7 Quick Takes (2/22/2013)

— 1 —

Well, starting a job during crunch time for the organization plays merry hob with my plans to write.  It’s been a frenetic (though enjoyable!) time, and I’m hoping that some more free time over the weekend will give me the space to prewrite some post and format the already-existing guest posts for the Naming Infinity bookclub.

As part of the moving hubbub, I was trying to finish some books that I meant to read, but didn’t necessarily plan to ship to California, so I finally got around to reading Maphead, Ken Jenning’s discursive history, anecdotes, and interviews about maps.  As is always the case when I read anything about Ken Jennings, I was filled with delight and wish I could hang out with him.  He comes across as such an enthusiast.

— 2 —

Buzzfeed just did a profile of Jennings, and I was particularly amused by Jenning’s take on the way Jeopardy works emotionally, for the audience and the players:

“The question isn’t on the bottom of the screen while you watch the players,” he points out. “It fills the screen, and if you watch Jeopardy, you have to start playing along. They put the puzzle front and center, and it stays front and center.” Normally, this means that the three contestants who play every night become mere facilitators for the show. They’re sort of like horses: You identify with one or the other aesthetically, or because of his or her name, but chances are you’ll never pull for that person again, and you will forget about them.

The relative unimportance of the Jeopardy contestant is reflected in the show-taping experience Jennings describes, a mix of jury duty and summer camp, a hyper-organized atmosphere. Thanks to the felony punishments that still apply to game-show shenanigans, the need for black-site secrecy and silence, any time one person needed to use the bathroom, everyone went. For their time on set, contestants were, for all intents and purposes, one part of a large, unwieldy brain-Voltron. Jeopardy films five shows in one day, two days at a time, so the maximum number of shows you can film in one cluster is 10. Jennings was on 75, and through that process he got to know individuals he still keeps in touch with eight years later.

“Backstage on Jeopardy, you met people who were just so happy to be in a room where people would get their Monty Python references,” Jennings says. “People had no nerd outlet, even in the internet age. Their relief was almost palpable that someone was going to get their nerdy undergraduate references.”

Also, this Jeopardy-themed Dinosaur Comics cartoon is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

— 3 —

David Brooks wrote a column complaining about the misuse of Big Data, and the folks at Junk Charts have an excellent, cogent correction for a bad meme about the threat computers pose:

The biggest issue with Brooks’s column is the incessant use of the flawed man versus machine dichotomy. He warns: “It’s foolish to swap the amazing machine in your skull for the crude machine on your desk.” The machine he has in his mind is the science-fictional, self-sufficient, intelligent computer, as opposed to the algorithmic, dumb-and-dumber computer as it exists today and for the last many decades. A more appropriate analogy of today’s computer (and of the foreseeable future) is a machine that the human brain creates to automate mechanical, repetitious tasks at scale. This machine cannot function without human piloting so it’s man versus man-plus-machine, not man versus machine.

— 4 —

Want another brief, clear fix for a common mistake from a blog that has ‘charts’ in the title?  ExcelCharts has a great explanation of why you really shouldn’t make pie charts that take more than two colors to shade in.

Because the explanation is mostly images, it’s hard for me to blockquote, but think about how often I’ve steered you right on interesting data links, open the link in a new tab, read through the whole thing, and rejoice!

— 5 —

Via Flowing Data, I found this fun pre-Oscars analysis from The New York Times.  They took a look at the trailers for the Best Film nominees and checked how much the order of scenes in the trailer matched up to the true order of scenes in the film.  For example:

The “Lincoln” trailer is more like the typical teaser than a trailer, according to Stephen Garrett, who owns Jump Cut, a trailer house that specializes in foreign, independent and documentary films. While trailers often focus on plot or character descriptions, teasers establish the mood and tone of a film. Teasers “don’t have to be chronological,” Mr. Garrett said.

— 6 —

Reading Actual Innocence: When Justice Goes Wrong and How to Make it Right is a great way to learn about how unreliable eyewitness testimony is and the terrible effects of our misplaced trust in this test.  But if you want a quick, vivid way to remember how bad eyewitnesses are, try this study cited by Ezra Klein:

So, here’s a fun science experiment that was recently conducted in Sweden: Researchers got some research subjects drunk, showed them a five-minute video of a crime being committed and called back a week later to see if they could identify the culprit.

Turns out, those who were drunk did just as well as those who saw the same crime scene while sober — which mostly reflects the fact that almost everyone, regardless of level of intoxication, is really bad at picking the right face in a criminal line-up.

— 7 —


Does the photo above not have an obvious connection to data?  It is me on retreat for work!  Surrounded by beauty!  Thinking about how to make people excited about and good at making sense of data!

(Full confession: I am more excited about the teaching than the natural beauty.  California is wasted on me).


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  • I get chills at “It was always to end with Trebek.” Especially whenever I re-read it because it’s true in multiple ways! The beginning contains the ending!

    I was also just thinking about teaser/trailer chronology yesterday when I was watching the Next-Time-On clips at the end of a Torchwood episode. These clips last so long that I feel like I must have seen most of the episode during the teaser, but since the sequence is seemingly random I still do not think I could make any prediction about the plot that you couldn’t make from the blurb Netflix gives you already. And then I thought that for a lot of movies the sequence (that is, the plot) does not really matter anyway because the plot is just an excuse for the explosions and scantily-clad women and giant fighting robots. Which is maybe why I’ve started considering trailers and teasers to be artistic forms in their own right that I can appreciate as such.

  • UA

    When you italicize “enthusiast” I can’t help but think you mean to use the word other than it is usually used–in this case, that you mean it in the 17th-century sense: the weasel word for a member of a Christian denomination that believes is the personal, individual guidance of the Holy Spirit, often as manifested emotionally in the context of mass prayer, for determining matters moral and doctrinal.

    So thank you for providing that image of Jennings as a Quaker.

  • deiseach

    Obviously, the three clipboards in one hand image of you in the photo is a Trinitarian reference 😉

  • Mike

    For a sec. I thought #7 was a hologram.
    #6: Sometimes I think it improves my vision.
    #5: Trailers are often better than the real thing; case in point: argo.
    #4:If you don’t know goal seek you are shortchanging yourself.
    #3: What does cogent mean? clear?
    #2: He’ll be remembered by me for the head tilt; I kinda think it helps.
    #1: My wife is coming down the stairs…and my baby just started crying AGAIN! Ok this time it’s my turn….Good night, good luck and God bless.

    • grok

      Definition of COGENT
      : having power to compel or constrain
      a : appealing forcibly to the mind or reason : convincing
      b : pertinent, relevant

  • grok

    The Maphead book looks interesting.
    Today’s gospel takes place in Caesarea Philippi.
    When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples,
    “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah,
    still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
    Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

    I had no idea where Casesarea Philippi was and the “map” reference inspired me to look it up. Wikipedia has some nice maps. Apparently it is in modern Lebanon.

    Coincidentally I was reading Taleb’s Antifragile today (he is from Lebanon). He claims that Lebanon and the Levant was one of the wealthiest/most successful areas of the world for over two thousand years. He made reference to the concept of “longue duree”


  • jose

    Meanwhile your religion is out there killing women.

  • grok87

    Well since Leah is still settling in to her new life out west (blessings and prayers for your new beginnings Leah!) I thought I would share a reading that spoke to me today from today’s Office of Readings: Exodus 14

    “Pharaoh was already near when the Israelites looked up and saw that the Egyptians were on the march in pursuit of them. In great fright they cried out to the Lord. And they complained to Moses, “Were there no burial places in Egypt that you had to bring us out here to die in the desert? Why did you do this to us? Why did you bring us out of Egypt? Did we not tell you this in Egypt, when we said, ‘Leave us alone. Let us serve the Egyptians’? Far better for us to be the slaves of the Egyptians than to die in the desert.” But Moses answered the people, “Fear not! Stand your ground, and you will see the victory the Lord will win for you today. These Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. The Lord himself will fight for you; you have only to keep still.”

    I had a personal experience today of this last sentence of Moses with a difficult situation with a neighbor. It’s hard sometimes in life to find the right balance between action and patience (at least I struggle with it). Sometimes after we have done what we can do, it’s important to be patient and wait, wait for the Lord to act. It seems like an appropriate thought for Lent, a season of waiting….

  • brand

    I found this about Islam and its strange contradictions:

    “The Koran approves of the Gospel as it Existed in Muhammad’s Day”


    I also found this:

    “The “Convert or Die” Campaign in 1895-96 in Afghanistan against the Polytheists of Kafiristan”


  • Kristen inDallas

    The junk charts read was interesting, but I think overly critical of what Brooks was trying to say. The bit blockquoted for example, was taken out of context by emmiting “Therefore, WHEN MAKING DESISIONS ABOUT SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS, it’s foolish to swap the amazing machine in your skull for the crude machine on your desk.” This line comes in a sentence about the inability (of social media type data) to explain our attachments to people who we may not interact with all that often (quantity vs quality). And I think the point there is pretty apt. I didn’t see anything in the Brooks piece that seemed unreasonable, nor did he advocate for abandoning data altogether. Read it as just a piece exploring the limits of data and emphasising it’s importance as a tool – for the human decision maker.

  • grok87

    Today’s Office of reading- again we are in the desert with Moses and the Israelites and here is St. Irenaeus’s gloss:

    “Yet God sought to teach his people, always ready though they were to return to their idols. Through many acts of indulgence he tried to prepare them for perseverance in his service. He kept calling them to what was primary by means of what was secondary, that is, through foreshadowings to the reality, through things of time to the things of eternity, through things of the flesh to the things of the spirit, through earthly things to the heavenly things. As he said to Moses: You will fashion all things according to the pattern that you saw on the mountain.”
    It’s good to think about these things during Lent. What is primary in our lives? What is secondary? What are our idols that we need to let go of? At times the “mountaintop vision” of how to live/fashion our lives is so clear, and then we get lost in the messiness and pettiness of life and lose focus…like Jill and the Four Signs in the Silver Chair (Narnia).