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There's a link in the description, and a question at the end of the video.
This isn't the first time that this question's been asked.
Several web projects have tried to answer it before, some are still running, and some are defunct.
And the question itself has been used as a punchline, asked by an inept, self-obsessed radio DJ character.
the best thing?” Of course there isn't a meaningful answer to that question.
But I think there are some really interesting challenges in trying to find an answer anyway, and the results can reveal a lot more than you might think.
The first problem is trying to list everything.
I know it's an obvious thing to say, but: there are a lot of things in the universe.
So let's reduce the scope to “everything that most people could form an opinion about”.
How do you get a list of everything like that? Well, the starting point is Wikidata.
Everything that has a Wikipedia article also has an entry in Wikidata, but so does every category of things, every property that something might have, and every link and connection between all of those.
And it's all designed to be processed by computers.
So I figured I'd start by downloading it.
More than a terabyte of data, more than 88 million thingsexhaustively described.
And most of those things are not interesting.
More than that, they're going to be a mystery to almost everyone.
Every named location in the worldno matter how obscure, every species and genus of animal, enormous numbers of scholarly articles.
If you show most of those to people and ask them to form an opinion, the answer isn't just going to be “I don't know”: it'll be “I don't care”.
So I had to filter those 88 million things.
And the first steps were actually kind of easy.
First, I removed all listings for people.
We're ranking things, so someone else can do “who is the best person”.
You're welcome to that.
But I just removed any item that was tagged with Q5, “human”.
And that's good, that's a good start.
Also, I removed all listings for groups of people, because: yikes.
If you're doing “what is the best thing”, no country or river or buildingis ever going to win, it'll get voted down by political rivalriesor people elsewhere who've never heard of it, so if the item was tagged with a latitude and longitude, it also got thrown out.
Also, anything tagged as fictional got removed too: not works of art themselves, but characters and events that aren't part of reality.
That still left an enormous number of items.
But we're only looking for things that most people will know about, and there's a really good metric for that: I kept anything that had a Wikipedia articlein at least fifty different languages.
I tried different thresholds for that, but fifty seemed to have the right balance where almost everything that remained would be recognisable to most people.
And that brought it down to 8, 850 things.
Which is a managable number.
But there was no way to automate the last part.
I had to manually check through all those thousands of things to find the bad ones.
Not just things that most people would vote against because they're unpleasant or harmful, but things that no-one should be asking about in a lighthearted web poll.
Crimes against the person.
A couple of disturbing things that were just listed as “rituals”.
Anything to do with the Nazis.
Which it turns out is quite a lot.
They kept showing up under apparently-innocent categories? Like, eugenics was just tagged as “social philosophy”.
Mein Kampf, just listed as “written work”.
Unless you kept constantly vigilant for them, they kept trying to sneak in.
Then there were the dull groups of things that could be summed up in a single entry instead.
Every time zone.
Every language, every country's flag and national anthem.
Every individual book of every religious text.
A lot of mythological figures who weren'ttagged as either “human” or “fictional”.
Hundreds of generic names of galaxies– “Okay, you know what? I talked about that for far too long.
“Let's just say I removed the boring ones, okay? There were a lot of them.
“Let's skip forward.
” And then, there was the vandalism.
All of which has since been corrected, but in the snapshot I downloaded, someone had replaced the title of “graphics” with “Pro player de fifa” and the description of “worm” with “dog go fishing”.
Also, “pipe organ” was described as “wind instrument that causes cancer”.
So there's someone out there who really, really doesn't like pipe organs.
When all was done: 7, 188 things.
I knew it wasn't going to be perfect, people would still find mistakes, and they did.
But it was good enough.
It was time to ask the world which was best.
One of the best approaches for ranking items in a list is to show them to people two at a time, and then ask them to pick the best of each random pair.
The best ones will be consistently voted for, and the worst ones voted against.
And as long as you have enough votes in total, you don't need to keep track of all the different pairings: just the total number of wins and losses for each item.
Now, I've written code to do that before, so I just reused it, put a quick site together, and launched it out on Twitter.
My code broke immediately because I'd forgotten to change one line before going live, I fixed it within a minute or so while a hundred people rushed to tweet me about something I obviously already knew about.
Five hours and more than 1.
2 million votes later, the order of items had settled down, and I closed the poll before anyone wrote code to try and break it.
Now, you'll remember that each pairing was randomly chosen.
That means some items had more match-ups than others, just through sheer luck.
The outliers were “mold”, which was in 125 match-ups, and “canal”, which was in 236.
There was the expected distribution between those.
So, at this point, we had ranked everything.
I don't want to spend too much time on the bottom of the list.
It's a lot of nasty diseases and unpleasant concepts.
Also one of the Twilight movies.
I will say that The Worst Thing.
is Lyme disease.
I've no idea why.
It did significantly worse thaneverything else, by a good margin.
Maybe, statistically, out of the thousands of items, one had to get a lot of unlucky matchups? But, honestly, it is a really long way below any other item.
“Coronavirus”, also fairly low.
And anything religious did quite poorly, which makes sense: if you're not religious you're rarely going to vote for anything to do with faith, and if you are religious you're hardly ever going to vote anything other than your own faith.
In hindsight, I should have done something like consolidate all the entries for faiths into one just called “religion”.
Which I'm sure wouldn't have caused me any problems at all.
The best things.
First, let's be clear: these are the results as voted by the people who follow me on Twitter.
This is about “the best thing” as decided by, if we're honest, a group of English-speaking, extremely-online nerds.
However, that's also going to be a lot of the people who watch this video, so, I think it's fair to say, as voted by you: here are the top ten best things.
At number 10, privacy.
And ranked above privacy, at number 9, pizza.
Is pizza better or more important than privacy? [indecisive noise] .
but pizza is more likely to win a match-up, and that's what counts here! By the way, the next highest food was ice cream, at number 43, and while that could imply thatmy audience have the palates of five-year-olds, I think it's more that, while those may not be everyone's favourite foods, there are very few people who actively dislike them, so they'll win a lot of generic match-ups just because of that.
The next items up: knowledge, creativity and logic.
The foundations of human thought.
Given my audience, that makes a lot of sense.
At number 5: hugs.
Which Wikidata clinically describes as “a form of endearment, universal in human communities”.
Granted, it's 2020 as this video goes out, so they're less universal than they perhaps should be right now, but that's still lovely.
Then we get to three items that I honestly wasn't expecting to be so high.
At number 4: gravity.
Sure, it's essential for the entire universe to work, I just didn't expect it to beat “hugs”.
And then, at number 3.
the Earth's magnetic field.
Like I said, extremely-online nerds.
Because, again, yes, essential for life to exist, but just to be clear, “air” and “fresh water” only just made the top 25, and somehow the Earth's magnetic field is at number 3.
And it's at this point that I really start to doubt my own methodology.
Because at number two is electricity.
I do realise that using an electronic device to run this poll does give that a certain advantage, but again, should that really be higher than air? Before we get to the best thing, though, here are some other interesting results in specific categories: the best part of the body is the brain.
“Space” and “time” both fought and won exactly the same number of match-ups, they landed in joint 36th place.
Despite there being quite a few things about sex in the list, none of them got near the top 50.
“Okay, okay, I should have checked more than the top 50 before recording this, “'cos it turns out that the highest-rated sex thing is 'orgasm', “and it got to number 69, and I swear I'm not making that up.
” The best creatures are bees, then emperor penguins, then hedgehogs.
The best colours are black, then blue, and the worst is brown.
Love doesn't even make it into the top 100, it's down at 137, next to Vitamin C and cryptography, and if that doesn't prove my audience isn't representative of the wider world, I don't know what does.
Actually, I do know what does, heterosexuality lost more than 50% of its match-ups, while bisexuality was ranked only one item below doctors.
Yes, it is ridiculous to try and rank everything like this.
But the results do reveal things about this group of people, about the folks who tend to watch videos like this.
And perhaps the most revealing thing is what placed first.
It doesn't just tell you about the needs and desires of this audience, it's also something about the times we're living in.
If we weren't in what seems to be such a rough year, if I were giving this talk to a live audience, like I originally planned to, instead of a standing in front of a green screen and talking to a camera in a tiny apartment, well, then, in that case maybe the results would have been different.
But the best thing, according to this audience in mid-2020: the best thing is.
Have a good night, folks.
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