My Mother Didn’t Want a Hacker for a Child

As my lovely oldest daughter, noted, most of what most people turn out to be, for better or for worse, they owe to their mothers.

Family legend has it that my mother, a former Catholic nun, former second grade teacher, was bored sitting home in Karachi, West Pakistan while my father worked on the Air Force Base. Girls were not allowed to attend school, so my mother, always the quietly rebellious type, taught me to read before I turned three years old.

Another family rumor holds that my father taught me how to swim by throwing me off the end of a pier in Biloxi, Mississippi.

I don’t know if either of those stories are true, but they are certainly in character for both of my parents and two things I have been able to do as far back as I can remember are read and swim.

The reverb10 prompt for the day is “What keeps you from writing?”

Certainly, reading is the SECOND most common activity that keeps me from writing. Thanks to mom again, I attended St. Mary’s Catholic School, where the speed-reading machine was the educational innovation of the day. In an early introduction to the difference between individual and mean results, while I assume it fell out of favor because my results were not typical, by the end of seventh grade when I left St. Marys, I could read hundreds of words a minute. I am the absolute archetype of the voracious reader. I have daily subscriptions to the Los Angeles Times (in print), the New York Times (on my Kindle) . I read an average of four books a week, sometimes ten during vacations. If I like an author, like Malcolm Gladwell or Alexander McCall Smith or Alice Walker, I’ll read everything he or she ever wrote. I have a Sony eReader, a Kindle, an iPad, cards for the Santa Monica Public Library, Los Angeles Public Library and three university libraries.

Mom wanted an academic. That was pretty clear.  For a while there, it seemed like she might get her wish. I collected scholarships, degrees, even was a professor, on the tenure track no less, for seven years.

Sorry, mom, it wasn’t for me. I really liked teaching, and I like to think I was pretty good at it. What I liked even more was finding out stuff. I was like Kipling’s The Elephant Child, full of insatiable curiosity. The part, though, where you rewrite the article eleven times, and someone sends it back to you because you wrote “11” instead of spelling out the word and thinks you ought to rewrite that sentence where  you said 11 people died of grammatical errors to 11 people passed away and you didn’t cite Billy Bob Thornton’s classic piece on death by semi-colon and — AAAAH !!!

And did I mention professors don’t get paid much even when they DO have full-time tenure track positions?

I spend most of my time hacking away at code. My husband, the resident honest-to-God rocket scientist, tells me that hacking is not a positive term and I shouldn’t use it all the time. But he’s not the boss of me (as he would be the first to attest, under oath, if necessary).

I spend hours downloading datasets from places like, the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, and loads of other government and private websites that offer data. Then, of course, there are the datasets I get paid to analyze.

I’m not only a disappointment to my mother, but I’m a disappointment to my doctoral adviser, too, or I would be, if he wasn’t dead. I like statistics and sometimes I like going through the underlying equations for procedures. It makes me feel like I’m on NUMB3RS, my absolutely favorite show. Instead of spending my time delving deeper into matrix algebra, though, I liked to figure things out.

How many high school girls want to go into the military? Who are these girls? How are they different from other girls their age, or from boys who plan to enter the service?

Do people posting on forums for athletes have a more accepting view of eating disorders (you do what you gotta do) than people posting on forums with a more general audience?

When you ask teachers what they do in their classrooms, how does that relate to what they believe is important?

How do you measure what people believe, anyway?

It turns out that a whole hell of a lot of the time of answering those questions is not doing a correlation or factor analysis or non-linear mixed model. Nope, most of it is whacking your data into shape, reading it in, merging it, checking it, fixing it. Once you figure out how to do that, you want to figure out how to do it better, faster, smarter. So, I might do something once and then realize, hey, if I changed this into a macro, I could do it over and over, like SO…

Title "Thing to Look at Statistics" ;
%macro tbles(strt,nd,ndsn,dsn) ;
proc summary data =  &ndsn    ;
var &strt -- &nd ;
output out = &dsn ;
proc transpose data = &dsn  out=frq&dsn ;
id _stat_ ;
var &strt -- &nd ;
proc sort data = frq&dsn ;
by descending mean ;
proc print data = frq&dsn split = " " ;
id _name_ ;
label _name_ = "Type of &dsn"
mean = "Percentage of Things";
var mean ;
format mean percent8.1 ;
%mend ;

Now, every time I want a table of something in order, like how often teachers used a particular strategy or customers bought a certain brand or whatever I can just do this:

%tbles(question1,question39,teachers,strategies) ;

But THEN, it occurs to me that I might want to run this same thing 20,000 times for 20,000 different datasets I read in. So, it occurs to me that if I have them all in windows, say, and I go to the command line and type

dir c:\thisdirectory\otherdirectory\*.* >> files.txt

Then I could read in the directory as a dataset and have a %DO  / %END loop that reads each file and does whatever is in my macro for all of these and maybe even in the middle there concatenates all of the datasets so I can look at it for all of the 20,000 studies ….

… and so that is why I don’t get more writing done.

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