Saturday, February 28, 2009

Freakonomics

If you have read Freakonomics [Revised and Expanded]: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, you will know it has been a wildly successful bestseller and has (almost) made economics a popular subject with the general public. After reading this book I then picked up The Undercover Economist: Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, the Poor Are Poor--and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car! upon the recommendation of a friend, and I have to say that I found 'Undercover Economist' to be a better book than 'Freakonomics'. Be aware that I would without a moment's hesitation strongly recommend both to everyone; the observation about 'better' is relative. Both books are excellent, it's just that one is better than the other. While I shall try and review both books in future posts, one of the most striking observations from 'Freakonomics' and one that has stayed with me for the past few years is on the determinants of wage. Allow me to quote:
This is one of four meaningful factors that determine a wage. The others are the specialized skills a job requires, the unpleasantness of a job, and the demand for services that the job fulfills.
...
The delicate balance between these factors helps explain why, for instance, the typical prostitute earns more than the typical architect. It may not seem as though she should. The architect would appear to be more skilled (as the word is usually defined) and better educated (again, as usually defined). But little girls don’t grow up dreaming of becoming prostitutes, so the supply of potential prostitutes is relatively small. Their skills, while not necessarily “specialized,” are practiced in a very specialized context. The job is unpleasant and forbidding in at least two significant ways: the likelihood of violence and the lost opportunity of having a stable family life. As for demand? Let’s just say that an architect is more likely to hire a prostitute than
vice versa.
[page 105, 106]

Sunday, February 22, 2009

33 million people in the room

cover image for the book: 33 Million People in the Room: How to Create, Influence, and Run a Successful Business with Social Networking
33 Million People in the Room: How to Create, Influence, and Run a Successful Business with Social Networking

33 Million People in the Room: How to Create, Influence, and Run a Successful Business with Social Networking
by Juliette Powell
Publisher: FT Press
Pub Date: December 16, 2008
Print ISBN-10: 0-13-715435-6
Print ISBN-13: 978-0-13-715435-7
Web ISBN-10: 0-13-701884-3
Web ISBN-13: 978-0-13-701884-0
Pages: 200


This book looks at one aspect of the Web 2.0 revolution: social networks, and describes how to succeed by using these social networks, and almost succeeds in its endeavor, given its scope and length. Its scope is neither too expansive nor overly ambitious. It does not aim to dissect web 2.0 startups, nor analyze the reasons behind web 2.0 successes as Flickr, YouTube, etc... And it certainly steers completely away from the technological underpinnings of web 2.0. Nor does it seek to pontificate or sermonize on strategizing in the world of Web 2.0 technologies as some books attempt to.

This is a short book. 200 pages may seem more substantial than I suggest, but this is a book that can be read cover to cover in less than two hours, with time for a coffee break. The chapters are short, to the point of reading more like sound-bites than containing anything in-depth. Chapter 4, "The Strength of the Microcelebrity", for example clocks in at less than two thousand words, while Chapter 11, "Success Is Where You Find It", just over 2000 words. Think of the chapter lengths like a mass of microblog tweets making up each chapter, almost. But the anecdotes illustrating each chapter are interesting and pertinent. These anecdotes are what lend life to the chapters. And indeed, without these anecdotes much of the value of this book would be lost.

Different aspects of social networks are covered in each chapter. Therefore, chapter 2 is a brief overview of different social networks out there, like hi5, orkut, linkedin, facebook, myspace, twitter, and bebo.

Chapter 3 takes two social networks, LinkedIn and Facebook, and talks the reader through using these two similar yet different networks, followed by an ending paragraph on privacy. "While LinkedIn is interested in what you worked on last year, Facebook is more interested in where you're going this afternoon. It focuses on ongoing activities, and the redesigned site puts actionable updates--such as renewing your status, posting a photo, or sharing a link--front and center on your profile." Common sense advice is proferred on the issue of privacy, and with the continual flaps over privacy, be it Facebook or Google or some other vendor, it is useful to note that Ch3 ends with this sage advice: "Just use common sense and remember that social networks are all about communicating, and, as with any method of communication, that means keeping some things private and making other things public. The real interest in social networking lies not in what you choose to hide but what you choose to display."

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 essentially use examples of individuals to describe three aspects of social networks and how to succeed in using these networks: Johnny Chung Lee as a microcelebrity, Gary Vaynerchuk on the need for authenticity, and the (in)famous Sarah Lacy, with her very public fiasco with her interview of Facebook founder Zuckerbook, to highlight the need to take into account feedback loops that exist and how to recover, sort of, from very public humiliations as in Sarah Lacy's case, or to leverage upon your passion for something you believe in.

Johnny Chung Lee is a truly remarkable example of a microcelebrity, who hacked the Wii remote, Wiimote, posted about it and other hacks on YouTube, attracted 10 million hits on his (YouTube) channel, and got invited to TED, where his talk rose to become one of the Top 10 TED talks online!! The author's advice on authenticity? "When looking to start your own blog, vlog, or Web site, pick a topic that you not only know about, but one that you truly care about as well. Personal passion is contagious, and users will appreciate and reflect your own excitement."

So what about Sarah Lacy?
"Sarah Lacy is the kind of reporter whose stories are featured on the cover of Businessweek. Knowledgeable, hard hitting, and direct, Sarah, Aka Valleygirl, was set to interview mark Zuckerberg, the 23-year-old founder and ceo of facebook and one of the subjects of her book Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good: The Rebirth of Silicon Valley and the Rise of Web 2.0"

"... when Mark Zuckerberg, 50 minutes into the one-hour interview and clearly irked by Lacy's unrelenting commentary and her revealing insider information, leaned over and said "I'm waiting for you to ask a question!," the audience responded with more than just a wave of laughter: They broadcast hundreds of complaints and snarky comments in real-time via mobile networking tool Twitter. Rallying behind Zuckerberg and encouraged by the camaraderie of their Twitter-based objections, the audience began to openly and unabashedly heckle Lacy."

So is (momentary) incompetence bad? No. Far from it.
"Despite the battering she had taken, that fateful—and painful—exchange boosted online pre-sales of Lacy's book that week by a factor of a thousand."
Sarah Lacy's response? A (crass) rationalization that goes something like "...my annual income has more than tripled.... If the price to pay for that is getting mass attacked a few times a year, sadly, it's just the price."". Sadly, it seems like a classic case of confirmation bias (Wikipedia defines is as "confirmation bias is a tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions and to avoid information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs"). Someone should hand a copy of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts to Ms Lacy as a reading exercise.

The most helpful review of the book (as on Feb 22 2009) on Amazon goes like this:
"The anecdotes in this book are really great, but pretty much everything else is just plain awful. The writing, thesis and "evidence" are all horrible.
I won't even go into the second two, but check out this gem from page 4: "Another contender was Six Apart, founded in 2002 by then twenty-four-year-olds Ben and Mena Trott in 2004." Or this one from page 208 "Peter's two protoges were going to become closer allies or rivals". Allies? Rivals? Maybe both! Include Lacy's obnoxious habits of name dropping people and super exclusive parties she attended, referring to Mark Zuckerburg constantly as "Zuck" and finishing paragraphs with sentence fragments and you end up with a really painful book to read. "
Some other reviews marked useful go like "nauseating in parts, informative in others", "Could have been more", and "Too much Zuck and Ning, got boring after a while".

Ouch!!!

Chapter 7 is all about converting social capital into financial capital. "If financial capital can be summarized as "money" and social capital can be summarized as "friends," then cultural capital can be summarized as "influence.""

Chapter 8 will appeal the most to many readers, as it attempts to analyze Barack Obama's internet campaign, and the three key factors behind its success:

"The runaway success of Obama's Internet campaign rests primarily on three key factors, first among them a significantly larger financial investment in the online arena than those of his opponents. ... The second key factor in the campaign's success was its lack of direct, in-your-face sales approaches. Clicking on an Obama banner ad led users not to a donation page, but rather to a form where they could sign up for campaign event invitations. Only after submitting the form were visitors asked to make a donation. By avoiding outright sales tactics, Obama confirmed his sincerity and sent supporters a clear, though unspoken, message: Allegiance is more important than money. The third factor of Obama's campaign, and the one that would take his message from a core group of ardently devoted followers and straight into the general public, lay in his advisors' deep understanding of the online world."
"More importantly, Lee was following one of the unspoken rules of the Internet: Information is worth more when it's free. In a world where cross-referencing multiple resources is as easy as performing an Internet search, people are less and less willing to pay for information, no matter how specialized or difficult to obtain it is." This is a blanket statement on the monetary value of information, one that is made as an unsubstantiated assertion, based on perhaps the success of Wikipedia, but not one backed by any kind of empirical evidence. We all "know" that information is free, but here's the catch. We cannot, by definition, know the value of priced information unless and until we have access to it, can we now? And we certainly do not know know, or know enough, about such valuable and priced repositories of information like the IEEE or ACM libraries. Even most HBR content, including case studies and articles from the magazine, is behind a priced firewall.

Ok, so this book won't give you anything substantial or authoritative on web 2.0, but it's better than some of the garbage out there. At under two hours, the investment it requires is a trifle. You could read it while waiting at the gate to board your flight, and be done with it midway through your flight. You may argue the time could be better spent finger-flicking through emails on your iPhone, but come on. Since when did emails become that important, unless they are about pay hikes? And pay hikes sure ain't coming by in this economy, right? Read the book, go on, pick it up, read it, be done with it, and keep reading on.

I would recommend these two other books; if I come across more that are worthwhile I will add to the list. Of course there are likely to be lots more that are readable, but I don't know about those... I read Web 2.0: A Strategy Guide: by Amy Shuen (see my review here), and while I pretty much skewered the book, in retrospect I would say you **should** read the book, in addition to the other books you read on Web 2.0. It is quite a disappointing book, especially when you realize that Amy Shuen, the author, has collaborated on several papers with David Teece, who is probably best known for his 1986 paper, Profiting from Technological Innovation (link to Google Books). Her book, however, fails to convey the technical astuteness she should possess in abundance.




Feb 25 2009: corrected typos. Thanks to MB for pointing those out.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

On obscuring information in a chart

Greg Mankiw's blog post, Comparing Recessions, linked to another post, Comparing this recession to the last five, that has a line chart displaying how payroll unemployment fell during the previous five recessions.

The good about the chart is that it makes a direct comparison between the recessions possible because percentages are used instead of absolute figures.

By plotting on the X-axis the length in months instead of using a regular time axis it is possible to have all the series start from the same point, which makes it visually easier to do a comparison of both the steepness of the job losses as well as the length of each recession.


But, this chart has at least a few weaknesses too... and there are ways in someone could improve this, especially visualization vendors.

Firstly, you want to be able to see clearly the job losses that started in Dec 2007. That series is the light blue colored line. Difficult to make out, right? You have to search for it... It is also overwritten in places by the lines of the other series where they overlap.

How can we improve this chart? Several possibilities come to mind.
Before that, I should say I am using some of the best practices in effective information visualization that I read in Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of Data, that I reviewed last month, and also several other books.

I do not have the raw data on which this chart is based, so I used a basic screen capture tool and its flood fill feature to tweak the same chart. Doesn't look pretty, but does get the point across IMO.

Firstly, let's use unsaturated colors for the other series. And a bright saturated color like red for the Dec 2007 series. So now you can see the red series, corresponding to Dec 07, very clearly. It stands out instead of getting obscured by other equally bright colors screaming for attention.

Secondly, we could use a thicker line for the 'Dec 07' series than the rest.


Thirdly, if there are more than five or six series, the chart will quickly start to look very crowded, nor will the series' colors appear different from each other. So, what you could, should, do is use different line styles in addition to the colors. Dotted, dashed and other styles.
Take a look at the example below, that uses random data (yes - it is random, because I used Excel's randbetween() function. Okay, so it is not truly random, but pseudo-random, if you have to nitpick). Even though two series, 1974 and 1980 have the exact same series color, you can tell them apart, right? That's because they use a different type of line style.


Now, if you wanted to put in a little more effort, and thougt, some more ideas spring to mind (well... the phrase really ought to be 'spring from the mind' since they are originating from the mind and not some etherealy ether or orifice).

1. Series dimming / series highlighting / series unselection
If I am interested in, say, the 1991 series, I should be able to click on the series label in the legend, and have the other series dimmed, or entirely hidden, in addition to optionally highlighting the 1991 series.


2. Animation for a selected series.
Dancing monkey animations are not good. However, animation, if well done, helps convey change. As long as it is not too fast as to have the user miss the animation completely, or so slow as to frustrate the heck out of the user, and as long as animation focuses on one thing at a time, it can work well. So what kind of animation am I talking about? Well, one is to be able to animate one series at a time.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Romancing With Life


Romancing With Life by Dev Anand (Flipkart.com link)
Format : Hardback
ISBN: 9780670081240
Size : 153 x 234mm
Pages : 448
Published : 28 Aug 2008
Publisher : Viking Adult

Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar, and Raj Kapoor, were the first three superstars of Hindi cinema, before there were superstars. Each was born within a couple of years of each other (Dev Anand in 1923, Raj Kapoor in 1924, and Dilip Kumar in 1922), each started his career around the same time (Dev Anand in 1946, Raj Kapoor in 1943, Dilip Kumar in 1946), and while Raj Kapoor died in 1988, and Dilip Kumar has been in retirement for more than a decade (his last movie if I remember was Qila in 1998 or thereabouts), Dev Anand continues to go strong, acting in and directing a movie every few years for over six decades now, the latest one released in 2005. Dev Anand had the screen persona of a dashing, evergreen, ever youthful happy-go-lucky city chap, with a legion of a mostly female fan following. Even in real life he has carried himself with the same elan, and at 85 years is an inspiration for many people.

The book is a celebration of Dev Anand's (Dharam Dev Anand is his full name, as he informs us in the book) life and times, and his romance with life. It proceeds in pretty much a chronological fashion, starting with his childhood and ending with the year 2007, when the last chapter was written. It is written in breezy and mostly frank and honest style. Whether it is his sexual education, on the upper berth of a train, and then while shooting for his first movie, whether his struggles to find a footing in the Hindi movie industry, or his encounters with the censor authorities, or his crush for Zeenat Aman, or his first love with Suraiya, and the heartbreaking end to the affair, or his visit to communist Soviet Union, he comes across as refreshingly honest.

The book is divided into numbered chapters, each small. Sometimes only a couple of pages, but rarely more than 4-5 pages. Each chapter covers a specific episode. So you get one chapter each for Guru Dutt, Kisore Kumar, his brother Vijay Anand, Indira Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi... with a brief reminiscence by Dev.

The language is quite decent in the book, the prose is fairly engaging, perhaps a result of Dev Anand's Lahore Government College education (then one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the country in the then undivided India, pre-Aug 14/15 1947), or maybe Dev Anand got a ghost writer to spruce up the text.

Surprisingly, and refreshingly so, the book has a fairly comprehensive 12 page index, something you would not expect from a movie star's autobio.

However... while the book 400+ page book makes for quick and easy reading, it has shortcomings too.

You will learn nothing of the craft of film making from reading this book. You will learn nothing about the great movies that Dev Anand starred in. Whether Dev Anand's collaboration with the great director and actor and close friend Guru Dutt (Jaal and Baazi), nor the fantastic musical collaboration with SD Burman, nor the immense contributions of Chetan Anand and Vijay Anand (both brothers of Dev Anand) in such movies as 'Tere Ghar Ke Samne', 'Guide', 'Johny Mera Naam', 'Jewel Thief', 'Kala Bazar', 'Nau Do Gyarah'. You have to go through Dev Anand's filmography at the end of the book to realize that Raj Khosla had directed Dev Anand in some past greats like 'Bombai Ka Babu', 'Kala Pani', 'CID', and 'Solva Saal'. What made the great movies that Dev Anand starred in great? Why is it that Dev Anand did not have a single truly commercial or artistically acclaimed hit after he started directing his movies? Consider these truly unremarkable ventures like 'Ishq Ishq Ishq', 'Sau Crore ', 'Awwal Number', 'Gangster', 'Mr Prime Minister', 'Censor', 'Lootmaar' that Dev Anand directed and starred in? What were the lessons that Dev Anand learn from these disasters? Introspection? No. He acknowledges that 'Ishq Ishq Ishq' was one of the biggest disasters of his career. Why? You don't know.

Perhaps the style of his book can be summed up with a line from his movie, Hum Dono: "barbadiyon ka shog manana fizool tha, barbadiyon ka jashn manata chala gaya" (loosely and inarticulately translated as 'lamenting disasters was a waste, I celebrated disasters').