Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sorry, but Zero Gravity Day just is an old April Fool’s Day joke

Over on News Hound Sarah Morris posted an extremely silly article titled April 4th 2014 Planetary Alignment Decreases Gravity - Float for 5 Minutes! #Zerogday. She absurdly claimed that:

“...if you jump in the air at 9:47 AM local time on April 4th 2014, it should take you about 3 seconds to land back on your feet instead of the usual 0.2 seconds.”

Sarah claimed this had been revealed by the British astronomer Patrick Moore. Well, sort of. Ten seconds of research at Wikipedia will show you that Patrick Moore died back on December 9, 2012. He’s pushing up daisies, and is not revealing anything.

I read about this silly article on Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog, in a post he titled: No, April 4, 2014 is NOT “Zero G Day.” No.

When you look on either Snopes or at the Museum of Hoaxes you’ll find the nonsense just was an April Fool’s Day joke done by Patrick Moore way back in 1976! It has been popping up again ever since.

If you stay on the News Hound page for a while you will get a pop-up ad saying to:

“Please Share This Page
We rely on word of mouth. 
Take a moment to share this with your friends (on Facebook).”

Please don’t share it! It's absolute rubbish!

The image of Clayton Anderson floating while on the International Space Station is from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Survey by Molly Maid found that 44% of U.S. homeowners would rather speak in front of a large group than clean their home

On March 26th a cleaning company based in Ann Arbor Michigan issued a press release titled Molly Maid Survey Reveals Majority of Homeowners Won’t Spring Clean. Their survey of over 2000 people also redundantly reported that rather than clean their home 44% would rather speak in front of a large group, and 30% would rather go on a six-hour car ride with their in-laws.

Why did I say redundantly? Because, as shown above in a bar chart, 93% said they would rather do anything else than clean their home. That’s an impressive level of disdain!  The Molly Maid Anonymous Cleaning Confessions Survey was done on SurveyMonkey from February 5th to 14th. Apparently no one said that they’d rather eat a bowl of dog food than clean, or that there was nothing they’d rather do than clean, since they love cleaning.

The 1870 image of a young housekeeper and her mother dusting the parlor came from the Library of Congress.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Learning to Recognize Fallacies and Bad Arguments

When you write a speech, you should avoid logical fallacies and other bad arguments. Wikipedia has a page with a long List of Fallacies. Also, last January I blogged about An Infographic Showing Rhetorical Fallacies.

Recently online I found An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi, which has amusing cartoons about this serious topic.

Five bad arguments came up before the last presidential election, as was discussed by Scott Neuman in A Guide to Spotting Pretzel Logic on the Campaign Trail. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney graduated from the Harvard Law School, so their campaigns also should have known better.

In March 2008 Paul Graham posted an essay on How to Disagree that listed a hierarchy which was linked to by the CreateDebate blog and illustrated  with a pyramid, as shown above.

The image of two arguing men was derived from an old Federal Art Project poster about More Courtesy

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Turducken Infographic from the Idaho Statesman

The front page of last Sunday’s Idaho Statesman had an article titled Idaho colleges aim for higher tuition, again with a curious infographic. It both tabulated and plotted how tuition at Boise State University increased 79 percent from $3,520 in 2003 to $6,292 in 2013. That data is shown above in a conventional line chart, with the y-axis starting from zero, which is an honest way of plotting.

The Statesman decided white space on their front page was too valuable to waste, so they instead cut off the bottom of their graphic just below $3000. Why did I call it a turducken? A turducken is a 3-in-1 deboned fowl mashup consisting of a chicken stuffed inside a duck, stuffed inside a turkey.    

Their graphic plotted the data as a blue line chart, with the value for each blue-circled  data point labeled beside it. Beneath the values for even-numbered years are orange bars, and beneath the values for odd-numbered years are tan bars.

So, first their graphic is equivalent to a table (the chicken). Second, it’s a tiger-striped bar chart (the duck). Third, it’s a line chart (the turkey). It’s clever, but somewhat misleading.

The Misleading Graph page at Wikipedia says that one with a Y-axis that doesn’t start at zero is a truncated or torn graph.

On page 56 of Edward Tufte’s book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (2nd edition, 2001) he states two principles of graphical integrity:

“The representation of numbers, as physically measured on the surface of the graphic itself, should be directly proportional to the numerical quantities represented.

Clear, detailed, and thorough labeling should be used to defeat graphical distortions  and ambiguity. Write out explanations of the data on the graphic itself. Label important events in the data.”

On the next page Tufte defines a Lie Factor:

“Lie Factor = (size of effect shown in graphic)/(size of effect in data)”

and says if the Lie Factor is less than 0.95 or greater than 1.05 the graphic isn’t accurately representing the underlying numbers. The Stateman’s truncated graphic has a Lie Factor of about 0.57, which is pretty misleading.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Crimeria? Really?

On his early-morning 580 KIDO AM talk show today I heard Kevin Miller repeatedly refer to Vladimir Putin and the Russian Army having taken over Crimeria. I was both amused and appalled by his lack of preparation.

Crimeria might exist somewhere in a Batman comic book. Perhaps it’s where they lost the War on Crime. But, Crimea is real. From 1853 to 1856 there was a Crimean War that included the Battle of Balaclava and the Charge of the Light Brigade. Getting the name wrong is a credibility destroyer.

Balaclava later became a common term referring to a type of headgear. I hope Kevin just calls that a ski mask, rather than a bataclava.

The balaclava image came from Per Erik Strandberg at Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

YouGov survey of British adults found they most commonly were very afraid of heights, snakes, public speaking, spiders, and being closed in a small space

On March 20, 2014 YouGov plc posted an article by William Jordan titled Afraid of Heights? You’re Not Alone with the results of their fears survey just done in Britain on a sample of 2088 adults (1075 women and 1013 men). Those people were asked about the following 13 different fearful situations:

Being in a closed space

Flying in an airplane
Needles and getting shots
Public speaking

They were asked if they were:

A) Not afraid at all
B) Not really afraid
C) A little afraid
D) Very afraid

Results for Very Afraid are shown above in a bar chart. (Click on it for a larger, clearer view). The top five fears are:

Heights (23%)
Snakes (21%)
Public speaking (20%)
Spiders (18%)
Being closed in a small space (14%)

For Very Afraid, women and men have rather different fears, as shown above in a second bar chart. For women the top five fears are:

Snakes (28%)
Public speaking (27%)
Heights (26%)
Spiders (25%)
Being closed in a small space (19%)

For men the top five fears [and difference re women] are:

Heights (21%) [-5]
Snakes (14%) [ -14]
Public speaking (13%) [-14]
Spiders (12%) [-13]
Being closed in a small space (10%) [-9 ]

Heights came in first, followed by snakes. Note that public speaking came in third overall, and second for both women and men, contradicting the often seen claim that it always ranks first. At least twice as many women as men were scared of snakes, public speaking, spiders, mice, and darkness.    

Results for A Little Afraid are shown above in a third bar chart. The top five fears are:

Public speaking (36%)
Heights (35%)
Snakes (31%)
Being closed in a small space (29%)
Spiders (24%)

For A Little Afraid, women and men also have rather different fears, as shown above in a fourth bar chart. For women the top five fears are:

Heights and Public speaking, tied (37%)
Being closed in a small space (33%)
Snakes (28%)
Spiders (27%)
Crowds and Mice, tied (22%)

For men the top five fears [and difference re women] are:

Public speaking (35%) [-2]
Snakes (34%) [6]
Heights (33%) [-4]
Being closed in a small space (24%) [-9 ]
Spiders (21%) [-6]

At least twice as many women as men were scared of crowds, mice, and darkness.

We also can add the percentages for A Little Afraid to those for Very Afraid to produce impressively large percentages for Total Afraid, as shown above in a fifth bar chart. Now the top five fears are:

Heights (58%)
Public speaking (56%)
Snakes (52%)
Being closed in a small space (43%)
Spiders (42%)

For Total Afraid, women and men also have rather different fears, as shown above in a sixth bar chart. For women the top five fears are:

Public speaking (64%)
Heights (63%)
Snakes (56%)
Being closed in a small space and Spiders, a tie (52%)
Mice (34%)

For men the top five fears [and difference re women] are:

Heights (54%) [-9]
Public speaking and Snakes, a tie (48%) [-16 and -8]
Being closed in a small space (34%) [-18 ]
Spiders (33%) [-19]
Needles and getting shots (26%) [2]

At least twice as many women as men were scared of mice, and darkness. As the article noted, the largest gender difference [19%] was for Spiders, a third (33%) for men versus more than half (52%) for women.

The article presented just one stacked bar chart with overall percentages, but provided a link to tables with detailed results. I’ve just discussed gender, but also could have shown age and geographical region. 

The image of a high London Eye Ferris wheel cabin is from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Microwave telescope down at the South Pole finds gravitational waves from the Big Bang

On Monday March 17th something spectacular in science was announced. A readable description appears in a New York Times article titled Space Ripples Reveal Big Bang’s Smoking Gun. A web page on the Nature magazine web site said that Telescope Captures View of Gravitational Waves.

A large team led by John M. Kovacs announced that their little BICEP2 microwave telescope at the South Pole had found a signal consistent with inflationary gravitational waves. (BICEP is an acronym for Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization). You can read the draft of their magazine article here. They concluded:

 “....The power spectrum results are perfectly consistent with lensed-ΛCDM with one striking exception: the detection of a large excess in the BB spectrum in exactly the l range where an inflationary gravitational wave signal is expected to peak. This excess represents a 5.2σ excursion from the base lensed- ΛCDM model.

....The long search for tensor B-modes is apparently over, and a new era of B-mode cosmology has begun.”

This is a cool experiment, both figuratively and literally. National Geographic has a web page about why The South Pole is a Great Place to View Space. The air temperature at the pole averages -72 degrees Fahrenheit, or 215 Kelvin (where zero Kelvin is absolute zero, as cold as you can get). The telescope is cooled by liquid helium down to 4 Kelvin, but at the focal plane the detector is refrigerated even further to only 0.27 Kelvin.

There are lots of people and stories behind this discovery. (The magazine article lists 47 authors). One Caltech web page is titled Building BICEP2: A Conversation with Jamie Bock. He mentions the late Andrew E. Lange. The last sentence in the magazine article draft is:

“We dedicate this paper to the memory of Andrew Lange, whom we sorely miss.”  

The image of ripples is from Roger McLassus at Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Where will you find the toughest audience for a speech?

An article in the June 3, 1912 issue of an Australian newspaper, The Colac Herald, titled Speech Fright in the House of Commons and subtitled The Most Chilling Audience in the World ended with this zinger about that London venue:

“A better known story of a Parliamentary fiasco is perhaps that of Joseph Addison, who opened his maiden speech with the words, ‘Mr. Speaker, I conceive.’ Here he came to a full stop, only to begin again in a louder tone, as if to stimulate his courage, ‘I conceive, Mr. Speaker.’ Again came a horrible pause, broken by ironical cheers. ‘Sir, I conceive,’ he resumed - this time in a still louder voice; whereupon the House burst into such shrieks of laughter that Addison in disgust plumped down in his seat. When the laughter had subsided, a waggish member rose, and with a solemn face and grave voice, said, ‘Sir, the honourable Member has conceived three times and brought forth nothing.‘ “ 

A vintage image of the House of Commons came from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Telling a big story - Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Last Sunday evening Fox showed the first episode of a stunning new television series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. It is a fitting update to the 1980 series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage that was hosted by Carl Sagan. I’m looking forward to seeing the other dozen episodes. As shown above, it told how our planet fits into the six levels of a cosmic address.

Like the earlier series, it uses a Cosmic Calendar to compress the 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang into a single year. On this time scale civilization only came along in the last day of the year, just a few seconds ago.

The new series is hosted by Neil Degrasse Tyson, who is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. Near the end of the episode Neil brought things down to a human scale.He talked about back when he was a 17 year old high school student from the Bronx. Neil told the story of how on a snowy Saturday back in 1975, Carl Sagan picked him up at the bus station in Ithaca, New York, showed him around his lab at Cornell University, and gave him an autographed book. Then Carl gave him his home phone number, and said that if the bus back to New York City can’t get through, call me and you can stay overnight at my home.   

On March 11th Garr Reynolds blogged about More storytelling lessons from Cosmos.

On February 27th Neil Degrasse Tyson was interviewed by National Public Radio. I was impressed by Neil’s description of preparing to appear on the Comedy Central TV program, The Daily Show, with Jon Stewart. Neil was asked when he realized that he had a gift for communicating with people about science. He replied:

“People call it a gift, and that implies you sit there and someone hands it to you. I want to encourage people to not think in terms of gifts, but think in terms of ‘wow, you work hard to succeed at that’, because that’s exactly what I do.

For an example, before my first interview on Jon Stewart. You know, that’s a tough interview right there, alright because he’s brilliant and he’s laden with pop culture referencing. And so, I said to myself, if I’m going to have a successful interview with Jon Stewart, I want to study how he talks to his guests.

So, I sat there and I timed how long he lets you speak before he comes in with some kind of wisecrack, or a joke and what’s the average time interval of that. Is it a minute, ninety seconds, thirty seconds? And, I would create a rhythm in the parceling of the information I would deliver to him, so that a complete thought would come out, so that when he does interrupt there’s a complete thought and then a fun joke, and then there’s a resonance to that so then you can move on. Yeah! No, it’s not a gift, I work at it.”

Watch two clips from The Daily Show about the fossil record and a meteor explosion and Buzzkill of Science. In the first one Neil deadpans that:

“The universe has always been trying to kill us.”

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

What’s the ugliest part of your body?

On February 24th TODAY described the results of their Ideal to Real Body Image Survey done with AOL. You can download their 17-page report here.

Page 3 of the report has detailed stacked bar charts showing how much time we spend each day on our appearance. Averages are summarized above with a plain bar chart. (Click on it to see a larger, clearer version). For the description they decided that larger numbers were appropriate, so they switched to hours per week, displayed on 12-hour circular clock-face charts, which easily can be confused with more common pie charts.

Then they decided they wanted a really Startling Headline, so they described things in terms of weeks per year, and found that adult women spend almost exactly two weeks per year on their appearance. It’s really  just 55 minutes per day, which is slightly less than an hour. But, going to an annual basis makes it seem huge. Of course, we also could make it even larger by multiplying by the number of adult women in the U.S. population, as I discussed back in September 2012 in a post about Is 540 million minutes per day a large number or a small number?      

Page 6 of the report has a table about our obsessions, with very different answers by women and men who were asked:

“Which parts of your body/appearance are you likely to worry or obsess over?”

I have displayed these results in a bar chart with the women’s 23 percentages shown in decreasing order.

For women the top five were:

1. Stomach (69%)
2. Skin (40%)
3. Thighs (36%)
4. Natural hair (32%)
5. A three-way tie between Butt, Cellulite, and Gray hair (all at 29%)

For men the top five were:

1. Stomach (52%)
2. Thinning hair (24%)
3. Skin (23%)
4. Gray hair (21%)
5. Facial hair (20%)

Both women (69%) and men (52%) worry most about their stomachs.  Note that thinning hair (24%) was ranked second by men, but only 17th by women (18%). 

The title for this post came from an old Frank Zappa song which had a different answer:

“...What’s the ugliest part of your body?
Some say your nose, some say your toes,
I think it’s your mind, your mind.”

The self-portrait by Zinaida Serebriakovа came from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Review of The Essentials of Persuasive Public Speaking by Sims Wyeth

In January, Sims Wyeth’s book The Essentials of Persuasive Public Speaking was published. I’ve enjoyed reading his blog, so when I saw that little book on the new books shelves at the Boise Public Library I grabbed it.You can read a preview of the first fifty pages at I enjoyed reading this book, and think many would learn from savoring it.

His text is organized into seven sections: Introduction, The Power of Speech, Preparation, Delivery, Design and Use of Visual Aids, Special Occasions, and Epilogue. The Introduction is just two pages long, and the Epilogue is three. Otherwise each page covers a topic briefly via a few very carefully chosen words.

This book can best be enjoyed a page at a time, like unwrapping and eating a piece of good chocolate candy. Don’t try to gobble it down like a foot-long Quizmos or Subway sandwich. Two examples included in the Amazon preview are:


When I was a child in Katonah, New York, I had a recurring dream that I stood atop the Cross River Dam and said powerful and eloquent things to people off in the distance.

The dream foretold my future. I became an actor and spoke the poetry of Shakespeare before becoming a professor of theater and then a consultant to business leaders.

Thaeter and business have something in common. In both, you get paid for for your performance. And those who get paid the most are endowed, or acquire through study and experience, the ability to create in others the willing suspension of disbelief.

That, in a nutshell, is the job of the actor and the business speaker.


Were I to add an ‘&’ between my mifddle and last names, I would become Marion, Sims & Wyeth, a tripod of a person, more stable and formidable, like a corporation.

The artist Alighiero Boetti did this in 1968 to indicate that he (and you and I) are not single, but multiple selves. He became Alighiro e Boetti (‘e’ is ‘and’ in Italian).

I have terrible stage fright, and it’s probably because I have three selves. My Chicken Little self is terrified of failure and humiliation, my bulldog self believes rehearsal pays off, and my aspirational self yearns to be a spell-binding dynamo.

I get my three selves to talk to one another, so I show up sufficiently scared, well-rehearsed, and aspiring to be great, which generally gets the job done.”

The copyright page says that a previous (and briefer) version of this book had appeared in 2011 with a longer title: A Zen Monk Had Sweaty Palms: Pointers on the Path to Better Public Speaking. The shorter title is more descriptive. (The story about  sweaty palms appears on page 9 of the current book).

When you look up Marion Sims Wyeth on Wikipedia, you’ll find an entry for his architect grandfather. A 2012 memorial tribute for his father “Buz” notes that as a book editor at HarperCollins he once changed the title of a book by Fred Gipson from the prosaic Big Yellow Dog to Old Yeller. I’m old enough to remember that well-known 1956 book and 1957 Disney movie.    

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Stumbling at the start

Page 23 of the January 2014 issue of FeedFront, a magazine for affiliate marketers, had an article by Heather Diamani titled Successful Public Speaking Strategies which began:

“Did you know more people fear public speaking over death? An article published in ‘Psychology Today’ in November of 2012 reported that the number one fear over death was pubic speaking.”

Her first sentence should have asked us if we knew that people allegedly fear death more than they fear public speaking. Heather’s version instead had me thinking of the following illustration by William Blake for Robert Blair’s poem The Grave.

Her proofreading of that second sentence missed an ending with a notorious typo, pubic speaking.

Her second sentence implied there was an article in the November 2012 issue of Psychology Today magazine about fear of public speaking. But, she didn’t give either its title or author. Over at my public library I checked on the Academic Search Premier database, and found there was no November 2012 issue of Psychology Today magazine. The September-October one was Volume 45, Issue 5, and the December 2012 one was Volume 45, Issue 6.

Either a speech or blog post should have a strong opening. Stumbling is not good.

What she referred to turned out to be a blog post by Glenn Croston on November 28, 2012 titled The Thing We Fear More Than Death. It opened by claiming that:

“Surveys about our fears commonly show fear of public speaking at the top of the list.” 

I had commented on Glenn’s post, and asked him what surveys he was talking about, since on October 23, 2012 I’d blogged that Either Way You Look at It, Public Speaking Really is Not Our Greatest Fear. Glenn didn’t bother to reply to my comment.

Glenn’s column on the Psychology Today blog is titled The Real Story of Risk, which is also the title of his 2012 book. I got it from my public library, and found that on page 234 he wrote that:

“For a vast number of people, standing in front of a group to speak is the worst, most nerve-wracking thing they can imagine. The fear can be paralyzing, leading many to avoid doing or saying anything that could draw attention. Maybe this is another odd holdover from those thousands of generations when belonging to the social group was a life-or-death proposition, with people fearing that standing up and speaking may lead to rejection. Today, public speaking is consistently ranked as the greatest fear most people have - ranking higher than the fear of death itself. As Jerry Seinfeld once said, ‘This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.‘ “

There are no footnotes leading to surveys that back up his claim the public speaking is consistently ranked as the greatest fear, just the usual silly Seinfeld quote. That claim is  an ipse dixit - I’m an authority, so you simply must believe what I say. 
The image of stumbling was adapted from an old WPA poster I found at the Library of Congress. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

International Listening Awareness Month just doesn’t mean what it used to

On Alltop Speaking I saw a headline for a blog post by Lou Hampton from 2013 about how March is International Listening Awareness Month. (The International Listening Association cooked it up for marketing their annual convention at the end of the month).

So, we’d expect to find articles about how we should learn to listen better. Lisa B. Marshall had one on How to Improve Listening Skills, and Lou Hampton had one on perceiving that You’re Not Listening to Me!

In the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations about what the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) have been doing, we now would think about being aware that an unwanted outsider might be electronically listening in on our communication.

The woman with radio headphones was adapted from this old Library of Congress image.