Category Archives: commerce

Sebastian Thrun, MOOC skeptic

The founder of Udacity no longer thinks MOOCs are the answer, says this Fast Company article.  As for me, I’ve become more optimistic about MOOCs as I’ve talked to the people at Wisconsin who are doing them, and seen what they’ve put together.

Although Thrun initially positioned his company as “free to the world and accessible everywhere,” and aimed at “people in Africa, India, and China,” the reality is that the vast majority of people who sign up for this type of class already have bachelor’s degrees, according to Andrew Kelly, the director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute. “The sort of simplistic suggestion that MOOCs are going to disrupt the entire education system is very premature,” he says.

I too was surprised to learn that most people who take Wisconsin’s MOOCs are 30 and up.  But that made me really happy! Right now we put a massive amount of effort into teaching things to people who are between 18 and 21, and after they leave the building, we’re done with them (except when we mail them a brochure asking for money.)  30-year-olds know a lot more about what they want to do and what they need to know than 18-year-olds do.  55-year-olds even more so, I’ll bet.  I hope we can make higher education a life-long deal.

Oh, also:

When Thrun says this, I nearly fall out of my chair. He is arguably the most famous scientist in the world

I feel like you have to be very deeply embedded in Silicon Valley culture to type this sentence.


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“Why don’t books come with e-books?” revisited

Last year I wondered why print books didn’t come bundled with e-books.  Today Amazon announced Matchbook:  for a limited add-on price, ranging from nothing to $3, you can get e-books of print books you’ve previously bought from Amazon.

At least for me, this is a substantial incentive to buy books there.  But I think my use case is kind of weird:  I bought a Kindle but don’t like it and never use it, and read e-books almost exclusively on the phone.  For me, “the book I’m reading” is almost always a print book, while the phone is for reading random bits of things a few minutes at a time.  But it would be nice indeed to have the print book at home enhanced with the option of reading a few pages by phone over the course of the day.

Even Ian nods

Readers of this blog know I am a major booster of Ian’s Pizza, so I was thrilled a few months ago when Ian Gurfield announced he was opening a more upscale pizza place, S2 Pizzabar, just a few blocks from campus.  And S2 Pizzabar lived up to my expectations, serving individual-sized pizzas on a good thin crust with locally sourced toppings in a big handsome bricky room.  At last the cursed address, home to dead restuarants Opa, Maza, and the Saz, could serve lunch in peace!

But no — apparently even Ian couldn’t make a living at 558 State, and S2 Pizzabar will close on March 17.  The place was pretty full both times I ate there; I’d be curious to know in more detail what made this business fail so quickly.  Even Opa lasted longer, and Opa was always kind of empty and confused.

If you’re on State in the next couple of weeks, stop in and get a pizza while you still can; it’s good pizza and I’ll miss it.


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Salience, purchasing behavior, Franklin Bruno

I like Franklin Bruno a lot, and I even know him a little bit, so naturally I was interested in obtaining the new Human Hearts album, Another  I could have paid for a download of this album at any point in the last several months, but I didn’t.  I could have checked to see if I could listen to it free on Spotify, which I have open on my laptop most of the time, but I didn’t do that either.  (Just checked now — it’s not there.)  But the other day, when I walked into the record store on my block and saw it on the new releases shelf, I bought it.  That’s one thing about physical stores — they give you a reason to buy the thing now, not at some other time, while the continuous and eternal availability of the record online meant that there was no moment at which my desire to hear the new Human Hearts album outweighed my desire to click on whatever else I was clicking on.

I presume there are theorists of this kind of thing.

Anyway, here are some favorite Franklin Bruno tracks.

“Love’s Got a Ghetto”

“Going to Marrakesh,” by the Extra Glenns, which is Bruno together with John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats.

I wanted to link to “Coupon,” which is much noisier and messier than the two above, but I can’t find a publicly available sound file, so you’ll just have to imagine it!

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Graph search skepticism

Gary Marcus asks the right questions about Facebook’s new Graph Search:

Most search engines, including Google’s, mainly sort pages to see which come closest to some set of keywords (or their synonyms), but they do relatively little to integrate information across pages. If you want a list of all the books written by members of Congress in 2007, you can do a search, but you’ll end up lost. Unless someone has already compiled that information into a single page, you are likely to be directed to a series of individual pages, many with little relevance. It would be left to you to consolidate information across many, many pages; worse, you would have to start from scratch to get the same data for 2008.

But, in theory at least, Facebook Graph Search consolidates information over time and space (albeit in very limited ways). In effect, each user can now use Facebook as if it were a giant, custom-tailored database, not just a librarian that gives a list of documents that are most relevant to your query. Although the ideas behind Facebook Graph Search aren’t entirely original—Google can do similar things in limited domains, such as shopping, and Wolfram Alpha can do math (and draw graphs) based on data in its archives—it really is likely to change the way many people think about search…

Forget search engines. The real revolution will come when we have research engines, intelligent web helpers that can find out new things, not just what’s already been written. Facebook Graph Search isn’t anywhere near that good, but it’s a nice hint at greater things to come.

A nice hint at greater things to come?  Or, like Wolfram Alpha, another case where some of the best programmers in the world, given massive amounts of resources and time, fail to bring us appreciably closer to the dream of the research engine?  In other words, a hint that maybe there are not greater things to come, at least in this direction?

I’m not part of Facebook Graph Search’s “slow rollout,” but from the coverage I’ve read it sounds like it’s good at handling canned combinations of boolean searches.  That’s no joke, but does it really represent progress towards the goal that Marcus has in mind?

Wolfram Alpha, of course, has no idea what books members of Congress wrote in 2007, but that’s not quite fair, because Wolfram Alpha isn’t supposed to know about books.  What does Wolfram Alpha know about?  Well, a query for “Missouri Senate election 2010″ gives you the results of that election, so we know it has state-level results for those elections.  But it can’t put these together to answer “How many Republican senators were elected in 2010?”   “Senators elected in 2010″, which you might think would give you a list, doesn’t – it does, though, tell you that 24 seats went to Republicans and 10 to Democrats, along with the meaningless data of the total votes cast in the US for GOP and Democratic Senate candidates.  “List of senators elected in 2010″ gives the same result.  WA obviously has access, state by state, to the names of the Republican senators who won elections in 2010; but it apparently can’t put that information together into a single list.  Given that, I think gathering their book credits is pretty far off.

Meanwhile, a Google search for “Republican senators elected in 2010″ gives you the relevant Wikipedia page, with the complete list, state-by-state results, and much more.  And searching for “books written by members of Congress” pulls up as the first result a Roll Call article about books written by members of Congress.  Hard to complain about that.

Were any of those books written in 2007?  Who knows?  More to the point — who cares?  That’s the genius of the Google approach.  You know how they tell you, if you’re confused about something in class and you want to know the answer, you should raise your hand and ask, because probably other people have the same question?  That’s the Google principle, except they take it one step further; if you need an answer, not only do other people have the same question, but one such person has already found the answer and put it on the web.  Google can’t tell you which states that entered the Union after 1875 have public universities with animals as their mascots, or which Congressional district ranks 10th by percentage of area covered by water, which is the kind of thing Wolfram Alpha is ace at; but that’s because no one has ever asked those questions, and no one ever will.




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On the other hand, up yours, AT&T

I know I recently praised the pricing of AT&T’s family plan, and I stand by that.

However, when I actually signed up for the plan, I received a long and somewhat complicated .pdf document detailing my new phone contract; after staring at this for a while I understood that it was indicating a a much higher price.  Twenty minutes of online customer support chat alter, I was able to figure out that, rather than renewing my plan as I’d asked for, AT&T had upped me to a plan with more minutes that cost $30 more a month.

I also use AT&T for my home phone and internet service.  (I used to use them for cable TV, too, before I dropped cable for Netflix like all right-thinking people!)  Same story when I signed up for that:  the promised bundle discount wasn’t on my first bill, but after a long conversation with customer support they fixed it.  Until the second bill, when the discount had disappeared again, requiring another long conversation with customer support.  That time it finally stuck.

It’s depressing that from a pure profit standpoint this is probably pretty good business practice: overcharge everyone, and count on the fact that lots of people don’t have the time or cultural capital to both recognize the overcharge and successfully reverse it.

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In defense of Nate Silver and experts

Cathy goes off on Nate Silver today, calling naive his account of well-meaning people saying false things because they’ve made math mistakes.  In Cathy’s view, people say false things because they’re not well-meaning and are trying to screw you — or, sometimes, because they’re well-meaning but their incentives are pointed at something other than accuracy.  Read the whole thing, it’s more complicated than this paraphrase suggests.

Cathy, a fan of and participant in mass movements, takes special exception to Silver saying:

This is neither the time nor the place for mass movements — this is the time for expert opinion. Once the experts (and I’m not one of them) have reached some kind of a consensus about what the best course of action is (and they haven’t yet), then figure out who is impeding that action for political or other disingenuous reasons and tackle them — do whatever you can to remove them from the playing field. But we’re not at that stage yet.

Cathy’s take:

…I have less faith in the experts than Nate Silver: I don’t want to trust the very people who got us into this mess, while benefitting from it, to also be in charge of cleaning it up. And, being part of the Occupy movement, I obviously think that this is the time for mass movements.

From my experience working first in finance at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw during the credit crisis and afterwards at the risk firm Riskmetrics, and my subsequent experience working in the internet advertising space (a wild west of unregulated personal information warehousing and sales) my conclusion is simple: Distrust the experts.

I think Cathy’s distrust is warranted, but I think Silver shares it.  The central concern of his chapter on weather prediction is the vast difference in accuracy between federal hurricane forecasters, whose only job is to get the hurricane track right, and TV meteorologists, whose very different incentive structure leads them to get the weather wrong on purpose.  He’s just as hard on political pundits and their terrible, terrible predictions, which are designed to be interesting, not correct.

Cathy wishes Silver would put more weight on this stuff, and she may be right, but it’s not fair to paint him as a naif who doesn’t know there’s more to life than math.  (For my full take on Silver’s book, see my review in the Globe.)

As for experts:  I think in many or even most cases deferring to people with extensive domain knowledge is a pretty good default.  Maybe this comes from seeing so many preprints by mathematicians, physicists, and economists flushed with confidence that they can do biology, sociology, and literary study (!) better than the biologists, sociologists, or scholars of literature.  Domain knowledge matters.  Marilyn vos Savant’s opinion about Wiles’s proof of Fermat doesn’t matter.

But what do you do with cases like finance, where the only people with deep domain knowledge are the ones whose incentive structure is socially suboptimal?  (Cathy would use saltier language here.)  I guess you have to count on mavericks like Cathy, who’ve developed the domain knowledge by working in the financial industry, but who are now separated from the incentives that bind the insiders.

But why do I trust what Cathy says about finance?

Because she’s an expert.

Is Cathy OK with this?

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Startup culture, VC culture, and Mazurblogging

Those of us outside Silicon Valley tend to think of it as a single entity — but venture capitalists and developers are not the same people and don’t have the same goals.  I learned about this from David Carlton’s blog post.  Cathy O’Neil reposted it this morning.  It’s kind of cool that the three of us, who started grad school together and worked with Barry Mazur, are all actively blogging!  We just need to get Matt Emerton in on it and then we’ll have the complete set.  Maybe we could even launch a new blogging platform and call it mazr.  You want startup culture, I’ll give you startup culture!


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Paul Ryan, science, money, television

From ScienceInsider’s summary of Paul Ryan’s approach to the federal spending on science:

“Instead of using its resources to fight life-threatening diseases like HIV/AIDS and cancer, the CDC has instead spent money on needless luxury items and nongovernment functions,” Ryan said in introducing his amendment to a spending bill. CDC had spent “over $1.7 million on a ‘Hollywood liaison’ to advise TV shows like ‘E.R.’ and ‘House’ on medical information included in their programming, clearly an expense that should have been covered by the successful for-profit television shows, not by our hard-earned tax dollars. … In a time when we are facing increasing risk of bioterrorism and disease, these are hardly the best use of taxpayer dollars.”

“E.R” and “House” are surely seen by vastly more Americans than all federal science education programming put together.  Doesn’t $1.7m  sound pretty cheap for ensuring that the medical information coming through those giant megaphones is correct?  In Ryan’s world, what’s the mechanism under which TV producers would spend their own money doing this?  Their own goodwill?  Or will scientifically sloppy doctor shows inevitably be rejected by the wise aggregate consumer, so that the market does the job for free?

I also think it’s not fair to ask that every US-funded program be the best use of taxpayer dollars.  I mean, do we really want a federal government that consists entirely of my NSF grant?

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Innovation, Febreze, arm-slashing

Cathy asks:  what is innovation?  Should we assume it’s good?

I was thinking of just this question the other morning.  Charles Duhigg was on NPR talking about the air-freshener Febreze — more or less covering the same ground as pp.4-5 of his NYTMag article, or this blog post from the CEO of Innovative Disruption.  Proctor and Gamble had a big problem with Febreze; it worked fine, but people weren’t buying it.  P&G’s market research quickly identified the issue.  People with smelly houses were fine with the way their houses smelled.  Undaunted, the marketers zeroed in on those few consumers who actually liked the product, and found a new angle.  They could sell the idea that your cleaning wasn’t done until you’d spritzed some Febreze around the house — even if your house already smelled fine.  This was a huge success.  People are always receptive to the message that what they’re doing isn’t good enough, and that everybody else is doing it a little better.  Anxiety is a unit shifter.

On NPR, Duhigg said that this innovative strategy made $50 million in the first year.  But in what sense did it really “make” $50 million?  Shouldn’t we say it transferred $50 million from other people to Proctor and Gamble?  To be tendentious, why wouldn’t you say the innovative disruption cost Americans $50 million?

Here’s a truly innovative marketing strategy for Band-Aids; hire a bunch of unemployed people at minimum wage to run around town slashing people’s arms with penknives.  Presto — an unmet demand for sidewalk Band-Aid kiosks!

That’s not how Proctor and Gamble would describe what they’re doing.  They would say that people already wanted to lengthen their housecleaning routine; they just didn’t know they wanted that until P&G’s marketing team alerted them to the opportunity.  If they didn’t really want Febreze, they wouldn’t keep buying Febreze!

This is not, to me, a convincing story about what people really want.  Then again, I don’t really think Febreze is a pure exercise in arm-slashing.  It’s a mix.  The point is simply that its success can’t be judged purely by the amount of money it transferred to its originators.

(P.S.  I contend that a company called Innovative Disruption is very unlikely to be either innovative or disruptive. Discuss.)

Update:  Innovative Disruption blogger sticks up for marketing in the comments at some length — click through!

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