First earthquake

February 25, 2007

There was a sudden rumbling noise, and mild shaking lasting a couple of seconds, max. As it was happening, at least two different co-workers called out “Earthquake!”, cheerfully.

Immediately I went to the usgs.gov site to make sure – and it was this one.

I was chuffed – finally! You see, I moved to the Bay Area in 2000, and never once in my life had I experienced an earthquake, or at least one that I knew was for real. I had missed minor ones in various ways: 1) in New York for the weekend, 2) out driving at the time, and really didn’t notice anything (in retrospect, did it seem a bit bumpy at one point?), and worst of all, 3) just plain slept through one. Every so often, on the 7th floor of a Yahoo! building, the building would seem to shake, and I checked that same site …. but no, it was just the building. 🙂

So I can check that one off now. (And yes, I know – be careful what you wish for. Yes. 🙂 )


Card “activation” as a survey tool

December 30, 2006

Since I’m leaving the bigcorp I’m also leaving the bigcorp’s gym, so I bought a three-year membership to 24-Hour Fitness. (I hope that this does not show insufficent optimism about the startup’s chances – if we have our own gym in our own large corporate campus before three years from now, I guess I’ll just have to eat the cost. 🙂 )

Now, we’re all used to the drill of receiving a new credit card with a sticker asking us to call from our home phone to activate it. So when I got my 24-Hour Fitness card, complete with a sticker saying “Before using this card, please call 1-888-xxx-xxxx”, I dutifully made the call.

The recorded voice started out by saying “Thanks for calling! Your card can now be used at your local club!”. And I thought: wow, that’s … impressive. Because I was calling from my home phone, having given them my cell number as contact info. Yet somehow they managed to activate _my_ card on the basis of a call to a toll-free number from an unknown phone. Hmm.

The voice went on to say: “… While we have you on the phone, we’d like to ask you to complete a short _optional_ survey that will help us serve you better!”. Ohhhh…..

Then I realized that they hadn’t even lied, exactly. The sticker didn’t say “Please call to activate this card”, it said “Please call before using this card”. And the cheerful recorded voice didn’t say that the card had just been activated, or that it wasn’t usable before the call. It just said that the card could be used _now_ (which was true).

This is one of those things that if you’re in a good mood (as I happened to be) is just amusing when you realize the trick. But it’s a trick all the same. If you’re a company looking to build those long-term trust relationships with your customers, is it a good idea to trick them, even this trivially?


Traveling companions

December 13, 2006

The cool thing about traveling is that you meet people totally unlike yourself. That almost makes up for me sitting here waiting in Las Vegas for the flight that’s three hours after the connecting flight I almost made….

The Twins

On my flight from San Jose to Chicago, my seat assignment was a middle seat between two identical-twin sisters who were returning to Nashville from their first-ever modeling gig in the Bay Area.

It sounds like a lead-in to some male business-traveler fantasy, but it really wasn’t like that at all. I mean, my seat assignment was great news, but mainly because I hate middle seats, and I figured that since they obviously knew each other well, they wouldn’t mind giving me the aisle … I was right. 🙂

I felt a certain cultural distance from my row-mates. They were very Southern, very polite, said “Thank you *very* much” whenever the flight attendants gave them another baglet of pretzels. They were dressed identically. They had _huge_ hair, coiffed and frosted into imposing helmets. They read psalms most of the way. (I hope this doesn’t sound negative or rude – they were really nice people as I found out.)

It turns out that their twinness evokes constant comment, and people they’ve never met come up to them and talk as though they’ve known them for years. The twins like this.

The Casino Marketing Manager

While waiting for a delayed flight in Las Vegas, I chatted with a young woman on her way home to LV. I wondered aloud who casino marketing managers market to, and got what should have been the obvious answer: high rollers. Or in her words, “anyone who bets enough that we need to comp their rooms”.

How had she come to be a casino marketing manager in Las Vegas? By being a casino marketing manager on the gulf coast of Mississippi, until Katrina hit and shut everything down. So she was a refugee. I found out that gulf-coast Mississipians really hate New Orleans and all the attention it has gotten, since they feel that the storm hit them harder.

She gave me her card, and made it clear I should get in touch the next time I was in Las Vegas, if I was the kind of guy who liked to make $500 bets, and didn’t mind losing $15K to $20K over a weekend. I promised I would.

The Escorted Traveler

After making it almost to the front of a very long security line in Chicago, I became aware of a …. jurisdictional dispute behind me. A security person was saying “I don’t care if _your_ supervisor says it’s OK. You’re TSA. I’m not TSA, and I need *my* supervisor saying it’s OK for her to board.”

The “her” in question was in the company of two airport cops and another security-type person. Then a senior-looking TSA person showed up and said “It’s OK. I *know* she doesn’t have a boarding pass, *I’m* saying it’s OK!”. The whole party then jumped the security line right in front of me, and I heard comments to the cops like “So you’ll be escorting her on to the plane, right?” along with grumblings about the opposing security force and a determination to get their names and badge numbers.

After they cleared security and were walking away, one of the TSA guards nudged another one and said, in almost a hushed tone: “That’s *her*”.

OK, so what was the escorted woman’s deal? I have no idea. At first I assumed she was a prisoner being transported by law enforcement. But …. she was dressed in a business suit, seemed to be wearing a badge with a “Chicago Tribune” lanyard, and the cops and security people seemed oddly deferential to her. Anyone have a theory?


The odds of living through tomorrow: 100% (from past experience)

September 24, 2006

Having already revealed myself to be a grumpus about language, let’s do one on the quantitative side of the aisle so that no one thinks that I’m not broad-minded in my grumpiness.

This one comes to me via BoingBoing. It’s a Wired article purporting to show you that the dangers of terrorism are way overblown, compared to run-of-the-mill death machines like the one parked in your driveway. The centerpiece is this chart (which I reproduce without permission):

S E V E R E
Driving off the road: 254,419
Falling: 146,542
Accidental poisoning: 140,327
H I G H
Dying from work: 59,730
Walking down the street: 52,000.
Accidentally drowning: 38,302
E L E V A T E D
Killed by the flu: 19,415
Dying from a hernia: 16,742
G U A R D E D
Accidental firing of a gun: 8,536
Electrocution: 5,171
L O W
Being shot by law enforcement: 3,949
Terrorism: 3147
Carbon monoxide in products: 1,554

This is based on counts of deaths from various causes in U.S. during the 11-year period 1995-2006. This is fine as far as it goes, and I really _want_ to like the piece, because I too oppose terrorist fear-mongering by the current presidential administration, and crave some sort of sane discussion of the risks of terrorism compared to other risks. But if the whole point is to be more numerate-than-thou, then you don’t want to be as quantitatively-challenged as this article is.

The problem is that the piece keeps referring to the “odds” of death-by-terrorism as though the death counts from 1995-2006 let you assess those odds accurately for 2007, and it winds up with cute summary sentences like “In fact, your appendix is more likely to kill you than al-Qaida is.”

So the Wired guys are closet frequentists. The frequentist approach can be the best way to estimate odds, when you have a good reason to think samples are random, and when you don’t have any other kind of knowledge, or explanatory model. But when you do have some extra knowledge (like, say, the knowledge that there probably do exist people who would like to kill even more people than died in 9/11), it’s silly to ignore that; and when we know that a sample isn’t very large, random, or representative, it’s silly to pretend that it is. (OK, I admit it – I’m a closet Bayesian.)

Some other frequentist (and otherwise knowledge-free) predictions:

o My own chances of dying tomorrow, based on my previous experience: 0.000000%
o Chances of U.S. civilian deaths in 2007 from nuclear reactor malfunction, based on counting such deaths in the U.S.: 0.000000%
o Your own chances of dying from human-transmitted bird flu in the U.S: 0.000000%

All of these estimates are probably, um, on the low side, and we know this because we know things about the underlying causes that aren’t reflected in the numbers (yet).

Even leaving causal theories out of it, the other thing the Wired article leaves out from the counting data is the variance. Just for fun, complete this series by predicting U.S. domestic terrorism deaths for 2003, based on 1999-2002:

o 1999: 0
o 2000: 0
o 2001: 2973
o 2002: 0
0 2003: ???

I think Wired’s answer would be something like 2973 / 4 = 743, plus or minus, um, an unspecified number.

To Wired’s main point: yeah, people are well known to be lousy risk estimators, and routinely underestimate the risks of the familiar. This is partly completely irrational, and partly … I’m not so sure.

Most people know intellectually that heart disease and traffic accidents are huge mass killers, and most people have developed policies (about seat belts, french fries) to try to mitigate that. And, once having settled into a policy, they typically don’t give it a lot more thought. Now, they may still at this point be implicitly underestimating the risk by a few orders of magnitude…. but at least the risk from a frequentist point of view is unlikely to suddenly change on them. The number of people who die from heart disease next year will probably be same as this year, plus or minus 10%. If you decided that your approach was good for 2006, then it’s probably OK for 2007 too.

What really seems to freak people out is when the risk is new, and they know they can’t bound it at _all_ (which, yes, makes them ripe for political manipulation). What’s the _largest_ number of people terrorism (or bird flu, or supervolcanoes) could conceivably kill next year in the U.S.? No one can say. What should you do differently in the presence of this strange new threat? It’s not clear. Don’t you have enough to think about already without this? Yes, including staying in your lane on the freeway. And if having to worry about this new threat bothers folks more than well-known automotive dangers, is that irrational? I dunno.

Anyway, given a choice between Dick Cheney’s all-panic-all-the-time 1% doctrine and the Wired piece’s if-it-hasn’t-happened-yet-then-it-can’t complacency, I’ll take Wired all the way, but only as a counterbalancing kind of stupidity.


Defuse/diffuse, rein/reign

August 28, 2006

I usually try to suppress my persnickety Mr. Language Person tendencies, but here I go….

“Defuse” and “diffuse” are different words. They’ve got a lot in common, because they each have precise physical/real-world meanings, though they’re both more often used metaphorically.

“Defuse” originally referred to removing the fuse from a bomb, rendering it harmless. Metaphorically, it refers to taking a (metaphorically) explosive situation and rendering it harmless. “Diffuse” originally referred to the way liquids or gases mix and spread out through each other, or the way substances can pass through a separating membrane. Metaphorically, it refers to taking something (possibly dangerously?) concentrated and spreading it out, making it less concentrated.

What’s the right thing to do when the room is full of concentrated and potentially explosive tension? Well, you could defuse the tension (so it won’t explode) or you could diffuse the tension (like a bad smell, as a way to “clear the air”). So yeah – the meanings overlap a bit. And since they do, the meanings of “defuse” and “diffuse” are slowly diffusing across the thin semantic membrane that separates them, and soon there won’t be any difference at all. That won’t stop me from griping though.

Rein/reign: the former has to do with horses, the latter has to do with kings. Watch Slate get it wrong in this sentence: “Astronomers reigned in Pluto because scientists were discovering other heavenly bodies that could qualify as planets, too …”. These astronomers are powerful over our notions of Pluto, but they’re not actually building castles there yet.

Now that I’ve opened myself up, bring on the spelling and grammar flames. 🙂


Overly literal metaphors

May 21, 2006

Like when driving away from my financial institution after making a large deposit, I think to myself, happily, “That’s like money in the bank!”

Or like when contemplating some disagreeable mode of death, and thinking about how determined I am not to go out that way, I think “Over my dead body!”

Or like when the auteur of a pig roast party (when discussing the choice they had to make between roasting an entire pig or only part of one) said (jokingly) that they’d decided to “go for the whole hog”.

Is there a term for this kind of thing?


Useless Wikipedia links

May 2, 2006

Don’t you love it when a Wikipedia article gives you interesting pointers to exciting things that happened in, say, February 2004….?