What’s this, a letter from the United States Post Office requiring my attention? I shouldn’t throw it away?
Here’s the contents of this “Do Not Discard” letter.
Yep. It’s a table full of junk mail. In an official USPS envelope. Whatever the charms of snail mail may once have been, they’ve been invaded and destroyed by the fact that my physical inbox has more junk mail than any email account I have.
After diagnosing the problem, the leader would then lead his team in the Five Whys, a means of getting to the root of any problem. If you just asked why, you would get to the immediate cause of a problem. If you asked it four more times, you would get to the bottom of the problem.”
I’m not sure I learned much in 17 years of formal education. But from the very beginning, I remember “Why?” questions as being tricky. This method sounds like an utter disaster. I’ll let Richard Feynman explain why “Five Whys” is a foolhardy rule of thumb:
Good luck, Juggalos of the world, with your Five Whys. I’ll pick a different rule for getting to the bottom of my problems.
Contributors to lists can often seem snappy and downright nasty, but they’re really being altruistic. They may be a bit mean because they’re tired after answering the same questions over and over for a decade, but they’re ultimately helping people out.
The downside of these mean commenters is sometimes they seem sooooo eager to give snappy answers to stupid questions, that I fear that they go out of their way to answer the easy questions and skip out on the toughies. You might say I do the same thing on the blog, sometimes. I’ll read a serious comment and respond only with a +1 or not even that, whereas I’ll go endlessly back and forth with trolls. There’s some way in which correcting error seems so urgent, while more serious exploration can wait.
I had never considered that easy or stupid comments and questions can bait experts into wasting their time in the areas in which the experts are confident their answers are correct. Of course, I think we want experts spending time where they are less confident, and dwelling on the difficult rather than the mundane. Experts and email lists or help forums might be a little incompatible. Lists and forums both contain a lot of social loafing, but they also have some kind of reputation hierarchy in the list. Combined with the invective style that the Internet breeds, it’s not surprising that people end up wanting to demonstrate their prowess only on the easy questions, while simultaneously drubbing the fool that asked such a lowly question. True experts with uncertain and controversial opinions are either having their time wasted or are likely to be shouted down in such an environment.
This is why I’m skeptical of the value in online communities (even the ones I participate in).
In The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki argues that most crowds don’t meet his requisite criteria to produce wisdom: diversity, independence, decentralization, and aggregation. Formal definitions of those four terms might escape Surowiecki, but it’s a good starting point. Email lists, for instance, offer greater independence and decentralization than Reddit, but likely have less diversity and no aggregation. Stack Overflow has reasonable independence and great aggregation, but again struggles with diversity. In fact, these domain-expert oriented sites and help lists are intentionally sacrificing diversity. That’s because it takes too long to ramp everyone up to the point where they have the “same information”. Choices like which authentication protocol to use or which database will be superior are hard to explain and almost never have all the information visible.
Lastly, how does the Supreme Court do? While just nine might not be a crowd, they have pretty diverse views, spectacular independence, good decentralization (by Surowiecki’s definition… they of course are geographically centralized), and have a simple but apparently effective method of aggregation via majority opinions. And, via Writs of Certiorari the Supreme Court makes sure to not feed the trolls, instead tackling the questions worthy of their time.
In two highly controlled experimental studies, we find clear evidence of partition dependence in a 2-h laboratory experiment and a field experiment on National Basketball Association (NBA) and Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA World Cup) sports events spanning several weeks. We also find evidence consistent with partition dependence in nonexperimental field data from prediction markets for economic derivatives (guessing the values of important macroeconomic statistics) and horse races. Results in any one of the studies might be explained by a specialized alternative theory, but no alternative theories can explain the results of all four studies.
Partition dependence, framing, and anchoring effects all feel like related effects. I’d love it if we could get a more unified theory that ties them together.
For his third birthday, my son had a surf-themed party at a way too cold beach in San Francisco. I’m sure he had created a self-image of how he looked in his rash-guard and shades as he balanced on a freshly waxed, beach-bound longboard. Like most parents, I felt compelled to go paparazzi on my son and his friends from the second we unloaded the car… the photo wasn’t all that cool. Given time to reflect (even the few days I used to get between my own childhood birthdays and my mom picking up a set of 4×6 prints at the local pharmacy), my son probably would’ve developed a version of that day that had him riding a giant a wave, looking like a cross between Laird Hamilton and Eddie Vedder. Instead, he pretty much looked like a landlocked three year-old on a beach-bound surfboard who was suffering from a rare — but particularly punishing — bad hair day.
Bummer. But what about all the days when your imagined self is just really having a terrible day, taking a beating, and you get to see pictures that remind you of how not bad it is? And maybe a little bit less self-imagined optimism would be useful for would-be Darwin award winners.
The truth of it is that these mobile cameras are just atrocious for seeing life in a certain way. Their 3mm focal lengths and unforgiving apertures destroy the psychological luxuries of sweeping panorama and soft focus by making those mountains that look so large little pinpricks in the distance, and by boiling everything down to brutal crispness when a summer picnic is often mentally shrouded in selective focus.
I’ve never loved camera filter apps. Why harm good clean raw image data, I always thought. But I rarely go back and revisit my camera phone snaps with Photoshop. And if they’re a tool to help me bring the past into vivid memory, perhaps I ought to employ a few Instagram-esque filters to help retain the natural wonder that David Pell thinks digital cameras erase.
Dictionary of Numbers is a Chrome extension that inspects text you read on the web, automatically adding quick notes next to numbers, contextualizing them. For instance, if you’re reading Jean-Louis Gassee’s latest column about Microsoft and Nokia, you’ll see:
Today, investors say Nokia is worth about $15B [≈ net worth of Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft], a tenth of its 2007 peak (I’m excluding the 2000 Internet Bubble number from the comparison).
Unfortunately, the extension isn’t usually that serendipitous in its matching. It’s context-blind, meaning numbers are simply matched to their nearest neighbor and arbitrarily contextualized. But it’s frequently insufficient to know just a “dictionary” of numbers; what we really crave is an extension that automatically contextualizes these numbers. This requires knowledge both about the information that surrounds the number (its context) and information about the reader (our context). For instance, later in the same article:
And what will happen to Windows Phone? We now hear that Microsoft is paying developers as much as $100,000 [≈ Small rural house (2011)] to write or port an application to the platform.
In my ideal world, the Dictionary of Numbers would examine the keywords “Microsoft, developers, platform, Windows Phone”. Drawing from that context, it might present $100,000 as a percentage of the Windows Phone ecosystem annual revenue or the median earnings of a developer. And, if the extension knew about me, it could know that I’m living in Seattle. $100,000 for a home is out of context for someone like me (although interesting). Contextualizing it as 1/5th the median home price of my neighborhood would be much more helpful when I’m trying to visualize cost.
The world constantly places demands on us to understand astronomical numbers. Big data is helping us plunder and extract insight from these outworldly numbers, but that just increases the need to have tools that make them relatable. The meters to the moon (384,401,000m, when not a supermoon), the average ocean temperature (17 degrees centigrade), or the relative variance in the entire universe’s microwave background radiation are all meaningless without appropriate context and by putting it into the domain of the reader. But this isn’t a call for more graphs. Numbers and words can do the job more tastefully and in-line.
Who’s a good candidate to pull off “Dictionary of Numbers” version two? I’d point to Google or Microsoft: they know a lot about the web, they know a lot of numbers, they know a lot about you as a user. These days, though, people barely like features in their browser; the emphasis on clean interfaces and fast performance is reasonable, but ensures that projects like this remain obscure plugins instead of beautiful built-in client features.
Let’s end with a nice data visualization from Ze Frank, about your life in Jelly Beans.
Yes, you read that graph right: in 2007, the average AGI of the top 400 US tax returns is 100 million inflation-adjusted dollars.
Other interesting trends for the top 400 highest earners: the declining number of the top 400 that included salaries or wages in their tax return, the decreasing overall tax liability from 1993 to 2009, and the substantial growth in income from S Corps and capital gains.
The chances you’ll be audited rises with your income bracket. Dennis Ventry, a law professor at the University of California at Davis, read me the numbers: The overall audit rate is about 1 percent. For incomes of over $1 million, it jumps to 9 percent, and for incomes above $10 million, it goes all the way to 27 percent.