Cargo Cult Analytics (best thinking on big data I’ve read in a long time)

Former IDG colleague Matt McAllister tweeted a link to a wonderful post by Stijn Debrouwere, a Knight-Mozilla OpenNews fellow who is “loosely affiliated with the Guardian’s data science team in London.”

Debrouwere tackles the futility of newsroom analytics and measurement, something I lived at and IDG and then Lenovo when I ran web analytics, mainly Omniture (now Adobe) and Google Analytics. As Debrouwere sarcastically notes, putting dashboards on big flat panel screens and making them really big makes them really important. He compares media executives who cling to their dashboards to New Guinea primitives waving at the sky and waiting for the cargo to come to them the way it used to come during WW II when the US Army was fighting the war.

Some zingers from his post:

  • “If you’re like most people, you don’t stray very far from the dashboard you get when you log in. You stare and squint and hope insight will magically manifest itself.”
  • “There’s nothing like a dashboard full of data and graphs and trend lines to make us feel like grown ups. Like people who know what they’re doing. So even though we’re not getting any real use out of it, it’s addictive and we can’t stop doing it.”
  • “There’s enough social media analytics tools to merit listicles that helpfully introduce you to the top 8.”
  • “You’re supposed to put these dashboards up on a wall, on a huge plasma screen. Because of course numbers are twice as persuasive if you make them twice as big.”
  • “Metrics are for doing, not staring.”
  • “I honestly can’t recall the last time I’ve looked at our pageviews. I know it wouldn’t get me anywhere.”

This Big Data thing has a lot of people confused, myself included. And for good reason. We think of this big database in the cloud, doing something so big and difficult that it requires lots and lots of processing power and a thing called “Hadoop,” watching individuals interacting like so many ants with companies and stuff in real-time like some scary NSA spooky datacenter in Utah listening to all our phone calls  (but respectful of our privacy of course), figuring out patterns and trends and opportunities and MAGICAL INSIGHTS in REAL-TIME.  So let’s get ourselves some of that there Big Data and save the company, be like Google, A/B test the shit out  of stuff, and get rid of the Highest Paid Person’s opinion, blah, blah blah…..

First, a lot of people, including me, suck at math and statistics and so we overcompensate by regarding any numbers and the word “quantitative” as mystical.  If it has a number attached to it (not an adjective) it must be important.

Second, the legends around Big Data and the magical insights they deliver to retailers are kind of cool to consider and become mythical. Target can tell when a woman is pregnant based on her shopping history. Wal-Mart figured out 80% of its store visitors turn right when they enter the store. The promise of finding one of those awesome insights is just too compelling to miss. The problem is staring at a dashboard doesn’t equate to discovering an insight. Hence a lot of us are like the Cargo Cultists.

Third, modern management is obsessed with measurement — former colleague Lew McCreary called it the Tyranny of Metrics — and the Pokemon Model of Got To Get ‘Em All applies to equating Big Data with Big Data Collection, which yields the ugly phenomenon coined by Google metrics guru Avinash Kaushik: “Data Puking.” The admonition that, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” has built a corporate culture more concerned with looking buttoned-up, on the ball, and obsessively accurate than being intuitive, empathetic and innovative.

I was the guy who built these dashboards, peered at them for magical insights, puked them at my bosses, and over time I started to get really cynical and put  tired old quotes pissing on measurement   into my PowerPoint presentations:

Einstein: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Warren Buffett:”They studied what was measurable, rather than what was meaningful” – 

I know Debrouwere’s post appealed to me because he was specifically addressing metrics in the newsroom — a place I spent most of my career. But it also struck a current chord with me because of  my work for clients, all of whom cite Big Data incessantly as a force for disruption and transformation, yet haven’t the faintest clue of how to harness it or whom the Oracle will be in their organization who will study the digital tea leaves and come up with the single “AHA!” that will make them Measurement Legends.


Feathered Winos

Every morning, after the sky brightens around 6 am, the birdfeeders get a visit from a mother turkey and her four toddling pullets. They come up Main Street from the direction of the Town Dock, enter the August-brown dead grass lawn and cross it together, in a strung out line — mother in the middle, two on each flank — pecking for stuff as they bob and amble across the driveway to the arbor.

The mother raids the hanging feeders, knocking down enough seed so the young ones can scratch and eat while she stands guard and peers around suspiciously, waiting for some predator to come out of nowhere and cause some carnage. They hang out for ten minutes, clean up the spilled seed (I’m reaching for an Onan reference here), then shuffle off the way they came, back into the woods behind the house where the local wildlife sanctuary seems to reside, including a very vocal owl, a murder of crows, an occasional covey of quail and the whiff of a skunk.

The turkeys visit every morning. The dog is insane with hatred. Squirrels were bad enough, chipmunks infuriating, but the turkeys confuse the dog, who senses something alien and dinosaurish about them that just isn’t right. The song birds stay away from the feeders while the turkeys are in residence, and flock back under the Concord grapes as soon as they move on.

Like the ospreys overhead, I never saw these birds until a few years ago. After being nearly wiped out during the Depression by hungry Cape Codders, they’ve made a comeback and gone from novelties to nuisances in some minds, one wit calling them “feathered winos staggering around our neighborhoods.”

They attack mail men. They charge children. They cross roads and cause little traffic jams. I want to go full Pilgrim  Localvore this November and eat one for Thanksgiving but I understand you can only shoot them with black powder, muzzle loading blunderbusses while wearing pointy shoes with pewter buckles on the third Tuesday of October no closer than 5 miles to the nearest dwelling.

Sampson’s Island Dredge Update

I’ve missed the recent meetings and hearings on the dredging proposal by Three Bays and Mass Audubon to take 800 feet of sand from the Cotuit end and pass it back and shore up the Osterville end.

The Barnstable Patriot has an article this week updating the current state of the proposal and the mounting opposition to it. Recent meetings at Freedom Hall hosted by the Cotuit-Santuit Civic Association, and ongoing Conservation Commission hearings have continued debate over the big project.

The next CC hearing is September 17 at 6:30 at town hall in Hyannis. The Patriot writes:

““What needs to happen is to move it into a higher gear,” Barnstable Conservation Director Rob Gatewood said this week. That includes a complete environmental review, with conditions, from the state’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, which he called a “huge role as gatekeeper.”That report may or may not be ready on Sept. 17, he said.


Baseball Scorekeeper

I switched scorebooks this summer in the interest of checking out some alternatives. I started scoring with the free cards the Cotuit Kettleers used to hand out as recently as 2009, but have since migrated to spiral-bound books of scoring blanks.

The standby for me for the past three seasons  has been C.S. Peterson’s Scoremaster. I would order one or two every spring from Amazon for $7 (though the vendor claims a massive discount from a list price of $30 which is absurd because I don’t remember paying close to that).

Here’s a scoresheet from Peterson:



Apologies in advance as the scan doesn’t do much justice to the detail on the form, but there it is. Pretty dense, kind of cramped, but it did the job for the most part and didn’t have any obvious irritations.

Peterson’s is a good book. I’m familiar with it, it has a pitch count tracker which one can see on the far right. It is soft covered so it isn’t very rigid in the lap and it has no pockets to stash ticket stubs, 50-50 raffle tickers, or other detritrus picked up at the ball park.

This summer I tried something new, a very trendy super scorebook complete with an introduction, a set of how-to-score instructions, a fold-out cheat sheet with common symbols and abbreviations, and yes, a memento pocket inside of the back cover.  This version is called the Baseball Scorekeeper and is priced at $13.56 onb Amazon, twice the Peterson price. It even has co-authors, Stuart Miller and Zack Hemple.

I liked it. It was a little basic but it also got the job done, it just didn’t get to the level of obsessive detail that Peterson’s does. The lack of a pitch count tracker was an issue, and the player hit column just noted hits, not doubles, triples, etc.



I’d recommend the Scorekeeper to a beginner, wish Peterson’s came in a hardcover version and while I’m giving advice, would tell the Scorekeeper guys to consider an elastic band of some sort — like Moleskin notebooks have — to help hold the thing together when it is folded open and both sides are in use.

Next season I’ll try something else.

And to hell with scorekeeping apps. Yes yes yes I’ve heard of Gamechanger, and have tried the iScore app. Only douchebags take tablets to ballgames unless they’re getting paid to bring one there. Give me paper and pencil and a bag of peanuts in the shell.

Blaming the blockers: What’s the future of online advertising? — Tech News and Analysis

GigaOm has published an opinion piece I wrote at the suggestion of Om Malik about the poor prospects for the present digital advertising model. I went off on a screed in my first draft against the protests of the Internet Advertising Bureau who have been attacking people like me who turn on ad-blocking software and turn off third-party tracking cookies.

I’ll let the column speak for itself.

The Taussig Portrait

There’s a rumor of a certain paint spattered floor here in Cotuit, the kind people liked to paint in the early 60s in old houses by dipping a wooden paint stirring stick in a pot of colored paint and snapping it to create a constellation of speck and spots. The floor of the old front parlor in my house used to have such a spatter-effect, but I think that was painted over by my wife the interior designer at some point in the 1990s.

The rumor is that Jackson Pollock painted such a floor in a beachside house near Loop Beach that was recently sold to a Boston financier who tried to tear it down as all Boston financiers must tear things down, but was saved by the local historic preservationists who managed to persuade their new neighbor to move the old place back from the view of Nantucket Sound to make room for his new starter castle. Whether the floor is there or not is still a matter of myth, but I like to think of the ghosts of great artists who summered in Cotuit over the years, leaving behind some talented marks like initials carved into the bark of an old tree.

In yesterday’s Sunday New York Times I was surprised to find a story about the artist Jamie Wyeth and a portrait he painted as a young man of Cotuit’s famous summer resident, the pediatric cardiogist Helen Taussig. In August of 1963 — fifty years ago — young Wyeth arrived in Cotuit to paint the portrait of the eminent physician, a portrait commissioned by her colleagues to recognize her pioneering work saving “blue babies” — infants with cardio pulmonary defects.

The Times printed a picture of Wyeth’s portrait and Mersol describes the horrified reaction of her family and friends, one so negative that the painting was never hung in a place of honor but given to Doctor Taussig who wrapped it in a beach towel and stashed it in her attic. When it was presented to the hospital after her death in 1986 (I never met her, only knew her reputation and the racing mark named after her that the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club occasionally sails around in southerly winds), the hospital did its best to hide it in a private alcove where visitors couldn’t find it.

Wyeth billed his patrons $1000 and travel expenses for the work, and it took him two tries before he was paid.

The Times contrasts the Wyeth version with another, blander portrait painted later in the doctor’s life. I definitely prefer Wyeth’s version: her strength and intensity shines through, a hint at the ambition and intelligence of medicine’s earliest and most gifted femaile practitioners.

Anyway, I thought it worth commenting on as I read the story sitting in the cockpit of my sailboat anchored in the cove of Cotuit’s Sampson Island this morning and with a look to my left could see Doctor Taussig’s old home as well as the house with the mythical Pollock spatter floor.


Update: Thanks to Fred J. for pointing me to this piece in the Barnstable Patriot by Stew Goodwin that confirms the tale of the floor.

The Twilight of the Laptop

It’s been three years since I bid Lenovo adios and used my employee discount to buy my last ThinkPad, a T410s. I was a big ThinkPad booster in my day. I was paid to be. Cash incentives aside, the all black design, the red trackpoint pointer in the middle of the keyboard, the promise of a rugged, durable, non-nonsense computer was a classic alternative to the generic chromed plastic and blue indicator lights being pumped out by the competition in the PC industry’s ongoing race to the bottom of commodity computing. ThinkPads were the best laptops on the market and it was easy to market that fact.

No offense to the good designers and engineers I worked with back then, but the T410S was a lemon that took two annoying warranty trips back to the service center to solve a bad display problem and then an aggravating overheating problem that caused it to shut down and turn into a brick. I hadn’t done my homework when I bought that machine, and when I tried to breathe a second life into it with a 64 GB SDD harddrive I learned that the  original disc’s form factor was utterly weird, expensive, and ultimately impossible to upgrade. So I said to hell with it, built a great desktop tower myself with parts ordered from Newegg and haven’t looked back.

The ThinkPad still works but I don’t use it anymore and have passed it along to my son. I expected to buy another one this summer, but ….

This post is being written on a $250 Google Nexus 7 tablet with a $70 Logitech wireless bluetooth keyboard. The battery life is great. I can use it in my lap, on the porch, in the morning with my morning coffee. While I don’t like having to take my fingers off of the little keys to touch the screen and move the cursor around, I can get past all that because for $320 I have a great set up for taking notes, editing documents from my Dropbox and Google Drive accounts, watching past episodes of Deadwood on HBO Go and controlling my Sonos speaker system playing WWOZ over TunedIn radio.

I won’t buy another clamshell classic laptop ever again. I may be given one if I take another job inside of a corporation, but even then I imagine the “bring-your-own-device” to work trend will give me the freedom to show up with a tablet/wireless keyboard combo. This isn’t a retromingent screed against PCs, just a statement of personal preference backed up by one of the more vicious disruptions in computing platforms since the PC was introduced to the world in the late 70s.

The old argument that serious creation and composition would always prefer a real notebook with a real keyboard is silly. I can see myself buying a Thinkpad tablet just to get to the ThinkPad’s legendary keyboard (the way the Thinkpad engineers deliver the best keyboard experience is a great, untold story but one that few serious typist/Tpad fans would dispute), even the Microsoft Surface is a nice piece of hardware. And as I see more and more iPads and Android tablets pulled out in meetings and turned into typing devices with bluetooth keyboards, I think I’m justified in saying the sun is setting on the world of Inspirons, Pavillions, Satellites and ThinkPads.

I’ve tried external keyboards in the past, most memorably a folding contraption back in the heyday of the Palm Pilot that got maybe a grand total of three hours usage before I gave up in expensive disgust. But this stripped down combo of Android and bluetooth typing is working for me when I am away from the desktop battlestation.

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