Beer : Statistics :: Peas : Carrots

I once got slightly intoxicated while “studying” the night before a major exam in statistics. Normally this would not be something to be proud of, but the fact is, despite the morning headache, my mind was clear of distractions and all that wonderful statistical knowledge flowed onto the paper just as smoothly as the beer flowed into my belly the night before. I aced the exam and secured my future in psychology. (This is a story that Nick likes to tell whenever someone mentions exams and drinking in the same sentence).

It turns out there is a very good reason that beer and statistics go together like birds of a feather. The study of statistics has been linked with beer since its early history. Anyone with basic stats knowledge has heard of Student’s t-distribution, often used to tell if two groups are different from each other on some measure. Student was the pen name of William Sealy Gosset, a statistician working in Dublin. The dude chummed with some of the more familiar names in stats, like Pearson and Fisher.

The thing is, Gosset didn’t give a crap about discovering the inner workings of the mind by poking and prodding samples of unsuspecting humans. No, Gosset just wanted to use mathematics to brew tasty beer. He worked for the Guinness brewery, applying statistical knowledge to growing and brewing barley. Guinness wanted to protect this powerful secret knowledge from competitors, so Gosset was forced to publish under a fake name, and apparently more math-creative than naming-creative, chose the name “Student.”

So that’s how Student’s t-distribution was born. And that’s why having a few pints of Guinness before a major stats exam should be encouraged. Even if it results in failure – and very well might – mention to the prof that it was a tribute to the long and fascinating history of beer and statistics. That’s gotta be worth a few bonus marks.


P. S. I hope you noticed the subtle normal curve in the picture of the Guinness up there. That took some serious Photoshop skills you know.


Get Smart

Wired Magazine has just put up a set of articles on the topic of intelligence: Get Smarter: 12 Hacks That Will Amp Up Your Brainpower.

It’s partly just a movie promotion (for the Steve Carell remake of Get Smart. Get it?), and a lot of it is oversimplified or just plain wrong, but there is some interesting stuff in there that’s worth thinking about as long as you have a few grains of salt at the ready.

One thing I found particularly interesting is the person who tried maximizing their time by cutting down on sleeping. As I’ve long maintained, sleep sucks. For the most part, it’s a waste of time. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to work for this person, who tried altering their sleeping pattern such that they had short naps throughout the day but less overall sleeping time. They felt crappy all the time. Bummer. I’m still waiting for that anti-sleeping pill with no side effects. Get on it, science!

Book Review: Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk

In Chuck Palahniuk’s world, nothing is what it seems. Something sinister lurks behind the scenes of everything ordinary. Homelessness, feng shui, those dolls you practice CPR on, talk shows; they’re not what they seem to be. It’s an interesting place to visit, but you wouldn’t wanna live there. That’s what makes Haunted – a collection of bite-size chunks of story – such a perfect window into Chuck Palahniuk’s world.

Haunted squishes together short stories, poems, and a novel in a semi-coherent fashion. There is an overarching story, but it’s really not the main attraction. It’s the short stories, presented as if they were written by the characters in the main story, that really shine here; and by “shine”, I mean “make you gasp, barf, and possibly faint.” They’re horrific, but for the most part, not in a supernatural way; this is all real-world horror. Palahniuk claims that many of them are true. At the same time, though, they are so over the top that they must be exaggerated beyond recognition. At least, that’s what you gotta tell yourself, because like I said, Chuck Palahniuk’s world is not the one you want to be living in.

He ends the book with an autobiographical story about the power of books, and their freedom and necessity in a world of mass media. It’s both inspirational and frightening. If you are looking for a book that can affect you in ways that television and movies never do – though not always in a good way – then look no further than Haunted.

Donate Your Useless HBC Rewards Points to The Humane Society

Willow is over today, which got me thinking about how to do nice stuff for dogs, so I went over to The London Humane Society‘s web site and discovered something awesome.

You can donate to The London Human Society with HBC Rewards points. To any individual person, these things are useless anyway. I’ve had my HBC card since long before it switched from being “Club Z”. Yet, in 10-15 years of occasional shopping at Zellers and hundreds of dollars spent on Mac makeup at The Bay (as gifts for girls of course….yes…gifts), here is the complete list of wonderful rewards I could obtain:


So screw that. My points are useless to me. With lots of people donating their points to the Humane Society, though, they add up and can probably net some stuff that’s actually useful. Stuff that could improve or save an animal’s life. You can donate any percentage of points you want, and you can do it all online right here. If you’re not in London, you can donate to your local humane society. (I’m seeing mostly Canada on there, but you people in the US probably don’t know what the hell HBC is and stopped reading two paragraphs ago anyway).

Unfortunately, you can’t donate points already earned. To keep them from going to waste, then, I’d better order that magazine holder. It’d go good beside the toilet for some bathroom reading. I’ve never understood that, since I eat lots of fiber, but maybe guests would enjoy it, and the faux leather would certainly spruce up the bathroom’s style.

But seriously, dear blog (and Facebook) readers…though I hate being preachy, this is something that can do some good for virtually no effort.

Publish and Perish

Not to not brag or nothin’, but you are now a friend/acquaintance/worshiper of a published scientific researcher. My first publication finally popped up on the internet recently (even though it was apparently published in 2007, the journal seems to be running behind or something).

Here is the full reference:
Sorrentino, R. M., Seligman, C., & Battista, M. E. (2007). Optimal distinctiveness, values, and uncertainty orientation: Individual differences on perceptions of self and group identity. Self and Identity, 6, 322-339.

If you’re subscribed through your university (or wherever), you can find the article here, at your local library, or through Google. That’s right, I’m Googlable.

Optimal distinctiveness refers to the fact that people don’t like to feel too different from other people, but also don’t like to feel too similar. However, this is true for some people more than others. We found that people who prefer certainty to uncertainty also tend to try thinking of themselves as similar to other people after being made to feel different. In other words, these certainty oriented people tend to want to assimilate back into a crowd when they feel like they are weirdos who don’t fit in.

We proved this with advanced science. Here is some science from the article:

Those are graphs and formulas formulae. It doesn’t get much more scientific than that.

I do find it strange that this article costs $43.75 to purchase without a subscription. That’s more than most books, just for one article that is, no offense to the authors (none taken), not all that exciting. What’s strangest, though, is that I don’t get a dime of that. Musicians complain that record companies take a large percentage of the profit from record sales. With us, publishers take 100%.

Plus, isn’t science supposed to be free, open, and collaborative?

Oh well. Luckily, with the internet, it’s nearly free to distribute a file containing a research article, and many researchers make their own work available free of charge on their personal web sites. Hey, maybe I should do that. I will soon. You just stay tuned.

Anyway, I’m done bragging / feeling sorry for my broke self.

See also: Optimal Distinctiveness Theory on Wikipedia. Oh look, there’s our article! How did that get there? *WINKY FACE*

A Skeptical Look at Yogurt

I hate yogurt commercials. I’m not a big fan of yogurt itself either, aside from it being one of the funniest-sounding words in the English language. Yet, the other day, I went to pick up some groceries, I was really hungry, I wanted something healthy, and I was in a hurry, so some sort of implicit association kicked in and I got some Activia yogurt.

There are a bunch of buzz words associated with yogurt like Activa that they blab about in the commercials, calling it pre-biotic, pro-biotic, mo’ biotic, whatever. I decided to look into what this actually means.

The horrible commercials clearly imply that eating this bacteria-infested yogurt will help you lose weight. In one of them, two people are sitting down in workout clothing talking about yogurt. One of them has sciency-looking animations orbiting around her skinny belly. As if sitting there eating yogurt is the equivalent of a full workout, infusing science into your belly and melting away fat. The commercial asks you to take the “14 day challenge” (*). What are you challenged to do? Well, buy lots of yogurt and chow down for 2 weeks, of course!

Let’s go to their web site to see how they back up their claims. Ahh, ok, so probiotic cultures are literally little living organisms that survive in your gut after you swallow them. Gross…but I guess we always have living beasties in there anyway. But how do the magical health benefits work? Oh, here we go:

Oookay. So it works by, um, working. Then something about balance.

Oh look! A hot chick in a lab coat! Perhaps she can tell us more.

Ok, so we need some of these bacteria. Of course, it doesn’t actually say that eating this yogurt is the only source of them. Or a good source. The leap to eating it every single day might be a bit of a stretch.

But what do they actually do? Does having lots of these bugs in your gut help you lose weight like the ads imply? Let’s go to the section devoted to information on probiotic cultures. Oh, look, they link to an external web site all about them – – to learn more. A third party must be a legitimate source of information, since they won’t fabricate hard scientific data just to sell more yogurt.

Now, I’m not making this up; here is the sole source of information on

Seriously. The only working link is “watch.” If you do, it’s a disturbing video with smiling animated bacteria worming their way around the human digestive system.

Here they are packing their bags and leaving out of someone’s anus, along with a giant turd. Again, I’m not making this up.

Oh, and look who owns that web site. Danone. Makers of Activia. So it’s basically the world’s most ineffective propaganda video.

Back to Danone’s main site. Here is what they claim the point of eating Activia is:

Why is Activia® yogurt such a great choice?

* It is the only yogurt to contain unique BL RegularisTM specifically selected by Danone researchers.
* BL RegularisTM is scientifically proven and clinically tested to survive passage through the digestive system, arriving into the large intestine as a live culture that stays active.
* Activia® can truly be called a “yogurt with an active probiotic culture” because of the unique, additional friendly bacteria it contains: BL RegularisTM.
* It tastes great – consumers ranked Activia® highest among yogurts for flavour and creaminess in Danone taste tests! (Source: Cintech, July 2003)
* It is available in twelve delicious flavours.

To sum up: It tastes good, and it puts living organisms in your belly. Hey, neat, but I could replace “BL RegularisTM” with “dirt”, and it really wouldn’t be any more or less convincing. Wow, it’s the only yogurt with dirt, it maintains its pebbly nature in the digestive system, and tastes great! Uh, so what?

There’s still no mention of weight loss here. No mention of any benefits at all.

Let’s just go to the “Scientific Proof” section. Finally, we get to a small handful of actual scientific studies done on this stuff. The main conclusion? It helps old people and people with intestinal problems have reduced “intestinal travel time.” In other words, if you have trouble shitting regularly, it will help you shit.

Nothing about weight loss. And more importantly, regarding normal people, I quote, “In subjects with a normal transit time, no marked change or risk of diarrhea was observed.” Note: no marked change.

The bottom line is, unless you are having bowel problems, it won’t do anything. If you are, it might make you more regular. And it probably won’t give you diarrhea.

I guess all the stupidness of the commercials and the vague claims on the web site make sense now. They were dancing around the fact that all these fancy words really don’t mean much. And “it probably won’t give you diarrhea” wasn’t a very catchy slogan.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on this stuff. It actually does taste pretty good, and even if it has no special benefits, all yogurts are healthy low-calorie foods in general. But I see no reason to go out of my way to get yogurt specifically because it has probiotic cultures in it, nor to pay more for it. Also, it is downright deceptive to clearly imply that the stuff helps with weight loss, when no such benefit has been demonstrated. Danone can take their bacteria and shove them back up their extremely regular asses.


(*) Of course, the yogurt expires before the 14 days are up, so you gotta have more than one per day, share some, or waste some and buy another pack in 10 days.

Oh, but if you need help with the challenge, there’s another web site for that:

Do we really need a support group to eat a cup of yogurt?