How Obama lost control of the oil-spill narrative

WORD OF MOUTH:  Colleen Ross

Colleen Ross


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The usual key to staying on top in the murky world of politics is to control the narrative. And, by all linguistic accounts, Barack Obama’s control of the oil spill narrative has slipped away.

Lonely warrior. Barack Obama counting tar balls on a Louisiana beach in May 2010. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Lonely warrior. Barack Obama counting tar balls on a Louisiana beach in May 2010. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

In his first prime-time address from the Oval Office recently, Obama attempted to take back the reins by employing warrior-like language.

In his best Churchill impression, he spoke about “the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens,” going on to vow that “we will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long as it takes.”

The president then talked about creating a battle plan as well as the need to develop energy independence and to “fight for the America we want for our children.”

Click Here to Listen to Colleen Ross’ Podcasts

The president then talked about creating a battle plan as well as the need to develop energy independence and to “fight for the America we want for our children.”

In fact, Obama’s rhetoric around America’s biggest environmental disaster has intensified in recent weeks.

Accused of not being angry enough at the company that has still not managed to fully plug a gushing oil well, “No Drama” Obama, as he was once known, is using tougher language and framing the oil spill as an environmental 9/11.

He also uttered the now oft-quoted explanation of why he’s spending so much time talking to experts: So he can “know whose ass to kick.”

Oil-spill enabler

But in this unfolding drama, with a wavering protagonist, a motley crew of characters and a slick, unrelenting enemy, one is compelled to shout in frustration: “Words, words, words!”

Duelling narratives

(An unscientific, comparison)

BP: Use remotely operated underwater vehicles to try to reactivate blowout preventer.

Political narrative: Remotely control response, i.e. let Coast Guard handle it.

BP: Introduce small tube into burst pipe to slow flow.

Political narrative: Introduce oil spill commission and temporarily stop offshore drilling

BP: Drill relief wells, this is going to take awhile.

Political narrative: Drill home the need for relief/compensation (this is going to take awhile)

Therein lies the problem, says language analyst Paul Payack. Words alone mean nothing if they are not backed up by action and, as a result, Obama has lost control of what he wants to say.

“He who wins control of the narrative controls the story in terms of political capital,” says Payack. And at the moment, Obama isn’t doing so well, which could hurt his party in the November mid-term elections.

According to Payack, the most important storyline currently defining the president is “Obama as oil spill enabler.”

Read more



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Keep Presidential Speeches Smart

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Medialand

Trevor Butterworth, 06.22.10

Trevor Butterworth is the editor of stats.org, an affiliate of George Mason University that looks at how numbers are used in public policy and the media. He writes a weekly column for Forbes.

If the Gulf oil spill is a national tragedy, the arguments over President Obama’s response to it have descended into a national farce. When former law professors go looking for “ass to kick,” they end up looking like the eponymous hero of Kickass, a nerdy kid copying moves he’s seen in comic books. The difference is that the fictional Kickass was ennobled by failure, which, sadly, is not the kind of outcome open to the President of the United States in matters of national importance.

Obama’s mistake was to respond to the Rock’Em Sock’Em Robots of punditry. The country didn’t want Spock at the helm during environmental armageddon, they protested; the situation demanded a theatrically-appropriate response–as if the presidency was the background music to the movie of our lives, rousing in adversity, compassionate in suffering, a boom box of linguistic effects.

If style is the image of character, you cannot go from the calmest, most judicious intellectual in the room to a Schwarzenegger character in leather trousers and expect to be perceived as authentic. This is why responding to his critics was the wrong thing to do. By following their lame advice, by trying to be someone he isn’t, Obama sounded bathetic.

All of this is an object lesson in how democracy isn’t helped by the media. Just as an analysis of the Katrina response shows that it was a complex systematic failure of government and not a simple fumble by George W. Bush and “heck of a job” Brownie, the Gulf oil spill is not really in the league of a car wreck caused by distracted texting. The very intractability of the problem demands openness, an admission of complexity and a detailed description of solutions that are being pursued. And yet, according to one manufacturer of conventional wisdom, the problem was not that Obama’s White House address on the spill was too simple or vague, it was that it wasn’t simple enough. As CNN reported:

“Obama’s speech may have gone over the heads of many in his audience, according to an analysis of the 18-minute talk released Wednesday by Paul J.J. Payack, president of Global Language Monitor. Tuesday night’s speech from the Oval Office of the White House was written to a 9.8 grade level, said Payack, who gave Obama a ‘solid B.’ His Austin, Texas-based company analyzes and catalogues trends in word usage and word choice and their impact on culture.”

The president’s 19.8 words per sentence apparently “added some difficulty for his target audience.” But 19.8 words is well within the breath of television’s cutthroat culture of political sound bites, which now stands at seven seconds. Indeed, as Elvin T. Lim notes in his brilliant historical and linguistic analysis of presidential rhetoric, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, the average presidential sentence in recent years (as defined by speeches) has ranged from 15 to 20 words, well within the assumed attention span of the presumptive television viewer.

But now, even this is apparently too difficult for most Americans to follow. It gets worse. Take the following sentence from the President’s speech, “That is why just after the rig sank, I assembled a team of our nation’s best scientists and engineers to tackle this challenge–a team led by Dr. Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and our nation’s Secretary of Energy.” According to Payack, this is the kind of phrasing that makes the President seem “aloof and out of touch.” It’s too professorial, too academic and not “ordinary enough.” Perhaps the President should just have tweeted “I got smart folks fixin’ to fix the oil spill” and let everyone go back to their regular broadcast fare or communicating with each other in grunts and clicks.

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Language mavens exchange words over Obama’s speech

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • Nearly 2,700 words with little jargon
  • People understand spoken and written word differently
  • Payack gives Obama “Solid B”

(CNN) — Language experts weighed in Thursday after poring over the nearly 2,700 words of President Obama’s Oval Office speech on the Gulf oil disaster.

“It was straightforward and easy to understand,” said Ron Yaros, assistant professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, referring to the explanations of the crisis and its possible solutions. He divided the speech into 1,200 “idea units,” each of which represents a point the president was trying to make.

He then looked at how many of those idea units contained jargon — unexplained terms that the average person might not recognize — and found none in the 65 idea units that explained the problem.

Of the 417 idea units that discussed what Obama planned to do, “I found only one idea unit that probably would be potentially confusing to a nonexpert. That was the term ‘relief well.’ He never explained that.”

BP is digging a relief well that is expected to intersect with the blown-out well in August. At that point, BP plans to pump heavy drilling fluid into the runaway well, ending the flow.

“If you look at the entire speech, and you look at the amount of jargon, it came out to 1.5 percent,” he said.

iReporter:Obama’s speech too fuzzy on details

But Obama’s speech may have gone over the heads of many in his audience, according to an analysis of the 18-minute talk released Wednesday by Paul J.J. Payack, president of Global Language Monitor.

Tuesday night’s speech from the Oval Office of the White House was written to a 9.8 grade level, said Payack, who gave Obama a “solid B.” His Austin, Texas-based company analyzes and catalogues trends in word usage and word choice and their impact on culture.

He singled out this sentence from Obama as unfortunate: “That is why just after the rig sank, I assembled a team of our nation’s best scientists and engineers to tackle this challenge — a team led by Dr. Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and our nation’s secretary of energy.”


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See “The Colbert Report’s”  Send-up of GLM’s Oval Office Analysis

“A little less professorial, less academic and more ordinary,” Payack recommended. “That’s the type of phraseology that makes you [appear] aloof and out of touch.”

Yaros disagreed, supporting the quality of the president’s explanation for spelling out the efforts under way, even if they have not succeeded in ending the flow.

“He’s just trying to be transparent,” Yaros said. “We can’t cure cancer, but I’m comforted to know that the best researchers in the nation are devoted to finding a cure.”

Payack found these three sentences insensitive: “Already, this oil spill is the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced. And unlike an earthquake or a hurricane, it is not a single event that does its damage in a matter of minutes or days. The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years.”

“You shouldn’t be saying that in Katrina-land,” said Payack, referring to the 2005 hurricane that devastated the Gulf Coast. “New Orleans lost a third of its population [to evacuees who did not return]; it’s still recovering.”

But he praised Obama’s phrase “oil began spewing” as active and graphic.

Obama’s nearly 10th-grade-level rating was the highest of any of his major speeches and well above the grade 7.4 of his 2008 “Yes, we can” victory speech, which many consider his best effort, Payack said.

“The scores indicate that this was not Obama at his best, especially when attempting to make an emotional connection to the American people,” he added.

Though the president used slightly less than four sentences per paragraph, his 19.8 words per sentence “added some difficulty for his target audience,” Payack said.

Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, was unimpressed with Payack’s criticism of the sentence length.

“I think we can all agree that those are shockingly long professor-style sentences for a president to be using, especially in addressing the nation after a disaster,” Liberman wrote on his blog.

“Why, they were almost as long as the ones that President George W. Bush, that notorious pointy-headed intellectual, used in his 9/15/2005 speech to the nation about Hurricane Katrina, where I count 3,283 words in 140 sentences, for an average of 23.45 words per sentence! And we all remember how upset the press corps got about the professorial character of that speech!”

Yaros challenged the value of Payack’s analysis. “There’s a tremendous amount of difference between analyzing the written word and interpreting the spoken word,” said Yaros, a former science reporter who studies how to make complex topics understandable.

Payack acknowledged Thursday in a telephone interview that his analysis is indeed based on a written version of the speech, but said that does not necessarily render it invalid. “With the internet, probably as many people read the transcript as heard it,” he said. “To think it’s not read and analyzed by tens of thousands of bloggers is looking at the old model.”

Yaros countered that he doesn’t just count words and sentences, but instead measures the audience’s comprehension of news content.

Read More

Obama Oil Spill Speech Echoes Elite, Aloof Ethos

When Obama is at his best (such as the Grant Park ‘Yes, We Can speech), the President has a direct and emotional connection with the American people.  This speech, simply, did not live up to that high standard — and the numbers reflect it.

Comparisons with previous addresses and those of other presidents

Passive Voice highest for any major presidential address this century

Surprisingly high tenth-grade reading (and hearing) level


 

Austin, TX, June 17, 2010 – According to an exclusive analysis by The Global Language Monitor, President Obama’s Oil Spill speech echoed his elite ethos, with a broad plan for an alternative-energy future and few specifics.  The only specifics of the address were the continuation of the off-shore drilling ban, effectively putting tens of thousands of Gulf Coast jobs in jeopardy.  The President’s first Oval Office address came in at a surprising high tenth-grade reading level, with some 13% passive constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address in this century.  In political speaking, the passive voice is generally used to either deflect responsibility, or to have no particular ‘doer’ of an action

GLM on Obama’s ‘Yes, We Can!’ victory speech: Ranked Among the Greatest


See “The Colbert Report’s”  Send-up of GLM’s Oval Office Analysis

A previous analysis using GLM’s NarrativeTracker™, found the president’s primary narrative arc to be that of ‘Obama as an Oil Spill Enabler’.  Nothing in the address would appear to change that narrative, though formal analysis will be forthcoming in the next week.

Kathleen Parker’s ‘Empiracally Vacuous Meme-replication’

Alternet’s Dumbing Down of Obama’s speech to the seventh-grade level.

The Readability Analysis of the Oval Office address appears below:

  • Passive Voice — With some 13% passive constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century.  In political speaking, the passive voice is generally used to either deflect responsibility, or to have no particular ‘doer’ of an action, at least when speaking about himself or his Administration.  Otherwise, BP was the clear ‘doer’.
  • Sentence Length — Obama’s spoke in long, though well-crafted, sentences about 20 words in length.
  • Sentences per Paragraphs – Just below four sentences per paragraph.  Usually four sentences in a paragraph would be quite easy to understand, but the 19.8 words per sentence, added some difficulty for his target audience.
  • Characters per words – Obama’s words had an average of 4.5 letters in them, a bit longer than typical for him.
  • Flesch Reading Ease – Reading Ease came in at 59.1. The Closer to 100, the easier to read.  This is well within the normal range for Oval Office Addresses.
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade-Level – 9.8 Grade Level.  This is the highest of any major Obama speech.  Obama’s closest match among recent presidents is Ronald Reagan, whose speeches generally ranged from the 9th to 10th grade levels.  (President George W. Bush usually spoke at a seventh grade level.)

Grade-Level comparisons with other speeches of note include:

Kennedy Inaugural Address       10.8

Reagan ‘Tear Down This Wall”   9.8

Lincoln “Gettysburg Address”     9.1

Martin Luther King: ”I have a dream”   8.8

Obama 2004 Democrat Convention      8.3

Obama Victory Speech “Yes, we can”   7.4

“The scores indicate that this was not Obama at his best, especially when attempting make an emotional connection to the American people,” said Paul JJ Payack, president of GLM.  “For example, the numbers are significantly different than the ‘Yes, I can” speech, which many consider his best effort.”

Read More:

How Obama lost control of the oil-spill narrative (Colleen Ross, CBC)

Keep Presidential Speeches Smart (Trevor Butterworth, Forbes)

Textbook Obama (New York Magazine by Chris Bonanos)

Obama Narrative 2.0 (GLM)

The President, the Spill and the Narrative that got away (Simon Mann, The Age)

FAQs about GLM, Paul JJ Payack, and the Million Word March



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Obama Narrative 2.0

FFive Narratives Compete for the Title Tuesday Night


Austin, TX, June 15, 2010 – There are now five main narrative ‘arcs’ competing for the Obama Narrative 2.0 title, the underlying storyline that will largely define the president in the run-up to the Mid-term elections and, possibly, for time remaining in his term.

The ‘narrative’ refers to the stream of public opinion captured by blogs and other social media outlets on the Internet, as well as the leading print and electronic databases.

The Global Language Monitor’s NarrativeTracker™, found the primary narrative arcs in descending order of importance to be:

1.    Obama as Oil Spill Enabler – OK, he didn’t cause it, but in today’s parlance, he appears to be enabling the perpetrators (BP or British Petroleum).  It’s score was some fifteen times higher than that of No. 5, Healthcare Reform.

2.    Obama as the Big Spender – This is a good story line if your goal is to play to the left.  Independents and the right see it as far less favorable.  Spending is have ten times the impact as that of Healthcare Reform.

3.    Obama as the Chicago-style pol – Since the beginning of the year, this narrative is up 640%.  Good for Chicagoland, not so favorable for the rest of the nation.

4.    Obama as out-of-touch or aloof – Taking time to ascertain whose ‘ass to kick’ and calling in an ever growing number of academics to resolve problems usually left to Red Adair (or Bruce Willis) has resulted in a thirteen hundred percent rise in this narrative arc.

5.    Obama as HealthCare Reformer – The bloom is off this rose far more quickly than such a triumph would typically entail. It has fallen from the No. 1 position just a few months ago.

“As of this moment, Obama Narrative 2.0 will emerge far less favorable than that of 1.0:  the  Washington outsider, who will stare-down both Beltway denizens and Politics as usual,” said Paul JJ Payack, president of GLM.  “The Narratives emerging from this inexorably slowly unfolding ecological disaster are running roughshod over those earlier, far-more positive narratives the president is attempting to revive.

The rise of the narrative can render positions on the issues almost meaningless, since positions now matter less than how they fit into a particular narrative. The NarrativeTracker is more effective in capturing the true opinion of the public because it tracks unfiltered keywords in Social Media and other sources, rather than how that opinion is interpreted by the news media or by pollsters.

The NarrativeTracker is based on the GLM’s Predictive Quantities Indicator™ (PQI™). The PQI tracks the frequency of words and phrases in global print and electronic media on the Internet, throughout the Blogosphere and other social media outlets as well as accessing proprietary databases. The PQI is a weighted index that factors in long-term trends, short-term changes, momentum, and velocity.

About the Global Language Monitor

Austin-Texas-based Global Language Monitor analyzes and catalogues the latest trends in word usage and word choices, and their impact on the various aspects of culture, with a particular emphasis upon Global English. For more information, call +1.512.815.8836, send email to pjjp@post@harvard.edu, or visit www.LanguageMonitor.com.



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Making ‘One Whole’ After the Gulf Oil Spill

The Associated Press

By Cristina Silva, Saint Petersburg Times

Lambasted by charges that his response to the gulf oil spill comes across as emotionally flat, President Barack Obama has made repeated vows to stand by the victims “until they are made whole.” His ambitious promise now stands as the rhetoric of choice among political leaders looking to sympathize with those affected by the environmental and financial crisis. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry and Gov. Charlie Crist have made near identical pledges and a trio of Democratic congressmen demanded oil giant BP postpone $10 billion in dividend payments to stockholders until “the people of the gulf (are) made whole.” Problem is, what does it mean? ”That is the one question I have been asking for five weeks,” said Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon, who fears the sheets of oil sliding toward the shores of his Alabama tourist haven will bring new financial hardships after weeks of canceled hotel reservations and half-empty seafood shacks. “That is the one question we need to know before we can move forward.”

Politicians are well aware of the power of words. Obama, a legal scholar with a penchant for headline-grabbing speeches, hasn’t elaborated on his definition of “made whole,” but his repetition suggests he thinks it is a good message. It means he wants to help. It means he cares. But, as with many political messages, “made whole” has more than one layer. In legal jargon, “made whole” implies full restitution. A stolen laptop is replaced. Hospital bills are paid. A cracked windshield is repaired. But the Gulf of Mexico crisis likely won’t be so easily resolved.

Some losses could be hard to prove in court or even single out, creating a complicated web of cause and effect that might not immediately produce a culprit, said economic and legal scholars. ”What (Obama) said is true. They (BP) are going to be responsible for the damage they did,” said Fred Levin, a trial lawyer in Pensacola. “The question is, what is the damage they did?” In other words, will those indirectly hurt by the oil spill be “made whole,” too? Or does the promise only apply to the victims who can successfully make their case in court? Consider some potential ramifications. If affected business owners can no longer afford to send their children to private schools, should the schools file a claim? If the private schools hire fewer teachers because of declining enrollment, do the unemployed teachers get help? And if those teachers then can no longer afford to buy quality meat from the local supermarket, how does the supermarket prove its losses are tied to the oil spill? It’s simply not clear, said Peter Henning, a former federal prosecutor who teaches criminal law at Wayne State University in Detroit. ”To the extent you are talking about just the cleanup, yes, BP is on the hook, but to the extent that you are saying we are going to return these communities to what they were, the law does not appear to extend that far,” he said. “While it is couched in legal terms, this is really more of a political promise than a legal assertion.”

Wordsmiths countered “made whole” is not an abstract concept. ”To ‘make whole’ means exactly what it says, meaning not to kind of prop you up, not to give you some aid, but to put you back precisely where you were,” said Paul JJ Payack , president of the Global Language Monitor based in Austin, Texas, which analyzes speech. “It is a very precise choice of words and they know it.”

BP so far has paid $49 million to individuals or small businesses through its claims process and sent out roughly 18,000 checks, spokesman Max McGahan said. ”We have said we will compensate individuals and businesses in full for whatever damages or loss of income has resulted from the oil spill. We have made that commitment very clearly,” McGahan said. He declined to address the “made whole” pledge. Read More in the St Petersburg Times



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The President, the Spill and the Narrative that got away

SIMON MANN, The Age, Sydney Australia

The White House lost control of the story, and now Obama is painted as the bad guy.

These days, if you hadn’t already noticed, everyone and everything is ascribed a ”narrative”, something that is to be owned and shaped, that tells a particular story in a particular fashion.

Narratives aren’t necessarily truthful accounts, but they are often powerful and persuasive. They can also be hijacked. If you neglect to write your own narrative, somebody else will write it for you. Which is why US President Barack Obama is no longer travelling to Australia and Indonesia this month. Essentially, his administration lost control of the narrative of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Others have been its lead authors, constructing a story that reads like this: the White House allowed BP too much licence in running the operation to fix the crippled Deepwater Horizon well, too readily trusting the oil giant’s version of events; it left the US Coast Guard alone to marshal the federal response; and it was slow to pick up on the exasperated cries of Gulf communities readying for environmental and economic catastrophe. The authors dared even to suggest that the spill looms as Obama’s “Katrina”.

The President’s response to contentious issues has often been characterised as more cerebral than heartfelt. This is the guy, after all, who makes Cool Hand Luke look jumpy and uptight. And the media has long invited him to “get angry” and “get even”.

It’s not that the administration hasn’t put the hours into combating America’s worst-ever environmental mishap.

Read and See More including ‘Kick ass’ Obama slams critics video where US President Barack Obama rebuts claims that he has been slow to react to the oil spill catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.



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Tracking the Gulf Oil Spill Narrative


Obama vs. BP, Exxon Valdez vs. Katrina, Biblical Prophesies, etc.

The development of the Gulf Oil Spill narrative is important since he who wins control of the narrative, controls      the story in terms of political capital – for good or ill.

Austin, TX, June 02, 2010 — In an exclusive analysis by The Global Language Monitor’s NarrativeTracker™, there are now several differing story lines emerging from the Gulf Oil Spill.

The ‘narrative’ refers to the stream of public opinion captured by blogs and othersocial media outlets on the Internet, as well as the leading print and electronic databases.

The Narratives emerging from this on-going (and slow-moving) disaster include:

· Obama was Slow to Respond – 95% of the social media conversations characterize the President Obama as ‘slow to respond’.

· Obama vs. BP: who’s in charge? — 52% see BP in charge of the spill. This may or may not be a political liability. Democrats need the blame assigned to BP; at the same time, Obama needs to be seen as in overall control of the disaster.

· Worst environmental disaster ever – 42% see the current spill the worst environmental disaster ever.

· Federal Response — 57% see the Federal response using ‘poor’ or related keywords. Not a good month for the Feds; come to think of it, not a good year for the Feds.

· Katrina vs. Exxon Valdez – 61% make the comparison to the Exxon Valdez; about 39% compare the ongoing spill to the inundation of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

· Biblical Prophecies Abound Once More — About 61% of all references involve the Bible. (Even Ted Turner has a theory how the oil spill might be a warning from God.) These are markedly different in tone than those used with Katrina where the references focused on apocalyptic imagery, End-of-the-World scenarios and doom.

· The Obama Style of Leadership – This is a close one 52% see Obama as ‘hand’s on’ leadership, 48% see ‘hand’s off’. Again, this is either positive or negative depending on your political bias. Ronald Reagan was seen as a ‘hand’s off’ president and that was considered good. Jimmy Carter was a ‘hand’s on’ type president and that was considered bad.

“The development of the Gulf Oil Spill narrative is important to track since he who wins control of the narrative, controls the story in terms of political capital – for good or ill,” said Paul JJ Payack, president and chief word analyst of GLM. “With the mid-term elections just five months away, and the prospect of the Gulf Oil Spill continuing unabated for months, control of the narrative is more important than ever.”

The rise of the narrative can render positions on the issues almost meaningless, since positions now matter less than how they fit into a particular narrative. The NarrativeTracker is more effective in capturing the true opinion of the public because it tracks unfiltered keywords in Social Media and other sources, rather than how that opinion is interpreted by the news media or by pollsters.

The term ‘narrative’ in this sense is now appearing thousands of times in the global media on the Internet and blogosphere as well as throughout the world of social media, meaning the main streams of public opinion running in the media that needs to be fed, encouraged, diverted or influenced by any means possible.

GLM recently announced The Healthcare NarrativeTracker Index™ (NTI™), in partnership with OpenConnect Systems of Dallas. The Healthcare NTI is the first product specifically designed to use social media-based monitoring to better understand the issues driving healthcare reform, providing a real-time, accurate picture of what the public is saying about any topic related to healthcare, at any point in time.

The NarrativeTracker is based on the GLM’s Predictive Quantities Indicator™ (PQI™). The PQI tracks the frequency of words and phrases in global print and electronic media on the Internet, throughout the Blogosphere and other social media outlets as well as accessing proprietary databases. The PQI is a weighted index that factors in long-term trends, short-term changes, momentum, and velocity.



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Quantifying the Gulf Oil Spill

A Technical Communications Perspective


How about 50,000 Cars on the Pacific Coast Highway?

Or a 747 with 500 on board flying for 57 minutes?

Austin, Texas, May 20, 2010 — What does 5,000 (or 50,000) barrels of oil a day mean to you?  We’ve been hearing that number for almost a month now.  And there is some debate whether or not those are accurate numbers.  But what does it mean other than ‘a whole lotta oil’?  This is the question that Global Language Monitor President, Paul JJ Payack examined over the last few days in the following analysis.

Metric Conversion:  1 gallon = 3.79 liters; 1 barrel = 158.98 liters; 1 mile = 1.61 kilometers


Listen or Read: KUHF — Analyst Puts BP Gulf Oil Spill Into Perspectiveto Quantify the Oil Spill at 50,000 Barrels Per Day?

Back when I taught technical and scientific communications at the University of Massachusetts, a key function was to make physical dimensions meaningful to the audience, so we would describe a mainframe computer as the size of a washing machine (used to be an 18 wheeler), a server might be the size of a breadbox (though few have actually seen a breadbox nowadays but we all know it’s about ‘yeah big’).  In the same manner Jupiter is about the size of 80,000 Earths, the Moon’s diameter is about equal to the width of the continental US (or the distance from New York to LA), and you could stuff approximately one million Earths into the Sun.

When you describe the volume of a liquid, such as water, you make comparisons like ‘if you emptied Lake Tahoe – which is nearly 1000 feet deep — and spread about 14 inches over the entire state’.

In terms of energy usage, a common description is to equate a megawatt to the number of homes for which it supplies power.  So a one megawatt nuclear reactor, or wind farm, can power about a thousand American homes, or 10,000 homes in less-developed parts of the world.

So what does the 5,000 to 50,000 barrels a day mean?   First question is ‘what’s a barrel’?’  A barrel is filled with forty-two gallons of oil.  So 5,000 to 50,000 barrels equates to some 210,000 to 2.1 million gallons (or 16.8 million half-pints if you’re thinking in terms small milk cartons distributed in schools).

It does not help, of course, when the CEO of BP likens the spill to a drop in the bucket in relation to the capacity of the oceans.  This strikes most people as condescending but it is actually NOT true.  It is far less than a drop in the bucket when compared to the size of the seas, which contain about 321 million cubic miles of water, so even if the spill is now 1 mile deep by 1 mile wide, by 1 mile in height (USGS numbers) that would be far less than a drop (1 part oil to 321,000,000 parts water).  (Though I am definitely not using this explanation to support BP’s argument here.)

Put another way, in light sweet crude you get about 19.5 gallons of gasoline from the 42 gallons of oil.  Now if a typical car gets about 20 mpg on the highway, that would be equivalent to about 390 miles per barrel.

This is the distance from Los Angeles to San Francisco (actually 383 miles). So if the spill has been spewing 5,000 to 50,000 barrels per day since April 20; that is enough to power 5,000 to 50,000 cars a day along the Pacific Coast highway (or the I-5) from San Francisco to LA.

One more equivalency.  747 aircraft in flight with about 500 people on board are estimated to use about use about a gallon of kerosene a second. About 4.1 gallons are distilled from each barrel of oil.  So 5,000 barrels of crude oil produce 20,500 gallons of kerosene, while 50,000 barrels of oil produce 205,000 gallons of kerosene.

This means 5,000 barrels enables a 747 with 500 passengers to fly 5.7 minutes, while the amount of kerosene from 50,000 barrels of crude oil will allow the same plane to fly almost an hour (56.9 minutes).



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EC Multilingualism News — Can you say Eyjafjallajoekull?

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A Texas-based language expert group said Eyjafjallajoekull, the Icelandic volcano paralysing air traffic recently, appears 2 million times on Google but can be pronounced by only 320,000 people.

Eyjafjallajökull

Paul J.J. Payack, president and chief word analyst of the Global Language Monitor, said Eyjafjallajoekull is unlikely to appear in English-language dictionaries anytime soon.

Did you know?

There are many examples of proper names becoming common words, including caesarian section, named after Julius Caesar, who was ‘plucked from his mother’s womb’ or saxophone after its Belgian inventor Adolphe Sax. Such words are called ‘eponyms’ and are quite common in all languages. Eyjafjallajoekull, however, is unlikely to make such a career.

The Global Language Monitor in Austin, Texas, documents, analyzes and tracks trends in language the world over, with a particular emphasis upon Global English.

Find out about the correct pronunciation of Eyjafjallajoekull and many other interesting things related to the media, words and the impact of language on various aspects of culture on the website of the Global Language Monitor.

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