Jan 31, 2008


This is kind of a strange post. The thing is, I see or experience strange coincidences in my life often enough that I've given a name to the phenomenon--synchronicity. Of course, I'm hardly the guy who came up with the word or its meaning. Nor am I the only person who thinks that coincidences happen to them. But I do use the word to describe strange, chance-defying happenings or experiences that, oddly enough, happen surprisingly often--to me.

The reason I'm writing about this just now is that, well, something ... synchronicitous (is that a word?) ... happened just now. Well, it seems like that to me. See for yourself.

First, I was browsing through the BBC News site and happened to come across an interesting graphical illustration of how the US sub-prime crisis happened. I was interested because I'd recently been looking at graphing and charting, and how to make eye-catching charts to visualise a lot of data.

So anyway, the BBC's sub-prime crisis guide happened to use the US city of Cleveland as an example of how the mortgage crisis affected poorer urban populations. I was curious as to why they used Cleveland; but there's a good explanation in the page itself which I will give here, also because it happens to be an important part of why the crisis happened at all.

For many years, Cleveland was the sub-prime capital of America.

It was a poor, working class city, hit hard by the decline of manufacturing and sharply divided along racial lines.

Mortgage brokers focused their efforts by selling sub-prime mortgages in working class black areas where many people had achieved home ownership.

They told them that they could get cash by refinancing their homes, but often neglected to properly explain that the new sub-prime mortgages would "reset" after 2 years at double the interest rate.

The result was a wave of repossessions that blighted neighbourhoods across the city and the inner suburbs.

By late 2007, one in ten homes in Cleveland had been repossessed and Deutsche Bank Trust, acting on behalf of bondholders, was the largest property owner in the city.

So, enough about Cleveland. Not quite, as it turned out.

I then came across this, an article about a couple of books written by one William Cleveland, who is `[o]ne of the pioneers in developing guidelines for comprehensible data graphics'. (By the way, the site where I found the article, Pictures of Numbers, is a blog about charting and graphing with some very good articles, if anyone is interested.) It turns out that Prof. Cleveland developed something called lowess, a statistical technique used in scatter-plot charts.

Now, lowess is something I've been coming across in the mathematical software package, called R, that I've been using to make my charts.

And lastly, while finding the above article, I came across another article, by Stephen Dubner, a journalist and one of the authors of Freakonomics. (I haven't read it yet. Hear it's good though.) Anyway, Dubner's article, called `How's This for a Coincidence?', mentions that he was on a plane to Cleveland, where basketball star LeBron James plays for the Cavaliers (I don't know if that's still true). Dubner was blogging about an earlier post by his Freakonomics co-author, Steven Levitt, in which Levitt had asked the readers what LeBron James had in common with his (Levitt's) wife. They like doing the `have-in-common' thing from time to time.

How's that for synchronicity? (Sorry. Couldn't resist that last line.)

Synchronicity update: the Freakonomics blog has done it again, with their latest post: Levitt's `What Do Lolita and Freakonomics Have in Common?'

Synchronicity update 2: coincidentally, the above blog post talks about a chart of US students' SAT scores compared to their reading habits. I came across this chart a few days ago.