Category Archives: Observation

Tragic misuse of tragic statistics

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The startling headline above leads today’s San Francisco Chronicle. It stopped me in my tracks and I read the full part one by Jill Tucker. There’s excellent reporting and tragic detail about the violence that accompanies poverty and deprivation in way too much of Oakland’s black community.

But the primary assertion — even odds — is a terrible distortion.

You need to read well into the break to understand the statistics. And the Chronicle tied itself into knots to get to its “even odds” shock. Here’s how it breaks down.

From 2002-2012 802 black males graduated Oakland high schools “college-ready” — eligible to attend the University of California or California State University systems. In that same span, 787 black males of ALL ages were victims of homicide in Oakland.

But the statistical distortion is worse than just taking all ages and comparing it to the high school aged population. The Chronicle looks at one class in some detail.

In 2009, about 600 black males were entering freshman in Oakland public high schools. Between 80 and 100 of those 600 graduated “college-ready”. Another 200 got their high school diplomas, but without UC and CSU requirements completed. So 300 of the 600 graduated high school (although there’s no way of knowing whether those 300 all started in 2009).

In those same four years, according to the Chronicle, 31 Oakland public school students aged 11 to 19 were killed. “Most of them were shot and most were African American,” the story reports.

So even if you assume that all 31 of those killed were from the 2009 high school entrant group (which they’re not, of course), black males are 10 times more likely to graduate from high school than to be killed. Even on the “college-ready” standard, black males are three times more likely to graduate than be killed on that very broad assumption about the 31.

The Chronicle did not need to twist statistics to bring home the awful toll of gun violence in Oakland. Yesterday, buried in the inside pages of the local news section of the Chronicle, three more people were shot and killed in Oakland. That’s not an unusual Saturday. But in their attempt to really shock readers, the paper’s editors truly failed their responsibility for accuracy.

Disconnect me, please

Bond investor Bill Gross interviewed in Fortune about his work habits: “For a portfolio manager, eliminating the noise is critical. You have to cut the information flow to a minimum level. You could spend your whole day reading different opinions. For me, that means I don’t answer or look at any e-mails I don’t want to. Other than for my wife, I’ll only pick up the phone three or four times a day. I don’t have a cellphone, I don’t have a Black-Berry. My motto is, I don’t want to be connected — I want to be disconnected.” (Usability warning: horrible pop-up frameset needs to be negotiated to get to the individual profiles.)

We certainly all need a way to recover space for uninterrupted thought in our lives. I love connection, but there are chunks of my day — and certainly my week — when I need disconnection. Next time someone asks for your instant judgment, respond, “I’ll sleep on it.” Chances are it’s an expression they haven’t heard in at least a decade.

Lasers:lightbulbs, hedgehogs:foxes

I recently had an email exchange with a well-known, polymathic academic. He regretfully turned down collaborating on a project with me because, he wrote, “I used to be a lightbulb and now I’m a laser.” He’s found a worthy obsession, and that’s where his energies are devoted.

We certainly need lasers, but let’s not neglect the value of lightbulbs. The world, it seems, increasingly favors the hedgehog. I have a soft spot for foxes.

Algorithm v editor

Nicholas Carr examines the differences between editors and algorithms. He concludes there’s hope for my species yet:

The crowd aggregates all individuals’ knowledge about variables while balancing out their personal biases and idiosyncracies. It’s not the “wisdom” of crowds that makes crowds useful, in other words; it’s their fundamental mindlessness. What crowds are good for is producing average results that are not subject to the biases and other quirks of human minds.

That’s also why search engines work pretty well with algorithms (until, at least, they begin to be gamed by individuals using their minds): They produce the result that best suits what the average searcher is looking for. You don’t want generally used search engines to reflect individual biases. Indeed, one of their main jobs is to filter out those biases – and revert to the average.

But that’s also why algorithms don’t work very well as editors. With an editor, you don’t want mindlessness; you want mindfulness. A good editor combines an understanding of what the audience wants with a healthy respect for the idiosyncracies of his own mind and the minds of others. A good editor doesn’t aim to provide a bland “average result”; he wants to wander widely around the average, at times even to strike out in the opposite direction altogether. The mindless crowd filters out personality along with idiosyncracy and bias. The mindful editor is all about personality.

Boris on Berlusconi

I’ve been an Italophile for a long time. It survived, just, a year running a company in Milan to the extent that my wedding was held in Italy. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been there, but there are some aspects of life in Italy that nowhere else on earth can approach.

But my Italophilia has been severely strained by Silvio Berlusconi. There’s his ludicrous strutting and posing. His incompetence. The sordidness of his many conflicts of interest. But Boris Johnson thinks this is all a good thing. I suspect Boris sees a lot of himself (excepting the $12 billion and the face lifts) in Berlusconi:

Silvio Berlusconi is a landmark of modern politics. There is no one to touch him for sheer exuberant outrageousness. In his speech, in his dress, his bandanas, his face-lifts, his ludicrous 1950s cruise-ship sexism, he is a standing reproach to the parade of platitudinous Pooters that pass across the stage of international diplomacy.

He once called an important press conference with one of the Continent’s leading Euro-bores, Anders Fogh Rassmussen, the Danish prime minister, and announced that he was going to introduce Mr Rassmussen to his wife, because the Dane was so good-looking that he might divert her from the man with whom she was then romantically entangled, a chemistry professor called Cacciari.

Dio mio! said the journalists. Has any Italian prime minister ever behaved like that before? Has any politician ever cracked a joke about his wife’s boyfriend? Let alone in the presence of some po-faced, bearded and deeply mystified Dane? Only Berlusconi could get away with it, and – as he doubtless calculated – the remark does not seem to have hurt him in the polls, earning him as it did the sympathy of every cuckold and straying wife in Italy, a significant chunk of the electorate.

Do you want that film in Twi or Quecha, sir?

My friend Michael Smolens has just gone live with the beta site of his new project, dotSub. It’s a fascinating idea: provide Web-based tools to enable anyone to subtitle a film into any language. Michael and his colleagues have been motivated by two ideas. First, a profound belief that the stories of every culture should be available in every other one. Second, the recognition that most films never reach most cultures because of language barriers.

Although the beta site has a small catalogue of films at the moment, the subtitling tools are well developed. A neat demo lets you play translator for the day. For those with real translation skills, if they wanted to make a film accessible to native Quecha speakers in Bolivia, or to Twi speakers in Ghana, dotSub makes it possible.

Why would a filmmaker lodge her or his film in dotSub? It gives them access to markets that conventional subtitling and distribution arrangements could never approach. If you believe in the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, dotSub is a great idea.

What should the WSJ do with its blogs?

Barry Ritholtz gives The Wall Street Journal some valuable advice on its venture into the world of blogs. They could have paid a consultant vast fees for far less than this. Here’s a particularly interesting passage, but the whole post is worth a look if you’re interested in the intersection between mainstream media and blogs:

Editors need to recognize that blogging sucks juice away from writing. (Trust me on this one). Anyone working on a book will tell you that either blogging — or their deadline — goes on hiatus. And if you dangle this very addictive junk in front of your reporters, you may be pulling them away from meaningful investigative assignments. Understand what you are asking of your reporters if you want them to participate in this. (I’d love to see an insider editor blog describing his work day).

I’d imagine that out of this list, a few blogs would really gain traction. Focus on those, and use them to promote the weaker sisters. The blogosphere is full of examples of blogs that were unknown for along while and then suddenly blossomed. (Its the equivalent of Arrested Development cancelled by Fox). Again, it really depends upon what the corporate goal of Dow Jones is with these projects.

In addition to that list above, I’d like to see a senior editor and someone from the business side from Dow Jones Inc. start blogging. An inside publishing kind of thing, looking at the numbers, circulation, advertising, business dealings. Dave Kansas, or someone from the Publishing side. That would be way cool, especially if someone had the charisma and mad skillz to pull it off.

There is a caveat to all this good advice: Don’t do this half-assed. Have the cajones to step up. Be willing to cannibalize yourselves to prevent someone else from doing it anyway. Work outside your comfort zone. Allow your writers to develop a unique voice, some snark. Give them latitude to have a viewpoint. Embrace a new business model that may hurt your present operations, but will ultimately save it 10 years down the road.

"Integrate or become less relevant"

The speech by Reuters’ Tom Glocer hailed by Jeff Jarvis has been published in the Financial Times (a couple of weeks after it published a snarky, fairly clueless piece diminishing blogs). It has been a long time since I thought of Reuters as anything other than a dozy company, but Glocer is pretty spot on:

First, media companies need to be “seeders of clouds”. To have access to high-value new content, we need to attract a community around us. To achieve that we have to produce high-quality content ourselves, then display it and let people interact with it. If you attract an audience to your content and build a brand, people will want to join your community. This is as true for traditional “letters to the editor” as for

Second, we need to be “the provider of tools”. This means promoting open standards and interoperability, which will allow a diverse set of consumer-creators to combine disparate types of content.

Third, we must improve on our skills as the “filter and editor”. Media have always had these functions. The world will always need editing: consumers place value in others making decisions about what is good and what is not.

After all, just because everyone now has the ability to publish their own work does not make them the next Salam Pax, the pseudonymous blogger at the time of the invasion of Iraq. It is our job as media companies to find that new content gold in the pan of dust and dirt and give it a mass audience.

In the news industry, professional and “amateur” content combined creates a better product. It tells the story at a deeper level. Take the tragic Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. For the first 24 hours the best and only photos and video came from tourists. By day two, professional news organisations got to the scene and captured the horror of the aftermath, influencing the international response by capturing the sheer scale of the disaster. A pro-am co-operation meant telling the story at another level – the horror of the wave strike and the tragedy of the aftermath.

You have to be open to both amateur and professional content to tell the story completely. I believe that professional articles and photographs, if available, will generally be authoritative. But, in the first instance, they can be complemented by content created by amateurs.

We are now at our crossroads. Old media – and I now would include the first wave of online publishing – have a choice: integrate the new world or risk becoming less relevant. Our industry must not fall into the old protectionist strategies that defined the first phase of the internet. The internet was not invented just to show a replica of yesterday’s newspaper with a few banner advertisements. We cannot be the choke-hold, blocking the new creators in a bid to protect our legacy businesses.

The new center of the media universe

Tracey Taylor: “The Guardian has just under 400,000 readers. Its website, however, has 11 million readers a month.”

Tracey heard Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger speaking last night at Berkeley’s journalism school. He was here as part of a trip to key thinkers/potential allies/exemplary companies in the Bay Area. I think it’s fascinating that a British editor and his colleagues (there’s a whole gang of Guardian executives with Rusbridger) come here to seek enlightenment, rather than making the more familiar trip to New York.

A further sign that The Guardian understands the new media world better than just about anyone else.

Civil liberties be damned

Every day, in supposedly caring, sensible Berkeley, I see people do incredibly stupid things while driving. They turn suddenly in front of oncoming traffic. They pull out from a side street without warning. They fail to stop at a pedestrian crossing. The majority of the time, they are chatting away on their cellphone.

Astoundingly, it isn’t illegal to talk on a cellphone while driving in California. I don’t know whether legislators have failed to catch up with the growth of a comparatively new technology, or whether they have decided on a course of wilful neglect. The evidence of cellphone use impairing driver attentiveness is indisputable, which is why many other countries (like Britain) have banned their use.

So a part of me welcomes the proposal in Britain to expand the use of surveillance cameras to catch those using their cellphones while driving, or not wearing seatbelts. When the law changes here in California, and I’m certain it eventually will, it would be nice to have an effective enforcement mechanism.

The other part of me, with the steady erosion of so many civil liberties in mind, shudders at the thought. There’s a lot about the US polity that troubles me, but I think it would be impossible to imagine the final sentence of The Guardian’s coverage if it were transposed to the US: “A spokeswoman for Liberty said increasing the use of cameras to catch drivers breaking the law would not be a curb on their civil liberties.”