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Summertime and the Living Is …

1 August 2017 33 views No Comment

Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer
Those days of soda and pretzels and beer.

It’s August, but despite what Nat King Cole may have thought, the days are hardly lazy for the statistics profession. Of course, the main event for me is the huge assemblage of statisticians at the Joint Statistical Meetings in Baltimore. I suspect you will be reading this either in the middle of, or just after the conclusion of, JSM.

I hope it is, or was, a truly rewarding experience.

While the agenda is full of technical sessions, continuing education courses, workshops, committee meetings, section meetings, mixers, receptions, and more, it serves as the golden opportunity for me to interact with others in the field. This is the time when those people you have heard of, read about, purchased books by, or listened to are there in person. Meet the person, match the name with the face, discuss ideas, and forge ahead with new collaborations.

Of course, you can make a vacation around JSM. My late wife and I used to do exactly that. We would fly the three kids to Chicago, where their aunt and uncle would spoil them. I would attend JSM sessions, and Debbie would sight see (okay, me too.) It was truly a win-win-win situation.

This gathering, with all its different topic areas, always reminds me of John Tukey’s famous line about the statistician getting to play in everyone’s sandbox. This also reminds me of Lenore Skenazy’s delightful opinion piece in the June 21 Wall Street Journal, “If You’re a Kid, the Experts Want You to Have a Fun-Free Summer.” She cites Karl Neuman of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who said, “… [T]he risk of illness increases … digging wet sand.” However, he adds, “Dry sand presents problems, too.” The article also notes that the website KidsTravelDoc.com states that only with a lot of do’s and don’ts is frolicking in the sand a healthy activity. This is attributed to the U.S. Environmental Protective (sic) Agency. So in addition to messing up summer and mangling the name of the EPA, they attribute this incorrectly to the EPA—my former workplace for more than 40 years. By the way, neither Skenazy nor I could find the EPA’s caveats on sandbox activities. I’ll stick with Tukey.

But back to JSM, I am reminded of a former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) colleague, Ron Shafer. A few weeks before JSM 1993 in San Francisco, I was telling Ron this would be a huge assembly of thousands of statisticians. What would occur if the unthinkable happened: a major earthquake? (Just four years earlier, the World Series was interrupted by the major Loma Prieta earthquake moments before the third game was to start.) Without a moment’s hesitation, Ron responded, “Ah, a return to certainty!”
I remember taking one of the courses offered, Rank Set Sampling. What impressed me was not only the quality of the instruction (Thank you, Dick Gilbert and Bimal Sinha.), but also the questions and interaction from the enrollees in the course. It was truly an interactive affair. Fondly, I also remember taking a metadata course from the late Ingram Olkin. Wasn’t it wonderful how this elderly scholar was full of energy and so proficient in this new and burgeoning field?

I also remember the standing-room-only session regarding sports statistics with a speaker who had stalked general managers of several Major League Baseball teams to get a job doing statistical analysis for the club. Yes, this was the golden age of Moneyball. If you follow this column, you know my thoughts about statistics and baseball from the April issue. Incidentally, because I can’t resist, The Wall Street Journal carried a story on the “new” strategy of the Houston Astros. Apparently from 2012 through 2016, the Astros had more strikeouts than any other team—and by quite a margin. This year, with some acquired new players, they are last in strikeouts. So, what is the difference? The Astros now tell their players to hit a pitch if it looks good, thereby contradicting the conventional wisdom of working the counts and trying to tire out the pitchers. (This worked for the kind of ball I played where the pitchers were not that good, so waiting for a base on balls was not a bad suggestion.) But back to the majors, I could never really understand that conventional strategy since the relief pitchers are generally pretty good at what they do, so exhausting the starter may not yield much. Looks like it is working. As I write this, the Astros are also leading the majors in home runs.

I also want to throw a pitch (Catch the segue?) to activity in JSM committees and sections. In prior years, I have served as both the program chair and general chair of the Statistics and the Environment Section. I also served five years as chair of the Statistical Partnerships Among Academe, Industry, and Government (SPAIG) Committee. It is quite true that the more you put into ASA efforts, the more you get out. It is truly rewarding to be an active participate in the activities of the sections, chapters, and committees. So, get involved and help your profession grow!

As you might imagine, arranging and coordinating all the activities of JSM require considerable work. Hats off to the ASA staff who does this so well year after year. There are an awful lot of i’s to dot and t’s to cross, and the meetings staff stay on top of it all. My thanks to them for all these efforts.

But it is not just the ASA that keeps busy in summer. I have been fortunate enough to travel to various campuses to see firsthand some excellent activities that go on during the (not so) off time. In June, I visited the University of Iowa and addressed the Iowa Summer Institute in Biostatistics. This is a research education program funded by the National Institutes of Health with the goal of exposing undergraduate and graduate math majors to the field of biostatistics. The program involves having students from universities that may not even have formal statistics departments come to Iowa City to be exposed to biostatistics topics that spur their interest. I understand there are similar NIH-supported programs at five other universities.

I also attended a STEM boot camp at George Mason University. The students were high-school graduates with analytical aptitude about to enter their undergraduate studies at Mason. The boot camp exposed them to a glimpse of what exciting areas exist in the STEM fields. It was my personal pleasure to present some of the areas in which proper statistical analysis made an impact on health. I hope I won over some students in the statistical direction.

At a recent trip to Purdue University, I observed the Statistics Living-Learning Community program, which is geared toward undergraduate sophomores. One told me he can hardly wait for summer so he will have more time for research. Hmmm, why let course time bog you down? Clearly, priorities have changed since my sophomore summer. Although I was a waiter that summer and suspect I learned more about people and human nature than could ever be taught in a class or by doing research. Hardly a wasted summer for me!

And, of course, many of you may have attended the International Statistical Institute meeting in Marrakech, Morocco. As I write this, I am preparing to go there, but as you read this, I will already have been there! So what tense do you use to describe this?

Enjoy summer, but keep busy.

Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer
Dust off the sun and moon and sing
a song of cheer

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