Friday, September 28, 2007

Burmese Days

I’ve always liked Orwell, not as a great writer but because of how and why he wrote. Christopher Hitchens, who wrote Why Orwell Matters a few years back, captures this well.

Orwell was born in India and served in the police force in colonial Burma. He wrote Burmese Days about the experience, as well as the famous and wonderful short story Shooting the Elephant, and he inevitably comes to mind with the recent, terrible news from the country.

Hitchens once said that sales of Orwell always rise in times of strife and conflict, because his message in 1984, Animal Farm, and Homage to Catalonia is perpetually relevant. Not so, apparently.

I visited Burma a decade ago, during a brief window when access to the country was opened. At the border they forced westerners to exchange $300 equivalent for FECs, a foreign exchange currency, at a rate fixed by the Junta. FECs could only be redeemed for official Burmese Kyats at state-run banks: On the street you could get about 300 Kyats to a dollar, when the official exchange rate was under fifty. Guilt at entering the country intensified when you saw the constant presence of soldiers and jeeps. Yet I have no regrets about the visit – seeing Rangoon, spending time with the saffron-robed monks, traveling down the Irrawaddy river, visiting the fabulous temples at Pagan, this was unforgettable.

Most western countries have already imposed sanctions, but China, a major trading partner, refuses to take action. Lets hope recent events aren’t a repeat of 1988.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Life on Mars

After hibernating for much of the Martian winter, the NASA Rovers are starting to move again. The images they've captured are amazing. The Rover Opportunity is about to make a descent into Victoria Crater, which promises to be spectacular.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Lies, Damn Lies, and Meta-Analysis

I’ve always been interested in how statistics are used in social sciences and the popular media. It was Mark Twain who famously said “there’s lies, damn lies and statistics,” but of course statistics never lie, only people. Business Week recently reported on an arcane branch of statistical analysis, meta-analysis, that is being used more and more to justify claims about new drugs, herbal remedies, educational systems and just about anything else that is a popular field of study and can easily be reduced to a set of numbers. It’s definitely contributing to the ‘statistics lie’ debate.

I’m no statistician, but here’s my understanding of meta-analysis. There are many fields of study where research is repeated, either to attempt to verify or replicate existing studies, contradict findings, or get a richer or slightly different understanding of a question. Medical research and educational research are good examples – there’s been numerous experiments done to test the efficacy of vitamin C as a cold cure, for example. Often individual studies aren’t conclusive, or seem to disagree: but what if you could pool the research results of multiple studies and get an aggregated, summary set of findings? This would be very cool, especially if you’re an impoverished PhD (are there any other kind?) with no budget but access to a well-stocked library: all you do is judicially sum reported results from a handful of published papers, with no fieldwork required. Even better, the results of meta-analysis should increase the power of the overall conclusions – you can discern smaller effects, based on bigger sample sizes.

All well and good, but two problems emerge. First, very few research studies are conducted identically. Questions are asked in a slightly different way, to a slightly different population, under slightly different circumstances. Sometimes these differences can be reasonably ignored because they are small or insignificant, but most often this is a judgment call. Make the wrong call, and you are comparing apples and oranges. A second problem is what is often called the file drawer effect: research that is inconclusive isn’t likely to be published, and so goes unreported, potentially biasing meta-analysis. This can result in exaggerated effects being reported.

This helps explain why we see heated debates about the impact of standardized school tests, allergy remedies, or the impact of violent TV on real-world violence.

Sometimes I wonder if blogging is simply meta-comment, or meta-news, or meta-babble. In the same way that meta-analysis is data from data, or more accurately statistics calculated from other statistics, it feels like blogging is derived, secondary, imitative. It has all the power of meta-analysis, and all the pitfalls.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

More Blogoganda

Following from my last post, the New York Times is again reporting an attempt to influence blogdom, this time by the US government. The front page story describes a small department being created to haunt and post on Muslim blogs, providing pro-US views. In this case, they do identify their affiliation - and seem to be having mixed responses.

What would Edward Bernays have to say about this blogoganda?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Corn and Chasms

Theories of mass communication come and go, but one that has enjoyed some longterm success is the diffusion of innovation work made famous by Everett Rogers. You may not have heard of Rogers, but you have heard of Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, which drew heavily on Rogers’ work and which remains hugely influential.

It all started with corn. Everett Rogers grew up on a farm in Iowa and studied at Ames, an agricultural school. He was drawn to research that investigated why some farmers had adopted hybridized corn, which had much better yields and was drought resistant compared to other varieties. His interest was personal: his father had resisted the innovation, and his farm had failed. In 1962, after studying other examples of adoption, Rogers wrote his famous book, The Adoption of Innovation. From this came all the terms we’re familiar with: innovators, early adopters, the late majority, and so on. He postulated that mass media fostered awareness, while interpersonal interactions were the primary way people made decisions. He went on to characterize innovators and early adopters, and his work was used to spur foreign aid missions, market new drugs, and eventually inspired countless business plans.

All this came to mind when I read a wonderful interview in the New York Times with the great Rick Rubin. He’s trying, in his fashion, to rescue Columbia Records, which like all major labels is watching lucrative CD sales transform into lucre-less downloads. And he’s figured out that teenage hip-hop fans behave a lot like Iowa corn farmers: they are influenced by word-of-mouth. And so, following Big Business logic, Columbia formed a “word-of-mouth” department:

The "word of mouth" department will function as a publicity-promotional arm of the company, spreading commissioned buzz through chat rooms across the planet and through old-fashioned human interaction.

An interesting question: can you apply a kind of covert propaganda to influence the Chasm Crossing process? And is this ethical, expressing paid-for opinion as freely voiced fanaticism?

But more importantly, does any of this blogophonics really work? A critique of diffusion theory is that it doesn’t really take a good marketing view – it doesn’t organize around attributes of the innovation and the organizations or people adopting them. In other words, anyone can be an early adopter if the product fits. Said another way, good tunes sell, period.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

One in 15 Million

According to Technorati, there are over 15 million bloggers in the world today. That's a lot of people talking about their cat, their job, their day. To put it in perspective, there's more bloggers than the combined populations of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston.

Which begs the question: Why add one more?

There's a school of thought, popular with old-school journalists, that bloggers don't really create any news, or advance any agenda, or add much to the world at all: instead they selectively amplify what's already being discussed in other spheres. This is partly true. It's also true that fewer and fewer people read newspapers. Or write and mail letters. Blogs are certainly an effective way to chatter, chatter, chatter...

...But are they good for anything else? The reality is, most blogs go blessedly unread. Maybe mine will have the same happy fate...