Thursday, February 09, 2006

A high probability of enlightenment

Election 2006 - The Untold Story: Inside an Epic Battle, Secret Strategies, Backroom Blunders & Private Crises by Paul Wells, in a Maclean's Magazine Special Edition.

Mark Twain said that newspapers were the first draft of history, and this was painfully obvious in the days after the recent Federal Election. True insight was not to be found in either the post-election analysis of the Globe, the Star or the Post. Although there were no outright lies or damned lies, nothing I read then really struck me as particularly insightful or entertaining.

But Maclean's Magazine produced a Special Edition for the federal election 2006 featuring an in-depth article by journalist and blogger Paul Wells, called The Untold Story: Inside an Epic Battle, Secret Strategies, Backroom Blunders & Private Crises. It's so good I'm reviewing it here where I usually review books. The magazine should be available on newsstands until the end of the month.

This essay is a wonderful breath of fresh air, featuring vibrant, clear writing and solid research. Wells' writing is an informative mix of observation, reportage and detailed accounts from key insiders. He chronicles the Liberal missteps with only a small amount of glee, and though the Conservatives have made great strides, Wells does not fail to notice their stumbles on the way to the finish line. One shortcoming may be the lack of voices from the other two parties. Though the NDP provides some colour, especially regarding Buzz Hargrove, the story of the Bloc and the inroads the Conservatives have made in Quebec could have been dealt with at greater length.

Wells cites a relatively unknown analyst, Patrick Murrat of Navigator Ltd., as the source of the Conservatives' innovative 2006 election strategy, which focused on tax breaks for specific parts of the population. He also reports that Harper laid the groundwork for the strategy during the summer of 2004, amid brutal "beat-up" sessions he endured with Murrat and his brain trust.

Wells ties the events of the election into a coherent narrative arc that is highly readable. It's the kind of thing that yields more value on second and third readings. Congratulations to Maclean's for successfully making such a valuable contribution to Canadian political discourse. To read the full story that begins with the link above, you'll need to subscribe to their online edition. Otherwise, get a hard copy and read it while it's available.

Highly recommended

Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities

by Jeffery S. Rosenthal

While our profession makes much use of statistics, many of us don't truly understand what the numbers are really saying. Then at some point we realize that in order to master an upcoming briefing we need to know more. Enter this new book by University of Toronto professor Jeffrey S. Rosenthal. It is a highly readable work and as entertaining as these things can get. As a work of popular science it succeeds in being an accessible way for the reader to enter into the world of probability and statistical analysis.

Rosenthal begins by disarming the reader with some easy and fairly common instances of probability and coincidence that anyone can relate to. He then moves on to the form of probability with which we are all most familiar - gambling - and what the real odds are in casino games like craps and roulette. For any of us occasionally tempted into thinking we could make it as a professional gambler, this section alone is worth the price of the book: He details how casinos will always win in the long run.

But this book becomes truly valuable when Rosenthal writes in detail about how commonly used statistics, murder rates, public opinion polls, survey research are misused and abused. He keeps his focus on practical issues; for example, his discussion of how probability tools help in creating software to block spam email.

PAAC members will appreciate that Rosenthal is a Toronto author writing from a Canadian perspective. When he talks about murder rates, for example, he uses the Canadian statistic. The book's Canadian relevance is especially welcome.

Highly recommended