Super Crunchers

The Book of the Week is “Super Crunchers” by Ian Ayres, published in 2007. This is a book about how projections based on vast quantities of numerical data in various areas of life are spurring innovations and controversy.

Improvements have been made in health, education, welfare, politics, marketing and other aspects of the day-to-day existence of humans because technological advances have greatly facilitated large volumes of number-crunching; however, not without heated debates.

People who are “experts” in specific disciplines whose projections can be quantified, are being obsolesced by machines that make predictions better than they can. For instance, software has been created to project the duration of celebrity marriages. Such duration has been found to have an inverse relationship with Google web traffic. Horror.

When this ebook was published, (Now Bing Travel), a company known for its online airfare search engine– processed its information with a five-terabyte database– “… fifty billion prices that it purchased from ITA Software, a company that sells price data to travel agents, websites, and computer reservation services.” The sheer amount of data minimizes bias. Such “randomization” lets researchers “… run the equivalent of a controlled test without having to laboriously match up and control for dozens or hundreds of potentially confounding variables.”

A hue and cry was heard at teaching hospitals when internet users acquired the ability to diagnose themselves by Googling their symptoms. Around the same time, software was created by medical professionals concerned about the high percentage of misdiagnoses. Such software allowed medical-school students to make diagnoses with the use of a statistical algorithm in a database of diseases, syndromes, disorders, symptoms, causes, drug side effects, clinical findings, lab results and patient histories. The data consisted of “…word patterns in journal articles that were most likely to be associated with each disease.” The computer was more accurate than the medical school professors.

One profession in which jobs are not threatened by large-scale data processing, is psychoanalysis. It’s inferential and subjective– hard to quantify. In financial services, ego and feelings interfere with securities trading and the granting of loans. But computer programs’ regression equations are completely impartial. So they do better than humans at making predictions that make money. Even when a combination of a human and a machine are used to determine whether to grant parole to convicts (based on the probability they’ll go back to committing crimes after being released from prison), the machine alone makes better decisions in a larger percentage of cases.

Read the book to learn why number-crunching software is: inappropriate for making major one-time decisions; making some teachers into robots; good at predicting Supreme Court decisions; sometimes poorly understood by healthcare professionals; raising privacy concerns, and much more.

On the Firing Line

The Book of the Week is “On the Firing Line” by Gil Amelio with William L. Simon, published in 1998. In this informative book, Amelio chronicles his short tenure as Apple Computer’s CEO from early 1995 to mid 1997.

Some might say Amelio made a foolhardy decision to take on the challenge of turning Apple around, when he had a secure and promising future as the CEO of National Semiconductor, whose recovery he had spearheaded. Throughout the book, he discusses the series of difficulties he faced and admits his errors in judgment.

Amelio handed grist to his critics on a silver platter because he allowed his employees to talk to the media, which had a field day on many fronts. The media also played him for a fool.

There were numerous factors out of the CEO’s control that also gave him a tough time. His predecessor allowed extreme price cuts on Apple’s products, and the sales team was playing a short-sighted game– a vicious cycle every holiday season, whereby they would give deep last-minute discounts to retailers to move inventory, putting a better face than otherwise on the financial condition of the company, as its fiscal year started on October 1.

Amelio was distressed to find that the corporate culture was fragmented along departmental lines. The engineers worked on products the sales department had no intention of selling. “Apple never had an official statement of strategy – which inevitably means that every executive, and most managers, design their own versions. Everyone pursues their own goals, rowing frantically but each pulling in a different direction.” One reason was that managers knew the company was in dire financial straits and feared their projects were going to be cut.

Some thought Amelio desperate and a sellout for holding meetings with the enemy, Bill Gates, to propose making Apple products compatible with Microsoft products. Nonetheless, he was wary of Gates because Gates was unreasonably stingy in his negotiations.

With Amelio at the helm, performance of the desktop models improved tenfold but sales fell. He attributed this to the presence of a subjective element in people’s reaction to Apple “…irrelevant to product quality, and has … a lot to do with what they read in the newspapers and how comfortable they are with the state of the company.”

Read the book to learn: how Amelio was too trusting when he negotiated his employment contract; about the fronts on which he did make progress, and how he was done in by Steve Jobs.

How to Castrate A Bull

The Book of the Week is “How to Castrate A Bull” by Dave Hitz with Pat Walsh, published in 2009. This ebook chronicles Hitz’s career, describes the ups and downs of the tech company he co-founded– NetApp, and imparts wisdom on management, leadership and interesting trivia. A flash drive can store a small amount of personal data of everyone on earth, a hard copy of which would represent 20 million pounds of paper.

NetApp was a start-up in the early 1990’s that built and sold business-to business, a “…network storage system in eighteen months with eight people and $1.5 million.” It went public in November 1995. A start-up has to sell something people are willing to pay for, such as a physical product, or advertising.

During the year 2000, NetApp’s share price tanked– as did that of many other tech stocks– plummeting from $150 to $6. The company delayed laying people off, and did not speak of it, as long as possible. “We announced layoffs one day and did them the next.” Hitz thinks taking care of such unpleasantness quickly is the best policy. Prolonged “palace intrigue” is bad for the work environment. Employees who know their last day is in the future are going to have less than optimal productivity, loyalty and a stable emotional state, to say the least.

When it came time to write the section on the NetApp’s philosophy in the company manual, Hitz says, “Company values only work if the leaders say, ‘These are things I really do believe. If I violate them, please call me on it… Values should remain constant, but appropriate behavior will change as a company grows.” When an employer provides “fun stuff” or free food to its employees, “that’s a symptom of good culture, not a cause of it.”

Read the book to learn Hitz’s explanation of how NetApp became a tremendously successful company, and how it fared after the dot-com crash.

Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “Word of Mouse” by John Riedl and Joseph Konstan, published in 2002.

It is about the concept called “Collaborative Filtering.” That means the ability to make product-recommendations to consumers based on a significant number of their self-reported likes of products via an algorithm in a computer program.

The authors claim that the program makes recommendations with a high degree of accuracy, once a subject provides sufficient data on likes and dislikes. Such data are superior to demographic data such as age, occupation and sex, when it comes to predicting future preferences.

Collaborative filtering can be applied to sales of clothing, books, movies and goods sold on the internet– simple products that are purchased according to taste. “Cultural tastes seem to run in patterns.”

This blogger theorizes that the algorithm would do poorly on complex offerings that involve customer service– restaurant meals, hotel rooms, flights or personal services, because they are an experience that varies every time and are more likely to be enjoyed multiple times. A singular product like a book or movie, is a one-time experience.

When polled by the computer program on a book or movie, consumers express their like or dislike only for the book or movie, not bookstore atmosphere or moviegoer rudeness. Consumers might rate a hotel room on hotel-staff friendliness, room decor, cleanliness, and a host of other variables; if they have stayed at the hotel more than once, the rating might also reflect consumers’ general vibe about the hotel for all their stays. On any given day, the consumer might have a good or bad experience at a hotel. Anyway, the algorithm might achieve the same degree of accuracy by recommending a hotel simply based on other hotels with similar amenities and features, as by recommending based on the consumer’s likes of other hotels.

The authors discuss an online business that was started in 1998, Priceline, which allows customers to name the highest price they are willing to pay for a product or service, and if their purchase is approved, (presumably) receive it at a deep discount. For the most part, this appears to be irrelevant to collaborative filtering. Nevertheless, interestingly, the “reverse-auction model” has turned out to be profitable for travel-related services but not for gasoline, groceries and financial services. The reason is that airlines and hotels suffer a total loss on each plane seat and hotel room unfilled on any particular flight or night, respectively. Recouping some revenue from passengers and guests, even at a deep discount, is preferable. The authors make a point about how Priceline displays local geographic expertise in selling its services. Displaying expertise is important for online selling.

The authors boldly proclaim, “We envision recommenders moving out more into the public and the bricks-and-mortar sphere… Recommenders can limit the number of items a customer needs to see on each [Web]page… Recommenders can also be used in voice interfaces where the limiting factor is low bandwidth…”  Clearly, Riedl and Konstan underestimated the algorithmic proficiency of Google.

Read the book anyway to see the authors’ enthusiasm for collaborative filtering and get numerous tips on online selling, marketing, and what we now know about the internet. 🙂

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

The Book of the Week is “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, published in 2009.

This ebook is the inspiring autobiography of a boy born in 1988 in Kasungu, Malawi. He grew up on a farm where corn, tobacco and pumpkins were grown and livestock was raised. The people there believe in witchcraft, but his father believed God protected his family from it because they were Presbyterian. Nevertheless, he wrote, “Sadly, our country’s constitution doesn’t have a clause that protects us from witchcraft.” He recounted incidents in the single-digit 2000’s in which people were put on trial for witchcraft and when deemed guilty, heavily fined.

In the mid 1990’s, entertainment in the “trading center” near Kasungu consisted of “… a thatch hut with wooden benches, a small television, and a VCR” on which to watch movies.  The author and his friends played a game they called “USA versus Vietnam.”

The Malawians celebrate their independence from Great Britain on July 6. Throughout his childhood, the author was a fan of the MTL Wanderers, aka the Nomads, a professional soccer club– the enemy team of the Big Bullets, in the Malawi Super League. He listened to the games on Radio One on a battery-operated radio. There was only one other radio station, Radio Two. Both were run by the government. The author wrote, “Only 2% of Malawians have electricity, and this is a huge problem.”

Read the book to learn of the extreme hardships Kamkwamba and his family faced with respect to famine and his education, and learn of his ingenuity, resourcefulness, persistence and industriousness in doing a project that was eventually noticed by people halfway around the world.

The Google Guys

The Book of the Week is “The Google Guys, Inside the Brilliant Minds of Google Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin” by Richard L. Brandt, published in 2009, with an Afterword published in 2011. This ebook recounts the history of the company that created the world’s largest internet search engine, which can analyze millions of pages a second.

The company has more than one hundred attorneys on staff. It must defend itself against lawsuits in connection with intellectual property, privacy, monopolistic practices, censorship, etc. It has about “twenty thousand employees and $20 billion in revenues.”

Larry and Sergey, the company’s founders, avoid doing conventional things that even many tech companies do. When they set up shop in 1998, the two never wrote a business plan. They “almost never give interviews or attend conferences.” Since they possess incredible power, they are not just tough business negotiators, but unreasonably arrogant ones.

Currently, the company provides a large array of services, in addition to a search engine. These include “PC applications, e-mail, cell phone operating systems, Web browsers, Wiki information sites, social networks, and photo editing sites…”

Read the book to learn more about Google, Inc., its history, and the personalities of its founders.

Just For Fun

The Book of the Week is “Just For Fun” by Linus Torvalds, published in 2002.  This is the autobiography of a computer geek who fell into fame and fortune.  He hails from Finland, where internet access is extremely widespread.  While in graduate school, he created the kernel for a new computer operating system he named after himself, “Linux.”  It is based on the existing system, “Unix.”  Linux is “open source,” meaning, a community of computer users can change the system’s source code to improve it.  Theoretically, any user who wishes to, can volunteer to work on the code. If it is imperfect, others will correct it.  Also, the system can be downloaded free of charge.

Torvalds’ family lived in a region of Finland where the people were Swedish-speaking, and reticent.  Besides, Torvalds fit the stereotype of the computer geek; admittedly he “lacked any social graces whatsoever.”  One day in the early 1990’s, he started a project on which he was to work around the clock, for nine months straight.  It was “just for fun.” He explained that computer programming requires the simultaneous tracking of many ideas and lots of information when one is in the thick of it.  Of course, many people helped him with Linux, which was introduced just at the time the open source movement was becoming widespread among computer hobbyists.  He accepted donations through his website, to keep the project alive.

Surprisingly, Torvalds got married.  Unsurprisingly, he went to work for a tech firm in California, where he made some money from stock options (before it was too late).

Silicon Snake Oil

The Book of the Week is “Silicon Snake Oil” by Clifford Stoll.  This prescient book (published in 1996) presents evidence that the use of technology in certain areas of our lives, such as in education, is not necessarily a cure-all.

Here is an excerpt describing what happened when the author’s machine was malfunctioning:  “…so I grovel before a technician or pay a long-distance fee to get lost in a thicket of automated help messages…”

Just a few problems in American schools include overcrowding, poor teaching, poor security and budget shortfalls.  “Computers address none of these problems.”  Just because technology might “make learning fun” does not mean students learn any better. It just makes curriculum suppliers richer.

This is a thought-provoking book.

Bad Attitude

The Book of the Week is “Bad Attitude; The Processed World Anthology.”  Edited by Chris Carlsson with Mark Leger, 1990.  This is a compilation of the late 1970’s magazine, “Processed World,” about early office computers.  It has many funny anecdotes, illustrations, comic strips and photos.  The caption of one photo (which really doesn’t require a photo) reads, “Sabotage… It’s as simple as pulling a plug…”