“Convention”al Wisdom

As often happens when I find myself meandering down the sidewalk of a strange city, a stranger walks up to me and says, “Hi Nick, can you spare a dime?”

All the frequent business travelers out there have no doubt deduced from the above sentence that:

1. I am on a business trip out of town attending a convention.

2. I have never been to this particular city before.

3. I have wandered into a downtown area that locals refer to as the “seamy side.”

4. I still have the convention’s cheery “Hi, My Name is…Nick Burn” sticky label stuck to my shirt breast.

In this case, I was attending a convention in Anaheim, California; home of a hockey team called the Mighty Ducks that spawned an enormous entertainment industry called Disney.

Now, here’s an interesting exercise. Try to imagine 5,000 statisticians gathered together for a convention partying it up and having a good time. Right, I didn’t think you could imagine that.

This is because the topic of statistics, while not necessarily the most fascinating topic, is easily the most boring. This is why I practically have to be a stand-up comedian when I give seminars to teach people how to apply statistics. I tell jokes like the following one I heard from a colleague:

Three statisticians went deer hunting. In short order, they spy a magnificent buck. The first statistician aims, fires and misses the deer one foot to the left. The second statistician aims, fires and misses the deer one foot to the right. The third statistician jumps and yells, “we got it!”

Get it? On average, they hit the deer.

I usually have to explain my jokes to my class, which sort of wrecks the atmosphere of telling a good joke.

Sometimes I have to resort to singing and dancing. Everybody sing along:

Old MacDonald had a farm,


The arithmetic average is the sum of all the data points divided by the number of data points,


This is not a pretty picture.

At least the jokes I tell are ones that most normal people can understand, even after having it explained. The jokes statisticians tell each other at their conventions are downright bizarre:

First statistician: Sigma pi epsilon mu squared?

Second statistician: Sigma pi epsilon mu cubed!

Instead of applause, this sort of knee slapper is greeted by the thunderous sound of thousands of keys being pressed on statistical calculators to register, calculate and record the joke approval rating for summary statistical analysis later on in the bars.

This is why I escape to the trade floor to gather up souvenirs for the kids. The trades’ people at a statistics convention are desperate for your attention. They’re more normal type people with regular jobs in sales and marketing. They try to pierce the dense fog of deep thought that most statisticians seem to occupy by throwing souvenirs at them; things like foam puzzles, stress balls and textbooks. So it only takes me a few moments to pick up some souvenir items off of the floor and make my way back to my hotel room.

Sometimes, I wish I worked in a profession that holds conventions where the trade floor people give away better things. Like if I were a delegate at a convention hosted by the UN where they probably hand out small pacific island nations to the conventioneers.

Oh well, as is the case with most conventions, when all is said and done, more gets said than done. When it’s all over and the delegates have packed up and headed home, and the trade show people have taken down their displays, and the conference center has counted up all their profits, there is only one thing left to do that really matters after a good conventions; figure out how to remove that sticky label stuck to your shirt breast.

Nick Burn is a freelance writer, husband, father of three, engineer, teacher, and webmaster for the Canadian Catholic Information Network. In his spare time (hah!), he enjoys camping, skiing and reading.

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