Stop [reading] the press

Earlier in life I spent a year backpacking around the globe, covering 27 countries, including out-of-the-way places such as Mongolia and Easter Island. I didn’t keep up with UK news stories, but surprisingly didn’t notice any real gaps during conversations with friends once back. Perhaps they were just being polite…

I began to think that consuming news media every day was inefficient. Time spent reading a newspaper, surfing a news site, or watching the 10 o’clock news could be better spent doing something else – and that’s because most of what is in the news is not relevant in any way to you. In these examples you’re just passively pulling information to you.

It’s better to have stories pushed on topics that do interest you, and to supplement that with an occasional, curated digest from something “all-encompassing”. For that I choose The Economist, even if it “is written by young people pretending to be old people.” Of course, there could be a whole separate discussion on whether your source of news has an agenda to publish certain kinds of stories that appeal to their readership or get things a little muddled, but we’ll leave that for another day.

I had an analyst visit the BBC website once a day, for a week, and compile a list of the stories appearing on the UK news page. I was curious to see whether reading any of those stories would have been important or useful to me.

Of the 222 links found, 31 were articles which had already been showing on the site on a previous day. Removing these left 191 unique articles over the course of a week. 30 were links to sports stories, such as Gerrard admits to career doubts. Of course, sport can be entertaining and enjoyable, but learning that Steven’s “groin packed in on [him]” is not going to change my life, although it might make my bar chat a bit better. That probably wouldn’t be hard though.

Also shown separately are 29 articles on crime and deaths. Specifically, by crime I mean stories covering trials and investigations into single-event, past incidents. Examples include Three held over birthday murder and Coronation St’s Betty Driver dies. Sad that it is that Betty has died, this does not change my life. Stories about crime trends / local crime could be useful (burglaries around my postcode, muggings in this street) and be something I might want to take action on, but a random selection of more “newsworthy” stories about people being killed from the background rate of 2 (ish) murders per day is not.

This leaves 132 unique articles that I could have read.

14 articles charted the development of the UK Defence Secretary’s rough ride regarding his friend, resulting in Dr Fox’s resignation. But why read 14 articles, when you can just read one final, considered article at the end of the week once the story is settled? The Economist provided one. A running theme in the news this week was the price of UK energy bills, a topic that the Economist also covered, along with protests against capitalism. I would have missed Oliver Letwin putting papers in the bin though. Oh well.

The 107 stories were classified into 5 categories:

  1. End date for analogue TV is set Glad I caught that one.
  2. UK inflation rate rises to 5.2% I could have decided to take action regarding investments, etc. This information could be found in The Economist anyway
  3. G20 meeting discusses eurozone Likewise, given I have assets denominated in euros. Typical story summarised weekly in The Economist anyway.
  4. Cheapest energy deals ‘ignored’. Apparently profit-maximising energy firms don’t always offer you their cheapest deal, so you had better investigate independently yourself. Who knew?! Covered by The Economist anyway.
  5. Lasers beams shone at two planes Given I travel a lot by plane, and this could be a precursor to a new form of terrorist attack, I might choose to change my lifestyle. I believe by this point I am scrapping the bottom of the proverbial barrel in trying to find stories that contain actionable information.

So I think I’m justified in largely ignoring news media. Instead, I use Google Reader to consolidate and read blogs on topics that interest me, such as this pilot’s journal, Ben Goldacre on dodgy science, Tim Harford on dodgy numbers, and opinion pieces from smart people like Seth Godwin, Scott Adams, and Simon Moore.

I have tried though to identify a small number of events and items that could substantially impact me, and for these have done one of two things:

  1. Found a site which deals with it. If it publishes as a blog, great, it goes into Google Reader, if not then I use to identify when the site is updated, and be notified of that automatically via a unique feed into my Google Reader account.
  2. Add a Google Alert, sent to me by email, when a news story or web page is published containing certain keywords.

The point being that relevant information is being pushed to me, in a timely manner.

So, unless you’re a day trader, stop reading the news – you won’t miss much! Use your new-found time (191 articles/week x 2 minutes/article = 6hrs/week) to set your own agenda to get into subjects that interest you.


Fitting in

In 1800, only 3% of the world’s population lived in cities. Today it’s around 50%. What if everyone lived in one city?

29% of the Earth’s surface is land. 6% of the land is America. And in what % of America could the entire world’s population fit:


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Average home sizes around the world

Something for the weekend

Blackboards in porn

The neutrinos probably weren’t travelling faster than light

Couples should pay an incremental $30k for their house for each mile it’s closer to their workplace

Rational ignorance

I consider myself to be rationally ignorant when it comes to politics and voting, which can lead to accusations of it being a “moral duty to vote”, “people died so that you could vote”, etc.

The rational voter has little incentive to gain more knowledge about politics because his or her vote is unlikely to affect the outcome. Since gaining more knowledge offers few benefits and substantial costs, the average citizen remains ignorant, though rationally so

This article on the Ethics of Voting is good. An excerpt:

Voting is not like choosing what to eat off a restaurant’s menu. If a person makes bad choices at a restaurant, at least only she bears the consequences … when voters make bad choices at the polls, everyone suffers. Irresponsible voting can harm innocent people.

Electoral decisions are imposed upon all … voters impose externalities upon others.

We would never say to everyone, “Who cares if you know anything about surgery or medicine? The important thing is that you make your cut.” Yet for some reason, we do say, “It doesn’t matter if you know much about politics. The important thing is to vote.”

Commonsense morality tells us to treat the two cases differently. Commonsense morality is wrong. I argue that citizens have no standing moral obligation to vote. Voting is just one of many ways one can pay a debt to society, serve other citizens … Participating in politics is nothing special, morally speaking. Citizens who are unwilling or unable to put in the hard work of becoming good voters should not vote at all. They should stay home on election day rather than pollute the polls with their bad votes

How long is a new link clicked on?

Yesterday one of my earlier posts was linked to by what appears to be a very high traffic blog – In just 24 hours the lifetime number of page views of my blog went up by almost 50%.

The traffic has already dried up to just a trickle, and it got me thinking about how long posts and links remain “live” before people stop clicking and their attention moves on. I happened to look several times over the day at my WordPress stats, jotting down a few numbers:

Hours over which people clicked on an inbound link

The inbound link was from a US site and the first I knew was in the morning European time, at around 500 visitors already.  Eyeballing it I would say that the number of inbound visitors halved every two hours. The URL shortening service Bitly have done a post on this (they have somewhat more data than!)

So we looked at the half life of 1,000 popular bitly links and the results were surprisingly similar. The mean half-life of a link on twitter is 2.8 hours, on Facebook it’s 3.2 hours and via ‘direct’ sources (like email or IM clients) it’s 3.4 hours

I also experimented a little in the middle of the day, discovering that adding a couple of links to related posts of my own at the bottom of my article increased the page views per visitor by around 25%.

The number of new subscribers (welcome!) went up by at least 3 (wow! nb it’s hard to impossible to keep track of people subscribing via rss feeds), which implies something of the order of 1 new subscriber per 200 visitors to the blog. I believe that’s a typical ratio.

Oh, before I forget:

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I hope you like my post

How many words do you know?

This article asserts that English is relatively easy to learn, and that the

average speaker of English has a vocabulary with about half again as many words as the average speaker of, say, French or German

although no link is made to any source for this point. It also claims that the English version of a lengthy text is always substantially shorter than versions in other languages. I did a very scientific text of looking up the Treaty establishing the European Community, available in html here, and found that in English there were 47,165 words, but only 46,101 in French and 39,612 in German. Still, it’s only one data point, so I won’t disagree with the author just yet.

Google uses the texts of the EU Commission (which are translated into 20 or so languages) to drive its Google Translate service. To translate between more obscure languages it uses English as the pivot,

A good number of English-language detective novels, for example, have probably been translated into both Icelandic and Farsi…This means that John Grisham makes a bigger contribution to the quality of GT’s Icelandic-Farsi translation device than Rumi or Halldór Laxness ever will. And the real wizardry of Harry Potter may well lie in his hidden power to support translation from Hebrew into Chinese

Graph English Vocabulary Size Written Text

The chart above is based on work by Francis and Kucera in 1982 on frequency analysis of English usage in which they found that a vocabulary of 2,000 words was sufficient to provide comprehension of 80% of the words in their texts.

These days, with the internet and better computing power, you can quickly test your own size of vocabulary here based on 120 words and some clever stats (they start off with 40 words to get your probable vocabulary range, and then drill down with a further 80 to end up with an error of +/-10% in your vocabulary size.) Here’s a graph of the database of results they’ve compiled relating vocabulary with age:

Average English native speaker vocabularly by age
They find that whilst the Oxford English Dictionary may list 300,000 words, after 45,000, they’re pretty much all either archaic, scientific/technical, or otherwise inapplicable to any kind of “general” vocabulary test. Of the 100,000,000 word long British National Corpus that they used, the top 3 words are…

Answer under the fold!

  1. Read more of this post

Your friends are more popular than you

Scott Feld’s clever 1991 paper, why your friends have more friends than you do,  shows that if individuals compare themselves with their friends, it is likely that most of them will feel relatively inadequate.

This is rooted in mathematics, and is because you are more likely to be friends with those who have many friends than with people who have few friends.  At the limit, if someone is friends with everyone, then they are friends with you, (and more popular than you); People with just 1 friend are probably not your friend (though they are –  hopefully! – less popular than you. But they’re not showing up in your data). Mathematically, the mean number of friends of friends is greater than the mean number of friends of individuals.

But not only are you less popular than your friends, the ones you do have aren’t really paying attention. This guy decided to regularly alter his Facebook profile so it appeared to be his birthday 3 times in one month (his real birthday was actually 6 months earlier). He got 119 birthday wishes on the first occasion, reducing to 71 on the 3rd fake birthday 3 weeks later. Here’s a graph I made:

Graph of number of facebook birthday messages received

Dunbar’s number is often touted in connection with numbers of Facebook friends, with a figure of 150, but it’s not really applicable. I have more than that, and most of my friends have more than me I’ve noticed (but that’s ok, see above!). His research was into physical group sizes, in particular groups that are highly incentivized to stay together (e.g., a subsistence village, a military troop, a cartload of chimpanzees). He ran a regression between the average group size to the brain sizes of different primates and obtained a forecast of 148 for humans.

It’s fair to say that one’s collection of Facebook friends is not a group that is incentivized to stay together physically, and as the 3-birthdays-a-month guy concludes:

It’s one thing to remember your friend’s birthday because you took him out a decade ago for his drunken 21stbirthday debauch. It’s much lamer to “remember” your friend’s birthday because Facebook told you to. A significant number of Facebookers clearly use the service without sentiment, attempting to build social capital—undeserved social capital—with birthday greetings that they haven’t thought about based on birthday memories of you that they don’t actually have.

And yet my three-birthday July was not completely demoralizing. An encouraging number of my friends—many of them my actual friends—were so socially alert that they cottoned on to my manipulation of the Facebook birthday system.