Archive for the 'Links' Category

Joy Index, part two: US three times less depressed than Europe

If you find this image of despair stimulating, click on the image to go to “The brokers with hands on their faces blog”

Diligent Talknormalists will recall that, just over a year ago, I introduced the Joy Index to measure the mood of the English-speaking world. The index was compiled by dividing the number of stories in the news media mentioning “joy” by the number mentioning “gloom”. I exclude sports reports, which are fun but produce a transient excess of both; and obituaries, where our joy or gloom at someone’s death would probably owe more to that person than the state of the world.

When the line goes up, we’re becoming more joyful. When if goes down, we’re becoming gloomier. Actually, the index is dominated by gloominess – the amount of joy in our lives, or at least in the newspapers, is remarkably stable.

In the US, the average of the Joy Index was at an unsurprising historical low, just above 2.0, during 2008 – the same level as it reached in the week of the 9/11 attack. In the first week of August 2011 it was all the way down to 1.62.

So, first the good news! In 2012 the US has been, until recently, much less gloomy if we take a monthly average: the TN Joy Index has kept well above 2.0 at all times. Of course, October was a gloomy month. Hurricanes are like that. But, compared to the darkest days of 2008, there’s between two and four times less gloominess in the news:

Meanwhile, in Europe, the English-language press isn’t so optimistic. The index shows there’s about three times as much gloom for each unit of joy as there is in the US. I blame austerity, or maybe socialism:

It is, in the words of the nonsense phrase, a global world. It’s possible that Americans just don’t like to write about gloomy things as much, though that would be a recent phenomenon: last time I calculated the index, there wasn’t this US-Europe split. Most of the time, we are all in it together. When you take the indices in November 2011 as a starting point, the ratio of joy-to-gloom in Europe and the US rises and falls in just the same way (until Sandy in October):

We’re on the same emotional rollercoaster – it’s just that Europeans really, really want to get off. This could be because, more often, the ultra-gloomy news has been happening in Europe. When the index dipped, the three most important topics in gloomy stories were the Euro zone, consumer confidence and Central Banks in Europe, and Euro zone, consumer confidence and monetary policy in the US.

When the index went up, the gloom story headlines showed no strong pattern. Clearly it is better to worry about many things, some of the time, than one thing, all the time.

Think of the upswings in the Joy Index as having a hangover while it is raining outside, your car needs a new gearbox, and a small child has been singing really annoying made-up songs for three hours. Never mind! In the Joy Index downswings, your life would be exactly the same – except the bank repossesses your house as well.

One final point, for those of you who read blogs while wondering, “this is all very well, but what do the markets think?” Since November 2010 the US Joy Index has been a statistically significant predictor of the size of the month-end change in the Dow’s moving average. As I said last time: sell gloom, buy joy.

The dangers of data journalism

The World Bank: “Our mission is to fight poverty with passion and professionalism for lasting results” it says. It also provides shelter from the rain for that little panda.

My previous post on data journalism might have conveyed the impression that I think it will cure all the problems of the press-release-rewriting style of journalism that readers of the Metro, for example, experience. Following several emails, I think I need to clarify.

I praised BBC Radio’s More or Less, but Matt Berkley emailed to criticise the programme’s feature on the World Bank’s global poverty stats, which he thinks “misleads in several important aspects”. Matt’s comment interested me (not least because I have, in another life, done some research on global poverty statistics), so I had another look. Feel free to read his complaint to the BBC and compare it to the published story, or the podcast.

Data doesn’t remove the room for debate, it just shifts the debate on to different territory. A data journalist will still make value judgements – but those should, where possible, be informed by statistical analysis, not an appeal to authority.

Now, attempting to report world poverty in a newspaper article sets the bar extremely high: even the meaning of the word “poverty” is a value judgement.

We can do better than “world poverty is decreasing because the World Bank says it is”, which is a simple appeal to authority: those guys are the experts, so they must be correct.

Given the world Bank report, journalists may ask:

  • Why we pick a certain income level to indicate poverty? Even if we accept that far fewer people now live on $1.25 or less, there are almost as many people surviving on $2 or less as there were before. The poverty line may be defined as not starving, or not having some defined “basic needs” met, or not being among the poorest 20 per cent in your country. These are all different numbers, and all used by economists. Note: you can’t eradicate the last type of poverty, in case you were wondering.
  • Whether we correct an arbitrary poverty line for the relative price of the things that poor people buy in different countries (also, how do we decide what those things are? The poor in different countries eat different food, and have different habits, which may make some parts of the world seem richer, when the quality of life is no better).
  • Do we use a measure of earned income, or of what those people can eat or trade? The urban poor may have a bit more cash than the rural poor, but don’t have domestic animals, for example, so they might spend more but eat less. This is very difficult to measure.
  • Most seriously, do the statistics use data to manipulate the headline? If you have done the rest of the analysis, this becomes clearer. Governments (or World Banks) are sometimes accused of picking a threshold, or a measurement process, to suit a carefully-chosen good news agenda.

An example of the final point: the government of Cynicalia wants to claim that it has abolished poverty, with the poverty line defined as $1.25 a day (as the World Bank defines it). There are a million working class Cynicalians earning on average $1 a day, and a million middle class Cynicalians earning on average $3 a day, and the president and his family earn $100,000 a day. It might squeeze the middle so that there are two million people earning $2 a day, while not redistributing the president’s wealth at all which is hidden in Switzerland. The government can now send a press release claiming that no one is poor, and that more than half the country is as well off, or better off, than before the reform.

A journalist can check the numbers of poor people at different poverty lines (maybe even using different measurements of income), investigate how the poverty line is calculated, or examine the effect of different redistribution policies. The figures exist, though working out how they were calculated can be a headache. All this takes time and some expertise, which is a problem.

Or the newspaper can just give up, and tell the journalist to repeat the government’s claim that Poverty is History. In which case that journalist is a loyal Cynic.

The article that Matt criticises covers many of the assumptions on poverty lines in some detail, and highlights their shortcomings. He feels the BBC should have done better.

I don’t agree with most of Matt’s complaint, for two editorial reasons. The first is that, where assumptions are made, I think they are clearly and accurately spelt out. The second is that this feature does not attempt to support a conclusion, merely to investigate how we calculate it (I also disagree with his analysis for a couple of economic reasons, but this is not the forum to air that discussion).

Data journalism is becoming trendy. I wish I’d written about Nate Silver in 2008, before I looked like a bandwagon jumper. But here’s the point: statistics do not resolve all arguments. A data journalist needs to understand how the data was collected, how it is presented, and whether the conclusions are justified by the data. The journalist also needs to resist overclaiming, based on a the emotional appeal of what the data seems to say.

I can show you plenty of examples of bad data journalism, where a little understanding can be as bad as none at all: I’ll leave it to you to ask.

For one day only

The budget cuts in local radio were starting to bite

6pm update: here’s a link to my interview on Ireland’s Newstalk. It starts about 35 minutes into this stream, but I thoroughly recommend the 10 minutes that precede my segment too: it’s an interview with the inventor of a special bag that you pee into when you can’t find a toilet. It was easily the most amusing discussion of urine that I’ve listened to before the watershed.

Today (Friday), any of you who are pretending to work from home might get the bonus of Talk Normal on your radio. That really is me! Or, if you’ve come here because you just heard me on the radio, that really was me!

Or, indeed, if you’re planning your Friday and are wondering what to do until happy hour, then residents of Coventry & Warwickshire, Leeds, Cumbria, Belfast, Antrim, Omagh, Kent, Stockport (and Congleton) and Norfolk (and some more) should tune in to local radio. During the day I’ll be chatting to all of you about a survey of jargon.

Here’s an article in the Mail online about the jargon survey. I’m quoted near the bottom. My quote about communicating in a way that people could understand was, when I checked, next to the headline “Precocious Honey Boo Boo stumbles over Spanish… and bursts into tears as ‘pageant good luck charm’ pet pig Glitzy is sent back”, which I can only assume was written by a duck pointing its bill at random words in an old copy of Hello!.

This is, of course, also how new copies of Hello! are written. It takes a lot of ducks but, crucially, not many journalists.

For first-time Talknormalists: now you’re here, have a look around. Find out my views about penguins on conference calls or discover my intimate connection to Katie Price’s breasts. Residents of South Ribble, I know your secrets. Then, most important, buy the Talk Normal book. There’s secret stuff in there that I never talk about on the radio.


Not an epic fail

I was reading an article in the paper yesterday in which two men, pedalling from Hastings to the London Olympic site in a pedalo shaped like a big swan for a documentary on how London is changing, were described as having taken an “epic” journey. In the comments below the article, someone pointed out that we may be lowering the bar on epicness.

Thing is – and I’m telling you this before my friend Chris appears below the line to explain – what they did really is epic, in the original concept of the word. I looked this up. We borrow the concept from the epic poems of Greek literature, which detailed the achievements of someone who struggled against adversity for a principle and whose deeds occurred while he wandered about a lot. OK, so I didn’t really bother to finish reading the definition, but you get the idea.

Pedalling from Hastings in a fibreglass swan to document the consumerisation of our culture is, in a British way, epic, and contrasts with the way we commonly use “epic” to describe something which has only the quality of bigness. The film of this small pedalo epic is out today. It is called Swandown, and I’d rather watch it than having to sit through many recent cinema epics, where “epic” translates as “45 minutes longer than it needs to be”.

I remember Rolling Stone reviewed Oliver Stone’s epic film Alexander as a Buttnumbathon, for example.

Looking at European press coverage over the last 10 years, the growth in the frequency with which films, books, fashion items and pedalo journeys are described as epic has been similar for press releases and in newspapers. This has resulted in approximately 15,000 things becoming epic for the first time since the beginning of 2003, and we’ve still got an Olympic Games to exaggerate.

As we are often told, we live in a global world these days (which always makes me wonder what shape they expected it to be). But, as our horizons get larger, the epic stuff gets smaller: our 10 year timeline begins with the epic gym kit transportation solution of 2003, the Nike Epic backpack:

A godlike manbeetle from the future

At first glance it looks a bit small for an epic hero’s knicknacks. The siege of Troy took 10 years, for example. We can’t be completely sure: there are 15,000 lines in the Iliad, and Homer never once mentions a Greek warrior’s luggage allowance. We must therefore conclude this is a modern concept, and so I suppose Nike is free to corner the market in heroic backpacks.

But some of these 15,000 things just aren’t epic, even if the excited journalists who happily rewrite press releases for us wish it were so. Fast forward to last month, when MTV used “epic” to describe Mark Wahlberg fighting with an imaginary teddy bear. I sat through Alexander, I’m relaxed about rucksacks, but this is where I draw the line.

Nearly famous now

We’re all winners here at Talk Normal, but today I’m a tiny bit more of a winner than you are.

I haven’t actually won anything, you understand. Yet.

A very pleasant person from the Plain English Campaign told me that Talk Normal has been nominated for a Plain English Champion award.

It’s not the first time I have earned a nomination on merit, of course: in 1990 I was nominated for redundancy.

I don’t find out out if I’m a winner until the end of the year but, in the proud tradition of companies who haven’t actually won but don’t want you to notice, I intend to squeeze this particular orange for all the juice I can get. Maybe I will leverage my reputation enhancement strategy by putting news of this not-quite-award in a giant email signature, with the word “nominated” in tiny tiny tiny yellow type.

Meanwhile, put your weight behind the Plain English Campaign, not least because it invented the name ploddledygook for police jargon.

Exclusive: Obama campaign links to South Ribble’s secret Marxists

Some Marxists eat food like this

I used to moan that there was too little debate about politics in the UK. Policy discussion prominently involved making up slogans and white male politicians boasted about the black people they met. I wanted more robust debate.

Be careful what you wish for. In the US, a country that I admire for its logical approach to spelling, bizarre yet entertaining sports and excellent comedy and drama that often make British equivalents seem like a school play, political hell now regularly breaks loose, and often it’s a bit barmy. Lately the press has decided to debate the meaning of the word Forward, because that’s the Obama campaign slogan.

It’s definitely a more useful arrangement of seven letters than the unspoofable Australian political slogan We are Us, which just makes no sense at all. The question that the hard-of-thinking political class has been asking: does using the word prove that he’s secretly a communist?

I don’t want to prejudge the issue, other than saying that the Marxism claim is the sort of thing that a smelly drunk guy at a bus stop starts telling you about while people give you furtive sympathetic looks. But read the papers, and they’re sounding more like the smelly guy. The Washington Times is just one of the newspapers which pointed out that the radical left often calls its publications “Forward” too. The journalists who wrote the story even went as far as looking these newspapers up on Wikipedia.

(Note to my American journalist peers: we all occasionally fill up 300 words by cutting and pasting from Wikipedia - but if you admit that you’re doing it, you ruin things for the rest of us. Still, it saved me a job finding the links for you.)

Even a stopped clock is correct twice a day, and so the lazy political hacks of the Washington Times have a small point. Historically, a lot of socialist papers have been called Forward. As a name it certainly has the edge over Sideways, Backwards and The Kingston Whig-Standard.

To help my North American readers decide on Forwardgate, I checked out some of the newspapers called Forward that attempt to brainwash Brits.

In Gateshead, Moving Forward newspaper suspiciously offers “free courses” organised by the Gateshead Housing Company.  It promises you will learn “new” skills and meet “new” people.

Communistic American attendees will be pleased to know that there are interpreters available on these courses, as the Geordie accent can be challenging:

If anyone is innocently thinking of sending their children from the US to Gateshead to take one of these courses, I need only remind you of Obama’s compulsory re-education camps that you were warned about in 2009. Could it be that these imaginary camps have simply relocated to the North-East of England? Well, no, but I’ve never started a conspiracy theory before, so you might want to run with this one for me.

The US has a long tradition of political radicals who prefer to live outside the narrow confines of civilisation in places where the norms of polite society and rule of law don’t apply. The UK equivalent of these places is Preston. It is no surprise to find that local South Ribble Borough Council calls its newspaper Forward as well.

You won’t be surprised to hear that the commies have made this publication carbon neutral, when they could just as easily have published one that used non-socialist carbon stuff instead. Provocative.

“Who will win South Ribble’s Search for a Star Contest?” it asks, innocently. I suggest it wants one of its fellow travellers to inform on that person so that the South Ribble Politburo can authorise its secret police to intern him or her without charge as a warning to those who seek to exercise the cherished capitalist freedom to win talent competitions. Is it a coincidence that previous South Ribble Search for a Star Winners are almost always never heard of again? I think not.

Finally, the latest edition of Forward from Birmingham City Council hides its crypto-communist credentials inside articles titled: State-of-the-art new public pool makes a splash and Fun for all at Big Jubilee Weekend, but it doesn’t fool me.

My warning is especially relevant for America’s easily-fooled liberal East coast metropolitans: this disgraceful radical propaganda sheet boasts that:

Influential critics at the New York Times newspaper have placed Birmingham at number 19 in its ‘Places To Go In 2012’ shortlist thanks to the city’s growing reputation for world-class cuisine.

Don’t fall for it, New Yorkers! If you visit one of the area’s interesting, inexpensive and welcoming Indian restaurants there will probably some mind altering Marxist drug in your chicken Balti. How do I know? Well, if the critics from the NYT think there are only 18 better places to visit than Birmingham, someone’s definitely been taking something.

I’m back and still irritated

Eco car. I found this picture on a site titled “World of Female”. It’s like Germaine Greer never happened.

As someone who would favour a republic in the UK, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee was never going to be a completely happy weekend – but it gave me the kick I needed to post again. So a bit of general business:

  1. Sorry I’ve not been here for you. I’ve been at university learning how to compile better graphs (among other things). It has been really difficult, thanks for asking, and a bit mystifying for the other students. For the last nine months they have been wondering why someone brought his/her dad to lectures.
  2. But I’m back now. Anything that’s bothering you Talknormalwise, let me know. With the pervasive doublespeak about negative growth, expansionary contractions and now the coyly-titled London Bridge Incident, the cause of Talknormalism needs us more than ever.
  3. Today I’m mostly annoyed by the phrase Eco cars. Delighted as I am to read about cars that run on stale bread or something (I haven’t looked into the mechanics in detail, as you have probably guessed), the phrase is like “Life guns” or “Health cancer”. It’s designed to make gullible people super happy, by convincing them that cars reduce pollution. To be clear, in case you were super happy until just now: cars never do this, even cute ones with mice in them (see above).
  4. THE NEXT BIT IS VERY IMPORTANT. You can tell I’ve been in academia: I bury the vital information in item five.
  5. If you like Talk Normal (“delightfully amusing”, Fortune Magazine), I’d appreciate if one or two of you can pop over to my book page on Amazon and review my book. At the moment I’m lacking those “I laughed until my head exploded” or “The most important book of the decade” five-star zingers, and so I will remain poor for ever. If you could write a review I won’t have to hire a word of mouth agency to write hundreds of fake reviews like all those companies with successful social networking strategies.
  6. In conclusion (academic writing style again, sorry) please write a review for me.

If you do that, I’ll be back shortly with a larger post featuring better jokes. Maybe a graph: let’s see what the reviews say.

Living the dream

She may be a VIP, but he knows it's still a ridiculous hat

One more thing for Londoners to be proud of: we have Europe’s largest urban shopping centre! In his review of Westfield Stratford City Jonathan Glancey points out the over-use of “VIP” as a way of describing what’s inside – and, when VIP isn’t enough, Vue Cinemas reaches for “luxury VIP” to describe its facility.

There was a time when VIP had meaning – today’s picture is from the 1963 melodrama “the VIPs”, which was an peek into the privileged lifestyle of the rich and famous. In the film the VIPs are stuck in their special bit of London Airport. There’s fog. They argue. No one visits a Vue cinema. I don’t recommend it, but it’s fun to spot Orson Welles and David Frost in the cast.

VIP-creep is classic word hysteria: once your competitor claims VIP facilities, you counter-claim with your own VIP thingy. In nightclubs it often means a bit that’s up a step. In the area around Stratford City (I speak as a former resident), it generally means “not broken yet”.

In press releases, it’s about three times as common as it was a decade ago. It usually refers to something more expensive than other things. Economics dictates that the gap between VIP and non-VIP will eventually cease to exist: someone with a service that’s marginally better than basic – but worse than the worst thing described as VIP – can choose to use VIP to describe their product. They grab some of the tiny amount of residual glamour. This becomes the worst thing described as VIP, and so on.

The growth of “luxury VIP” is an idiotic attempt to reinvigorate the idea of commercial privilege. Between 2000 and 2009 it appeared four times a year in press releases. In 2010, it showed up 42 times. So far this year, 34 times.

Based on the things described on the internet as “Luxury VIP”, I’m looking forward to the remake of the 1963 film: the Luxury VIPs would star Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton and feature a cameo from Peaches Geldof. They are stuck at Heathrow, so they visit the multiplex, use a portable toilet, and hire a minibus. This is living the dream.

Worst practice

Package of measures

At the weekend I enjoyed reading a review of the latest set of political diaries published by Chris Mullin, former member of parliament and lifelong plain speaker. In the latest volume, which covers the birth of New Labour and the 1997 election, he criticises the Gordon Brown – at that point a pushy shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer on the way up the political ladder. In the diary Mullin complains that Brown is spending every weekend trying to get on the TV news, “but having got there he has nothing to say beyond calling for a package of measures.”

The package of measures (PoM) promises so much – until you ask yourself what the person calling for it actually wants, and you realise you’re not sure.

(In one way, perhaps, Brown’s desire for packages of measures was satisfied in the ten years after 1997. An average of 2,685 laws was passed each year, more than in any other period. While Brown was prime minister, 33 criminal offences were created a month, including “Carrying grain on a ship without a copy of the International Grain Code on board “, and not nominating a keyholder for your burglar alarm.)

I checked to see whether Brown continued to be a prolific package-caller in government. Yes:

In the years 1994-1997, Mullin is spot-on. Brown called for (or announced) many more packages than Tony Blair while they were in opposition. After 1997, while Blair was prime minister, Brown showed PoM leadership in most years. Succeeding Blair in the top job, plus a financial meltdown, seems to have inspired a frenzy of late career measure-package-announcing in Brown, if PoMs can come in frenzies.

PoMs are hard to argue against unless you’re a complete contrarian, because they are sold as an outcome, not component by component – a “package of measures to…”, followed by a generally admirable suggestion. They’re the political equivalent of a Talk Normal business jargon favourite, Best Practice (BP). Calling for companies to adopt BP is a no-brainer, in that you don’t need a brain to do it. Claiming you follow BP is an impressive-sounding, though often empty, way to speak well of yourself.

BP-recommending has been on the rise since 1994, at least in the UK (it’s not nearly so popular in the US; I don’t know why). The red best-fit line shows that, since 1994, the rise in claims to use/provide/know/sell BP averages 34 per cent per year:

If you’ve been responsible for this BP inflation, I bring bad news. McKinsey has discovered that companies that adopt it often do worse than those who think for themselves. The optimal response to companies who chunter vacantly about BP might be the same as for a politician who calls for a meaningless package of measures on the weekend news. Switch off.

Three principles of Talknormalism

Evidently I am still getting the hang of the whole motivation thing

Delighted as I am to be mentioned in the Observer yesterday, I worry that some readers might get the idea that I am a grumpy negative old man who thinks everything was better before the internet was invented.

This is incorrect in more than three ways. I’m actually middle-aged and remarkably cheerful, all things considered. Taking into account the decline in the TN Joy Index, I’m looking comparatively more chipper by the hour. I’m such a positive person that I spent 5 minutes inspiring others by creating my own motivational poster (top) using the free app at Big Huge Labs. I encourage you to go there and make your own version to share with us. If I get a few in I’ll put them in a post and I’ll send the best submission a Talk Normal mug and a signed book (or unsigned, if you’d prefer). What an incentive.

I also don’t think we should be stuck in the past. “But what does he think?”, you ask. At risk of telling you all the good bits about the book for free, I’d like to point out the three principles of Talknormalism:

1. Try to be understood by everyone who’s listening. This takes imagination. For example: Professor David Crystal, who is a wonderful writer about the history of the language, points out that there are 400 million native speakers of English – and 1.4 billion more who speak it as a second language.

It makes sense to consider people who don’t speak English first, especially if you’re in business: their domestic economies are usually more successful than ours.

2. Stop trying to sound clever for no reason. Anyone can make complicated things complicated. It takes thought to make those things easier to understand.

3. It’s about attitude, not rules. I would guess that there’s a lot of bad punctuation, in Talk Normal. Were I to be put to the test, I would not be able to remember grammar rules with which to make your writing more elegant, um, with. Therefore, if you want a set of rules to follow, try this book instead. I’m also not against new words and phrases; I make some up on this blog.

Talknormalism doesn’t look back to a fictitious golden age and ask that we preserve it; but we can do a better job with the language we have today. That’s why we need to see your motivational posters, fellow Talknormalists.

Cut out your waffle: buy my book

Type your email and click the button and you will automatically get every new post.

“This excellent collection” (Director Magazine). Click to order:

I tweet


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 986 other followers