Finding the Golden Nugget – The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver

Nate Silver has precipitated the biggest shift to American politics since Donald Rumsfeld spelt out the difference between known knows and unknown knowns.  His statistical analysis of the us elections, broadcast to the world via his New York Times-backed blog fivethirtyeight.com, challenged the received wisdom of dozens of talking heads, whose gut feelings turned out to be little more than indigestion and indignation at how un-close the polls actually were.

Silver’s book, The Signal and the Noise, was published long before Election Day.  In it he brings his statistical and mathematical procedure to bear on numerous subjects, from baseball to hurricanes, and begins to lay out just how you can find the statistical ‘certainties’ among the background noise of screaming opinions and partisan (and even non-partisan, well meaning) bluster.

SigNoiUK                                                  SigNoiUS

UK Hardback                                                                             US Hardback

(Allen Lane)                                                                               (Penguin Press)

Both editions were published in February, to laudatory reviews in America.  Once the election ended so decisively, UK reviewers rediscovered the book among their proofs and have made it a publishing phenomenon over here as well.  The Americans -Penguin (US) Press, specifically- covered the book with a slightly sickly yellow cover, a colour sure to stand out, except for all the other outlandish colours in a typical bookshop.  It seems to me, at least, that cover design should always focus on transmitting the book itself. So many books are trying to stand out with bright colour seems that… Well, the ‘look at me’ scream of bright yellow is drowned out by the blues, yellows, reds and pinks of the other books surrounding it on the shelf. The ‘Signal’ is truly drowned out by the ‘Noise’.

The book’s cover does little, to my mind, to convey its exceptional contents.  The subtitle is writ large, in the centre of the image, so at least that explains the content, and given that the book was published before Silver rose to international prominence as an analyst, this is sensible, making sure the casual browser recognised the subject.  But the cover speaks little else to the prospective reader.  The vaguely electronic script suggests a scoreboard or even a line of code, while the dark yellow repetition of the title directly references the idea of finding important information (signal, title, subtitle, author) among the noise of the background.  It works, but to my mind may have been too ‘high-concept’ before his ascension to become a household name.

Now, the UK cover, published by Penguin (UK) imprint Allen Lane (in this blog, I expect to return to Allen Lane A LOT. Their covers over the last few years had become, to my mind, the leaders in the publishing world), is far superior.  Refined, and actually very well-placed to capitalise on the authors new-found fame.  A simple, white cover lists the author, title and subtitle.

The image below the words is simple and evocative.  Nothing more than a brand new, sparkling clean prospectors sieve, with a little nugget of gold sitting in it.  Unsubtle the analogy may be, the design makes for a classy, clean-looking book, and given Silver’s reputation as a man who brings order to chaos, nothing could be more appropriate.

For me second blog entry, I’m going to have to call this one for the UK edition… let’s see how the paperbacks come out!

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