Archive for May, 2010

The puzzle of Barbados

May 25, 2010

Recently I was on honeymoon in Barbados.  It is a socially conservative and well-governed place, as if a particularly well-organized group of Rotarians were put in charge of a country.  Indeed, in a recent NPR Planet Money radio story, the interviewer asked a random Barbadian about life in Barbados, and got the reply that Barbados had been blessed with extremely good government.  But unlike many other such countries, it actually has a functioning democracy.  Where does a state of only 300,000 people manage to find everyone needed to run it?  300,000 is less than half the population of San Francisco.  Let’s be generous, and take the whole of SF, and suppose it had to run itself as an independent country.  We could maybe have Nancy Pelosi as Prime Minister or President, but after that it becomes difficult to imagine a cabinet.  Who would be Minister of Defence?  The Treasury?  Would Mayor Gavin Newsom make a good Minister of the Interior?  I would barely trust him with the Ministry of Interior Decorating.  Which San Franciscan would you want to be ambassador to the U.S.?  Supervisor Chris Daly, who moved his children out of the city and curses on a regular basis?  The city would be invaded in a couple of weeks.  And yet, Barbados manages to find seemingly competent people for all these tasks and more.  Not to say that it is a utopia – unemployment is 10% (like many places), and the local paper manages to be one of the dullest I have ever read (sample headline: British High Commissioner Impressed with Barbadians).  Still, I’d take that as part of the whole package.

So what separates Barbados’ competent government from San Francisco’s dysfunctional one?  Are San Franciscans too leftist?  But Barbados has a Labour government, which heavily subsidizes education, housing, and transport.  Is it the benefits of Empire?  But Jamaica has a state of emergency in its capital for crime, St. Kitts and Nevis can barely hold itself together as a single country, and Grenada flirted with Cuba and got invaded.  Is it Barbadian culture?  (Everyone we met was quite concerned that we see all the correct tourist sights, and our bellhop was very disapproving that we left it late to get gifts for work colleagues – “What were you doing yesterday?” he asked).  But that seems to mix causality with description.  Whatever the reason, you’d think we’d know more about it than we do.

Why Diaspora* is great news for Facebook

May 17, 2010

You remember Blockbuster.   Big successful company once, but with an Achilles heel – people hated late fees.  Netflix exploited this to build its customer base, and never looked back.

You know Facebook.  Big successful company now, but with an Achilles heel – people hate its approach to privacy.  Will Diaspora* exploit this to build its customer base and replace Facebook?

No.  Blockbuster was too slow to react – it could easily have introduced a Netflix-like subscription option early on, and saved itself.  Facebook will be much more alert.  Billion dollar companies that are paying any kind of attention don’t sit quietly and let themselves be dismantled.

Facebook’s modus operandi has always been to see what it can get away with, then backpedal if need be.  Diaspora* will be an invaluable partner in this strategy – when there is an uptick in D*’s popularity, FB will know it’s time to back off.

But couldn’t D* become popular enough to replace FB?  Again, no.  Like all networks, social networks are useful because of who else is on them, and that depends on their core user group.  FB’s core group was Harvard students.  Everyone wants to be a Harvard student.  Diaspora* has a nerdy name, and its core group is nerds.  Nobody wants to be a nerd.  Even nerds don’t want to be nerds.  D* will come up with something as user-friendly and popular as Linux.  It will be a badge of honour among the tech-savvy, but no threat to FB.  (Wait a minute, you say, what could be nerdier than naming your company after 10^100?  And Google does pretty well.  Good point, but remember that a nine-year old first coined the word “googol”, and what could be cuter and less threatening than a nine-year old?)

So Diaspora* is great news for Facebook.  It will do FB’s market research for free, and divert energy into a non-threatening competitor.  Zuckerberg couldn’t have done better if he had been behind the whole thing.  Was he?  That’s a ridiculous idea … but I might check to see if he has any friends at NYU.

Reflections on consulting part 5 – what languages and tools to learn?

May 12, 2010

What languages and tools should you learn as a math/stat consultant?  To jump to the answer: Excel/VBA, SQL, R, Java, and Python.

Spreadsheets have many problems with verifiability and scalability, so why Excel?

Excel is:

  • Useful for prototyping ideas quickly, either for your own use or to show to other team members
  • Well-known and understood by many business users – no need to explain a new system to them
  • A useful cross-check on work in other languages
  • Zero marginal cost – people will assume you have Windows anyway and send you Word and Excel docs, so you have to get it
  • Actually has some nice features – Solver lets you do Maximum Likelihood Estimation, Pivot Tables give quick and easy summaries

If you’re consulting, you should at least know the basics of Excel.  Learning introductory VB is also very worthwhile, and there are a number of perfectly fine analytic systems than run in Excel/VBA.  Yes, there are problems with extending to a full enterprise-level system, but you can deal with that in a follow-on engagement.

SQL?  Pretty much everything you’ll do is either an input that comes from a database, or an output that should be stored in one.  And it allows for very basic data analysis.

R.  Unlike my fellow bloggers at Win-Vector, I’m not a big fan of R.  But you can do a lot of statistics in it, and it’s free, so no need for your clients to get an expensive licence.  It’s also a reasonably modern language, unlike many of its competitors.  Since R is rapidly becoming the statistical analysis language of choice for cash-strapped startups or clients without big legacy systems, every consultant should be able to work in it.

Java?  You don’t need to be a Java expert, but you should understand enough about Java to look at programs to see what they do, and to make minor alterations – invaluable for dealing with an engineering team, if they have to implement your great ideas.

Python?  Well data is always a mess, so you should have some way of cleaning it before it gums up your shiny new models.  Python’s as good as any other, and it’s more intuitive than Perl.  But this is the least important of the recommendations.

I haven’t included SAS on this list.  On the one hand, it was the predominant language for statistical analysis for a long time, so you can often find consulting work in it.  It’s also a language unlike most others, so almost worth learning for that reason alone.  And it is excellent at reading in data and dealing with large amounts of it.  On the other hand, the consulting rates for SAS work are generally low, and the lack of free licences makes learning it on spec a riskier move.  So if you know SAS or can pick it up at work, that’s great.  If not, it’s probably not worth learning it.

Loyal readers have already loyally read parts 1-3 (networking, networking, and networking) and part 4 (why consult).  Stay tuned for part 6 (or maybe 6-7 if I cheat again), when we’ll delve more into the wonderful world of consulting.

The U.K. election – lessons for the U.S.

May 7, 2010

Britain’s political system is quite different from America’s, but Americans can still draw some lessons from the recent British election.

1) Politics is often tribal

No matter what the circumstances, there are people who will remain steadfastly loyal to their political party.  It’s not that they vote Labour – it’s that they are Labour, or Conservative, and would no more change that for economic reasons than they would convert to Islam because the local mosque had some nice biscuits.  See “I hate Tories.  And yes, it’s tribal” for an example of this.  You can’t argue them out of it, because they weren’t argued into it – often there was some pivotal event that set up their allegiance for life, and they kept it, even long after the original battle (e.g. anti-apartheid protests).  This tends to work against the centre – who can really be viscerally moved by moderation and “reasonableness”?

The lesson for the U.S.?  From Alaska to Arizona to the Daily Show, the GOP is busily convincing a generation not to be Republican.  Not a big concern for now, but it will set some views for life, and the problem will get worse as they get older and vote more.

2) Beware of being a blank slate

The Liberal Democrats’ leader, Nick Clegg, was compared to Obama at one time, but failed to live up to the promise of “Cleggmania”.  Why?

Both Clegg and Obama were, to a certain extent, blank slates – you could imagine that they would do all sorts of things if they got power.  In Obama’s case, this worked excellently – everyone knew that he would not be Bush and was free to make up their ideal candidate.  But Clegg ended up with Fear rather than Hope – if you leaned left, would voting LibDem let the Tories in?  If you were a Tory, would Clegg keep Gordon Brown in office?  With no clear guidance from the LibDems, people projected their own personal fears on the blank slate, and reverted to the devils they knew.

The lesson for the U.S.?  You can be an independent, but you need to say which side you’re on.  Joe Lieberman was able to do this successfully, winning CT as an independent, but basically promising to vote with the Dems, as does Bernie Sanders, from the other wing.  What will Charlie Crist do in FL?  If he avoids committing himself, he may find no-one committed to him.