Falling for Chuck, Part Two: NIPS – a Screen, Not a Diagnostic

To recap: we got word very abruptly from our OB that one of the test results of a Non-Invasive Prenatal Screen (NIPS) had come back positive for Down Syndrome. As a writer I research everything. I Googled the test and between articles and speaking with Heather Bradley of Down Syndrome Diagnosis Network I learned that my odds were likely far lower.

On my OB’s advice, we went to meet with a genetic counselor who also told us very firmly that there was a 99% chance of the baby having Down Syndrome. She gave us no information about Down Syndrome itself. All she had to offer for our situation was her belief that we should have an amnio. When I told her I wasn’t interested she talked over me “Or, right, you don’t abort for religious reasons.” I told her that I wasn’t having the amnio for medical reasons, but I felt like I was trapped in an absurdist play where I was speaking and no one could hear my voice. Continue reading Falling for Chuck, Part Two: NIPS – a Screen, Not a Diagnostic

Living the Lefty Life in a Righty World

Lefty power! Image capture: Patricia Vollmer.

I’m a southpaw! I’ve always been proud to be in this elite 8-15 percent of the world population. Did you know that in 2008, you had no choice but to elect a left-handed president? Four of the last seven presidents are left-handed, and seven presidents total have been lefties (16 percent). Fascinating, don’t you think?

I polled the other GeekMoms and it turns out, I’m possibly the only one (out of those who responded) who is left-handed. I was particularly intrigued by this, since there are around 20 of us, and if I’m truly the only lefty that would make our group only 5 percent left-handed.

Left-handers also have an advantage in sports, particularly in baseball, since they can add an element that most players don’t train for.

I remember my parents making sure I had left-handed scissors for school each year. I also remember my mom struggling to teach me how to use chopsticks, knitting needles, and crochet hooks as a young girl. Luckily for me, I play sports (including fishing) and musical instruments right-handed. I also use firearms (for my Air Force work) right-handed.

In today’s world of spending most of my time at a computer, there’s very little that I need to do that really reminds me (and the world around me) of my sinistrality.

But every once in a while… I’m reminded. And sometimes it can be downright frustrating! Most often, I’m reminded in the kitchen. Today while making a fruit smoothie with my Ninja Blender, I was reminded once again.

The Ninja Blender is designed for right-handed use, evidenced by the handle on the right, spout on the left. The motor only fits on top of the pitcher in this direction—believe me, I tried it the other way! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Here are some other kitchen gadgets that favor right-handers:

What on earth is this? Holding it with my left hand, it’s hard to tell. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Oh! I see! It’s a can opener! I got it as a gift and don’t use it. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Pay no attention to the chip on my favorite geek coffee mug, covered in weather facts! I know, I can use it as a lefty just fine! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
But if I were right handed, I’d be greeted with this pretty cloud and sun art with every sip of my AM elixir. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Most can openers are designed for right-handed folks. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
This is a pie server. Actually, I’m not sure of the Emily Post-sanctioned name for this utensil, but that’s what I call it. Note the serrated edge that faces up when I’m holding the utensil in my left hand.  Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

So the next time you are shopping for your favorite sinistral southpaw, consider ambidextrous kitchen gadgets :-)

Science Literacy: Statistics Shmatistics

Photo on 11-12-14 at 11.11 AM #2
Image By Rebecca Angel

“It’s science’s dirtiest secret: The ‘scientific method’ of testing hypotheses by statistical analysis stands on a flimsy foundation. Statistical tests are supposed to guide scientists in judging whether an experimental result reflects some real effect or is merely a random fluke, but the standard methods mix mutually inconsistent philosophies and offer no meaningful basis for making such decisions.”
Odds Are, It’s Wrong: Science fails to face the shortcomings of statistics

Read the whole article; it’s very good, and makes my head spin. If we can’t trust statistics in science, what is the basis for drugs being approved by the FDA, or the stated risks associated with everything my teenagers do, or how much pumpkin pie can I really eat before going over my daily limit of recommended fat?

That article was written in 2010, which you may think is old news, but How to Lie with Statistics has been around a very long time. That’s a book on how statistics can be used by companies, politicians, anyone with an agenda, to manipulate people with “hard facts”—a.k.a. math.

To be fair, Siegfried’s article is not about scientists purposefully fudging numbers, but how they generally don’t understand how to organize their data properly. They’re not bad guys (like certain advertisers), but still misleading the public because they don’t know what they’re doing. Maybe that’s worse.

So what can we do? How can you teach your children to understand the numbers thrown out in the media? Reading that the percentage of the U.S. population that will get the flu, on average, each year is between 5% and 20% on WebMD doesn’t mean much unless you understand how average is calculated (mean? median? mode?), what was the sample size, and maybe most importantly: who funded the research to get the data?

That last question may be a tough one to find. But understanding how statistics work, and how they can be manipulated, is doable and important. First, you might want to brush up on the knowledge. You could read Stephen King, but for something more encompassing, you need to stretch your brain. And no, I’m not talking re-reading the mind-numbing statistics textbook from college somehow still in your basement.

The free site Udacity has an  accessible and comprehensive statistics course (my sixteen year old is taking it right now). There’s also The Manga Guide to Statistics, reviewed here, and the popular series take on it: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Statistics. I like that one a lot.

The resources above are good for teens and adults. For the younger set, it isn’t hard to bring up how statistics work because they are everywhere, everyday. Next time a percentage of something is thrown out as evidence to do, or not do, (buy, or not buy), explain to your child what that number means, and how it could have been manipulated. Make them aware that just because math seems straightforward, using statistics may not be.

To make it fun, have them conduct a survey with their family and friends. It can be about anything (“what’s your favorite pie?” at Thanksgiving, for example.) Your job is to help them word the survey to get simple results. Then, help them make some fun graphs and play with their data. That hands-on manipulation is the best way to learn. I did it with my own kids. We asked people about tea! You can check out all our fun graphs here.

Hopefully, by the time they become scientists, their understanding of organizing data will be enough to trust their research! Especially if that research tells me I can eat all the pumpkin pie I want. Let’s all become more science literate by understanding how statistics works.

The Manga Guide to Calculus and Statistics

Manga Guide to Statistics and Calculus  \ Images: No Starch Press
Manga Guide to Statistics and Calculus \ Images: No Starch Press

I can’t tell you how many times in school I wished my text books could be something as fun as a comic book. Feeling like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, maybe if I clicked my mouse two times and wish it will happen…yea. That never worked. Probably because the idea hadn’t been thought of yet. Good news! It’s now a reality with The Manga Guide to Statistics and The Manga Guide to Calculus. Two books on topics I find rather confusing in a medium I find fun.

Manga Guide to Statistics \ Image Copyright by No Starch Press
Manga Guide to Statistics \ Image Copyright by No Starch Press

The Manga Guide to Calculus is broken down into six sections. Each section is then broken down into chapters that explain the topic at hand in a comic book, manga-styled fashion. Remember all of that talking in your math books that you weren’t always sure what they were talking about and why? I do and this book has none of that.

Instead, we have a story about a young enthusiastic journalist who finds herself working in a branch office with two other people. She’s not that happy about it, but her boss finds ways to show her that it’s not so bad, and he starts teaching her… you guessed it, calculus.

While Noriko learns all about functions, differentiation, and the fundamental theorem of calculus, she is also learning how it all relates to the world around her and why it’s important to know. The book also follows a story between the characters and life changes that happen to them during their time together.

I guess you could say that The Manga Guide to Calculus has put the “fun” back in “functions.”

The Manga Guide to Statistics follows the same formula as The Manga Guide to Calculus, with the exception of the characters and the story behind them. I’m not too lovey dovey over this title because the main character is a child who has a crush on one of her dad’s employees and uses statistics to get closer to him.

I wish they could have chosen a better story to go with for the characters, but oh well. It still teaches the topic in a fun and engaging way that I haven’t seen before.

Both books do a nice job teaching their respective topics in a way that will keep you interested and engaged. The story among the characters also gives it a nice feeling for those who want to understand what they are learning and why they need to know it.

Disclaimer: GeekMom received a review sample. 

Learning Statistics With Tea

Image By Lilianna Maxwell
Image By Lilianna Maxwell

According to the results of a survey, 100% of people drink tea. What kind of people? Do they drink anything else? Does herbal tea count?

A few years ago, my kids learned about surveys: how they are made, distributed, results calculated, statistics, etc. We made our own to distribute to family and friends, getting twenty five kids and adults to participate. It was about tea.

Every part was a learning experience into the world of polling and statistics, which makes for informed citizens. Ever since our tea survey, my kids take “according to polls,” with a grain of salt. What are your kids into? Have them survey their family and friends. Tally the results. Make colorful graphs. Talk about the shortcomings of the survey, and misleading numbers.

If you’re interested in the results of our survey, here they are!

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Another Reason to Love Maps! American Dialect Maps Show Our Language Quirks

Image: Joshua Katz, North Carolina State University Department of Statistics.
This fascinates me–not because of the soda vs. pop dividing lines (I went to college right on the dividing line in central Pennsylvania), but because of the bullseyes of “soda” in St. Louis and Milwaukee. I would guess it’s related to the cities’ beer brewing histories. Image: Joshua Katz, North Carolina State University Department of Statistics.

Have you heard of a bubbler? What about a hoagie? Do you pronounce that favored nut “PEE-can” or “pee-KHAN”?

I happened across an article on the North Carolina State University research blog featuring one of their statistics graduate students who has taken data from a decade-old Harvard University linguistics survey and turned it into graphical magic.

Continue reading Another Reason to Love Maps! American Dialect Maps Show Our Language Quirks

No Starch Press Manga Guides Make Science Fun

Image courtesy No Starch Press

Have you ever read a textbook cover to cover? I’m in grad school. I’ve had to do it more than once. It usually requires massive amounts of caffeine and re-reading a lot of pages. Well, there’s some good news. No Starch Press has The Manga Guide series on textbook topics, such as statistics, electricity, and molecular biology. The manga books are written by Japanese subject matter experts. They  have been translated to English and (thankfully) rearranged to read from left to right.  Update: I’m told the Japanese originals were left to right, so no rearranging was necessary.

I have three sample use cases in my house, so No StarchPress provided me with three sample books. First is my 11-year-old daughter. She volunteered to read The Manga Guide to Electricity. Next up is my husband, who is studying for his GRE and has discovered that he’s forgotten everything he ever learned in high school math. He read The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra. I’m taking a graduate class in quantitative analysis this semester, so my book was The Manga Guide to Statistics.

All three of these books turn out to be very similar in plot. Character A is struggling with a topic and put into a situation that requires them to learn the subject matter from Character B. It doesn’t matter if they were sent from an alternative dimension with advanced electrical capabilities or trying to get closer to a school crush, the subject matter takes center stage in all of these books. Each goes through a series of illustrated examples that teach the concepts, and the struggling learner interrupts with lots of questions.

I thought that the idea would end up being so hokey that it would disguise the learning material, but I was drawn in to what turned out to be fairly cute stories within a couple of pages. My husband had several GRE prep books, Khan Academy, and a course through Udacity, but it ended up being manga that taught him the most, probably because of the struggling-learner-with-lots-of-questions approach.

I found The Manga Guide to Statistics to be surprisingly good as well. There was the manga story line, of course, but the book also had lots of problems you could work out yourself. The instructions showed you how to do the computation in Excel. Thank goodness. I’m sure a lot of students appreciate learning about statistical concepts and research methods without learning any of the math, but I’m not one of them. Working out frequency distributions or standard deviations really helps me see what those vocabulary words mean in action. The silly and very Japanese examples (the mean price of ramen in an imaginary building with only ramen restaurants) were actually pretty fun.

Speaking of Japanese, that may be the one caveat for this series. The books are translated to English, but there are still illustrations with Japanese text (which may or may not have been mirrored to make the comic books read left to right – I can’t tell). There are lots of cultural references to Japan. That makes sense and is completely part of the charm if you’re a manga fan. However, my daughter struggled with some of these cultural differences as she read. Little things like knowing what “Yen” meant. She’s a Miyazaki fan and no stranger to manga, but she’s also an 11-year-old American. An older child is more likely to see the cultural differences as interesting instead of a barrier to comprehension.

Even with that caveat, this was a cute and smart series. I’d  recommend The Manga Guide to home-schoolers, summer break supplemental learning, college students trying to brush up on a topic, and anyone with a love of anime or manga that wants to learn more about a math or science topic. I’d say the age range starts around middle school, but pay attention to the subject matter.  The books are overall solidly written and make hard science topics entertaining



Geek Celebrates Hanukkah With Science: Day Three

Unconventional holiday traditions are fun for the whole family! So far this year, my family has celebrated Hanukkah by launching rockets indoors and constructing small boats in order to sink them. Today we’re delving deeper, into the very language of science. That’s right; it’s math time.

Roger Bacon said, “Mathematics is the gate and key of the sciences. … Neglect of mathematics works injury to all knowledge, since he who is ignorant of it cannot know the other sciences or the things of this world.” After today’s celebration, my son says, “Mmm, delicious math!”

The instructions for this experiment are simple (materials are in bold):

  • First, open a small bag of multi-colored candies.
  • Count the candies, and note on a chart how many candies were in the bag.
  • Sort candies by color and note on the chart how many candies you have of each color.
  • Repeat several times! (We opened eight bags, one at a time to avoid mixing candies.)
  • For fun, chart total candies, average candies per bag, and percent of each color.
  • Translate your data into a bar graph, line graph, and pie chart for easy comparisons.
  • Analyze and discuss your data before devouring the samples!

The Scripps National Spelling Bee: Some Fascinating Facts

We are in the midst of the 84th Scripps National Spelling Bee Week in the Washington, D.C., area.  I’ve watched the competition with interest most years — although not with the same enthusiasm my family watches the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest every July 4thI find it especially cool that ESPN chooses to air the finals every June and this year the preliminaries streamed live on ESPN3.

Over the years I’ve noticed some interesting trends.  I’m a statistics girl, and I find it easier to present you some fascinating facts about the spelling bee:

1. Are the winning words getting more difficult?  Check out the list of winning words here.  Do you see a trend from mostly Germanic words that (to me) are seemingly straightforward to sound out, use in context and use basic etymology…to some serious Latin, Greek and other Romantic language-based words?  Consider words such as fracas (1930), intelligible (1935), and therapy (1940).  Compare those to antediluvian (1994), chiaroscurist (1998) and appoggiatura (2005).  I think this speaks volumes to the increased diversity in the English language as well as the capabilities of America’s 8-14 year olds’ spelling skills over the years.  We trust that our kids are more capable than ever before!

2. Homeschooled students are demonstrating their excellence!  According to this article published on May 31st featuring San Angelo, Texas’s National Spelling Bee contestant, even though homeschooling accounts for only 2.9% of American schoolchildren, 9.8% of this year’s 275 contestants are homeschooled.  Homeschooled students have won the spelling bee four times — will they take home the prize a 5th time this year?

3. Gender.  I don’t consider 45 female winners vs. 41 male winners overwhelming, but it still put a smile on my face.

4. Diversity, at least among Indian-Americans.  I have to admit, before I found the statistic elsewhere (see link in #3), I attempted to discern the split of the genders of the winners over the past 83 years by manually counting the male vs. female winners.  I also have to admit, when I got to 1985, I didn’t know whether Balu Natarajan of Chicago, Illinois, was a male or female.  (He’s a male).  Then there were nine more names whose genders I simply didn’t know (sorry!).  It turns out they are all Indian-Americans.

5. More diversity.  In 1998 Jody-Anne Maxwell of Kingston, Jamaica became the first (and only) non-American resident to win the bee.

6. The Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS) sends contestants.  Sponsored by the Stars and Stripes newspaper, which is published for American servicemembers living overseas, students can enter through their on-base schools.  Twelve-year-old Anuk Dayaprema, whose father is serving in the US Army in Vicenza, Italy, is representing DoDDS Europe schools.

7. He’s HOW OLD?  There is an 8-year-old third-grader competing this year! I think about my own 8-year-old being able to spell xanthosis (1995) and my head spins!

8. Our very own GeekMom Jessamyn Tracy was a two-time competitor in 1989 and 1990.  Jessamyn also provided us some insight yesterday about how folks can use etymology to succeed in spelling in this day of autocorrect.

9. Want more statistics?  Visit this link to view even more statistics about this year’s 275 contestants.  They’ve broken down everything from how many are only children vs. with siblings, how many are repeat performers, as well as age and grade distributions.

I certainly plan to watch the spelling bee with the kids this week.  Will you?

How Stephen King Taught Me Percentile Rank and the Normal Curve

Adapted from Wikimedia Commons

I was driving my ’58 Plymouth Fury on a long trip out of Boulder, Colorado to a strange town in Maine, when I stopped at a hotel along the way for a needed caffeine boost. A man in glasses and a way with words came over and asked, “So, what do you know about percentile rank and the normal curve?”  It was strange for a pick-up line, but…

Ok, ok, that’s not what happened. Frankly, I doubt that Stephen King could have taught me these fundamental concepts in a conversation as well as he taught them to me in one of his novels. Here’s what really happened.

I was taking a research methods class, going through a phase in which I transformed from Geek Type E (English Lit Major) to Geek Type S (Social Scientist). The statistics gave me trouble, given my earlier career as a math-avoidant bibliophile. I understood, on a basic level, the concept of the normal curve. I was willing to accept that many kinds of data follow a distribution pattern where there are a few data points at one end, a lot in the middle, and a few at the other end. We’ve all heard of the bell curve.

Percentiles and percentile ranks (definitions differ slightly) also made intuitive sense to me as an overachieving nerd who understood that my SAT score could also be expressed as what percentage of test-takers scored at or below my score.

What I couldn’t get was how these two concepts relate to one another, and the biggest stumbling block was that percentile rank is not an equal-interval score. That means that the difference between the 25th and 30th percentiles is not the same as the difference between the 55th and 60th percentiles, or the 90th and the 95th percentiles. 30-25 = 5. 60-55 = 5. 95-90 = 5. So why is it that when it comes to percentiles, 5 does not mean the same thing as 5?  The technical explanation is that percentile ranks are tied to the normal curve, so some are closer than others.

I still didn’t get it.

Enter the Master of Horror. In a serendipitous moment, I picked up a copy of King’s The Long Walk. In the novel, 100 boys living in a contemporary dystopia participate in an event called the Walk. They have to maintain a speed of 4 miles an hour, there are no stops or resting breaks, and failure to keep moving or abide by any of the strict rules of the contest results in immediate death. Soldiers stay with the walkers, ready to shoot at any moment. The contest ends when there is only one walker alive.

As the novel opens, a few boys are shot right away. They have mental or physical problems that immediately take them out of the contest. Most of the others keep on going, until there are big losses around the midpoint. When it gets down to the last five walkers… well, what they go through is unbearable. The tension of wondering who will make it, who can keep lifting his feet and putting them down, who can suppress the psychological terror of it all long enough to keep on going, is vintage King.

It’s also a near-perfect representation of percentile rank and why differences are not equal. I realized that if you plotted how long each boy walked before being shot, you would end up with a normal curve. Since there were 100 boys, each boy’s placement could be equated to percentile rank. Now I could see that 5 does not always equal 5. The difference between walkers who came in at, say, 55th and 60th places was inconsequential. It is easy to imagine them switching ranks because there was very little to distinguish them from one another. But the difference between coming in as the winner and coming in fifth was profound. The boys in the middle were all about the same, the boys who died at the beginning and end were both very different from the group as a whole and from one another. Aha!

Normal curve in The Long Walk

If it still doesn’t make sense to you Primary Geek Type Es, read the book and then come back to this post. You’ll see what I mean. Students take note, however. Reading horror novels as a method of studying for your statistics classes is generally not recommended. On the other hand, we could explore probability calculations for encountering scary creatures in dark, wooded areas, or incidence and prevalence rates for vampire infections in the general population…