Graphing the debates (live!)

My wife and I watched last Friday's presidential debate on PBS and I'm glad.  It was only later that I heard about the graphical extravaganza that I missed by not watching CNN:

(Image from WSJ's Numbers Guy blog by Carl Bialik: Scoring the Debate Live on CNN.)

This screenshot is the HD version.  I gather that non-HD viewers saw the bottom part but not the analyst scorecards on the sides.  The "audience reaction" lines along the bottom represents data from 32 focus group viewers.

Carl Bialik at the WSJ compares it to a sporting match and says he and friends "were alternately distracted, bemused and befuddled by all the data."  But apparently CNN didn't think it was distracting enough — regarding the audience lines, Bialik says, "The audience rarely went sharply positive or negative, so he [CNN's executive producer for elections] plans to zoom in on the center of the scale."  So basically the idea is not to indicate any kind of accurate measure. They just want to show pretty lines going up and down.

The CNN graph is a distraction, of course, and yet another manifestation of the triumph of surface/sensationalist crap over reflection and substance, but it's more than that too.  People's perceptions will be shaped by it, both directly, in the sense that the scores guide them in their thinking, and indirectly by what they cause people to miss by not paying closer attention to the candidates.  Can CNN not leave the viewers alone for 90 minutes to think for themselves?

I was surprised to learn via Google that real-time polling data was presented during debates way back in 1992. This article at a site called the Museum for Broadcast Communications claims that the experiment was a success: The Debate Pulse.

Silicon valley techies have a way of taking this sort of thing to a new level, and they didn't disappoint.  Via Valleywag comes this plot of Twitter activity during the debate, created by Twitter co-founder Biz Stone (see The Debate: A Twitter Play-by-Play). Feast your eyes on this colorful monstrosity:


(click to enlarge)

I challenge anyone to point to something meaningful in that mess.  Okay, lots of purple means lots of people twittered about Iraq after McCain said something provocative about Iraq.  Big surprise!

Twitter even has an election site where you can watch live election-related brain farts as they arrive from the quick fingers of the Twitterati: Twitter Election 2008.  I get that people chat about the debate, online and off, but I object to the suggestion that any of this real-time data is meaningful.  I likely muttered a few things during the debate myself, but I'm sure none of it was worth remembering.

Technology and the financial meltdown

James Howard Kunstler makes an interesting point: 

What we're seeing in this fiasco, among other things, is a lesson in the diminishing returns of technology. This is a train wreck of investment vehicles so complex that they could only be created with the aid of computers. The result is that hardly anyone — perhaps even nobody in or out of Wall Street — really understands what they represent. In fact, this alphabet soup of engineered securities — CDOs, CDSs, MBSs, SIVs, etc — was cooked up from a recipe of Ponzi algorithms. They were designed to be mathematically indecipherable, except by computers, in an alternative universe of model-making that bore only a superficial relation to the real world. That was their dirty secret. And the dirty secret of the Great Bail-out is that, in the real world, we will never be able to discover the actual trading value of these things at any number above zero. This is why they are called "toxic."

Link: The Ponzi-Plus Plan.

Jeff Jarvis to address internet complaints once and for all

In a post called "Sigh," Jeff Jarvis complains about the whiners:

I’m thinking of writing my Guardian column this week responding to
some because I’m tired of having to answer the same complaints over and
over. I sometimes despair at being able to advance the discussion about
the opportunities of the connected age, as someone in the room will
inevitably say: “Yes, but there are inaccuracies on the internet.” Or:
“Most people watch junk.” Or: “There are no standards.”


And then I got email for a panel discussion at NYU on Oct. 21 called
Crossing the Line, which asks these questions: “Are there any ethics on
the web?” “Should bloggers be held to journalistic standards?” “Who
makes the rules — the media, the courts or YOU?”


The implied answers, of course: The web has no ethics… Bloggers have
no standards…. The wrong people are making the rules (if there are

To hash over these weightless questions they have nothing but the
products of big, old media: David Carr of the NY Times, Liz Smith of
the NY Post, Jim Kelley of Time, Judge Andrew Napolitano of Fox News,
and Sherrese Smith, counsel for WPNI.

Mind you, just across campus, NYU has at least two of the country’s
greatest thinkers on the internet and its implications for society, Jay
Rosen and Clay Shirky. But they’re not on that panel. New York is thick
with great practitioners of new ways on the internet, but they’re not

Same old questions/objections/complaints/fears. Where is the talk of new opportunities in our new reality?

Link: Sigh.

Here is the comment I posted over there.  I confess my mood was a little cranky, but I still stand by this…

Sighing over the questions and calling them “weightless” doesn’t
answer them. Maybe they keep getting asked because the pat answers
people give (on either side) aren’t good enough and some people are
hungering for deeper analysis.

For example, asking the question “Are there any ethics on the web?”
does not imply the questioner is assuming “the web has no ethics,” just
as I assume your response is not simply “the web has ethics.” (And the
other common response, which I’ve heard Shirky give — that the web has
the best and the worst — doesn’t cut it either.)

I get your point in the first part of the post and agree with you —
it’s a disservice to you as a speaker when people don’t hear you
because they can’t think past simple/closed-minded objections. My
problem is with you dismissing the NYU panel for the same reasons. I
don’t know anything about those speakers’ qualifications, but on the
face of it the panel sounds worthwhile.

Jarvis's sigh reminds me of danah boyd's similar post a while back called feeding quasi-"legitimate" trolls in an attention economy, which I wrote about in a previous post: The Tender Ears of the Blogosphere.

By the way, I finally read The Dumbest Generation (one of those troll books) and I think Boyd is wrong — it's a serious critique that deserves attention, though I certainly don't agree 100% with Bauerlein, and I think the book's title is ridiculous.

One of the points that Bauerlein makes is that there's no funding to study really fundamental questions about technology in education like "does it work?"  Danah boyd, Clay Shirky and the Berkman Center are all doing fine and important work but a lot of it presupposes that the internet and technology are beneficial, wherever they're applied.  It bypasses fundamentals and goes straight to studying what kids are doing with the technologies, how it's empowering them, and what else technology could do for them. (For example, see this talk abstract danah boyd posted Thursday.)  It's no surprise that a lot of funding for these researchers comes from industry.  Again, I'm not saying this isn't important work, but it's not the whole story.

Update: Jarvis's promised Guardian column is now up (and is mostly straw-man silliness): Once and for all.

Bailout Beach Reading

I've been reading Thomas Frank's new book The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, which is full of fascinating stuff about the conservative movement in the US.  It's topical too, of course, given how the conservative agenda of gutting government and letting free markets run wild is squarely to blame for what's happening right now.

I was surprised to learn that he's now writing a column at the Wall Street Journal.  An excerpt from his latest, from last Wednesday:

Consider the current economic catastrophe, which has been building
for a year. Just as it has taken down Countrywide, Bear Stearns,
Indymac, Freddie, Fannie, Lehman, Merrill and Lord knows who else in
the weeks to come, it has also pulverized the reigning conservative
shibboleths of the past 28 years.

There is simply no way to blame this disaster, as Republicans used
to do, on labor unions or over-regulation. No, this is the
conservatives' beloved financial system doing what comes naturally.
Freed from the intrusive meddling of government, just as generations of
supply-siders and entrepreneurial exuberants demanded it be, the
American financial establishment has proceeded to cheat and deceive and
beggar itself — and us — to the edge of Armageddon. It is as though
Wall Street was run by a troupe of historical re-enactors determined to
stage all the classic panics of the 19th century.

By the way, this is the same system the Republicans would still
apparently like to put in charge of Social Security. The same system
that is minting millionaire CEOs, that is holding the line on wages,
and that we will be bailing out for years.

On Monday, John McCain blamed the disaster on "greed by some based
in Wall Street." It's a personal failing of some evil few, in other
words, and presumably capitalism will start working again once we
squeeze the self-interest out of it. In the weeks to come, maybe Sen.
McCain will also take a bold stand against covetousness and sloth.

But the structural changes of the past 28 years that have made all
this possible — the waves of deregulation, the takeover of government
itself by business interests — these haven't made too much of an
impression on him. In March Mr. McCain actually called for more
deregulation in response to the crisis, and at the Republican
convention two weeks ago an ebullient Mitt Romney promised that Mr.
McCain would take "a weed-whacker to excessive regulation." Just for
good measure, this former management consultant also called for yet
another round of attacks on the unionized federal workforce, deploring
its "tyrannosaurus appetite."

Some tyrannosaurus! Thanks to the party of Romney and McCain,
federal work is today so financially unattractive to top talent that it
might as well be charity work. It's one of the main reasons — other
than outright conquest by the industries they're supposed to be
overseeing — that our regulatory agencies can't seem to get out of bed
in the morning.

Link: Get Your Class War On.

I  also recommend this inspired rant by Bob Sullivan (author of Gotcha Capitalism) on his Red Tape Blog, with a consumer angle on the bailouts: Consumers Deserve Greed Bailout.

And I found this interview of Michael Greenberger by Fresh Air's Terry Gross last week to be really informative: Was 'Adult Supervision' Needed on Wall Street?