Reviewing Is Done (Part 1)

An addendum to my previous post...

An addendum to my previous post…

The End wasn’t really the end, of course. After I finished I went back to the beginning and began editing my book chapter by chapter. Yesterday I got to the end, again.

You can break down the changes I was making into three broad categories:

  1. Dialogue
  2. Plot holes
  3. Style

Continue reading

4 Observations from the General Election Spending Data

The Electoral Commission has just published the spending of the main political parties for the 2015 general election last May. I had a brief look at it earlier today, but I thought I’d go back to it and pick out a few interesting tidbits.

1. Conservatives dominate social media

social media spending

This pie chart tells the story. The Conservatives trounced their competitors in spending on social media and Google ads in May.

Labour were a distant fifth, behind the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party.

Ed Miliband’s former party spent much more on social media marketing companies, such as £155,611.20 on Experian Ltd and £74,400.00 on Alchemy Social, which also features on Experian’s website.

2. Travelling in style

The Tories spent a hefty £119,634.48 with Sovereign Business Jets. Based in Biggin Hill, Kent, they offer private jets and helicopters to charter. David Cameron’s party also spent another £14,688 with Eastern Atlantic Helicopters Limited.

They weren’t the only ones to take to the skies. The Scottish National Party spent £35,450 with PDG Helicopters, while UKIP spent £16,055 with Jota Aviation.

There was no sign of air travel in the Green Party’s records. The pro-environment party’s largest transport expenditure was £13,000 with The Big Red Bus.

3. Starting early

2014 campaign spend

Not only did the Conservatives outspend their rivals overall, they also started much earlier. This chart looks at the dates that expenses were marked ‘paid’. By the turn of last year, the Conservatives had already spent almost a fifth of their final total. Labour had spent just 1.8%.

Getting off to an early start wasn’t essential for success. The SNP spent all their money in 2015 and virtually swept the board in Scotland.

4. Value for money

Cost per seat, 2015 general election

Cost per seat, 2015 general election

The first-past-the-post electoral system rewards parties that have concentrated support in certain areas and makes life difficult for parties whose support is spread out around Britain.

UKIP, the Greens and the Lib Dems found this out to their cost. They spent £7.5m between them for a grand total of just ten seats.

The system is much kinder to the parties that compete in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Their support is concentrated in these areas. This means more chance of winning seats, as well as huge savings on transport costs as candidates don’t need to zip from one corner of Britain to the other. The SNP’s ‘Sturgeon-copter‘ may have looked presidential, but her party could afford to splash out – the SNP spent less than a tenth of Labour on transport.

Concluding thoughts

There is much to ponder in this data for Labour strategists trying to work out why they lost in May. The Conservatives spent heavily on Facebook and started burning through their war chest much earlier. According to BuzzFeed, the Tory focus on Facebook was deliberate – Twitter was thought to be the domain of journalists and political activists rather than undecided voters.

Coincidentally, the Beckett report into Labour’s election defeat was also published this week. Here is what Dame Margaret had to say about social media:

We should develop and promote the possibilities of social mediafor communicating with the public at large, while recognising the risk it carriesof self-reinforcing messages and assumptions.

Lastly, there was no data for the Ed Stone. The widely-ridiculed stone pledge was missing from the Electoral Commission data – an ‘administrative error’, Labour said.

The party is seeking to ‘rectify this error as soon as possible’ – no doubt political hacks will be keen to learn exactly when they do.

Here is a copy of the spreadsheet I used. You’re welcome to download it and run your own analysis.


The End

Today I had the privilege of tapping these two words on my keyboard:

There is still a lot to do. For one, I need to decide whether I’m actually going to have the words ‘The End’ in the book (current answer: probably not).

As it stands there are 16 chapters plus an epilogue. I’m thinking of scrapping one of the chapters entirely as I don’t think it adds anything to the story. All of them need editing before I’m happy with them.

But I can enjoy the view from here for a few moments before heading back to the grind.

Book review: Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

A black swan: just one of these disproves the saying that 'all swans are white'. Creative Commons: Castelli

A black swan: just one of these disproves the hypothesis that ‘all swans are white’. Copyright Castielli, reproduced under Creative Commons

A few years ago I read The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (NNT). I found it, appropriately enough, randomly lying around at home. I remember it being a difficult, technical read. Off the top of my head, if I had to summarise it I would do so like this:

Most of the world’s most significant events are Black Swans – extremely rare, often unforeseeable events that change the world for better or worse. Examples in my lifetime would be the September 11 terrorist attacks, the invention of Facebook and the financial crisis of the late 2000s. Individuals and society should prepare for Black Swans as best they can by becoming…

And that brings us to Antifragile. Written after The Black Swan, it continues Taleb’s line of reasoning. He argues in favour of systems being robust, or even antifragile.

What exactly is antifragility?

“Antifragility is beyond fragility or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”

Taleb points out that in English, and apparently in other languages, ‘fragile’ lacks a word with a precise opposite meaning. ‘Robust’, ‘resilient’, ‘solid’, ‘unbreakable’ and so on aren’t strictly antonyms because they don’t gain from external shocks. If you drop a glass and a ball from a height of two metres the glass will smash and the ball will bounce. The glass is critically weakened by the impact. The ball shrugs off the impact but doesn’t get any stronger from it either. Something antifragile would actually emerge stronger from having been dropped.

The way to become antifragile, according to NNT, is to expose yourself to lots of small risks and learn from them. The opposite (fragile) approach is to place too much faith in new, untested methods and to run large projects where the risks are great and the payoffs frequent and small. This leads him to criticise much of the way Western society is designed, including things as varied as the financial system, modernistic architecture and processed fruit juices.

One of his ethical rules is to have ‘skin in the game’. Taleb argues that we shouldn’t tolerate people who aren’t personally exposed to the risks they discuss. He gets to the heart of what angered people so much about the bank bailouts: the sense that bankers were getting a free option. They kept the upside (high salaries and bonuses during the good years) and everyone else got the downside (the bill for bailing some of them out).

Antifragility and journalism

NNT reserves particular contempt for journalists. He doesn’t read newspapers. He criticises journalists for being too focused on the anecdotal:

“But the media only report the most anecdotal and sensational cases (hurricanes, freak accidents, small plane crashes) giving us a more and more distorted map of real risks”

At least one study has shown that the British public do dramatically under- or overestimate the rates of politically contentious subjects.

benefit spending

An Ipsos MORI poll in 2013 found that respondents estimated that 24 per cent of Britons were Muslim. The true figure was five per cent in England and Wales. Similarly, the public massively overestimated Government spending on foreign aid.

In data journalism we do try to counteract these misconceptions. This story by my boss David Ottewell in the Mirror shows that when you include pensions – which accounts for more than half of Britain’s benefit expenditure – Britain’s ‘benefits capital’ shifts from inner cities to the leafy Isle of Wight.

Data doesn’t escape Taleb’s scorn either. He makes the point that Big Data – the measurement of lots of different variables – can throw up random correlations, obscuring the signal in noise. Nate Silver wrote an entire book on this subject, appropriately titled The Signal and the Noise, which I’d also highly recommend. He is the guy who correctly predicted the result of the 2012 US presidential election in all 50 states and now edits FiveThirtyEight, one of the most influential websites in data journalism.

For example, there was much talk of President Obama struggling to win the 2012 election if he could not get unemployment below 7.2%. No president had been re-elected since Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) with an unemployment rate over 7.2%. In the end, he triumphed with unemployment at 8.1%. Those who put faith in this statistic forgot that there hadn’t been many elections since FDR to build up a reliable dataset and that the unemployment rate isn’t the only thing American voters think about when deciding who to vote for president.


To sum up: Antifragile was well worth reading. NNT provides a framework to live in a world we don’t understand, accepting randomness – something I’ve struggled with in the past.

Read more: Antifragile on Amazon

2016 Book Update

Happy New Year! Credit: Lenabem-Anna J.

Happy New Year! Credit: Lenabem-Anna J

This time last year I was hoping to have finished my book by now.

That hasn’t happened, although I’ve come a long way.

In January 2015 the novel barely existed on paper. I’m now about 56,000 words in.

I still have a bit to do, including finishing off the last chapter and the epilogue. There is some substantial rewriting to do because I didn’t plan it properly. It seems like almost every time I do any writing I’m reminded of this mistake I made at the beginning!

The work doesn’t stop when I get to ‘The End’. I want to get a front cover designed, decide on a title and continue to get the word out and. As it stands, I plan to go down the self-publishing route on Amazon.

I think the writing will take another two to three months, plus two or three more for the editing and various other details to be finalised before I hit the ‘Publish’ button. That would take me through to June, which seems reasonable for now. Don’t set your watch by these estimates though.

New Year’s Resolutions:

  1. To read more – fiction, non-fiction and more about online publishing
  2. To blog more frequently and regularly

Writing on the train: is it feasible?

My tram stop at Shudehill. (Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

My tram stop at Shudehill. (Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Last week I committed to writing on the tram every morning (except Friday, when I walk to a different office).  I was inspired by this Medium post by Elizabeth Monier-Williams, in which she talks about how she wrote 100,000 words on her commute. She also mentions hearing about this story about a man named Peter Brett, who also wrote a fantasy book called The Painted Man on the train. And that was back in 2010, when phones were a lot less smart than they are today. Continue reading

FOI consultation: why saving Freedom of Information is important

From Wikimedia Commons member Sailko. Reproduced under Creative Commons

From Wikimedia Commons member Sailko. Reproduced under Creative Commons

Back in October, the Government started a consultation on the future of the Freedom of Information Act, which closes on Friday 20 November.  Before the deadline, I wanted to share why I think it’s important for those who may not know too much about it. Continue reading

How to Write a Character Biography

Think of your character biographies as entries in a dictionary. Credit Liz West, reused under Creative Commons

In one of my previous posts I talked about how I use character biographies for my book. I skimmed over the details what a character biography is, how to put one together and why they are so useful. Let’s backtrack a bit and discuss this. Continue reading

How to Write Your Novel

Dylan Thomas' writing shed. Copyright Jeremy Bolwell and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Dylan Thomas’ writing shed. Copyright Jeremy Bolwell and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

When I was younger I used to love the books of Roald Dahl. I remembering borrowing Boy from the school library and keeping it for months. When I got a bit older I learned that the adult Dahl had a very particular writing ritual. He would go down to a shed in his garden and write in longhand on yellow paper, keeping six sharpened pencils on his desk. No more, no fewer. It was an odd ritual, I thought, but it worked for him. Continue reading