June 2010


I did a double take when I read today’s email from Affinia Hotels to find this image. Actually, two double takes — one because the page layout made me think I’d hit the landing page of a parked domain, the other because of the image. I puzzled for quite a while wondering what city skyline had those matching buildings. (I’m still not sure. Bostostoston, maybe?)

Wait, make that three double takes. Naturally, I zoomed in to look at the photoshopping more closely, and by golly there it was right there. The creepy Mars face, peeking out from behind the model’s forearm. Look for yourself at the Affinia face and the Mars face, side-by-side, in unretouched (by me, except for the circle) crops, and I think you’ll agree.

AffiniaFace MarsFace

After getting over seeing the Mars face, I took the opportunity to see if Affinia was still playing fast and loose with its promo codes. Not like before, I’m pleased to report. They seem serious and honest about their “Our Best Rate Promise.”

Nonetheless, it still bugs me that their “Best Available Rate,” described here as being the Best Available Rate, is not the best available rate. The best available rate is the “Our Promise Rate.” You have to scroll to find the Our Promise Rate, but it always shows up, whether or not you entered a promo code and whether or not you logged into the site.

Before you get too psyched about the free Flip camera, though, you should realize that the “Flippin’ Summer Getaway” promo is probably not a deal. It’s not dishonest, but it’s not a deal. The details of the non-deal are: if you pay Affinia a high enough rate, then you get the same room you could have gotten for less (maybe a lot less), plus you get a Flip camera, a $10 MetroCard, and a tote bag. Supposed retail value, $180. Cost to you (for various vacation dates at New York’s Affinia 50, the only hotel I priced), at least $130 plus tax (for a two-day stay, the shortest for which the offer is valid), and as much as several hundred.

[Added: It occurs to me that if you’re on an expense account, maybe it is a deal. Your company pays for the room, and you get the camera. Someone with more expense account experience can clue me in.]

I believe this is called marketing, and Affinia is doing it honestly. Some promo codes are non-deals, some are deals. (There are some good ones at RetailMeNot.) I’ve stayed at the Affinia 50 twice, and it was just great both times. Their other properties are probably fine, too, and maybe the Flip promo really is a deal at their other locations. One thing I can guarantee is that you won’t get the panoranoramic view pictured, but you might pack a mirror so you can pretend.

Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, “Affinia promo code” has long been the #1 search term sending visitors to my web site, and I’m happy to be posting something new and relevant. But even if that’s what brought you here, do stay and visit for a while.

Thanks to Edward Tufte, millions of people have seen Charles Minard’s remarkable chart of the French Army’s losses during its Russian campaign in the winter of 1812-13. Minard’s chart is a joy to behold. It’s the acme of data presentation — magnificent, spectacular, inspiring. So it kills me that Gene Zelazny, who wrote the you-know-from-the-title-it’s-bad book “Say it with Charts” FUCKING SHAT ALL OVER MINARD’S LEGACY.

I learned about Zelazny’s desecration here, though Andrew Abela, who reported it, failed to call it that. “Zelazny notes that the graphic is difficult to read, and proposes that there might be better ways to convey the same information.”

Sure, there might be, just like there might be better ways to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but what Zelazny offers is an epic numerical fail, because IT NOT ONLY DEPICTS DIFFERENT (AS IN WRONG) INFORMATION, IT ALSO DEPICTS THE WRONG INFORMATION BADLY (as in we can’t even tell what wrong numbers he wants us to find and what they are supposed to quantify).

Zelazny might as well propose that “there might be better ways to clean up the Gulf of Mexico,” trot out a broken doorknob and a bent bicycle tire, and ask us to wonder with him. Ugh, ugh, ugh. And ugh.

Here are a few of the gory details (of which there can be but few, given how little actual stuff there is in Zelazny’s chart).


Ok, so the spirit levels in the cutesy clipart thermometers don’t match the numbers, only their absolute values (sort of).  But the numbers are wrong, too. Five of Zelazny’s six data points are wrong — misread from Minard’s original. Five out of six. That’s almost all wrong, for those of you who aren’t counting. Badly, differently, and horrifyingly wrong.

Minard reports that there was rain on October 24, and that the temperature was about zero*. Zelazny misread the day of the month (24) as a temperature, then used the only other written figure at that spot on Minard’s chart (8bre, for octobre) for both the month and the day. No explanation short of “Who gives a fuck?” works for this slop.

*Minard’s figures give the Réaumur scale temperature, which detail Minard, lest future readers misconstrue his chart, tells us. Minard cared deeply about communicating. (Zelazny’s figures are wrong in every known temperature scale. He cares less. Much less, like not at all.)

Remarkably or not, almost nothing is correct in Zelazny’s “presentation.” The border between Poland and Russia is misplaced, and all the graphical scales are wrong. I’m no PowerPoint guru, but I assume you have to work very hard to incorporate numbers into a slide this wrongly (as was famously done here, and better).


Even Zelazny’s title is wrong.


Things got bad on the retreat from Moscow. And it’s not clear how many died. Minard charted the number of troops, not deaths. Some who didn’t return were captured. Others may have deserted. And the overall message isn’t “the colder … the more.” The biggest declines were early in the campaign, when the temperatures aren’t given. So the title is all wrong, but hell, IT FIT ON TWO LINES. Shit like this matters. It’s our planet’s fucking history.

Sure, Minard’s correct title (Carte figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l’ Armée Française…, and penned more beautifully than any web typography can be rendered) won’t work projected at WXGA resolution or on your favorite eReader or phone.

THIS IS WHY WE PRINT STUFF ON PAPER. If you don’t have a copy of Minard’s chart, buy yourself one. Fuck, if you’re one of the first five people to ask me, I’ll buy you one.

Now turn off your computer and pick up a beautiful book. Or go to the library. Or write. On paper. Thanks for listening.


Early Wednesday, a new monument slowly rose over St. Petersburg in northern Russia, and tourists and residents alike have flocked to see it. The Moscow Times provided this poetic description of the new attraction:

Measuring 65 meters long and 27 meters across, the light-colored phallus rises and glistens against the imperial-era capital’s elegant skyline when the bridge is drawn up to let ships pass in the twilit northern summer nights.

More at english.pravda.ru: Giant Penis Erects Literally in St. Petersburg Center. Additional photos at Xaxor.com.

Note: This is not the first time a giant penis has aroused attention in one or another St. Petersburg. In 2008, police in St. Petersburg, Florida, responded to a “complaint about a giant penis statue.” The incident ended in the arrest of an art gallery owner for violating a city ordinance that prohibits places that serve alcohol from allowing the public display of genitals. (The genitals of a person found by investigating officers, not the aforementioned statue, prompted the arrest.) According to its owner, the Florida giant penis statue stood “eight” feet tall.

Thanks to Lucinda for passing this on from Sue Katz.

aka Grocery Shopping in 2012

Background image by Ben McLeod, shared under a Creative Commons license.

Dear friend,

It’s disconcerting to see your face in the newspaper and think you were struck by lightning in Ohio and/or that your severed head was found at the airport.


As delighted as I continue to be with all the weird and wonderful things you share with me, I only want to see them on Facebook. Until there’s a way to opt out of Facebook’s Social Plugin (which is not Facebook Instant Personalization, out of which I have already opted), I’ll try to remember to log out of Facebook before I start reading the paper.

Sorry if I’m a little less in touch with what’s important to you, but please keep sharing.

In case you don’t happen to log out of Facebook when you read today’s paper, please be assured that I didn’t change my name to Maureen Forrester and die yesterday.

Your friend,


When a sudden urge for Thai food strikes, I never have all the ingredients on hand. Today I had enough for a try, and the result was pretty good, if not pretty-pretty.


Soup (serves 1 glutton or 4 polite folk)

  • Put into a 5-cup or larger appliance that slow cooks:
      1 lb. chicken tenders, cut in 1" pieces,
      2 small cans sliced mushrooms, drained,
      2-3 fresh shallots, peeled and quartered,
      3 cups water,
      1/2 cup marble-sized potatoes, and
      2 tablespoons tom yum paste.
  • Slow cook (185-190°F) for 60-90 minutes.
  • Stir in:
      1/2 can of coconut milk
      2 frozen kaffir lime leaves, cut into very thin strips, and
      up to 1 tablespoon palm sugar (to taste).
  • Simmer for another 30 minutes.
  • Salt liberally to taste.

  If you have fresh cilantro, chop and add a small handful right before serving. 
  Use whole straw mushrooms instead of button mushrooms, if you have them.
  Boneless breast might do, but my Costco chicken tenders were very tender.
  I’ll leave out the potatoes next time. They didn’t help any.
  Regular or light brown sugar is fine.
  If you want it spicy-hotter, add Vietnamese or Thai chili paste or crushed red peppers. 
  There’s no good substitute for fresh shallots. Onion might do; avoid boxed shallots.
  Don’t use dried kaffir lime leaves, only fresh or frozen, or substitute half a lime’s juice.
  For a low-fat version, leave out the coconut milk and use broth for half the water.
  If you don’t have a slow-cooking appliance, use the stove, but avoid boiling the soup.

Maybe I got lucky with this tom yum paste.


For many years, things have been somewhat more likely to end up looking worse than previously thought than to end up looking better. According to a study released today (Study Sheds Light on Previous Thought), however, the preponderance of things ending up looking worse than previously thought is greater than previously thought and is increasing.

Things that, according to a Google News Archives search on the exact phrase, were or might have been “better than previously thought” in 2010 to date, according to news reports:

  • World energy demand
  • David Hoffman and Cheryle Jackson, in the Illinois primary
  • How well planes can cope with small amounts of ash in the air
  • Canada’s labour market
  • Consumer spending in Japan
  • The outlook for global economic growth
  • The UK economy
  • The US economy
  • The Barbados hockey team
  • The Oregon Ducks
  • How well patients tolerate cancer drugs blocking more than one target
  • How well beta interferon works against MS, for patients who respond to it

Things that, according to a Google News Archives search on the exact phrase, were or might have been “worse than previously thought” in 2010 to date, according to news reports:

  • The magnitude of the Gulf of Mexico oil leak
  • The danger posed by the Gulf oil spill to the US food supply
  • Greece’s debt crisis
  • The side effects of statin drugs
  • Total US job losses during the current recession
  • Ireland’s fiscal crisis
  • California budget numbers
  • The European economy
  • Job losses in Arizona
  • The US economy
  • Destruction from Yemen’s northern war
  • The impact of climate change
  • New York State’s budget hole
  • Britain’s economic downturn
  • The impact of childhood obesity on chronic diseases and life expectancy
  • Eric Abidal’s torn leg muscle
  • Canadian debt
  • The danger from texting while driving [related link]
  • The New Jersey budget crisis
  • Soil and creek contamination from the Oeser Co. wood treatment plant

Before the 1970s, previous thought was rarely challenged. For most of the twentieth century, in fact, it was rarely reported that things were or might be “better than previously thought” or “worse than previously thought.”

On only three occasions between 1900 and 1970 [Source:Google News Archives] did news reports indicate an inaccuracy of previous thought about something in such precise terms. These things were the 1929 English water famine (worse, 1929), treasury conditions (better, 1937), and apple prospects in three Washington State counties after a spring freeze (better, 1965).

Beginning in the 1970s, however, “worse than previously thought” began to appear regularly in the press. By the 1990s, “better than previously thought” had also caught on, and by 2005, “better than previously thought” had become more frequent than “worse than previously thought,” prompting several researchers to project a long-lasting reversal in the direction of error of previous thought.

The study released today, however, shows that between 2005 and 2010, there was a complete reversal of the reversal. The preponderance of “worse than previously thought” over “better” is now the strongest in well over a decade. Adding to the importance of this result is the fact (apparent in the lists above) that less serious things are being noted as “better than previously thought,” while more serious things are noted as “worse.”

Web sites about mathematics should help people understand and appreciate mathematics, not confuse the crap out of them with misinformation. Unfortunately, Wolfram Mathworld does the latter.

Example 1. MathWorld explains here that “The numbers of palindromic numbers less than a given number are illustrated in the plot [below].”


So the left plot tells us that there are about 100 palindromes less than or equal to 20. But there are only 21 nonnegative integers less than or equal to 20, so there can’t be 100 palindromes among them. In fact, there are 11 palindromes less than or equal to 20: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 11. My guess is that the left plot illustrates the n-th palindromic number as a function of n. In any case, it’s not what MathWorld describes.

MathWorld begins its list of the “first few palindromic numbers” with 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 (these 10 numbers are palindromes and are all less than 10), but in the next paragraph, MathWorld states that the number of palindromic numbers less than 10 is 9. There are 9 if you don’t count zero for some strange reason, but if you don’t intend to, give a definition that excludes it (MathWorld’s definition is less than clear), and then don’t list it.

Still confused? Read the Wikipedia article.

Example 2. Pascal’s Triangle shouldn’t be hard to screw up, right? Wrong. Here’s MathWorld’s Pascal’s Triangle:


This triangle needs to go to the shop for an alignment. The numbers are neither lined up in columns nor staggered (the latter being the usual presentation). What are the numbers in the column containing the rightmost 4? What numbers are along the diagonal through the top? (1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 5, 6?) As shown, MathWorld’s anyway-ill-worded “each subsequent row is obtained by adding the two entries diagonally above” is meaningless.

Example 3. In its article on Mersenne numbers (numbers that are one less than a power of two), MathWorld attempts to explain why “[i]n order for the Mersenne number [2n-1] to be prime, n must be prime.” MathWorld’s justification: “This is true since for composite n with factors r and s, n = rs. Therefore, 2n-1 can be written as 2rs-1, which is a binomial number and can be factored.” That’s sloppy to say the least. First, if a composite number n has factors r and s, it’s not necessarily the case that n = rs. Furthermore, the fact that a number can be factored doesn’t prove it’s composite. Every Mersenne number 2n-1 can be factored. It’s just that when n is composite, there’s definitely a factorization into positive integers neither of which equals 1. Explaining it isn’t hard: In order for 2n-1 to be prime, n must be prime. For if not, n = rs where r and s are integers greater than 1 and less than n; then 2n-1 = 2rs-1 has a factor between 1 and 2n-1, namely 2r-1.

Example 4. MathWorld describes prime numbers as “numbers that cannot be factored.” Prime numbers, like all integers, however, can be factored, and elsewhere, MathWorld gives the factorization of several prime numbers, such as 7: 7 = 7×1.

Example 5. Any of MathWorld’s articles on statistics.

In the article on the Central Limit Theorem, what is lowercase n? What is f? The “limiting cumulative distribution function” of Xnorm is limiting in the sense of what approaching what? (It’s not clear to me that MathWorld’s statement of the theorem is even correct, but it’s clearly unclear.)

The article “explaining” the p-value has perhaps the worst definition of p-value I’ve ever seen when not grading exams. MathWorld says it’s “[t]he probability that a variate would assume a value greater than or equal to the observed value strictly by chance: P(z > zobserved)” (wrong). Wikipedia says “In statistical hypothesis testing, the p-value is the probability of obtaining a test statistic at least as extreme as the one that was actually observed, assuming that the null hypothesis is true” (right).

Adapted from http://xkcd.com/747/