26 June 2017 – Pages 102-126 of Derek Rowntree’s Statistics Without Tears

  • Statistics Without Tears – A Primer for Non-Mathematicians
  • by Derek Rowntree
  • Charles Scribner’s Sons
  • Copyright 1981
  • 190 pages

Rating (for pages 1-126) – 7 out of 10

Sometimes in life, we have to face the facts – a relationship isn’t going to work out, we’re never going to play major-league baseball, all food that tastes good is bad for us, etc. Books are no different – sometimes reality intrudes.

Monday I had to accept that Derek Rowntree’s Statistics Without Tears just isn’t as good as I’d remembered it being. Don’t get me wrong, Tears is a good book. But it’s still a stats book that requires a lot of mental effort to understand. Also, Tears will work best as a supplement for use while studying stats in the traditional manner (i.e., studying the basic concepts and working a ton of problems); it does not replace the old methods.IMG_0256

Chapter 6 (pp. 102-126)

After that intro, it probably will come as no surprise to say that the material that I read Monday – Chapter 6 – has Rowntree taking his readers even deeper into the statistical weeds. He gets into a number of statistical topics including –

  • testing to see if two measures come from the same population,
  • Type I and II errors,
  • estimating the standard error when conducting statistical tests, and
  • Non-parametric tests


Lost in the Woods

A Spanish teacher I once knew described students who were completely clueless as being “lost in the woods.” I haven’t gotten completely lost (yet), but I wandered off the path a few times. Chapter 6 required me to do some hard thinking. At the end of the chapter, Rowntree concedes that “You’ve probably found this to be the most taxing chapter in the book so far… if you feel the need to skim through this chapter again before starting on the next, I shan’t be in the least surprised” (pp. 126-7).

I don’t want to be give the impression that I am wholly negative – I am not. Rowntree writes about statistics as well as any author I have read. His explanations are far superior to those in most stat textbooks. But, having said that, statistical concepts are difficult and even Rowntree cannot spare us some hard thinking.

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23-25 June 2017 – Pages 63-101 of Derek Rowntree’s Statistics Without Tears

  • Statistics Without Tears – A Primer for Non-Mathematicians
  • by Derek Rowntree
  • Charles Scribner’s Sons
  • Copyright 1981
  • 190 pages

Rating (for pages 1-101) – 7.5 out of 10

The last few days haven’t afforded too many big blocks of time for reading. So, I’ve been going through Derek Rowntree’s Statistics Without Tears at a snail’s pace. When I got around to reading, I found that Chapters 4 and 5 certainly required more concentration than did the first three chapters.IMG_0252

Chapter 4 (pp. 63-81)

Chapter 4 concerns the normal curve. Rowntree clearly explains what normal means and how the mean and the standard deviation of each normal distribution allow us to make statistical inferences. I thought that my knowledge of the normal curve was good, but Rowntree schooled me on a couple of the finer points:

  1. an English mathematician named de Moivre gets credit as the first person to notice the normal curve (in the the 17th century) (p. 68) and
  2. the normal curve shifts from being convex to concave when we are +/- one standard deviation from the mean (p. 72)

Chapter 5 (pp. 82-101) 


Derek Rowntree

Rowntree uses Chapter 4 to prepare the reader for the material on the sampling distribution of the mean in Chapter 5. Rowntree tells the reader that we are not interested in samples per se – we are interested in whether we can generalize from these samples.

The discussion is good, but when you hit Chapter 5 you feel as though you just moved from playing checkers to playing chess. The implications of the sampling distribution of the mean are vast. I probably need to re-read the last ten pages of the chapter.

Without Tears

In the Introduction, Rowntree discusses the meaning of his book’s title, warning the reader that “… I did not imply Statistics Without Effort” (p. 10). The admonition is well taken. In Chapter 5, his discussion of the sampling distribution of the mean is very good, but it still requires some hard thinking. Statistics Without Tears reminds me of the quote attributed to Einstein that “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Rowntree does everything that he can to spoon feed us stats, but our minds still have to do some work.

Without Tears is challenging, but it’s also very good. I thought that the opening was a little unstimulating, because it was material that I already knew. Suffice to say, I now feel challenged and look forward to the last three chapters.

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22 June 2017 – Pages 1-62 of Derek Rowntree’s Statistics Without Tears

  • Statistics Without Tears – A Primer for Non-Mathematicians
  • by Derek Rowntree
  • Charles Scribner’s Sons
  • Copyright 1981
  • 190 pages

Rating (for pages 1-62) – 7 out of 10

As a rule, I’m not much of a re-reader. The lure of the new, the unexplored always seems to draw me when it comes time to choose a book.

But there are exceptions. About ten years ago, I found a copy of Derek Rowntree’s Statistics Without Tears at Goodwill. With little to lose, I bought the copy and read it. Sometimes you get lucky. I thought that Tears was an amazing book.

Though I got my doctorate with a minor in statistics, I always found stats to be intimidating – so much to learn and so many “squigglies,” those Greek letters that never made made much sense to me. But Rowntree has a gift; by explaining the concepts behind stats and not dwelling on the calculations, he makes the reader understand.

My copy of Statistics Without Tears is long gone. (It’s probably back at Goodwill, waiting for its next home). But, when I was at the University library last week, I checked out their copy. I began to read it again Thursday.

Chapter 1 (pp. 13-26)

Rowntree’s opening is strong. He discusses the fact that we make statistical inferences all of the time, without recognizing that we are doing so. He states that the two main concerns of statistics are 1) summarizing experience, and 2) making predictions based on those summaries. He also does a terrific job of explaining how a sample should mirror the population from which it is drawn (on page 24).

Chapter 2 (pp. 28-37) 

Unfortunately, Chapter 2 gets deeper in the weeds. Rowntree discusses the differences in continuous and discrete variables. Also, he differentiates between counting phenomena and measuring phenomena. I think that Rowntree does a good job with this material, but the material is complex and not easy to understand.IMG_0254


Chapter 3 (pp. 38-56)

Chapter 3 discusses measures of central tendency and measures of dispersion. For me, some of this material was a little too basic; I didn’t feel that I learned that much. However, Rowntree’s explanations are often much clearer than have been any I that read before. He discusses the meaning of standard deviation in a way that is intuitive and even gets into some esoteric measures such as the inter-quartile range (and why it matters).

Chapter 4 (pp. 57-62)

Thursday I managed just a few pages in Chapter 4 before I flaked out. Rowntree begins with promise, discussing skewed distributions and their implications for the statistician.

Mid-Term Report

After the first sixty-plus pages, I am enjoying re-reading Statistics Without Tears. Readers seeking an easy-to-understand introduction to statistics will enjoy Rowntree’s clear prose.


Derek Rowntree – a great craftsman with a pen

However, the book is not quite as good as I had remembered it being. Perhaps I haven’t gone far enough yet. One thing that I can remember from the first reading is that Rowntree has an amazing discussion on the normal curve.

I look forward to reading the next few chapters.

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20-22 June 2017 – Robert Boice’s Professors as Writers

  • Professors as Writers – A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing
  • by Robert Boice
  • New Forums Press
  • Copyright 1990
  • 130 pages (+56 additional pages in two appendices)

Rating (for the entire book) – 8 out of 10

Chief among my professional goals at the moment is to get started on my research again.  Early in my career – pre tenure – I could grind out the articles like nobody’s business. Of late, I’ve slipped. I enjoy reading books on how to be a better writer and – at some point – came across a reference to Robert Boice’s Professors as Writers. Last week, I checked out a copy from the University library.


Boice worried me at the beginning with a clunky, dull forward (pp. vii-viii) that made me glad that I hadn’t paid for the book. The proprietor of a book store once told me that if you’re ever unsure about whether to read a book, try to first chapter and make your decision on that basis. As a general rule, I’ve found that to be sound advice. IMG_0249

But I wasn’t going to quit Professors as Writers because of a boring forward – and I’m glad that I didn’t do so. Boice soon rights the ship. Boice hits you with one of main themes right from the start – success as a scholarly writer depends on working for a short, set duration at specified times. Boice wants you to be a tortoise, not a hare. 

Chapters 1-5 – I am the 85% 

Toward the beginning of the book, Boice states that research reveals that – in most academic disciplines – 15 percent of the professors publish 85 percent of the scholarship. He also says that the sole way to know our disciplines in depth is to contribute to them as scholars. At the end of Chapter 2, he includes an exercise asking the reader to describe recent attempts to write. Likewise, Chapter 3 contains several pages on which Boice asks the readers to assess whether common writing problems apply to them. (I did the exercises as I went through the book and found them to be very helpful).

Chapters 4 & 5 get into the crux of Boice’s recommendations.  He talks about the value of automatic (or spontaneous) writing for removing writing blocks. Automatic writing amounts to stream-of-consciousness writing. In Chapter 5, he switches to generative writing, which is similar to automatic writing; the writer works without self judgment, but focuses his or her work on a research-related topic. I tried the exercises for both of these. My automatic writing was mediocre, but the generative writing was excellent.


Chapters 6 – 8 – Long-run Strategies and Dealing with Relapses

Chapters 6 & 7 concentrate on the need to discipline oneself to produce a steady flow of work. Boice states that tracking your progress (time spent, number of words written, and percent of daily goal accomplished) will keep you on track. He said that we need to give ourselves an unpleasant contingency (such as mailing a $25 check to a hated organization) if we don’t complete our scheduled writing. I’ve already decided that my contingency will be no Internet if I don’t complete my writing.

Chapter 8 focuses on potential issues with relapsing to former bad habits. Boice states that continuing to use contingencies prevents relapse.

So Far, So Good

My summer work is going well. I’m about halfway through a journal article – and I’m even enjoying the process. Obviously, time will tell whether Boice’s plan is for me. I recommend Professors as Writers. While Boice can repeat himself too often, the “meat” of the book is thought provoking and should help scholars who need to regain their writing momentum.

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19-20 June 2017 – Reading Pages 164-261 of Robert D. Putnam’s Our Kids – The American Dream in Crisis

  • Our Kids – The American Dream in Crisis
  • by Robert D Putnam
  • Simon & Schuster
  • Copyright 2015
  • 261 pages

Rating (for the entire book) – 7 out of 10

This morning I finished Robert D Putnam’s Our Kids. Monday I got done with everything but the final ten pages before I slipped off to sleep about 10 p.m. Tuesday morning, I finished the book over my morning coffee.

Chapter 5 – Community (pages 191-226)

After mildly disappointing me with Chapters 3 & 4, Putnam rallied in Chapter 5. It’s difficult to put my finger on why I liked Chapter 5 better; suffice to say that the material just seemed more interesting.

IMG_0248In discussing the importance of community, Putnam compares two different parts of the Philadelphia area – 1) the wealthy “main line” suburbs and 2) the inner city Kensington neighborhood (which was the setting for the movie Rocky). Putnam compares two single mothers and how their communities helped – or didn’t help – them deal with the challenges of raising two daughters.

Putnam focuses on four ways that communities can support their members – 1) social networks, 2) mentors / savvy, 3) neighborhood organizations, and 4) religious organizations. It is in this section that Putnam comes closest to stating Our Kids’ thesis –

“If it takes a village to raise a child, the prognosis for American children isn’t good: in recent years, villages all over America, rich and poor, have deteriorated as we’ve shirked collective responsibility for our kids” (p. 205).

Chapter 6 – What is the be done? (pages 227-261)

Unfortunately, Chapter 6 is a big letdown. Putnam proposes solutions, but even he seems to realize that he doesn’t know the answer. However, he states that the problem with “our kids” is a growing crisis and that ignoring the crisis is tantamount to ignoring global warming – “… but in both cases, if we wait for perfect clarity, it will be too late” (p. 228).

Sorry, Dr. Putnam, but I don’t think that argument is good enough. For one, he’s comparing a natural science (climate science) to a social science (sociology). Natural sciences are much more subject to laws and generalization than are the social sciences. If society is to make the expensive investments that Putnam proposes, we must be more certain about both a) the nature of the problem and b) the outcomes we expect to attain. Failure to understand the problem one wishes to address is a cardinal sin for any scientist.

Another shortcoming of the book lies in Putnam’s failure to focus more on the changing nature of work. Today’s knowledge-based economy is brutal to those without advanced degrees. Putnam starts his analysis in 1959, before automation, global trade, and stagnating economic conditions combined to make things very difficult for blue-collar workers. The 1950s economy did much to create the good times that Putnam enjoyed as an adolescent.

I could go on, but I’ll stop…



Final Thoughts

My reaction to Putnam’s Our Kids is very similar to my reaction to his Bowling Alone – both are terrific at detailing some of society’s pervasive problems. Each book addresses a pressing issue and tells the reader why the issue matters.

Both books have the same shortcoming – solutions aren’t easy. Putnam is a social scientist (as am I), and the challenge of devising a better society is that there are so many relevant variables. If you read Our Kids with the mindset that you are going to better understand these issues, you will not be disappointed. If you read the book looking for The Answer, you’re likely to be disappointed.

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Sunday, 18 June 2017 – Reading Pages 80-164 of Robert D. Putnam’s Our Kids – The American Dream in Crisis

  • Our Kids – The American Dream in Crisis
  • by Robert D Putnam
  • Simon & Schuster
  • Copyright 2015
  • 261 pages

Rating (for pages 1-164, Chapters 1 through 4) – 7 out of 10

Sunday I continued with Robert D Putnam’s Our Kids. While I am still enjoying the book, I thought that Sunday’s pages were a disappointment. Putnam’s research is interesting. But his presentation is lacking. Our Kids would have been better if Putnam had worked with a co-author who improved the book’s pacing.

Chapter 3 – Parenting (pages 80-134)

Unfortunately, Our Kids bogs down at the beginning of Chapter 3. In the preceding chapters, Putnam has already provided profiles of kids growing up in different socioeconomic classes in both Port Clinton, Ohio, and in Bend, Oregon. Nonetheless, he begins Chapter 3 with still more of these profiles. The difference is that these kids live in the Atlanta area and all of them are black. This material might have worked if it were shorter, but Putnam drags it out for almost 30 pages (pp. 80-109).

Chapter 3 does pick up a bit when Putnam discusses what researchers have learned about parenting’s impact on child development. But he never fully regains the lost momentum.

Chapter 4 – Schooling (pages 135-164)

Things don’t improve much in Chapter 4. Putnam again begins with overly-long biographies of kids from different social classes. This time, the kids are all Hispanic and live in Orange County, California. By this point, Putnam has covered white, black, and Hispanic kids and the reader wonders if he’s just trying to cover his politically-correct bases.

For whatever reason, I found the school material to be more compelling than the parenting material from Chapter 3. Putnam discusses Hispanic Americans’ attempts to move to better school districts in order to pave the way for their kids to attend good colleges. At the same time, he profiles the Hispanic underclass that remains stuck in underperforming schools. (I still have 26 pages left in Chapter 4, so I’ll withhold final judgment for a while).




Putnam let me down Sunday. What I read wasn’t bad, but I can’t say that it was overly compelling, either. We’ll see if he can rally in the book’s remaining hundred or so pages.

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Saturday, 17 June 2017 – Reading Pages 1-79 of Robert D. Putnam’s Our Kids – The American Dream in Crisis

  • Our Kids – The American Dream in Crisis
  • by Robert D Putnam
  • Simon & Schuster
  • Copyright 2015
  • 261 pages

Rating (for pages 1-79, Chapters 1 & 2) – 9 out of 10

A few years ago, I came across a copy of Robert D Putnam’s Bowling Alone in a thrift store. In Bowling Alone, Putnam shows the decline of community in the United States since World War II. I read the book and enjoyed it. Putnam is the rare academic who can make his ideas interesting to a general audience.

Therefore, I was excited when I heard about Putnam’s 2015 Our Kids, in which Putnam returns to his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, and examines what’s happened to social mobility in the U.S. Putnam uses his own high school class of 1959 as a point of comparison to how much has changed with today’s high school graduates.

Chapter 1 – The American Dream (pages 1-45)

Putnam comes out with guns blazing, stating on page 1 that today’s Port Clinton “…is a split-screen American nightmare, a community in which kids from the wrong side of the tracks that bisect the town can barely imagine the future that awaits the kids from the right side of the tracks” (p. 1). He then spends a lot of time discussing the differences in the social mobility enjoyed by his generation and the stagnation that is the curse of today’s graduates.

Chapter 2 – Families (pages 46-79)

The second chapter is weaker. Putnam begins with the unprovable statement that rich and poor families “…tend to be structured differently [true], a result of the economic disparities that have arisen in recent decades [perhaps true, but unsupported]” (p. 49). Putnam’s later discussion in Chapter 2 concedes that one cannot “tease out” cause and effect based his data.

It’s one thing to say what has happened to social mobility, which Putnam does very well. It’s very difficult to say why it has changed.


My Questions

From what I’ve read so far, I have two questions about Putnam’s thesis –

1) To what extent did the post-World War II era represent a “Golden Age?” From the end of World War II until the mid-1970s, the U.S. Enjoyed a tremendous economic expansion, partly based on the fact that our economic competitors were temporarily hobbled by WWII. Some people have suggested that – in comparing today to that era – we overlook the fact that it was an aberration, atypical. Whether that is true or not, we cannot reproduce the complex set of circumstances that arose to produce that prosperity. Today’s economy produces wealth in a different way.

2) Consistent with his earlier Bowling Alone, Putnam laments the decline of any sense of commmunity. He states that there is no sense that today’s disadvantaged youth are “our kids.” This point is well taken. However, similar to #1, I think that he overlooks the fact that we are unlikely to reproduce the society the produced the “all for one” attitude.

When I think of my World War II-era grandparents, I think of that “our kids” attitude. My grandparents grew up in tightly-knit small towns filled with people who had lived in those towns their entire lives. But today’s society is transient. Making a living depends on keeping ourselves mobile. Moreover, the entry of women into the workforce means that today’s adults have little time to form “the ties that bind” towns together – everyone’s tired after spending our days at the salt mine.


On the whole, I’m really enjoying Our Kids. I think that the solutions to these problems are very complex and I’m interested to see if Putnam can offer any realistic solutions.

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