Samuel Arbesman writing in WIRED makes a useful suggestion. It’s an obvious one, and that is not intended as a sneer. Re-seeing the obvious is a great gift, as you may have noticed when you ask a friend to look at something you wrote and s/he spots a typo right off, a glaring one too, that changes the whole sense of what you meant. So, Mr. Arbesman usefully directs our attention away from the hoopla about the importance of big sets of data to a consideration of data over time…what he calls “long data”. If your doctor tells you that your blood values are a little odd, and that X is a little low and Y a little high, that might be better understood in a context in which, over a number of years, X and Y have always been that way, and at about the same value too, and you’re not sick and weren’t then. It’s a better picture. You’re a ‘low normal’, with a slight anemia, maybe. So, eat liver. He offers several examples, but the one that impressed me the most was that from the Atlantic cod fishery, which almost collapsed. People were paying attention to the yearly harvest but much less attention to tracking the harvest through time. They would not have been surprised to see declines, due to over-fishing. His point is that we should calm down about the Big and figure out ways to turn it into the Big and the Long.
Well is a relative term and its “well” in reference to Time and Newsweek, which are not doing very well at all. An article in The Atlantic tries to figure out why the doughty British weekly is surviving and even growing, at a time when the bell seems to be tolling for the whole notion of a weekly Newsie. The answer is not very clear, or better, it’s not clear at all. The author seems to bounce around in the “fair and balanced” mode, saying The E is not so brilliant as its supporters claim and on the other hand, it’s not so shallow as its enemies assert. Various reasons for success are trotted out and dismissed: itâ€™s not this (the writing, say) it’s not that (the layout, say). So, what is the reason? It seems to me the author is saying that The Economist has somehow managed to convince people that they should read it. I got that far on my own Mr. Holmes, thank you. So, there is no explanation as to why a tony, not especially user-friendly, expensive, British mag of center-right economic orientation is such a commercial success. I think I can do better, at least in explaining why the item is popular here: we have come to distrust our own media as more and more of it chases after People’s format of lotsa pix and very, very little text. We think our press is shallow, sensationalist, biased or just unfit to handle serious matters. Americans want a diet of sleaze, scandal, Branjolina, doping scandals, and the rest. But, we hate ourselves for wanting it, and we hate the media for giving us what we want, for pandering. When it comes to serious matters, who would trust a weakling, and a pander? So we look elsewhere. The Economist makes no concessions, and there are no celebs, few pictures, nothing about Hollywood, or TV or pop music and the tone just assumes you are a serious person, who already knows that the British used to rule India, but left in 1947. You don’t have to have these things explained to you. You went to a good school and you paid attention. We don’t write for jerks or dweebs. The philosophy seems to be: “we write about things that are important and you need to know about them, so read this. Or don’t. We don’t care. We’ve been doing this since 1843 and we’ll be doing it long after you’re gone”. And, increasingly, people do read it and pay for privilege. Read: