World Travel, Bumpy Roads, and Adjusting Your Graph Scales!

Coffee plantation Organic coffee plantation in the highlands

I love to travel. In fact, my family and I make it a point to travel abroad every year. We joke that we have a case of chronic travel itch! The memories and experiences last for a lifetime and are priceless.

We just returned from an amazing trip to beautiful Costa Rica. We had a fantastic time hiking through cloud forests, rain forests, and up a volcano. We saw an amazing array of animals in their native habitats: monkeys, sloths, birds, snakes, reptiles, and frogs. In fact, on a night hike through the rainforest, I saw the most dangerous snake in Costa Rica, the Bothrops asper, coiled up on the side of the path, ready to strike! Fortunately, our guide has amazingly good, and well-practiced eyes, and had seen it well in advance. The rest of us had a hard time finding it even after he was shining a flashlight on it and pointing it out!

It was while we were being rattled about in a four wheel drive vehicle on a rocky road to our ecolodge in the remote Osa peninsula that I realized that travelling is just like adjusting the scale in your Minitab graphs!

I know that might not make sense at first, but let me explain. Just as you travel to gain a new perspective on your life’s personal data, adjusting the scale on your graph gives you a new perspective on your numerical data.

Local Versus Global

I'll illustrate this concept with an example of a local view versus a more global view. Recently we’ve been shopping for a new car because someone ran into our old one. The salesman was quite keen to emphasize the smooth and quiet ride. I agreed that cars with squeaks and bumps were annoying. Well, the bumps and squeaks that I was thinking of at that point, on the smooth roads near home, were on a completely different scale than the bumps and squeaks we were experiencing on the rough road through the remote rainforest. The contrast gave me a chuckle because we were very much enjoying the exciting ride! Perhaps it’s not so important to remove all of the bumps and squeaks from your life?

Imagine that we measured and graphed the intensity of the local bumps and the jungle bumps on Minitab’s time series plot. If we use the default auto scaling feature, Minitab statistical software draws a nice looking graph that is scaled to the data at hand. It’s “local” in the sense that it’s based on the data that you have in the worksheet. It’s not taking some larger perspective from outside of the data.

The two graphs below both use the automatic scaling feature and look pretty much the same. The data fills both graphs just perfectly and each one looks nice and normal. They give you that comfortable and familiar feeling of being local. One is local for near my home and the other is local for the rainforest. Only if you look closely at the Y-axes do you see the different scale. There is no visual impact of the true differences in the data.

Home bounces time series plot

Jungle bounces time series plot

What if we were to use a more global perspective on the local bump data? For example, let’s say that we gained a new perspective by traveling on jungle roads and we now use the jungle scale for the bounces near home. We’d get the graph below and see it in an entirely new way.

Home bounces using the Jungle scale

Yes, it might look a bit odd. Maybe it appears a bit awkward or uncomfortable. The data is crammed at the bottom with a lot of wasted space above it. It may not be considered “normal” looking. But, there is a definite visual impact that highlights the difference. And, that’s what traveling does for you. It might put you outside of your comfort zone and things will certainly be unfamiliar. However, the new perspective can be informative.

Closing Thoughts

MonkeyAs we go about our daily lives, our minds create a world view using an automatic scale approach. Whatever we experience regularly becomes normal. Our mental pictures become scaled to fit our experiences perfectly. This fit gives us that comfortable feeling. However, it can also make us stuck in a rut because everything looks the same, just like the first 2 graphs. After all, it’s all neatly resized to fit the same mental boxes.

Experiencing new cultures and environments is a great way to stop using the automatic scaling and use a new scale to gain a new perspective! You not only learn new things but it gives you a different perspective on familiar things. When you see things in a new way, you’re energized and perhaps even more creative. I used the simple example of bounces to illustrate this concept, but, more importantly, it applies to larger ideas as well.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t ever use the automatic scaling. In your daily lives, using your local knowledge is often the quickest and easiest. Likewise, it’s fine to graph data quickly with the automatic scaling to get a quick picture of the data that you have on hand. However, it’s nice to have the ability to put your local data into a larger context. When you do that, things that look important at first glance may actually be unimportant. Or vice versa! Often, to produce the most informative graphs, you’ll have to tweak the scales manually. (Just double click the scale to do this.)

So, go out into the world, explore, experience new things, and adjust your scales to gain new insights!

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