The Seat of Your Pants

Today Sam Savage said “You don’t learn to ride a bike from a seat in the classroom, you learn it from the seat of your pants”. If it wasn’t exactly those words, it was close. I learned a few weeks ago that no one goes to Disneyland and leaves without Mickey Ears. Well, no one should go to a conference on Analytics and leave without listening to Sam Savage speak.

The theme of “learn by doing” was present in both of the tutorials I attended today.

The first tutorial was on Forio. The presenter, Mike Bean, showed how they host analytic models online. While someone might do this to take advantage of the speed of cloud computing, the benefit of anyone being able to play around with a model is what caught my eye. What do I know about the spread of HIV in Vietnam… next to nothing (not exactly nothing because I believe I spelled them right – which is something). But if I wanted to, I could play around with an intuitive model that shows the HIV rates given a variety of different mitigation approaches. And by playing around in the model, in the data, anyone online could start to understand the complexities of such an issue (even if they never become an expert on them). Make models. Make them available online. Let the world play with it – and discover how the world thinks. That wasn’t necessarily what Mike Bean intended for me to take away, but I loved the idea so much I had to share it.

The second tutorial was on Probability Management. Always an invigorating speaker, Sam Savage described the hopes and dreams of the non-profit, ProbabilityManagement.org. If X and Y are iid Uniform(0,1), what is the distribution of Cos(X*Y)? While the closed form answer may be reached with many hours of highly paid Statistician work, an accurate enough answer could be derived in seconds by the new intern using Excel. That is, if we change the way we think about probabilities.