Recreational Quantification

On my recent post about hot drinks and esophageal cancer, Gringo made a comment about how quickly his Yerba Mate cooled down in the summer (30 minutes) vs winter (10-15 minutes). I was struck by this, because I find random numerical trivia about people’s daily life quite fascinating. I think this is mostly because many people don’t actually keep track of stuff like this, or if they notice it they don’t remember it.

While this phenomena is obviously probably related to numerical aptitude, I also think it’s probably related to something John Allen Paulos talks about. In an article about Stories vs Statistics, he posits that about 61% of people (update: he may have been joking with this number, there’s no source for it) see numbers as “rhetorical decoration” to stories, whereas the other 39% see numbers as “clarifying information”.

This reminded me of an exchange I had with my father last week when we were discussing how cold it was:

Dad: How are you surviving the cold down there?
Me: It’s been pretty chilly. I could tell it was cold because my walk from the train normally takes me 30 minutes, and this week I noticed it was taking 26 minutes without me consciously increasing my speed.
Dad: wow, that’s cold.
<5 more minutes of back and forth on walking speeds during various weather patterns, and how traffic lights/street crossings make the 4 minute time saving even more impressive>

I have come to understand that most people do not reach for anecdotes like this when they are trying to explain how cold it is, but it’s one of the best ways of communicating information like that to my Dad.

Interestingly, Paulos attributes this communication preference to our feelings towards Type 1 vs Type 2 errors. He posits that those who want to hear numbers are doing so because they are focused on avoiding Type 1 errors (seeing something that’s not there), and those who prefer stories are more interested in avoiding Type 2 errors (failing to see something that is there). I have no idea if he’s right about this, but personality typing based on statistical approaches is a thing I am totally on board with.

Anyway, I find myself counting and/or finding ways of quantifying all sorts of things as I go through life. Some of these are straightforward (I tracked my gas mileage for quite some time, I track my steps and resting heart rate, I have a particular obsession with hours of daylight), but some are a little more complex.

For example, every time I go to a concert, I always take note of the relative frequency of mixed gender groups vs male only groups vs female only groups. I started this because I attend a lot of concerts with my husband, and we got in a running discussion about “guy bands” vs “girl bands”. As I tried to quantify which was which, I realized that a strict gender breakdown sometimes hid information about the band’s core audience. AC/DC for example: the crowd there is 30-40% women, but almost all of the women are there with men. The number of male only groups was 3 to 4 times the number of female only groups. Interestingly, in many of the mixed gender groups there were more women than men, which is why the proportion was so high despite women not attending alone. Thus I put AC/DC in the category of a “guy band” that appeals to women, as opposed to a gender neutral band. In other words, it appears women are happy to attend, but only if someone else suggests it.

Since I started tracking this, I have seen two bands who appear to have truly equal gender appeal: Tom Petty and the Heart Breakers and Aerosmith.

The most male dominated concert I have ever been to was Judas Priest. The most female dominated concert was Ani Difranco. At neither of these concerts could I find a member of the minority gender unaccompanied by a member of the majority gender.

Another interesting breakdown is “couples concerts” or “date concerts” where you see very few people attending in mono-gender groups. TV on the Radio and a few other hipster bands I’ve seen appear to be like that. On the other side, when I went to see a Drag Queen Christmas, it was entirely the opposite. The audience was half male and half female, but since most of the men were (presumably) gay the groups that attended were mostly mono-gender.

All that being said, I’d be interested in hearing about random things that readers count/track/note when out and about, or your band examples. I understand I have rather idiosyncratic tastes in music, so I’d be interested in other examples.

2 thoughts on “Recreational Quantification

  1. I think Paulos’s 61.389% is a made-up number that is overprecise for humorous effect. I wondered what research he could have that made him dare 61-39 rather that a 60-40, so I entered a bit suspicious. My estimate would be much higher than 60% BTW. Most of our news comes to us in narrative form, with statistics frequently misused. The WSJ is the only source I think of as statistics-based, so my estimate would be 80-20 or worse.

    Still, I think he is on to something, even though he makes errors there. In quoting research about the conjunction error, he neglects that the research subjects were a general sample. It may be that the narrative people make the conjuntion mistake often while the statistic people seldom make it, undermining some of his conclusions. I don’t know of evidence that narrative people are trying to avoid missing something that is there, but it sounds plausible to me.

    I can’t help you on the band crowds, I’m afraid.


    • I think you may be right (or at the very least there’s no source), so I updated the post.

      It’s always hard for me to think about what the news does because I always jump to thinking about the controversial stuff. When I think about things like weather reports, it’s amusing to note that they frequently front load the stats at a predictable time, then do stories from there. That’s a pretty good strategy. If the ratios are anything like 60-40 or even 80-20, you still want something for both.


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