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Archive for December, 2003

Friendly immunization…

by henrycopeland
Wednesday, December 31st, 2003

Let’s do a little cosmetic surgery on this idea.

Reuven Cohen of Bar-Ilan University in Israel and his colleagues note that random immunization programs require that a large fraction of the population, typically 80 to 90 percent, be protected in order to stop the spread of disease. Alternatively, if enough information about the network and its connections is known, targeted immunization of the most highly connected individuals–so-called super-spreaders, who have the potential to infect a high number of people–can be effective. Unfortunately, such information is difficult to acquire. The researchers instead propose a tactic known as acquaintance immunization. In it, a percentage of the population is selected at random and asked to identify a friend. Those friends, in turn, are vaccinated. According to the team’s calculations, because super-spreaders know so many people, there is a high probability that they will be named at least once. As a result, immunization of a much smaller fraction of the population can successfully halt disease transmission.

Now I’m just going to change a few words.

Reuven Cohen of Bar-Ilan University in Israel and his colleagues note that random advertising requires that a large fraction of the population, typically 80 to 90 percent, be contacted in order to spread an idea. Alternatively, if enough information about the network and its connections is known, targeted advertising to the most highly connected individuals–so-called super-spreaders, who have the potential to infect a high number of people–can be effective. Unfortunately, such information is difficult to acquire. The researchers instead propose a tactic known as acquaintance advertising. In it, a percentage of the population is selected at random and asked to identify a friend. Those friends, in turn, are targetted for advertising. According to the team’s calculations, because super-spreaders know so many people, there is a high probability that they will be named at least once. As a result, advertising to a much smaller fraction of the population can successfully spread ideas.

(Those of you who read this blog regularly — skip the next sentence.) Yet more evidence that, since we catch so many ideas/products from our peers, blogs are brilliant hubs to advertise on, right?

(Quote taken an article on Scientific American with hat tip to Biz Stone.)

Howard Dean steered by ‘the blog people’

by henrycopeland
Tuesday, December 30th, 2003

Until I read Ed Cone‘s post, I had skipped past the lead quote in Wired magazine’s story about Dean and the Internet, assuming it was from some Internet-soaked sod like me. But it was Howard Dean himself who said, “If I give a speech and the blog people don’t like it, next time I change the speech.” Interesting.

I enjoy Dean’s populism and love what Dean’s doing with the Internet, but think many of the issues he excites Democratic activists with — anti-war drumming, re-regulating of telecoms, stifling corporate options, raising trade barriers — may alienate the middle of the political bell curve. If so, Dean risks being tagged as Dukakis with rabies.

Update: Here’s the cover of today’s USA Today:

They used to be known as the boys on the bus: the big-name columnists, network TV producers and reporters for large-circulation newspapers who had the power to make or break a presidential candidate’s reputation. Now they’ve got competition. In the 2004 election, the boys (and girls) on the bus have been joined by a new class of political arbiters: the geeks on their laptops. They call themselves bloggers. (Via Buzzmachine)

The article focuses on the editorial competition bloggers pose, which misses an important half of the story, the half that begins with a $. (A story traditional publishers would rather not tell?) Don’t forget folks, many of the bloggers mentioned in this story (Atrios, TPM, DailyKos with more on the way) are selling ads. You can buy ads running for five million page impressions on blogs (a month’s worth) for under $2000… impressions that pack a political wallop that far outweighs $200,000 spent on an equal number of page views in the traditional press. Gee, could you even round up 5 million primary-focused page impressions on NYTimes.com in one month?

Dan Okrent discovered Bill James (or, does a once-obscure baseball fanatic now ghost-write the corporate strategy for America’s leading newspaper?)

by henrycopeland
Tuesday, December 30th, 2003

I know this is old news for some baseball fans, but I was just (finally) reading Michael Lewis’s Moneyball (amazing!), and noticed that Dan Okrent, the New York Times’ recently named ombudsman (or public editor), was one of Bill James’ first readers.

Bill James? He’s the guy who, writing in his spare time while working as a night watchman in a bean factory, pulled the rug from beneath many of baseball’s hallowed truisms, enchanted millions of readers and revolutionized the way winning teams like the Oakland As and Boston Red Sox are managed.

And what might this have to do with Okrent’s new job helping to clean up the NYT post Jason Blair? I know this will only appeal to a handful of media geeks, but… here goes…

My old colleague Matt Welch, who was raving about Bill James and his science of sabermetrics when we worked together in the 90s, has been nudging me to read Moneyball since June. As Matt argued then, there are lots of useful Jamesian lessons for “Overcoming Invisible Ideologies and Conventional Pieties in a Hidebound Industry”… which, as Matt suggested, could apply the business of publishing just as it applies to baseball. (Here’s Matt’s review of Moneyball, and posts 1 and 2.)

So, here’s Lewis on Okrent and James:

In 1980, a group of friends, led by Sports Illustrated writer Dan Okrent, met a La Rotisseri Francaise, a restaurant in Manhattan, and created what became know, to the confusion of a nation, as Rotiserie Basball. Okrent can plausibly be said to have “discovered Bill james. Okrent was one of those 75 people who, in 1977, ran across the one-inch ad in the Sporting News James took out and sent off his check to Lawrence Kansas. Back came an unpromising mimeograph. Then he read it. “I was absolutely dumbstruck,” he said. ” I couldn’t believe that a) this guy existed and b) he hadn’t been discovered.” Okrent flew to Lawrence to make sure James indeed existed then wrote a piece about him for Sports Illustrated. It was killed: James arrival on the national sporting scene was delayed by a year, after a Sports Illustrated fact-checker spiked the piece. “She went through it line by line,” recalled Okrent, “saying ‘Everyone knows this isn’t true. Everyone know that Nolan Ryan attracted a bigger crowds when he pitched, that Gene Tenaece was a bad hitter, that….’” Conventional opinion about baseball players and basball strategies had acquried the authority of fact, and the Sports Illustrated fact-checking department was not going to let evidence to the contrary see print.

Which brings us to October 2003. Sure, it is quite possible that NYT hiring of Okrent had nothing to do with his sabermetric credentials. But one could imagine that Okrent, who understands how a grass-roots movement of outsiders can revolutionize a staid industry sunk deep in its own prejudices, might appeal to NYT’s owners.

The connection was obvious to Matt before Okrent was hired. Here’s Matt in Canada’s National Post, writing in June about Moneyball:

What lessons can we learn from this tale? That the pursuit of better information will eventually unearth discrepancies and irrationalities, even in a field as seemingly well-studied as baseball. That the gatekeepers of information and judgment will instinctively and defensively protect their turf, rather than question their own legitimacy. That intelligence and passion can still win in the end, especially if they take advantage of the networking power of the Web.

The most obvious application for these lessons is in other sports, especially under-measured ones like professional basketball (already, several people have attempted to become “the Bill James of the NBA”). But any industry addicted to its own traditions, conventional in its hiring practices, and hostile to outsider analysis, is vulnerable. Especially if it attracts the attention of fanatical observers who publish their own Web sites.

Any good Jamesean knows to avoid small sample sizes and results-based analysis, but I for one can’t help notice that Moneyball came out just as The New York Times editor Howell Raines was being drummed out of office at least in small part because of the hounding of a thousand individual outsiders. It’s a bad era to be a gatekeeper. Thank God.

To augment and retread Matt’s points, then; read Moneyball and you’ll see that:

a) Long-established businesses can completely misunderstand the engines that drive their profits and losses.

b) Businesses too easily ignore insights that their fans/customers offer for free.

c) Businesses that trade on ego can be very slow to consider new statistics about their players/participants, long after the tools become available to more objectively analyze those statistics.

d) Collaborative efforts by amateurs can create vast bodies of knowledge and distilled insight that overshadow anything imagined by closed-system corporations.

e) It can take a long time for self-evident truths, even when plainly published and proven successful, to be accepted integrated in an industry. As one Moneyball reader, a baseball journalist, explains why the baseball industry is so slow to accept James’ insights: “Most of the men who make baseball decisions have a vested interest in the status quo, because without the status quo their knowledge isn’t as valuable.”

f) Disaggregating information (what attributes actually make a double? does hitting or pitching win games? what pitching stats actually reflect great pitching) can yield vital clues about the real keys to winning. As traditional labels/categories are broken into new fragments, new strategies can be assembled that eliminate numbers of expensive traits and, by extension, the jobs players and coaching positions… which yields much cheaper, more effective organizations.

g) Even in competitive marketplaces, business cultures that are built around misapprehension, mislabelling and miscounting can thrive. As long as the competition inhabits the same warped culture, inefficiencies go unpunished by the marketplace.

h) Watch out for guys with laptops.

i) At the individual level, baseball seems to be about artistry and flair and ego, but in aggregate, it’s a game of numbers. The team that best understands the numbers and executes most cost-effectively wins… in the long run.

j) Most of what we think of as music/narrative, is actually noise/randomness. The marginal results of skill are almost invisible to the naked eye. In a baseball game, luck accounts for 4 runs, skill accounts for only one run. This means most of what commentators are chattering about is luck AND only over the course of a long season does skill win out. To put it another way, in a five game series, even the poorest team has a 15% chance of winning against the best team. (page 242) This perspective reinforced by Nassim Taleb’s book Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in the Markets and in Life.

Matt’s right. Moneyball‘s lessons can apply to publishing. I don’t have the time right now to drag out the relevant quotes, or analogies but may do so later and update this post. I’m on page 88 right now…

Read Moneyball and connect the dots. I think it is probable that NYT management already have, or else there’s some weird cosmic convergence at work with Bill James at the vertex. Remember that NYT is one of the owners of the Red Sox, the team which hired Bill James as an advisor in November 2002. And the Sox’ reliance on James was profiled (last summer?) in the NYT magazine, but I can’t find it online. So is James helping write the game plan at NYT these days? Someone who reports for a living should call up and ask whether Sulzberger has ever met James.

I’ve been pretty pessimistic before (here and here) about Okrent’s chances of changing the NYT. Learning of Okrent’s evangelism for Bill James, I’ve gained respect for Okrent… and the folks who hired him.

Update: I’ve finished the book. It’s the best written book I’ve encountered. Wow, Lewis is a narrative wizard. And, sure enough, on the final page Lewis thanks Okrent for reading the book in draft.

Dollar, in quiet desperation, continues to sink

by henrycopeland
Monday, December 29th, 2003

Watching the dollar slip quietly below $1.25 to the Euro, I’m suddenly reminded of that poem not waving but drowning.

Too bad I can’t offer cheerier references. As it happens, I’m just now listening to Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s rendition of “Keep on the Sunny Side of Life” but those lyrics don’t seem to apply.

The US is dangerously in hock to the rest of the world and unable admit or address its problem. If international investors panic out of the dollar and US assets, we’re in for a long ride down. Currency markets often overshoot, way overshoot, what seem to be reasonable levels, so it is not unreasonable to worry about $2 to the Euro. Anyone want to give me ten to one odds we hit this level in 2004?

The dirty secret behind today’s non-partisan press

by henrycopeland
Monday, December 29th, 2003

Tim Rutten, media critic for the LA Times, bemoans rising public skepticism about press objectivity. “To an extent unforeseeable just a short while ago, next year’s general election is shaping up as a referendum not only on America’s political future but also on the direction of its news media.” (Via Buzzmachine.)

Well, here’s a vote against the status quo that employs Rutten. I’m tired of listening to press panjandrums congratulate themselves and their peers for their objectivity. (Many journalists are so self-righteous as to demur from voting in elections, lest their hands be smudged by the appearance of partisanship.)

Here’s the dirty little secret behind today’s ideal of “pure” journalism. Nonpartisan publishing is a business invention, created to allow newspapers to take advantage of the telegraph and pool resources in the second half of the 19th century. Their ain’t no ethics in it, folks. George Krimsky, the former head of news for the Associated Press’ World Services and author of Hold the Press (The Inside Story on Newspapers), admits that journalistic objectivity was an economic expedience:

Organizations like the Associated Press (AP) were formed to act as centralized gatherers and disseminators of the news, serving newspapers that could not afford to have correspondents in far-away places. In order to serve a variety of different publications (on the left, right and center), the AP could take no political or ideological position. It just delivered the facts as best and fast as it could, and stayed out of politics. What started as a business necessity gradually took on the mantle of moral righteousness.

The Associated Press’s economies of scale are being superseded by the Internet. As the economics of 20th century publishing disintegrate, the artificial constructs are disintegrating also. Is this bad? Remember that before the aberation of nonpartisan publishing, a partisan press thrived for 200 years, and fostered triumphs like the American Revolution and the abolition of slavery.

Looking ahead in 1982

by henrycopeland
Monday, December 29th, 2003

As predictions for 2004 abound, you might enjoy reading Time’s 1982 Machine of the year article about PCs. A lot of the numbers are wrong, but the basic trajectory is remarkably accurate. (Via WSJ’s Realtime column.)

I was particularly amused by this passage:

In his 1980 book, The Third Wave, he portrays a 21st century world in which the computer revolution has canceled out many of the fundamental changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution: the centralization and standardization of work in the factory, the office, the assembly line. These changes may seem eternal, but they are less than two centuries old. Instead, Toffler imagines a revived version of pre-industrial life in what he has named “the electronic cottage,” a utopian abode where all members of the family work, learn and enjoy their leisure around the electronic hearth, the computer. Says Vice President Louis H. Mertes of the Continental Illinois Bank and Trust Co. of Chicago, who is such a computer enthusiast that he allows no paper to be seen in his office (though he does admit to keeping a few files in the drawer of an end table): “We’re talking when’not if’the electronic cottage will emerge.”

Any day now. I’m still a believer.

Dean advertises on blogs

by henrycopeland
Monday, December 29th, 2003

Looks like a whole bunch of blogads were purchased while I was away. Among others, Howard Dean’s presidential campaign bought ads on blogs like Atrios, Politicalwire, Pandagon, Calpundit and Oliver Willis promoting the new Bushtax site.

Attention, candidates for any office out there from local dog catcher to the president — blog readers are the America’s most passionate and active citizens. We’ve seen some single issue ads pull 5% clickthrus.

Notes from the hills

by henrycopeland
Monday, December 29th, 2003

Hit Christmas gifts: Hogwarts Express lego set and Snap Circuits Jr. Electronic Lab Kit and, for me, a fountain pen to replace the one I lost in July.
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Matt’s review of LOTR sums up my feelings in three words: “four gratuitous endings.” Disliked the newest and overly-sensuous Peter Pan movie.

We went on lots of long walks last week beneath brilliant blue skies. Today talked to a bear hunter who said the bears are “lying down” right now. Is that hunter-speak or WNC vernacular?

Inspired by Rick Bruner, I bought a new pair of shoes in Asheville. After closing the first sale, the salesman asked if I also wanted to buy a pair of dress shoes or sneakers; I told him, only half jokingly, “this pair serves as both.”
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We went to lunch in Asheville at Salsa, the best lunch ever. I’m going back later this week.

I’ve been passing through Asheville on and off for the past 41 years. The place used to be one big bus stop — ramshackle and full of transients. Now Asheville is packed with tourists and new age boutiques.

Henry to the hills

by henrycopeland
Sunday, December 21st, 2003

Heading to Black Mountain for a week. If you’ve got an urgent issue, call Budapest or e-mail info at blogads dot com.

NYT and its critics

by henrycopeland
Sunday, December 21st, 2003

Jeff Jarvis dissects an e-mail sent by NYTimes “public editor” Dan Okrent to bloggers complaining about New York Times’ uncoverage of a Baghdad peace demonstration

Jeff and his commenters rightly pummel Okrent for including the self-indicting excuse that “the organizers of the demonstration failed to alert the Times in advance.”

Anyway, if Okrent is going to send e-mails to bloggers and then get chewed up in blogger’s posts and comments sections, he’ll soon realize that having his own blog will be far more efficent mode of communication.

But bringing all those conversations into an Okrent blog will be dangerous. The critics will benefit from the new efficiency too. The traditional publisher’s hub-and-spoke approach to communication keeps readers divided-and-conquered. If the debate concentrates in one space and readers can see what other readers are thinking, they can more readily gang up on the paper.

Of course, the ganging up is going on anyway via posts like Jeff’s but the process is slower and less public.

In his first official column, Okrent says the Times gets roughly 800 e-mails and letters a day.

As we know, a number of blogs run by single, part-time individuals get that many or more responses each day.) What nuclear chain reaction will be set off when those posted ideas are available to the public and can interact with each other?

Anyway, kudos to Okrent for stepping onto the slippery slope of debating bloggers. Like Lear, he may soon realize: that way lies madness.

Note to self on something to do later: dissect awesome old-media smugness/backhanded-self-congratulation of Okrent’s first paragraph of first column:

MOST people who are subjects of newspaper articles they believe to be unfair or inaccurate have few avenues of recourse. You can write a letter to the editor, and if you’re extraordinarily lucky, it will leap out of the enormous haystack (The Times gets more than 300,000 letters and e-mail messages every year) and into print. You can ask for a correction, which even if granted isn’t likely to be seen by nearly as many people as the original story. If you’ve got a lot of money and a lot of time, you could even hire a lawyer.

300,000 letters a year? Gee, that’s almost as many as Instapundit gets!


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