Episode 4: Why County Fairs Need Free Ice Cream

I was recently told there’s been a resurgence of interest in county fairs.  You know the kind: local vendors, tons of awesomely bad-for-you food, a Ferris wheel, some animals, tasting hot sauces and these days wine sampling.  There really is something for everyone and I can enjoy the heck out of them (urge for funnel cakes rising).  Seems totally reasonable that their popularity is on the rise.

Of course, as a good denizen of the data world, I can’t leave well enough alone and I just have to ask “How do you know there’s a resurgence?  Heck, what does resurgence even mean?”.  Believe it or not, I got some numbers.  As we know, I live in East Kintertownsylvania (home to the world famous smallest ball of yarn!), and there is one fair held every year.  In 2017 the attendance of the 3 day fair was 12,295 people.  In 2000 the attendance was 8,374.  That’s over a 30% increase, not bad at all.

Is it the whole story, though?  I feel like we’re missing something.  What was it?  Yes, that’s right, what were the East Kintertownsylvania populations at these two periods in time?  Just knowing that some number got bigger over time usually isn’t enough to say it’s better.  I headed to the local courthouse, went into the basement and pulled out all the microfiche (the year 2000 was before the internet, right?) and discovered that the population was 54,291.  Which means, in 2000, about 15% of the population attended the fair.

Jumping forward, I googled the population of East Kintertownsylvania in 2017 and found out it was 76,397.  That’s a fair increase (see what I did there!) over 17 years, but everyone knows a yarn processing center opened up there in 2011 bringing in a lot of new people and businesses.  In 2017 then, the fair attracted 16% of the population, which is just one percent more than in 2000.  Hmmm, not as big of a rise as it seems.

Wait, there’s more.  We know the population went from 54,291 up to 76,397 meaning there was a near 29% increase in people over that time frame.  We know that the fair attendance only went up by 1% (15% vs 16%).  That means fair attendance certainly isn’t growing as fast as the population.  Even if we say attendance should have grown at half the population increase, that’s still an additional 8% on top of our 16% (meaning a total of 24%) which means attendance should have been about 18,000.

Unfortunately, then, fair attendance isn’t growing.  It’s actually declining.  By quite a bit too.  The fair organizers might want to look at ways to get more people.  I’m thinking free ice cream would do it.  Would certainly keep me attending.  Especially if its cookie dough flavored.

This article has a bunch of numbers, but there’s no need to fear them or get frazzled.  I did some simple things, basic percentages and the like.  The important take away is not to just trust some number you are given that might (or might not) show some increase or decrease over time.  If someone says they did checks like these and can provide them, that might be all you need to know the number is sound.  If you see no supporting info, and can’t find any other evidence yourself, then perhaps it’s not worth trusting.  Percentages can be easy to “sniff check” too – you don’t need to do major math (even though all us have high powered calculators in our pockets at all times), it’s pretty simple to just half or quarter a number and see if things look correct-ish.  I also made an assumption of half the population increase should have attended fairs – and I stated it.  Some assumptions aren’t stated.

Definitions are important and I know I said we should find out what “resurgence” even means.  In this case, looks like we don’t have to bother though.  I’m sure it’ll come up in another article.  For now, I need a funnel cake with cookie dough ice cream on top!

Episode 3 : Quick! Hide in that percentage!

Did you know that an astounding 92% of survey respondents said that chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream was the best flavor?  Or that only a mere 11% of people prefer sausage over peperoni as their primary pizza topping.  If you are a fan of cookie dough and peperoni then these numbers look great.  Shout them from the rooftops!

You already know what’s coming next, don’t you?  You’re at least 80% sure I’m about to say “but”.  Well, congratulations, you’re right.

But wait, what do those percentages even mean?  We often see numbers that look fine and seem like they were based on something good.  They’re numbers, right?  Numbers are good, scientific and mathematical things.  Aren’t they?

Percentages are tricky because they often hide what went into producing them.  On the cookie dough survey, just how many respondents were there?  What if there were only 13 respondents and 11 of those liked cookie dough.  While it’s a small group, still most liked cookie dough. Then I tell you the survey was done at the International Chocolate Chip Cookie Festival (wouldn’t that be awesome, by the way!) and you wonder if there was a bit of bias.  You should also be saying, um, 11 divided by 13 is 85%, not 92%, and you’d be right.  I also didn’t mention that one of the respondents said anchovies was the best ice cream flavor – because that person got the surveys confused and I excluded the response as an invalid outlier.  But should I have excluded it?  I never told you what my survey criteria was, or possible responses were, or what I considered valid.  That 92% isn’t looking so credible anymore is it?

The peperoni numbers shared above - let’s say there were 100 respondents (a little bit bigger population) and the question was do you prefer peperoni or sausage on your pizza.  That leaves a nice binary answer, so nothing weird can show up.  And we know that just 11 people checked sausage, so the math works out.  But who did this survey?  When you find out it was sponsored by the Mid Atlantic Peperoni Foundation, then maybe even those nice clean numbers are suspect.  Perhaps they had a bit of bias in who was surveyed.

When you see a nice clean percentage given to you, the first thing you should ask is what are the underlying numbers.  If those aren’t given, then right away it’s a suspect number.  If you see the underlying numbers, then ask if those seem valid?  If it was a survey, were there enough respondents, what was the methodology, were values removed or corrected.    The last big piece is who created the number or commissioned the study.  Who created it might reveal a bias that wasn’t apparent.

Is every percentage you see untrustworthy?  Well, no.  However, you shouldn’t just blindly accept a number without seeing what’s behind it.  There might be more lurking in there than you thought.

Episode 2 : Dr. Evil, Quiz Master

I’ve been working on a new online quiz that will let me guess your favorite brand of headlight fluid.  It’s just a few questions, it’s easy, and you’ll love it. 

Question 1: What is your mother’s maiden name?

Question 2: What hospital were you born in?

Question 3: What is your social security #?

With answers to those 3 simple questions, I can accurately predict that you just love using Brando’s Headlight Fluid.  And rightly so, it is the only brand used by true headlight aficionados.

But wait, you say, I thought I wasn’t supposed to give out my social security #.  Well, you’d be right.  That’s a really bad thing to give out.  Mother’s maiden name, hospital of birth, those are OK, right?  No, definitely not.  Absolutely not, no, no, NO!

You see, routine queries for personal bits of information might seem familiar to you.  These little pearls of personal stuff are often the answers to all the secret questions you created so you can reset your password.  This quiz, and heck, very few of them ever, were meant to provide you with amusement.  They exist only to get you to willingly give up exactly the information needed to hack your accounts.

Some are really nefarious.  All those “Only people from Timbuktwo will know these facts” are just looking for information on you.  Yeah, we often use hometown things as secret questions and answers.  When someone comments on the post, they might mention “Dirty Pig’s Foot was my absolute favorite restaurant growing up” and readily volunteer something it didn’t even ask for.  I’ve seen another that wants to guess your first car, because that’s a regular security question!  And the kicker is it doesn’t even need to guess correctly, many people will comment it was nowhere close, and then write in what their first car was.  That’s some Bugs Bunny level social engineering right there.

All those seemingly silly quizzes where you can find out your fantasy hand model name … they want your birth date, street you grew up on, first pet’s name, best use of a bob haircut, etc.  They all just gather a nice little bundle of information on everyone who uses them.

What can someone do with this?  Pretty simple, go to any kind of service that has a password reset function (especially one that doesn’t send you an automated link or have 2 factor authentication), look at the security questions that come up and see if those answers were already provided somewhere, enter them, reset the password and boom, that person now has your account.

Best thing to do when you see some online quiz? Ignore them.  Simply ignore them.  Maybe they’ll eventually go away and stop plaguing us all.

Episode 1 : Don't Share Your Pizza

You’ve just seen the perfect post, the absolute best news article that aligns precisely with what you believe.  The share button is calling out to you.  You must give this to everyone you know.  But stop.  That’s right, just stop.  I know, that button is so easy to click, but it won’t go anywhere, you’ve got some time to think.

Why is that article you want to share so badly just so perfect?  If you had a check list in your head of things you believe are true about a certain subject, would it check all of them?  If it did and the article gave you nothing to question there might be a reason.  The article may want you to share it.  OK, really, the writer of the article wants you to share, the article itself isn’t conscious and aware (hopefully).  Many articles, posts, blogs, news items and such can get more money for more likes, shares, upvotes, etc.  People are more likely to share things they like and agree with.  And since you likely have friends with similar views and attitudes, that little article can just get all kinds of likes and shares. 

So, you ask, what’s the problem?  Can I share it yet, please?  That article might not have been entirely truthful, or at all truthful in fact.  The author might have written whatever was necessary just to get the piece shared.  For instance, let’s say you like pizza, wish it was a truly healthy, nutritious meal to eat every day and then you come across a report from a very professional science type of place that says they did a study and found that people who ate pizza every day had no greater incidence of health problems than those who didn’t.  Plus, it says those who ate thin crust with peperoni were actually healthier than the control group – I mean, wow, this confirms everything I’ve ever wanted.  I better tell the world!

But was the article real, or are you about to share something either partially or totally fabricated?  Who did the study – is it someone you can look up?  Who paid for it (was it “Big Pizza”)?  Were the results independently verified?  How many people were in the study?  (we’ll talk about study sizes later, but for now just think small numbers = bad) If some or all of these questions are hard to answer, you might be looking at an article that just wants you to share it, with little to no truth or facts to be found.  It might have been perfectly crafted to tick all the right boxes just so it could propagate itself.  But now that you know, you paused, and maybe won’t hit share.  You might even feel like washing your hands.

We’re surrounded by news and media and all manner of things wanting to get our attention.  The people crafting these things are looking for any way to get into our conscious minds.  But telling the real from the fake is getting harder and harder.  Luckily, we can learn, adapt and apply some thinking to help us out and not let these things spread so far.  Don’t worry, it doesn’t involve researching citations or learning statistics!

First tip – if you hear something that perfectly aligns with your own thinking, assume that was intended and ask yourself why.  Someone may just be playing on your own likes to, well, get some likes.