Posts tagged with journalism

The Audacity of Despair

by David Simon (creator of The Wire)

  • arch cynicism about the public purpose of television
  • The Wire is not hyperbolic about our inability to solve our own problems.
  • The news media buries and forgets relevant information.
  • New Orleans was not destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. An untethered barge breached the retaining wall, destroying the Ninth Ward.
  • Three years later during Hurricane Gustav, another barge was unsecured in the same canal.
  • The Wire is not about sinister people doing sinister things. There’s no fun in that. There’s no drag in writing a show about bad guys and good guys. First of all, it’s not credible. And second of all, it’s not where the real evil lurks.
  • As a reporter: “Every time someone dragged out a statistic, I immediately distrusted it as [probably fabricated or] dubious [method]”
  • Management: No sooner does someone invent a useful measure of institutional progress, than someone else begins to game it to the point that the measure becomes useless.
  • "In my city [Baltimore], every single effort to quantify progress was an effort by somebody to advance themselves.”
  • People are promoted or leave to another job before anyone figures out what they got was dross.
  • Cops retire with a pension despite making zero progress in 40 years in the war on drugs.
  • Why? is the only of the 5W’s+1H that matters. That could have made journalism “a game for grown-ups”.
  • Bulls∗∗t US government claims about progress in Vietnam.
  • More profitable for Chicago Tribune Company’s shareholders to stop asking Why?—and lay off reporters.
  • This was due to their monopoly: they didn’t need top-quality journalism to compete. But the drop in quality, if efficient at the time, made the papers soft targets when the Web became big half a decade later.
  • He thinks Internet reporting is less magazine-like and more frothy. I contend ∃ both.
  • Crime wasn’t going down anymore. So robberies became larcenies. Aggravated assaults became common assaults. Felonies were leached down to misdemeanors.” Robberies in southwest Baltimore went down 70%. The commander was promoted to head of CID. Next boss went in, crime went up 70%, he took the flack.
  • "40% decline in crime, but the murder rate stayed constant. [red flag] The only thing that that says rationally is that they’ve opened up a gun range in West Baltimore and they’re better shots.”
  • Any reporter who had any sense of his beat would know this was a huge red flag, would dig deeper into the data and call the complainants.
  • "How is it that we’re able to talk about this in an entertainment medium—television—but not in journalism?”
  • Curfew for Blacks in Baltimore (fallacious arrests). ACLU tries to sue, but by the time it wends its way through the courts the practice has stopped; the Mayor has become Governor.
  • "If you walk into The Other America and ask people how they feel about certain things, you’re likely to hear how they feel.”
  • "We stole facts from real life, but thematically the people we stole the most from were Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles."


  • the same possessions
  • made by people doing identical things
  • with identical machines.
  • There’s a price to equality. The way our lives have to become extensions of the production line.
  • We work together
  • we holiday together
  • we sit in the same traffic jams
  • we wear the same clothes
  • we live in the same house
  • we drive the same car
  • we have the same ambitions.
  • Nothing that I own is unique.
  • That’s the price of watching the clock.

"America is a democracy of common possession"

Boy, you wouldn’t hear this narrative nowadays. Now all I hear talk about is economic inequality.

Nor would there be such an emphasis on mass culture. I guess the internet really has changed things.

How much money can you make from advertising online?
Maybe $10 per thousand clicks.
On statistical chart-making: All of the interesting information is contained on the left-hand scale numberings. But that information is de-emphasised in the presentation.

How much money can you make from advertising online?

Maybe $10 per thousand clicks.

On statistical chart-making: All of the interesting information is contained on the left-hand scale numberings. But that information is de-emphasised in the presentation.


The philosophical keystone holding up the idea that rich people contribute more to society is contained in the parable of the Edgeworth Box.

Edgeworth box

Edgeworth box with isoutility curves

People only engage in mutually beneficial transactions, endowment differences are left to the 2nd welfare theorem, and the only counterfactual is that we didn’t actually measure the utility surface.

1. “The sale begins when the customer says no”.—Randal J Kirk, billionaire.
Randall Kirk's email to Helen Dragas talking about learning to sell

So here you have a billionaire saying the same thing that all of my bosses in sales jobs said, and the same as Glengarry Glenn Ross’ famous line (which another sales boss send me the video clip as if it’s the realest advice ever), and it agrees with my experience doing sales.

Coffee’s for closers only.
Of course I can’t know if I change the free will of the customers I’m working opposite towards, but it certainly feels like it. In retail sales, door-to-door sales, and less aggressive stuff that still counts as “selling” in the more abstract (but, thankfully, more respectful / refined) way, it feels the same: I’ve been through this transaction many times, I’ve honed my pitch, I’m ready for all the directions your mind could possibly go (“objections”), and my bread comes from making you do what I want instead of what you want. If you’ve done well in sales and don’t agree with Randall Kirk’s quote, please leave a comment sharing your experience.

If sales is an aggressive head-to-head game where I, the seller, am playing against you, the potential customer, and your limited cognitive space you’re dedicating to not being manipulated by me, then that’s very different to the Edgeworth story where you only buy something if it suits you at the price.

I just find it very hard to believe that all of the sales tactics you can think of — rebates, $x.99, fuel points, upselling ("get you to agree to a little more, then get you to agree to a little more"), deals that aren’t really deals, mail packets, catalogues sent to your home, commercials — aren’t effective in getting people to buy what they wouldn’t of their own accord buy. Why are these idiot millionaires "wasting" ad budgets year after year after year? Aren’t they actually more likely to be rational than the consumers since they dedicate more headspace to it, they team up, they organise, they research, they practice, they test, and they analyse their own performance quantitatively?

At least for me, I don’t think I can convince someone to buy something they truly don’t want — and very infrequently I’ll get called out on a subtle trick I’ve pulled (with no cost to me, so I’ll just do it again on the next person) — but I do believe I can “shade" or "influence" people to spend more, and while I’m probably top .001%, I am at least top 50% at that…and I’d guess maybe top 20% or even top 10%.

A business that solves a problem may be a good place to start if you’re trying to come up with a completely new product or service. May. But obviously the ultimate test is whether sales > costs by a wide margin. In other words I don’t need any assumptions or hypotheses to say that sales are the foundation of a business, whereas to do some kind of welfare theorem I do need to assume a lot.

2. “I could have done that”.

This is a big one for me because, like Bryan Caplan, I’m bitter that I didn’t have the perfect milk round. No BCG, no McKinsey, no Goldman, no Bear for me. But if you ask me, of course I would out-compete those lazy Harvard MBA’s who landed the good jobs! … Well, of course you can’t really believe me since I’m biased. But it’s no stretch at all to believe that not everyone gets a Bloomberg terminal so the competition to figure out who’s the best trader eliminates a lot of competitors before they can even be tested. Same with every job at a large organisation (and, of course it’s important to note that large companies control a lot of money and have a lot of profits … that’s how they got large).

There’s no dynamic, cutthroat competition where I, with my CV listing factory jobs and menial labour, get to challenge Consultant Who Makes Six Figures for his job every day. In fact, Consultant Who Makes Six Figures got a lot of special training (and got paid to have it) just by being let in the gates at Megacorp C.
I wasn’t picking up anything about financial markets at the salmon canning factory, and if I want to scrape together a trading account on my own to challenge a trader who had the right-looking CV to get past Megacorp's HR flacks, it would take me years of saving to get the kind of AUM that he was vested with after a year of pouring coffee for some senior person who really knew what she was doing. I never got to watch Senior Trader, I never got a fraction of Megacorp's AUM, and it's not because I was measured to be objectively worse or because I was outcompeted at the job in question, but rather because I wasn't judged good enough due to my Yorkshire accent, charity-shop suit, and ugly face.

Point being, just because you make a lot of money, doesn’t mean somebody else couldn’t do your job equally well, close to equally well, or possibly even better than you could. Converse to this, I’ve often seen bourgeois people assume that if they weren’t doing their specialist high-paying job, they would be kicking *rse equally well at something else. I find that hard to believe. Nobody hiring for construction cares if you used to be an MD, they want to know if you have any actual trade skills. So what if finance is “above” construction in pay? Being good at finance doesn’t translate to being good at everything else in the world, and actually I think there have to be some tradeoffs so the people who are good at one thing have to be worse at something else.

Anyway, winning the HR game and therefore acceding to a position of power where you’re hooked up to capital structures that allow you to contribute more to society, doesn’t imply that you deserve more money than the people who aren’t hooked up to the capital structures. Yes, your productivity will be higher and your output will be higher. But you didn’t win a fair fight to get access to the capital structure, you won the “looks good to HR” fight and even if you consider throwing ‘bows to get to the front of the line “fair”, it’s hard to square that kind of behaviour with “I’m an upstanding citizen who contributes to society and you’re a garbage collector”.

So OK, technically the richer people here are contributing more, so my title is not apt. But they aren’t better people than the lower earners. Given that it’s well-known that people who have to go through zillions of CV’s a year have other concerns than administering fairness, social justice, and moral dessert—why should we be surprised about that?

3. “There’s no money in taking care of the homeless”.

So you think you contribute more to “society" because you make more money? You must mean "the society pages" society!
Hit it too hard tonight. @karlmarkustien @viktorprill #rkoi #domp by mrlager 
If your goal is to receive pieces of paper that are going to induce shopkeepers and airlines to provide goods and services to you, then you should probably provide services to the people who have the most pieces of paper to give. Duh. On the other hand, let’s say you don’t care about providing for yourself and invest all your capital in installing water purification systems for poor people around the world who die of cholera (the sh*ts). What are they going to give you? Goodwill, sure. But money? They don’t have any! The same principle applies in less exaggerated form to any consumer situation, which is why the other weekend I got a solicitation from a “dating website” with income categories >250k, >350k, >500k, >1M. It’s people looking for the easy score: dumb people with too much money. Not that I believe the people got to be rich by being so dumb; whenever I see a business with that air (except for iAmRich the iPhone app) I smack my forehead. But for example it’s smarter to go into B2B hedge fund services and bring together a bunch of secretaries to do all the paperwork for fund managers, than to start a coffee shop that needs to do volume and can’t charge much per customer. Again, duh.

Of course if you’re like me, you’ve read puff pieces in The Economist about how wonderful Unilever and Nestle are for marketing powdered milk to “the growing African middle class”, and the distribution is so wonderful and would be impossible by a government and the marketing department has figured out exactly the details of how to make a cheap product that suits them, and so on. Maybe that’s true. I don’t know, it sounds a little too heavenly on the corporations and like that kind of simplistic viewpoint The Economist likes to take. But I’m not trying to argue that capitalism doesn’t work. Just that it’s a fairly f*cked up state of affairs that some primates, because of possession of certain kinds of pieces of paper, get to eat caviar whilst others get to fish through trash.

I’m not sure there’s a moral or ethical purpose to things being that way, in fact it would seem the opposite. But if you want to market to “the growing Indian middle class” you’re going to have to offer homogeneous products, find a way to make them very cheaply, and if you can really multiply it out times a billion then you win. But isn’t it much easier to make Instagram? Every iPhone app has as part of its business plan the fact that everyone who owns an iPhone ∈ the richest .1% of the world’s population AND has proven willing to spend large amounts of money on stylish, expensive toys. So who do you think is the easier mark: the hardened mother of 4 who has mastered the art of budgeting so that a small income can be stretched thin enough to support all 6 and even buy 4 presents at Christmas? Going to market 5 days a week and coming back empty-handed some of them? Or the brand manager with the expensive clothes and straight teeth owing to orthodontia, with loads of cash to blow, itself derived from providing services to well-heeled corporations staffed by well-heeled individuals? Yeah, I would rather have the rich client as my customer as well.

I’m not pretending I know everything about  business or where all the opportunities are, I do recognise there’s money to be made in emerging markets, but just making the point that dollars don’t correspond directly to good deeds done. I would feel a little too populist using some finance examples of the “hatchet man” CEO coming in and firing a ton of people to make a lazy, sort of profitable company into a lean profit-smoking demon. That may or may not add a social value. But these kinds of examples should undermine the confidence of anyone who thinks that a band selling out is by definition a good thing because whatever the market rewards is whatever the market wants, and whatever the market wants is whatever’s good for society. No, that’s not even derived from neoclassical economic theory, it’s just a distortion that somehow went from doctors making more than sandwich fillers to an unwarranted and overbroad theory of every wage comparison in the society.

Everything about the news media turns me off. Sit tight, Sir, it’s time for a Novelist Portrait.
This photograph, on the other hand, is beautiful in its honesty. Family member of famous guy, quotidian camera-phone, and I swear that expression is a veridical one. I think it says “I’m annoyed at having to posture but I’m doing it anyway oh hey, honey! good morning!”.
Blog Bless the Internet for unmasking the NYT.

Everything about the news media turns me off. Sit tight, Sir, it’s time for a Novelist Portrait.

This photograph, on the other hand, is beautiful in its honesty. Family member of famous guy, quotidian camera-phone, and I swear that expression is a veridical one. I think it says “I’m annoyed at having to posture but I’m doing it anyway oh hey, honey! good morning!”.

Blog Bless the Internet for unmasking the NYT.


What I sensed was that while the laws of supply and demand governed everything on earth, the easy money was in demand—manufacturing it, manipulating it, sending it forth to multiply, etc. As a rule of thumb (and with some notable exceptions), the profit margins you could achieve selling a good or service were directly correlated to the total idiocy and/or moral bankruptcy of the demand you drummed up for it.

This was easier to grasp if you were in the business of peddling heroin, Internet stocks, or celebrity gossip; journalists, on the other hand, [did not] understand … their role in this [charade].

In the past, newspapers had made respectable margins selling a non-inane product largely because people had little choice but to herald their sublets and white sales alongside the journalists’ tales of human suffering/corporate corruption/government ineptitude.

The times were prosperous enough that much of the print media even chose to abstain from taking a share of the demand-creation campaigns of liquor and tobacco brands…. Indeed, journalism … was about delivering important information about the world—information … democracy … needed, whether [people] knew it or not.

That journalism’s ability to deliver that information—to fill that need—ultimately depended, to an unsettling degree, on the ability to create artificial demand for a lot of stuff that people didn’t actually need—luxury condos, ergonomically correct airplane seats, the latest celebrity-endorsed scent—was an afterthought at best, at least in the newsroom.

Maureen Tkacik


It takes ~20 observations to verify your first significant digit of the mean with confidence.

Do you know how many observations it takes to verify your first sig-fig of the variance? More like 1000. And that’s just to get one digit of accuracy! Higher moments (skew, kurtosis) are even worse.

That’s why I often laugh out loud when I read in the newspaper claims that rely on a certain value of the variance. Even in serious, published papers!—I often see tables with estimates of standard deviation that go out to three decimal places, just because the software spat the numbers out that way. It gives a false sense of accuracy. It’s ridiculous.
Karen Kafadar

Christopher Hitchens died yesterday. Jeremy Paxman interviewed him a little over a year ago in Washington, D.C.

"I always thought, the day the newspapers came out and I wasn’t there to read them, that that would be a sad day for me."

Hitch says he wished to see Osama bin Laden on trial — or dead — before he died. That did come to pass. And he knocked out quite a lot of prose, including a bestselling book on perhaps the deepest debated topic (religion). Not everyone accomplishes that before knocking off, themselves.

5:26: "[Cancer] is the proximate cause of my death. I’m both lucky and unlucky to know it in advance—to be able to take its measure.”

His house looks like it’s being taken apart. White walls, paintings on the floor, a stack of books. Was he ordering his affairs a year in advance of his death?

(Source: BBC)

I’ll go into more technicality about robust data analysis elsewhere. Here I want to put forward the simplest argument for it. (This is repeated probably verbatim from Karen Kafadar.)

Say you have 5 independent estimates. Estimates of something important and you’re going to make an important decision based on what the true story is. These numbers are in thousands of dollars, because it’s important.

  • $77,010 k
  • $76,778 k
  • $79,8344 k
  • $78,652 k
  • $78,136

Oops, there is a typo but you don’t notice that. Having read The Wisdom of Crowds and the Central Limit Theorem you naturally average these estimates together to cancel out possible biases or inaccuracies.  This is part of a much larger project with many more numbers (which is why you didn’t notice the typo) and you using common sense on the numbers, just plugging them into your analytic tools.

  • Result: $221,800 k.
    Due to your unnoticed typo, the analysis is majorly wrong, the decision that follows on it is majorly wrong, and everybody loses.

Let’s say you had used the median instead of the mean. Nobody tells you in Stat 101 that the median is much more robust, nor do they talk about trimming, letter-value plots, tri-means, five-number summary, etc.

  • Result: $78,140 k

Yes, regardless of the typo the result is broadly correct. Correct data would have shown mean ± SD of $78,080 k ± $624 k so the median is in bounds.

Of course, I just made this data up — but pick a distribution and generate 100 random numbers with it, then inject an extra digit into one or more of them and see the results on the mean and on the median. You can analyze the differences with calculus but I think the intuition is obvious enough that I can just leave it there.

It’s unbelievable that I didn’t learn these methods until graduate school. Undergraduate journalism majors are taught beta’s, p-values, null hypothesis versus alternative hypothesis, and theoretical “samples” “populations” and “experiments”. But they don’t do, like, simple, common sense data analysis. Just poking around without heavy math tools to ask natural questions.

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