Its Not Rocket Science

Back in January, Duncan Watts of Microsoft Research spoke at m6d’s ADSCON event at NYU.  Duncan has a unique view of the world having begun his career in the hard sciences (math and physics) and migrated to social sciences.  He quoted a passage from his book on the paradox of thinking rocket science requires brilliance but social science less so:

Typically people in these positions [public policy makers, marketers, economists] do not expect to get everything right all the time.  But they also feel that the problems they are contemplating are mostly within their ability to solve – that “it’s not rocket science,” as it were.  Well, I’m no rocket scientist, and I have immense respect for people who can land a machine the size of a small car on another planet.  But the sad fact is that we’re actually better at planning the flight path of an interplanetary rocket than we are at managing the economy, merging two corporations, or even predicting how many copies of a book will sell.  So why is that rocket science seems hard[?]

This is really interesting thought.  Rocket science is, clearly, very hard.  Rockets are complex systems but the physical laws governing the behavior of these systems are predictable and consistent.  People, and social interactions between them, are also made up of very complex systems but human behavior is anything but predictable and consistent.  Given this unpredictable nature, maybe it makes sense that studying human behavior in a scientific way is much harder than it is given credit for.

Annual “Normals” Research

I love the term “normals” as a descriptor for non-techies and thought that this tweet by Gabe Riveria, the founder of TechMeme, over the holiday week expressed a great sentiment:

Hoping that my friends returning to Silicon Valley have had a very Merry Annual Normals Market Research With The Family.

It encouraged me to observe my less technical family members more closely.  Here are some things I noticed:

  • Casual gaming is huge.  My mother and wife played Words With Friends constantly often playing each other in the same room.
  • Managing across multiple devices is important.  My father was a satisfied Andriod user and switched to the iPhone because he wanted a seemless cross-device experience with his iPad.  One of his major pain points is synching his contacts off Outlook on his PC to his phone.  (This also illustrates the stickiness of existing solutions for Normals.  As a retiree, he has no real reason to still be on Outlook other than habit.)
  • Tablets can make the web accessible to new browsers.  My mother-in-law is an avowed technophobe and was very proud of herself when she located a hard-to-find item on the web using the browser on my iPad.  It is impossible to image her doing the same thing with a Mac or PC.
  • The Kindle Fire may be the tablet of choice for Tweens.  My 11 year old nephew received a Kindle Fire as a Christmas gift and is thrilled with it.  He had been saving for an iPad for over a year but was not making meaningful progress. To him (the user) the Fire is the same as an iPad and to his mother (the economic buyer), it is actually affordable.
  • No one gets Twitter.  Despite its huge user base and prominence in the media, zero people in my family use it and no one could comprehend why I do.

Obviously, a family is not a representative sample size but making an effort to stay grounded in what is important to the average user is critical so I’m glad I came across Gabe’s comment even if he was joking.

“A Sea of Thoughtlessness”

Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal wrote a very interesting commentary on how the omnipresent media may pressure our political leaders to make decisions that they would not otherwise have made.  Of course, the media’s role as a watchdog, keeping our leaders honest, is critical.  But, the speed at which events unwind and the pressure that the “informed” public puts on our institutions for action may not lead to the best outcomes.

There was a letter to the editor in response to her article that outlined a historical event where “slowness of communications” was actually a virtue.  At the start of the Civil War, a Union officer illegally detained two Confederate diplomats on a British ship, the Trent, who were heading to London for negotiations.  Had there been instant communication of this event, it would very likely have resulted in Britain entering the war on the side of the South.  As it was, the time necessary to get communications between Washington and London allowed emotions to cool and escalation was avoided.

The writer has an excellent insight to our current information age:

“Today it is assumed that speed of communication is an absolute virtue.  Combining speed with a lack of context, electronic media radically undermines reflection and criticism.  We live in a sea of thoughtlessness, informing ourselves to death.”

I worry about this situation in my current consumption of information.  In fact, as I write this, I have an almost involuntary twitch where I’m toggling back and forth between my notepad and my email to see if there is anything “new” that needs my attention.  We are all consumers of information, be it current events, reports, or emails from colleagues.  We need to make sure we don’t live in the Sea of Thoughtlessness but dig deeper into the context of the information we are receiving to truly understand how it should impact our actions.

Super Bowl Squares

The drawing for the office Super Bowl pool was this afternoon and I came away with two lousy squares. I have Colts 2 / Saints 6 and Colts 4 / Saints 5.

That got me to wondering which numbers had the best odds and, as always, the Internet had the answer at hand. Someone compiled the data on all the NFL games since 1994 and determined the odds of each final score.

My two boxes are definitely bad at 0.35% and 0.50%, respectively. I shouldn’t complain though. The guy with 2/2 is looking at only a 0.04% chance of winning.

Not surprisingly, 0/7 has the best odds at 3.8%.

I can always hope for a shoot out with the Colts scoring 42 on 6 touchdowns the the Saints scoring 36 with 5 touchdowns and a two point conversion. With these two teams it’s not that far-fetched.

UPDATE: This data is much better. It shows, in percentage terms, the frequency of score at the end of each quarter for every Super Bowl.

Cost Effective Screening

I love reading the letters to the editor in almost any paper.  Writers can make great linkages out of seemingly unrelated topics.  Like this is letter after the brush up over mammogram recommendations:

The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force feels that mammograms are a waste of time and money because of false-positive exams, and anyway, the risk is evaluated at a meager 0.05% (Letters, Dec. 2). If, indeed, mammograms for women under 50 are not cost effective, and only save a few lives, then why are we taking our shoes off at every airport in the country?


Daring Fireball has this view on Microsoft:

Microsoft is looking ever more so like the digital equivalent of General Motors. Car enthusiasts lost interest in GM’s cars long before regular people did; the same is happening with Windows.

Even worse, I think:

Microsoft is increasingly left only with customers whose priority is price.

Email patterns can predict impending doom?

This is interesting:

[R]esearchers found that the biggest changes [in email trends] actually happened around a month before [a crisis]. For example, the number of active email cliques, defined as groups in which every member has had direct email contact with every other member, jumped from 100 to almost 800 around a month before the December 2001 collapse. Messages were also increasingly exchanged within these groups and not shared with other employees….Menezes thinks he and Collingsworth may have identified a characteristic change that occurs as stress builds within a company: employees start talking directly to people they feel comfortable with, and stop sharing information more widely.

Come on Ride the Train

I noted on Twitter this morning that the 6:30AM train to Penn Station was less crowded than it used to be. As it turns out, this may not be the economic indicator I thought it was. 

The New York Times reported over the weekend that:

More people rode the nation’s public buses, subways and commuter trains last year than in any year since 1956, when the federal government created the Interstate highway system…Americans took nearly 10.7 billion rides on public transportation in 2008, a 4 percent increase over the previous year, according to the report, by the American Public Transportation Association, a nonprofit organization that represents transit systems….Ridership surged after gasoline prices hit $4 a gallon last summer and held steady in the fall after gas prices fell, the report found….

“You would normally have expected with lower gas prices, a declining economy and rapidly growing unemployment that transit ridership would have been down,” said William W. Millar, the transportation association’s president. “It appears that many of those people, once they tried public transit, found that it suited their needs.”

While ridership may be up, what I observed may not be an indicator of increased unemployment but of the cutback in hours that seems to impacting many workers.  When working fewer hours, people may be able to start their day a bit later.

I keep looking for tangible evidence of the social changes the recession might bring (other than the obvious).  There has been some discussion about how recessions can lead people to simplify and re-focus on their communities but I’m not sure if that can be quantified yet.