A beginner’s misfortune of going viral

I have to admit, none of my research had gone viral before. I work on things that can potentially save billions of pounds to consumers by identifying how unscrupulous business behaviour or misaligned government intervention can harm people. Despite its relevance, the general public has never been particularly interested in my work.

On Wednesday evening I posted something on my blog that changed all of this. I stumbled upon an interesting correlation between the proportion of obese people and the proportion of Leave voters in the same geographical area. What made this really interesting was the finding that the correlation remained even after accounting for regional differences in income, qualification, or employment. I did not jump to conclusions, I reported the data, provided sources so that anyone could check my findings, and concluded that more work would be needed to identify what is behind this correlation. Read more of this post

Bookies v opinion polls: who will get it right on the Referendum?

With only a week to go until the EU referendum, we are witnessing an interesting spectacle. No, it’s not the painfully underwhelming campaign on either side, although it is quite remarkable how low politicians can go in giving up intelligent, fact based arguments, unanimously resorting to emotional blackmailing. No, what appears to be at least as striking is the difference between the predictions of public opinion polls and betting agents. Read more of this post

Why are there so few Brits in the European Commission?

Short answer: because they are too happy living in Britain. Data from EU’s EuroStat suggests that unhappy countries are more likely to be over-represented among European Commission staff members.

If we ignore happiness, we find that language skills also matter. In general, poorer Member States are more likely to be represented among EU staff (even if they’re not so good with languages) but for rich Member States a lack of language skills seems to be an important reason for under-representation. Read more of this post

Literary criticism and academic peer reviewing

TS Eliot’s Sacred Wood is a collection of essays in which Eliot writes about his opinion of various writers and literary works, the state of criticism, and critical writing. Probably most people are familiar with a quote from Sacred Wood:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.

I think the applicability of Eliot’s observation is unquestionable for academic writers. One could list hundreds of papers that are no more than efforts to imitate and often we can spot the mind who can see above individual works and extract the best of many to mould them together in one piece which then takes us to the next level. Yet, what strikes me is the possible synergies between academic peer reviewing and literary criticism. Eliot points out that:

One of the facts that might come to light in this process is our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else. In these aspects or parts of his work we pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the man. We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed.

Simple, isn’t it, just get rid of confirmation bias, which is so inherent in any peer review in academia, and appreciate novelty. However, it is not to say that Eliot completely disregards the importance of previous achievements:

Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. And I do not mean the impressionable period of adolescence, but the period of full maturity.

So it is about the right balance between genuine and still conform. Finding this balance is the art of criticism. The Sacred Wood is full of advise for academic reviewers, for example, the importance of the ability to appreciate the existing order but also be able to see how this order changes with the new work. Peer reviewing is so similar to literary criticism even to the extent that I think we could learn a lot from studying what literary critiques do.

How the distribution of baby names changes over time?

I have very recently been in the fortunate position where I had to spend a lot of time thinking about baby names. Finally a name was chosen but being in the hospital and hearing other baby names made me think. How much has the diversity of names changed in recent years? The unanimous answer would be that it increased a lot. But then the statistician in me would ask: is it measurable?

To do this one would have to first make a judgement on how names are believed to be distributed. Intuitively in any given year some names are very popular, whereas other names are extremely rare. It is also very likely that there are a few very popular names, that account for the majority of all babies named, and there are many names that each only get given to a small number of newborns. This sounds like any right skewed distribution so I picked an obvious and easily manageable one, the power law (Pareto distribution).

I did a quick research on the internet and bumped into some baby name statistics from Canada. I randomly picked a state (Alberta) and calculated the Pareto index for boys and girls for the last 25 years.

pareto index

The Pareto shape parameter tells us about the skewdness of the distribution or how evenly names are distributed. The larger the number the more obscure and infrequently used names we have in the given year. The graphs show that in general there is a higher diversity of girl names. Also, the variety of names increases over time, i.e. with time we have a larger number of infrequent names. Seems like the obvious intuition is right: conventions restrict parents imagination less and less when it comes to naming their newborn.