October 27, 2012

lies, damned lies, and statistics

Posted in proverb at 11:09 pm by Feng

lies, damned lies, and statistics – a phrase to complain the misuse of statistics to support weak arguments [wikipedia]

I learned this phrase from a professor in our school who was digging some historic reports published by the school in the past and collecting some statistics.

Apparently this phrase was popularized by Mark Twain in his autobiography: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

At first, I didn’t quite understand what it means. I thought that was an unfair prejudice against statistics, a well-established branch of science. But then I realized it was expressed in the context of complaining the “misuse” of statistics. That makes sense.

This article, titled “Lies, damn lies, and statistics about red light jumping”,  gives a good example about the usage of the phrase.  Statistics show that “57% of UK cyclists jump red lights”. However, it turned out that the statistics were collected based on random users over the Internet filling some on-line surveys. A further breakdown of “57%” shows that in fact, only 1.9% cyclists confessed to red light jumping; another 11.8% did so “sometimes” while 24.6% did “rarely”, and 19.1% had done so once or twice.  Hence, the claim “57% of UK cyclists jump red lights” is ridiculously wrong and is highly misleading. When reading up to this point, I couldn’t help saying to myself: “lies, damned lies, and statistics“.


August 21, 2009

it takes a village to raise a child

Posted in proverb at 9:47 am by Feng

it takes a village to raise a child –  It takes many people to teach a child all that he or she should know [UseEnglish]

Many Americans learned this phrase from Hillary Clinton who chose it in the title of her book. This phrase is alleged to come from an African proverb. It highlights the importance of the  social environement for a child’s growth and development. Interestingly, some people wrote an article to dispute this old wisdom by claiming that parents play more important roles in fostering a child. But I think he is only nit-picking and the arugment misses the point.

October 18, 2006

crow and rabbit

Posted in proverb at 10:40 am by Feng

This is an interesting story for the working-class people. A crow is resting on a tree, doing nothing for the whole day. A bit jealous, a rabbit asks the crow: “Can I live your life?” “Of course,” says the crow. So the rabbit stops working and starts lying under the tree, enjoying the sun and breeze. Suddenly a fox jumps out of bush, and eats the rabbit by surprise.

“Oh, dear,” the crow says to the struggling rabbit, “I forgot to tell you: to live like me, you have to sit in a very high position.”

September 14, 2006

small trick and big trouble

Posted in proverb at 10:05 am by Feng

On the ‘Las Vegas’ TV show, the surveillance team of the Montecito casino is facing a problem: they cannot figure out how a woman keeps winning in their casino. Most of the time, she sits quietly in a corner, reading a book. From time to time, her reading seems to be interrupted by some kind of signal. She then goes straight to put a large bet on a table — and wins. When this forms a pattern and it repeats itself several times, it has become apparent that she is cheating — but no one in the surveillance team can tell how.

Frustrated, Mike asks Ed Deline, Head of the surveillance team: “OK. We know she is cheating. Why not just get her out of our turf?” After a moment of silence, Ed Deline replies: “My concern is that if we can’t even figure out this small trick, we are in big trouble.” This greatly lifts up the spirit of the whole team. With further investigations, they finally discover the trick: there is an insider in the surveillance team, secretly releasing signals to the woman by changing the music.

Indeed, knowledge is gained by facing up to the problem.


June 27, 2006

the farmer’s donkey

Posted in proverb at 10:01 am by Feng

Here is the brief summary of the story. A donkey falls into an abandoned well. Not able to pull the donkey, the farmer decides to bury it. With each shovel of dirt put on its back, the donkey shakes it off and steps on a new layer of dirt. Finally, it is able to jump out of the well, jovial and alive. The moral of the story: life constantly adds a shovel of dirt on your back; shake it off and take a step up.

This story reminds me of something remotely familiar in my childhood. When I was six years old, my father took me to attend an entry test of a kindergarten, one of the best in my town. Every child was interviewed and asked this question: If a duck fell into a pit, how could the other duck save its friend with only a bucket? To make the question easier, the teacher even added more explicit hints that a river was nearby and that the duck couldn’t be drowned. I had seen the same question on a TV program before and been aware of the answer.

However, I chose to give an “unorthodox” solution: use the bucket to shovel the dirt into the pit. Very shocked, the teacher exclaimed that would bury the duck alive. I tried hard to explain that wouldn’t happen if it was done slowly. At that age, I couldn’t express myself very well but I think the teacher understood me. Later, I was told that I got the highest score on that question.

In retrospect, I don’t know why I didn’t choose the safe way to answer the question. Maybe deep in my mind, I didn’t believed believe the “water” method could work since the water would quickly sink into the underground. So the “dirt” method is actually much more feasible and efficient. I almost forgot that test and never thought of any significance on my growing-up. But today it strikes me that is it possible that the answer I chose at that moment over twenty years ago made me who I am today, being an engineer favoring simple and practical solutions over fancy and complex ones?

I shared this story with a friend. He interpreted the moral of the story differently. “From the farmer’s perspective,” he said, “he should find a better way to kill the donkey next time.” That was hilarious.

April 12, 2006

the horse is not judged by the saddle

Posted in proverb at 10:07 am by Feng

the horse is not judged by the saddle —German proverb [reference]

A quite useful phrase. The Chinese equivalent is: "The man is not judged by his look; the sea is not measured by a spoon."

March 2, 2006

keep it simple, stupid!

Posted in proverb at 1:18 pm by Feng

Occam’s razor — “plurality should not be assumed without necessity” [wiki]

I came across this “Occam’s razor” when reading the book: “An introduction to bioinformatics algorithms”. Occam’s Razor is a time-honored principle; It has important influences on the algorithmic developments in bioinformatics. In simple terms, it says “keep it simple, stupid!“. Aristotle also wrote something similar over two thousand years ago: “Nature operates in the shortest way possible.”

January 20, 2006

early bird gets the worm

Posted in proverb at 10:25 am by Feng

early bird gets (catches) the worm – One who arrives first has the best chance for success (see this)

This story is intriguing — a student got his million-dollar income by squeezing ads into a one-mega-pixel image on a web. This is a very simple idea, but he is the first one to make it happen. Someone commented on the student’s success: “early bird gets the worm“. There are many smart birds, but early bird? Only one.