tecznotes

Michal Migurski's notebook, listening post, and soapbox. Subscribe to this blog. Check out the rest of my site as well.

Jan 5, 2007 2:29am

hiding in plain sight

I'm reading Malcolm Gladwell's latest for The New Yorker, and thinking about why visualization, network analysis, data mining, and graph theory are rapidly becoming interesting to a growing number of people right now.

From the article:

Of all the moments in the Enron unravelling, this meeting is surely the strangest. The prosecutor in the Enron case told the jury to send Jeffrey Skilling to prison because Enron had hidden the truth. ... But what truth was Enron hiding here? Everything Weil learned for his Enron expose came from Enron, and when he wanted to confirm his numbers the company's executives got on a plane and sat down with him in a conference room in Dallas. Nixon never went to see Woodward and Bernstein at the Washington Post. He hid in the White House.

In a nutshell, I think this passage captures what's different about corruption now vs. corruption then, which the article refers to as the difference between a puzzle (missing information must be found, e.g. Watergate's Deep Throat) and a mystery, characterized by excessive information and lots of noise. I'm seeing a lot of pushing in this direction from a bunch of smart people: Jeff Heer created Exploring Enron, a visual analysis application for corporate e-mail, while Adrian Holovaty thinks that newspapers need to fundamentally change and better adapt to DBA-thinking.

I think Jeff's more on-target than Adrian, mostly because Jeff is working on the analysis side of things, rather than the data creation side. I don't think the value of a newspaper is in its ability to populate a SQL table of obits or mayoral appearances, especially if the meat of the news is in the margins. Read the article for some finance-geeky details of Enron's accounting showing how hard it is to see a clear picture through the fog of hype, even when all the relevant facts are right there in front of you. The comments on Adrian's post ("microformats!" "semantic web!") reduce reporters to glorified UPS guys, waving their little hand-held journo-data-collectors around instead of asking insightful questions.

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