The Danger of Data Journalism

I like Catherine Rampell. I can’t say that I am a regular reader, but every time I am forwarded something she wrote I normally read it. That being said, this week wasn’t a good week to be Catherine Rampell.

This week her former employer, The New York Times, launched a fantastic two-part long form exploration into the lives of New York City nail salon workers. When I lived in New York City, my friends and I would always end conversations about high rent prices with an aside, “At least we can get haircuts and manicures for cheap.” This is undoubtably true. I used to pay about $13 for a haircut in Astoria, NYC; Now I pay about $30.

Sarah Maslin Nir explores why that is. She uncovers an industry where wage theft is normalized, working conditions border on slavery, and the caustic chemicals the workers face every day lead to birth defects, cancer, and death.

What does this have to do with Catherine Rampell? A few years back she examined the phenomenon of cheap manicures on her New York Times hosted Economix blog, the same blog that got her a coveted op-ed position at the Washington Post. Instead of beginning her reporting by interviewing salon workers, owners, or patrons; she reaches out to, Centzy, a (now defunct) company that used low paid foreign labor to call and ask local establishments about their prices.

Once she got that data in her hand, she made the following conclusion:

In New York, about one in 10 (10.5 percent) of salons will sell you a pedicure at 9 p.m., according to Centzy’s data; in the other cities, fewer than one in 100 salons will be open at that time (unweighted average of 0.5 percent). Greater availability at more hours effectively lowers prices for the people who consume these services. That’s because economists don’t think about prices just as the sticker price of goods or services, but rather how consumers prefer an entire bundle of goods over another, based on what we observe about their purchasing choices.

I can’t believe she swindled someone to pay her for that.

On the face of it, every sentence she wrote is probably logically correct. In aggregate, longer hours equals a greater supply of manicures and lowers the price. But not including the concept of wages in a discussion about prices is laughable. It would be like if you graded every single BBQ stand in the world, but refused to include the sauce in the discussion.

Unfortunately that is what most data journalism does. As a whole, the movement is so pleased that it understands statistics that it forgets what actual journalism entails.

Luckily for society, Sarah Maslin Nir hasn’t forgotten.

Image via Flickr

Is Dwight Eisenhower Overrated, Underrated, or Properly Rated?

Eisenhower managed WW2, led an Ivy League University, became a beloved President, oversaw the rise of the American hegemony; all while carrying on an affair. Most historians rank him as one of the top 15 Presidents of all time, but the question remains: Is he Underrated, Overrated, or Properly Rated?

Childhood

David Dwight Eisenhower was born in Texas to pacifist Jehovah Witnesses, but grew up in Abilene, Kansas. Abilene is one of those towns that got its first paved street four years before WW1. I’d imagine today they have numerous DVD stores. His family was poor and his college prospects looked grim, but he was lucky enough to be represented by one of a handful of Senators who gave appointments to Military Schools on merit, not political connections. For basically every other state but Kansas, admission to the US Military schools operated like a aristocracy. At nineteen he forged his birth certificate and got an appointment to West Point.

Verdict: UNDERRATED

Time at WestPoint

Eisenhower was an average student, totally laudable. He graduated 61/164, which is less impressive when you realize West Point was kind of a shit hole at that time. “How long are we going to continue preparing for the War of 1812?” General MacArthur asked when he assumed control of the school in 1919. What’s strange about Eisenhower’s college experience is how much of it seemingly revolved around sports. Nearly every biography makes a passing reference to his love for football and baseball. The thing is, he was terrible at them. He was one of those average players who made up for their athletic limitations with grit and intelligence. He couldn’t even make the Varsity team. Basically, the media’s perception of every white WR in NFL history.

Verdict: OVERRATED

Writer

Today, books by politicians are essentially 250 page-marketing campaigns. There’s really little of actual substance. They are just pages of pages of homespun tales vetted by publicists about theirAmerica. If the writer is Republican they use a title likeUnintimidated or No Apology, which last I checked were previously reserved for movies staring Sylvester Stallone. If the writer is a Democrat they’ll use titles ripped from the self-help aisle like Know Your Power and The Audacity of Hope. For his first publication Ike went with A Guide to the American Battle Fields in Europe—and then wrote 282 pages on the specific battle strategies used by the American military in WW1.

Verdict: UNDERRATED

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To Hate or to Adhere

Why does language evolve the way that it does?

I stumbled upon a passage written about John Adams by Thomas Jefferson. Adams was a notoriously jealous and petty. He earned the nickname “His Rotundity” for being obese and arguing that everyone should refer to George Washington as “His Majesty the President.” Jefferson was a cool guy. A philosopher and statesmen that shared the opinion that most reasonable, fun loving people of the era had: Adams was a jerk. After learning that Adam’s official notes from the Treaty of Paris were “a display of his vanity, his prejudice against the French court and his venom against Dr. Franklin.” I found Jefferson’s reply interesting. He simply wrote, “[Adams] hates Franklin, he hates [John] Jay, he hates the French, he hates the English. To whom will he adhere?”

This begs the questions: Why, 232 years later, do we say we hate things, but not adhere them?

Ranking the 38 Books I Read in 2014

It’s the end of the year, which means it is time for ugly sweater parties and “best of lists”. 2014 was a pretty eclectic year in reading for me. For a short time I got obsessed with the journalism of Jon Ronson and then the novels of David Benioff, only to meander down to Presidential biographies. One thing you won’t find is a lot of business books. Even though I write a lot about business you won’t find many business books on this list. The reason is simple. You’ll learn more about strategy and leadership from LBJ than you will from any business advisor.

If you missed my earlier post on 2014’s best articles you can find it here.

Now to the books.

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The 27 Best Articles I Read In 2014

Why spend the time identifying the 27 best articles I read all year? The better question should probably be, “Why not?” I selected each article based on the following criteria:

  1. The work should most importantly be interesting
  2. The work should help explain the business, political and social world we live in.
  3. The work should provide historical context to the modern world.
  4. The work should make you laugh (See Jones, Jerry)

Without further ado, here they are.

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Book Review: Peter Thiel’s Zero to One

Each year hundreds of thousands of business books are published. Peter Thiel’s Zero to One is arguably the best business book of the decade. I’m not alone in this sentiment. The Atlantic called it “a lucid and profound articulation of capitalism and success in the 21st century economy.” New York Magazine said it was “surprisingly awesome” and The New Republic argued it “isn’t just entrepreneurial; it’s also ethical and romantic.”

Perhaps calling Zero to One the best business book of the decade was an understatement?

The book begins by asking a simple but contrarian question, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” The answer, according to Thiel, is that “most people think the future of the world will be defined by globalization, but the truth is that technology matters more.” Thiel describes globalization as taking what worked in developed nations and applying them in developing world. This moves the world from 1 to n. But if you invent a better way of doing things (how Thiel describes technology) the world moves from 0 to 1.

The problem is, moving from 0 to 1 is hard.

Thiel offers a lot of valuable advice on the topic. The most intriguing is his argument that capitalism isn’t about competition but rather creating a monopoly. He goes so far as to state “capitalism and competition are opposition.” For everyone on the right who is upset reading this socialist propaganda, realize that Thiel is about as pro-business as you can get without opposing all taxes. He founded Paypal in an attempt to create a virtual currency and supplant the US dollar. This would seem extreme if it wasn’t for his plan to build private islands exempt from the American government and international law.

All in all, Thiel’s book is an antidote to the bullshit percolating around the web. The world is now populated with charlatans and consultants of all stripes. Here is a guy who has actually built billions of dollars worth of value.

It is time we listen.

Book Review: Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control

I have very few certainties in life. There’s life and there are taxes, but when Eric Schlosser releases a book you read it. That may seem like a bold statement, but it is the truth. With the release of Fast Food Nation, a 2001 book that examined the impact of the fast food industry on America, Schlosser became one of the few working journalists who can claim to have changed an entire industry.  “This is a fine piece of muckraking, alarming without being alarmist,” wrote the New York Times upon the book’s release, “Schlosser makes it hard to go on eating fast food in blissful ignorance.”

It took him over ten years, but Schlosser finally released his follow up, Command and Control, a book nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. I can say this with certainty; it is without a doubt the most comprehensive book on the systemic risk of any nuclear weapons system. It is impossible to read this book and not think to yourself, “I don’t understand how the world made it through the Cold War.”

The book centers itself on the Damascus Incident, a 1980 nuclear missile explosion in Arkansas that nearly blew the state in half. Schlosser takes a detour to trace bureaucratic and executive decision making that led to a place where the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction went from a punch line to stated American policy. It makes incredible and jarring points about the folly of complex systems. How the people most familiar with nuclear weapons were the most dedicated in their support for banning them. How armed nuclear bombs were routinely dropped and discharged, completely by accident. The book is meticulously researched, balanced and important.

I’m also not sure I would recommend it.

To put it bluntly the book was so detailed that I felt it detracted from the overall flow of the narrative. Unlike his previous works, I felt myself struggling through the middle of the book (although the last section that details the actual explosion is riveting). Instead, I’d recommend reading the excerpt published earlier in the New Yorker. The except doesn’t give a complete picture of how close the world came to ending due to minor lapses, but it gives a good enough glimpse.

Bottom Line: Command and Control is one of the most important books ever written about both nuclear strategy and the dangers of relying on a complex computerized system. If you are genuinely interested in those topics than it is a must read, if not, read the excerpts and reviews to get a general sense of how close we all came to not existing.

 

Image via WikiCommons

The Revolutionary Logic Behind Chip Kelly’s Madness

C

hip Kelly is an interesting man. He was an unassuming former D-1AA defensive back who became a successful offensive coordinator and found himself the most wanted college football coach in America. In his first game as the head coach of the Oregon Ducks, his team managed just 153 yards and scored only 8 points. A season ticket holder wrote him asking for his money back. Kelly mailed him a personal check for $439.

Like I said, Chip Kelly is an interesting man.

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The Most Devastating Insult

Sinclair Lewis was the first American to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. He has been mostly forgotten, but he once wrote best selling novels, short-stories and plays. He had his own stamp. He was evidentially the inspiration for Howdy Doody.

He also wrote one of the greatest insult passages of all time:

She was a good woman, a kind woman, a diligent woman, but no one, save perhaps Tinka her ten-year-old, was at all interested in her or entirely aware that she was alive.

That passage is describing the titular character’s wife in Babbitt, a spectacular satire of American culture published in 1922. It tells the story of a hardworking man named George Babbitt who is a successful real estate agent, solid citizen and fervent supporter of prohibition (he drinks himself).

Do yourself a favor and read it. The best compliment I can give it is that you would only need to make a handful of changes today and the satire would apply to nearly all conservatives.