The End of Facts

Jill Lepore, writing for The New Yorker:

A “fact” is, etymologically, an act or a deed. It came to mean something established as true only after the Church effectively abolished trial by ordeal in 1215, the year that King John pledged, in Magna Carta, “No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned . . . save by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” In England, the abolition of trial by ordeal led to the adoption of trial by jury for criminal cases. This required a new doctrine of evidence and a new method of inquiry, and led to what the historian Barbara Shapiro has called “the culture of fact”: the idea that an observed or witnessed act or thing—the substance, the matter, of fact—is the basis of truth and the only kind of evidence that’s admissible not only in court but also in other realms where truth is arbitrated. Between the thirteenth century and the nineteenth, the fact spread from law outward to science, history, and journalism.

This piece made me think of a line in the Stephanie Vaughn short story Dog Heaven:

She believed, like the adults in my family, that a fact was something solid and useful, like a penknife you could put in your pocket in case of emergency.

There has never been more things that are true than at this point in time. It's a gift and a curse.


FiveThirtyEight’s New Shorts Series ‘Signals’: ‘The Man vs. The Machine’


Seventeen years ago in New York City, brooding chess champion Garry Kasparov sat down to take on an opponent he had vanquished just a year earlier: the IBM computer, Deep Blue.

Like the earlier match, which Kasparov won four games to two, the rematch spoke to a fundamental question of the digital age: Who has primacy — a tangle of circuits and silicon, or a reasoning, feeling human being?

FiveThirtyEight and ESPN Films follow the drama of those nine days in a short documentary film, “The Man vs. The Machine,” directed by Frank Marshall. The story — part of FiveThirtyEight’s new digital short series, “Signals” — hinges on a single move, the 44th move of the second game.

Fittingly, it involved the king.

For some reason, the internet’s cutting-edge site for data-backed narrative writing is still embedding their videos using Adobe Flash, so I can’t embed it here, but follow the link anyway. It’s a pretty interesting story. I especially loved the point made near the end about how quickly this became a pointless feat.


Political Polarization and the Media

Andrew Prokop:

The Pew Research Center published a fascinating new report on political polarization and the media Tuesday morning. The report contains [a] chart, based on survey data of people who say they've read, watched, or listened to different media outlets.

Really interesting. You’ll be surprised by where some organizations/outlets land compared to others.


Blue State vs. Red State? Starbucks vs. Chik-fil-A? Nope—Try Whole Foods vs. Cracker Barrel

David Wasserman:

A few weeks ago, the new moderator of “Meet the Press,” Chuck Todd, took to his “Nerd Screen” to outline an unconventional way to think about the midterm political landscape. His theory: 2014’s hottest races are boiling down to big Democratic urban areas and inner suburbs with lots of Starbucks coffee shops versus heavily Republican exurban hinterlands and rural areas with lots of Chick-fil-A restaurants.

But after immersing myself in numbers, maps and, admittedly, a spicy chicken sandwich, I discovered a slight problem: Neither chain’s political geography fits neatly into Todd’s heuristic.

Nothing makes me happier than when data disproves institutional thinking.


Z is for Zebra—90 Percent of the Time

David Goldenberg:

To get a sense and take a census, I analyzed 50 animal ABC books ranging in publication date from 1820 to 2013. They weren’t individually selected, but were simply the ones available to me: The older books were sourced online through; the more recent ones were found in the San Francisco Public Library. (I couldn’t convince FiveThirtyEight to give me an Amazon card to buy the thousand or so I missed; we’ll have to go with a representative sampling, instead.)1 There were 1,300 data points (50 books multiplied by 26 letters) in all.

What I found was a whole lot of zebras.

A perfectly fascinating, useless, and data-driven article. FiveThirtyEight’s bread and butter.


The Data Analysis Behind Classic Rock

Walt Hickey:

It was my first time hearing a band I grew up with referred to as “classic rock.” Almost anyone who listens to music over a long enough period of time probably experiences this moment — my colleagues related some of their own, like hearing R.E.M. or Guns N’ Roses on a classic rock station — but it made me wonder, what precisely is classic rock? As it turns out, a massive amount of data collection and analysis, and some algorithms, go into figuring out the answer to that very question.

I don’t think anyone will be too shocked by Hickey’s analysis, but it’s still pretty interesting. Also—when do we stop calling it “classic rock” and start calling it what it really is—popular rock.

Sidenote—don’t miss maybe the saddest part of this piece near the end:

But do radio stations rely at all on the institutional knowledge of their DJs to decide what to play?

Nope. The role of the song-picking DJ is dead. “I know there are some stations and some companies where if you change a song it’s a fireable offense,” Wellman said, cavalierly ruining the magic.

Baby No. 2 Is Harder on Mom Than Dad

Heather Krause:

I almost never give advice on whether people should have children, but when it comes to saying having which was more difficult for me, I don’t hesitate. Having my second child was a lot more overwhelming, because suddenly I had no downtime and not enough hands. When my second child napped, my first was awake. When my older son who was learning to ride a tricycle took off toward the street, I had to decide whether to chase after him with a baby in my arms or leave my baby alone in the yard. And so I wondered, which kid is harder on parents’ immediate happiness? Is there data that could help answer the question?

It goes without saying, and the author makes it clear too, that this isn’t hard data. And she also points out that this only refers to the first couple of years of the child’s life. But still—something to think about, especially if you’re a proactive kind of couple.


In Search of America’s Best Burrito

Nate Silver:

It’s a little crazy, but we think it needs to be done. And we think we’re the right people to do it. One reason is that narrowing the field to 64 contenders is a massive problem of time and scale. It perhaps couldn’t be done adequately if not for a little data mining and number crunching. In 2007, I was able to sample every burrito restaurant — in one neighborhood, in one city. But there are 67,391 restaurants in the United States that serve a burrito. (I’ll tell you how we came up with that figure in a moment.) To try each one, even if you consumed a different burrito for breakfast, lunch and dinner each day, would require more than 60 years and run you close to 50 million calories.

We need some way to narrow the list of possibilities. Fortunately, Anna and I were able to enlist some help. The past seven years have produced explosive growth for crowdsourced review sites like Yelp. Yelp provided us with statistics on every burrito-selling establishment in the United States.

The Yelp data was the starting point for FiveThirtyEight’s Burrito Bracket, which will officially launch early next week and whose solemn (but not sole) mission is to find America’s best burrito. There are three major phases in the project, each of which I’ve already hinted at:

Step 1: Data mining. Analyze the Yelp data to create an overall rating called Value Over Replacement Burrito (VORB) and provide guidance for the next stages of the project. (This step is already done, and I’ll be describing the process in some detail in this article.)

Step 2: Burrito Selection Committee. Convene a group of burrito experts from around the country, who will use the VORB scores and other resources to scout for the nation’s best burritos and vote the most promising candidates into a 64-restaurant bracket — 16 contenders in each of four regions: California, West, South and Northeast. (The committee has already met, and we’ll reveal the 64 entrants in a series of articles later this week and this weekend.)

Step 3: Taste test. Have Anna visit each of the 64 competitors, eat their burritos, rate and document her experiences, and eventually choose one winner in a multi-round tournament. (Anna will be posting her first reviews early next week. She’s worked as a documentary photographer and multimedia journalist, and as a producer at ABC News and Univision, where she’s spent years reporting on Hispanic-American culture.)

I am unable to decide if this lengthy, lengthy article (1,500 words of footnotes?!), which really only serves as an introduction to the project, represents either the apex or the nadir of American culture.

And I think that says it all, really.


Legislative Explorer: Data Driven Discovery

University of Washington Center for American Politics and Public Policy:

[LegEx is a] one of a kind interactive visualization that allows anyone to explore actual patterns of lawmaking in Congress.

Get the ‘big picture’
Compare the bills and resolutions introduced by Senators and Representatives and follow their progress from the beginning to the end of a two year Congress.

Dive deeper
Filter by topic, type of legislation, chamber, party, member, or even search for a specific bill.

This is incredible. This Vox article has a more in-depth explanation of it.


A Statistical Analysis of the Work of Bob Ross

Walt Hickey:

Bob Ross was a consummate teacher. He guided fans along as he painted “happy trees,” “almighty mountains” and “fluffy clouds” over the course of his 11-year television career on his PBS show, “The Joy of Painting.” In total, Ross painted 381 works on the show, relying on a distinct set of elements, scenes and themes, and thereby providing thousands of data points. I decided to use that data to teach something myself: the important statistical concepts of conditional probability and clustering, as well as a lesson on the limitations of data.

So let’s perm out our hair and get ready to create some happy spreadsheets!

I love the internet.