Archive | Frivolity

The Science of Hotness

As John notes below, hotness science has made some remarkable theoretical and empirical advances since my 2009 post. Nonetheless, the claim that political scientists are unusually smart given how hot we are seems to me to smack of special pleading. After all, even if we’re on the right side of the regression line, we’re still collectively subject to the ironclad law that physical hotness is associated with mental notness. Furthermore, using the precepts of Sound Social Scientific Reasoning1, we can surely draw inferences at the individual level too. And, as a complete aside, it might be interesting to inquire into the implications of the fact that Sides rates a sizzling pepper (the highest possible hotness rating) on Rate My Professor

1 A term of art, covering the axiomatic statements “ecological problems, schmecological problems,” and “g, a statistical myth except and unless it’s rhetorically convenient.”

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Why Are Business Gurus Overconfident Jerks?

Andrew asks me to expand on this below – as it happens, I do have some thoughts that I couldn’t shoehorn into the essay. He’s also right that my ideas are influenced by the Niall Ferguson debate. While there are some good business writers – the best ones are practical sociologists, with a lot of interesting insights into how organizations and institutions work. Still, most business writing is bad, and some is quite extravagantly bad.

My half-developed theory of this borrows from David Kreps’ famous arguments about corporate culture (institutional access required). Kreps, a game theorist, is trying to figure out why and how business reputation can be an asset. A lot of his answer has to do with corporate culture. We live in an unpredictable world, which means that firms cannot write ‘complete contracts’ e.g. with their employees, which would cover every possible contingency and eventuality. This might worry employees or contractors, who fear that in the event of an unpredictable occurrence, the firm will not stand by them. Their fears may lead them not to want to commit to the firm. Continue Reading →

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Syria vs. Cyrus Redux

Readers of the blog may remember that last week as part of a Twitter discussion with Larry Sabato on how much American public opinion on Syria really mattered, I decided to look at some Google Trends data comparing searches for Syria and Miley Cyrus.  I took a bit of pounding from our readers on the use of Google Trends data to do this, but it turns out that I wasn’t the only one who had the idea to compare the two. Political scientists  and  writing in the Huffington Post compared media coverage of the two and Google Trends data. Their findings:

The odd coupling of these two sensational stories presents a relatively rare, real-time opportunity to assess two popular and closely related conventional wisdoms about the American media and public. The first holds that in their media consumption, Americans prefer entertainment over public policy; sensationalism over substance; and sex over, well, just about anything. The second holds that in order to attract consumers, market-driven media routinely under-report or ignore important issues of public policy—abdicating their responsibility to serve as a watchdog of government—in favor of serving up the steady diet of cotton candy that they believe the public wants. As it turns out, reality is less clear-cut than conventional wisdom. According to Google News, in the week starting August 25 the Syria-to-Cyrus ratio—the number of print and online stories about Syria relative to those about Miley Cyrus—was about 5.5 to 1. That is, there was about 5.5 times more coverage of Syria than of Cyrus. According to LexisNexis, TV news—specifically, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and NBC —had a somewhat lower Syria-to-Cyrus ratio of about 3 to 1 (351 vs. 112 stories), while major newspapers—New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post—had a much higher ratio of about 11 to 1 (252 vs. 23 stories). These outlets varied widely in their coverage, and there clearly was no shortage of news about Cyrus’s derriere. Yet, on balance, news coverage focused far more on what people arguablyneeded to know than on what—per conventional wisdom—they wanted to know.


Even with the predominance of media coverage about Syria over Cyrus last week, the Syria-to-Cyrus ratio for Americans’ Google searches was almost the inverse of the Google News ratio: about 1 to 6, or six times more searches for news about Miley Cyrus than about Syria. Score one for the conventional wisdom.

Yet public opinion data suggests that perhaps there were fewer searches for Syria because there was already a lot known about Syria:

A recent NBC News poll (8/28-8/29) shows almost 80% of the public saying that it has heard “some” or “a lot” of news about Syria’s supposed chemical weapons use. While self-reports can be somewhat inflated, the near-80% figure is the fourth highest out of 16 high-profile issues for which NBC has asked the identical question over the past two years.

If that’s not enough for you, Jake Leavy at Buzzfeed put together a whole spread of graphics comparing the two using Facebook’s New Keyword’s Insights API. I would gladly have analyzed some of this data myself – providing Facebook much needed added publicity – but alas, for now the tool is only being rolled out to selected media partners at the moment (hint, hint…).

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The Nefarious Plot behind the Unveiling of Sunny Obama

Sunny, the new Obama family dog, on the South Lawn of the White House, Aug. 19, 2013.

The unveiling of the new White House dog brings to mind, naturally, the seminal research on the strategic use of presidential pets—which was detailed here many months ago.  Here is how I summarized the key finding of my colleagues James Lebovic, Forrest Maltzman, Elizabeth Saunders, and Emma Furth:

Drawing on 50 years of news coverage of presidential pets, the authors show that such stories are more likely when the president is caught up in a scandal or waging war—exactly what one would expect if Millie or Buddy or Bo was meant to distract the public.  However, when the economy is struggling, the opposite is true: presidents appear reluctant to be seen gamboling with their pets on the South Lawn when Americans are suffering.

Clearly, as Sarah Kliff suggests, trouble is about to befall Obama, and he is trying to distract us.

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Cucumber Time

In Dutch the word “komkommertijd” (“cucumber time”) is used to describe the period when newspapers put stories about goats on the Congressional cemetery on the front page because politicians are on vacation. In the UK they call this “silly season” whereas in the U.S. (according to the almighty Wikipedia) “slow news season” is the accurate but dreadfully boring description of the phenomenon.

Much to my surprise, the likely origins of the term “komkommertijd” are English (although another plausible theory is that it has Yiddish origins). An English dictionary already included the term in 1699:

Cucumber-time, Taylers Holiday, when they have leave to Play, and Cucumbers are in season.

When the cucumbers were in season the gentry left town for the countryside and business was slow for tailors. Peculiarly, translations of the term appear in many languagesSauregurkenzeit (German), agurktid (Norwegian),  uborkaszezon , Okurková sezóna (Czech), Sezon ogórkowy (Polish), and Onat Ha’melafefonim (Hebrew). I can’t speak for all the languages, but in German it has the same meaning as in Dutch.

I think “cucumber time” should make a comeback in the English language. It’s a beautiful term that can be used to describe slow business days of any kind. Its origins are wonderfully obscure but there is a legacy that protects the term from being overly frivolous. Let’s relegate “slow news season” to the dustbin of history and restore “cucumber time” to its rightful place.

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Welcome, #royalbaby! The Royal Birth and Twitter

The following post was compiled using data from the NYU Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP)  laboratory.  Figures and analysis are by lab associate Pablo Barberá.


For today’s celebrity baby, baby photos and sonograms are passé.  Instead, the baby needs his or her own “retweet network” picture, and we at the NYU Social Media and Political Participation laboratory are happy to provide this indispensable gift for the new #royalbaby Windsor (for higher resolution versions of the figure, click here or here.):


What can we learn about Twitter and the #royalbaby from this figure? When faced with a high profile but essentially low consequence event (unless you were betting on the baby’s arrival), Twitter was drawn upon to do what it seems to do best: provide information and entertain people. Our best guess at the various networks in this figure (and this is a very dense set of networks due to the huge volume of tweets – there are half a million Twitter users displayed on this plot!) are the following:

GREEN: news media, official accounts of crown, and celebrities
YELLOW: British comedians and journalists
RED: American comedians and journalists
BLUE: general parody accounts tweeting about #royalbaby
PURPLE: parody accounts related to British Crown

The most popular retweets also confirm this rough dichotomy of news and humor. The most popular tweet of all was from none other than Harry Potter potions professor Severus Snape:


And by our count, of the top 10 most popular retweets, seven were humor or satire related and the remaining three were news. The BBC was the highest ranked news source, with 10,300+ retweets, and came in at the fifth spot, beating out the official announcement from Clarence House, which placed sixth with 6,600+ retweets. The remaining news source in the top 10 retweets: E! Online (an American entertainment website), which placed tenth with 5,800+ retweets. And for those Harry Potter fans out there, Snape also grabbed two more spots in the top 10 (second and eighth); Lord Voldemort himself finished just outside the top 10.

Was this event truly a global social media phenomenon? With the caveat that we only have access to Twitter data and thus can not comment on activity on other platforms such as Facebook, Weibo, or Google+, there are a couple different ways we can address this question. First, we can examine the sheer quantity of Tweets devoted to the keyword #royalbaby, which of course underestimates the total number of tweets discussing the royal birth because not everyone was using this hashtag. For comparison’s sake in the following figure, we compare tweets with the hashtag #royalbaby with tweets that featured the hashtag #direngeziparki—the main hashtag in the recent Turkish protests —on June 1st.


Three observations can be made from this figure. First, from the moment the news first broke that the Duchess was heading to the hospital, there was a very stead stream of constant twitter usage of #royalbaby – something on the order of close to 1000 tweets per minute; using a larger number of keywords, we were collecting about 1500 tweets per minute at this time. Second, there was – as would be expected – an enormous spike in tweets immediately following the birth.* This demonstrates yet again the power of Twitter to convey information to vast numbers of people in an almost instantaneous fashion. While in this case it was all basically in fun, the political consequences of such a powerful distribution network for information that can be accessed by the masses and elites alike should not be underestimated. Finally, for all the hype surrounding the royal birth, the sheer number of tweets for most of the day featuring the key hashmark for royal baby watching does not really seem to exceed by much – if at all – the key hashtag used in a single day of protesting in Turkey. Whether this says more about the Turkish protests or royal baby-watching remains to be seen.

The other way to use Twitter to assess the degree to which the royal birth was truly a global event is to look at the extent to which the hashtag #royalbaby was used around the world, which we do in the following figure. Again caution is in order, as one needs to interpret this figure through the lens of where Twitter is used globally:


With these caveats in mind, two conclusions seem apparent. First, this was a global social media event. People did tweet about the birth all over the world, although clearly there was more interest in some countries (especially in Europe) than others. Second, Americans – despite their decision to fight a war to free themselves from the control of the British crown – still remain quite interested the royal family!


*  For the Twitter geeks out there, you will notice that our chart peaks at somewhere around 10,500 tweets per minute, while Twitter itself reported a top rate of 23,500 tweets per minute.  You will also notice that at the very peak, our line appears to go flat briefly.  We think both are caused by the same fact, which is that there is a limit to the number of tweets you can collect from Twitter’s API when you search by particular keywords, which is what we were doing.  This limit is 1% of all tweets.  If your keyword search is returning less than 1% of all tweets, you get all of them.  But if it returns more than 1%, you max out at 1%.  This is why we think our top-line number is significantly less than Twitter’s number: for a brief period of time, tweets related to the royal birth seem to have been exceeding that 1% limit.


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“Trapped in a Taylor Swift Album”

This post’s title is not designed to drive web traffic to The Monkey Cage from TMZ. No, really: President Obama has made it not only possible but necessary for me to take Ms. Swift’s name in vain as part of a quick follow-up to recent blogosphere commentary on the Obama “charm offensive” towards Congress.

To wit: this weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner featured President Obama himself taking aim at Maureen Dowd’s assertions last week that his efforts at swaying legislators were pale perversions of those undertaken during the towering presidency of Andrew Shepherd.

Michael Douglas, who played Shepherd in the film The American President, was present at the dinner. Obama asked – to laughter, though with what the video shows was something of an unamused edge – “Michael, what’s your secret, man?  Could it be that you were an actor in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy? Might that have something to do with it?”

Obama regained his light touch for a riff on his outreach efforts:

I know Republicans are still sorting out what happened in 2012, but one thing they all agree on is they need to do a better job reaching out to minorities.  And look, call me self-centered, but I can think of one minority they could start with.  Hello?  Think of me as a trial run, you know?  See how it goes.

If they won’t come to me, I will come to them.  Recently, I had dinner — it’s been well publicized — I had dinner with a number of the Republican senators.  And I’ll admit it wasn’t easy.  I proposed a toast — it died in committee….

My charm offensive has helped me learn some interesting things about what’s going on in Congress — it turns out, absolutely nothing.

But the point of my charm offensive is simple:  We need to make progress on some important issues.  Take the sequester.  Republicans fell in love with this thing, and now they can’t stop talking about how much they hate it.  It’s like we’re trapped in a Taylor Swift album…

The video is here (necessary if only for the photo of the future Obama library), a transcript here.

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