Saturday, August 25, 2012

Premonition or Chance?

For some reason lately, I have been thinking about the great Japanese engineer and quality improvement expert Genichi Taguchi.  I have been thinking about him a lot more than usual.  I have met the man a few times back in the 1980s when he was a significant and influential advisor to the auto industry.  I have been thinking about his work and especially a measure that he touted, the signal-to-noise ratio, which is the ratio of the mean to the standard deviation.   Taguchi used the signal-to-noise ratio to allow designed of experiments to evaluate multiple response variables as one. 
Rest easy, this piece is not a feeble attempt to explain the signal-to-noise ratio to those of you that don't give a whit about it.
In thinking about the Taguchi, I wondered if he was still with us.  I thought he had passed on several years ago.  So, I did what I do these days when the slightest notion or query about any old thing pops into my head... I googled his name.  I was surprised to learn that he passed away on June 2nd of this year.  He was 88 years old.  I was at some of his first lectures at Ford Motor Company.  I was selected by my section supervisor to attend these lectures for two reasons.  First, I was a math major.  Second, he had to send someone and I was the only person who showed any interest.  Honestly, I did not understand very much in those first lectures do to a combination of Dr. Taguchi's very thick accent and the, at that time, very confusing nature of the subject. 
I will still write about the signal-to-noise ratio.  I will post it on my business blog:  The reason I am blogging about this here is that this thinking about the great man only to find that he had recently passed away made me think of the subconscious, of serendipity, of being psychic, and of having premonitions.  I am not saying that I possess any of these traits or skills.  I am not even suggesting that I was somehow channeling the passing of Dr. Taguchi two and a half months after he actually passed on.  I am not sure I believe in any of these things.  By the same token, the compliment of that last sentence is that I might believe in these things.  I do believe there is a non-zero probability that premonitions or whatever you want to call them happen.  Just don't ask me for what that probability is.
Part of not being firmly on one side or the other is that there no definitive data one way or another.  Another part is that I am a statistician. Statisticians tend to see things in more shade of gray than normal, regular, folk.  We may view life in more shades of gray than even Ruta Sepetys.  This whole question of being psychic and having premonitions is definitely gray.  I know people who will read this and write me that premonitions and other psychic phenomena are very real.  I would be much more inclined to believe them if they ESPed me.  Certainly, there are others who will discount me for even suggesting any of this might actually be real. 
What is a premonition?  We all have them.  The most common is that we are thinking of an old friend or acquaintance and they call that day or the next.  It is serendipitous enough that our first words are something akin to "oh my God, I was just thinking about you, honest."  How often does this happen?  If you know three hundred people that you are in touch with at least once every year or so and you think about them at least twice that much, what is the probability that you think of them the same day that they call?  What is the probability distribution for this happening in general?  What level of probability would constitute something extraordinary is happening?  I am sure there are people who have actually estimated such things.  I might actually do some research or even attempt some calculations for a second installment on this topic. 
For me, if there is such a thing, it would be about people communicating with each other subconsciously in such a subtle way that it would be easy to assume it was just chance.  If we could really sense things or the actions of others, it might be possible to sense things that we could use for our personal advantage.  If this is remotely true, than those with that gift are a very closed mouthed group.  Thinking about an old friend and then having them call is one thing, being able to sense that Warren Buffet is about to make a huge investment is entirely different.  Maybe you have to know and be connected with the other person for this to actually work. 
I do not think these premonitions happen to me any more than they do for anyone else.  But that is more hunch than fact.  How would one go about even measuring this.  I could write down every time I think of someone and than note if they called.  This would work, but I am pretty certain I would not even last a day at this exercise.  I would get bored quickly with such a tedious task.
To close this, let's conduct a little experiment shall we.  I am thinking of one of you that might possible read this.  If we are indeed channeling or whatever we might call it, I will expect a communication from you via that mode I am thinking about on the day that I am thinking about.  If that happens, I will not be surprised and say "Oh my, you won't believe this, I was just thinking about you."


  1. Mark
    sorry to learn from your Blog that Taguchi passed away recently. Many years ago, I was working with my friend Anand who has actually met Taguchi. I have not. He would come to Minneapolis to consult with Pillsbury.

    Taguchi's methods were more realistic. Since you said that you are a statistician, that makes me cautious. I had learnt the old Box-Benkins methods first. But I found Taguchi's methods to make more sense in an industrial context.

    Hope someone is carrying his ideas forward.

    Only in Japan, they celebrate quality control. They have a holiday for an American named Deming.

    Quality at any cost.


  2. If both persons are thinking about each other at the same time, do they cancel out of any, "OMG, I was just thinking about you!"

    I was thinking about you and wondered if you had written anything new on your blog, so I opened my computer to your blog and ...An article on Premonition or Chance. The day I opened and read your article, I wanted to respond, but I couldn't because I must have been a robot lol. So here I am days later and my comment is published. Now why is that?