Saturday, December 17, 2005

The best and worst of extremaphilia

As the year-end nears, there are any number of "best of 2005" lists (about 2,510,000 according to Google) and more than a few "worst of 2005" (about 38,700). For example, voting on the best blogs of 2005 (in any number of categories) is taking place at weblogawards. has an obvious interest in promoting the best books of 2005. In the worst-of category, check out The Year in Media Errors and Corrections.

Why all this focus on the extremes? When it comes to the best, a straightforward explanation is that we want to make the most of the time we spend reading books, listening to music, etc. But I think that only scratches the surface. A lot of it may be wanting to be "with it", which may stem from insecurity. Instead of choosing what everyone else seems to like, why can't we make up our own minds? Even the term "the best" makes the assumption that some ordering exists for the things under consideration. Maybe that's true for contests that are deliberately set up to have a single quantitative outcome, like the time to run 100 metres. But even there it can get murky: who's the fastest sprinter in the world? With or without performance-enhancing drugs?

As for the worst, it seems to me there's more than a touch of schadenfreude involved. Or at least a feeling of relief: "There, but for the grace of God, go I". The practical use of these lists tends to be limited -- most of the time one doesn't need to be told that a movie was one of the worst of 2005 to recognize that it's better avoided.

Focusing on extremes can be quite important, for example in mechanical engineering where a structure has to be able to withstand extremes of temperature or what have you. Statistical problems of this sort are the focus of extreme value theory.

Focusing exclusively on extremes can be misleading or counterproductive. In the case of healthcare waiting lists, we often hear about extremely long waits without the context necessary to make sense of them. For example, was the person on the waiting list for a long time because their problem was just a minor inconvenience? What was the overall distribution of waiting times like? One approach to managing waiting lists is to adopt a minimax approach, where you minimize the maximum wait. But this seems to me to be a pretty dubious strategy.

I think we need a word for our love of extremes: how about extremaphilia? (There is a word extremophile but it has quite a different meaning, which is why I've spelled my word with an a instead of an o.)

Any thoughts on all of this? (Any best-of/worst-of lists to share? I confess I still enjoy them!)

Update 18Dec2005: Here's a very useful list of the The Best Web 2.0 Software of 2005. (Web 2.0 is the buzzword-du-jour, meaning, as far as I can tell, 2nd-generation web-based software. Notably, it's pretty much *free* at the moment!)
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Blogger Zeno said...

Have you checked out Lists of Bests? It's only about books, music, and movies, but there are several lists in each category.

10:00 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

Hmmm, I wonder how many levels of recursion this could go to?!

10:06 PM, December 17, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder how many names, activities, places, etc., end up on both a "best of" and "worst of" lists.

4:18 PM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

Excellent point! I'm sure those would be interesting cases.

4:20 PM, December 18, 2005  
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