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January 4, 2008 | 1 Comment

Mr. Word’s definition of the day: to gush

“To make a sentimental or untimely exhibition of affection; to display enthusiasm in a silly, demonstrative manner.” — Webster, 1913.

For example, this snippet from today’s New York Times editorial.

Americans are going to feel good about [his] victory, which is a story of youth, possibility and unity through diversity ? the primordial themes of the American experience….[He] has achieved something remarkable. At first blush, his speeches are abstract, secular sermons of personal uplift ? filled with disquisitions on the nature of hope and the contours of change.

Can you guess of whom the writer wrote?


73.2% of Likely Voters Believe Poll Results

Pollster: Who will you vote for? Civilian: Oh, I don’t know; that guy, the tall one. Pollster: I’ll put you down for Obama.

The elections in Iowa are over and the results known. It’s the season of the polls! More time is spent analyzing, worrying over, and speculating about polls in the media than is spent on any other subject, such as what the candidates think about the Iraqi war. In one sense, this is understandable, because polls offer hard, quantitative data which can be “crunched” and “drilled down” into, and so on. A candidate’s opinion on the war (and on every other subject) is harder to think about, mainly because the candidates themselves tend to be as vague as they can get away with to avoid in-depth analysis.

Since so much time and effort is spent on polls, we would hope that they offer some value. So how good are these polls? Let’s look.

There are dozens of these polls done by different organizations. The leading polls, in the sense that they are quoted the most and have the biggest organizations behind them, are the Zogby and the Des Moines Register (in Iowa only, of course), so we will examine just these two, though the results are not too different for the other polls.

Here is a table of the polls by the actual results for the Iowa 2008 caucuses. I used the latest polls, taken in the day or days right before the election, not the entrance polls. These are the numbers, then, that you would use to make a guess which candidate will win, place, and show. Only the top three candidates from each party are shown. All poll data was gathered from The error is the Zogby poll minus the Actual result.

Candidate Zogby Register Actual Error
Obama 31 32 37.6 -6.6
Edwards 27 24 29.7 -2.7
Clinton 24 25 29.5 -5.5
Others 12 10 3.2 +8.8
Undecided 6 9 0 +6
Huckabee 31 32 34.4 -3.4
Romney 25 26 25.3 -0.3
Thompson 11 9 13.4 -2.4
Others 26 27 26.9 -0.9
Undecided 7 6 0 +7

The most striking thing is, regardless of party, the polls for the top three candidates under-predict the actual results. The “Others” candidates are sums of the results over all the other candidates. There are only “Undecideds” at the time of the polls and none at the time of the election when, of course, people have to actually select an actual candidate. The error is a combination of the uncertainty of what the “Undecideds” will eventually do plus error inherent in the poll itself (through biased sampling and so on).

The much larger error for “Others” candidates for Democrats is in part due to the different way the Democrat caucus is run. If, in an initial vote at a particular polling location, a candidate does not reach a minimum threshold (about 15%), then the votes for that candidate are taken away and reallocated to other candidates. So a person might have told the pollster that he was for Biden, and gone in and voted for Biden, only to have that vote taken away and given to, say, Clinton (of course, it may be he who then chooses Clinton as his second).

One thing we can tell from the Democrat caucus is that not all of the votes for the “Others” (and “Undecideds”) were re-distributed to the other candidates evenly. At the time of the vote, 12 – 3.2 = 8.8% of the “Others” were redistributed. So, too, were the 6% of the “Undecideds”. That makes 8.8 + 6 = 14.8% of the votes that were redistributed (this figure also includes the native poll error). Obama got 6.6, Edwards 2.7, and Clinton 5.5 (these are the errors). Or, stating it another way, Obama got 45% of the eligible redistributed votes, Edwards 18%, and Clinton 37%, numbers which give hints about how future elections might go once the field of candidates narrows: many more people eventually opted for Obama than the other candidates.

49% of the “Undecideds” opted for Huckabee, 4% for Romney, 34% for Thompson, and 13% went to “Others”. This again might show that there is much stronger support for Huckabee and Thompson than is generally believed. Right now, the latest Zogby New Hampshire polls have Huckabee at 10%, with Undecideds at 8%; these numbers were taken before the Iowa results. McCain and Romney are a little over 30% each. So my guess is that by the time the votes are in from New Hampshire, it’ll be fairly even between McCain, Romney, and Huckabee, the results being in that order.
Of course, some of the error is due to the polls themselves, and, using error results from polls in previous presidential elections, I predict that we will see this error actually increase as the number of candidates shrinks. New Hampshire is less than a week away, so we’ll soon see, as two of the Democrat candidates have already dropped from the race.

January 3, 2008 | No comments

Oil prices through time: a well-done graph

Wall Street Journal Oil prices
Source: Wall Street Journal

This image, shrunk 50% from it’s original size, is a very well-done statistical graph. It shows, in the pale green line, the inflation-adjusted price of a barrel of oil from 1975 to 2007. The blue line is the nominal price in dollars (which are “dollars at the time,” and obviously not adjusted for inflation).

This is exactly the way to present price data through time. The recent three-year surge in oil prices is remarkable, and more shocking using only the nominal data, but it also more misleading. The inflation-adjusted price is more honest and shows that we have reached these levels before.

The one major difference between the two peaks of today and of 1980 are the time it took to reach the peak. It took us three to four years of steady increase to reach the current levels. Back then, the rise was truly dramatic, taking place in just a little over a year. Of course, we do not know whether or not we are at the peak now.

The other good feature of this graph are the the bullet point at various interesting places. If you mouse over the original you can see explanations of the dates.

There are four other plots that accompany the oil-price chart. These are not so well done, especially the “Use vs. Population” charts. The idea is to show the per-capita use of oil per country. But nowhere are the actual per-capita figures printed, though the population size and oil use per day numbers are given (in separate locations). A map which attempts to show these figures is presented, but the legend is confusing and the map hard to read.

The graphs “The China Factor” and “Global Oil Picture” suffer from the common flaws associated with bar and pie charts, so I won’t go over them. The last chart, “The Biggest Users” does present the per-capita demand in a useful way, and also shows the change in this measure from the late 1990s to the current time. This part of the graph could use some help, and I’ll suggest some changes for it later.

January 2, 2008 | No comments

Frank Furedi on the global warming apocalypse

Frank Fuerdi, of Spiked Online, has a delightful article on the daily barrage of panic we hear, in which he says, “In the past year, the threat of doom ? from weather, terror or disease ? became an everyday, even banal issue. It?s time to inject a dose of humanism into public debate.”

The thing that I have noticed, in talking about global warming to civilians, is not just the readiness of people to believe that doom is just around the corner—this after all is what Frank Furedi shows us is the relentless message of the day—but what is strange to me is people’s eagerness to believe the worst pronouncements. Even after you show people that the most apocalyptic claims are nonsense and are politically motivated (e.g. Al Gore’s imminent flooding of Manhattan), they still retain an ardent desire for the worst to be true.

It is this desire that must be investigated. The following quote from the Furedi article might help:

In response to the growing influence of misanthropy, Pope Benedict XVI, in his message for World Peace Day on 1 January 2008, felt the need to remind his audience that ?respecting the environment does not mean considering material or animal nature more important than man?. That the Pope felt it was necessary to remind people of the unique status of the human species is telling indeed; it shows that we really do live in an era when most leaders find it difficult to believe in anything other than a scary future, and where it takes a Pope to remind them that humans are actually quite special.