Why you can not to use statistics to dispute magic

By: , December 10th, 2011.


It is a subtle point that statistical modeling is different than model based science. However, empirical scientists seem to go out of their way to conflate the two before the public (as statistical modeling is easier to perform and model based science is more highly rewarded). It is often claimed that model based science is being done when in fact statistics is what is being done (for instance some of the unfortunate distractions of flawed reports related to the important question of the magnitude of plausible anthropogenic global warming).

Both model based science and statistics are wonderful fields, but it is important to not receive the results of one when you have paid for the other.

We will pointedly discuss one of the differences. Continue reading Why you can not to use statistics to dispute magic

What to do when you run out of memory

By: , December 6th, 2011.


A constant problem for computer science (since its inception) is how to manipulate data that is larger than machine memory. We present here some general strategies for working “out of core” or what you should do when you run out of memory.

Early computers were most limited by their paltry memory sizes. von Neumann himself commented that even a room full of genius mathematicians would not be capable of much if all they could communicate, think upon or remember were the characters on a single type written page (much more memory than the few hundred words available to the Eniac). The most visible portions of early computers are their external memories or secondary stores: card readers, paper tape readers and tape drives.

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SDC 920 computer, Computer History Museum, Mountain View CA

Historically computer scientists have concentrated on streaming or online algorithms (that is algorithms that work with the data in the order it is available and use limited memory). For many problems we have found this an insufficient model and it is much better to assume you can re-order and replicate data (such as scattering data to many processors and re-collecting it to sort). The scatter/gather paradigm is ubiquitous and is the underpinning of large scale sorting, databases and Map Reduce. So in one sense databases and Map Reduce different APIs on top of very related technologies (journaling, splitting and merging). Replicating data (or even delaying duplicate elimination) that is already “too large to handle” may seem counterintuitive; but it is exploiting the primary property of secondary storage: that secondary storage tends to be much larger than primary storage (typically by 2 orders of magnitude, compare a 2 terabyte drive to an 8 gigabyte memory stick). Continue reading What to do when you run out of memory

My Favorite Graphs

By: , December 5th, 2011.


The important criterion for a graph is not simply how fast we can see a result; rather it is whether through the use of the graph we can see something that would have been harder to see otherwise or that could not have been seen at all.

— William Cleveland, The Elements of Graphing Data, Chapter 2

In this article, I will discuss some graphs that I find extremely useful in my day-to-day work as a data scientist. While all of them are helpful (to me) for statistical visualization during the analysis process, not all of them will necessarily be useful for presentation of final results, especially to non-technical audiences.

I tend to follow Cleveland’s philosophy, quoted above; these graphs show me — and hopefully you — aspects of data and models that I might not otherwise see. Some of them, however, are non-standard, and tend to require explanation. My purpose here is to share with our readers some ideas for graphical analysis that are either useful to you directly, or will give you some ideas of your own.

Continue reading My Favorite Graphs