Category Archives: Media

Nate Silver on op-ed columnists

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New York Magazine interviewed Nate Silver about the launch of his new data-driven journalism enterprise FiveThirtyEight

So if you all are the foxes, who’s a hedgehog?

Uhhhh, you know … the op-ed columnists at the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal are probably the most hedgehoglike people. They don’t permit a lot of complexity in their thinking. They pull threads together from very weak evidence and draw grand conclusions based on them. They’re ironically very predictable from week to week. If you know the subject that Thomas Friedman or whatever is writing about, you don’t have to read the column. You can kind of auto-script it, basically.

It’s people who have very strong ideological priors, is the fancy way to put it, that are governing their thinking. They’re not really evaluating the data as it comes in, not doing a lot of [original] thinking. They’re just spitting out the same column every week and using a different subject matter to do the same thing over and over.

It’s ridiculous to me that they undermine every value that these organizations have in their newsrooms. It’s strange. I know it’s cheaper to fund an op-ed columnist than a team of reporters, but I think it confuses the mission of what these great journalistic brands are about.

For the big picture read Nate’s manifesto What the Fox Knows.

Inside the slow and dangerous clean up of the Fukushima nuclear crisis

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we take you to a place that garnered headlines around the world three years ago, but has hardly been seen since, because it’s so dangerous.

Is it possible to make a negative $ contribution to PBS? The February 28th PBS Newshour on Fukushima is shocking. Imagine a script written by Arnie Gunderson and Helen Caldicot, designed to create maximum fear and anxiety. 

Hiroshima Syndrome has posted a March 4th critique titled PBS Fukushima Report is Fear-mongering at its Worst which begins:

The February 28 PBS report, Inside the slow and dangerous clean up of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, is fear-mongering at its most disturbing extreme. The obvious intent is to scare and upset the viewer with exaggeration, innuendo, and thinly-veiled conspiracy theory, all predicated on proliferating fear, uncertainty and doubt. (FUD) There seems to have been little or no effort towards rational informing of the viewers.

Even the lead-in by anchor Judy Woodruff drips with fear and doubt, “Now we take you to a place that garnered headlines around the world three years ago, but has hardly been seen since, because it’s so dangerous.” Hardly seen since? Who is she trying to kid? Fukushima has been in the Japanese Press every day for three years, and the internet has been inundated with apocalyptic scenarios made by leading international antinukes on a regular basis. Plus, what about the Fukushima radioactivity reporting coming out of the Pacific coastline of North America the past two months? “Hardly seen”? Give me a break. In addition, the implication that the Press in Japan isn’t covering Fukushima “because it’s so dangerous” is a complete fabrication! They are all over it… like white on rice.

The report itself begins with end-of-the-world insinuations by PBS’ Miles O’Brien, when he says the evacuation zone around F. Daiichi “remains a post-apocalyptic landscape of abandoned towns, frozen in time. We were on our way to one of the most hazardous places on Earth, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.” Who wrote the script? Harvey Wasserman? Arnie Gundersen? Helen Caldicott? This is straight out of the antinuclear persuasion’s “Fukushima 101” rhetorical guidelines. The apocalyptic beginning follows with a quote from the plant manager posed in a fashion that makes it seem as if he is not taking his job seriously enough, “After all, if you are just cleaning up after an accident, there is a lack of quality, meaning speed is the only concern. I feel that isn’t enough. We need to look ahead, 30 to 40 years.”

Next comes two misleading statements – “Engineers believe some of the nuclear fuel has melted right through the steel containment vessels on to a concrete basement floor, where it is exposed to groundwater.” (Which it isn’t) – “As the ground water passes through the pump, it gets mixed in with the contaminated water that is used to cool the melted-down cores.” (What is O’Brien talking about? What pump? How is the pump mixing the waters? Is he making this up, or does he simply not have a clue?)

Read the whole thing…

Mobile Trends to Keep In Mind

Frederic Filloux

On mobile devices, the Average Revenue per User should be a critical component when shaping a mobile strategy. First, let’s settle the tablet market question. Even though the so-called “cheap Android” segment ($100-150 for a plastic device running an older version of Android) thrive in emerging markets, when it comes to extracting significant money from users, the iPad runs the show. It accounts for 80% of the tablet web traffic in the US, UK, Germany, France, Japan, and even China (source: Adobe.)

Washington Post Style Invitational (“Mensa Invitational”)

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The Style Invitational circulates every year as the “Mensa Invitational” – a humorous collection of word play. If you have not encountered this before, it started in the late 1990′s as the Style Invitational at the Washington Post. I gather that MENSA enjoys the humor as well, and to set the record straight MENSA has devoted a web page to “Mensa Invitational” debunked

A Washington Post humor column titled “The Style Invitational” runs a series of popular contests, some of which since 1998 have featured taking any word; adding, subtracting or changing one letter; and creating a new word as well as its definition. As you would expect, many of the entries are clever and relevant — which is probably why someone who is now lost to the mists of time grabbed an early set of winners, changed the title to include a reference to Mensa, and sent it floating out into the Internet ether.

The revised “article” continues to circulate to this day on various Web sites, blogs and social networking sites, as well as in email. Looking at the Style Invitational’s “report from Week 278,” you’ll see that many of the original responses mirror the list of words on the purported “Mensa Invitational” — including “intaxication,” “bozone,” “foreploy” and “glibido.” Since 2005 or earlier, the “Mensa Invitational” has been suspected to be a hoax but no confirmation has ever been made prior to this. So we’re here to debunk this urban legend.

Neither American Mensa, nor any other Mensa entity, has ever been affiliated with The Washington Post’s “Style Invitational” column and/or its contests, to the best of our knowledge. It wouldn’t surprise us if many of our members have entered the contests — and perhaps even have won — but that would be the limit of the interaction.

Because we appreciate their humor, we encourage the enthusiastic wordsmiths who continue to send American Mensa their new words and definitions to read and enter The Washington Post’s “Style Invitational” contest. At the same time, we also heartily encourage them to consider joining American Mensa! We think they’d be at home here.

Word Play Masters Invitational has a section of their site that is continuing the collection of gems. And here is the version of the “Mensa Invitational” that Word Play Masters says is the “original”. Enjoy!

The Washington Post’s Mensa invitational once again asked readers to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter, and supply a new definition. Here are the 2009 winners:

1. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period of time.

2. Ignoranus : A person who’s both stupid and an asshole.

3. Intaxication : Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.

4. Reintarnation : Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

5. Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.

6. Foreploy : Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.

7. Giraffiti : Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.

8. Sarchasm : The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.

9. Inoculatte : To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

10. Osteopornosis : A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)

11. Karmageddon : It’s like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it’s like, a serious bummer.

12. Decafalon (n.): The gruelling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.

13. Glibido : All talk and no action.

14. Dopeler Effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.

15. Arachnoleptic Fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you’ve accidentally walked through a spider web.

16. Beelzebug (n.) : Satan in the form of a mosquito, that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.

17. Caterpallor ( n.): The color you turn after finding half a worm in the fruit you’re eating.

The Washington Post has also published the winning submissions to its yearly contest, in which readers are asked to supply alternate meanings for common words. And the winners are:

1. Coffee , n. The person upon whom one coughs.

2. Flabbergasted , adj. Appalled by discovering how much weight one has gained.

3. Abdicate , v. To give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.

4. Esplanade , v.. To attempt an explanation while drunk.

5. Willy-nilly , adj. Impotent.

6. Negligent , adj. Absentmindedly answering the door when wearing only a nightgown.

7. Lymph , v. To walk with a lisp.

8. Gargoyle , n. Olive-flavored mouthwash.

9. Flatulence , n. Emergency vehicle that picks up someone who has been run over by a steamroller.

10. Balderdash , n. A rapidly receding hairline.

11. Testicle , n. A humorous question on an exam.

12. Rectitude , n. The formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists.

13. Pokemon , n.. A Rastafarian proctologist.

14. Oyster , n. A person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms.

15. Frisbeetarianism , n. The belief that, after death, the soul flies up onto the roof and gets stuck there.

16. Circumvent , n. An opening in the front of jockey shorts worn by Jewish men

Image credit Washington Post

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Can Democracy Survive Television?

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Frank’s comment

When I lived in Fiji, a letter in the “Fiji Times” stated that its writer found TV very educational; every time someone turned on the TV, he read a book. Before TV, people probably did more reading.

reminded me to link one of the often cited Manheim papers on the TV effect: Manheim, J. B. (1976), Can Democracy Survive Television?. Journal of Communication, 26: 84–90. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1976.tb01385.x

I can’t find an ungated link but there is an earlier op-ed here which concludes with this:

(…snip…)And for hype. When the lead story is over, what’s to keep the audience in place? Unless the second, third, and fourth story are equally gripping, viewers may still change channels. How to keep them? Crank up every story to make it seem fascinating, compelling, hugely important — even though by doing so you abandon any serious effort to set an agenda of significance.

And that takes us back to the top of this column. No wonder Americans have difficulty assigning priorities to such a story list. Those who depend heavily on television may not even think setting priorities is germane. For them, a crime in Erie risks becoming as important as a shift toward North Korea — not because they’re uninformed, but because to make everything of equal importance is, in fact, to make nothing particularly important.

Result: a trivialization of the essential, which is the fundamental moral danger of the television age. Not because television journalists are bad at what they do: Many are excellent. And not even because (as a top network executive once explained to me) television in the United States exists not to deliver programs to viewers, but rather audiences to advertisers.

No, the problem lies with the structure of the medium itself. When the only way to hold attention is to hype every story, the basic moral responsibility of a citizenry — to distinguish the important from the merely interesting, and to vote their support for what most matters — gets dulled, blunted, and finally lost.

The real question is, Can democracy survive television?

Image credit XKCD

What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?

If you get depressed by the low quality of media [and politicians], spend some time at The Edge:

It’s ever more delectable that the Edge Foundation— the network of prominent scientists and intellectuals founded by literary agent John Brockman in New York — has worked against the reciprocal ignorance of literary cultures and sciences of each other. Successfully. If you take the algorithms developed by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, which measure the value of links, Edge’s website ranks seven on a global scale of ten. The New York Times ranks nine, eBay at eight. — Sueddeutche Zeitung

 

Twitter: a channel to high quality curated information

Personally I use Twitter primarily as an efficient channel to access curated citations. This is increasingly effective for me as more and more academics, scientists and researchers are using Twitter as a vehicle for noting useful citations as well as quick Q&A on work in progress. Some do this as they work, when they find a reference that could be useful to their community. Some tweet links relevant to their own publications. E.g., economist Tyler Cowen tweets reviews and criticism of his books and papers.

In your own fields of interest you have probably identified experts that you respect — if so, then you are ready to give this Twitter technique a try. Once you’ve organized your preferred sources into Twitter “Lists”, then a click on say “Education Innovation” brings you thumbnails of your personalized citations for the list topic.

If you would like to trial this idea I suggest trying the iPad app Flipboard as an efficient way to review what your curators have on offer. Another app that I use regularly on both Mac and iPad is Tweetbot. Once you have used Tweetbot you cannot “go back”.

Anne Trubek: Only the literary elite can afford not to tweet

If there is a problem in literary fiction, it may be that some of our best writers have missed out on one of the most exciting and transformative moments in American letters. Social media is primarily text-based; it propels people to write more than they have in decades – centuries, perhaps – and it is complex, fluid and resistant to simple conclusions. No wonder so many writers love it. Luckily, I now know many of them, and with them I talk, alone in my study. –Anne Trubek

 Anne Trubek is the editor of the Cleveland focused Belt Magazine. I liked the way Anne captured the value Twitter offers to writers in this short essay.

When I go to my office in the morning, I can talk with the editor of the Washington Post Book Review section about what he is reading, with author Gary Shteyngart about a review of Zadie Smith‘s novel or to the president of the Modern Language Association about the state of the humanities.

But when I leave my office – logging off Twitter and going out the back door of my house – I can walk my dog up my leafy street and talk with baristas about the Browns, but rarely do I interact with book-review editors, novelists or literary critics. I live in Cleveland, a city that supports few such full-time jobs.

Twitter has offered me an intellectual community I otherwise lack. It cuts the distance, both geographic and hierarchical. Not only can I talk with people in other places, but I can engage with people in different career stages as well. A sharp insight posted on Twitter is read, and RT’d (retweeted), with less regard for the tweeter’s resume (or gender or race) than it might be if uttered at, say, a networking event. Social media is a hedge against the white-shoe, old-boys’ networks of publishing. It is a democratizing force in the literary world.

Read more of Trubek’s essay. And for some tidbits on how I exploit Twitter see Twitter: a channel to high quality curated information. 

The Anatomy of a Digital Business Negotiation

Joshua Gans has done a very nice job analyzing the US DOJ pursuit of Apple Computer. There is a lots of good material to study – but let’s just focus on the Newscorp/Harper Collins vs. Apple negotiation. Here’s an excerpt:

It is at this point that James Murdoch of News Corp that owns Harper steps in and goes straight to Steve Jobs.

Steve,

Thanks for your call earlier today, and for the time last week.

I spoke to Brian Murray and Jon Miller [then the head of digital media at News Corp.]—and Brian is sending a note to Eddy today. I thin I have a handle on this now. In short—we we would like to be able to get something done with Apple—but there are legitimate concerns.

The economics are simple enough. [Amazon] Kindle pays us a wholesale price of $13 and sells it for 9.99. An author gets $4.20 on the sale of a hardcover and $3.30 on the sale of the e-book on the Kindle.

[A portion of this email was redacted by the court.]

Basically—the entire hypothetical benefit of a book without raw materials and distribution cost accrues to Apple, not to the publisher or to the creator of the work.

The other big issue is one of holdbacks. If we can’t agree on the fair price for a book, your team’s proposal restricts us from making that book available elsewhere, even at a higher price. This is just a bridge too far for us.

Also, we are worried about setting prices to high—lots of ebooks are $9.99. A new release window with a lower commission (say 10[%]) for the first six months would enable us to proce much more kenly for Apple customers. We’d like to da that.

More on this below in Brian’s note to Eddy. We outline a deal we can do.

Feel free to call or write anytime over the weekend to discuss if you like.

I am in the UK (so eight hours ahead of CA). My home number is [redacted]. I check the email regularly.

Steve, make no mistake that across the board (TV, Studios, Books, and Newspapers) we would much rather be working with apple than not. But we, and our partners who produce, write, edit, and otherwise make all this with us, have views on fair pricing, and care a lot about our future flexibility. I hope we can figure out a way, if not now and in time for this launch of yours, then maybe in the future.

Best,
JRM

The email timings appear weird as the early email is at 6PM on the 22nd January and the later email is at 4PM the same day. I suspect there is a bunch of time zone issues going on. [Oh yeah, and anyone who complains about the typos on this blog, check out the professional letters being exchanged in business negotiations! So much for lessons we teach kids at school, right?]

In this email, Murdoch appears to put themselves in a position of agent for the author but as author deals are surely flexible this seems strange to me. That said, it is the redacted part that outlines Murdoch’s position here and they are pushing for a better deal again at least during the initial period when their books sales might be highest. And the last paragraph is a thinly veiled threat reminder of the breadth of News’ media interests. In other words, Murdoch is worried that if he gives into Apple now, they will lose ground in other areas too.

Now it is Steve Jobs turn to respond:

James,

A few thoughts to consider (I’d appreciate it if we can keep this between you and me):

1. The current business model of companies like Amazon distributing ebooks below cost or without making a reasonable profit isn’t sustainable for long. As ebooks become a larger business, distributors will need to make at least a small profit, and you will want this too so that they invest in the future of the business with infrastructure, marketing, etc.

2. All the major publishers tell us that Amazon’s $9.99 price for new releases is eroding the value perception of their products in customer’s minds, and they do not want this practice to continue for new releases.

3. Apple is proposing to give the cost benefits of a book without raw materials, distribution, remaindering, cost of capital, bad debt, etc., to the customer, not Apple. This is why a new release would be priced at $12.99, say, instead of $16.99 or even higher. Apple doesn’t want to make more than the slim profit margin it makes distributing music, movies, etc.

4. $9 per new release should represent a gross margin neutral business model for the publishers. We are not asking them to make any less money. As for the artists, giving them the same amount of royalty as they make today, leaving the publisher with the same profits, is as easy as sending them all a letter telling them that you are paying them a higher percentage for ebooks. They won’t be sad.

5. Analysts estimate that Amazon has sold more than one million Kindles in 18+ months (Amazon has never said). We will sell more of our new devices than all of the Kindles ever sold during the first few weeks they are on sale. If you stick with just Amazon, Sony, etc., you will likely be sitting on the sidelines of the mainstream ebook revolution.

6. Customers will demand an end-to-end solution, meaning an online bookstore that carries the books, handles the transactions with their credit cards, and delivers the books seamlessly to their device. So far, there are only two companies who have demonstrated online stores with significant transaction volume—Apple and Amazon. Apple’s iTunes Store and App Store have over 120 million customers with credit cards on file and have downloaded over 12 billion products. This is the type of online assets that will be required to scale the ebook business into something that matters to the publishers.

So, yes, getting around $9 per new release is less than the $12.50 or so that Amazon is currently paying. But the current situation is not sustainable and not a strong foundation upon which to build an ebook business.

[A portion of this email was redacted by the court.]

Apple is the only other company currently capable of making a serious impact, and we have 4 of the 6 big publishers signed up already. Once we open things up for the second tier of publishers, we will have plenty of books to offer. We’d love to have HC among them.

Thanks for listening.

Steve

There’s depths & depths to unravel – read Joshua Gans for the complete story. And yes, those News Corp guys need to pony up for a spell checker.