Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Radio Australia topics, Nov 7

I make an appearance on the excellent Breakfast Club show on Radio Australia each Friday at 01:15 GMT and some listeners have asked me post links to the stuff I talk about, so here they are.

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Follow football on your cellphone through vibrations: a team in Scandavia has come up with a way to convey movement of a ball via vibrations. This would allow folks wanting to follow a soccer game with the phone in their pocket, in theory.

This is how it would happen, as far as I can understand it: someone would watch a game and input data whenever the ball was kicked. This data would translate into vibrations—short if the ball is in midfield, longer and more insistent as it got nearer the goal. The researchers claim that users quickly figure out what is happening and can follow a game pretty well.

Reminds me of when I was a kid trying to follow a soccer match on a bad radio: You kind of guessed when things were getting exciting by the rise in crowd noise and the voice of the commentator.

Obama’s victory has quickly translated into an opportunity for bad guys. Sophos reports that 60% of malicious is Obama related, including what looks like a link to his acceptance speech, but which is in fact a trojan which, among other things, captures keystrokes and sends information back to the Ukraine. Obama-related malware has even been seen in the sponsored ads appearing on Google News.

EA has made another boo-boo: some copies of its Red Alert 3 CDs are missing a character on the serial number. “Try guessing the last character,” explained the support site until someone pointed out that this was dumb and encouraging amateur cracking.

Lost in translation: The continuing saga of Welsh being a language that non-speakers are never going to be able to guess at took another twist with a sign that, in English, reads  “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only,” but which in Welsh reads “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated.”

I don’t think I need to explain more, except to say that the sign has been removed—apparently by the council that installed it. What Welsh truck drivers made of it has not been recorded.

Photo credit: BBC

Counting the Words

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I’ve been looking recently at different ways that newspapers can add value to the news they produce, and one of them is using technology to better mine the information that’s available to bring out themes and nuances that might otherwise be lost. But does it always work?

The post popular page on the WSJ.com website at the moment is Barack Obama’s speech, which has dozens of comments added to it (not all them illuminating; but there’s another story.) What intrigued me was the text analysis box in the text:

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Click on that link and you see a sort of tag cloud of words and how frequently they appear in the text of the piece itself. Mouse over a word and a popup tells you how many times Obama used the word. “Black,” for example, appears 38 times; “white” appears only 29. That’s nearly 25% fewer times.

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Interesting, but useful? My gut reaction is that it cheapens a remarkable speech–remarkable not because of its views, but remarkable because it’s a piece of oratory that could have been uttered 10, 20, 50, maybe even 100 years ago and still be understood.

My point? Analyzing a speech using a simple counter is not only pretty pointless–does the fact he said ‘black’ more times than ‘white’ tell us anything? What about the words he didn’t use?–but it paves the way to speechwriters running their own text analysis over speeches before they’re spoken. “Hey, Bob! We need to put more ‘whites’ in there otherwise people are going to freak out!” “OK how about mentioning you were in White Plains a couple of times last year?”

Maybe this already happens. But oratory is an art form: it doesn’t succumb to analysis, just as efforts to subject Shakespeare to text analysis don’t really tell us very much about Shakespeare.

The Journal is just messing around, of course, experimenting with what it can to see what might work. We’re merely watching a small episode in newspapers trying to be relevant. And it should be applauded for doing so. But I really hope that something more substantial and smart will come along, because this kind of thing not only misses the mark, but is in danger of quickly becoming absurd.

Perhaps more important, it fails to really add value to the data. Without any analysis of the frequency of words, there’s not really much one can say to the exercise except, maybe, “hmmm.” Compare that with a Canadian research project a couple of years back which developed algorithms to measure spin in the 2006 election there. They looked at politicians’ use of particular words: “exception words” — however, unless — for example, and the decreased use of personal pronouns–I, we, me, us– which might imply the speaker was distancing him- or herself from what was being said.

That sounds smart, but was it revealing? The New Scientist, writing in January 2006, said the results concluded that the incumbent, Prime Minister Paul Martin, of the Liberal Party, spun “dramatically more than Conservative Party leader, Stephen Harper, and the New Democratic Party leader, Jack Layton.” Harper, needless to say, won the election.

Oh, and in case you’re interested, Shakespeare used the word “black” 174 times in his oeuvre, according to Open Source Shakespeare, and “white” only 148, 15% fewer occurrences. Clearly a story there.