from the machines this week. The world’s best Jeopardy player is no longer from the human race.

This week, IBM’s Watson supercomputer defeated Jeopardy‘s greatest champions, and it wasn’t even close. When all was said and done, Watson won $77,147, far more than Brad Rutter ($21,600) or 74-time champion Ken Jennings ($24,000). Its ability to dissect complex human language and return correct responses in a matter of seconds was simply too much for humanity’s best players.

A few years ago though, Watson couldn’t even answer 20% of the questions it was given correctly. And it took hours, not seconds, for Watson to process a question.

At an intimate event in San Francisco, John Prager, one of the researchers developing Watson’s ability to answer complex questions, gave a presentation detailing the work he and his colleagues did to turn Watson into a Jeopardy champion. During his presentation and a Q&A afterwards, Prager and fellow researcher Burn Lewis revealed some key nuggets of information, such as why Watson made those odd, uneven bets during Daily Doubles (an IBM researcher thought it would be boring if Watson’s bets ended with zeros, so he added random dollar amounts for kicks) or which programming languages the researchers used to build Watson (Java and C++).

So what’s next for Watson? Prager says that the next frontier is health care; he hopes that Watson’s technology can help diagnose ailments by analyzing vast quantities of data against patient symptoms and queries.

Check out the video to get a deeper dive into the technology behind Watson. Check it out in HD if you want to read the slides.

More About: IBM, IBM Watson, Jeopardy, video, watson, youtube

For more Tech & Gadgets coverage:


Facebook, Facebook, Facebook

12 Jan

We often think that well-respected, high-circulation national newspapers, like the Washington Post, are among the most influential institutions in the country.  With this in mind, the Post‘s desperate effort to weave itself up with Facebook is a stunning indication of Facebook’s power in American society.  Or, at least, the Washington’s Post‘s perception of Facebook’s power.

Eat Liver, via Blame It On the Voices.

(View original at


Rosling—Where’s the data?

14 Dec

Hans Rosling of GapMinder is one of my heroes. He has become an engaging and powerful teller of quantitative stories. He’s making a difference in the world. Even the most talented among us, however, sometimes slip up. Rosling’s recent video, produced by BBC Four, takes advantage of technology to place him behind a transparent bubble chart, making it possible for him to direct our attention to particular items with greater ease and clarity, without blocking our view-a worthy goal for statistical narrative. This approach suffers, however, from one significant flaw: in addition to Rosling, an entire room with bright lights, beams, and windows appears in the background as well, resulting in a great deal of distraction.

The production crew could have easily used a clean backdrop for the video, which would have removed all distractions and made it easy to focus on the data and Rosling’s narration. This problem perhaps never occurred to the technicians (although it should have), and I suspect that Rosling had no idea that all those windows and lamps with glaring lights would show up in the finished video. Attention to these details, however, makes the difference between fun and engaging data visualizations that tell stories effectively and those that feature novelty and entertainment over substance. To focus attention on the story, all distractions must be removed. As we venture into new opportunities that technology makes possible, we dare not forget the important lessons of the past. In the years since Edward Tufte began promoting the reduction of non-data ink in visual displays, research has confirmed the importance of this practice due to limitations in human perception, cognition, and memory. We can only focus on a small portion of the visual field at one time, we can only consciously attend to one task at a time, and we can only hold about three chunks of visual information at a time. There is no room for distraction of any kind. Anything that isn’t data must have a good reason to be there or it should be eliminated. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery once wrote, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” This is especially true when telling quantitative stories.

Take care,


Pi Necklace

27 Sep

Cute Kawaii Stuff - Pi Necklace

Most of us only know pi to two, maybe three decimal places. This necklace ensures your nerd status even if you can’t rattle off all those pesky random numbers by heart. You will also melt nerd hearts everywhere you go, and as we all know, nerd hearts are the sweetest.

Available at: RGB-works Via: The Daily What


BI Has Hit the Wall

09 Sep

I delivered a keynote presentation at Tableau’s Customer Conference last week. Several people at the conference expressed appreciation for the insights contained in one of my slides in particular, so I thought I’d share it here in my blog.

Here’s what I said while showing this slide:

The industry that has claimed responsibility for helping organizations get real value from information goes by the name “business intelligence.” This term was originally coined by Hans Peter Luhn, an IBM researcher, way back in 1958. Luhn defined business intelligence as “the ability to apprehend the interrelationships of presented facts in such a way as to guide action towards a desired goal.” The term didn’t catch on, however, until sometime after Howard Dresner, best known for his work at Gartner, used it again to breathe new life into to the data warehousing industry. Dresner defined the term as “concepts and methods to improve business decision making using fact-based support systems.”

Contained in these early definitions was the seed of an inspiring vision that caused people like me to imagine a better world, but the business intelligence industry has done little to help us achieve the vision of the people who coined the term. When Thornton May was interviewing people for his book “The New Know”, he asked a prominent venture capitalist known for his 360-degree view of the technology industry what he thought of when he heard the phrase business intelligence. His response was “big software, little analysis.” Sadly, his response rings true.

In the 1990s, the data warehousing industry, which had become lackluster due to its many failures and the inability of thought leaders and vendors to tell us anything new and worthwhile, promoted the term business intelligence (BI) as its new rallying cry. It was used as a marketing campaign to rekindle interest in old technologies, but did little to change the course of events. The industry continued to focus on building the infrastructure of data rather than the tools and methods that are needed to actually use data. Until this day the BI industry still focuses on collecting, cleaning, transforming, integrating, storing, and reporting data, but the activities that actually make sense of information and use it to support better decisions have remained behind a wall that they’ve failed to scale and have never seriously tried to scale. For information to be useful, we must explore it, analyze it, communicate it, monitor it, and use it to predict the future, but the BI industry’s attempts to support these activities with few exceptions have been tragically comical. The technology-centric, engineering-oriented perspective and skill set that has allowed the industry to build an information infrastructure is not what’s needed to support data sensemaking. To use the data that we’ve amassed, a human-centric, design-oriented perspective and skill set is needed.

All of the traditional BI software vendors and most of the industry’s thought leaders are stuck on the left side of the wall. The software vendors that are providing effective data sensemaking solutions—those that make it possible to work in the realm of analytics on the right side of the wall—have come from outside the traditional BI marketplace. Vendors like Tableau, TIBCO Spotfire, Panopticon, Advisor Solutions, and SAS tend to either be spin-offs of university research or companies that have ventured into the BI marketplace from a long history of work in statistics. Traditional BI software vendors and the scores of recent start-ups that emulate them can choose to climb the wall, but it won’t be easy. They’ll need to rebuild their approach from the ground up. Unfortunately, most of them don’t even realize that their attempts to provide data sensemaking solutions are embarrassingly uninformed and ineffective. Until they see the wall, they’ll never learn to scale it.

Take care,