Lying with Data, Pilot Suicide Edition

Sometimes I’m tempted to start a whole blog about bad and misleading uses of data. There’s a classic book (as in very old and very good) called How to Lie With Statistics on this. It shows how the facts stated can be perfectly true, yet also completely misleading. Now that we’re allegedly living in the age of big data and it’s very easy for all and sundry to put out impressive looking charts, the problems it describes seem to be worse than ever and there are plenty of new ones to add to the list.

The strangest thing to my mind is that many of the examples even come from reputable people who certainly know how to do better, and who often bemoan stupid uses of data themselves.

One example I saw today…

Pilot Suicide

FiveThirtyEight – of Nate Silver fame – proclaims We Don’t Know How Often Pilots Commit Suicide.

Remember I’m not talking about saying things that are false, I’m talking about misleading people with statements that are true. So what’s wrong with this article?

To most people the factual statement “We don’t know how often pilots commit suicide” translates into the implication: “Be afraid, pilot suicide could be a real danger”. If you just read the headline, if you just read the opening paragraph of the story, or even if you read the whole story but didn’t stop to ponder the numbers, that would be your take-away from the article: Be afraid.

There are a couple of reasons why “Be afraid” is totally the wrong conclusion to draw from the data. Basically there is a critical difference between “We don’t know X” and “We don’t know anything about the possible values of X”.

  • Although we don’t know how often pilots commit suicide, we have a strict upper limit on how often it could be because plane crashes are incredibly rare. So at most pilot suicides while flying are incredibly rare.

  • We can reduce that upper limit even further by removing crashes whose causes are known to be something else. In the end the thing we don’t know (pilot suicides while flying) remains “unknown”, yet constrained into a range of possible values such that the rational response to it should be “it’s so rare it’s not worth losing sleep over”.

Does it matter?

Human beings aren’t so very rational though. They’re more responsive to stories, how the stories are framed, how many stories they saw than they are to the actual data mentioned. After being exposed to all the coverage that’s there’s been about pilot suicide lately, I’d find the possibility preying on mind if I were about to fly. I’d be able to dismiss the worry based on what I know of the stats, but I wouldn’t be able to avoid having the thought that it might happen. That’s how human minds work.

After the average human being reads that FiveThirtyEight article, they’re going to be left pretty uneasy about the whole question of pilot suicide. All the talk in the article about how it’s unknown, instances when it may have happened, listing risk factors for depression, the quotes from a pilot saying “If I had depression I wouldn’t admit it” will leave the reader anxious. Maybe they were already nervous about flying, and some of them will avoid it a bit more now.

That doesn’t sound too bad maybe?

Well on 9/11, about 3,000 people died. In the year after that many people got scared of flying, and switched to driving long distances instead of taking the plane. The problem: driving is much much more dangerous than flying. It’s estimated that about 1,500 extra people died on the roads that year because people were afraid to fly and drove instead.

How to improve the situation?

Of course it is entirely legitimate and responsible to study and write about topics like pilot suicide, or airline safety in general. Part of why flying has got to be so safe is that people have been poring over every incident for decades and learning the lessons from them.

However it’s easy and tempting to write in a way that’s irresponsible. Tempting because scary-sounding stories are going to get more attention, shares, pageviews etc. Easy because there is less work to do – just pick out some interesting facts, don’t worry too much about the context or putting them into perspective for the readers.

Given that, it’s maybe asking a lot that journalists and bloggers should strive for a higher standard. But one thing we can do to nudge them in that direction is call them out on it once in a while.


Saving energy, saving money, saving the planet

Some of my twitter friends had a conversation about saving money on lighting the other day. Energy use is a topic that I’ve delved into a bit previously and I’d like to share some resources and thoughts that might be useful to my friends and to other people.

“Every big helps”

People often have the mentality that “every little helps”. They think switching off a phone charger here or a lightbulb there is important and fret about that. David MacKay, a Cambridge professor and advisor to the UK government has coined the phrase “every big helps” to help restore a sense of perspective. The point is focusing on the big things – the stuff that actually accounts for most power usage – has a much bigger impact on energy use, and therefore on energy bills and on the environment.

Watch this fantastic five minute video to hear him explain:

So what is big?

When it comes to electricity use, you can get a rough idea of how much electricity is used by different items in your home from this table from the US Dept of Energy:

Electric Appliances in the Residential Sector

These are obviously ballpark figures. Every model of appliance is a bit different, and every person and family has a different pattern of usage. All the same, it gives an important rough idea of what is likely to be a big contributor to your electricity bill, and what is probably pretty small.

For example one low-energy light-bulb on for three or so hours a day might only account for $2 of your annual bill, while your fridge-freezer could easily account for $60.

As one of my friends pointed out, the table shows a desktop PC using only 75W. A gaming PC running state-of-the-art games on max resolution could easily be using four times that much or more. So a heavy gaming habit could easily pwn all the lightbulbs in your house put together in terms of energy use.

The table at least shows you how to think about energy use, and back-of-the-envelope math is enough to get a ballpark idea of what is likely to be most important for you. Just estimate and add up…

  • power used when on * hours on
  • power used on standy * hours on standby

This info is for electricity use only, but that’s what sparked this post.

Some probably good things to do

What’s most impactful to do is going to vary from person to person, but some things are likely to apply in a lot of cases.

  • If you’re not already using low-energy lightbulbs, it’s pretty much a no-brainer these days. It might not make the biggest impact but it’s easy and cheap to do.
  • Heating and cooling are big on energy use. That means turning the heating or aircon down slightly could save more than all that running around worrying about lightbulbs.
  • “Heating and cooling” includes stuff like dishwashers, washing machines, fridges etc. When it’s time to change one of those items, getting a more efficient one is probably going to be a great idea. Also using the less power hungry programs, like washing at a lower temperature.
  • Insulation to stop your heat vanishing off into the night air is very good, but putting all that in can be expensive. Sometimes there are grants to help with that though.

The Bigger Picture

Want to know more about energy use, sustainable energy, what it’s going to take to avoid dangerous climate change etc? Here are some great resources…

Sustainable Energy – without the hot air – a website and ebook from David MacKay

The site has a section of videos, which might be a quicker and more enjoyable way to get the main ideas:

Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air with David MacKay (one hour talk at Harvard)

David MacKay – How the Laws of Physics Constrain Our Sustainable Energy Options (18 minute TEDx talk)

Liebster Q&A

By now I imagine everyone that reads blogs has come across the “Liebster Award”. How exactly it originated I’m not sure, but it is a meme in which you nominate blogs that you particularly like, and suggest some questions for those bloggers to answer. They in turn nominate blogs they like, and so it goes on.

It turns out I was nominated for this some time ago by wallcat. It took me a while to notice, and even longer to write a post. But at least I don’t have to feel left out… and it is a pretty fun and interesting meme!

Wallcat’s Questions

Where is your favourite place to hang out?

I don’t have a single place, but coffee shops are good. I prefer by the window or outdoor seating, so I can get the daylight and watch life going past.

What do you like to do to unwind?

Games, books, TV or radio could feature, together with drinks and snacks.

Also walking and tennis, but those aren’t always ready-to-hand options when I’m in need of unwinding.

Would you consider yourself to be an outdoors or an indoors person?

I think I prefer outdoors, but a lot of the stuff I like to do or need to do requires being indoors!

If you could have one super-power what would it be?

Time travel, if that’s allowed as a super-power.

If you were a sorcerer what element would you specialize in – fire, earth, air or water?


All the elements would be cool, but I like flying, the sky, and airy stuff generally.

What is your proudest achievement?

I helped someone turn their life around from a very bad place.

Who are your role models?

I don’t know if “role model” is really the right term, but I’ll say Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Richard Feynman. I know a fair bit about their lives and they’ve been an influence on me one way and another.

What is your favourite book, game or film?

Book – The Lord of the Rings.

What is your favourite colour?

Blue or Purple. I find you can easily have too much purple though, so maybe blue.

If a genie granted you three wishes, what would they be?

I assume it’s a genie that is clever enough to rule out meta-wishes (wishing for more wishes etc) and not one of the devious and untrustworthy ones that will twist your request into something that technically fits but is actually horrible… in that case…

  • Excellent health until age 90
  • A fully functioning TARDIS (and the knowhow to operate it!)
  • The ability to master the material in any book by skimming it for five minutes

I’m sort of asking to be the Doctor aren’t I? Except sticking to being basically human!

I did contemplate asking for a large amount of money, but I figure with a TARDIS you’ve got a home and transport taken care of, plus you can always go win the lottery if you really needed to get actual cash.

If you could sum yourself up in just a few words, what would they be?

Intermittently awesome, frequently dysfunctional, mostly quite nice.

Nominees and Questions

Now the tricky part… since I’m very late with this meme, I think pretty much everyone that I might have nominated has already been nominated by someone else, and already posted their response as well. If wallcat hadn’t nominated me, I’d surely have nominated her!

Well rather than try to find out who has already done this meme, I will sidestep the issue in two ways…

  • I will list some of my favorite blogs
  • I will ask some questions that anyone who feels so inclined can answer, either in a blog post of their own, via a comments here, or via Twitter.

11 Blogs I Like

In no particular order, a non-exhaustive list of blogs that I like, and bloggers who I’d enjoy seeing answering my questions, if they feel the urge…

11 Questions

Feel free to answer as many or as few as you like, and via whatever medium you prefer… your own blog, comments here, Twitter or other internety means. Though if there’s some way I can find out that you have answered them, that would definitely be good.

Remember anyone who wants can answer!

  1. Do you watch or play any sports? Which?
  2. Are you a morning person, night owl or neither?
  3. Strangest phobia you have personally come across?
  4. What little known book, show or film do you love?
  5. What historical era would you live in, if not the present? Why?
  6. What advice would you give your younger self?
  7. What’s something you’ve always wanted to do, but not done yet?
  8. How would you do in the event of a Zombie Apocalypse?
  9. What’s your ideal place to work?
  10. What fictional character has influenced you the most?
  11. What’s the best thing about your life right now?

Email isn’t broken

I came across this article asking: Is email broken? Apparently many people and orgs think it is.

My answer is a resounding “No!”. Email is much less of a problem for me than it used to be say ten years ago. From the analysis the writer of that article,the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones, carried out on his inbox, it’s pretty clear that a lot of his problems are ultimately of his own making. I don’t experience most of the things he talks about, because I use email differently than he does.

  • As the article says, a lot fewer people are using email now. So how come there is still a problem of being overwhelmed with email? I get a lot fewer emails than I used to because a lot of communications have moved to other channels. Ten years ago I might have got family pics or other social chatter in email, now that’s more likely to come via Whatsapp.

  • I have several different email addresses for different purposes. That makes it easy to keep apart important emails from general bumpf. It also means I can set up the email software on my devices in such a way that msgs from critical people will ding me, but I’m not bothered by other stuff.

  • I rarely subscribe to email newsletters. In as much as I even want to keep up with news from some company or org, I’ll add them to a Twitter list. And before doing even that I’m conscious of the fact that I can only keep up with so much, and it’s a waste of time to add things of minor interest to my feeds.

  • Mention of Twitter brings me to this thought: moving to other platforms won’t help much if you carry on with the same behavior. All you’d succeed in achieving is replacing your email overwhelm with Twitter overwhelm, Yammer overwhelm or whatever.

  • Incidentally, remember when email spam used to be a huge thing? Nowadays the filters and other anti-spam measures have gotten so good I barely see any.

  • Another worthwhile habit is letting people know (when it happens) that I’d rather they didn’t send me viral videos, jokes, wild rumors etc. As per the last point, that goes for things sent on Whatsapp as much as by email.

Overall, if anything I find email is much more useful and much less problematic than it was ten years ago. Compared to other forms of communication, it’s more permanent, more easily searchable, more flexible, and better for back-and-forth conversations of substance.

A Smarter WordPress Blogroll

The Problem

A lot of us users have long envied Blogger’s very nice sidebar widget which does not just show a list of links, but useful info about the the latest post from each of the blogs, sorted by date. Here’s an example from Inventory Full:

Blogger Widget

This is useful for the blogger themselves as they can quickly see what’s new on blogs they like. It’s also useful for readers as it shows them posts on other blogs they could well be interested in. Most of all it is helpful to the included blogs, and sends a good number of visitors in their direction, unlike the static blogrolls available to users, which are seldom clicked on.

A Partial Solution

I’ve cobbled together a partial solution for my Thinking Play blog…

Wordpress RSS Widget

I used Chimpfeedr to bundle a set of RSS feeds into one, and then the normal WordPress RSS widget to show the combined feed in my sidebar.

I had to make two different feeds and use two separate RSS widgets in my sidebar, one for blogs that are frequently updated, and one for the less frequent writers. This was so that new posts from the less frequent posters don’t quickly disappear as those that publish daily fill up the top of the feed.

This is an improvement on a plain blogroll I think, but still has major limitations compared to the fantastic widget available on Blogger. Some that come to mind…

  • It’s not possible to edit a Chimpfeedr feed once you’ve made it, so adding any new blogs to your list is going to be a pain.

  • The Blogger widget includes just the latest post from every blog on the list, so everyone has one and one post only in the sidebar. This lets you show more blogs in a reasonable way, and gives good exposure to people who don’t write so regularly, who are probably the ones who can most benefit from wider exposure.

  • It just doesn’t look as nice or as readable. It would be nice to show the blog titles along with post titles, and do it in a different color and font as in the Blogger version.

I wrote this method up as I think it might be useful to other bloggers, and maybe for constructing a simple version of the Gaming Blog Nexus.

Do let me know if you try this out, and if you have any ideas for improving on this approach.


It seems Chimpfeedr might not update the feed after it has been created. That’s according to Wilhelm who has worked on trying to make something like this for a long time. He does have a working solution on similar lines, but it seems to involve two paid services (Feedly Pro and Pinboard) which would be overkill for me.

But there are other RSS aggregators beside Chimpfeedr, so if we can find a decent one, not much has to change other than the feed URL we put in the RSS widget.


Chimpfeedr does seem to update. Maybe it’s been fixed since Wilhelm tried it. Here’s the same widget as in the pic above, and it’s got some new items in it now…

WP RSS widget 2

I’ve also experimented with a version of Wilhelm’s more complex solution, and it seems to work in principle. This uses a free Newsblur account to organize the blog feeds, a free IFTTT account to trigger an action when a new item is added to Newsblur, which action can be set to add the item to a free Delicious account that bookmarks it. Each Delicious account and every tag in the account has its own RSS feed, for example like this one, so they can be used in the widgets like before.

Because of the way this works, it will take a while to compile a feed of items, because it will only notice when something new arrives, not do anything with the old posts that were already there. But in time it should be a better solution that will allow for easier organizing and updating of the blogs to be included.

Newsblur has a limit of 64 feeds on a free account, though as far as I know there is nothing to stop you making multiple accounts. 64 should be plenty for this use though, and even the premium sub with unlimited feeds is not too expensive, $24/yr.

It’s a shame that we have to resort to such a convoluted set up compared to the elegance of the Blogger widget!

Book Review: The House of Silk

If you’ve been reading my blogs, you’ve probably gathered that I read a fair number of books. I often mean to review them as well, but I seldom get around to actually doing that. Mostly that’s because I leave off reviewing a book until I have time to “do it properly”, with an in-depth and considered review. Well, maybe it’s better to write a short and not-too-deeply-considered review rather than none at all! So I’m going to give that a try with The House of Silk.


The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel

I’m a great fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I enjoy other writers’ attempts at creating new ones. Those attempts vary quite a lot in their style and quality. The House of Silk is a pretty good one in my opinion.

It’s by Anthony Horowitz, who has written a fair number of scripts for the Poirot TV series, and who created the Foyle’s War TV series, so has pretty good credentials with period mysteries. He was also approached and authorized by the Conan Doyle estate to write this novel, for what that’s worth.

The book is longer than the original Conan Doyle novels, and covers two interconnected cases, “The Man in the Flat Cap” and “The House of Silk”. That’s worth mentioning because it turned out that the “Flat Cap” part is very much along the lines of Conan Doyle stories, while the “House of Silk” has more in common with modern day crime stories.

All the usual elements of the Holmes world are present, and pretty nicely done. There’s Holmes and Watson in Baker Street, Lestrade, Mrs Hudson, Mycroft, the Baker Street Irregulars. The Irregulars play a pretty important part too.

For me the book’s biggest strength is how well it does the traditional Conan Doyle tropes. There are a few deductions that are as delightful and surprising as in the orignal stories, the voice of Watson is well captured, and the banter with Holmes is often very good too.

The biggest weakness is that Horowitz lets a lot of modern preoccupations into the book as well. His Watson has a lot more to say on the social conditions of Victorian London than the real Watson ever did, and seems pretty alien in doing it, like an outsider to his own time and place. The House of Silk mystery tries to be darker than the usual Conan Doyle stories, but in the end what is revealed is a pretty well-worn cliche in modern crime dramas, and I saw where that case was going a mile off.

Overall, this is well worth a read. Depending on why you read Holmes you might rate it anything from 3 stars to 5 stars. I like my Holmes traditional, and while I might be interested in social commentary if it had any new insights to offer, that didn’t apply here at all. So I feel I’m being on the generous side in rating it 4 stars. A solid effort, good overall, and excellent in parts.

Why did Kindle boost my reading?

I used to read a fair number of books all through my life, but that started declining sometime in the last ten or so years. Then I got a Kindle, and that seemed to kick start my reading again. It seems I’m far from alone in either the decline or the Kindle effect.

I’ve been pondering why getting a Kindle might have made such a difference. A couple of theories I’ve heard don’t fit the bill for me personally.

  • The theory put forward by Alan Jacobs that he’s got used to doing things with his thumbs on mobile devices and the Kindle gives him that same thumb-twiddling fix didn’t seem particularly convincing to me. It’s not like I felt an impatience to fiddle with my fingers when I did read a paper book or magazine.

  • Many people attribute their drop in reading to a craving for incessantly checking email, social media etc, and say that the great benefit of Kindle is that you can’t do anything else with it but read. I can see how that could apply to other people, but it doesn’t apply to me very much. I’ve long since had habits of organizing myself to not be continually interrupted. For example my email isn’t set to ding me, I just go check it at certain times of day. And my mobile devices don’t even have Twitter on them. I do now read a lot on an iPad Mini as well as a Kindle, and I don’t find all the apps I have on the iPad to be particularly a distraction from reading.

Nevertheless, my book reading had dropped sharply over the years, and was revived again when I got a Kindle. So why?

Here are my speculations…

  • The new toy effect. It’s a natural thing that when you get a new “toy” you want to play with it to the fullest, put it through its paces, explore what you can do with it. When you get a new Kindle, that means grabbing a lot of diverse reading materials, and reading some of them. If you’d fallen out of the habit of regular reading, getting a Kindle is likely to get you back into the rhythm of it.

  • The snowball effect. We all know that some new toys are played with for a few days and then forgotten, while others become perennial favorites. Kindle gave a kickstart to my reading, and through that I rediscovered how rewarding and enjoyable reading was, so I kept on reading. And that continued reading was not all that dependent on the Kindle itself, because as mentioned I read a lot on iPad now as well.

  • Super-convenience. Hit the power on button, you are right in your book, where you left off. No need to dig out reading glasses, the print is a comfortable size. Everything in sync on multiple devices, so I can use whatever is to hand or in my pocket, Kindle, iPad or Android phone. (Note – this is obviously not specific to Kindle devices themselves, though you only get the syncing with Kindle apps not any other readers I’ve found.) The light weight and small size is also important, making it easier to carry around than even a paperback.

  • The next book effect. Because it’s so quick and easy to get the next volume in the book series, get other books by the author you just enjoyed, or more books on the topic that’s got you intrigued, there is less chance of the out of sight, out of mind phenomenon. Being able to take action when something is on my mind leads to follow through and a steady chain of reading. If I had to remember and wait til I went to a bookshop, or even to order online and wait for delivery, that wouldn’t happen.

  • Talking of which…. whatever happened to bookshops? For one reason and another, wandering into bookshops is a much less frequent part of my life than it used to be.

  • The sunk cost effect. Having spent a chunk of money on a device, we feel like we should get our money’s worth from it. Perhaps we also feel like we need to justify the purchase to ourselves, or others. So we read, rather than whatever else we might have done instead.

  • Commitment and identity. Buying a dedicated reading device is in part making a commitment to reading, and declaring yourself to be a reader. Perhaps it is not that a Kindle magically makes reading easier again, but rather it’s that you’ve reached a point where you have decided you mean business about getting reading again, and buying a Kindle is symbolic of that.

Some of what I’ve said above would apply to all forms of e-reading, whether on tablet or dedicated e-readers. Some would apply to all e-ink readers, but not general purpose mobile devices. And one or two points only to the Kindle and its ecosystem.

So maybe there is no one overriding reason why Kindle or e-readers in general help resuscitate comatose reading habits. But one way and another, they did for me, and I’m glad of it.