Thursday, October 29, 2009

A math word problem for journalists

Update It appears that the Oct. 29 column will not be posted online. See the comments if you're interested in reading it. I'll add a few comments after the Saints game if I'm not too tired.

I couldn't find the link that would make the point of the problem obvious.

Ray's brother-in-law Cedric's friend Glenn* stole $550,000 of the city's money. The city later gave Glenn $650,000 to settle a lawsuit. If Glenn is forced to repay the $550,000 that he stole, how much of the city's money does Glenn still have?

*Who doesn't appear to have been a friend of Ray's friend Greg. Believe it or not, the problem was not suggested by a Pete Finney column -- just a column that read like a Pete Finney column.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Evil Bastards

Baby Boomers are simultaneously endangering Social Security's finances by retiring early, and blocking the career advancement of Gen Xers by not retiring. That's pretty vicious trick. No wonder I hated Dr. Spock's spoiled generation before I became a part of it in the generational gerrymander of the 1990's.

Actually, hate's too strong a word. You may recall the scene from The River's Edge in which the members of a high school class collectively sighed and rolled their eyes when the thirty-something said "we stopped a war, man." If you were in your twenties at the time, you had spent at least ten years rolling your eyes at that kind of statement. You wouldn't become part of the generation that "stopped a war, man" for another ten years. I no longer really care what generation I'm considered part of,* but I am enough of a paranoid conspiracy theorist and believer in pitchfork populism to wonder who benefits if generational bitchfests drown out serious discussion of economic issues and class interests.

*Not really. True story, my younger brother stopped by apartment one night in 1990 when I was trying to figure out some the lyrics to "Bodies." The first thing he said when i answered the door was, "David, is that the Sex Pistols you're listing to? It's 1990, you're worse than you used to make fun of old hippies for being ten years ago." Didn't like it when Madison Avenue decided I was one of those old hippies a few years later.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

An obvious thought

If the point of awarding the Nobel Prize is to influence U.S. policy, shouldn't the prize in Economic Science be awarded to Simon Johnson. Some wag has probably already suggested it, but I'm almost almost serious.

Reading Glen Beck* makes you smarter

I apologize for the slightly misleading post title.

The Daily Beast "crunched the data on the brainpower of America’s 55 largest cities, from first-to-worst." Silly surveys always spawn silly arguments about their results, but I think it's more interesting to look at methodology (or to compare similar surveys that use different data -- if you're a real glutton for punishment). I really don't care that The Daily Beast says that New Orleans is a slightly less intelligent city than Birmingham but a slightly more intelligent city than Houston, Dallas, or San Antonio. This tells me all I need to know:
Then we divided the criteria into two halves: Half for education, and half for intellectual environment. The education half encompassed how many residents had bachelor’s degrees (35 percent weighting) and graduate degrees (15 percent). No credit was given for “some college,” or “some grad school”—we rewarded those who finished the race. The intellectual environmental half had three subparts. First, we looked at nonfiction book sales (25 percent), as tracked by Nielsen BookScan, the nation’s leading provider of accurate point-of-sale data, which tracks roughly 300,000 titles each week. We focused on nonfiction as an imperfect proxy for intellectual vigor, because overall sales are dominated by fiction works that, while entertaining, aren’t always particularly thought-provoking. We also measured the ratio of institutions of higher education (15 percent), as defined by the federal government—different than just measuring college degrees, this acknowledges that universities don’t just churn out diplomas, but instead drive the intellectual vigor of cities. Finally, many studies link intelligence and political engagement, so we weighed this, too, as measured by the percentage of eligible voters who cast ballots in the last presidential election (10 percent). Our relatively small weighting acknowledges that numerous other local factors can affect turnout.)

Non-fiction book sales as an indicator of "intellectual vigor" because fiction works "aren’t always particularly thought-provoking."

Yeah, right:
New York Times
Saturday, October 10, 2009
Best Sellers

Hardcover Nonfiction

Top 5 at a Glance
1. HAVE A LITTLE FAITH, by Mitch Albom
2. ARGUING WITH IDIOTS, written and edited by Glenn Beck, Kevin Balfe and others
3. TRUE COMPASS, by Edward M. Kennedy
4. THE TIME OF MY LIFE, by Patrick Swayze and Lisa Niemi
5. THE MURDER OF KING TUT, by James Patterson and Martin Dugard

Paperback Nonfiction

Top 5 at a Glance
3. THREE CUPS OF TEA, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
4. MY LIFE IN FRANCE, by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme
5. THE GLASS CASTLE, by Jeannette Walls

First off, book sale figures probably don't reflect used book sales very well, and they certainly don't reflect library usage. For that reason, book sales probably reflect disposable income as much as "intellectual vigor," and it seems obvious that the proprietors of Daily Beast aren't very familiar with the non-fiction book market.

I don't want to waste my time debating New Orleans' ranking in a silly survey, but the last criterion, voter turnout in the last presidential election, would obviously be unfair to a city with a scattered population.

Minor nitpick: I don't think that number of institutions of higher education per capita is the best measurement for that category. A small school school doesn't have the same impact as a larger school -- New Orleans didn't become a noticeably dumber city when Dominican College closed down. A more appropriate statistic would involve the number of college and university faculty and staff (especially library staff) members and students (especially graduate students?) per capita. Overall university budgets and research funding would probably be factors to consider as well.

*or Ted Kennedy or Mitch Albom

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