The Times lands on its ass

I’m very taken with the Masal Bugduv story that Fredorrarci exposed as a hoax on soccerlens yesterday. In short, a couple of Irish soccer fans (or maybe just one) came up with the idea of inventing a 16 year old Moldovan footballer called Masal Bugduv.  They set to work seeding fake AP reports on Bugduv throughout the blogosphere.  Bugduv was going to be loaned to Cork City; Arsenal were interested; Benitez was all set to poach him.  They were so successful that he was listed at number 30 in the Times’s Top 50 Rising Stars list for 2009.  Masal Bugduv is a phonetic rendering of m’asal beag dubh, or my little black donkey in Irish, the name of a Padraic O’Conaire short story.  Run of Play have a piece on the connection here.

Timeline below.

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The great Masal Beag hoax: Timeline

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Well, there’s always hope, I suppose

In ref to the last post (crappy pretend science will be outed as such by an informed audience): I forgot that today is ‘Blue Monday’, the stupidest day of the year.  The formula for stupidity being C+R/aP=S (where C=Credulousness, R=Rabid desire for cash generating publicity, and aP=the Arbitrary Pixie constant).  Thanks Daily Mail for reminding me!

Just a Theory explain why Cliff Arnall’s formula is rubbish:

The official “Beat Blue Monday” website offers the following formula for calculating the worst day of the year:

The model was broken down using six immediately identifiable factors; weather (W), debt (d), time since Christmas (T), time since failing our new year’s resolutions (Q), low motivational levels (M) and the feeling of a need to take action (Na).

These “immediately identifiable factors” are of course nothing of the sort; notice as well that the variable D is undefined. My usual complaints apply: variables that make no sense (how to you turn “weather” in to a number?) and broken equations (if your motivational level is zero, then the result is infinite), but there is also some nasty abuse of notation here. Na is obviously meant to stand for “need action”, but variables represented like this would normally be part of a series, e.g. Na, Nb, Nc, etc. I guess using the notation in this way makes it look more “scientific”.

Another fault is that although the formula supposedly results in a universal “worst day”, the variables seem to be very individual. Surely “time since failing our new year’s resolutions (Q), low motivational levels (M) and the feeling of a need to take action (Na)” all change from person to person? I was going to try and work back from the result to determine just what they are inputting for the equation, but it’s such a mess it isn’t even worth bothering. Today isn’t Blue Monday at all – I’ve just had a rather good laugh.

Mind Hacks have been running a competition to find formulae for all sorts of everything.  My favourite is one from Tom Michael:

Unhappiness = [(D+CC+M+G)/(P+T)]^B

D = Hours of Darkness in the day
CC = Credit Card debt in £1000’s
M = Mince Pies Consumed over Christmas
G = Hours Spent with Grandma

P = Value of Presents Recieved in £100’s
T = Hours spent watching Sinbad movies

B = Badger quotient*

For help calculating the badger quotient, please send a cheque for £500 to Mr Arnall at Pseudoscience Enterprises.

Score one for the de-atomized audience

Eamonn Fitzgerald has a post titled ‘Manufacturing and deconstructing the (fake) news in five acts’ which tracks the Sunday Times story about a Google search consuming half as much energy as boiling a kettle from initial made up gobbledegook, to refutation, to the Times’s response (there’s been no official retraction).  That response ends with a mealy mouthed ‘What do you think?’, seemingly failing to acknowledge that it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks, the stats quoted by the newspaper were not verifiable, and were derived from a questionable source that wasn’t cross-checked by the Times.

Refuting these kinds of tech and science stories are what the web does best – see badscience.net for one of the originators of the genre, as well as loads of links to similar sites that devote their time to debunking sci/tech nonsense in the newspapers.  The web does this best because readers have easy access to as much information as journalists (unlike, say, in an article that quotes a public figure – the quote may have been tweaked, for example, but who’s to know for sure; the quoted can aver (s)he said no such thing, sure, but the journalist can say (s)he did; unless it’s a really big shitstorm it’s unlikely that journo is going to release their tape to settle the issue).

Hundreds of thousands of poorly researched articles on science and technology are printed (I use the word advisedly) each year, and this one only became a big story because it was about Google.  But the more often such articles are published online with a comments section below them, the more often they will be questioned, and, hopefully, shown up as the nonsense they are by interested, informed and dilligent readers.

Funding the future

Thought provoking and interesting piece from Ethan Zuckerman on future funding for journalism.  He points out that advertising has always been massively overpriced in print, and now that vendors can get good stats on how effective their ads are, they’re not willing to shell out quite so much anymore.  He quotes an ex-ad exec called Joshua Jeffryes:

When I worked in Advertising the ineffectiveness of advertising was hardly a secret. But customers couldn’t measure the effectiveness of ads. So they paid and continue to pay ridiculous prices for them.

Online ads, on the other hand, are measurable. They work just as well, if not better, than print, television, etc., the difference is that for the first time ad customers know exactly how ineffective they are.

The first point being something I suppose we all knew intuitively but, like our intuitions about the irrationality of the banking system, didn’t allow into conscious awareness (the somebody knows what’s going on, surely, impulse).  The second point being a thing journalists and publishers are going to have to worry about.  Says Zuckerman:

If I’m right and print advertising costs are fundamentally irrational, then it’s possible that the way we’ve built media in the United States can’t survive a transition to a more rational market.

That goes not just for the US, but for Europe too.  While we do have trusts (Irish Times, Guardian), they depend on this putatively irrational system of advertising for their existence, and licence fee funded broadcasting networks (BBC, RTE) only ever came about because of limited bandwidth in the early days: ie, it’s as far from a funding model for the internet as it’s possible to get.

He goes on:

What if the idea that commercial enterprises should carry out the public interest function of journalism is built on a fundamentally broken model? What if advertising worked pretty well as a way of subsidizing public interest journalism only so long as advertisers didn’t understand the effectiveness of their ads? Putting aside all the other reasons why commercial journalism may be flawed – the tendency of newspapers and television channels to seek readers by publishing “edutainment” rather than investigation, the worry that papers will hesitate to publish stories that might embarrass advertisers – what if ad supported journalism is only viable in a world where we radically overvalue the worth of ads?

Is the answer more, cheaper ads?  Or is it a return to the old old model of foundation/proprietor funded journalism?  Bloggers and smaller concerns will be able to fund their small operations with their small advertising revenue, but growth will only be achievable when someone who’s made their money in something else comes along and doles out cash.  The Knight Foundation are already doing this in the US.

Justifications for ‘free’ newspapers funded by advertising were created after the model came about: without a controlling proprietor, with proprietary interests, newspapers were more objective, balanced; free.  Always a nonsense, of course, advertisers were always just as controlling of what a newspaper could report, and how, as the Rothermeres of old.  It was just a more subtle form of control.

Going back to the smaller revenues achievable through online advertising: is this the end of the world?  Philip Meyer, in his book The Vanishing Newspaper, gives traditional profit margins of 30% for newspapers, compared with 6% for other industries.  Even without funding from a foundation or a proprietor it seems entirely plausible that online publications can operate at a profit.  Just a smaller one.  If anyone out there can do the sums, I’d be delighted to hear from them.

The Economist on Israel’s flawed propaganda strategy

These days, trying to control reporting seems a fairly futile endeavour.

…denying access to Gaza to all Western correspondents might have backfired on Israel. The result has been that it is Gazans themselves, including some 300 local journalists, who have kept the world focused on their plight. More significantly, the most watched Arab television news channels are all in Gaza, giving saturation coverage to the conflict, even three weeks after its start.

The English-language sister channel of al-Jazeera, with two reporters in Gaza, has flourished in the absence of Western competitors, such as CNN. Its coverage has been graphic but sombre in tone. This contrasts with the hyperbole on many Arabic-language networks, where charges of Israeli “genocide”, mixed with unsubstantiated reports of Hamas’s military successes, have been frequent, accompanied by dramatic music and filler material looping pictures of dead children.

Hamas has been largely sidelined from this effort, although its television still beams feebly, airing martial pomp and pre-recorded speeches. The group has even tried its hand at phoning threatening messages to Israelis and posting propaganda on the internet. But what has really turned the tide is the ceaseless stream of appalling imagery that fills the Arab satellite channels. Their passion is certainly not always professional, but the gore, distress and misery they portray are all too real.

The Economist, Jan 15th

It seems hard to believe Israel didn’t know this would happen – so one wonders what was behind the decision.  Simple concern for the welfare of foreign journalists?  (They might get blown up by accident, and, their deaths would bring about, not just their deaditude, but also a fair measure of international condemnation).  Embededness would get around this possibility, but who’d agree to being embedded with the Israeli army?

Jay Rosen on ‘audience atomization overcome’

Pressthink’s Jay Rosen writes about spheres of consensus and deviance, drawing a model created by Daniel Hallin for his 1986 book The Uncensored War

In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized— meaning they were connected “up” to Big Media but not across to each other. But today one of the biggest factors changing our world is the falling cost for like-minded people to locate each other, share information, trade impressions and realize their number. Among the first things they may do is establish that the “sphere of legitimate debate” as defined by journalists doesn’t match up with their own definition. In the past there was nowhere for this kind of sentiment to go. Now it collects, solidifies and expresses itself online. Bloggers tap into it to gain a following and serve demand. Journalists call this the “echo chamber,” which is their way of downgrading it as a reliable source. But what’s really happening is that the authority of the press to assume consensus, define deviance and set the terms for legitimate debate is weaker when people can connect horizontally around and about the news.

That the internet allows for horizontal communication among both the blogging commentariat and the general public is hardly a new idea; nor is the argument that the media has always defined a sphere of consensus and pushed ‘deviant’ ideas away from itself a new one.

What Rosen fails to do is to address either (a)the ‘echo chamber’ problem in any detail; or (b)the usefulness of consensus as something to deviate from.  ‘Audience atomization overcome’ is a natty phrase, and the piece has been getting a bit of play in the blogosphere, but without some discussion of the implications of overcoming atomization (the two points above) it’s not really all that useful.