October 12, 2008

Recession, Evangelicals, Abortion, and the LHC

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Recession. Evangelical. Abortion. Large Hadron Collider. What do these words have to do with each other (outside of the triviality the word “real” is spelled using the first letter of each word?) Sure, words have been tossed about in the news of late, but what does the world’s largest (and non-functional at the moment) particle accelerator have to do with “hot button” political buzz-words? Absolutely nothing. And that’s precisely the point.

Each week, I am going to pick a blasé, monotonous and trite word, such as the word “real” and subsequently choose random words (which will hereafter be termed “subwords”) that I pick from my interaction with current events. What should I do with these random words? Firstly, I am going to analyze these words categorically using Google Trends. For those not familiar with Google Trends, Google has created an algorithm1 that scans through the Google search database (which holds the data for all searches since 2004) that helps categorize the different Internet users who searched for a specific topic. For example, I can determine which users of a specific country search for a word the most frequently as well as the frequency of a specific word in “verified” news sources (i.e. those that are indexed by Google News). My hope is that within this framework of stochastically chosen and unrelated words, I can logically piece together a relationship between the internet-savvy public’s usage of various subwords and the main word (which I will term the “tsar word” or “canonical word”).

Now that the preliminaries have been established, it’s time to get down to business. Business, consequently, is exactly why many people have looked up the word “recession” of late. [img_assist|nid=32611|title=Google Trends results for the word “recession.”|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]According to Trends2, the word “recession” had nary a search from early 2004 to early 2007. Then in February 2007, there was a sudden spike in both searches and news articles that contained the word recession. Why might this be? Well on February 27, 2007, we see that the Chinese government decided to increase interest rates at an extremely sharp rate leading to a 5 percent tumble for the Dow Jones Industrial Average and a 9 percentdrop for the Shanghai SSE composite index. Interestingly enough, the rest of 2007 was a boom year for the Shanghai SSE, with the index outperforming it’s Western peers by a staggering 5 to 1 margin. However, the lull in searches for the word recession was only temporary, as the beginning of the collapse of the mortgage underwritten bond market weighed in on recession searches from August 2007 until the present day. Surprisingly enough, the highest level of searches and news articles for the word recession coincided with January 2008, when the SSE composite tumbled 30 percent in one month. In the following months, the increase in searches and news articles were (in an isomorphic fashion) oscillating in an upward direction, culminating with a spike to January 2008 levels in September 2008.

Now that we have the numbers out of the way, what do the news and country statistics that Google Trends tracks say about the word “recession”? Apparently, Singapore is the most worried about recession, as they are the top country for searches that contain the word. Interesting. A country with a population that is roughly less than 1.6 percentof the U.S. population is more worried about recession than the supposed “economic” powerhouse that we call America? What is the fundamental reason behind the recession buzz? It’s these little pieces of paper (or bits) called mortgage-backed securities, which banks use to value real estate (not virtual estate) based on a few Gaussian Copulas and Wiener Processes. What does Singapore have to do with this? Well, Singapore and its fellow Asian tiger Hong Kong have some of the most expensive real estate markets on Earth. Furthermore, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, Temasek Holdings, invests heavily in real estate throughout Asia, Europe and North America3. From these scant facts, I propose that the people of Singapore, who have a vested interest in their sovereign wealth fund4 as well as their property values, are more worried about the repercussions of a recession than Americans are, as our government provides us with far fewer services (such as nationalized healthcare and reliable public transportation).

Wonderful. Now how exactly does this relate to evangelism? Well, in January, 2008, right around the time of the gigantic two- to three-fold increase in search and/or news volume (keep in mind that a two- to three-fold increase in search volume can correspond to as much as 500 billion more searches for a single word over the course of a month), the rather steady oscillation in the number of news stories with the subword “evangelical” suddenly was broken, resulting in a two- to three-fold spike in the number of news stories that contained the word “evangelical.” Coincidence? Perhaps. Being a conspiracy theorist, I like to think that the media purposely injects stories with disjoint connotations in order to provide a brief moment of levity to counter prevalent and negative news. In fact, it seems like the media are portraying reality in many different ways, from the bland to the spicy.

Speaking of spicy, the word “abortion” tends to be a “hot” word among politicos and those who feel the need to argue about what should be a non-issue.5 The word tends to have many searches from the Philippines and Philadelphia, with Tagalog being the primary search language with a 2:1 ratio of Tagalog searches to English searches. The Philippines? Isn’t that a predominantly Christian country? Where are the evangelicals to tell Filipinos to not have abortions? As it turns out, abortion is outlawed in the Philippines, even though over 400,000 abortions are performed (presumably illegally) in the country. Apparently the Catholic Church (okay, okay, so maybe not Evangelicals) refuses to yield to any form of abortion, even though a majority of Filipinos support it. While it may be a hot button issue in the Philippines, it apparently has become a rather muted issue in the U.S. There was far more interest in abortion during the fall of 2004, when one saw a precipitous increase in the amount of searches containing the word “abortion” from September to November, followed by a steep pull-back in interest from December 2004 to January 2005. And although abortion searches spiked in 2004, mention of abortion in the news has been rather cyclical – there is a general lull in searches for abortion until the latter parts of the years 2004-2008. Does this mean that people tend to have abortions more in autumn and winter? Why might this be? If we look at the location data, we see surprisingly that most of the queries about abortion originate in East Coast metropolitan areas – Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Miami, Orlando and Atlanta – as opposed to the Midwest, which is where many news articles suggest that abortion is more controversial. In order to formulate a theory about why abortion seems to be more “popular” in the latter half of the year, I decided to look at the Google Trend’s statistics on the words, “rape,” “wedlock,” and “illegitimate child.” (Note: I was considering looking up the word “bastard,” but due to the word’s overuse in music, I felt like I would have to justify any trends with better evidence than Google Trends). As it turns out, the general trend for all three words was to have a roughly Gaussian distribution, centered about summer. This means that most queries were performed in summer and not surprisingly, since the media generally reports such happenings, the number of news article’s that contained “rape,” “wedlock,” and “illegitimate child” also spiked around summertime. This speculative data leads me to a tentative hypothesis that the creation of humans that are to be aborted tends to take place in summer, while the abortions themselves tend to take place within the average 12-15 week gestation period that subsequently follows. I find it rather odd that there is a somewhat recurrent pattern in abortions – a late-year pattern that lends itself to making abortion (which is more of an individual freedoms issue as opposed to a macro-scale issue) a hot-button election topic.

While abortion means that it is the end of the road for a fetus, many religious fanatics and doomsday skeptics feel that man’s newest venture into understanding the universe will end up destroying mankind, as we know it. The invention that I am referring to is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which is (or was, if you think that the current delay in operation is permanent) the world’s largest particle accelerator. Check out the LHC rap:

The media has been all over the creation, operation and skepticism of the LHC in the past few months, as many have proclaimed that smashing protons at 99.99 percent (there are more significant figures of course – the maximum net collision energy of protons at the LHC will be about 14TeV) of the speed of light will cause microscopic black holes and other supposedly dangerous phenomenon. Now let’s see if Google Trends can shed some light on what people around the work think about LHC. I decided to look up the following terms:

-Large Hadron Collider
-Black Hole (yes, I know, there will probably be some “adult results” counted within the statistics, but this is unavoidable)
-LHC Safety
As should be expected, the LHC had very little news coverage and far fewer queries into its existence until early 2008 (as it was turned on this month). The acronym “LHC” apparently is popular in Sweden, as close to 40 percent of the news articles I scanned were written in Swedish (and over 60 percent of the queries came from Sweden). Next up was the phrase “Large Hadron Collider” – this search yielded results that were frankly, all over the map. While India took the crown for most queries, most news articles were written in Greek (?!?!). This is all fine and well, but what exactly does this tell us about the general interest in the LHC? Well, nothing – until we look up the phrase “black hole.” Apparently, people are really, really afraid of black holes, as the news media has a pretty constant, non-trivial amount of news dedicated to the word black hole6 (a word of caution in interpreting these results: Google News also indexes meta-blogs like Engadget and Gizmodo, so a lot of the news stories are created and studied by people involved in science and technology, which severely skews the data). Now where are people the most afraid of black holes? [img_assist|nid=32612|title=The Large Hadron Collider.|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=570|height=199]Why in India of course! Actually, this appears rather odd, as a quick glance at the news stories with the word “black hole” shows that the origination of most of the stories that describe people being scared of the LHC have originated in the U.S. and UK. And that allows me to segue into the last LHC-related term that was studied – “LHC safety.” As it turns out, only the U.S. and the UK have had any search queries related to the safety of the LHC. Perhaps no one else in the world is as crazy as we are?

As it turns out, Indian folk are apparently more interested in astrological events than Americans, due to religious and cultural reasons. Within the framework of Hinduism there are subtle hints at this rather disconcerting fact (should you happen to believe religious texts with conviction): Not only do people have reincarnated forms, but universes and worlds also undergo an infinite cycle of reincarnation. Freeman Dyson (a famous Cornell/Institute of Advanced Study Physicist who theorized the existence of the Dyson Sphere7 – a metal-like shell that allows an advanced civilization to reuse some or all of the energy they expend) would certainly be surprised, if not doubtful of such a theory. Regardless, it turns out that the Hindu trinity (which can be viewed as similar to the Catholic trinity) apparently has the ability to create some sort of force that engulfs the universe and subsequently spits out a new one (think of it as a machine that turns an elderly person into a baby). Luckily, most high-energy physicists (and I suppose string theorists too, although I feel that they are more similar to mathematicians than to other physicists and thus are more disconnected from human society) seem to agree on one fact: the LHC isn’t going to create a macro-scale black hole. In the end though, modern media will find a way to sensationalize even the most benign of experiments (see: almost all recent biological discoveries), which leads me to my concluding observation: I’m sure there will be a religious, pro-choice, Filipino banker hiding in a bunker in April when the mystical Higgs will fly around in a tunnel in Switzerland.