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…”