Archive for Guesstimation

Is that a big number? [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2018 by xi'an

A book I received prior to its publication a few days ago from OXford University Press (OUP), as a book editor for CHANCE (usual provisions apply: the contents of this post will be more or less reproduced in my column in CHANCE when it appears). Copy that I found in my mailbox in Warwick last week and read over the (very hot) weekend.

The overall aim of this book by Andrew Elliott is to encourage numeracy (or fight innumeracy) by making sense of absolute quantities by putting them in perspective, teaching about log scales, visualisation, and divide-and-conquer techniques. And providing a massive list of examples and comparisons, sometimes for page after page… The book is associated with a fairly rich website, itself linked with the many blogs of the author and a myriad of other links and items of information (among which I learned of the recent and absurd launch of Elon Musk’s Tesla car in space! A première in garbage dumping…). From what I can gather from these sites, some (most?) of the material in the book seems to have emerged from the various blog entries.

“Length of River Thames (386 km) is 2 x length of the Suez Canal (193.3 km)”

Maybe I was too exhausted by heat and a very busy week in Warwick for our computational statistics week, the football  2018 World Cup having nothing to do with this, but I could not keep reading the chapters of the book in a continuous manner, suffering from massive information overdump! Being given thousands of entries kills [for me] the appeal of outing weight or sense to large and very large and humongous quantities. And the final vignette in each chapter of pairing of numbers like the one above or the one below

“Time since earliest writing (5200 y) is 25 x time since birth of Darwin (208 y)”

only evokes the remote memory of some kid journal I read from time to time as a kid with this type of entries (I cannot remember the name of the journal!). Or maybe it was a journal I would browse while waiting at the hairdresser’s (which brings back memories of endless waits, maybe because I did not like going to the hairdresser…) Some of the background about measurement and other curios carry a sense of Wikipediesque absolute in their minute details.

A last point of disappointment about the book is the poor graphical design or support. While the author insists on the importance of visualisation on grasping the scales of large quantities, and the webpage is full of such entries, there is very little backup with great graphs to be found in “Is that a big number?” Some of the pictures seem taken from an anonymous databank (where are the towers of San Geminiano?!) and there are not enough graphics. For instance, the fantastic graphics of xkcd conveying the xkcd money chart poster. Or about future. Or many many others

While the style is sometimes light and funny, an overall impression of dryness remains and in comparison I much more preferred Kaiser Fung’s Numbers rule your world and even more both Guesstimation books!

xkcd [interview & book]

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , on September 14, 2014 by xi'an

Of interest for xkcd fans: What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions is out! Actually, it is currently the #1 bestseller on amazon! (A physics book makes it to the top of the bestseller list, a few weeks after a theoretical economics book got there. Nice! Actually, a statistics book also made it to the top: Nate Silver’s The SIgnal and the Noise….) I did not read the book, but it is made of some of the questions answered by Randall Munroe (the father of xkcd) on his what if blog. In connection with this publication, Randall Munroe is interviewed on FiveThirtyEight (Nate Silver’s website), as kindly pointed out to me by Bill Jefferys. The main message is trying to give people a feeling about numbers, a rough sense of numeracy. Which was also the purpose of the guesstimation books.

guesstimation (1+2)

Posted in Books, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2012 by xi'an

I received very recently this book, Guesstimation 2.0, written by Lawrence Weinstein from Princeton University Press for review in CHANCE and decided to check the first (2008 )volume, Guesstimation, co-written by Lawrence Weinstein and John A. Adam. (Discovering in the process that they both had a daughter named Rachel, like my daughter!)

The title may be deemed to be very misleading for (unsuspecting) statisticians as, on the one hand, the book does not deal at all with estimation in our sense but with approximation to the right order of magnitude of an unknown quantity. It is thus closer to Innumeracy than to Statistics for Dummies, in that it tries to induce people to take the extra step of evaluating, even roughly, numerical amounts (rather than shying away from it or, worse, of trusting the experts!). For instance, how much area could we cover with the pizza boxes Americans use every year? About the area of New York City. (On the other hand, because Guesstimation forces the reader to quantify one’s guesses about a certain quantity, it has a flavour of prior elicitation and thus this guesstimation could well pass for prior estimation!)

In about 80 questions, Lawrence Weinstein [with John A. Adam in Guesstimation] explains how to roughly “estimate”, i.e. guess, quantities that seem beyond a layman’s reach. Not all questions are interesting, in fact I would argue they are mostly uninteresting per se (e.g., what is the surface of toilet paper used in the U.S.A. over one year? how much could a 1km meteorite impacting the Earth change the length of the day? How many cosmic rays would have passed through a 30 million-year-old bacterium?), as well as very much centred on U.S. idiosyncrasies (i.e., money, food, cars, and cataclysms), and some clearly require more background in physics or mechanics than you could expect from the layman (e.g., the energy of the Sun or of a photon, P=mgh/t, L=mvr (angular momentum), neutrino enery depletion, microwave wavelength, etc. At least the book does not shy away from formulas!) So Guesstimation and Guesstimation 2.0 do not make for a good bedtime read or even for a pleasant linear read. Except between two metro stations. Or when flying to Des Moines next to a drunk woman… However, they provide a large source of diverse examples useful when you teach your kids about sizes and magnitudes (it took me years to convince Rachel that 1 cubic meter was the same as 1000 liters!, she now keeps a post-it over her desk with this equation!), your students about quick and dirty computing, or anyone about their ability to look critically at figures provided in the newsy, the local journal, or the global politician. Or when you suddenly wonder about the energy produced by a Sun made of… gerbils! (This is Problem 8.5 in Guesstimation and the answer is as mind-boggling as the question!) Continue reading