Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are

Everybody Lies weaves together two interweaving threads. The first is that what people type in private in a search engine tells a lot more about their true feelings than what they tell to pollsters. (People will often search for "non socially acceptable" things such as racist or sexual keywords, but would not admit that to pollsters.) The second is that analyzing big data can provide us answers that we could not find using smaller data sets. An example of a finding was on crimes caused by violent movies. Using hourly crime data and violent movie box office, it was found there was a decrease in violent crimes when a popular violent movie was playing. This may be due to the violence-inclined watching the movie instead of getting drunk and violent that evening.

Most of the work delves in to the big data analysis of the non-socially acceptable topics. People would not tell a pollster something, but they would be willing to type it into a search engine. The difference between the public postings on Facebook and the private searches on Google would be an interesting avenue of exploration. (But, alas, the book doesn't go there.) The author acknowledges that there are weaknesses in using extremely large data sets. It is very well possible to find an answer that is merely coincidence. You can almost always find the answer that you are looking for, but need to be careful to make sure it is really true. (However, I wonder if he also falls victim to this also. If something is unacceptable in an area, the people publicly supporting it may be lower, while searches may be higher. However, would the reverse also be true, with people in an area where it is acceptable to say they support it, while not actually searching for it?)

Anti-muslim behavior provides an interesting case study. After attacks in San Bernadino, anti Muslim sentiment was on the rise. Obama tried to quell this by giving a speech stressing peace. The speech went over well with the media. However, a spike in Muslim-hate searchers occurred during the speech. The one time when it went down was when he talked about Muslim athletes. People were then more interested in searching out how Muslims were similar to them. This helped provide a base for future attempts at reducing violent behavior.

The analysis of "border cases" provides some interesting insights. There is a strict test score cut off for admittance to the most prestigious high school in New York. However, people that barely make the cut off seem to get into equally prestigious colleges as those who barely make the cutoff. This seems to show the high school has very little value. (However, it could also show that admissions officers favor students from a diversity of schools and may make it more difficult for those in the best school to get into their desired college.) Similar results were shown for people who got into Penn State and Harvard. Regardless of which school they chose, they seemed to have equally successful careers. (This does leave plenty of questions. Did people that went to Penn State work harder? Does Penn State have an honors program that provides a similar environment as an ivy? Is Harvard a mediocre experience for those without wealthy connections? Would people with similar academic profiles that did not apply to either show similar results?) It does seem to show that it is the person, not the circumstances that lead to success. Or perhaps that people that try and fail have a chip on their shoulder and are likely to work harder to succeed in the long run.

The author pays a debt of gratitude to Steven Levitt and Freakanomics in inspiring him to look for quirky answers to other problems. (Though he does claim that Levitt has fallen from grace to to political incorrectness and a coding issue - I guess I missed that one.) Now big data is the force that can finally put the "science" into social science. With large data sets, we can legitimately probe human behavior in a way that natural scientists can probe nature. However, there still are challenges. In some instances, "little data" can be better used. Often the best results can be found by combining multiple sources that include big data, enriched by more traditional "little data".

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Story of Music: From Babylon to the Beatles: How Music Has Shaped Civilization

Why do we have music? What was the purpose? Music has been used through much of the history of man. Ancient paintings show indicators of musical instruments. However, we have little idea what this music was. While writing and paintings from early history can be studied, we have little idea what the actual music was. There were some early attempts to provide some guidelines for the performing of music (such as the psalms.) However, these were only very basic, and did not provide enough to fully replicate the experience of the ancient musical performances. It wasn't until the last thousand years where a form of musical notation was created. Even the early notation has only reached the modern sheet music in the last few hundred years. This finally allowed music to be shared and gave rise to classical composers. However, unlike paintings that are observed in their original form, sheet music is interpreted by the performers, and remains "living" centuries after it was created.
The Story of Music traces the history of music. Famous musicians (such as Beethoven and Bach) are given their place, as are other musicians that have made contributions to the evolution of music in other ways, such as those that helped introduce chord progressions and the differences of notes. (The perfect difference between notes was dropped in favor of equal distance between notes.) Even hundreds of years ago, there was an artificial differentiation between "popular" and "artistic" music. (Ironically some of the "popular" music such as operas are now treated as "artistic".) I wish they included music in the audiobook. Descriptions of music just don't do justice to understanding of music. (Hearing comparisons of Lizt and Danny Elfman further whet my appetite for listening to the music.)
This book would have been a great candidate for an "enhanced" audiobook that included snippets of the music discussed as it was going on. I thought that somebody might have created Spotify playlists. It turns out the author has the playlists at his website: http://www.howardgoodall.co.uk/works/tv-presenting/howard-goodalls-story-of-music/playlists-for-the-story-of-music. The playlists are thorough - perhaps a little too much - with many requiring over a day's worth of nonstop listening to get through.
Though the author does attempt to focus on the entire spectrum of music, the focus drifts towards what we would call "western classical music". Popular music outside the western canon does get mentioned, but not with the detail of influential classical music. There is a sense of nostalgia given for the days when the "artistic" music of the day was also the most popular. (However, there still seemed to be the acknowledgement that serious music was for the elite in days past, even if it did have popular appeal.)
The advent of music broadcasting and playback equipment finally made popular music something that could not be ignored. The performing artist became as important (or even more important) than the composer. Popular music changed some of the common tropes of music composition, but stayed fairly consistent. Composition as a popular art form became mostly confined to film music. Popular music had its own cross-pollination, with negro spirituals borrowing from the British working-class and then morphing into jazz, and then rock and roll. The book felt like it ended too soon, but that may be due to recency bias. I was hoping to hear more of how music is evolving today.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice

Why would you hire a milkshake? It may be because you want something to easily eat and occupy you on a morning commute. Or, you may want to "give in" to a child and spend some time together. In one case, the milkshake is a better alternative to a donut. In another, it is competing with a toy store. Both are very different reasons for hiring. Understanding the purpose that the milkshake is fulfilling helps to better serve the customers and sell more milkshakes.

Competing Against Luck primarily uses anecdotes from various organizations to show how the jobs theory can help in making decisions about innovating. Successful new products and services help perform "jobs" that people need. These jobs may not be easily apparent in standard market research. Sometimes, there may be other factors in play that were not evident when looking at the original problem. (For example, high tech solutions may help doctor's complete activities in treating their patients. However, the emotional connection is even more important, and the technology gets in the way of their role of relating to the patient.) Often, people will not know they have a need for something new and may reject the thought of it. (American Girls dolls were panned in the initial market research, but went on to become hugely successful.)

"Objective" data can be a tricky thing, especially for ongoing operations. Everyone can use data to tell their story. However, behind the data are a series of qualitative judgement. Somebody chose what data to collect and how to measure it. People often feel they are getting "the facts", but they are really just getting numbers that were generated based on a number of opinions. (The numerical "facts" do give an air of authority even though they are often no better than opinionated judgments.)

Jobs theory can be summarized as "know the deeper meaning of why something is being done." Problems can arise when companies look at the surface reason and miss out on the true actions. Railroads faltered as they thought people were hiring them because they wanted rail travel. In fact, people just wanted a mechanism to move from point A to B. When better alternatives were available, they migrated away from rail. Similarly, there are many times where people (or individuals) don't realize the true purpose for which things are done. A job to be done is typically described in nouns and verbs. It is also provided in a general sense that can be replaced by something outside the current industry. The "job to be done" can help to explore the deeper reason for why things are done throughout life - and can also help explain some of the failures and successes we see in this world.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language

The pool in "Gene Pool", "Pooling resource" and similar usages is not related to a "Swimming pool" at all, but instead comes from the French word for chicken. Etymologicon has an exploitative, stream of conscious style that works perfectly for the subject matter. The author takes some words and gradually moves through their evolution, and in the process runs into some other interesting words. These are explored and then related to something else. Each individual group of words is an interesting read on its own. The masterwork, however, is being able to relate them all together. He also takes time to delve into some linguistic influenced history. (The Anglo-Saxon takeover of the Celt lands seemed to be an all-out attack - or peaceful coexistence. Indo-Europeans spread out in many directions with their language.) The history leaves some interesting names that sometimes are merely multiple versions of the same word in different languages. (Some placenames would be translated "Hill Hill Hill".) Neverland comes from Peter Pan by way of a part of Australia where the blacks and whites never had contact. The Starbucks name came from Moby Dick. Melville adopted a common name that came about from the Viking invasion before undergoing a number of spelling changes. Some words have changed their meaning over time. Gymnastics comes from the Greek meaning "to exercise naked" It has evolved into a specific type of athletic activity that is now done with clothes on.
There are many other great etymologies in this well written book. I would love for the author to write further follow ups.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership

Be true to yourself. That pretty much sums up True North. Often long lasting success depends on going off the "scripted" rise to the top and doing what fits better with your values and moral compass. Leadership does not require a position of responsibility. Instead it requires a genuine desire to help others be better. Often some of the most helpful events are the negative ones. The bad experiences help you to know who you are and grow to succeed in the future.
The book is packed with many small vignettes of people that have been deemed successful leaders. However, unlike other raw-raw business books, it also shows their failures. Even the CEO who seems to do everything right as he rises to the top can do something wrong that leads to his ouster. That doesn't make him a failure unless he chooses to let it. Chasing fame or position does not provide happiness. Material wealth may be beneficial at low levels, but after basic needs are met, more possessions can become a burden. Discovering your true north and having a good support group can help you to reach success and happiness. Having a mentor and somebody that you can share your deep feelings with is important. It is also good to have a two-way mentorship where both parties are getting something out of it.
There are also many leadership styles out there. Different styles are appropriate in different environments. Success often involves being in an environment that is conducive to your preferred style (and being willing to adapt.) Having a passion for what you are doing is also important. Having a lower level job that you really enjoy is better than a greater one that you do not like. A life outside of work is also important. However, it is also important to be the same person no matter where you are. In the end, you want to remember that the person in the leadership chair can change, but you will always have your personal legacy.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Pun Also Rises

There is actually a "punning" contest where contestants battle each other to make the most (and best) puns in a given topic. Some puns may be reaching, but the ability to continue the wordplay must take a lot of work. Puns have an interesting history. Even the definition of "pun" is clouded uncertainty, with many possible origins, but none fully convincing. Puns today are often degraded as lower forms of humor. However, they were not always thought of as funny. Creating and understanding puns requires a significant understand of the nuances of language. Some puns rely on homophones, while others rely on similar sounds or different meanings of different words. Understanding of the subject matter may be required for an understanding.

The Pun Also Rises would be best described as a language history. It delves into the history of the pun (dating back to ancient times), as well as its common use today. Even as it is degraded in comedy circles, it is still extensively used elsewhere. (From songs, to newspaper headlines to boat names, puns are everywhere.) The author also has a masterstroke for using puns, filling the book with subtle wordplay that does not get in the way of the story. I found myself with new appreciating for the pun as well as the "art" of punning.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat

Taste is one of the more maligned senses. Vision and hearing are used everyday in our interactions in the world. Touch provides continuous stimulus in our daily activities. Even smell is providing constant clues about our environment. But taste? Even the Greeks thought of it as a baser sense. It seems to only occur as we are indulging ourselves in food. However, taste has evolved in humans for a purpose. The taste of items helps steer us away from things that will hurt us and towards things that can help sustain us. Human's larger and more demanding brains have allowed them to focus on more efficient ways of ingesting calories, allowing us to spend less time eating than our primate cousins. Taste also involves a cultural adaptation, with things appearing tasty in one culture, but repelling in others. (There seem to be a multitude of "rotten fish" or "Stinky cheese" dishes out there.)
Through history there have been some attempts to analyze taste, as well as bogus theories that have endured much longer than they should. (For example, the erroneous "tongue map" that placed difference taste buds in different areas of the tongue was created by an uncorrected game of "telephone".) We have a better understanding today, but there is still a ways to go. Umami has only been recently added to the list of basic tastes. Will there be other tastes added?
Artificial sweeteners are difficult because they have side effects and only work on the taste sensors. However, even if we can't taste sweetness, we are likely to be attracted to it. Hot Peppers trigger a reaction that tricks the body into thinking there is a hot temperature, even though there is not. (It still can be debilitating as is the case with pepper spray.) Repeated exposure can desensitize people to the hotness - and even help them to live longer. Tasty does contains a number of historical tidbits and interesting anecdotes as it looks into the history of taste. However, it feels incomplete. There is not much of an overall narrative tying everything together. There seems to be so much more that could be said about taste. We may just need to discover it first.

Monday, May 01, 2017

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

I had always thought of Robert Moses as the evil dictator of New York highways. I had envisioned him as somebody that wanted to destroy Manhattan and transform it into a car-friendly suburban city. He seemed to be someone who wanted cars and highways and did not care about anything else. After reading Caro's Power Broker, I found myself even more disgusted with his life. I couldn't help but feeling how much better the world would have been had this one person been knocked out of commission.

The book did provide insight into the greater complexity of Moses's life. There was still a great degree of racist, classist and "carist" behavior in his actions. However, he had to work to accumulate the power first. He worked hard and got things done. He did create a large number of parks in the city. He would use the plight of the "common tenement dweller" in order to get his parks built. (But then he would turn around and limit their access to parks, by making them remote and easily accessible only by car.) He would fight against rich landowners when he wanted a park built, but would ally with them to get park donations, and willingly move parkways to avoid their land - even at the expense of ruining viable farmland.)

He started his career as a young idealist, eager to reform the corruption in New York City politics. His civil service reforms were beaten down and he was chased out of the city. When he later returned, his focus was on accumulating power. He initially started with parks and the parkways to get people there. Building in long island he was able to be close enough to the city, but far enough away to carve out his own space. Parks were also a valuable public resource that people could not easily fight against. He became the expert and the "parks guy". He knew how to get things done. He would wine and dine those in power, give jobs and lucrative contracts to the right people, and get the press to play into his hand. Initial cost estimates would always be significantly less than the final cost, but with the project in progress, who could refuse the extra allocation to finish it? If somebody didn't want him to build somewhere, he would simply jump start the project to have it in the works before they could complain.

He had a stellar reputation with the prewar press and public and would use it to accumulate more power. He would write the laws to benefit him and his power and gradually held more and more offices in the city and state government. His parkways were an extension of his "park" responsibilities. (And to ensure there would be no rif-raf at his parks, they were built with bridges too low for buses.) Since he was an expert at parkways, bridges and other highways also became his domain. He created a public authority to manage toll bridges such as the triburough bridge. This was a stroke of genius as it allowed him access to some public funds and bonding without public scrutiny. More importantly, it provided a continuing source of revenue that allowed him to further extend his power. He had plans drawn up for other highways. He had the funds and the plans. Even if small changes would save neighborhoods, he could refuse to allow them because the cost for the city to do it on their own was beyond the ability to manage.

Moses destroyed housing in multiple ways. As a housing commissioner, he was responsible for slum clearance. However, what typically happened was that slums were merely turned over to well-connected people who made them even worse while fleecing the residents. As a highway boss, he ripped apart neighborhoods and destroyed housing by adding freeways. He also failed to provide for public transportation, thus justify construction of more freeways in a never-ending feedback loop.

Parks also did not fair well under Moses's watch. While he did build many parks, he also paved over natural areas to provide his parkways. He "improved" parks his way, which may mean more pavement and a park that is less usable for the community.

How did things go so wrong? Robert Moses had power and surrounded himself with yes men. He didn't listen to the public he was serving. In spite of being the foremost highway builder, he didn't drive himself, and would usually work in the back of his car as he was driven around. He was smart and believed he was right. He was also always on the lookout for more power. Providing contracts and construction jobs for the well connected helped him increase his power. Building infrastructure for the well-to-do helped him consolidate his power. More people in cars meant more money and power.

Today, the United States is still suffering from Moses's Power. His model of highway building helped serve as the base for the Interstate Highway system. Vast swaths of cities became inefficiently dedicated to cars. Planners attempted to reduce congestion on roads by building more roads - only to see congestion increase. Public transportation was ripped out in favor of highway building. Only after sprawling suburbs were developed were attempts made to add transit back in (in the name of reducing highway congestion!). By then it was too late. Suburbs were not developed with a transit hub and were thus not efficiently served by transit. While transit was once run profitably by private entities, it is now subsidized by the public. Highways also continue to be publicly subsidized, leaving us with huge transportation outlays, while we still suffer from congestion.

Perhaps if New York would have let Moses's civil service reforms go through, he would not have become the power hungry maniac. Perhaps if the public appropriately limited his power early on (and had him adhere to the "one-office" rules), he would have not been able to destroy so much. If he would have just listened and used his brains to support public transportation, there would have not been a need for so many highways. He could have used the ability to get things done to make the world a better place for people. Alas, he did not, and in a quest to make things better for cars, he made the New York worse for everybody.

Alas, Moses remained in his cocoon. He was able to get things done. Just not the right things. He was regularly threatening to quit his posts. It finally took a Rockefeller to have the courage to let him do it. The governor had enough power and wealth to but Moses in his place. The public had also began to see the full extent of his power and did not have the rose colored lenses they once had. Even the media began to see through the facade. However, even with his resigning his posts, he still had triborough. Here, it required some double-crossing actions to finally get him out. He was enlisted to support the merger into MTA by the promise of a "key role" in the new organization. After the election passed, his key role ended up being as a consultant with no real authority. He was finally out of power, with his last bit of destruction being the cronyism in the World's Fair. At last he was out! He still tried to piece together additional bits of power, but he was through destroying the city. If only somebody had the guts to stop him earlier.