Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Geek Squad survey showed Americans feared personal technology problems slightly more than public speaking, crashing their car, death, or heights

The survey results are shown above in a bar chart. (Click on it to see a larger and clearer version). On February 22, 2013 there was an article by Rick Limpert posted at titled Geek Squad gives tips to keep our technology safe. Among other things it said:

“We all have problems with our gadgets and computers, and more and more, people fear problems with their personal technology (78%) than fear death (75%).

In a Geek Squad survey:

Americans fear a personal technology problem more than public speaking (77%), crashing their car (76%), heights (73%), the end of an intimate relationship (65%), a trip to the dentist (55%) or an IRS audit (50%).”

I assumed that that survey had been done recently. So I looked for a press release about it, but only found one from back on August 17, 2004. That one didn’t mention the percentages cited by Mr. Limpert though. It said there was a telephone survey of 1039 American adults, of which 720 qualified (by owning and using computers and other personal technology).


Are the top four percentages significantly different? Nope. The poll has a standard error of 1.6%, calculated assuming that the proportion, p = 0.78 (the percentage divided by 100) with n = 720. The margin of error at 95% confidence is is 1.96 times that, or 3.1%. That margin of error means that if we repeated the survey many times, then we would expect that 95% of the time we would get a percentage in a range between 74.9% and 81.1%

Friday, March 22, 2013

Brown M&Ms: early warning your presentation requirements are being ignored

Suppose that your presentation needs a complicated multimedia and lighting setup to work as designed, and you need to depend on people at the venue for getting it done. How could you quickly find out if your requirements were being ignored?

In the early Eighties the rock band Van Halen was touring with a sophisticated stage show that filled nine tractor-trailer rigs, and thus needed longer and much more careful setup than was typical back then. They sent promoters a detailed concert rider (see this infographic) which specified what was required. Buried in the middle of it was a demand that there be no brown M&M candies in the backstage food set up.

If they saw brown ones, then they knew the promoter hadn’t read their requirements, and they needed to double check everything before the audience arrived. Chip and Dan Heath blogged about it at Fast Company two years ago. There’s also a six-minute video of David Lee Roth discussing this topic. So, they weren’t just behaving like petulant children.      

My last post about BASE jumpers at the Perrine Bridge prompted me to look up lyrics for the Van Halen song Jump (video here), which led me to the discussions of their no brown M&Ms policy.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

What is normal for your speech audience?

You won’t know if you don’t ask beforehand. How many people would you like to offend?

Last Friday afternoon I was driving west on I-84 heading back home. As usual, I stopped in Twin Falls, Idaho, which is about 130 miles east of Boise. Restaurants, gas stations, and the Magic Valley Mall  are about three miles south of I-84, across the magnificent 1500-foot Perrine Bridge, 486 feet above the Snake River.  

The first time I stopped in the parking lot at the visitors center on the south side I got  quite a surprise. Two young men and a young woman, wearing what I assumed were backpacks, emerged from a van and walked briskly to the bridge. Then one ran along the sidewalk about a third of the way across, climbed right over the railing and jumped. Did I just witness an attempted suicide? Horrified, I ran toward the bridge, and was relieved to see him floating downward, What I’d thought was his backpack really was a parachute. That explained why his companions were laughing. Then they also jumped and landed in a grassy area on the southern bank.

When I asked a bystander, he explained that the extreme sport of parachute jumping from that bridge is both legal and quite normal. All you have to do beforehand is to check in by calling a non-emergency number, so the authorities don’t get the wrong idea.

A sign on the back of their Visitors Center calls Twin Falls “The BASE jumping capital of the world,” where BASE is an acronym for:

Spans (bridges)
Earth (cliffs)

Before giving a speech you should always try to learn about your audience, and find out what is normal for them. In Cincinnati you shouldn’t preach that only Texans know how to make chili, because they are fanatical about their local variant ( see recipe here).   

The image of an airborne BASE jumper came from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, March 18, 2013

What is your hearing threshold? - the joy of statistics

Statistical methods can be applied to a lot of different types of experiments and data that may not seem related at all. Four decades ago over weekends I ran hearing tests on people in the Air Force Reserve. A person sits in a soundproof booth while wearing calibrated headphones. We had an automatic audiometer system, but it used to be done even more simply.

For each frequency (in each ear) you could test by playing a tone at different loudness levels. The person pushed a button (or just raised his hand) to indicate when he heard the tone. If he heard it, then you turned the loudness down by a step. If he didn’t, you turned it up by a step. The sequence of “up-and-down” test steps was like a staircase, and it would converge on the threshold, which was about 30 dB in the example shown below.

During World War II at the Bruceton, Pennsylvania research station of the Bureau of Mines people determined how sensitive explosives were to detonation by mechanical shock. Someone would carefully (and remotely) drop a weight from different heights on top of a series of samples, and see whether they went boom or not. Their sequential test strategy was just like a hearing test.

Insecticides sometimes are tested by exposing groups of insects to different concentrations, and then counting the proportion of them that died. The Probit method is used to analyze data. Results are usually quoted as the median lethal dose, or LD50, where half of them were expected to die.

Three decades ago, in a research lab in Ann Arbor, we were running bent-beam stress corrosion cracking tests where a series of little steel specimens were deflected different amounts, and then dunked in acidified brine saturated with hydrogen sulfide gas for a two weeks. Each specimen either cracked or didn’t crack. We tried to determine the “critical stress” at which half the specimens would crack. Typically we ran the first set of four to six specimens with a coarse spacing between their deflections, and then ran another set or two with half or a third of that spacing. 

All four of these  situations involve the statistical analysis of pass-fail or binary data, finding the transition between nothing happening and something happening.

When I started graduate school four decades ago, another student told me to buy a cookbook called Experimental Statistics (National Bureau of Standards Handbook 91) written by Mary Gibbons Natrella and published back in 1963. She wrote the statistical equivalent to The Joy of Cooking - a comprehensive, easy-to follow collection of recipes (and discussion of how they worked) that began as a series of pamphlets on ordnance  for the U.S. Army.

A decade later I found that Chapter 10 in Experimental Statistics was all about Sensitivity Testing. That got Dave Cameron and I started on finding out more on how statistics could be applied to stress corrosion cracking data. We looked through about a hundred more recent magazine articles and books, and eventually wrote about over thirty of them. At the 1984 National Association of Corrosion Engineers meeting I presented our Corrosion 84 Paper #214, Statistical Methods for Treatment of Sulfide Stress Cracking Data.  

Later the National Bureau of Standards was renamed the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The descendant of Mary Natrella’s cookbook is the free, online NIST/Sematech Engineering Statistics Handbook. It has eight chapters on how to explore, measure, characterize, model, improve, monitor, and compare, and also discusses reliability.

The U.S. Navy image of a hearing test came from here at Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Have you met Fred?

If you met Fred Riggers, you wouldn’t forget that friendly, gray-haired, smiling little man with a white cane and dark glasses. He is is one of Boise’s memorable characters. On March 13th the Idaho Statesman had an article on their front page titled Fred knows the statehouse. It originally had appeared in the Lewiston Tribune on February 28th, and has also been reprinted by the Idaho Press Tribune. When the legislature is in session, you’ll find Fred hanging out there:

“Lawmakers weren't sure what to make of him. He didn't lobby them and didn't represent any organizations - and he had that white cane - so many just ignored him.

‘I had a terrible time the first year, year and a half,’ Riggers said. ‘When you're disabled, people shun you. But I kept trying.’

One day he was standing at a crosswalk, coming back from lunch, when a senator stopped next to him. The light turned green and he crossed the road. On the other side the senator asked how he knew when it was safe to walk.

‘I used you as my guide dog,’ Riggers replied.

Once he stopped laughing, the senator started talking to Riggers. After that, lawmakers approached him more often, knowing he didn't want anything - except maybe to talk.”

My first encounter with Fred was at a Toastmasters District 15 Conference. He’s been legally blind for a decade but still can see shapes and identify people. Fred was greeting the attendees, and making them feel welcome. I saw him again at a Leadership Institute where he was teaching the class on filling  the club Sergeant at Arms role.

As a child near Nezperce in north central Idaho, Fred learned to deal with having diabetes. He was a farmer and grew wheat and barley. After about six decades his vision began to fail, so he and his wife moved down to Boise. In July 2006 Fred spoke at the Annual Seminar of the Diabetes Action Network. Part of that speech became an article titled Big Attitude, Better Life: How One Blind Farmer Dominated Diabetes.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Honestly, did Abraham Lincoln really say that?

150 years ago Abraham Lincoln signed the bill that made Idaho a territory. To celebrate that anniversary (a sesquicentennial) the Senate auditorium in the State Capitol was renamed after Lincoln. A plaque containing the following brief quote attributed to him was mounted outside the entrance:

“There is both a power and a magic in public opinion. To that let us now appeal.”

An Associated Press story noted that quote is somewhat suspicious since it came from the 1856 Lost Speech (about slavery), so called because it wasn’t written down at the time. A disputed account of it emerged much later. The story noted that only half the phrases allegedly from Lincoln can be substantiated.

I found an 1897 booklet of that speech with slightly different wording for its conclusion (on page 55). When you include the rest, it sounds much more crusading:  

“There is both a power and a magic in popular opinion. To that let us now appeal; and while, in all probability, no resort to force will be needed, our moderation and forbearance will stand us in good stead when, if ever, WE MUST MAKE AN APPEAL TO BATTLE AND TO THE GOD OF HOSTS!!”

Earlier in his speech (on page 23) Lincoln reportedly also said that:

“We live in the midst of alarms; anxiety beclouds the future; we expect some new disaster with each newspaper we read. Are we in a healthy political state? Are not the tendencies plain? Do not the signs of the times point plainly the way in which we are going?”

The March 1865 photo of Lincoln came from the Library of Congress.  

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Is that a true story or just a fairy tale?

The last story in Chapter 16 of Paul Smith’s book Lead with a Story (on how to Build Courage) is the title story from Richard Feynman’s book What Do You Care What Other People Think? Paul did a good job of condensing it while keeping the main point intact. But, I was appalled at how his introduction for it got what happened wrong. Here is what he said on page 146 (which you can find at Google Books):

“Feynman was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist known in scientific circles almost as much for his sarcastic wit and bongo playing as for his brilliant science. Publically he was a bold character remembered for his defining role in the investigation of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Characteristic of Feynman, he refused to go along with the prescribed inquiry arranged for him and the other 11 congressionally appointed investigators. His unapproved conversations with NASA engineers led to the correct conclusion that the cause of the shuttle disaster was a tiny rubber O-ring on the fuel line. During the congressional panel - unannounced - Feynman flamboyantly illustrated his theory by pulling a similar O-ring out of his glass of ice water and throwing it on the dais, shattering it in front of hundreds of journalists and television cameras. Apparently, the temperature on the morning of takeoff was well below that of any previous shuttle launch. Too cold, in fact, for the rubber O-ring to maintain its flexibility, causing it to shatter under pressure.”

First, the O-ring wasn’t on the fuel line. Instead it was on a field joint between two segments of the solid-fuel booster rocket. Second, that O-ring wasn’t tiny. Its cross-section was a circle with a diameter of about a quarter of an inch, and it had an outside diameter of about twelve feet. The O-ring thus contained about 21.8 cubic inches of rubber, or roughly 1-1/2 cups.

Third, the story of what Feynman did in front of the panel was way off. Feynman’s book tells what happened in another chapter titled The Cold Facts. The Associated Press obituary for him also has a clear description:

“Officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration initially played down any possibility that cold weather impaired the resiliency of O- ring seals on the shuttle's booster rockets, thus allowing burning fuel to erode through the rings to cause the fatal blast.

But at a recess during the commission's hearings in February 1986, Feynman showed O-ring resiliency was sharply reduced by cold. He compressed a piece of rubber-like O-ring material with a simple clamp, dropped it into a glass of ice water, pulled it out and released the O-ring piece, demonstrating that it lacked any resiliency for a few seconds.

'’I believe this has some significance for our problem,'’ he said.

The commission agreed in its final report, concluding Florida's pre-launch freeze contributed to an O-ring failure that caused the accident.”

You even can watch a thirty-second Youtube video here.

Where did Paul Smith get the fairy tale with the shattered O-ring? I looked around on Google Books and was surprised to find several incorrect versions written down.

The story closest to his comes from page 156 of Patti Digh’s 2010 book, Creative is a Verb:

“During the hearings, many engineers and scientists testified exhaustively on their findings about the composition and construction of the O-rings on the Challenger, to no conclusive finding. This went on for some time until one day Feynman took a model of the O-ring, put it in his glass of ice water, left it momentarily, then extracted and shattered it on the table, demonstrating the failure of the O-rings due to freezing temperatures in Florida at launch time, leading to the terrible tragedy in 1986. Sometimes simple works.”

William E. Burrows’s 2010 book, This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age, says on page 558 that:

“At one point Feynman publicly dropped a sample of the O-ring rubber into his glass of ice water and then easily snapped it in two to dramatically demonstrate that it had become brittle.”

Some other versions involve a hammer. For example, page 989 of the 2011 book College Physics, Volume 2 by Raymond A. Serway and Chris Vuille says:

“Later he served on the commission investigating the Challenger tragedy, demonstrating the problem with the space shuttle’s O-rings by dipping a scale-model O-ring in his glass of ice water and then shattering it with a hammer.”

Two other versions use different, more exotic fluids. Margaret Wertheim’s 2011 book, Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything, says that:

“Those old enough to remember will recall how he dropped a rubber O-ring into a beaker of dry ice and water, causing the O-ring to shatter and thereby explaining how the spacecraft had failed.”

Hartmut Janocha’s 1999 book, Adaptronics and Smart Structures: Basics, Materials, Design, and Applications, claims instead on page 407 that:

“Richard Feynman performed his now famous experiment, shattering an O-ring after immersing it in liquid nitrogen to illustrate the point.”

What can we learn about storytelling and speechwriting by reading these fairy tale descriptions of an event that was well covered by television and newspaper reporters? Relying on our memories of events isn’t good enough. When possible, we should go back to a transcript of what was recorded if we want to tell a true story. Fairy tales should begin with a phrase like “once upon a time.”

Your credibility goes right down the toilet when you claim you’re telling a true story, but instead just are reciting a fairy tale. 

An image of Red Riding Hood came from the Library of Congress.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Lead with a Story - a brief review of Paul Smith’s book

I just finished reading his excellent book, Lead with a Story. It’s an impressive guide to storytelling for business that contains over a hundred stories for 21 situations, spread over 30 chapters. These stories are hundreds rather than thousands of words long. At the end of each chapter there is both a summary and notes. 

Chapter 7 discusses the structure of a story, as Context, Action, and Result. The example is how Titleist, who had been marketing to golf pros, introduced another ball design aimed at recreational golfers. It wouldn’t travel as far as their pro designs, but also wouldn’t veer off as far from a straight path. Paul presents three versions of that story, each clearer than the previous one. 

Ten of the stories are referred to in the Leadership Story Series linked to on Paul’s blog. For example, #7 (from Chapter 27, Sales is everyone’s job) tells why The best sales coach in your company probably works in the purchasing department.

Chapter 16 is titled Build Courage. It opens with a story that’s also in the leadership story series, as #5 Failing all the way to success. That man lost his mother when he was only nine. At 22 the company he worked for went bankrupt, and he lost his job. Then he started a business that failed when he was 24, and spent several years paying off the debt. At 26 he was engaged to be married, but his fiance died before the wedding. He plunged into a deep recession and had a nervous breakdown. Twice he ran for the U.S. Senate, but he lost both times. At age 51, after a lifetime of failure, disappointment, and loss he was elected President. His name was Abraham Lincoln.

The last story in Chapter 16 is the title story from Richard Feynman’s book What Do You Care What Other People Think? I was amazed to see how Paul Smith’s introduction for it  got parts of what happened completely wrong. But, that’s another story I’ll tell in my next blog post. Stay tuned!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Is “so” the new “um”?

Yesterday, in her Knockout Presentations Blog, Diane DiResta posted that There’s a New “Um” in Town. She claimed to have recently discovered that the new filler word creeping into our presentations is the word “so.”

I’m always suspicious about “recent” discoveries. This one didn’t seem very recent to me. So, I looked around on Google to find how far back others had noticed and discussed that filler word.

A web page on Public Speaking (Model UN Preparation) that’s apparently from back on  April 8, 2005 says in a paragraph about Public Speaking Tips to:

“Eliminate unnecessary ‘filler’ words: Fillers are words and phrases such as ‘umm,’ ‘well,’ ‘sort of,’ and ‘like’. These words take away from the message you are trying to convey. Some additional fillers to avoid are ‘so,’ ‘you know,’ ‘I think,’ ‘just,’ and ‘uh’.”

It also was mentioned on February 7, 2007 by Yvonne Perry, on May 19th, 2008 by Gilda Bonanno, and on May 5, 2009 by Dana Bristol Smith. It also was discussed back in 2007 in a guide for the Ah Counter by a Toastmasters club.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Finding a spicy speech topic

On March 3rd Rate Speeches issued a press release about their second-generation Public Speaking Topics Generator, which now contains a database with 7000 topics and more than 230,000 subtopics. Using it is free, and does not require login or registration. It’s worth keeping in mind for when our imagination goes blank. 

For example, let’s try their Demonstration Speech Topics Generator. The default setting will deliver 5 topics, which on our first try are:

Cranberry Juice

That’s not bad for a start!  For some topics we can click to expand and show subtopics. If we expand on potatoes (a very popular topic here in Idaho) we will see:

How to peel potatoes
How other cultures peel potatoes
Comparison of potatoes with other vegetables
How other cultures or countries cook potatoes
Physical description of potatoes
How to plant and grow potatoes
How to prepare or cook potatoes

We might choose how to prepare or cook potatoes, and then go over to the Idaho Potato Commission web site to find some sage advice on baking potatoes. (In this state there is no comparison between potatoes and other vegetables - that’s just heresy). Or, we might decide instead to talk about spices.

There is also a list of Speech Outline Templates we could download as Microsoft Word (.docx) files with different levels ranging from the simplest (subpoint level) to absurdly detailed (sub-sub-sub-subpoint level).

Monday, March 4, 2013

Naked Statistics and surveys

This year Charles Wheelan, who teaches public policy and economics at Dartmouth College, wrote a book titled Naked Statistics: stripping the dread from the data. I saw a favorable review of it by Stephen Few, and got a copy from my friendly local public library. I immensely enjoyed reading it. Mr. Wheelan does an excellent job of providing memorable examples to explain his points. Here’s my version of his example from the second chapter on descriptive statistics. 

Suppose up in Seattle there is a row of ten stools in a neighborhood bar. Nine of them are occupied by patrons watching a football game. Purely by accident they are sitting precisely in order of their annual incomes, which are:


Their incomes could be described either by the mean (average) or the median (middle value), both of which are $35,000. Now Bill Gates walks in (with a talking parrot on his shoulder), and he sits down on the empty stool at the right. Bill’s income is $1 billion a year. What happens to those statistics when we include him? The median (middle) is unchanged - it still is $35,000, but the mean now is around $91 million. Using the mean here is formally correct, but grossly misleading. 

Chapter 10 on polling (surveys) is subtitled How we know that 64 percent of Americans support the death penalty (with a sampling error of +- 3 percent). He asks three important questions regarding surveys. The first is:

“Is this an accurate sample of the population whose opinions we are trying to measure?”

For example, if we are trying to get a random sample of adults, we might only call each randomly selected phone number just once and during the day. Who will we get? Old people, the unemployed, and lonely types who like to answer random phone calls.  Interviewers for serious polls instead will try to reach each phone number multiple times in both day and evening.

Back in Chapter 7 on The Importance of Data Mr. Wheelan mentioned the classic example where a huge but nonrandom sample provided wildly incorrect data. The Literary Digest magazine polled ten million prospective voters for the 1936 presidential election. Their poll was mailed to their subscribers, and to automobile and telephone owners. They predicted that Alf Landon would get 57% of the popular vote and defeat Franklin Roosevelt. But, their subscribers and owners of automobiles or telephones were wealthier than average. Instead Roosevelt won 60% of the popular vote. Similarly, college students (mostly sophomores) taking Introduction to Psychology or Introduction to Public Speaking probably aren’t a random sample of adults.  

If only a small proportion (say less than 25% of those contacted) completed the poll, there may also be sampling bias. For example, the NACE Job Outlook 2013 Survey I blogged about on February 25th only had a 25.2% response rate. Their 2011 survey, had just a 20.7% response rate. 

His second question is:

“Have the questions been posed in a way that elicits accurate information on the topic of interest?”

Opinion about the “inheritance tax” may differ from that about the “death tax.”

His third question is:

“Are respondents telling the truth?”

If you asked a sample of couples how many times a day (or a week) they had sex, you might not get an accurate answer. Similarly, if you asked men to report their penis length, you could expect to see inflated numbers. 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

I read it in a book, so it must be true

What possibly could be worse than using a quote that is two-decades old, and now is a tired cliche? How about getting that quote wrong.

Page 504 of Geoff Tibballs’ 2004 collection, The Mammoth Book of Zingers, Quips, and One-Liners, contains the following:

“A recent survey stated that the average person’s greatest fear is having to give a speech in public. Somehow this ranked even higher than death, which was third on the list. So, you’re telling me that at a funeral, most people would rather be the guy in the coffin than have to stand up and give a eulogy. - Jerry Seinfeld”

That quote was used by speech coach Harrison Monarth in an article from 2006 that was reposted last year, and also appears on the searchQuotes and Quote Collection web sites.

But, Jerry never really said that. If he had, then his nemesis Newman would have asked:

“Jerry - what was second on the list?”

What Jerry Seinfeld actually said on his TV show in 1993 was shorter and funnier:

“According to most studies, people’s number-one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. ‘Death’ is number two! Now, this means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

You can watch it on YouTube here, or see the later version from a DVD here. Whether you read it in a book, saw it in a newspaper, or saw it on the web in an article or a tweet, it just might not be true. Always look it up first, or you might spread nonsense around.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Does your speaking voice sound like a little girl?

On February 19th Laura Bergells blogged about What no one will tell you: your voice is distracting. She described a presentation where a woman speaker had a high, squeaky “Betty Boop” voice. Her delivery interfered with her message. 

Her post reminded me of a story my father told me when I was twelve, about one of his friends, a distinguished metallurgical engineer who unfortunately had a high-pitched voice for a man (and who I’ll refer to as John Jones).

Once John answered the telephone at dinner time and was asked, “May I speak with Mr. John Jones?” He replied “This is he.” The other party said, “No, I meant MISTER Jones, not Mrs. Jones. This is Western Union calling.”  Exasperated, he proclaimed something stronger than, “Gosh Darnit to Heck, this is Mr. Jones!” Then that person began to sing Happy Birthday to him, because he’d had been sent a singing telegram to celebrate that holiday.

When I was a senior in high school, John visited us. The technical story he told was so fascinating that I stopped noticing his voice pitch.

John told us about selecting materials for the teeth on the bottom of the scoop to a front end loader or bulldozer. Those teeth have to handle both sand and rocks. Sand is abrasive and will rub and wear away material. Repeatedly hitting rocks causes cracking at the surface, and the cracks can grow inward until a tooth breaks off.  An obvious solution to abrasive wear from the sand would be to make the teeth harder, so they would wear out less rapidly.

But if that’s all that is changed, then you just switch failure modes. The impact fatigue cracks were not a problem before because they grew so slowly that they just were worn away. When you just increase the hardness, the cracks can grow faster until the teeth now can break off rather than wear out. So, before you can raise the hardness, you need to change the impact fatigue behavior. 

John’s wife had another vocal problem. She enjoyed singing but was quite tone deaf. One rainy April day, her seven kids were in the basement family room. They were marching around in a circle, pretending that they were riding carved wooden horses on a carousel (or Merry-Go Round). She was providing the music by singing. Finally the youngest daughter could no longer stand it and piped up:

“Mommy, please stop singing. You’re making my horse sick!”

My siblings and I used the euphemism “making my horse sick” many times to friends, and we told them the story behind it.

The image of a little girl came from the Library of Congress. Images of the front end loader and wooden horses came from Wikimedia Commons.