Thursday, May 15, 2014

Data for Insight

Big Data. It's the newest Big Thing in business. Delve into your company's massive database of consumer actions and extract valuable insights - insights that can influence future shopping behaviour.

Aiden and Michel, the authors of Uncharted, turn to a different dataset, Google's database of 30 million digitized books (about one quarter of all books ever published), and a different kind of analysis they call culturomics.

They examine patterns of word usage over the history of all these books to shed light on word origins and usages, politics, history and culture. Actually,  to be perfectly accurate, they examine Ngrams, which are sequences of characters that could be words, phrases, or numbers or whatever. Then they plot the frequency of those Ngrams over time across all books in the database.

This is a simply incredible database to explore. Of course, it doesn't capture all culture shifts, because the dataset does not include any publications except books, and, of course, it totally misses the increasing dissemination of information through video. Nevertheless, it's a pretty powerful lens on history.

Obviously, the dataset is a treasure trove of insights  for the linguist. Consider the graph for chortle, galumphing and frumious,  three words introduced by Lewis Carroll in Jabberwocky, published in 1871.

But such analysis yields insights way beyond mere linguistics. Uncharted discusses who gets famous and the idea of the half life of fame. One chapter explores the revealing disappearance of artists' names during a period when they were politically suppressed, either by the Nazis or the Hollywood black list. The Ngram viewer confirms and provides evidence of the suppression, sort of history as demonstrated by a quant!

The Ngram viewer tool used by Aiden and Michel is available to anyone at Google's Ngram viewer and here are just a few of the charts from the book and others that caught my fancy. (Be careful, this site can be addictive!)

Consider the trend in our environmental thinking, as our terminology shifted from greenhouse effect, to global warming, to climate change.

The Ngram viewer makes clear our shift from tea to coffee.

If you didn't already know it, Ngrams would demonstrate the collapse of Detroit's hegemony in the automobile business.

And what do you think of this chart?

There's been a lot of controversy over Google's book digitization project - impassioned arguments about copyright issues, versus the value of such a database. This application skirts the issue of copyright by restricting itself to meta-analysis of the books.

Have fun playing with the Ngram viewer yourself. By the way, the response time for doing a search like the one above "Plot me the frequency of the words men and women in 30 million books published since 1800" is truly amazing when you think about it. We take Google's extraordinary search capability for granted sometimes, but this just highlights the powerhouse in those Googleplexes.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Jab, Jab, Jab, RIght Hook

Give value before you ask. That's the advice of fast-talking social media expert Gary Vaynerchuk, author of Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook. Vaynerchuk was a speaker this week at Rotman and he was energetic and frenetic. He was promoting his new book, which he described as being full of specific strategic and tactical advice for succeeding in social media, wrapped around about a hundred case studies.

In a world saturated with content across all manner of media, you have to work hard to get attention. And you do that by providing people with value. Provide that value and build a relationship before you seek a transaction: to buy your product or to make a donation. In other words, Jab by providing content before you put out the Hook.

Don't use social media sites like Facebook primarily to attract people to your web site: build your relationship there, where people already are. For instance, don't start your own hashtag; jump onto an existing one. Get used to the idea that you don't own your content: once you release it, whether it's in an ad or a YouTube video, it belongs to the world.

Vaynerchuk is very excited - and, believe me, his excitement is very transparent! - about the ability to target very specific segments on Facebook. TV segmentation is about 27% accurate, whereas Facebook segmentation is about 92% accurate. He recommends going for depth, not breadth. Wouldn't you rather connect with 1,000 people highly likely to buy your product rather than 100,000 who aren't at all interested? Use Facebook dark posts to target these people; through them you can get your message out subtly without putting something right on your Facebook page*.

Vaynerchuk's strongest recommendation was this: Become a media company. Provide valuable content to build a relationship, and then slip in your message among the rest of the media. Frankly, I found this advice disingenuous: if every organization becomes a media company, the content market will become even more saturated. Only the early birds are going to catch this worm!!!

The format of this session was mostly Q&A, which worked quite well despite the fact that Vaynerchuk was participating through two-way video. His most common advice to the people with tactical questions was 'become a media company'.

* I definitely have to do more research to fully understand these dark posts. Vaynerchuk's talk was liberally sprinkled with acronyms and was clearly aimed at people who already knew a lot about social media.

Friday, May 9, 2014

112 Weddings

Very good

Doug Block is a documentary filmmaker who supports his documentary 'habit' with a side business filming weddings - 112 of them to be exact over the past 20 years. Block revisits a handful of couples to interview them about their marriages, and how those marriages stack up against their expectations on wedding day. At the same time, he delves into the expectations of a couple preparing for an upcoming wedding.

The ten couples share their ever-after stories, what happened after the wedding. There's a wide range of outcomes - happiness, divorce, stress of children, even one couple who officially marries after years after the life partnership ceremony originally filmed. The short clips are short, varied and oh so revealing. That was the charm for me, seeing into a broad range of marriages, and into the characters of the people involved.

Best lines of the movie: A rabbi says that weddings are usually very happy days, not surprising given the amount of money and liquor being splashed around. He continues that of course the application of liquor and money during the marriage leads to great unhappiness.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Case Against 8

Best of Hot Docs (for me)

I didn't think the standing ovation was ever going to end. The audience was recognizing a fantastic movie - The Case Against 8. It's one of those movies where you know the ending but the filmmakers manage to create incredible suspense anyway.

The plot in a nutshell: California passes a law legalizing gay marriage. Then Californians vote for Proposition 8 defining marriage as being between a man and a woman. The American Foundation for Equal Rights decides to challenge Proposition 8 as unconstitutional. Two lawyers take on the case: Ted Olson (Bush's lawyer during the court case over Florida election results in 2000) and David Boies (opposing lawyer for Gore in the same case). Irony or what? And two smart, articulate, endearing couples act as the plaintiffs. A case arguing that the law is unconsitutional is won in California. The case is appealed in California and the ruling holds. The case goes to the Supreme Court, which fails to overturn the California ruling. Gay marriage is legal in California, and is now legal in 17 states.

The two couples appreciating thunderous applause after the Q&A
Plaintiffs Paul Katami and Jeff Zorillo had never been married, whereas Kris Perry and Sandy Stier had been married, only to receive a government form letter saying the marriage was no longer valid after the passing of Proposition 8. These four people had been thoroughly vetted before being chosen as the plaintiffs, and that choice was well made. Their job was to make the case about the personal impact Prop 8 had on them, and they did that with emotion (but not too much), reason (but not too abstract) and grace. The final case before the Supreme Court failed on a split decision because the plaintiffs in that case (fighting against the California rulings that gay marriage was legal) were deemed not to have a personal stake in the case. Maybe not the total victory hoped for, but at least the declaration that gay marriage was legal in California and precedent setting for the rest of the US.

In an early stage of the case, cameras were barred from the courtroom in California, to the chagrin of the plaintiffs, so we were unable to see live court scenes, but the directors hit on an effective device: have the court transcripts read by the participants to give a flavour of the court. One part of the court case I would dearly love to have seen. The opponents had lined up six witnesses to argue against gay marriage, and there were video depositions of these witnesses before the case opened. Bois was in charge of cross-examination (acknowledged in the film as perhaps the best cross examiner in the US). He tore these witnesses to shreds before the case, to the point that five of the witnesses withdrew from testifying. As for the sixth witness, well, that's the scene I would have loved to have seen. His final words after cross examination were 'I would agree that Proposition 8 is unAmerican'. Bois had turned him into a witness for the plaintiffs!

Great story. Great movie. See if it you get a chance.

Later footnote:
The Economist just published an interesting chart (aren't all their charts interesting?) showing the 19 states where same-sex marriage is now legal (up from 17 when I wrote the original post), showing when they first legalized same-sex marriage. Surprisingly, there wasn't a one-to-one correlation between states with same-sex marriage and degree of liberalism,  although the states where same-sex marriage is still illegal are definitely all conservatively inclined.