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A day in the life

I like to post approx one item per day on this blog, so when multiple things come up in the same day, I worry about the sustainability of all this. I suppose I could up the posting rate to 2 a day but I think that could be too much of a burden on the readers.

So in this post I’ll just tell you everything I’ve been thinking about today, Thurs 14 Apr 2016.

Actually I’ll start with yesterday, when I posted an update to our Prior Choice Recommendations wiki. There had been a question on the Stan mailing list about priors for cutpoints in ordered logistic regression and this reminded me of a few things I wanted to add, not just on ordered regression but in various places in the wiki. This wiki is great and I’ll devote a full post to it sometime.

Also yesterday I edited a post on this sister blog. Posting there is a service to the political science profession and it’s good to reach Washington Post readers which is a different audience than what we have here. But it’s also can be exhausting as I need to explain everything, whereas for you regular readers I can just speak directly.

This morning I taught my class on design and analysis of sample surveys. Today’s class was on Mister P. Jitts led into a 20-minute discussion about the history and future of sample surveys. I don’t know much about the history of sample surveys. Why was there no Gallup Poll in 1990? How much random sampling was being done, anywhere, before 1930? I don’t know. After that, the class was all R/Stan demos and discussion. I had some difficulties. I took an old R script I had from last year’s class but it didn’t run. I’d deleted some of the data files—Census PUMS files I needed for the poststratification—so I needed to get them again.

After that I biked downtown to give a talk at Baruch College, where someone had asked me to speak. On the way down I heard this story, which the This American Life producers summarize as follows:

When Jonathan Goldstein was 11, his father gave him a book called Ultra-Psychonics: How to Work Miracles with the Limitless Power of Psycho-Atomic Energy. The book was like a grab bag of every occult, para-psychology, and self-help book popular at the time. It promised to teach you how to get rich, control other people’s minds, and levitate. Jonathan found the book in his apartment recently and decided to look into the magical claims the book made.

It turns out that the guy who wrote the book was just doing it to make money:

At the time, Schaumberger was living in New Jersey and making a decent wage as an editor at a publishing house that specialized in occult self help books with titles like “Secrets From Beyond The Pyramids” and “The Magic Of Chantomatics.” And he was astonished by the amount of money he saw writers making. . . .

Looking at it now, it seems obvious it was a lark. It almost reads like a parody of another famous science fiction slash self help book with a lot of psuedoscience jargon that, for legal reasons, I will only say rhymes with diuretics.

Take, for instance, the astral spur. You were supposed to use it at the race track to give your horse extra energy, and it involved standing on one foot and projecting a psychic laser at your horse’s hindquarters.

Then there’s the section on ultra vision influence. The road to domination is explained this way– one, sit in front of a mirror and practice staring fixedly into your own eyes. Two, practice the look on animals. Cats are the best. See if you can stare down a cat. Don’t be surprised if the cat seems to win the first few rounds. Three, practice the look on strangers on various forms of public transport. Stare steadily at someone sitting opposite you until you force them to turn their head away or look down. You have just mastered your first human subject.

I’m listening to this and I’m thinking . . . power pose! It’s just like power pose. It could be true, it kinda sounds right, it involves discipline and focus.

One difference is that power pose has a “p less than .05” attached to it. But, as we’ve seen over and over again, “p less than .05” doesn’t mean very much.

The other difference is that, presumably, the power pose researchers are sincere, whereas this guy was just gleefully making it all up. And yet . . . there’s this, from his daughter:

Well, he was very familiar with all these things. The “Egyptian Book of the Dead” was a big one, because there was always this thing of, well, maybe if they had followed the formulas correctly, maybe something . . . He may have wanted to believe. It may be that in his private thoughts, there were some things in there that he believed in.

I think there may be something going on here, the idea that, even if you make it up, if you will it, you can make it true. If you just try hard enough. I wonder if the power-pose researchers and the ovulation-and-clothing researchers and all the rest, I wonder if they have a bit of this attitude, that if they just really really try, it will all become true.

And then there was more. I’ve had my problems with This American Life from time to time, but this one was a great episode. It had this cool story of a woman who was caring for her mother with dementia, and she (the caregiver) and her husband learned about how to “get inside the world” of the mother so that everything worked much more smoothly. I’m thinking I should try this approach when talking with students!

OK, so I got to my talk. It went ok, I guess. I wasn’t really revved up for it. But by the time it was over I was feeling good. I think I’m a good speaker but one thing that continues to bug me is that I rarely elicit many questions. (Search this blog for Brad Paley for more on this.)

After my talk, on the way back, another excellent This American Life episode, including a goofy/chilling story of how the FBI was hassling some US Taliban activist and trying to get him to commit crimes so they could nail him for terrorism. Really creepy: they seemed to want to create crimes where none existed, just so they could take credit for catching another terrorist.

Got home and started typing this up.

What else relevant happened recently? On Monday I spoke at a conference on “Bayesian, Fiducial, and Frequentist Inference.” My title was “Taking Bayesian inference seriously,” and this was my abstract:

Over the years I have been moving toward the use of informative priors in more and more of my applications. I will discuss several examples from theory, application, and computing where traditional noninformative priors lead to disaster, but a little bit of prior information can make everything work out. Informative priors also can resolve some of the questions of replication and multiple comparisons that have recently shook the world of science. It’s funny for me to say this, after having practiced Bayesian statistics for nearly thirty years, but I’m only now realizing the true value of the prior distribution.

I don’t know if my talk quite lived up to this, but I have been thinking a lot about prior distributions, as was indicated at the top of this post. On the train ride to and from the conference (it was in New Jersey) I talked with Deborah Mayo. I don’t really remember anything we said—that’s what happens when I don’t take notes—but Mayo assured me she’d remember the important parts.

I also had an idea for a new paper, to be titled, “Backfire: How methods that attempt to avoid bias can destroy the validity and reliability of inferences.” OK, I guess I need a snappier title, but I think it’s an important point. Part of this material was in my talk, “‘Unbiasedness’: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means,” which I gave last year at Princeton—that was before Angus Deaton got mad at me, he was really nice during that visit and offered a lot of good comments, both during and after the talk—but I have some new material too. I want to work in the bit about the homeopathic treatments that have been so popular in social psychology.

Oh, also I received emails today from 2 different journals asking me to referee submitted papers, someone emailed me his book manuscript the other day, asking for comments, and a few other people emailed me articles they’d written.

I’m not complaining, nor am I trying to “busy-brag.” I love getting interesting things to read, and if I feel too busy I can just delete these messages. My only point is that there’s a lot going on, which is why it can be a challenge to limit myself to one blog post per day.

Finally, let me emphasize that I’m not saying there’s anything special about me. Or, to put it another way, sure, I’m special, and so are each of you. You too can do a Nicholson Baker and dissect every moment of your lives. That’s what blogging’s all about. God is in every leaf etc.


  1. You’re busy, so a book recommendation may be the last thing you want, but Sarah Igo’s The Averaged American provides a fantastic history of the Gallup Poll (and the Kinsey studies).

  2. Rahul says:

    Why did Angus Deaton get mad at you?

  3. zbicyclist says:

    Did your “day in the life of a statistician” project from a couple of years ago ever get off the ground?

    That “accommodating to Alzheimers” story is indeed a good one.

  4. Chris G says:

    >I’m listening to this and I’m thinking . . . power pose!

    Speak of the devil… She showed up in my LinkedIn feed today –

  5. Ethan Bolker says:

    I think biking downtown is cool if a little risky. Years ago I biked a lot in Brooklyn (occasionally Manhattan, which we called “the city”). Am I right inferring that you listen to podcasts while you pedal? If so please don’t. You need to focus on the road and the traffic, and what you might hear is perhaps as useful as what you might see. Joggers and bicyclists with earphones send shivers up my spine, whether I’m walking or jogging or driving.

    Pardon the rant.

  6. numeric says:

    I would diagnose this as disturbingly close to primary process thinking, insufficiently mediated by an operative superego. And the title of the paper should be “Blowback”, not “Backfire” (a backfire is intentionally set to hopefully solve an out-of-control fire, whereas blowback is an unintended consequence of an otherwise laudable effort).

  7. Jeff Helzner says:

    I enjoyed reading this post, but I’m wondering why it was filed under decision theory.

    • Andrew says:


      It was just my decision of what to post.

      • Jeff Helzner says:

        It would be kinda cool/weird if you used decision theory for that decision. :)

        • Andrew says:

          You gotta talk with the above commenter who seems to think my id was involved somehow. That’s the opposite of formal decision theory!

          • Jeff Helzner says:

            Hehe. Thinking a lot about priors has led some people to indeterminate probabilities (, but I think that most of those people are really into formal decision theory. Not that any of them would have applied it (consciously) in the decision you faced.

          • numeric says:

            On the contrary, I’m sure an economist can develop a theory whereas emotions are an epiphenomenon of some optimization problem, which makes Andrews’ random ramblings part of some much deeper decision problem related to, presumably, genetic fitness. It may not be “formal”,
            but it really is decision theory. See, for example


            That being said, I’m always on the lookout for Andrew going full Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and starting to propose grand theories of the universe, and the stream of consciousness in the above post may be the initial symptoms of such. I hope any of Andrew’s colleagues/grad students who are in daily contact will warn the world if anyone sees Andrew bicycling over to NYU and spending time with Mesquita–I’m sure the blogging community will fund a kick-starter campaign to have him committed.

            • I assume numeric’s joking here and in the previous post. This is a blog after all. Working with Andrew does expose one to a rather unfiltered stream of ideas; Mitzi once described one of her academic bosses, “a blender with the lid off”. But as someone on the receiving end of this stream of ideas, I can vouch for the fact that they’re usually very grounded, practical, and focused. If only we had enough cycles to follow up on half the good ideas… It can be a bit overwhelming for grad students and postdocs, not to mention the rest of us!

              The linked Scientific American blog post by John Horgan says, “Given that many brains, mine included, have a hard time grasping Bayes’ theorem, the Bayesian-brain thesis might seem surprising…” I stopped there. It’s like assuming that our brains aren’t biochemical because I have a hard time grasping biochemistry. But then that’s just a blog, too. We should be careful to distinguish among (a) simulating the brain’s mechanisms (neuroanatomy or biochemistry), (b) simulating the brain’s higher-level processes (like reasoning and inference), and (c) getting good at a task that people do (like chess or digit recognition).

              I find this kind of day-in-the-life thing interesting. I often ask people what a day in their life is like. Saddest answer I got was from the Robert Mehrabian, who was president of Carnegie Mellon at the time—he told me his day consisted of four hours of email triage and task assignment followed by endless meetings. Sadly, my life with Stan is starting to look much more like that than I’d like.

              No chance Andrew’s going to bicycle to NYU any time soon, but he might get close enough (12th st) to grab a banh mi from Num Pang.

              • numeric says:

                Andrew is a good sport, which is what makes this blog fun (it is usually informative). I’m not quite sure where he gets the time to maintain it, and probably it would be more societally useful if he restricted himself to purely statistical matters rather than forays into literature, popular culture, quotidian activities and the whatnot, but as Balanchine said when asked why he put the Arabian into the Nutcracker, “there had to be something in there for the dads.” Andrew loves oral (and written) give and take (and when he complains that there are few questions after his presentations, he probably doesn’t comprehend that people are somewhat cowed by this ability (relatively rare in the statistics profession). His indulgence in his musings on irrelevant topics with this blog is his “something for dads.” I don’t mind that, but sometimes the urge to tweak is too great. It’s my “something for dads.”

              • +1 for more stats and stats methodology posts and fewer “digressions”; but then I’m just as bad as Andrew at our Stan meetings on that front, so I’m not one to complain.

                I’ve noticed that Andrew is not alone among statisticians in not getting many questions after talks. Often that’s because the talks are so technical the entire audience is lost halfway through the first slide, but that’s not Andrew’s problem. It may be because the talks make so many points people don’t know where to start, they’re uncontroversial for the audience, or they’re so controversial as to not be considered worth engaging. But it may just be because they’re often clear and tutorial in nature, so there’s not much left unsaid.

                When I was a prof at Carnegie Mellon, we used to give our second-year Ph.D. and MS students an applied class that taught them to be good academic citizens. We had them review each others papers and would always assign one student to be the “host” for an in-class talk, the responsibility of whom was to fill leftover time with questions. I always feel bad for the speaker when the host asks for questions, doesn’t get any, then says, “OK, I have one.” At least it’s better than nothing.

                In teaching or giving a lecture, I often find I have to pause for a long time at points where I think people might be confused and ask for questions more than once. Then one person asks one, then it’s like a dam has burst, and I get a lot of questions. So many people seem to just be too shy to be the first person to ask a question in public. Usually not a problem in a computer science audience!

              • Rahul says:


                I think the not-getting-questions-after-talks bit is not anything much to do with Andrew but just a general phenomenon I seem to see in academic talks. I think grad students, PhDs etc. are inherently shy & loathe to ask questions aloud before large audiences.

                I’ve noticed that this shyness is more acute in Science / Engineering. My anecdotal observation is that audiences in Med School, History, humanities etc. are less shy. Trade / Professional association talks also get less shy audiences.

              • @Rahul. That’s what I meant by “So many people seem to just be too shy to be the first person to ask a question in public.” I think it’s worse in fields where there’s a lot of technical details for which there is a right answer. In natural language processing, the technical details are much fuzzier (we can’t even agree on what an adjective or preposition is), data collection and analyses tend to raise a lot of open questions, and there’s almost always a huge queue of people raising their hands or standing in line to ask questions after talks—so many that question time always gets cut off. In applied computer science fields like natural language processing, the distance to the state-of-the-art is much shorter than it is even a field like statistics, so it’s easier for grad students to feel on top of the material. It may also just be that computer science in the U.S. draws rather self-confident students who are told from the get go that they can do cool things, wheras statistics is a continuous stream of scolds (as in Andrew’s blog).

              • Martha (Smith) says:

                Re Bob’s comment, “In teaching or giving a lecture, I often find I have to pause for a long time at points where I think people might be confused and ask for questions more than once.”

                Many years ago, I received the advice to count silently to 5 after asking a question of a class, because students needed that long to decide to respond. I tried it, but found it was poor advice; I needed to count silently to at least 30.

  8. Jake says:

    As a reader, I think I could deal with a 2 posts a day schedule.

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