Archive for the ‘Stray data’ Category

Fri 17 Jul 2009 8:00 am   //   Posted in: Stray data

Do I owe Wikipedia, or does it owe me?

My friend Jeremy recently noticed that an article he and I co-wrote in college was cited in a Wikipedia entry.

Neat! I realize this will sound corny, but I’m still flattered whenever anybody cites something I wrote. Why not be? It’s a signal that somebody considers my work useful and authoritative—what a compliment!

With this in mind, I had to ego-search Wikipedia for my name to see how many times I’ve been cited. The answer is 12 times. And on an odd collection of subjects!


Sat 6 Jun 2009 12:32 pm   //   Posted in: New York is different, Stray data

Forgotten Astor Place history: Shakespeare riot!

One great thing about New York is that the longer you live here, the more historical trivia you learn. It’s a bottomless well.

Consider where I work. My office abuts Astor Place, a weird block-and-a-half street between the East and West Villages in New York. It’s part of a tangle of streets that merger near Cooper Union, an area rich in history, arts and architecture. I could fill a page listing all the random stuff that I know has happened there, from Abraham Lincoln speaking to the filming of the original “Taking of Pelham 123” movie.

Today I read an article about rude behavior at theaters, and it made a passing reference to the Astor Place Riot. Why had I never heard of this? Naturally, there’s an illuminating page about it on Wikipedia.

One hundred sixty years ago, there were two stagings of Macbeth at theaters a few blocks apart, one starring a famous British actor and the other a famous American. Audiences were sharply divided over which actor played the Shakespeare role better. The tension had as much to do with class and nationality as it did with theater. On May 10, 1849, the simmering dispute boiled over into violence. The National Guard used their weapons to restore order. In the end, 25 people were dead and at least 120 were injured.

The riot happened at the Astor Place Theater, which today is known as the more-or-less permanent home of the Blue Man Group.

Thu 4 Jun 2009 7:44 am   //   Posted in: Labeling, Planet earth, Stray data

Math is important

I just read an interview in Good magazine with Richard Larrick, a Duke business professor who advocates changing the “miles per gallon” standard we use to rate car efficiency. The problem? Basically, mpg statistics mislead our brains.

Larrick and professor Jack Soll have been on a crusade to adopt a “gallons per mile” standard. What’s the difference? Here’s a story about their work from 2008. It says:

Most people ranked an improvement from 34 to 50 mpg as saving more gas over 10,000 miles than an improvement from 18 to 28 mpg, even though the latter saves twice as much gas. (Going from 34 to 50 mpg saves 94 gallons; but from 18 to 28 mpg saves 198 gallons).

“These mistaken impressions were corrected, however, when participants were presented with fuel efficiency expressed in gallons used per 100 miles rather than mpg. Viewed this way, 18 mpg becomes 5.5 gallons per 100 miles, and 28 mpg is 3.6 gallons per 100 miles — an $8 difference today.

I had never thought about this before. But it makes sense: The higher the mpg number, the smaller the significance of each mile, because you cover more distance before you need to tap that extra fuel. We are used to thinking each number in a rating scale has the same value. It’s misleading.

The professors are using their math to defend small improvements in low-mileage vehicles—a strong argument for hybrid SUVs, which are scoffed at by most environmentally minded people. In fact, it makes a big difference. Here’s Professor Soll’s argument:

“There are significant savings to be had by improving efficiency by even two or three miles per gallon on inefficient cars, but because we communicate in miles per gallon, that savings is not immediately evident to consumers.”

I’m convinced.

Thu 23 Apr 2009 7:27 am   //   Posted in: In the news, Stray data

This place is falling apart

All over my neighborhood, workers are tearing up streets to replace pipes and do work on other utilities. I have only a vague idea of what’s going on—they look like water pipes to me—but I take relief knowing there is some work going on to fix our infrastructure.

Infrastructure repair is a classic example of something important but not interesting.

You’ve heard politicians talk about it and you’ve read news stories about it. But are you really excited about infrastructure? Repairs are slow, expensive and often invisible. A project like the Hoover Dam and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge only comes along once in a while. Most such work is more like Water Tunnel 3—a $6 billion project you’ll never even notice. Yet the way we live demands electricity, running water, roads, data cables, and so on. These aren’t systems you can build once and let ride. You have to keep paying for them.

And if you don’t pay? Single failures can have an impact way out of proportion to the initial problem (like the 2003 blackout) or kill people (the 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis). If you’ve ever traveled in a developing country, you know what a difference it makes when things don’t work. Here in the U.S., we’ve had it good for a long time. But too many of the systems on which we depend are old, stressed, patchwork, unfinished, or in need of repair. We have to spend the money.

Tue 21 Apr 2009 7:10 am   //   Posted in: Media, Stray data, Technology

15 amazing insights into numbered lists

  1. All hail the triumph of the numbered list!
  2. For some reason, curious readers can’t resist a series of facts boiled down into numbered sentences.
  3. Editors who write magazine coverlines have understood the magnetic power of numbered lists for years. (See every Cosmopolitan cover ever.)
  4. Recently, numbered lists reached a tipping point on the Internet. They’re everywhere.
  5. As much as I like lists, creativity suffers under this format.
  6. Blame lies with CPM advertising and Digg’s home page—a huge driver of impressions, and one that favors nifty lists. For example, a top story on Digg today is “Ten Fictional Movie Presidents that Rocked.” Digg is an exercise in headline writing. It’s no different than the cover of Cosmo.
  7. Some businesses have sprouted that do nothing but post random lists of “50 best” or “100 best” things online and sell advertising around them. At some point, you’ve probably clicked on a link to such bottom feeders as, Smashing Magazine and Free & Cool.
  8. I don’t know how many lists of “## Best Photography Sites” my company’s site appears on, but it’s at least two.
  9. I am also guilty of exploiting this phenomenon. Example: 20 Great Animal Portraits. It works, trust me.
  10. Not everyone understands lists, however. Some lists are way longer than they need to be. Do you really want to read about 99 Essential Twitter Tools And Applications? Of course not.
  11. You know who’s the master of this format? Casey Kasem.
  12. Also, David Letterman.
  13. Also, people who write books of jokes for kids.
  14. If I had the time, I’d start a site called “The Top 1,000 Numbered Lists on the Internet.”
  15. This post isn’t really a list. It’s just a bunch of numbered paragraphs.

Thu 12 Feb 2009 8:00 am   //   Posted in: Media, Stray data

The magazine as a fashion accessory

Item: As magazine circulations fell last year, “The Economist’s circulation rose 9.2 percent, to 787,000.”

The Economist has been doing well while other magazines are sucking. Why? I had a theory: It’s because smart is cool again. With the resurgence of reason and science in America (thank you Barack) the tide of culture is suddenly in favor of this smarty-pants British news magazine. People will spend money for good information! Gotta love it!

Then somebody I had a conversation with recently offered another theory: The Economist is a fashion accessory. He described a friend who always carries the current issue of The Economist around in her purse, its red flag conspicuously protruding. The anecdote implied that people who buy and carry the Economist don’t necessarily read it. It’s a better theory than mine.

Thu 5 Feb 2009 9:50 pm   //   Posted in: In the news, Stray data

Mayor: Maple syrup mystery solved!

Easily the best press release I have ever seen put out by the city government: MAYOR BLOOMBERG REVEALS SOURCES OF MYSTERIOUS BUT HARMLESS MAPLE SYRUP ODORS.

You may remember (or if you live here, you may have smelled) the delicious syrup smell that wafted over the city a few years ago, and a few times since. The city used weather data and the location of 311 calls reporting the smell to figure out where it came from. Answer? Jersey.

“City officials have identified a facility in Hudson County that has processed foenugreek seeds to produce flavors and fragrances that resulted in esters being formed in the air on dates when 311 has received a high number of sweet-smelling odor complaints in the City… ‘Given the evidence, I think it’s safe to say that the Great Maple Syrup Mystery has finally been solved,’ said Mayor Bloomberg.”

Gothamist has the map!

Thu 11 Dec 2008 12:20 pm   //   Posted in: Media, Stray data

Chuck E. Cheese fighting enters the conversation

Newspapers and news magazines used to devote a lot of space to social trend stories, about those quirky shifts in how ordinary people go about their lives, spend money, care for their children, get in and out of trouble, etc. The best of these stories come out of nowhere and suddenly become part of the popular conversation. (Malcolm Gladwell’s business book “The Tipping Point,” based on his reporting in The New Yorker, is a famous example of this kind of journalism.)

These days, trend stories are more likely to come from academic studies, government reports or press releases, reducing journalists to the role of summarizers. In many news outlets, the focus on breaking news and cheap analysis (hey, it worked for cable TV!) has pushed thoughtful trend stories off to the margins. It’s also possible that there are fewer mass behavioral trends, since the country is more diverse and fragmented than ever before. Whatever the case, these stories are hard to find, so journalists often have to cast a lot of lines and spend a lot of time to get a good one. Who has the time and money to do that anymore?

But when somebody nails it, they really nail it. If you haven’t read it already, check out this Wall Street Journal story: Calling All Cars: Trouble at Chuck E. Cheese’s, Again.

Thu 23 Oct 2008 6:05 am   //   Posted in: In the news, Right now, Stray data

Facts! Figures! Charts!

Right now I am a little obsessed with this graphic:

Link to more…

Sun 12 Oct 2008 10:11 am   //   Posted in: Stray data

Google from the distant past: 2001

Renée calls attention to the January 2001 Google database, which was posted online as an historical curiosity. Neat!

I’ve been trying to think of simple phrases that have entered the lexicon since January 2001. For example, a search for “homeland security” brings up only 346 hits. (Today it brings up 21,200,000.) Can you think of others?