## What is the median length of homeownership?

Well, it’s longer than it used to be, per Conor Dougherty in the New York Times:

The median length of time people have owned their homes rose to 8.7 years in 2016, more than double what it had been 10 years earlier.

The accompanying chart shows that “median length of homeownership” used to hover at  just under 4 years.  That startled me!  Doesn’t 4 years seem like a pretty short length of time to own a house?

When I thought about this a little more, I realized I had no idea what this meant.  What is the “median length of homeownership” in 2017?  Does it mean you go around asking each owner-occupant how long they’ve lived in their house, and take the median of those numbers?  Probably not:  when people were asked that in 2008, the median answer was 10 years, and whatever the Times was measuring was about 3.7 years in 2008.

Does it mean you look at all house sales in 2017, subtract the time since last sale, and take the median of those numbers?

Suppose half of all houses changed hands every year, and the other half changed hands every thirty years.  Are the lengths of ownership we’re medianning half “one year” and half “30 years”, or “30/31 1 year” and 1/31 “30 years”?

There are about 75 million owner-occupied housing units in the US and 4-6 million homes sold per year, so the mean number of sales per unit per year is certainly way less than 1/4; of course, there’s no reason this mean should be close to the median of, well, whatever we’re taking the median of.

Basically I have no idea what’s being measured.  The Times doesn’t link to the Moody’s Analytics study it’s citing, and Dougherty says that study’s not public.  I did some Googling for “median length of homeownership” and as far as I can tell this isn’t a standard term of art with a consensus definition.

As papers run more data-heavy pieces I’d love to see a norm develop that there should be some way for the interested reader to figure out exactly what the numbers in the piece refer to.  Doesn’t even have to be in the main text.  Could be a linked sidebar.  I know not everybody cares about this stuff.  But I do!

## Roger Ailes, man of not many voices

Among those who did speak on the record to Mr. Sherman is Stephanie Gordon, an actress who in one part of that show dropped the towel she wore. She was asked by Mr. Ailes to come to his office for a Sunday photo session and felt extremely uncomfortable about having to do this for the producer. But she says Mr. Ailes could not have been nicer. He took pictures and later sent her a signed print inscribed: “Don’t throw in the towel, you’re a great actress. Roger Ailes.” But Mr. Sherman also has a story from a woman named Randi Harrison, also on the record, who claims Mr. Ailes offered her a \$400-a-week job at NBC, saying: ‘If you agree to have sex with me whenever I want, I will add an extra hundred dollars a week.”

These don’t sound like the voices of the same man.

I think they totally sound like the voices of the same man.  It’s not like someone who sexually harasses one woman can be counted on to sexually harass every single woman within arm’s reach.  Bank robbers don’t rob every single bank!  “Why, I saw that man walk by a bank just the other day without robbing it — the person who told you he was a bank robber must just have been misinterpreting.  Probably he was just making a withdrawal and the teller took it the wrong way.”

And what’s more:  don’t you think Ailes kind of could have been nicer to Gordon?  Like, a lot nicer?  Look at that exchange again.  He put her in a position where she felt extremely uncomfortable, and declined to sexually assault her on that occasion.  Then he sent her a signed print, on which he wrote a message reminding her that he’d seen her naked body.

I think both these stories depict a man who sees women as existing mainly for his enjoyment, and a man who takes special pleasure in letting women know he sees them that way.  One man, one voice.

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## Sure as roses

I learned when I was writing this piece a few months ago that the New York Times styleguide doesn’t permit “fun as hell.”  So I had a problem while writing yesterday’s article about Common Core, and its ongoing replacement by an identical set of standards with a different name.  I wanted to say I was “sure as hell” not going to use the traditional addition algorithm for a problem better served by another method.  So instead I wrote “sure as roses.”  Doesn’t that sound like an actual folksy “sure as hell” substitute?  But actually I made it up.  I think it works, though.  Maybe it’ll catch on.

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## How do you share your New York Times?

My op/ed about math teaching and Little League coaching is the most emailed article in the New York Times today.  Very cool!

But here’s something interesting; it’s only the 14th most viewed article, the 6th most tweeted, and the 6th most shared on Facebook.  On the other hand, this article about child refugees from Honduras is

#14 most emailed

#1 most viewed

#1 most tweeted

#4 most emailed

#3 most viewed

#7 most tweeted.

Why are some articles, like mine, much more emailed than tweeted, while others, like the one about refugees, much more tweeted than emailed, and others still, like Krugman’s, come out about even?  Is it always the case that views track tweets, not emails?  Not necessarily; an article about the commercial success and legal woes of conservative poo-stirrer Dinesh D’Souza is #3 most viewed, but only #13 in tweets (and #9 in emails.)  Today’s Gaza story has lots of tweets and views but not so many emails, like the Honduras piece, so maybe this is a pattern for international news?  Presumably people inside newspapers actually study stuff like this; is any of that research public?  Now I’m curious.

## Bestseller

Oh but hey I forgot to include the biggest book news of the week:  How Not To Be Wrong is a New York Times bestseller! It’s at #19 among hardback nonfiction books on the June 22 list.

It’s sort of a weird thresholding phenomenon.  I doubt the numerical difference in sales between #19 and #27 is very great.  But apparently it really does make a substantial difference for the book’s future, that it Just Made It instead of Just Missing It.

So thanks to all who bought the book.  I hope you like it!

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## Why aren’t math professors sociopaths?

Imagine you’re a scientist in some sci-fi alternate universe, and you’ve been charged with creating a boot camp that will reliably turn normal but ambitious people into broken sociopaths more or less willing to do anything.

There are two main traits you’d want to cultivate in your recruits. The first would be terror: You’d want to ensure that the experimental subjects were kept off-­balance and insecure, always fearful that bad things would happen, that they would be humiliated or lose their position and be cast out. But at the same time, it would be crucial that you assiduously inculcate a towering sense of superiority, the belief that the project they happen to be engaged in is more important than anything and that, because of their remarkable skills and efforts, they are among the select few chosen to be a part of it. You’d want to simultaneously make them neurotically insecure and self-doubting and also filled with the conviction that they and their colleagues are smarter and better and more deserving than anyone else.

He’s writing about young investment bankers, whose lives, such as they are, are described in Kevin Roose’s new book “Young Money.”  But doesn’t this boot camp actually describe the Ph.D. experience pretty well?  And if so, why aren’t math professors sociopaths?

I can think of one reason:  in finance, the thing you are trying to do is screw over somebody else.  If you win, someone has lost.  Mathematics is different.  We’re all pushing together.  Not that there’s no competition; but it’s embedded in a fundamental consensus that we’re all on the same team.  Apparently this is enough to hold back the sociopathy, at least for most of us.

## Is anybody still editing the New York Times?

From the John Jeremiah Sullivan piece on massage in the NYTimes magazine:

When you feel like that, you don’t leap to be naked in rooms with an assortment of strangers while they rub their hands all over your bare flesh — there’s probably a fetish group for becoming as physically disgusting as you can and then procuring massages, but that’s not my damage. Also, there’s something about massage in general that makes me more, not less, relaxed.

He means “less, not more.”  If you click through you’ll see it’s been corrected in the online version.  So someone noticed it at some point.  But someone should have noticed it before the piece was posted and printed!

See also my complaint about Justin Cronin’s The Passage, which besides being carelessly edited — when you vomit because a vampire bit you, you are retching, not wretching, dammit! — failed to live up to the promise of its very good first 300 pages.  Executive summary:  it starts out as The Stand and ends up as The Dark Tower, and if you think that is not a downgrade then we shall fight.

Back to Sullivan:

But that’s true for so many of us — we fall into our lines of work like coins dropping into slots, bouncing down off various failures and false-starts.

has a nice cadence but does not actually describe a thing that is like the way a coin drops into a slot.  Before the coin goes in the slot, it doesn’t bounce off anything, and after it’s in the slot, it may bounce down off things inside the mechanism (is that what he meant?) but it does so while travelling down a well-defined rigid channel, exactly the opposite of what Sullivan is going for.

Finally:

The yellowish gray-green circles under my eyes had a micropebbled texture, and my skin gave off a sebaceousy sheen of coffee-packet coffee.

Most of this is great, especially “micropebbled,” but “sebaceousy” isn’t right — I’m not sure the “add -y to informalize a word,” move, a lexical way to indicate “kind of” or “sort of,” applies to any adjective, and if it does apply to some, I’m sure it doesn’t apply to “sebaceous.”

## When he finds out about regexps he’s going to totally freak

To the contrary, there will surely be a new secretary of state visiting you next year with the umpteenth road map for “confidence-building measures” between Israelis and Palestinians. He or she may even tell you that “this is the year of decision.” Be careful. We’ve been there before. If you Google “Year of decision in the Middle East,” you’ll get more than 100,000,000 links.

Can this really be true?  Nope.  In fact if you Google that phrase you get fewer than 12,000 links.

The problem here is that Thomas Friedman apparently doesn’t know that when you search Google for a phrase you need to put quotes around it.  Without the quotes, you do indeed get more than 100,000,000 results.  That’s because a lot of web pages mention years, decisions, and things located either in the middle or to the east.

It seems plausible that long-time New York Times columnists might not know how to use Google, but it’s appalling if the people who edit and fact-check the columns don’t know how to use Google.

So that this post has some content and is not pure snark, here’s a relevant article by my friend Eszter Hargittai, whose research has taught us a lot about how people use search engines in the real world.

## It’s a recall, not an omen

Already time to take back, or at least complicate, the nice things I said about the Times’s Wisconsin coverage.  Today above the fold:

Broadly, the results will be held up as an omen for the presidential race in the fall, specifically for President Obama’s chances of capturing this Midwestern battleground — one that he easily won in 2008 but that Republicans nearly swept in the midterm elections of 2010…

A Marquette Law School telephone poll of 600 likely voters, conducted last week, found Mr. Walker leading 52 percent to 45 percent; the poll’s margin of sampling error was plus or minus 4 percentage points for each candidate.

I suppose I can’t deny that the results “will be held up as” an omen for November’s election by some people.  But those people will be wrong, and the Times should say so.  At the very least they should avoid giving the impression that the recall vote is likely to be predictive of the presidential vote, an assertion for which they give no evidence, not even a quote in support.

I’m just going to repeat what I said in the last post.  Wisconsin is split half and half between Republicans and Democrats.  In nationally favorable Democratic environments (2008) the state votes Democratic.  In nationally favorable Republican environments (2010) the state votes Republican.  At this moment, there’s no national partisan wave, and you can expect Wisconsin elections to be close.  But incumbency is an advantage.  So Walker is winning, and so is Obama. As the Times reports, the Marquette poll has him up 7.  What the Times doesn’t report is that the very same poll has Obama beating Romney by 8.

I guess the recall might be an omen after all — if Walker actually wins by 7, it means there’s no massive shift to the GOP going on in this state, and you’re a broadly popular incumbent President whose hometown is within a half-day’s drive of most of Wisconsin’s population, your prospects here are pretty good.

Arguing against myself:  2006 was also a great year for Democrats nationally, and incumbent Democratic governor Jim Doyle beat Mark Green by only 7.

## In which I am sentimental about diagramming sentences

By the latter half of the 19th century, chalkboards had become increasingly common in classrooms; for students, the impact of watching a sentence take shape on that large surface as a comprehensible, often elegant, and sometimes downright ingenious drawing must have been significant. It’s hard to believe anyone but the most dedicated pedant could have actually enjoyed parsing, but plenty of students — including me — loved diagramming.

Me too.  It’s funny:  I don’t have any feeling at all that today’s students need to learn the pencil-and-paper algorithm for long division or square root extraction.  But the vanishing of sentence diagrams makes me sad.  Presumably if I were a linguist instead of a mathematician I’d feel the opposite.