Taking a closer look at the confidence eyewitnesses have in the accuracy of their memory


The release last week of the Netflix documentary Making of a Murderer has generated renewed interest in the issue of rape convictions that are overturned on the basis of subsequent DNA analysis. In most of these cases, the prosecution’s case rested heavily on the victim’s mistaken identification of the defendant as the man who raped her.

Identifications of the defendant as the rapist are almost always made with high confidence during a trial. The fact that false convictions for rape are usually accompanied by these mistaken but confidently expressed IDs has contributed to the perception that eyewitness memory is unreliable.

Eyewitnesses usually pick a suspect out of a lineup long before they ID that suspect during a trial. How confident was the eyewitness that their memory was accurate when they first identified the suspect? Quite often an eyewitness’s initial level of confidence is not nearly as high as the confidence they express during the trial. Juries aren’t usually told about this initial level of confidence.

A team of scientific investigators has recently published a review of recent research that shows that an eyewitness’s initial level of confidence in the accuracy of their memory is a good indicator of the actual guilt of the suspect. Eyewitnesses that are very confident when they first pick a suspect out of a lineup are much more likely to have identified the guilty person than eyewitnesses who are less confident.

I’ve written a feature article for Ars Technica titled ” “I think this is the guy” – The complicated confidence of eyewitness memory” that takes a look at the relationship between eyewitness confidence and eyewitness accuracy. The article examines research which shows that initial levels of confidence are diagnostic of guilt. It also describes some of the ways a low level of confidence expressed during a lineup can turn into a high level of confidence expressed during a trial. Finally, it presents some suggestions about how this research can be used to make it less likely that innocent people will be convicted of crimes they did not commit.

Please check out the article if this topic interests you.

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The Sound of Silence


The Sound of Silence by Disturbed


This post is for the neon god, Donald Trump.

Thanks to Marc Fishman for bringing it to my attention.

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Microsoft takes customer support to another level


Friendly support with computer mesage

Long wait times. Terrible music and constant reminders about how important your call is while you sit on hold. Listening to people who are hard to understand read from a script. Explaining your problem again and again after being put on hold and getting disconnected. Welcome to the world of customer support. We’ve all been there and done that.

And then this happens.

I pulled the trigger and bought an Xbox One – Rise of the Tomb Raider bundle from the Microsoft online store shortly after midnight on Thanksgiving. I paid about $10 extra for 2-3 day shipping. The package shipped by UPS and tracking said it was on time to be delivered on the third day, Tuesday. Around 10:00 am Tuesday morning UPS tracking said delivery was on time. An hour or so later tracking said the package was in the delivery facility but they hadn’t put it on the truck so it would be delivered later – probably Wednesday. I called MSoft and requested a refund of the additional shipping cost because the package wasn’t delivered in 2-3 business days.

Microsoft Media LogoAt first the MSoft customer support rep, who gave his name as Shawn, told me Wednesday was the third day because UPS was closed on the Friday after Thanksgiving so it didn’t count as a business day. That argument failed when it was noted that UPS had logged the package into their system on Friday when they were supposedly closed. Shawn then agreed that a refund was due but said I would have to get it from UPS because the failure was theirs, not MSoft’s. He offered to connect me to UPS customer support which I asked him to do.

ups logoI went through the explanation of what had happened with the UPS customer support rep, read them the tracking number about 5 times before they managed to enter it into their system correctly, countered all of their arguments about why it wasn’t their fault, and was finally told that, yes, they owed me a refund and would I please wait on hold while they set the refund up.

I was put on hold.

And disconnected.

A few seconds later a different customer rep came on the line and read me the same “hello” script I had heard before. I went through the same explanation of what had happened once again. First he told me the package wasn’t really late and the problem was that I didn’t understand  the tracking information UPS provided on their website. I told him I’ve been in the shipping business for well over a decade and have shipped thousands if not tens of thousands of packages. I know how to read tracking info. He then told me that yes, the package is late, but I have to get a refund from MSoft. He said UPS can’t give me a refund because they don’t have a shipping agreement with me, their contract is with MSoft.

call importantSo far it’s just what you expect from customer support when you request a refund, right? MSoft points the finger at UPS, UPS points the finger at MSoft, nobody takes responsibility, and the customer gets screwed. I say to the rep, “So MSoft tells me I have to get a refund from you, and you tell me I have to get a refund from MSoft.” He says, “Yes, you have to go to MSoft.”

And then the script went out the window when a voice came on the line and said, “You don’t have to go to Microsoft because Microsoft is here.”

After he connected me to UPS customer support, Shawn had quietly remained on the line and listened to the entire exchange. He was not happy.

msoft ad

This is an ad. MSoft didn’t pay for this ad. MSoft walked the talk so they get the ad for free.

Shawn lit into the UPS rep and it was game on. Customer reps from two mega companies, each a titan in their respective business spheres, going head to head over a $10 customer refund.

It was no contest. Like the avenging angel of customer support, Shawn blasted every objection offered by the UPS rep with ease and authority, schooled him on the idea that customer support is supposed to actually provide support, and hammered home the point again and again that MSoft would not stand for having its customers treated the way UPS was treating me. He told the rep that although UPS was at fault, MSoft would cover the refund; they didn’t care about the $10, they cared about the way UPS was treating one of their customers. Shawn finished with a thinly veiled threat that if UPS couldn’t live up to the contract they had signed, Msoft would take its business elsewhere, and advised the UPS rep to cover his ass by escalating this interchange up the chain of command because he could rest assured that UPS would be hearing about it at levels way above his pay grade from an unhappy MSoft .


It was a total beatdown and the UPS rep was thoroughly cowed by the time the call ended. Ever seen an alpha dog dominate and discipline  a weaker member of the pack? On his back, paws in the air, tail tucked between his legs, throat exposed? It was like that.

Anyone who has read “What does Xbox One sales have “more than tripled” mean?” that was published on the Info Monkey a year ago knows that I am neither a fanboy nor an apologist for Microsoft. But when a company has your back the way Microsoft had mine, props ought to be given.

It’s easy to be cynical about this. Do I really think MSoft is going to sever its business relationship with UPS because one package or one thousand packages were not delivered on time? Of course not. MSoft is going to ship with whichever carrier gives them the best deal. But when was the last time you had a customer support experience like this? As I listened to the extraordinary confrontation between the two company reps, it felt like that moment when everything appears lost and the cavalry comes sweeping to the rescue. Only this time the cavalry had Microsoft logos on their uniforms. It was awesome.


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General Mills thinks you’re a dumb ass, or why paying attention to nutrition labels is a good idea



from Mother Nature Network

General Mills is making cereal for all those people who sat in math class and said “Why do we have to learn this stuff? I’ll never use any of it.”

And they’re getting sued for it by the people who paid attention to arithmetic in grade school.

two boxesCheerios Protein is marketed as a more healthy variant of regular Cheerios because it is loaded with protein and protein is good for you. Of course, you have to pay a bit more for the “healthy” version. When this article was written Target offered 14 oz. boxes of regular Cheerios for $3.07, and 14.1 oz. boxes of Cheerios Protein for $3.72. You pay 65 cents (about 21%) more for Cheerios Protein but you’re getting so much more of that good protein!



Here are the first sections of the nutrition labels for Cheerios (on the left) and Cheerios Protein (on the right).

Cheerios nutrition label


Cheerios protein nutrition label

Cheerios Protein

Look at the bottom line: 3 grams of protein in a serving of regular Cheerios and 7 grams of protein in Cheerios Protein.

It looks like you’re getting over twice as much protein in Cheerios Protein.

You’re not. Why not?

Look at how much you have to eat to get your protein. The serving size for Cheerios Protein is 55 grams. Check out the serving size for regular Cheerios. 28 grams.

(Hold on a second. 28 grams. Where have I heard that before? Ah, nevermind, that’s another thing.) (Back to the cereal.)

An alarm bell should have just gone off. You get a little more than twice as much protein from Cheerios Protein than you get from regular Cheerios but you have to eat a little less than twice as much of the stuff to get it.

What happens if you have equal-size servings of Cheerios and Cheerios Protein?

2000px-Arithmetic_symbols.svgDo the math.

Regular Cheerios has 3 grams of protein for every 28 grams of cereal which is a bit more than .107 grams of protein per gram of cereal. Cheerios Protein has 7 grams of protein for every 55 grams of cereal which is a bit more than .127 grams of protein per gram of cereal. Cheerios Protein has about .02 more grams of protein per gram of cereal than regular Cheerios. That’s not very much.

Cheerios Protein’s serving size is 55 grams which gives you 7 grams of protein. Eating the same amount of regular Cheerios gives you 5.885 grams of protein, a small difference of 1.115 grams of protein per serving. If you go with regular Cheerios’ serving size of 28 grams, you get 3 grams of protein from regular Cheerios and 3.556 grams from Cheerios Protein. Again, a small difference of 0.556 grams per serving. Looked at another way, regular Cheerios has almost 85% as much protein as Cheerios Protein.

These tiny differences in the amount of protein contained in the two versions of Cheerios prompted the Center for Science in the Public Interest to file a class action lawsuit against General Mills for false advertising.

You’re not getting much more protein with Cheerios Protein but you are getting a lot more of something else.  What might that be?

sugarTake another look at the nutrition labels. A serving of Cheerios Protein has 16 grams of sugar; a serving of regular Cheerios has 1 gram of sugar. Do the math. When you adjust for serving size, a 28 gram serving of Cheerios Protein has 8.12 grams of sugar compared to regular Cheerios’ 1 gram.

Put another way, eating a bowl of Cheerios Protein involves an 18.2 per cent increase in protein and an 812 per cent increase in sugar compared to eating a bowl of regular Cheerios. When you have Cheerios Protein for breakfast you’re getting a little more protein, a lot more sugar, and a heaping helping of bullshit right there in your bowl, all courtesy of General Mills.

pt barnum

P.T. Barnum

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this is that all the information needed for you to see that General Mills is pulling a scam is right there on the nutrition labels.  All you have to do is read the labels and apply some grade-school level arithmetic. They didn’t try to hide it, they figured you were too dumb to notice.

P.T. Barnum, one of the most famous con men of all time, is credited with saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” General Mills thinks he was talking about you.


Posted in Numbers Game, Nutrition | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Baseball, wheelhouses, and the effects of technological change on language


A railroad wheelhouse. From YouTube.

If you watch baseball on TV, you’ve almost certainly heard an announcer describe a pitch as being in the batter’s wheelhouse when the pitch is in the area of the strike zone where the batter has the most success putting the ball in play. Baseball is where the wheelhouse metaphor first appeared in print, but if you don’t watch baseball, you’ve probably heard “wheelhouse” used as a metaphor for something that is in a person’s comfort zone or area of expertise.

While almost everybody knows what the wheelhouse metaphor means, many do not know where the metaphor came from or what a wheelhouse is. What is a wheelhouse and why did the connection between wheelhouses and baseball get lost?

I’ve published an article on Priceonomics titled “Wheelhouse: How technology changes the meaning of words” that ties together baseball, the nation’s transportation infrastructure, and a technological revolution to show how language can be affected by technological change. If you’re interested in any of these things- or just interested in a good story – please take the time to check it out.

Following the link to the article will also be doing me a great favor. Because pieces with sports content do not usually do well on Priceonomics, the piece was bought at a reduced rate with a substantial bonus attached if it reaches 10K views in 30 days. The people at Priceonomics warned me that they think it has about a 10 percent chance to meet that goal. It would be a boon to me if we can harness the power of social media to prove them wrong. If you would, please view the article and, if you find it interesting, ask your friends and social media friends to view it and pass it to their friends as well. Thanks.

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How virtual reality affects balance

VR and older gamer

In an earlier article we wondered whether Daredevil has a harder time keeping his balance because he’s blind. Blindness raises questions about balance because human balance rests on the complex interaction of visual, vestibular, and proprioceptive systems. Any problems Daredevil may have with balance stem from the fact that his balance system has no visual input.

What happens when visual input is present but is inconsistent with the information coming from proprioception and the vestibular sense? This is the problem faced by users of the new virtual reality (VR) systems that are forthcoming from Facebook (Oculus Rift), Sony (Playstation VR) and Valve/HTC (Vive). These VR systems replace visual input from the real world with a 360-degree view of a virtual world. When it works as intended, the results can be thrilling. When the visual input from the virtual world clashes with the information you’re getting from your vestibular and proprioceptive systems about where your body is and how it’s moving, the results can range from nausea to loss of balance.

I’ve written a feature article for Ars Technica about how VR affects balance. The article pays special attention to how VR may affect balance for older users whose balance system may already be compromised but the challenges posed to balance by VR affect users of all ages. If you are interested in VR in general or in how the technology may affect users, please take a look at “Will the new VR gear trip up older gamers?” on the Ars Technica website. And if you enjoy the Info Monkey and are unfamiliar with Ars Technica, check it out. They present a wealth of tech, science and gaming information that is in-depth and interesting without any of the shallow, mindless, click-bait blather you can find elsewhere.


A reader has added a long and detailed comment about how he manipulated visual information to improve his balance in training for rock climbing. It speaks directly to paragraph in the Ars Technica article that points out that experience with VR is likely to mitigate balance problems because it is well known that balance in a balance demanding task improves with practice. The comment is well worth reading.

Posted in Gaming, Science, Technology | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Baseball: Engaging the audience – Part 1


An earlier Info Monkey article suggested that the audience for e-sports is just the audience MLB (and every other major sport) wants to attract. It also argued that tinkering with tiny adjustments to speed up the game isn’t likely to attract this audience. If shaving 15 minutes off of the average game isn’t the answer, how do you expand baseball’s audience? Focus on one of the game’s great strengths, give people new ways to engage with the game, and give them the information they need to engage with baseball in new ways.

baseball thinkerBaseball has long been characterized as the thinking person’s game. Why? Because it’s deeply complex, small adjustments on the field can have large effects on the game’s outcome, the pitcher-batter conflict that lies at the core of the game is infinitely nuanced, and there is barely enough time in between pitches to try to take all of this into account and decide what to do next. This combination of decision time and tactical depth is one of the game’s great strengths. If you want to grow the audience for baseball, give people new ways and means to engage with the game at this level.

How do you do that? In this article I’ll look at giving the TV audience more and better information about the game. In Part 2 I write about giving fans something to do with this information.

Give the audience information that makes the game come alive

Much has been made of the ways advanced analytics in combination with real-time data gathering systems like PITCHf/x and Statcast have given baseball executives, managers, and analysts new insights into the game. Many broadcast networks are bringing this information to the audience but they tend to do it in limited, unimaginative, and largely ineffective ways.  There is enormous potential here to open up the game in ways that will engage the audience and increase interest in televised baseball. Want to attract a wider audience that isn’t afraid of technology? Take steps to realize this potential.

Here are a few examples. There are many more.

infield shift croppedIllustrate the shift. One network puts a small graphic in a corner of the screen that uses red dots to show the positions of the infielders on a play-by-play basis. The graphic is almost never explained and never referred to by the broadcasters. In it’s current form it’s basically a waste of screen space but it could be much more.

Illustrate the shift with a graphic like the one on the left that uses arrows to indicate changes of position, dots of one color to show the “normal” position, and dots of a different color to show the shifted position. This clearly shows the viewer whether and how much the infield is shifting. The “normal” position can be shown in a number of ways to illustrate different points for the audience. For example, “normal” could be a basic arrangement with all infielders equally spaced. It could be the average position of all major league infields, or the average position of the team that is in the field.

With appropriate commentary this type of graphic could be used to compare shifts used by a team against different batters. It could be used to compare shifts used against the same batter when he is facing different pitchers, or different counts, or different situations with runners on base. Variance around the equally-spaced infield position could be used as an index of how much each team relies on defensive infield shifts.

PowerzoneHeat maps. Networks commonly use heat maps to illustrate something about a batter’s performance in different areas in and around the strike zone. Usually these heat maps appear on the screen with little or no commentary about what the map is actually showing. For example, what does the heat map part of the “Powerzone” tell you about Bryce Harper? Does it show the areas of the zone where her puts the ball in play? Where he makes contact that results in a hit? Is slugging percentage somehow factored in or is a single equal to a home run as far as the heat map is concerned?

heyward swing prcnt

Jason Heyward percentage of swings per pitch location. From BrooksBaseball.net

Heat maps could be used to illustrate all of these things and more for the viewer. Where in the zone do pitchers tend to pitch to this hitter? Where does he tend to swing? Which zones are good for strikes? How does this change when the batter faces a left or right-handed pitcher? How is it affected by the pitch count?

Heat maps could also be used to illustrate how a pitcher attacks the strike zone. Different colors could be used to illustrate different pitches within a single graphic. The frequency with which the pitch is thrown could be shown by shades of color. If that graphic is too busy and hard to understand at a glance, each type of pitch the pitcher throws could have its own heat map and the maps could be compared side-by-side allowing the viewer to instantly grasp how the pitcher works the zone.

BA versus Kershaw

Pitching could be examined with many other insightful heat maps. Opponent’s batting average is one example. Where the pitcher throws in different pitch counts is another. What kind of pitch does a pitcher tend to throw in 2 strike counts? Where does he tend to throw it? Does he have different tendencies in 3-2 counts and 0-2 counts? Where in the zone and with what kind of pitch does he tend to get swinging strikes? Called strikes? Hits?

Gathering the data and building the graphics for these heat maps may sound like a lot of work but as fans of Fangraphs know, it’s already been done. Fangraphs has interactive heat maps that show everything suggested here and a lot more for every player in the major leagues.

Making use of information to engage the audience

Developing more informative graphics that are designed to help the audience engage with the game in new ways is easy. The data exists, the graphics exist, and several networks are already using them in their broadcasts. The problem is that they are using them poorly. Fancy graphics are wasted unless they are paired with broadcasters who can clearly explain what the graphic illustrates and use this information to provide insight into the game. That’s the hard part.

There are some baseball analysts who do a superb job of explaining what is happening on the field in ways that educate the audience about the richness and complexity of the game. However, many do not.

orioles broadcasters

Baltimore Orioles broadcasters Gary Thorne and Jim Palmer

(Although the gif might suggest otherwise, Gary Thorne contributes good play-by-play and Jim Palmer provides good analysis of the pitcher-batter confrontation when he’s not reminding the viewer over and over again about how good he was back in the day. The gif, however, was just too good to pass up.)

Most analysts are former players or managers. This is ideal because, at least in theory, they have a deep understanding of the game. Unfortunately, that understanding is rarely used to provide insight into what’s happening on the field right here, right now. Instead the former players tell war stories about when they played the game which in some cases can be decades ago. How many more times are we going to have to listen to the ESPN crew yuk it up about John Kruk’s 25 year old All-Star plate appearance against Randy Johnson? They ignore the game and talk about where they went to dinner last night and what they had to eat, their children’s high school graduations, their favorite TV shows from back in the day, the lunchbox they thought was cool in grade school. Get a clue, it’s not about you. Pay attention to the game.


When they talk about the game they often talk in generalities rather than about specific circumstances that are affecting what is actually happening on the field. For example, they talk about what kind of pitch you can generally expect in an 0-2 count. Their focus is on the count and everything else is out of focus as if it didn’t matter. They don’t talk about how the generic 0-2 pitch might be modified by what’s been working or not working for this pitcher during this game, what the batter typically does with the generic 0-2 pitch, what the batter typically does with an 0-2 count, who’s on base, who’s on deck. The pitcher, batter, and catcher are thinking about these things and the former player would be thinking about them too if he was deeply engaged with the game and thinking like a player. He could tell us about what’s really happening on the field as opposed to what usually happens.

confusedBaseball has changed since many of the analysts played the game. The combination of advanced analytics and the gigabits of data produced in real time about every MLB game  by PITCHf/x and Statcast have changed the way players are evaluated, strategy is shaped, and tactics are used during a game. It’s not uncommon for analysts who played in an earlier era to have a poor understanding of these changes and the analytics on which they are based. Worse, in some cases this lack of understanding is combined with a hostile or negative bias. Baseball is like any modern profession in that it changes and evolves. If you don’t want to learn new things, you are going to be out of date and left behind.

Bringing an analytics guru into the broadcast booth won’t solve the problem if he or she talks as if everyone listening understands analytics at the same level they do. You need someone who is good at explaining baseball analytics and sophisticated data visualizations in language that the typical viewer can understand. Someone who doesn’t talk in the arcane acronyms of advanced analytics. Someone who is not an ideological advocate for analytics but can use them dispassionately, pointing out both their strengths and their weaknesses. You need a good teacher.

fieldfxPair this person in the booth with an open-minded former player and let the two of them cooperate to bring their respective areas of expertise together to analyze the game. Give them sophisticated information visualization tools and encourage them to create informative graphics that they can use to illustrate and explain what is happening on the field. Keep the focus on educating and informing the audience so that the viewer can engage more deeply with the richness and complexity of the game they’re watching.

Former players and analytics specialists love baseball because they have a deep understanding of how rich and engaging the game is. Give them the tools and the platform to share that understanding with the audience. One of the great strengths of baseball is that it is a thinking person’s game. If you want to attract a wider audience to baseball, double down on that strength.

In this article I presented suggestions about how to engage the audience by bringing them information that enriches their understanding of the game. In Part 2 I offer some suggestions about things baseball can do to engage the audience further by giving them something to do with this information.

Posted in Baseball, Information visualization | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment