A Rickety Stairway to SQL Server Data Mining, Part 0.1: Data In, Data Out
A rather refreshing if anonymous take on statistics and data mining.
Since I can access SQL Servers in the cloud (without the necessity of maintaining a local Windows Server box), thought I should look at data mining for SQL Servers.
This was one of the first posts I encountered.
In the first of a series of amateur tutorials on SQL Server Data Mining (SSDM), I promised to pull off an impossible stunt: explaining the broad field of statistics in a few paragraphs without the use of equations. What other SQL Server blog ends with a cliffhanger like that? Anyone who aims at incorporating data mining into their IT infrastructure or skill set in any substantial way is going to have to learn to interpret equations, but it is possible to condense a few key statistical concepts in a way that will help those who aren’t statisticians – like me – to make productive use of SSDM without them. These crude Cliff’s Notes can at least familiarize DBAs, programmers and other readers of these tutorials with the minimal bare bones concepts they will need to know in order to interpret the data output by SSDM’s nine algorithms, as well as to illuminate the inner workings of the algorithms themselves. Without that minimal foundation, it will be more difficult to extract useful meaning from your data mining efforts.
The first principle to keep in mind is so absurdly obvious that it is often half-consciously forgotten – perhaps because it is right before our noses – but it is indispensable to understanding both the field of statistics and the stats output by SSDM. To wit, the numbers signify something. Some intelligence assigned meaning to them. One of the biggest hurdles when interpreting statistical data, reading equations or learning a foreign language is the subtle, almost subconscious error of forgetting that these symbols reflect ideas in the head of another conscious human being, which probably correspond to ideas that you also have in your head, but simply lack the symbols to express. An Englishman learning to read or write Spanish, Portuguese, Russian or Polish may often forget that the native speakers of these languages are trying to express the exact same concepts that an English speaker would; they have the exact same ideas in their heads as we do, but communicate them quite differently. Quite often, the seemingly incoherent quirks and rules of a particular foreign language may actually be part of a complex structure designed to convey identical, ordinary ideas in a dissimilar, extraordinary way. It is the same way with mathematical equations: the scientists and mathematicians who use them are trying to convey ideas in the most succinct way they know. It is often easier for laymen to understand the ideas and supporting evidence that those equations are supposed to express, when they’re not particularly well-versed in the detailed language that equations represent. I’m a layman, like some of my readers probably are. My only claim to expertise in this area is that when I was in fourth grade, I learned enough about equations to solve the ones my father, a college physics teacher, taught every week – but then I forgot it all, so I found myself back at Square One when I took up data mining a few years back.
On a side note, it would be wise for anyone who works with equations regularly to consciously remind themselves that they are merely symbols representing ideas, rather than the other way around; a common pitfall among physicists and other scientists who work with equations regularly seems to be the Pythagorean heresy, i.e. the quasi-religious belief that reality actually consists of mathematical equations. It doesn’t. If we add two apples to two apples, we end up with four apples; the equation 2 + 2 = 4 expresses the nature and reality of several apples, rather than the apples merely being a stand-in for the equation. Reality is not a phantom that obscures some deep, dark equation underlying all we know; math is simply a shortcut to expressing certain truths about the external world. This danger is magnified when we pile abstraction on top of abstraction, which may lead to the construction of ivory towers that eventually fall, often spectacularly. This is a common hazard in the field of finance, where our economists often forget that money is just an abstraction based on agreements among large numbers of people to assign certain meanings to it that correspond to tangible, physical goods; all of the periodic financial crashes that have plagued Western civilization since Tulipmania have been accompanied by a distinct forgetfulness of this fact, which automatically produces the scourge of speculation. I’ve often wondered if this subtle mistake has also contributed to the rash of severe mental illness among mathematicians and physicists, with John Nash (of the film A Beautiful Mind), Nicolai Tesla and Georg Cantor being among the most recognized names in a long list of victims. It may also be linked to the uncanny ineptitude of our most brilliant physicists and mathematicians when it comes to philosophy, such as Rene Descartes, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing. In his most famous work, Orthodoxy, 20th Century British journalist G.K. Chesterton noticed the same pattern, which he summed up thus: “Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.” At a deeper level, some of the risk to mental health from excessive math may pertain to seeking patterns that aren’t really there, which may be closely linked to the madness underlying ancient “arts” of divination like haruspicy and alectromancy.