Can a list of the most beautiful homes in Dallas include McMansions?

An earlier article I published suggested McMansions are not viewed as negatively in Dallas compared to New York City. The list of “the hand-down 10 most beautiful homes in Dallas” from D Magazine includes two references to McMansions:

Each year of the last decade, the editors of D Home have canvassed the city to bring you a list of “10 Most Beautiful Homes” that hopefully appeal to every taste. While on the road, we’ve spilled endless Diet Cokes due to sudden stops, exposed ourselves to the occasional McMansion, and risked looking like embarrassingly low-tech private investigators snapping photos with our iPhones. We do it all for you!…

We once named Tokalon Drive the most beautiful street in Dallas, which we suppose makes this 4236-square-foot dwelling the most beautiful home on the most beautiful street in Dallas. Plus, it reminds us why turrets are actually totally cool and not just something that just gets thrown on a McMansion. All that’s missing is a moat.

Yet, the list of 10 homes includes no McMansions. While these are large and expensive homes, all were constructed prior to World War II and have an architectural coherence that many McMansions lack. However, homes on this list for previous years did include newer homes and I would guess some of these 2017 selections have had major work done to them which might also negate some of their old-image charm.

Even in Dallas, such lists may not be able to select or trumpet McMansions as beautiful homes. If you run in certain circles – particularly when your readers are educated and wealthy – McMansions are a dirty word. A magazine like this that considers itself “a member of the original generation of city magazines: New York Magazine, Washingtonian, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago” could likely not support such as crass consumer item as the McMansion.

Why might Americans be interested in the most expensive homes?

Here is one segment of the housing market that is again doing well:

Sale prices of luxury homes in the second quarter of this year were up 7.5 percent from a year ago, the first time luxury gains have outpaced the rest of the market since 2014, according to Redfin, a real estate brokerage which defines luxury as the top 5 percent of the most expensive homes sold in each city in each quarter.

While some point to the recent runup in the stock market, the real reason for the luxury recovery may be a shift in the mind of sellers. They were asking too much, and now that they’re asking less, there is more action in the market, in turn boosting prices again…

Luxury home sales have been rising steadily, causing the supply of those homes for sale to drop. Sales of homes priced above $1 million jumped 19 percent in June compared with a year ago, according to the National Association of Realtors. That was a much larger sales gain than in any of the lower price points.

The sales surge has caused a decline in the supply of luxury homes. Listings at or above $1 million fell 9.4 percent compared with the same period last year, according to Redfin. Those priced at or above $5 million were down about the same. This after five consecutive quarters of double-digit inventory growth.

This change in the luxury market is unlikely to help many Americans though a number of these expensive properties get a lot of media attention. Come to think of it, what exactly is the purpose of media outlets regularly showing expensive homes? Here are a few options:

  1. This could be the curiosity of the masses regarding the practices of the wealthy. How does the other half (or top 10%) live?
  2. Or, is it intended as a critique of the well-resourced by holding up their lavishness up for public display? Look at those wealthy people with their ostentatious homes.
  3. Alternatively, might it encourage class conflict and social change since these expensive homes are out of reach of most Americans? For the many Americans who struggle to find decent housing, highlighting the luxury of the wealthy might serve as a reminder of the distance between groups.
  4. At the least, such regular stories might display the important place real estate and homeownership play in American wealth. It is one thing to own financial instruments but another to purchase more tangible items like property and housing.

This all might be different if the housing market as a whole was booming, particularly if the lower end of the market with smaller homes or starter houses was growing. I suppose this could be a research question: during periods of rising economic boats for all (such as the several decades after World War II), are there fewer media stories on homes and properties of the wealthy compared to homes for the average person?

Mutant stat: 4.2% of American kids witnessed a shooting last year

Here is how a mutant statistic about the exposure of children to shootings came to be:

It all started in 2015, when University of New Hampshire sociology professor David Finkelhor and two colleagues published a study called “Prevalence of Childhood Exposure to Violence, Crime, and Abuse.” They gathered data by conducting phone interviews with parents and kids around the country.

The Finkelhor study included a table showing the percentage of kids “witnessing or having indirect exposure” to different kinds of violence in the past year. The figure under “exposure to shooting” was 4 percent.

The findings were then reinterpreted:

Earlier this month, researchers from the CDC and the University of Texas published a nationwide study of gun violence in the journal Pediatrics. They reported that, on average, 7,100 children under 18 were shot each year from 2012 to 2014, and that about 1,300 a year died. No one has questioned those stats.

The CDC-UT researchers also quoted the “exposure to shooting” statistic from the Finkelhor study, changing the wording — and, for some reason, the stat — just slightly:

“Recent evidence from the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence indicates that 4.2 percent of children aged 0 to 17 in the United States have witnessed a shooting in the past year.”

The reinterpreted findings were picked up by the media:

The Dallas Morning News picked up a version of the Washington Post story.

When the Dallas Morning News figured out something was up (due to a question raised by a reader) and asked about the origins of the statistic, they uncovered some confusion:

According to Finkelhor, the actual question the researchers asked was, “At any time in (your child’s/your) life, (was your child/were you) in any place in real life where (he/she/you) could see or hear people being shot, bombs going off, or street riots?”

So the question was about much more than just shootings. But you never would have known from looking at the table.

This appears to be a classic example of a mutant statistic as described by sociologist Joel Best in Damned Lies and Statistics. As Best explains, it doesn’t take much for a number to be unintentionally twisted such that it becomes nonsensical yet interesting to the public because it seems shocking. And while the Dallas Morning News might deserve some credit for catching the issue and trying to set the record straight, the incorrect statistic is now in the public and can easily be found.

NYT: Yes, don’t trust online polls

Although the purpose here may truly be to discredit Donald Trump, here is another argument in the New York Times against online polls:

“Those do a good job of engaging audiences online, and they do a good job of letting you know how other people who have come to the webpage feel about whatever issue,” said Mollyann Brodie, the executive director for public opinion and survey research at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “But they’re not necessarily good at telling you, in general, what people think, because we don’t know who’s come to that website and who’s taken it.”

Professional pollsters use scientific statistical methods to make sure that their small random samples are demographically appropriate to indicate how larger groups of people think. Online polls do nothing of the sort, and are not random, allowing anyone who finds the poll to vote. They are thus open to manipulation from those who would want to stuff the ballot box. Users on Reddit and 4chan directed masses of people to vote for Mr. Trump in the instant-analysis surveys, according to The Daily Dot. Similar efforts were observed on Twitter and other sites.

Even when there is no intentional manipulation, the results are largely a reflection of who is likely to come to a particular site and who would be motivated enough to participate. Intuitively, it’s no surprise that readers of sites like Breitbart News and the Drudge Report would see Mr. Trump as the winner, just as Mrs. Clinton would be more likely to find support on liberal sites…

“In our business, the key is generalizability,” he said, referring to the ability of a sample group to apply to a wider population. “That’s the core of what we do. Typically, it takes a lot of time, and a lot of effort, and a lot of money to do it.”

One helpful solution may be to have media outlets refuse to use any online polls. On one hand, journalists often remind the public that they don’t mean anything while they consistently offer them on their website or on the evening news broadcast. They may have some marketing purpose – perhaps participants feel more engaged or it can give outlets some indication of how many people are going further than just passively taking it in – but why confuse people.

Chicago’s loss of nearly 3,000 residents in 2015 is an estimate

Chicago media were all over the story this week that Chicago was the only major American city to lose residents in 2015. The Chicago Tribune summed it up this way:

This city has distinguished itself as the only one among the nation’s 20 largest to actually lose population in the 12-month stretch that ended June 30.

Almost 3,000 fewer people live here compared with a year earlier, according to new figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, while there’s been a decline of more than 6,000 residents across the larger metropolitan area.

Chicago’s decline is a mere 0.1 percent, which is practically flat. But cities are like corporations in that even slow growth wins more investor confidence than no growth, and losses are no good at all.

The last paragraph cited above is a good one; 3,000 people either way is not very many and this is all about perceptions.

But, there is a larger issue at stake. These population figures are estimates. Estimates. They are not exact. In other words, the Census Bureau doesn’t measure every person moving in or leaving for good. They do the best the can with the data they have to work with.

For example, on May 19 the Census released the list of the fastest growing cities in America. Here is what they say about the population figures:

To produce population estimates for cities and towns, the Census Bureau first generates county population estimates using a component of population change method, which updates the latest census population using data on births, deaths, and domestic and international migration. This yields a county-level total of the population living in households. Next, updated housing unit estimates and rates of overall occupancy are used to distribute county household population into geographic areas within the county. Then, estimates of the population living in group quarters, such as college dormitories and prisons, are added to create estimates of the total resident population.

If you want to read the methodology behind producing the 2015 city population figures, read the two page document here.

So why doesn’t the Census and the media report the margin of error? What exactly is the margin of error? For a city of Chicago’s size – just over 2.7 million – couldn’t a loss of 3,000 residents actually be a small gain in population or a loss double the size? New York’s gain of 55,000 people in 2015 seems pretty sure to be positive regardless of the margin of error. But, small declines – as published here in USA Today – seem a bit misleading:

I know the media and others want hard numbers to work with but it should be made clear that these are the best estimates we can come up with and they may not be exact. I trust the Census Bureau is doing all it can to make such projections – but they are not perfect.

Claim: Facebook wants to curate the news through an algorithm

Insiders have revealed how Facebook is selecting its trending news stories:

Launched in January 2014, Facebook’s trending news section occupies some of the most precious real estate in all of the internet, filling the top-right hand corner of the site with a list of topics people are talking about and links out to different news articles about them. The dozen or so journalists paid to run that section are contractors who work out of the basement of the company’s New York office…

The trending news section is run by people in their 20s and early 30s, most of whom graduated from Ivy League and private East Coast schools like Columbia University and NYU. They’ve previously worked at outlets like the New York Daily News, Bloomberg, MSNBC, and the Guardian. Some former curators have left Facebook for jobs at organizations including the New Yorker, Mashable, and Sky Sports.

According to former team members interviewed by Gizmodo, this small group has the power to choose what stories make it onto the trending bar and, more importantly, what news sites each topic links out to. “We choose what’s trending,” said one. “There was no real standard for measuring what qualified as news and what didn’t. It was up to the news curator to decide.”…

That said, many former employees suspect that Facebook’s eventual goal is to replace its human curators with a robotic one. The former curators Gizmodo interviewed started to feel like they were training a machine, one that would eventually take their jobs. Managers began referring to a “more streamlined process” in meetings. As one former contractor put it: “We felt like we were part of an experiment that, as the algorithm got better, there was a sense that at some point the humans would be replaced.”

The angle here seems to be that (1) the journalists who participated did not feel they were treated well and (2) journalists may not be part of the future process because an algorithm will take over. I don’t know about the first but is the second a major surprise? The trending news will still require content to be generated, presumably created by journalists and news sources all across the Internet. Do journalists want to retain the privilege to not just write the news but also to choose what gets reported? In other words, the gatekeeper role of journalism may slowly disappear if algorithms guide what people see.

Imagine the news algorithms that people might have available to them in the future: one that doesn’t report any violent crime (it is overreported anyway); one that only includes celebrity news (this might include politics, it might not); one that reports on all forms of government corruption; and so on. I’m guessing, however, Facebook’s algorithm would be proprietary and probably is trying to push people into certain behaviors (whether that is sharing more on their profiles or pursuing particular civic or political actions).

Internet headlines and stories present a disconnected world; a pitch for sociology

Whether you read headlines on the Google News page or the Drudge Report or the front page of Yahoo, Internet headlines and stories tend to provide very small slices of reality. Want to see the actions of a happy cat? How about the strange actions from someone with mental illness? What one C-list celebrity did last night? The inane “gaffe” from the campaign trail earlier today? Put all of these headlines together, some serious and many not, and what do you get? It is difficult to get a broad, cohesive view of the world from Internet stories. They can provide more information than people in the past ever had and let us know how many different people around the world live. Even good stories on websites devoted to more in-depth news present numerous topics. Yet, because of their fleeting, diversionary, and never-ending nature, they don’t add up to much. As a reader, how am I to put all the pieces together?

It is debatable how much better other forms of media do in delivering broader context and the bigger picture. Media forms composed of images – TV, films – have moved toward incredibly quick editing so that scenes rarely last more than a few seconds. Written forms – newspapers, magazines – have a reputation for deeper storytelling. Yet, this all assumes that a good number of citizens take the time to read such materials and understand them.

Perhaps this is where we don’t just need media or digital literacy; we need ways to put all the information together and keep the big picture in mind. What is underlying all these stories? What are the patterns in society? Why do these stories get attention and others do not? Sociology can help: you need to know the broader context, the powerful institutions at work in society, how information is created and sold, and the large-scale social trends. One story of an amazing animal tells us nothing; having tens of thousands of such tales might. Reading multiple stories about the Panama Papers might be interesting but we need to know how this intersects with all sorts of social systems (such as governments and corporations) and processes (such as social class and globalization).

It is too easy to get caught up in the quick accumulation of news and information without stepping back and trying to comprehend it all. We are good now at dispensing information but having difficulty digesting. We need frameworks in which to put the new headlines and stories. We need time to consider how this new information might affect us. All of this takes time and effort on the part of individuals – perhaps it is just easier to let all the information wash over us. But, even if we must do this at times, having a sociological perspective that sees social structures and forces and asks for empirical evidence could help us all.

(Disclaimer: I occasionally think about how to pitch sociology to undergraduates and this is one such attempt.)