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Filling the ignorance market in social media
|I've been knee-deep in social media ever since the New York Times article popped up on the Web site Saturday evening. It's been fun.
Some people, I see, read the article and consider me a social media skeptic. Just to clarity, I'm a big believer in the power of social media. My only point is that it's so vast and complex that it's hard to harness--to measure, predict and monetize. But I would have a hard time taking seriously any marketer today, or advertiser, who isn't intensely focused on social media. It might not be a huge dollar focus. But it has to studied. Businesses have to grapple with it. That's where the customers are, and increasingly, the data that defines their markets and generates opportunities.
I've received quite a few emails from companies specializing in measuring social media behavior, and optimizing campaigns for it. (A post from Bottom-line Analytics
, another from BPI Media
.) Naturally, some are a bit offended by the angle of the article, which focuses on how hard that job is. But the reason their industry is growing so rapidly, attracting both hucksters and serious data scientists, is that there's so much mystery, and so much to learn. Social media is an enormous ignorance market. In the Information Age, after all, each question is a market opportunity. And the answers to the questions, instead of resolving the issue, simply create cascades of more valuable questions. The process never stops, just as in neuroscience and genetics.
|I was on a conference call yesterday afternoon. And when I walked into the kitchen, the last ray of sunlight was hitting the fruit.
How we lose our freedom to drive, part two
November 14, 2012News
|2013 Tesla; a future model will be driverless
"Thirty years from now, our grandchildren will have to hack our cars to be able to drive." That prediction came to me a few years ago from Luis von Ahn,
a computer science whiz at Carnegie Mellon. It's obvious to anyone who
sees our killer drones in the Middle East or the fast development of
Google's driverless cars. Even Tesla is joining
the act. We'll be driven by programmed vehicles in the not too distant
future. These machines will follow the fastest, safest, and most fuel
efficient routes, depending on the weighting of the algorithms. It'll be
greener and much safer. Everyone will have a designated driver.
How will this transformation happen? There are a number of steps. First,
the machines. Google, of course, is developing the real thing. But
automation has been creeping into driving for decades. It started with
the automatic choke, and automatic transmissions, things we barely think
about anymore. Then automatic pilot, collision-detecting systems,
parking programs, and finally, GPS.
Second, the authorities managing traffic have to get a bunch of data on
how transportation is working, and then do analytics and optimize it.
This is what's happening now. I just came upon this item
from IBM a new traffic management system. It's designed to minimize
traffic jams, which needless to say are humongous time and energy
From the release: Using
real-time traffic data, they can evaluate an incident with “predictive
traffic management technology” to determine how to keep vehicles moving,
according to a release. Called “Decision Support System Optimizer” or
DSSO, it can detect incidents, predict the impact of these incidents,
predict traffic and suggest the best course of action to take to solve a
Once proven driverless cars exist, along with programs to manage
them efficiently, the only thing missing is for societies to adopt
automated driving. How does this come about? In the beginning, perhaps some
more organized and authoritarian regimes will impose them. Places like
Singapore. (Could automatic cars be the on-ramp for women to "drive" in
Saudi Arabia?) Maybe even mayors in certain cities will prohibit "free
driving" in their areas, citing environmental and safety factors. I
could see a data-driven Bloomberg type moving toward this in Manhattan.
But much of the push in western societies, I'm betting, will come from
the marketplace, specifically insurance. These cars should be a lot
safer, which would lead premiums for automatic drivers to plunge, at
least in the early stages, while they build a market. Since the early
automatic drivers are likely to be on the prudent side, those remaining
in the "free driving" set will represent an ever riskier pool (free
spirits, dare-devils, along with a sprinkling of libertarians and
privacy advocates, many of them rich.) Free driving will come to be seen
as a luxury.
Of course this means that we will be minutely monitored. But I think by
the time this change comes around, most people will be well aware that
we're already under surveillance, from cell phones, gps, EZpass booths,
cameras, etc. Compared to other "services" in the surveillance economy,
such as advertising, automated driving will provide real value. In any
case, these are the types of deals we're going to be striking more and
more with the Numerati. In them, we are promised different blends of
efficiency, safety, economic and environmental savings, and in return
we're asked (or compelled) to sacrifice a measure of freedom and
privacy. It's nothing new, but it's going to speed up.
Romney's Orca: a tech meltdown or wishful thinking?
November 10, 2012News
Why Nate Silver is never wrong
November 8, 2012News
|Election day was a big one for the Numerati. Rayid Ghani, who I profiled in the "Shopper" chapter, was President Obama's chief data scientist. He moved from modeling people's preferences in food to their politics, and apparently pulled it off brilliantly.
Then there's Nate Silver. I interviewed him onstage at South by Southwest in 2009. He represented the rise of statistical methods in politics. Now everyone knows about it, and him. Actually, he was a huge star at that 2009 event. There were a couple thousand people in the auditorium, and hundreds of others in spill-over rooms watching it on TV. But then he was a more of a star for politicos and geeks. Now he's mainstream.
As I mention in the headline, he's never wrong. And this is something that the gut-level pundits can't understand. He's never wrong, because he doesn't call elections, he calculates probabilities. He wrote on the Election Day eve that Romney had a 10% chance of winning. In other words, if he ran his statistical model through 100 scenarios, Romney would come out on top in 10 of them.
Silver made his first big splash in baseball analysis, where this type of thinking is older than the spitball. Romney, in essense, was coming to the plate with the chances of a miserable hitter, someone like Sandy Koufax. The Dodger lefty was one of the greatest pitchers ever, but a sorry hitter. His lifetime batting average was .097. An easy out. But still, 10% of the time his grounders found a way through the infield, his bloops fell in. Twice in his career, once in 1962 and again a year later, he actually hit a home run. So Romney on Tuesday was essentially Koufax at bat. Likely to lose, but not certain to. If Romney had won, Nate Silver would not have been wrong.
People are going to have to get used to this type of statistical thinking, because we're going to be besieged by probabilities. In medicine, for example, we're going to hear that a certain condition has a 10% or 14% chance of killing us within 10 years or 15 years. It's not mortal, but it could be. Before, we didn't have the numbers to play the odds. Now we will.
The rise of the Numerati threatens pundits and ruminators in the worlds of politics and sports. They make money by sitting around and speculating about events that could go either way. Some, like Joe Scarborough, feel threatened by the statisticians. He should, because statisticians like Silver make it clear just how empty his talk really is.
What Dylan can teach Jonah Lehrer (and the rest of us)
|So it turns out that Jonah Lehrer fabricated some Bob Dylan lines for his best-seller, Imagine: How Creativity Works. I feel sad for the whole team at Houghton Mifflin, my publisher and his. They worked madly on his book and helped turn it into a best-seller, only to see it self destruct. (You can't even get the link for it on Amazon anymore.) I also feel sorry for Jonah Lehrer. He must be pinching himself, hoping it's just a nightmare.
Just a few minutes ago, I was humming Like a Rolling Stone, the song at the center of the Bob Dylan section in the book, and it occurred to me that the lyrics could almost have been written for Lehrer. It's directed toward a young, rich and privileged person (or generation) who "once upon a time dressed so fine, threw the bums a dime," etc. It goes on:
"People'd call, say, "Beware doll, you're bound to fall"
You thought they were all kiddin' you..."
Of course, there's a fall. It seems disastrous. But falls can lead to growth, and to liberation. Becoming unmoored--a rolling stone--can be exhilarating. In the beginning of the song, Dylan sings with contempt, which is what Lehrer is on the receiving end of today. But by the end, the singer is in cheerleader mode. The fall is an opportunity.
...you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.
September 12, 2011News
|Just a reminder that the Watson Jeopardy matches, originally broadcast in February, will be on TV again today through Wednesday in North American markets. For those of you who read the book following the broadcast, this is a chance to see the machine that you've come to know! Here's a podcast I did with Bloomberg BusinessWeek's Rachael King in anicipation of Watson's return.
Watson: a patent goldmine?
|Steve Lohr writes in the NYT about the booming market for tech patents. Clearly, the smart phone is turning out to be a war zone for intellectual property. This would be expected, since the smart phone holds the keys to the biggest consumer tech market in the world. Five years from now, perhaps two billion people will have smart phones, and many of them will be replacing their handsets every year or two.
But it's not just size. The smart phone is a stitching together of many existing technologies. And each time a researcher figures out how to run, say, the movie camera and the ebook reader off the same segment of the battery, or how to make sure that a swipe across the screen answers the phone without interfering with the email you're writing, there's a patent to file. The smart phone is the epitome of technology consolidation--and every connection in it requires innovation, and a patent.
As I read the article, I was thinking, as I often do, about IBM's Watson. Like a smart phone, Watson congregates lots of disparate technologies. It has natural language recognition, information retrieval, multiple layers of analytics, even advanced betting strategies. All of it is stitched together so that it can develop confidence in answers within three seconds.
As I write in Final Jeopardy, it's no sure bet that Watson and its kin will be answering loads of our questions in five or ten years. But if the Watson family isn't, other machines will be. Question-answering will be a mammoth market. (Many of the services, of course, will be accessed through smart phones.) And even if Watson doesn't prevail, I'm betting that the intellectual property in Watson--the patents--will pay off royally.
"Corporations are People": an op-ed
|Here's a piece I wrote for the L.A. Times after reading Mitt Romney's comment (below).
"Corporations are people, my friend." Mitt Romney, Aug. 11, campaigning in Iowa
I've been thinking about people
I know. Apple comes to mind. It's
terrific at electronics and has a great eye for design. It's far richer
than everyone in my neighborhood. Another person
I've known for years is General Motors
. It almost died awhile back. Enron, which passed away in 2001, wasn't an especially nice person
, or an honest one. But people
will be people
You might find this hard to believe, but these people —
with CEOs and corporate headquarters — need money more than we do. For
them, money is like oxygen or food. If they come up short, they get
eaten or die. So you really can't blame them for laying us off, slashing
our medical benefits or moving our jobs offshore. They do it to
survive. On the other hand, you shouldn't take them too seriously when
they talk about, say, clean air or early childhood nutrition. If
anything threatens to cost them money, they tend to line up against it,
because every dollar they lose leads these people
one step closer to extinction.
Now, there was a time that the government was considered a person, or at
least "the people." It looked out for the population's welfare and
education. It built roads and chipped in for retirement. This turned out
to be an enormous and expensive job, and before long we began hearing
that government was not the solution but the problem. Its taxes and
regulations got in the way. If it didn't back off, people
like GE and Exxon Mobil
would take their jobs elsewhere. Government was not the people, it was a thing — a bad thing, at least for certain people.
Fortunately, government is run by politics, and politics run on the very stuff that these people
built to amass: money. So they can weigh in, advertising their agenda
and investing in politicians who see things their way. Their argument is
simple: If they aren't free to make lots of money, they'll go somewhere
else where they can, leaving the rest of us in bad shape. One good way
for them to make money is to shrink this thing — the government — that
has its hand in their pockets and always seems to be writing irksome and
expensive new rules.
Money is so important to these people
, sad to say, that it can
cloud their judgment. A decade ago, a number of them chased the illusion
of ever-expanding wealth and ended up making a boatload of bad bets.
Two of these folks, Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch, were eaten. A third,
Lehman Bros., died. Others faced grave danger and threatened to carry
the economy down with them. So the people
held their noses and
asked the despised government — that thing — to save them. The
government borrowed trillions of dollars to do just that and avert
economic collapse. Yet that rescue appeared to make the government even
much more dangerous. It now was deeper in debt, which meant it might
have to raise taxes on the very people it rescued.
Fortunately, these concerned people
got relief from the courts. Early last year, the Supreme Court ruled that everyone — all kinds of people —
benefit from the 1st Amendment right to free speech, which included
giving unlimited and secret campaign contributions. Given this
opportunity, some people
had more money to give to politicians
than the rest of us. And naturally, the first Congress elected following
this ruling tended to its patrons' interests. Who wouldn't? The
politicians promptly carried the battle to their donors' enemy — the
government — and came within a whisker of starving it of funding.
In the end, it appears, the government of the people, by the people and
for the people, might not perish from the Earth. But it will at least be
brought to heel — by and for a different kind of people
kind with shareholders and CEOs. And now — wouldn't you know it? — as we
emerge from the bitter battle over the government debt, some folks,
like Exxon Mobil, Johnson & Johnson and Microsoft
, find themselves with a higher credit rating than the battered United States government. You might call it the people's
Stephen Baker, a former senior writer for Business Week, is the author
most recently of "Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know
Nokia and the iPhone
|I covered Nokia in its glory years, from 1998 to 2002, when it
towered above the rest of the mobile industry. With its focus on
consumers, mastery of intuitive interface and enormous advantage in
scale, it thrashed Motorola, Ericsson, and a host of other pretenders
(Alcatel, Sony, Philips, Siemens, etc.) quarter after quarter. The company appeared poised to dominate the next phase
of Internet communications--the mobile revolution. I went so far as to
propose a book on the company. (I dropped the idea when BusinessWeek
moved me back from Europe to New York, following the dot-com bust.)
Nokia's future competitors, as phones turned into computers, were likely to come
from the software and consumer electronics industries. Nokia understood
this, and they beefed up research in Silicon Valley. But whenever I
raised computer-makers like Dell as future competitors, the Nokia folks
always had the same response: They had spent decades building expertise
in radio technologies, and it was hard stuff. It would be no easy thing
for a computer or software company to slap "telephone chips" into their
machines, as my writing implied. Radio was hard.
| Nokia's original Webphone, the Communicator, in 1996
Well, I'm sure they were right. It was no easy thing. But companies like
Apple and Google figured it out and, along with Canada's RIM,
maker of the Blackberry, they have taken over the smart-phone market.
Nokia's stock is swooning and its bonds are rated only one notch above
I was reminded of this while reading this morning that Nokia and Apple
have reached an agreement
on disputed intellectual property. Apple will
now pay Nokia royalties. I have no ideas what the patents cover, but it
must be cold comfort to Nokia. Instead of exercising its hard-won
mastery over radio technology to win control over mobile, the world's
most important communications market, it simply gets a slice of
royalties from the marquee company it lost to.
A couple more points from those Nokia years. When I was writing, it
seemed that Europe, with its single GSM standard, was well positioned to
lead the mobile Internet. Asia, with some of the most advanced mobile
markets in the world, appeared a much more powerful rival than North
America, which was viewed as a mobile backwater. But software
innovation, along with design, transformed the market. (Producing great
software can make up for lots of handicaps, which is one reason to be
optimistic about continued innovation leadership in the U.S.)
One more point about Apple. As I mentioned above, when I was looking at
computer-industry competitors for Nokia, I had my eyes on Microsoft,
Dell and Palm. I saw Apple as a potential acquisition. It seemed to me
that Nokia, whose market cap climbed to a quarter of a trillion dollars
during the boom, might gobble up the computer maker, or at least form an
alliance with it, to benefit from Apple's design and software prowess. I
don't know if Nokia execs ever considered such an idea. But if they
read BusinessWeek, they were at least familiar with it.
One more point, this one extending into the realm of wild hypotheticals.
If Nokia had taken over Apple, would Nokia have produced the iPhone? My
guess is that the iPhone would never have happened. Nokia would surely
have insisted that any smart phone work on top of its Symbian operating
system and fit into the family of Nokia phones. That would have been the
kiss of death. Still, Nokia would no doubt be better off today if it
had spent billions from its boomtime stash to buy--and kill--Apple.
Tuesday night massacre hurt Watson's ratings
February 17, 2011News
|Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy reports that interest in Jeopardy's Man-vs-Machine match dipped a bit for the final of the three-evening event. The Nielsen ratings climbed following Monday's match, in which Brad Rutter ended in a deadlock with the IBM computer. Ratings climbed from Monday's 8.5% of U.S. homes to 9.5% on Tuesday. But Watson thrashed the humans on Tuesday, only letting them answer a combined five clues. The audience then dipped to 9.1% for the final show.
Apparently, people thought the computer had it in the bag--I point I debate in the last chapter of my book. Fact is, if one of the two humans had won a quick $10,000 or so in the final game, and then doubled and quadrupled it with Daily Doubles, they could have been neck-and-neck with Watson. The trouble? It's hard to land on Daily Doubles when your bionic foe is controlling the board, hitting the buzzer about 1/100 of a second after the light goes on.
Interesting to note that the attendance figures represent only a 30% boost from the same week last year. I would have expected multiples of the normal Jeopardy viewership. But then, I happen to think this was the most fascinating thing on TV since... well maybe game five of the 2008 World Series.
By the way, Speakeasy is the same blog that published an article about our ebook strategy yesterday.
RT @marthagabriel: "It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated."
-- Alec Bourne #quote #goodmor…
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My coming novel: Boosting human cognition
- May 30, 2013
Why Nate Silver is never wrong
- November 8, 2012
The psychology behind bankers' hatred for Obama
- September 10, 2012
"Corporations are People": an op-ed
- August 16, 2011
Wall Street Journal excerpt: Final Jeopardy
- February 4, 2011
Why IBM's Watson is Smarter than Google
- January 9, 2011
- October 3, 2010
The coming privacy boom
- August 17, 2010
The appeal of virtual
- May 18, 2010
My next book: IBM's Jeopardy mission
- March 22, 2010
- November 12, 2009
BusinessWeek cannot afford to stay within McGraw-Hill
- August 6, 2009