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About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

quick rants

Trying to order something from Ikea, it only tells me after I've entered by billing and delivery addresses and my e-mail that the item I want isn't in stock and can't actually be ordered. Yeah, right.

Adobe Flash Player sends out notices around every two days that they have a new version they need for you to install. All of them do the exact same thing, so you can never tell one update from the rest, it's like groundhog day and you just install Flash Player over and over again every single day. They tell you, no need to restart in order to install the update. But like a mini-Ikea, they only tell you when you're midway through the update "oh, by the way, be sure to close all the programs that might be using Flash." Wouldn't it be better for them to tell you at the start of the process?

I've had a lot of good karma with the NY Times bestseller list, with books that have placed several spots higher than the Nielsen Bookscan ranking of actual recorded sales. And I've said to myself on some of them "gee, I'd hate to be the agent who has to explain to author why their book is showing up six spots lower on the Times list than the actual sales rankings say it should maybe be. Well, all that karma just evened out in spades. The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Invincible by Jack Campbell shows up at #21 on the Bookscan list, with sales 600 to 1000 copies above the number you usually need in a given week to make the extended NY Times bestseller list, which has 35 places. The sales are 500 copies ahead of the #22 book on Bookscan. The sales are 1000+ copies ahead of the #35 book on the Bookscan list. And yet the NY Times can't find a way to place the book at #21, or #31, or anywhere in the top 35. Now, that's just bullshit. There's no way you can place titles on your list and manage to downgrade a #21 bestseller 15 places below 15 books that have sold hundreds of copies less. Let's just say I'll start to take an even more jaundiced view of the NY Times rankings moving forward.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Margin of Error

I thought I'd share with the world an e-mail I sent to the Public Advocate at the NY Times regarding margins of error in polling...

Dear Mr. Brisbane:

I am getting really tired of articles, like ones earlier this week with a paragraphs pasted below my signature block, that consistently mis-represent the meaning of the margin of error in polling. Every single time a poll shows candidates apart, even in the mid to high single digits, the articles imply that the race is tied, within the margin of error. But that's only half true. The margin of error can just as easily go the other way. Scott Walker could be five points either ahead or behind Tom Barrett in Wisconsin. He could have been tied with Kathleen Falk or could actually have had a landslide twelve point lead over Kathleen Falk. In Virginia, President Obama could be in a very close dead heat with Governor Romney because he has a seven point lead in a poll with a four percent margin of error or he could be ahead of Governor Romney by almost fifteen points.

I'm not taking sides to say in any of these cases which way the margin of error wind is actually blowing, what I am saying is that the NY Times is distorting the meaning of the term when it implies in every single instance when it uses a margin of error in polling that the margin will always and only serve only to narrow the gap between two candidates or two sides in an opinion poll and will never extend it. I realize that the approach the Times is taking is the best "cover your ass" approach, there will be a lot more complaints about the inaccuracy of polling if you say someone is up by six points and ends up winning or losing by one point than if they ended up winning by twelve, but it's not the right way to give the public a clear and proper understanding of how to evaluate polling for themselves. And more to the point, it's just not true.

Joshua Bilmes

That advantage, however, was less apparent in a poll conducted last month by Marquette University Law School that showed Mr. Walker and Mr. Barrett essentially tied in a general election matchup. Mr. Walker led Ms. Falk 49 percent to 43 percent among likely voters, a six-point advantage that is within the poll’s margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points on each candidate.


Barack Obama won Virginia four years ago, the first time a Democrat had won the state in more than 40 years. This year, it looks like Mr. Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, may have a competitive contest for the state’s 13 electoral votes.

Mr. Obama is backed by 51 percent of voters surveyed by The Washington Post from Saturday to Wednesday, and Mr. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, is the choice of 44 percent. Mr. Obama’s seven percentage-point advantage is within the poll’s four percentage-point margin of sampling error for each candidate.