Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Review: The Numerati

The Numerati is Stephen Baker's exploration of the world of large scale information technology. Unfortunately, his approach supports my thesis that the world is now too complicated for English majors to understand.

Every topic that he covers is touched extremely shallowly --- he'd cover the marketing approach by interviewing a couple of folks who manage advertising campaigns or product placement in supermarkets, but not the underlying algorithms and scale that made it possible. In fact, at one point he describes a smart shopping cart, but doesn't explore the economics behind it and why they haven't become prevalent (shopping carts with too much technology would get stolen for their screens, for instance).

He covers a bit about Google, but again, tries to get away with mentioning SEOs (Search Engine Optimizers), but doesn't explain how they work or even interview one. The technology behind all this is hand-waved (he drops names like Support Vector Machines but doesn't demonstrate that he understands even basics such as Bayesian learning)

What annoys me is that even the interviews (which many English/Journalism majors do well) are also really shallow, with none of the depth of Carrie Grimes' profile in the New York Times.

Ultimately, however, the biggest disappointment was that Stephen Baker clearly doesn't understand what all these corporations are doing, which is to distill specific insights into algorithms that can scale. The problem with doing so is manifold --- the distillation is at best imperfect, and doesn't come with the intuitive insight that the best human judgement can render. (A look at the adsense ads on this blog will dispel any feeling that such algorithms have even matured to the point that they are useful) That fact is why Warren Buffett is still beating out hedge funds with lots of computers, software engineers, and statisticians.

Not recommended --- you can do better by sitting down with any of the thousands of Computer Scientists who do this stuff for a living and having a casual chat. It'll be more fun and won't be a waste of your time.
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