published Sunday, June 15th, 2014

Kennedy: Mining Internet data for amusing, amazing facts

You've heard of "random acts of kindness," right? Well, I'm a big fan of an emerging form of journalism that I call "random facts for the mindless."

That sounds critical, but it's not meant to be. This stuff is right down my alley.

There are several statistics-laden websites -- FiveThirtyEight, Vox and Upshot, to name three -- that are devoted to making complicated things simple. I love grazing in these vast pastures of charts, maps and statistics.

FiveThirtyEight is a website started by former New York Times statistician Nate Silver; Vox bills itself as a "general interest news site for the 21st century"; and Upshot is the new stat-driven landing page of The New York Times.

Prepare to be dazzled.

Did you know that the median age of U.S. women named Mildred is 78? Or that half the living Brittanys are between the ages of 19 and 25? (Source: FiveThirtyEight.)

Here's one: The Denver Nuggets are the most tattooed team in the NBA, with 80 percent of the roster sporting skin ink. Meanwhile, only 29 percent of the Charlotte Hornets have tattoos. Some guy actually watched hundreds of games in slow motion on his DVR to figure this out. (FiveThirtyEight)

Not unlike the backlash against yellow journalism in the early part of the 20th century, I think Americans today are in the mood for cold, hard facts after years of being spun relentlessly by cable "news" networks and mainstream media pundits.

Working on the opinion pages of the Times Free Press for the last 18 months, I know I get weary of reading syndicated columns full of over-chewed conventional wisdom. I can read a fact like this from one of the fact factories -- American adults use the F-bomb 41 percent more today than they did 27 years ago -- and it can seem to say more about culture than all the latest gossip in Washington put together. (FiveThirtyEight.)

I spent a couple of hours last week browsing the three websites mentioned above just to show you some of the fascinating facts that can be harvested like low-hanging peaches. It's a little like reading the Guinness Book of World Records: Once you start it's hard to stop.

• Here's a trivia question for you: Which Wikipedia article do you think is the most frequently edited? Turns out, it's the entry on George W. Bush, which has been updated or altered about 45,000 times. For comparison, the Wikipedia article on Jesus has only had 26,000 edits.

• If you've always sensed that little boys have more of a problem with potty mouth than little girls, you'd be right, according to the American Journal of Psychology. Researchers say little boys typically have a vocabulary of 95 offensive words and little girls only about 80.

• Upshot from the New York Times tells us that the number of fathers staying home to take care of children has doubled in the last 15 years to 2.2 million. Also, the median age for first marriages is age 28.7 for men and 26.5 for women; fifty years ago it was 23.4 for men and 20.5 for women.

• Vox informs us the most highlighted passage in any book in the Kindle library is not a verse from the Bible, but an unremarkable quote from "Catching Fire," one of the books in "The Hunger Games" trilogy. The passage reads: "Because sometimes things happen to people and they're not equipped to deal with them." It has been highlighted by readers 17,784 times. Hmm.

• Did you know that college students who take notes by hand do significantly better on tests than those who type notes on a laptop? Vox reports that it's true, perhaps because 40 percent of the time students aren't actually taking notes but surfing the Web.

• I spent several minutes staring at an agricultural map of the United States circa 1922 on Vox. Interestingly, East Tennessee was dominated by tobacco farms. Meanwhile, on the Cumberland Plateau, corn was king. Middle Tennessee was a center of pig farming, and West Tennessee was known for its cotton and peanut fields. The website also notes that American adults, on average, eat 400 more calories a day now than in 1970.

• Lastly, I loved a map on Vox that shows each state's most iconic fast-food chains. Kentucky (KFC) and Tennessee (Krystal) were easy. Other neighboring states were a bit more illuminating to me, Georgia (Chick-fil-A), Alabama (Checkers), North Carolina (Bojangles) and South Carolina (Denny's).

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to return to the data mines.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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