Sic transit gloria

The New York Times today reports that Sears, which more than a century ago pioneered the strategy of selling everything to everyone, filed for bankruptcy protection early on Monday. In terms of ambition, its only rival is Amazon, but even Amazon hasn’t yet got round to selling houses in kit form, as Sears did as long ago as 1908. Here’s one from the catalogue: two bedrooms, two reception rooms, a kitchen and a splendid porch — yours for $1248.00. No mention of a bathroom, though.

Sometimes, it’s the data you’re missing that’s the key to understanding something

Nice salutary tale for data fiends:

How Not to Be Wrong opens with an extremely interesting tale from World War II. As air warfare gained prominence, the challenge for the military was figuring out where and in what amount to apply protective armor to fighter planes and bombers. Apply too much armor and the planes become slower, less maneuverable and use more fuel. Too little armor, or if it’s in the “wrong” places, and the planes run a higher risk of being brought down by enemy fire.

To make these determinations, military leaders examined the amount and placement of bullet holes on damaged planes that returned to base following their missions. The data showed almost twice as much damage to the fuselage of the planes compared to other areas, most specifically the engine compartments, which generally had little damage. This data led the military leaders to conclude that more armor needed to be placed on the fuselage.

But mathematician Abraham Wald examined the data and came to the opposite conclusion. The armor, Wald said, doesn’t go where the bullet holes are; instead, it should go where the bullet holes aren’t, specifically, on the engines. The key insight came when Wald looked at the damaged planes that returned to the base and asked where all the “missing” bullet holes to the engines were. The answer was the “missing” bullet holes were on the missing planes, i.e. the ones that didn’t make it back safely to base. Planes that got hit in the engines didn’t come back, but those that sustained damage to the fuselage generally could make it safely back. The military then put Wald’s recommendations into effect and they stayed in place for decades.

Why Banksy is a genius

From The Art Newspaper

Was Banksy at the evening sale at Sotheby’s on Friday night? That was the question on everyone’s lips when one of the Bristolian street artist’s paintings mysteriously self-destructed as the contemporary auction drew to a close.

Girl with a Balloon (2006) was the final lot of the night, and just as the canvas hammered at £953,829—exactly the same figure as the artist’s previous auction record, achieved in 2008—an alarm was triggered inside the work of art. Onlookers turned just in time to see the canvas slip through its faux-gilt frame and be shredded into pieces.

Who said Surrealism was dead?

Boring talks are indeed longer

Lovely piece of informal research reported in Nature:

I investigated this idea at a meeting where speakers were given 12-minute slots. I sat in on 50 talks for which I recorded the start and end time. I decided whether the talk was boring after 4 minutes, long before it became apparent whether the speaker would run overtime. The 34 interesting talks lasted, on average, a punctual 11 minutes and 42 seconds. The 16 boring ones dragged on for 13 minutes and 12 seconds (thereby wasting a statistically significant 1.5 min; t-test, t = 2.91, P = 0.007). For every 70 seconds that a speaker droned on, the odds that their talk had been boring doubled. For the audience, this is exciting news. Boring talks that seem interminable actually do go on for longer.

That figures. As Alex Tabbarok commented,

the fundamental explanation is that a boring speaker doesn’t think about their audience. A speaker who cares puts herself in the audience’s shoes, thinks in advance about what is important, how much an audience can absorb in one sitting, where a graphic would be helpful and so forth. A good speaker plans and practices and thus ends up being interesting and ending on time.

How things change

When Pope Paul II came to holy catholic Ireland in 1979 his mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park in Dublin is estimated to have been the largest gathering of Irish people in history with an estimated 1.25 million attending the event, nearly a third of the country’s population.

But this weekend only 130,000 attended Pope Francis’ mass in the same spot, illustrating the extent of the Catholic church’s decline in Ireland over the past four decades. Less than half the people holding tickets turned up at the event, with weather, travel restrictions and acts of protest all thought to have caused the low turnout.

Source

Does TV damage your sex life?

When I was a kid people used to say that television had ruined the art of conversation. Strangely, this assertion was often made by pompous people who were not exactly noted conversationalists. And I had a friend who used to say that the best conversations in his house were between him and the TV. But now some economists have tackled the much more important question of whether TV affects viewers’ sex lives. This NBER paper — “Does Television Kill Your Sex Life? Microeconometric Evidence from 80 Countries”, by Adrienne Lucas and Nicholas Wilson, argues that it does.

The Abstract reads, in part:

This paper examines the association between television ownership and coital frequency using data from nearly 4 million individuals in national household surveys in 80 countries from 5 continents. The results suggest that while television may not kill your sex life, it is associated with some sex life morbidity. Under our most conservative estimate, we find that television ownership is associated with approximately a 6% reduction in the likelihood of having had sex in the past week, consistent with a small degree of substitutability between television viewing and sexual activity. Household wealth and reproductive health knowledge do not appear to be driving this association.

So now we know!

How to tell if you’re rich

From a recent NBER study:

The brand most predictive of top income in 1992 is Grey Poupon Dijon mustard. By 2004, the brand most indicative of the rich is Land O’Lakes butter, followed by Kikkoman soy sauce. By the end of the sample, ownership of Apple products (iPhone and iPad) tops the list. Knowing whether someone owns an iPad in 2016 allows us to guess correctly whether the person is in the top or bottom income quartile 69 percent of the time. Across all years in our data, no individual brand is as predictive of being high-income as owning an Apple iPhone in 2016.

Hmmm…I must be better off than I realised.

Ring, ring: the stalker’s here.

This morning’s Observer column:

Standing on a tube platform the other day, I found myself looking at a huge ad for the Nest Hello, “the doorbell you’ve been waiting for”. Apparently, “it makes other doorbells seem like dumbbells”. That’s because it “lets you know who’s there, so you never miss a thing. It replaces your existing wired doorbell and delivers HD video and bright, crisp images, even at night. It’s designed to show you everything on your doorstep – people head to toe or packages on the ground. And with 24/7 streaming, you can check in any time. Or go back and look at a three-hour snapshot history to see what happened.”

The Nest doorbell fits neatly into the emerging narrative of networked devices that will make your home “smarter”. The company already markets the Nest Learning Thermostat – “an electronic, programmable and self-learning wifi-enabled thermostat that optimises heating and cooling of homes and businesses to conserve energy”. It’ll go nicely with your networked lightbulbs, your Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod or Google Home.

The industry’s spiel for having all these networked devices in your home is, of course, that they make your life easier…

Read on

Katharine Whitehorn

Alzheimer’s is a kind of living death, which I guess is why the tributes to Katharine in today’s Observer read a bit like obituaries. The peg for them is the news last week that she has advanced Alzheimer’s.

I’ve known her for many years, and once briefly provided informal IT support for her when she was first grappling with the Internet. I first got to know her when I was TV Critic of the Observer in the years 1987-1995; she had been a columnist on the paper since 1960 and was wonderfully supportive from the beginning. She was spectacularly beautiful but what was most striking was her ability to look and sound like a duchess while possessing the sense of mischief of a born troublemaker. And she was a very influential journalist. As a prominent columnist, for example, she took on the banks for not being willing to give mortgages to single women without a male guarantor — and won. And for young women, having this very posh lady writing frankly about how it was ok to be “slovenly” (because she was too) was liberating in the stultifying atmosphere of early 1960s Britain. “Have you ever taken anything out of the dirty-clothes basket”, she wrote in 1963,

“because it had become, relatively, the cleaner thing? Changed stockings in a taxi? Could you try on clothes in any shop, any time, without worrying about your underclothes? How many things are in the wrong room — cups in the study, boots in the kitchen?”

She had a blissfully happy marriage to Gavin Lyall, the thriller writer, with whom she lived in grand style in Hampstead, and was devastated when he died in 2003. But she was never one for self-pity. When my Observer colleague Yvonne Roberts wrote to her expressing condolences after Gavin’s death, Katherine’s reply included this line from Siegfried Sassoon: “I am rich in all that I have lost”.

Same goes for us now. Alzheimer’s may have taken her from us. But those of us who worked with her have been immensely enriched by her presence in our lives.