Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Oh My Stars

What's in a rating? I use three different sites regularly that give me the opportunity to rate different things: Goodreads for books, Netflix for movies, and Boardgamegeek for games. I like rating things. The problem is that I always feel compelled to use the guidelines for these ratings, and that's where I have a problem.

Let's start with Goodreads. It's a great online community for book readers. It has a good interface, an extensive database, and a lot of active reviewers. I repost all of my reviews here on my blog. But when it comes to rating a book, their star system bothers me.

Here's the mouse-over text for each level of rating:
  1. Didn't like it
  2. It was ok
  3. Liked it
  4. Really liked it
  5. It was amazing

First off, what if I absolutely hated the book? No option available. Secondly, there are three positive, one neutral, and only one negative option. In my mind, zero stars should be available for something you really hated. That wouldn't balance it out completely, but it would help. Also, how does one distinguish between a four- and a five-star book?

Here's Netflix:
  1. Hated it
  2. Didn't like it
  3. Liked it
  4. Really liked it
  5. Loved it

This list is better because it offers two degrees of dislike. But the three star rating right in the middle is still positive rather than neutral. However, I like that the top rating is "loved it" rather than "amazing." Amazing just seems like a really high bar to meet, whereas "loved it" feels perfectly subjective.

Since neither of these offer "half stars," they're both scales of five. To me, ideally they should be two negative, one neutral, and one positive. But I can see how no one would see three stars as a neutral review.

But onto Boardgamegeek. Here, it's a scale of 10, using numbers instead of stars.
  1. Defies description of a game. You won't catch me dead playing it. Clearly broken.
  2. Extremely annoying game, won't play this ever again.
  3. Likely won't play this game again although could be convinced. Bad.
  4. Not so good, it doesn't get me but could be talked into it on occasion.
  5. Average game. Slightly boring. Take it or leave it.
  6. Ok game, some fun or challenge at least, will play sporadically if in the right mood.
  7. Good game, usually willing to play.
  8. Very good game. I like to play. Probably I will suggest it and will never turn down a game.
  9. Excellent game. Always want to play it.
  10. Outstanding. Always want to play and expect this will never change.

The main problem with all of these descriptions is the inclusions of absolute words like "always" and "never." How could anyone know what their tastes would be in a few years, or on a particular day?

In comparison with the other rating systems, this one is interesting because it seems to have three positives, three neutrals, and three negatives. That's pretty balanced, but the problem becomes choosing between similar pairs, like 3/4, 5/6, or 9/10. I have a friend who only uses even numbers to rate, thus reducing this to a scale of five. There are many others (myself included, I'm sad to say), who actually enter numbers like 7.5, turning this into a 20-point scale. I need to go through and fix all of those, though. No more fence sitting; if I like a game, I should say so!

Anyway, what was the point of this whole exercise? I'm not sure. I just find it interesting that something subjective like a rating has been given restrictive objective guidelines. This wouldn't be a problem at all if I could bring myself to just ignore the text and rate things how I want. Unfortunately, that would render my rating less meaningful for those who saw it and didn't know my personal scale. So I guess the lesson is: always read the actual review and not just the number of stars.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Victorian Internet

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers by Tom Standage

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
Another shallow, quick, interesting read. I enjoyed this light history of the telegraph, and there certainly were interesting parallels with the Internet. However, there also seemed to be several gaps in the narrative.

For the most part, I liked how Standage simplified his description of the development and evolution of telegraphy. The early pre-electric history and problem-solving stories were particularly interesting. But with all the detail put into explaining some solutions, it was frustrating when he didn't do the same with others. For example, there were only a couple of sentences briefly mentioning how the problem of sending over great distances was resolved.

Overall, I'd still recommend it for anyone interested in communication in this time period. Like the other Standage book I've read, A History of the World in 6 Glasses, it is a great starting place likely to whet your appetite for a more in-depth book.

View all my reviews.

Monday, May 18, 2009


Outliers Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

My review

rating: 2 of 5 stars
While it was definitely an interesting book with some unique ideas, overall I wasn't that impressed. Yes, there are some patterns that emerge from looking at previously ignored data, but what else can you tell me?

A friend of mine's father had a saying that "luck is nothing but preparation meets opportunity." I feel like that sums up this whole book pretty well. Gladwell takes care to explain why some people seemed to be in the right place at the right time, but other than observing these patterns, he doesn't seem to have much of a point.

The book is light and easy reading, however, and it probably sparks some good conversations. It probably would have been better suited to a long magazine article rather than a book.

View all my reviews.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Innumeracy, Again

A lot of stupid things have been going through my head lately, and rather than encouraging me to post more often, it has shut me down.

First off, a shout out to my friend Mark Johnson. He posted the discussion we did a couple of months ago for his podcast. You can listen to it here: Boardgames To Go. It's a little over an hour long, and we talk about "classic" boardgames. We had a hard time coming up with a clear definition of a classic. We basically divided it into Ancient (Backgammon, Go, Chess, etc.) and modern (Monopoly, Scrabble, Risk, etc.).

I listened to it again soon after it was published. After I got over the never-ending shock of what my voice sounds like on tape, I was surprised by the amount of things we delved into. I'm pretty proud of it, and if you are into the boardgame hobby like I am, I think it's worth a listen. It was definitely thought-provoking, as evidenced by the numerous comments Mark has received already.

Speaking of numbers, let's talk about that for a bit. The other day I was out for lunch. When my debit card receipt came to me, it had "Gratuity Guidelines 15% = xx" at the bottom. This bothered me. Not because it was blatantly asking for a tip, nor because it was suggesting 15% (although those did nag at me a bit).

No, it bothered me because it removed the "burden" of a simple math equation from the customer. I used to think those credit card-sized charts were bad; this was ridiculous. Really? Is 15% that hard? 10% and half again. Halfway between 10% and 20%. Are we really that afraid of having to do math? This frightens me, actually. I know it is just meant as a convenience, but I can think of a lot better things that could and should be streamlined for convenience.

I'll use this as a segue to another thing that's been bothering me for a long time: the number 1,000,000,000. That's a billion. Do you know how much a billion is? Apparently, most people don't. A billion seconds is 31.7 years. A billion minutes is 1900 years. There's some pictures out there that show a pallet of money, I think it's about a million dollars. I don't feel like finding it. Then they show a CGI image of that pallet multiplied by 1,000 to get a billion. For some reason, the scale of a billion being a thousand times more than a million gets lost on people.

This was most evident when the budget was released (yes, this has been bothering me a long time). The budget was something on the order of $840 billion. Then pundits and opposers and politicians came out and decried parts of the bill that cost a few million dollars. Some even complained about a program costing $80,000. Now, if you had $840.00 to spend however you liked, how would you feel about being criticized for how you spent four cents? I'm not saying that four cents couldn't be wasteful, but seriously, let's put things in perspective here.

But because of the massive innumeracy of our country, people get away with stuff like that. People on both sides. A billion is too large for most people to grasp, so their brain freezes and they don't worry about it. By an odd reversal, a million seems a little more comprehensible, so people get outraged when a million is misspent.

I have no idea what the solution is, but it just irritates me how often I see bad math and bad science popularized in the media. Don't even get me started about statistics.

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