Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for February 22nd, 2007

Anna Nicole, O.J., and a galloping case of hiccups

Posted by metaphorical on 22 February 2007

If this were a game of Jeopardy, the question would be, “What’s wrong with the media?”

I don’t believe the country is rising up and demanding to know more about this woman’s sad life (well, maybe just the involvement of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s husband), and it’s not much of a newspaper story. But the dynamics are classic cable TV. In a Pew survey, 61 percent say the Anna Nicole saga is being overcovered, but 11 percent say they are following it very closely. Cable is catering to that 11 percent. (In fact, MSNBC has been covering the BREAKING NEWS of the latest court hearing pretty much continuously today.) In cable, you only need an extra half-million or million viewers to produce a serious spike in the ratings, and that’s why Anna Nicole, nearly two weeks after her death, is still sucking up plenty of cable oxygen.

That’s Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post’s astute media columnist, back on Tuesday.

(Thank-you to Al Romenesko of the Poynter Institute for links to the two stories discussed today.)

Kurtz is right as far as he goes. But the problem with the current cable channels isn’t that they cater to that 11 percent, but that no one is catering to any 11 percents of the people who want serious news, who, for example, would rather hear about whether Congress is going to stop funding the war in Iraq or perhaps even take charge of it themselves.

If we had 6 or 7 cable channels that weren’t obsessed with Anna Nicole Smith, we wouldn’t begrudge the two or two that were. Lest you think the news on the broadcast channels is any better, by the way, I guess you haven’t heard about their current obsession with hiccups.

Yes, hiccups. It seems a 15-year-old girl in St. Petersburg, Florida, “started hiccuping four weeks ago today and has yet to stop,” according to a story in the local paper there.

The competition for her story became so frenzied over the weekend that NBC’s Today show changed Jennifer and her mother’s New York hotel after another network’s exhaustive attempts to get an interview. …

Representatives from ABC’s Good Morning America called Jennifer’s home 57 times on Sunday and slipped notes under her hotel room door, her family said.

If three or four broadcast networks want to spend all their time on hiccupping, that would be fine, if there were 30 others that didn’t. The problem is that we don’t have 30 others, and that there a limited number of advertising dollars out there to support news-gathering operations.

To ask broadcasters to behave more responsibly is as futile as asking people to turn their sets to a different channel. Still, it’s fun to dream of a world where everyone has the same sense of honor as my friend Clay Shirky, who once said, “As a service to my country, I live my life as if I may at any moment be called to be an alternate in OJ’s trial, and am thus scrupulously careful to avoid contamination by the media.”

Posted in journalism, politics | 1 Comment »

Know anything special about numbers?

Posted by metaphorical on 22 February 2007

Now this is what make the Web special.

Erich Friedman, an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Stetson University, in DeLand, Florida, has a page called “What’s Special About This Number?” It has a list of numbers from 0 to 9999 and states for each one of them a unique property.

Here are a few examples:

5 is the number of Platonic solids.
6 is the smallest perfect number.
7 is the smallest number of faces of a regular polygon that is not constructible by straightedge and compass.
8 is the largest cube in the Fibonacci sequence.

Don’t know what a “perfect” number is? The site links to other pages around the Web that give detailed explanations. Mathematicians have tons of these technical terms (many of which use ordinary words, like “perfect”).

I had a major in math, and while I knew what a perfect number was, there are plenty of terms and ideas here that I didn’t learn in college, such as “hexomino.”

Friedman has an unfortunate tendency to link to Wolfram’s excellent MathWorld site, which gives extremely complicated, mathematically rigorous explanations (“perfect numbers are positive integers n such that n==s(n), where s(n) is the restricted divisor function (i.e., the sum of proper divisors of n), or equivalently sigma(n)==2n, where sigma(n) is the divisor function (i.e., the sum of divisors of n including n itself).”)

But the Web is rife with simpler ones, and Google knows where they are. For practical purposes, a perfect number is any whose factors, not counting itself, add up to itself: 1+2+3=6. 1, 2, 4, 7, and 14 add up to 28, which is the second perfect number.

Anyway, Friedman’s page is delightful. He doesn’t find an interesting fact for every number between 0 and 9999, but he does for 2,849 of them, which is remarkable. For example, 35 is the number of hexominoes, which are structures made up of six squares. The Wolfram explanation is more helpful here and it has a diagram:


Did you know that 38 is the last Roman numeral when written lexicographically? Or that 40 is the only number whose letters are in alphabetical order? That 727 has the property that its square is the concatenation of two consecutive numbers? I sure didn’t.

The best thing about this site is that Friedman asks:

If you know a distinctive fact about a number not listed here, please e-mail me.

I’m sure that over time, each of the missing 7,151 factoids will be filled in, some of the existing ones will be improved, and the list will expand into the five-digit numbers and beyond. The Web can be the sum of all knowledge, assembled collaboratively, lovingly, in a way that’s never been possible before. We’ve put together a remarkable fraction of the world’s knowledge so far. Imagine what it will look like in a 100 years, if we don’t get in its way.

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