the visual display of qualitative information

12 December 2008

If you really want to know what it’s in the criminal complaint filed against Rod Blagojevich, you can read it. But in this 2.0 world, why read when you can visualize? Bill Allison at the Sunlight Foundation’s Real Time Investigations blog uploaded the complaint (via) to a site called Many Eyes, which is the kind of site I wish I’d already known about, and which offers a number of ways to visualize text.

(Unfortunately, wordpress strips out the code that makes it possible to embed these images at their full size and functionality, so I’ve re-sized these images to be larger than what the embed codes were giving me. If you click through, you’ll be able to do all sorts of things, like re-arrange the displays, search for particular words and phrases, count or highlight specific occurrences, and even zoom in on the word tree.)

Let’s start with a Wordle:

blagojevich-complaint-wordle

That gives you an idea of the most important topics/people in the complaint, but it’s more of a bird’s eye perspective. If you want more precision, albeit at the cost of some visual elegance, you could look at a couple of tag clouds:

Here’s a cloud formed on the basis of single words:

blagojevich-complaint-one-word

And here’s a two-word tag cloud:

blagojevich-complaint-two-word

The two-word format does a better job capturing many of the subjects – not just the proper names, but also senate candidate, financial advisor, planning board, campaign contributions, and so on – as well as the alleged activities – Blagojevich spoke, Blagojevich talked, attempted extortion, phone calls. But it also has some pairings that are simply the result of the stylistic conventions of a criminal complaint. For example, the phrase “2008 rod,” which has 53 occurrences, isn’t a phrase in the usual sense – it’s the result of writing out the date of an alleged action (in 2008), followed by Blagojevich’s first name: “…the morning of November 12, 2008, Rod Blagojevich talked to Fundraiser A…”

Finally, the most innovative and analytically interesting visualization is the word tree. Want to know how the Senate candidates appear in the text?:

blagojevich-senate-candidate

Judging by the number of occurrences, Senate candidate 3, who appears to have been identified, is looking pretty good.

Incidentally: a cursory search for profanity doesn’t turn up nearly as much as you’d expect from the news coverage.

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analogy watch

10 December 2008

How long until the Truman:Pendergast::Obama:Blagojevich analogy shows up in the major media? Never mind if the person making the analogy does a good job with differences and historical specifics. I’d just be amazed if it’s not made at all.


only in America a democracy

18 November 2008

With the talk of Obama’s election being something that could only happen in America, it’s no surprise to find people pointing out that, well, not only could “it” – meaning a similar electoral victory, of course – happen elsewhere, but “it” has in some cases already happened elsewhere. But this piece in Slate is a bit confused about what “it” is.

On one side, there are some good examples*:

The truth is that Obama-style chiefs of state—people who came out of stigmatized ethnic minorities or “foreign” enclaves to lead their governments—are an uncommon but regularly recurring part of history. Alberto Fujimori, who held both Peruvian and Japanese citizenship, was elected president of Peru in 1990. Sonia Gandhi, born Edvige Antonia Albina Maino in northern Italy, led her Congress Party to a resounding victory in India’s 2004 elections. Daniel arap Moi is from the Kalenjin people, not the Luo or Kikuyu who are the nation’s largest ethnic groups and its centers of political gravity. But this did not bar him being president of Kenya from 1978 to 2002.

To them you could probably add Evo Morales in Bolivia. And going back to the 19th century, there’s Benjamin Disraeli’s selection as Prime Minister of the UK.

But on the other side are the poor examples:

Last week, the New York Times told us Europe would not soon—indeed might never—see a political triumph like Obama’s. It described British politics as though Disraeli had never existed and painted a similar picture of mono-ethnic France.

Desolé, cher collegues, but one year after the far-off, sunny isle of Corsica was acquired by France in 1768, there was born there one Napoleon Bonaparte, whose heavy Italian accent made him seem even more exotic to la France profonde than his strange name.

I guess Napoleon did win a lot of campaigns.

Next up:

And speaking of German accents, the Times thumb-sucker also foresaw that there would be no German Obama any time soon. Bad timing for them: Three days later, Germany’s Greens elected Cem Ozdemir, an ethnic Turk, as their new leader.

And the Greens, being the ruling party of Germany, must make their leader the Chancellor, right? At least that example is still within the realm of electoral politics. Unlike, say,

Stalin, of course, wasn’t Russian.

Stalin vetted his advisers very thoroughly, it should be noted. And he rose from being just a humble secretary too.

Meanwhile,

It’s a matter of some debate whether Alexander the Great was ethnically Greek.

Some said he was too Greek; others, not Greek enough. And Greece was the birthplace of democracy, so he must have been elected.

That not enough for you? The path of liberty soon turned west from Greece. And what do we find?

Quite a few rulers of the Roman Empire came from underprivileged, barbarian families in North Africa, Syria, and the Balkans. The Times‘ portrait of ethnically blinkered European politics would have surprised not only Disraeli and Napoleon, but also, inter alios, such second- and third-century Roman emperors as Philippus (known as Philip the Arab for his ethnicity), Septimius Severus (father Roman, mother North African), and Diocletian (humble stock from Dalmatia, present-day Croatia).

Hey, did you know that the Mongols weren’t Chinese, and yet they ruled China for a while? And the Qing ruled China for even longer, and they weren’t Chinese either! And yet we call their emperors emperors of China.

But why stop there? What about Carl XIV Johan, King of Sweden and Norway, born Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte and once Marshal of France (more French than Napoleon, who appointed him)? And the 19th century Greek monarchy had not just the House of Wittelsbach but the House of Glücksburg (in fairness, the later monarchs seem to have been Greece-born).

Or maybe it would be a good idea to just stop with the good examples, give a bit more depth to the comparisons, and acknowledge that Obama’s victory was not unique, but still quite rare.

____

*Unfortunately, many of these leaders were more successful in elections than in governing.


the dial turns spur the worm; the worm turns, spurns

30 October 2008

This is a good background piece on those “squiggly lines” that showed up on CNN during the debates, but I would have liked to have learned more about previous uses of so-called “dial testing” in election coverage. The feature is novel to most of us Americans – unlike after-the-fact focus groups, which have been around a while – but the worldly commenters at Crooked Timber* point out that Australian television has been using a similar feature for some time.

Over there it’s called “the worm”; it even has a wikipedia entry. And in October 2007 it was involved in a bit of controversy:

Australian PM John Howard has denied involvement in a decision to ban a graphic that tracks audience opinion during a live TV election debate.

Critics accused Mr Howard of coercing the host, the National Press Club, to ban the use of the “worm”.

Channel Nine’s feed was cut 25 minutes into the debate between Mr Howard and the opposition leader Kevin Rudd.

The controversy has eclipsed the issues under discussion, which included the economy and Australia’s role in Iraq.

Glad to see the US is not the only country with the proper sense of priorities. So how did the debate turn out?

Channel Nine switched first to an ABC and then a Sky News feed, and superimposed the worm without any disruption to its coverage.

According to the worm, Mr Rudd was the overall winner of the debate. Opinion in Australia is divided on whether the worm really has any impact on voters.

Of course, it’s not just a question of whether the worm has an impact on voters; there’s also the question of how well it represents voters. Howard went on to lose the election. Maybe it was a coincidence.

 
*I endorse the suggestion that the networks keep up the squiggly lines for the post-debate coverage. And for other programming.


change you can mimeograph

2 October 2008

I am young and unknown to many of you. I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life. I have no wealthy or popular relations to recommend me. My case is thrown exclusively upon the independent voters of this county, and if elected they will have conferred a favor upon me, for which I shall be unremitting in my labors to compensate.

Zachary Hicks is a delegate to the state’s Progressive Party Convention and his feet hurt. The convention has been trying to nominate a candidate for governor, but no one has enough votes. While the party bosses gather in their factions to discuss strategy for the next ballot, Hicks turns to one of his fellow delegates in the convention hall and complains about his shoes. When the delegate asks him why he doesn’t take them off, Hicks replies that he can’t – they’re too tight. When the delegate suggests that he cut them off, Hicks thinks it’s a great idea, and to the surprise of his fellow delegate, he takes out a knife and does just that.

Meanwhile, one of the party factions has decided that the only way to prevent their rivals’ candidate from winning and still break the deadlock is to nominate a dark horse. They arrive at the name of the hitherto obscure Zachary Hicks, about whom even they know very little. Hicks is asleep when his nomination is announced.

I wrote that intro from memory, having seen The Dark Horse – which unfortunately does not seem to be available online or on DVD (but you can see the original trailer) – about a month ago on television, so I might not have the details exactly right. But the premise is clear: Zachary Hicks – described at one point as “so dumb that every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge” – is running for Governor and it’s going to take a clever campaign to get him elected.

Kay Russell (played by Bette Davis) knows just the man for the job: Hal S. Blake (played by Warren William), who’s proven himself in the past to be an able campaign manager. There’s only one problem: Blake is currently in jail for failing to pay alimony. Russell convinces the party leaders to take a chance on Blake, and when they arrive at the prison, Blake is giving a speech to the other inmates. The campaign has already started.

If this were a different kind of film, Blake’s cleverness and political skill might have been portrayed as vaguely sinister, but it’s a comedy (with a bit of romance between Russell and Blake) – and a screwball one at that. Blake might be able to convince opposing constituencies like the wets and the drys (this is a film from 1932*, after all) that Hicks supports both sides, but it is his opponents in the Conservative party who stoop to truly dirty politics when they come up with a plan to frame Hicks as having an affair on the eve of the election. It’s hard to watch this movie today without thinking of certain modern strategists**, but Blake – who has his faults, particularly when it comes to relationships – remains generally likable throughout.

When it quickly becomes clear that Hicks isn’t very bright, Blake is undaunted: that just means they’ll present him as a common man of the people (“Hicks from the sticks”). Since Hicks doesn’t know the issues very well – at one point he says he’s against capital punishment, which would great if the state had not already abolished it – Blake instructs him to answer all reporters’ questions by saying “Yes,” then pausing, then saying, “and again, no.”

A bigger challenge is preparing Hicks for a debate. Blake has him memorize the lines quoted at the top of this post. They’re actually Lincoln’s. Hicks has only two problems with this: first, he has a well-off (but politically irrelevant) aunt elsewhere in the state who could be considered a “wealthy relation” – Blake instructs him to ignore that; and second, he struggles to remember to change the word “county”*** to “state.”

There may be a longstanding tradition of politicians incorporating other politicians’ speeches into their own, but this is a fairly clear case of plagiarism. And when the time comes for the debate, it turns out that Hicks’ Conservative opponent, Underwood****, who is first to give an opening statement, arrived with the exact same idea. Recognizing the speech his candidate was supposed to deliver, Blake jumps on to the stage and exposes Underwood as a plagiarist. Underwood is laughed out of the building and Hicks is saved from having to speak at all.

_____

*It’s so old that it’s pre-code, and compared to movies made just a few years later, there’s a surprising amount of suggestiveness.

**It’s true, as TCM’s overview article says, that the decision to “sell” Hicks as a common man is “a round of spin-doctoring that remains depressingly resonant today” but it’s still funny. Just don’t think about the implications for governance.*****

***I believe in the film they actually say “country,” perhaps under the impression that Lincoln said this in a speech while running for President. But a footnote to the text I looked up says that it is actually from a printed message from a campaign for local office from very early in Lincoln’s career – and that he lost.

****I don’t think the movie ever gives his first name.

*****I suppose it’s only appropriate that Guy Kibbee, who plays Hicks, would later play the beleagured Governor of a machine-controlled state in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.


small town (numerical) values

9 September 2008

It’s really sort of remarkable, the lengths some people will go to in order to hide the metropolitan reality of this country. And that’s assuming that Wasilla and all other similarly-sized cities are small towns that are not, as surely some of them are, actually suburbs just on the edge of urbanized areas.