Chance Magazine Articles
From 1988 through 1999 I have had a standing column in Chance Magazine. The column featured humorous statistical satire and wit on topical issues.  Presented here is a selection of the articles in HTML and PDF formats.

Eclectic Postmodern Expressionist Statisticians
Winter 1988

A Modern Everyday Glossary for Overused Statistical Terms
Spring 1988

Summer 1988 and 
Winter 1999
A Statistical Horoscope
Fall 1988

Advice for the Statistically Forlorn
Winter 1989
Opinion Surveys
Spring 1989
Statistical Innumeracy
Summer 1989
Popular Statistics
Fall 1989
Video Statistics
Winter 1990

The Statisticians Are Off and Counting
Spring 1990

Shlepping Statisticians to Siberia (HTML)
Summer 1990
Bibidy Bobidy Zoo (PDF)
Fall 1990

Extra Statistical Perception (HTML)
Winter 1991
Risk Watchers (PDF)
Spring 1991
Going Ape O'er Parties (PDF)
Summer 1991
Statistical Self-Help
Fall 1991

Washington Statistical Scene: The Unofficial Guide
Summer/Fall 1992

Statistics in (or Statistics Czar) the New Administration
Winter 1993

Having a Difficult Time Adjusting
Spring 1993
More Journals!
Summer 1993

The Academiks Are Coming!  The Academiks Are Coming!
Fall 1993
International Statistical Junkets
Winter 1994

Enhancing Statistical Performance (PDF)
Spring 1994

To Read or Not to Read?  That is, the Instructions (PDF)
Summer 1994

Is Anyone Out There Talking? (PDF) 
Fall 1994
In Re: We Trust (PDF)
Winter 1995
Total Quality Mania
Spring 1995
First Annual Chance Sex Survey
Summer 1995
Statistics Happens 
Fall 1995

Sufferin' Succotash!  Another ASA Cartoon Meeting! (PDF)
Winter 1996

Statistician: Measure Thyself (PDF)
Spring 1996
The Virtual Statistician (PDF)
Summer 1996

Junk Mail (PDF)
Fall 1996

Lost in Cyberspace (PDF)
Winter 1997

Statistical Partnering (HTML)
Spring 1997

Let's Talk Turkey (PDF)
Summer 1997

On Time (HTML)
Winter 1998

Review of Chances, by Jackie Collins
Vol. 1, No. 1, 1988.

Extra Statistical Perception
I recently learned that there's a whole field of applied statistics devoted to extrasensory perception (ESP) and the paranormal.  It has gone unnoticed by many, because the statistical theory and methods that are applied are not the usual ones.  For example, many applications use the principle of minimum likelihood.  And, of course, statistical tests are based on the paranormal distribution.  It's hard to place the shape of that distribution, but when you see it, it does ring a bell.

Everyone makes a big fuss about ESP, but I've had it for years.  For example, some time ago, I was thinking about a paper I submitted to the Annals of Statistics, entitled "A practical application of the Prokhorov-Varadarajan inequality to sampling inspection," when a feeling came over me that the paper would be rejected.  Two-and-one half years later, the editor informed me that it was indeed rejected.

Another psychic experience happened when one year I had a vivid dream that I was at an annual meeting of the American Statistical Association listening to the presidential address when all of a sudden I woke up and found that I really was listening to the ASA presidential address.

A few years ago, I started getting into psychic experiential kinds of things in a big way.  I took up transcendental meditation, but soon had to give it up, because I kept forgetting my mantra.  Undaunted, I began to use my powers to entertain at parties.  I billed myself as "Miron the Magnificent," so I could use the same poster that was designed to announce my talk on economic forecasting at the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

When I made an appearance at a Washington Statistical Society wine and cheese gathering, for example, people would be selected at random by my accomplice and I would divine personal information about them ("You are a statistician.  You work for the government.  Nobody understands what you do.") and the answers to questions they would have on their minds ("The reason they serve such cheap wine here is that's all they can afford for your lousy two bucks!")  After a while, however, it became repetitious.

Many in our military believe in certain parapsychological phenomena.  The Army Research Institute even asked the prestigious National Academy of Sciences to form a committee to examine the potential value of parapsychological techniques.  The committee describes in its report some of the claimed phenomena and applications:

The "antimissile time warp," for example, is supposed to somehow deflect attack by nuclear warheads so that they will transcend time and explode among the ancient dinosaurs, thereby leaving us unharmed but destroying many dinosaurs (and, presumably, some of our evolutionary ancestors). . . . Many of the sources cite the claim that Soviet psychotronic weapons were responsible for the 1976 outbreak of Legionnaires' disease, as well as the 1968 sinking of the nuclear submarine Thresher.  (Druckman and Swets, 1988)

One of the psychotronic weapons the report names is the "hyperspatial nuclear howitzer."  Can you imagine a gunnery sergeant coming home at the end of a bad day on the hyperspatial nuclear howitzer range, turning to his wife, and saying, "Honey, I shrunk the Marines."

The Committee found that there was "no scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 years for the existence of parapsychological phenomena."  I'm not surprised, because my colleague who directed the study has been working on these matters for well over 130 years.

With the results of all those experiments being inconclusive, I decided to try an experiment of my own.  One evening, when we were entertaining a group of high-powered Washington economists, I asked them all to spend ten minutes thinking very intensely about how to get out of the current recession.  The next morning I called several colleagues at Stanford and asked them if they could find anything unusual that happened on campus during that time.

First, my colleagues noted that nearly half the faculty had left for or was in Washington then to serve on some advisory committee or another--but that was not unusual.  The next day, I got a call from the chief dishwasher of the campus cafeteria who reported getting an unusually large number of bent spoons returned.  Just as I thought I had a publishable result, the dishwasher informed me that there was possible confounding.

The Stanford cafeteria generally loses several hundred spoons a day, some of which are eventually returned.  We couldn't be sure the returned bent spoons were bent on the evening in question.  (I couldn't believe that there were so many spoons in circulation on the campus:  if I collect more than a dozen cafeteria spoons, they begin to clutter up my drawer.)  Consequently, the dishwasher said, the result was not statistically significant.  As a matter of fact, the Washington economists didn't come up with anything significant either.

There is a physical theory that explains why ESP works, at least if my cleaning lady is to be believed.  According to this theory, the brain, being an electrical network, emits radio waves that other brains can pick up.  A problem my colleagues who subscribe to this theory worry about is that the EMF resonance from active brains might cause cancer.  They warn me that I'm placing my health in danger by having lunch at Berkeley with Peter Bickel, David Blackwell, and David Freedman.  And I thought all along it was just indigestion.

My colleagues also say that, because there is no threshold, getting close to any active, intelligent mind on a regular basis is dangerous.  They tell me that living in Washington, however, should pose no problem.

Druckman, Daniel and Swets, John A., eds. (1988).  Enhancing Human Performance:  Issues, Theories, and Techniques.  Washington, D.C.:  National Academy Press


Shlepping Statisticians to Siberia
The Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, the Chief Statistician in OMB, and the Commissioner of Labor Statistics recently returned form an official visit to the Soviet Union, and all I heard from them was what an exciting time they had.  So when I was asked to join a delegation of social scientists to the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow, I quickly accepted.  Little did I know what would be in store.  The Soviets have developed to a finely honed skill our custom of dumping on American social scientists.

Between glasnost and perestroika, the Soviet Academy has a choice of three hotels to offer its guests in Moscow.  One, Boondockski, is a clean, modern facility located somewhere near the Transvaal.  It's about two hours and 45 minutes from Moscow--by phone.  The second hotel, Nogoodski, is affectionately called "Roach Hotel" (La cukarachski zhestina), after the architect who designed it.  It's the hotel of choice for American guests of the Soviet Academy because of the location, on the confluence of the Moscow sewer and the Metro green line.  The third hotel, Worsethanadumpski, was actually torn down several years ago, but continues in operation principally to house students from third world countries who are homesick for a room without running water.  The students call it the Hyatt Exorcy.  Here is where we were deposited.

Until then, I had never thought I could envy living in our son's college dormitory room.  I had not seen toilets like we had since 1954, when I was in a Trailways depot in Dry Gulch, Wyoming.  Filth was everywhere.  It was the only place I've seen where guests were wiping their feet before going outside.

I should have had a clue about some of the cheap Soviet hotels from my Russian phrase book.  Most foreign language phrase books begin with useful phrases, such as "Hello."  "How are you?" "Please." "Thank you." and "Where is the post office?"  The Russian phrase book starts off with "The toilet isn't working."  "There's no hot water!"  "Where is the bed?"  "What do you mean that's a bed!"  "What do you mean that's a toilet!"

I felt right at home, however, the moment I hopped into a Moscow taxicab.  Just like in Washington, the cab drivers there didn't speak English either.  After several hours of listening to a Berlitz tape, I mastered "da" and "nyet," which I had thought meant "yes" and "no."  In spoken Russian, however, these words do not simply mean yes or no.  "Da" usually means "I understand."  Tell a waiter that you are thirsty and would like something to drink, he may reply "Da," but do not take that to mean that he will bring you something to drink.

Compared with "da," the word "nyet" is used with great frequency in Russian conversation.  In french, for example, the frequency of yes to that of no in conversation must be at least five to one (Mais, Oui!).  The French even use no to mean yes (N'est ce pas?).  In Russian, however, the ratio must be less than one in ten.  And "nyet" is rarely used to mean no.  For example, if you ask if you can make an international phone call, the response may be "Nyet.  Is absolutely impossible," which only means that you must try harder.  The most frustrating use of "nyet" is the common phrase "Nyet problem."  You need a taxi?  "Nyet problem," you're told.  And you wait until you give up and take the metro.  There's no hot water?  "Nyet problem!"  And you take a cold shower.  You want some wine in a restaurant?  "Nyet problem!"  And the waiter disappears for hours.  It wasn't until I returned to the States and discussed my experiences with a Russian scholar that I learned, from him, the translation of "Nyet problem."  It means "That's your problem."

We were warned not to drink the water, but to use bottled mineral water, a sulphurous, highly gaseous liquid that tastes like a highly concentrated mixture of Alka-Seltzer.  Leaving the bottles of water open overnight didn't do a bit of good.  The Soviets have discovered a way to make carbonated liquids hold their gas for 15 years after being opened.  And most everything is carbonated.  After a few days, our formal diplomatic introductions sounded like:  "Hello [burp], how are [hic] you?"  "It's a [burp] pleasure to be here [belch]."

Despite the difficulties in the introductions, our meetings to exchange information were informative.  In one meeting, we were discussing the difficulty in determining the amount of discretionary income that people have to spend.  "In the United States," I mentioned, "an average family earns $25,000 per year.  To live comfortably, they require $21,000 per year.  How they spend or save that extra $4,000, we have no idea."  One of my colleagues in our delegation replied that the same situation was true in European countries.  In Germany, for example, an average family earns 35,000 Deutchmarks and must spend 30,000 to live comfortably.  But what they do with that extra 5,000 Deutchmarks is anyone's guess.  "Is the same in Soviet Union," our Soviet counterpart replied.  "In Soviet Union, a worker earns 200 rubles per month.  To live, his family must spend 250 rubles per month.  Where they get that extra 50 rubles we have no idea."

We had time for some sightseeing.  We drove by one of the most popular spots in Moscow--McDonald's.  The line to get in extended for miles.  If it were me, I would have used the drive-thru window.  The most exciting spot to see was Lenin's tomb in Red Square.  I highly recommend the souvenir shop there--it's called "Lenins and Things."

Despite the difficulties, when I returned to Washington, I felt as if I had brought a bit of Moscow back with me.  But my doctor says, with a course of antibiotics, that too should pass.


On Time
Like I handle most things in life, I get around to writing this column on the day that it's due, more often on the day after it's due, with my editor screaming at me for missing another deadline.  To placate my editor, I promised him that this column would be on time.  And that's exactly what this column is about:  time.  A little late, perhaps, but timely.

My colleague, John Robinson, has written a book about the surprising ways Americans use their time.  He's conducted surveys over the years to show that, contrary to what everyone knows, Americans increasingly have more free time.  Where does it all go?  Watching television, Robinson says.

I realized the truth to that.  Instead of spending a relaxing evening arguing with your spouse and kids, you can simply turn on the television and argue over which station to watch.  (I thought the new dual channel, picture-in-picture technology would resolve our problem, but, especially with cable, our arguments have increased combinatoricly.)

Robinson says that studies show that brain-wave activity during television-watching closely resembles that during sleep.  I seriously doubt if the measuring devices are that sensitive, however, because once a psychologist concluded from an experiment that the same finding held for students in my statistics lectures.

The fact is that most people watch television while really doing something else that's not so demanding, like reading the latest issue of AmStat News.

For his time use surveys, Robinson has categorized seemingly every type of activity you could be doing during the day.  Even "doing nothing," a category, I must admit, that I waste more time on than television.

But I found that there are some activities that I spend a lot of time on that Robinson has not categorized.  For example, writing notes to myself on little scraps of paper to remind me of something important to do that day; waiting at my computer to get onto the world wide web; and, especially, looking for those little scraps of paper with important messages on them.

I realized that almost everything I do could be done more efficiently.  I got that inspiration, not from Robinson's book, but from that travelling troupe that performs Shakespeare in a minute, condensing an entire Shakespeare play in under 60 seconds.  Why stop there I thought.  Why not try to do that for the complete works.  I tried my hand:

King Lear, his ship caught in a tempest, lands in Verona, changes clothes to appear in drag as Rosalin, only to find his brother Mercutio fall in love with him.  Together, they conspire to kill their father, Hamlet.  In the end, all is revealed and they go down to the seashore and live happily every after.

Taking lecture notes can be done more efficiently.  For example, don't worry about spelling and using all those extra letters.  Instead, write your words fonetikly.  Ya c'n even rite da werds as peepal speek th'm.  For example, at a lecture in Washington, write "normal."  At Stony Brook, write "noimal."  At Harvard, write "nahhh-mal."  And, at Berkeley, write {     }.

As another example, instead of wading through the latest issue of the Annals of Statistics, you can download pages from its web site ( or purchase the issue on a CD-ROM (look for it on the flip side of a John Tesh CD).  Either way, you can scroll through the pages in a breeze. I was, for example, able to finish an entire issue in five minutes without any loss of comprehension.

Time management professionals tell you that the first step in working more efficiently is to keep track of how you actually spend your time.  So, I kept a log, just like one of Robinson's survey diaries.  Here is how I spent today:

10:00 a.m. Arrive at office.  Unpack briefcase filled with material I didn't get to work on the night before.

10:05 a.m. Workout in the gym

10:30 a.m. Coffee break.  Catch up on latest gossip about the Census Bureau.

10:45 a.m. Read The Washington Post.  Catch up on latest stories about the Census Bureau.

11:00 a.m. Open mail.  Arrange important correspondence in a pile.  Read ASA flyers and other junk mail before throwing them away.

11:30 a.m. Cappuccino break.

11:45 a.m. Turn on computer.  Scan e-mail headings.

12:00 noon Play computer solitaire until colleagues are ready for lunch.

12:20 p.m. Lunch

2:00 p.m. Return from lunch.  Wait to get on the web.

2:10 p.m. On hold with computer services "Help Desk."

2:25 p.m. Finally can surf the net

2:45 p.m. Cafe Latte break

3:00 p.m. Prepare memo that boss will throw away.

3:30 p.m. Prepare tenth revision of project cost estimates.

4:00 pm. Take call from boss.  While listening, reorganize desk drawer (unless fingernails need clipping).

4:10 p.m. Strategic planning exercise

4:15 p.m. Revise performance plan

4:25 p.m. Read latest reorganization memo.

4:30 p.m. Xerox interesting articles from The New York Times for which there is no time to read.

4:40 p.m. Unwrap latest issue of the Annals of Statistics.  Decide whether to place on bookshelf immediately or leave on desk to shelve tomorrow.

4:41 p.m. Quiet time for creative brainstorming:  Think of clever ideas for next CHANCE column.

5:00 p.m. Personal calls.

5:15 p.m. Call for weather report.

5:18 p.m. Call for traffic report.

5:20 p.m. Call travel agent for vacation reservations.

5:40 p.m. Return phone calls from the day.  Leave messages on voice mail systems that the best time to reach me is "just before 8 o'clock."

5:55 p.m. Delete unread e-mails from computer.

6:00 p.m. Sort trash for recycling bin

6:05 p.m. Fill out time sheet for the day.

6:10 p.m. Repack briefcase with material I didn't get to work on during the day.

6:15 p.m. Leave office.

At home this evening, my major activity is writing this column.  It's late, but I feel a sense of accomplishment, as my computer "beeps" me with the message that I have written the required number of column inches.  That means I can finally turn off the television.

 Robinson, John P. and Godbey, Geoffrey (1997).  Time for Life:  The Surprising Ways Americans Use their Time.  University Park, Pennsylvania:  Penn State University Press.


Statistical Partnering
Being at a loss for an idea for a column, I decided to attend an American Statistical Association conference.  I got out my folder of unopened mail from the ASA and started tearing open envelopes at random.  After several dunning notices for dues and for overdue referees' reports and a confusing ballot (for the Council of Sections as representative-elect for the liaison to the Council of Chapters), I finally found an invitation to a conference.  It was addressed to leaders of the statistical profession calling upon us to gather in Raleigh, North Carolina, for a conference on Statistical Partnerships in Academe, Industry, and Government (SPAIG).

"What a curious acronym for a conference," I remarked to a couple of colleagues.  "SPAIG sounds like a revolting canned meat product."

"Probably, baloney," one colleague replied.

"They settled for SPAIG," said the other, "because it was originally called Partnerships In Statistical Sciences."

I could see right away that the conference was founded on three mistaken premises.

Mistaken premise #1:  People will eagerly flock to a conference that's in a small, out-of-the-way city.  It was clear that conference planners took their cue from the ASA School of Conference Site Selection.  But at least they didn't choose either of the first two sites ASA recommended:  (1) Disneyland and (2) the San Diego Zoo, although the latter would have been in keeping with the conference.

Mistaken premise #2:  It's necessary to begin your meetings promptly at 8 o'clock every morning.  I don't even get through my fourth snooze alarm until 8:30.  If they were really interested in forming partnerships with academics, they wouldn't start a meeting until after 10 o'clock.

Mistaken premise #3:  Academic statisticians are really interested in what statisticians in industry are doing.  In fact, most academic statisticians aren't even interested in what other academic statisticians are doing.

Most people, I felt, were going just to be seen and recognized as one of the leaders of the profession, to whom, after all, the invitation was addressed.  (Many of these same people are still waiting for their $10 million from Ed Mc Mahon.)  I figured that, if I couldn't strut amongst the hoity-toity, I'd hang out in the bar with the hoi polloi.

At the conference, you could tell whether a statistician was from industry, government, or academia by the way he or she was dressed.  Industry people wear dark business suits.  Government people wear drab business suits.  And academics forget to wear a jacket and at least one other piece of clothing.

Dress at conferences, in fact, has changed as a result of technology.  The plastic pocket protector has been replaced by a pager.  Some old fashioned engineering statisticians, however, wear their pager on their belt, next to their slide rule.

The conference began with a series of lectures.  Here, too, you could see a difference between some industry and academic statisticians in their visual displays.  The well prepared speaker from industry came equipped with a computer projector display driven by a Pentium laptop (with a backup software disk, backup battery, battery charger, cables, and extension cords), a laser pointer (with backup batteries), a remote mouse (with backup batteries and a backup cable mouse with a mouse pad), a transmitter for the remote mouse (with backup batteries), a set of transparencies in case of a computer failure (with backup projector bulb), and a set of handouts with flashlights (and backup batteries).  I figured that, if you laid all his batteries end to end, you might get enough of a charge to service all of Raleigh, North Carolina, for fifteen minutes--well, certainly after 10 p.m.

The academic speaker, on the other hand, showed up with transparencies displaying unintelligible scribbling.  Through the overlay of smeared letters and thumb prints, I could make out, in the lower left hand corner, a mayonnaise stain from lunch.  One transparency, however, showed signs of mustard.  Since the corned beef had been served the previous day, it was clear that the speaker had given more advance thought to preparing this transparency.

The irony is that you really learn more from these scribbled view graphs.  Since they are so unreadable, you find yourself listening more carefully to find out what in the world the speaker is talking about.

Many of the talks were filled with success stories.  For example, one was about an undergraduate statistics student who developed, for a food company, a procedure to measure the texture of mashed potatoes.  Hearing all these stories, I was skeptical about selection bias.  Shouldn't we also be reporting the failures?  For example, Joe Blow, a mathematically oriented graduate student, went to work for Amalgamated Chemical, and, on his very first day, managed to wipe out the company's entire hard disk storage.

Later, we divided ourselves into small groups and were asked to do some serious brainstorming through an elaborate process involving affinity mapping, trend diagrams, prioritization matrices, interrelationship digraphs, GANT charts, and chi-squared tables.  I'm afraid I'm not good at these kinds of things.  In one session, I started to write down my idea on the poster board, when the facilitator yelled at me that he didn't say "Simon Says."

At the final dinner, one fellow academic sat next to a young woman in government and suggested that they follow the recommendation of the keynote speaker and do some serious partnering.  She slapped him.

Even though no one understood whether or not they accomplished anything, it became clear at the end why everyone came.  Industry and government statisticians came to seek greater attention and recognition from academics.  And the academics came to seek more money from industry and government.  It was a stand-off.

At the end of the conference, we all engaged in trading business cards.  I got quite a deal.  I traded one DuPont for two Stanfords and a Princeton.