12/04/2008

Consider An Urn

The past couple of days, I've been working with my sister to try and help her make sure she's doing all the statistical analysis that she needs for the final touches of her dissertation. This is not because I'm a statistics genius. It's simply because I've taken a statistics class more recently than she has and so if you say ANOVA I actually can stumble through a basically correct description of what that test does for you. That and I found my stats book was actually really well written, which seems like it ought to be an oxymoron. (Math books are not, as a rule, easy to read.)

All of these statistics, however, have been causing some painful flashbacks. The computer science major I have is from a small liberal arts college and the CS department is a part of the math department. In fact, I believe my class was the first to be able to get a full major in CS rather than a double minor in Math and CS. Even so, I ended up with, essentially, a math minor in order to get the number of "major" courses I needed. All that to say, we took a hoop of math classes in college.

By the time my senior year rolled around, I had only one more math class to take: Probability and Statistics. And this isn't nice, friendly, business statistics. This is mean and ugly math statistics. With Calculus. And all other manner of evil creatures swimming around in the pages. And every single homework problem began: "Consider an urn..."

Frankly, any math class that relies on urns full of marbles for its "real world" examples is already losing me. I didn't then (nor have I since) spent a lot of time contemplating black, red, and white marbles rattling around in urns, Grecian or otherwise.

Regardless, we gave lots of consideration to urns. Tim breezed through this class as if it was basic addition. As did our friend Matt (though honestly, he was a math major, so I really wouldn't have expected otherwise. As I recall, Matt spent most of his time in class doing something with fractals and generally ignoring our professor.) I struggled. And cursed. A lot. For the first few weeks, Tim and I tried to do our homework together so that he could help me. But I rapidly realized that I had a choice to make: I could continue to do homework with Tim or I could marry him. But the latter was not going to happen if the former continued. There is nothing more frustrating (for either party, I think) than having someone attempt to explain whatever mind-boggling formula you've been staring at for the last three hours by starting out with the phrase, "No, it's easy, just consider an urn..."

"Consider an urn" is now something of a catch phrase in our household for understanding things that appear simple but that are, in fact, not.

I spent every hour I had, and some I didn't, prostrate at the feet of my professor (well ok, not really prostrate, but in his office trying to wrap my head around these formulas) and still, when all was said and done, I got a pity C. And it was clearly a pity grade, because averages are something I can calculate and I should have failed. I appreciate him letting me graduate.

Still, it was something of an "Oh crap" moment when I relalized that in the course of my PhD I was going to have to face down stats again. You'll have to imagine the joy that came when I realized that I was going to get to take stats for educators - easy, useful statistics with nary an integral in sight. In fact, the hardest thing we really had to do was figure out what formula in SPSS to choose. Those are statistics I can handle. At least mostly.

Which brings us back to the last few days and how the experience allows me to say that people with PhDs have truly, ahem, urned them.

1 comment:

Lynellen said...

I LOL'd. Tera barked. Peta woke up for a moment. Or maybe that was because of the thumping noise outside. :)

word verification: angshe

I'm SURE that's "statistics angst" in real english.