Tuesday, December 4, 2007

How to make a Top XYZ list

U.S. News and World Report published on Nov 29 its first ever America’s best high schools. The result is a rank ordered top 100 schools gold medallists, 405 “silver medallists and 1086 bronze medallists out of almost 19,000 public high schools nation wide based on data from 2005-2006 school year. The High Technology High School of Monmouth county of New Jersey where some of our friends’ kids attended is #7 on that list. Once you look closely to how the list was generated and how some of the schools were set up and run, it should not come as a surprise that many on the list are regional magnet schools like the High Technology High School with programs designed to attract students with track records and aspiration for college studies or particular focused area.

Most of us seem so fascinated and interested in quantitative rankings, benchmarks and metrics of literally every subject with use for ranging from trivia to helping making decisions. Such information are usually reported and summarized in scalars by various for-profit entities with some notable exceptions like Consumer Report with titles such as top 100s, best 20s, most influential 50, the 100 richest, etc. I submit this is partially a result of the non-trivial efforts and resources required to compile such a list. Equally or perhaps more importantly, I suspect this is a result of our limited brain capacity that seems too challenged to process and remember multi-dimensional natures of most subjects and their complex attributes and trades. I bet most of you are like me who can’t remember, off the top of my head, more than top 3 or 5 items of any subject! It must be tough for the contenders to compete for attention for those few spots. This is even worse in politics and sports; people usually only remember the winners. That is why the cliché – winning is everything!

For frogs who are equipped with critical thinking skills, the more interesting and fun question is how and by what formula and procedure does one come up with such a rank ordered list. I did one test case with a little surfing and reading of the Money Magazine’s “Best Places to Live” with self-interest since this frog’s (physical) well is located at Marlboro, New Jersey, which is #33 of the list for the year 2007. I was also curious to find out why we were not on the earlier lists in year 2005 and 2006. Perhaps something of significance happened in last three years? It turns out that Money Magazine used different criteria and procedures in coming up with the “winners” for the last three years! I guess the magazine might have figured out that unless they change the criteria, it would be hard pressed to produce a very different list each year and that would be boring. The good news is there is no need to rush the decision on to where we need to move.

If you google a little bit, you would find many informative lists from which we can learn something. For instance there is a Top 100 Speeches of the 20th Century by American Rhetoric which points us to many defining and moving speeches that left marks on US such as Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” and John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural speech. Guardian of UK has offered a more worldly but still limited selection of 14 Great Speeches of the 20th Century that includes 3 from US, 1 from USSR, 1 from France, 1 from India, 1 from South Africa, 7 from UK including Virginia Woolf’sShakespear’s Sister” and the #1 choice - Winston Churchill’s famous and critical 1940 speech to House of Commons during WWII.

Let us now look at some more entertaining lists: An online men’s magazine AskMen.com has been publishing since year 2001 Top 99 (Most Desirable) Women based on votes from its readers and staffs. As expected, practically all of them are in entertainment business such as fashion models and actress. It appears (as marketed by the magazine itself) that the voters associate desirability of women more with physical attributes, sex appeal, and only to some lesser degree talents and characters despite the explicitly stated considerations. Male readers, be forewarned, AskMen.com did not provide assurance that the awardees never had cosmetic surgery nor that physical beauty will last (the turn-over of the list year to year is left as an exercise for the readers)! By the way, two famous Chinese actresses Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li are #83 and #34, respectively.

Perhaps for not wanting to be accused of missing almost half of the world population and to provide a mirror, AskMen.com started publishing since year 2006 Top 49 (Most Representative) Men. Vast majority of the awardees turned out to be actors and sports stars. To my surprise, only few business tycoons made the list. I wonder if the (male) voters can’t bear to be reminded or admit that most of us just can’t quite get to the very top for the sandboxes we play? Being from the high tech industry, I take comfort that the legendary Steve Jobs, cofounder of Apple Inc. that brought us Mac and iPod, is #7 on the 2007 list. For both men and women lists, no politicians made it. I guess Ronald Regan could have made it if such a survey was done in 1980s. I suspect Hilary Clinton could make the opposite list if it was done.

The answer to the question on “How to make a Top XYZ list” is obvious: figure out the criteria and maximize your scores according to the criteria and weights. I don’t condone such a strategy especially when used blatantly or unethically. We do need to keep in mind however that in real world, carrot-and-stick is used frequently and every one of us is surely on someone's top lists of some sort!

Talk to you soon!

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