Monthly Archives: May 2009

book conversations and the imposition of the Kindle

Today I was reading a real live book at a café. Normally I only read books available on the kindle but I was reading the “Evolution of God” by Robert Wright (because the book itself does not come out officially until next week). Great book.

But the point is that two random people came up to me in the café and asked me about the book and we had a conversation about religion, good books, and more. Now I frequently get people asking me about the kindle … but that is a more common technology conversation. Here we had a real conversation about real ideas.

I did that the other day when I saw someone reading Atlas Shrugged on an airplane. But as we all move to reading books on our devices, we wont know what people in our proximity are reading anymore and conversations between strangers will go down. (maybe this is happening anyway as you’re much less likely to talk to someone with headphones in their ear).

stockpicking and wine experts — the Emporer still has few cloths

squarely in the Nassim Taleb camp (sometimes known as the Emperor-has-no-cloths camp) is an article forwarded to me from Fabrice Grinda and written by my friend Ramit Sethi about wine tasters and stock pickers.   excerpt:

I invited you to a blind taste test of a $12 wine versus a $1,200 wine, could
you tell the difference? I bet you $20 you couldn’t. In 2001, Frederic Brochet,
a researcher at the University of Bordeaux, ran a study that sent shock waves
through the wine industry. Determined to understand how wine drinkers decided
which wines they liked, he invited fifty-seven recognized experts to evaluate
two wines: one red, one white.

tasting the two wines, the experts described the red wine as intense, deep, and
spicy—words commonly used to describe red wines. The white was described in
equally standard terms: lively, fresh, and floral. But what none of these
experts picked up on was that the two wines were exactly the same wine. Even
more damning, the wines  were actually both white wine—the “red wine” had been
colored with food coloring.

about that for a second. Fifty-seven wine experts couldn’t even tell they were
drinking two identical wines.

making a decision on what job offer to take

If I was an engineer deciding what company to go to, I would optimize on the following five things (in no particular order):

– how smart my coworkers are

– how enjoyable my coworkers are

– the potential of the company

– the opportunity to work on really hard and interesting problems

– having the responsibility to execute on solving these problems

BusinessWeek article on value of friends (and Rapleaf)

0922covdx One of my favorite authors, Stephen Baker (he wrote Numerati), just penned the cover story for the June 1 edition of BusinessWeek:    Learning, and Profiting, from Online Friendships

This is a really interesting article on the value of friends and how marketers and others can effective use this information to better serve their consumers.   I like how Baker tackles this issue.   And here he mentions Rapleaf:

In an industry where the majority of ads go unclicked, even a small
boost can make a big difference. One San Francisco advertising company,
Rapleaf, carried out a friend-based campaign for a credit-card company
that wanted to sell bank products to existing customers. Tailoring
offers based on friends' responses helped lift the average click rate
from 0.9% to 2.7%. Although 97.3% of the people surfed past the ads,
the click rate still tripled.

Rapleaf, which has harvested data from blogs, online forums, and
social networks, says it follows the network behavior of 480 million
people. It furnishes friendship data to help customers fine-tune their
promotions. Its studies indicate borrowers are a better bet if their
friends have higher credit ratings. This might mean a home buyer with a
middling credit risk score of 550 should be treated as closer to 600 if
most of his or her friends are in that range, says Rapleaf CEO Auren

when to trust your gut

As readers of this blog may know, I think most people think their gut is better than it is. I were to guess, I’d say 30% of people have a good gut but 95% of people think they have a good gut.

But that is a big generalization.

In my observation, a gut feeling is better in the negative than in the affirmative. Translation: your gut is better at telling you what NOT to do than at telling you what to do.

If your gut tells you to hire someone … you might not want to heed it. But if your gut tells you to NOT hire someone, it is probably good advice.

Your gut might tell you to do, or not to do, lots of things from hiring to dating to doing a business deal to ordering something at a restaurant.

So I used to be controversial and tell people that I did not trust my gut … but I was wrong. My gut has been right more often than not when it tells me to stay away.

probability is really important for computer science

The average software engineer graduating Stanford University cannot solve a simple probability problem. That seems like there is an issue in education. Understanding probabilistic models is increasingly important. Algorithms for search results, matching, and more rely on probability.

When we interview engineers at Rapleaf, I have found that many top schools, such as Stanford, produce graduates that have little knowledge about statistics and probability. And while not knowing probability isn’t a disqualifier from getting an engineering job, it does show that the person has a lot to learn.

Does anyone out there know what percentage of computer science students take a course on probability??

your job description

From Eric Reis: That every person in the company has this job description: in any situation it is your responsibility, using your best judgment, to do what you think is in the best interests of the company. That’s it. Everything else is only marketing.