Posts Tagged 'Heroes of Talknormalism'

Pop-up economics at St Pancras: not a crazy idea

I was walking through London St Pancras Station Monday lunchtime, and I thought: “That sounds like Tim Harford, the guy who presents More or Less on the radio”. This thought is not as weird as it seems. I listen to the podcast, and occasionally steal his ideas. I like him because I have an exaggerated respect for economists who talk like ordinary people, having met far too many of the other type.

By chance I was passing at exactly the right time to hear him record his new programme, Pop-up Economics, in which he stands up in front of people and tells them stories about economics. The first episode is on Radio 4 tonight. Here’s a really bad picture I took on my phone. It proves I was there, but not much else:

A bit of Tim Harford's head. Look, there were a lot of people there, ok?

A bit of Tim Harford’s head. Look, there were a lot of people there, ok?

He performed two stories, apparently from memory, of about 10 minutes each. I’m not going to tell you about them, because they were excellent – so it’s better if you listen to them on the radio (I think this show will be broadcast on 23 January, but you can listen to it on iPlayer afterwards). I can reveal that the first story covered the best way to match kidney donors to people who need a kidney, and the second one was about Full Tilt Poker. As someone who teaches people to tell stories, has an interest in economics, and who plays poker at Full Tilt, I couldn’t have been happier to hear what he had to say – unless I was suffering from kidney failure, I suppose.

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Nate Silver’s numbers game

Nate Silver: hard to believe this man is a statistician

For the second US election in a row, the winner is a guy called Nate Silver, who might be the future of intelligent journalism. He rescues us from the tyranny of columnists who simply write about the comments of their own heads.

Nate blogs at fivethirtyeight.com, which is, since 2010, a New York Times blog. He analyses opinion polls, but he does it very, very well. He is entertaining and readable, even if you don’t care who just won the election in the US.

I discovered Nate’s analysis by accident in 2008 when I was looking for some statistics to undermine one of the nuttier blog opinions by data-lite controversialist Melanie Phillips (which made it very nutty indeed). Fivethirtyeight has a rigour that journalism seems to have mislaid in the internet era in a search for sensation. He does a seemingly simple thing extremely well: when an opinion poll is released, he adds it to a model which creates an aggregate. If the model is well-constructed, this has smaller margins for error and less chance of systematic bias. It is more likely to reflect the true state of the world.

The clever part is that he doesn’t just produce an average. He weights the polls, depending on their sample size, the way the information was obtained, the historical accuracy of the polling company, when it was conducted, the exact question that was asked, and so on. He looks for statistical bias – a consistent under- or over-reporting of candidate’s popularity. He adjusts his own model if he finds evidence that it is biased. Importantly, he writes nerdy blog posts about what he is doing, explaining his reasoning, and pointing out possible flaws in his work.

The result is that “outliers” – polls that, through random sampling, produce a freak result – have little importance on Fivethirtyeight – while on the internet and the news channels they tend to dominate the agenda, albeit fleetingly. This means his reporting is less shouty, but it has proved to be stunningly accurate for two elections in a row: at the time of writing, his analysis has correctly predicted the result in every state for the 2012 US presidential election, and the electoral college vote too.

Having a model doesn’t necessarily mean you will be correct – there are plenty of other statistical models which predicted the election less accurately. Fivethirtyeight carefully spells out the steps in its analytical process (though not the precise parameters of the model), so we can make an informed judgement on the quality of the findings. Any model is open to criticism from other statisticians – but this means they can have an adult, public conversation about what might be improved, or what the impact of a flaw in the analysis might be. We can learn from this, too.

This wouldn’t be important if it was just a different way to present the same news; but this type of analysis creates fresh insight. By polling day 2012, the model predicted a greater than 90 per cent chance of an Obama victory; and yet organisations like the BBC and the FT were using lazy phrases like “too close to call” and “on a knife edge”. If newspapers are prepared to do this type of analysis routinely, I suggest, it offers huge potential for creating an open, analytical type of serious journalism led by numbers and observed reality, not opinions.

Old jokes department: “And what do you do?”

Not every journalist can be a stats geek, though I think they should have more compulsory education in how to interpret data, and would prefer that newspapers enforced an in-house ban on reporting surveys that are statistical nonsense – which, in my experience, is most of them (I’ve written those survey-based articles in the past, and reported lots of rubbish data as if it were spotless, which I regret).

Newspapers and magazines are cutting back on conventional journalism. Budgets are tight. It’s probably too much to hope that we can create a new type of data-journalist, or that newspapers will suddenly grow a statistical conscience. It needn’t be expensive: a laptop and some specialist software is perfectly adequate to do the statistical research that can validate the claims that powerful people make. It’s the job of the media to investigate these claims – not just talk to one person who agrees, and another who disagrees. On Radio 4, More or Less does an entertaining job of validating reported statistics (download the podcasts, they are excellent). Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science posts are also a model of this approach.

It’s patronising to assume that readers can’t cope with statistical analysis. Clearly, many don’t like it, and some misunderstand it; but that’s true of any type of journalism that goes beyond the obvious. The conclusions (especially those that go against gut feel or conventional wisdom) may be unpopular: just read the critical comments on Nate Silver’s blog. It’s also true that science isn’t the last word on a subject, just a powerful way of testing an assumption. Statistics involves making value judgements in how you treat the numbers, in the same way as a journalist makes a judgement about how much credibility to give any source. But in statistics there is the opportunity to be explicit about those judgements, and then go where the numbers take us.

This type of insight is a fundamental tool, in an increasingly complex world, if we want to make informed decisions. The alternative is to just place trust in the conclusions of “experts”, of which there seem to be an ever-increasing number quoted on TV or in newspapers.

I’ll leave the conclusion to one of Nate’s commenters, who explains it better than I do:

Rather than cheer for Nate because we all like his Obama forecasts, how about cheering for him because he might believe in a world where numbers and rational analysis are vital to how we make decisions, even in those cases where we don’t like what the numbers imply?… It’s not about hoping you will win at Vegas. It’s about understanding how the Vegas game works.

Golden Crocoduck fever grips Talk Normal

Why post this clip? Because Sunday is a very important day for Talknormalists: it’s the day on which the annual Golden Crocoduck Award is announced. This is given by Peter Hadfield, also known as potholer54, to the creationist who offers the most flagrant breach of the 9th commandment: “the one that tells you not to tell fibs” as he explains.  The award is given every year on 28 October – the feast day of St Jude Thaddeus, the Patron Saint of Lost Causes. It’s too late for you to vote; but please check out the nominees in the video above (one of whom actually tries to convince viewers that the earth must be stationary because when we jump we land in the same place), and then the rest of his channel.

In the summer of 2006 I was asked to go on the BBC News 24 (now BBC news channel) to have a middle-aged-manchat with Peter Sissons about why there was this thing called YouTube which was becoming really popular with da kidz.  Why, he asked me, would people want to go to a web site to watch a fireman in a tumble dryer?  – he really did ask this – especially when there’s real TV on 24 hours a day, with politicians and experts standing outside buildings and stuff (he didn’t say this. I deduced it from the height of his eyebrows when he was watching the fireman video).

Get with it daddio! I sort of said – I was living in Hoxton, on the doorstep of London’s famous Silicon Roundabout, and we all spoke like that, even those of us who were old enough to know better – da peeps need to express themselves! This is the social media equivalent of the “everyone’s got a book in them” argument. It says that everyone has got a YouTube video inside them, waiting to get out: just maybe not a very good one.

So six years later I’m all for YouTube in principle, it’s just that much of it is total crap. I’m not talking about bands I don’t like or people I disagree with. There’s a ton of that on TV too. But watching the peeps express themselves on subjects such as why the earth is the centre of the universe, or how we know dinosaurs lived on earth alongside humans, can be quite disheartening. There’s eight years of material uploaded to YouTube every day. Much of it, it appears, is uploaded by people who were asleep in science lessons, aren’t really interested in looking up the answers, but still think we need to hear their half-formed ideas. Alternatively, they simply repost something by someone they decided to agree with, without stopping to think why they might learn something by checking whether it’s true.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell which bits are the worst, but luckily we have potholer54 to help us decide. If you have any interest in using logic and curiosity as a way to debunk pseudoscience, creationism and the denial of our role in global warming, he’s an excellent guide.

His videos are short (usually between 10 and 15 minutes), expertly researched with all sources listed, and very, very funny. It’s a great way to learn if ever you want to explain why there isn’t evidence for a global flood, or why Lord Christopher Monckton, the UK’s embarrassing denier of man-made climate change, is misinformed and wrong. The Monckton takedown starts here and ends (for now) here.

It’s hard to pick a favourite from his channel, but I always enjoy Hadfield’s demolition of American talk show host Bill O’Reilly:

Unlike most of his fellow ignoramuses on YouTube, O’Reilly is “paid to broadcast his ignorance to millions of people” (Hadfield’s description) via Sissons-era TV. This is one of the best arguments in favour of YouTube: without it we’d have a lot less potholer54, but the same amount of Bill O’Reilly.

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.

Talk Normal rebrands for the day

Reader Paul Reichel wrote to me on Thursday:

Tim

I applaud your intentions, however,

TALK NORMAL is the worst of the ungrammatical

If you titled you site – SPEAK NORMALLY – you would be nearer.

I would like to see this email displayed on your website, but have little hope.

Please don’t  use ‘Street Talk’ to replace Technobabble – the result will be just as bad

Yours, grammatically, a pedant

PR

While he’s obviously correct about the grammar thing, I would refer Paul to the third principle of Talknormalism – or Speaknormallyism, though I’m not sure it trips off the tongue – namely that I don’t believe we need to follow a strict set of rules to speak clear(ly). I’d also point out that the name is meant to be a joke.

But this is a social medium, so I decided to let Paul take over Talk Normal for the day! I’ve changed the header, as you can see, to reflect this rebranding.

Historians: this is what it looked like

Problem: I don’t know what Paul Reichel looks like. So I added a picture of popular Hawai’ian recording artist (and the award-winning kumu hula of Halau Ke’alaokamaileKeali’i Reichel instead. He might be a relative, I reasoned. If not, he’s smokin’ hot – and so will definitely punch up my eyeballs in the Polynesian demographic.

Talk Normal is talking normal again tomorrow. Meanwhile, if anyone else wants a Talk Normal takeover day, make me an offer I can’t refuse.

This is the world social media made

I had hoped my introductory remarks from the Market Research Society’s Social Media Conference last Thursday would have been the highlight, but I was wrong. I thought people would be retweeting my rousing speech about the path to the fire exits and the location of lunch, but I was mistaken.

Instead the delegates were talking about a ripping speech by internet Eeyore Andrew Keen, the author of The Cult of the Amateur.

The Cult of the Amateur was an angry book about how the internet is destroying culture by creating a world in which everyone’s contribution to a debate is equal, whether or not they know anything worth contributing; a world in which a CEO blog is more “authentic” than a press release, even though they are both written by the same person (a clue for anyone who isn’t in the copywriting business: that’s not the CEO).

It’s a book that is easy to hate (two stars on Amazon from reviewers), but I loved it. This is not to say I agreed with all of it.

Now he’s worrying about the effect that pervasive social media is having on the way we live, and that’s what he was talking about at the conference. A clip here:

The way that social media changes our behaviour worries me, for personal and professional reasons. Personally, as Keen points out (though not in this clip), the ease with which data about us can be collected may mean that privacy becomes something that only rich people pay for, rather than a right. Professionally I note that, when I’m doing editing jobs, increasingly better communication is confused with frantically saying more things.

Most of us spend hours a week hoovering up thousands of pointless status messages, tedious posts, updates and tweets, just in case. It’s like stuffing yourself with the entire menu in a crap restaurant, in the hope you will find something worth eating.


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