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Numbers Rule Your World

The Hidden Influence of Probability and Statistics on Everything You Do

By Kaiser Fung
10-minute read
Audio available
Numbers Rule Your World: The Hidden Influence of Probability and Statistics on Everything You Do by Kaiser Fung

Numbers Rule Your World (2010) is a guide to statistical reasoning and how you can use concrete statistical information productively to understand as well as improve your world. These blinks walk the reader through the five key principles of statistics and how they can be applied to improve decision making in various contexts.

  • People interested in statistics and how they apply to everyday life
  • Anyone keen to reap the benefits of statistical thinking

Kaiser Fung is a statistician and author of the book Numbersense: How to Use Big Data to Your Advantage. He is also the creator of the two popular blogs Junk Charts and Big Data, Plainly Spoken. He received his MBA from Harvard Business School and holds degrees in engineering and statistics from Princeton University and the University of Cambridge, respectively.

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Numbers Rule Your World

The Hidden Influence of Probability and Statistics on Everything You Do

By Kaiser Fung
  • Read in 10 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 6 key ideas
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Numbers Rule Your World: The Hidden Influence of Probability and Statistics on Everything You Do by Kaiser Fung
Synopsis

Numbers Rule Your World (2010) is a guide to statistical reasoning and how you can use concrete statistical information productively to understand as well as improve your world. These blinks walk the reader through the five key principles of statistics and how they can be applied to improve decision making in various contexts.

Key idea 1 of 6

According to statisticians, variations from the average are more relevant than the average itself.

Have you ever been at an amusement park, waiting in line for a ride in the hot sun thinking, “if they just had one or two more roller coasters, all the lines would be shorter”? While it may seem that adding attractions would lead to quicker queues, it’s actually not the case.

Why?

According to statisticians, and using the example of Disney World, it’s the varying pattern of when guests arrive at the amusement park, and not the average number of guests arriving, that makes the lines so mind-numbingly long. Since lines form when demand exceeds capacity, it seems logical that if Disney World accurately predicted demand, they could build capacity to accommodate it. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple.

Statisticians are positive that even if Disney could accurately predict the number of park visitors hopping on the Dumbo ride on a peak day, a line would still form because guests come at irregular intervals throughout the day, and because the ride’s capacity remains fixed. So, planning for capacity can deal with average rises in demand, but not with fluctuating demand.

Disney has come to deal with this issue using a feature called FastPass, which entitles guests to come back to a ride at a designated time and jump into an express lane. FastPass works because it reduces the variability of guests arriving at any given time. So, while it doesn’t change the ride goers’ actual waiting times, it does give them the freedom to enjoy other activities in the meantime, thereby boosting customer satisfaction.

But theme parks aren’t the only place this logic plays out: statisticians can point to the same trend in traffic jams. Just like at Disney World, highway congestion is the result of suddenly high volumes of cars, which exceed the road’s average capacity.

To deal with this issue, the Minnesota Department of Transportation uses a technique called “ramp metering”, in which traffic lights on ramps regulate the pace at which cars enter the highway, thereby stabilizing the number of cars on the road.

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