Monday, May 27, 2013

A Little Moonshine

I read with fascination this article on using analytics to make predictions and prescriptions regarding your child's career. Both words - prediction and prescription make me very nervous. The premise of the product IBM India's research lab is building is summed up thusly:

“As a student go through courses, every test is recorded electronically (in fact, it is done in most of the US schools). With this kind of data, we can build models of students and cluster them to categories based on some analytics. So we can say, this student is similar to this cluster of people and predict how he can perform,” 

I thought it may be interesting to apply this line to reasoning to a small cohort - the forty some kids that I grew up with taking many, many tests along the way. I have data points for about forty students and eight subjects for say about seven years - several tests at a year for all of these kids. 

Of course, the numbers will not be terribly accurate but the kids are easy enough to cluster in three broad categories - top, middle and bottom of the class in aggregate and by subject. My little group showed remarkable consistency in their test performances from middle school through high school. There was some movement between back and forth between the middle and top of the class. Not much changed at the bottom. Similarly, folks at the very top of the class remained there.

Two decades after taking our last tests seems like a good time to take stock of where we all are. The bottom of the class has done extremely well almost without exception. The middle of the class has remained there - in the middle. The top of the class has beat expectations too but in a negative way. None in that group have realized their assumed "potential" to succeed. I can't wait to find out if the predictive model they build will prove what history has for my tiny sample - that test scores are the worst way to gauge aptitude, interest, motivation or potential to succeed; personality and work ethic are the two big drivers for success that are not easily testable.

Being that this work is taking place in India where astrology has been part of the cultural fabric for thousands of years, maybe they should throw planetary positions in the mix - just for fun. In India it would be a crowd-pleaser. We like to believe that the stars and planets hold secrets and portents for our future, we generally like and trust math, test taking is in our DNA - so we have a winning combination here for believer and skeptic alike. Car insurance has been mixed with zodiac signs in the past, so why leave out education specially when the action is taking place in India ?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Yahoo Watching

I am not a big Yahoo user but have been following the site and the news about Yahoo since Marissa Mayer took over. Mainly I am curious about how this thing will end up under her stewardship and when the souring happens  how the blame will be apportioned. The Tumblr deal did not make a lot of sense - instead of clarifying a brand which is already all over the map, Mayer chose to thrown something new in the mix. I tend to agree with Owen Thomas on why this is a mistake

If teens are turning away from Facebook because they want to get away from their parents, any kind of Yahoo-fication of Tumblr will not go over well with this population. Yet letting Tumblr function autonomously making the change of guard seamless to its user population would not meet Yahoo's goals. Yahoo is way more old school than Facebook and ever so uncool. The clutter on the landing page is out of control and has a disturbing Geocities vibe about it. It makes me want to run right away to some place quieter where the content has some focus.  I love Hulu and have been a user from their earliest days. Specially sad to see Yahoo bidding to acquire it as well. Still remember the time when I had to give up my favorite bookmarking site and how Yahoo took my some thousand Flickr images hostage and would only let me see a few for free - so many bad memories. It's good to see the sadness is shared

Sad but true: there’s a long history of Yahoo making companies it buys uncool, rather than acquisitions making Yahoo cool.

Saturday, May 18, 2013


Reading about the purveyors emotional commerce and the brands that fit the bill - had to check out the True&Co quiz to see if it would make me feel warm and fuzzy like the author said it would. Maybe I am not the target customer segment or age group because I was not able to see anything more than the obvious cute factor. Conversion by way of registration to the site certainly did not happen. I had heard about the Abercrombie business from J a few days ago - her friends have been talking about how distasteful it was for the CEO to say that he does not cater to uncool kids. It is ironic that the so called uncool have pretty strong emotions about the brand that rejects them. 

The expert opinion on the comments made by Jefferies is a little at odds with what I have heard from the trenches - namely J. I asked her if her friends were offended enough to stop wearing the brand and she asked "If the CEO of Apple said something nasty would you stop using the iPhone ?" and I had to say no I would not. J clarified that they would buy because the product was good even if the CEO had said some things that they did not like. Another instance of emotional commerce missing the mark by a little bit.

But if a brand provokes a groundswell of anger and resentment then consumers may make real time boycott decisions about the contents of their shopping cart.

Thursday, May 09, 2013


Reading this story prompted me to download Waze and check it out. We have a long drive coming up this weekend and I am looking forward to using it.  I was pleasantly surprised to see the density of social activity in my sleepy little neck of the woods. Like the author says "I didn't think enough people would take the time to enter information about things like traffic or speed traps into Waze to make it useful, but I was wrong."

There were nearly a hundred different reports on traffic, police, closure and more. I would not need to look at Yelp while driving, it comes integrated with a look-up for restaurants in your location or along your route. I love how well system has been augmented with social to create a product that packs so much usefulness in a very compact format. The possibilities for mashups are only limited by the imagination. From retailers being able to push real time offers to someone headed in the direction of their store, to making connections between people and people  or people and services that begin to make sense only when the two are in each other's vicinity. 

Instead for putting out an ad on Craigslist, a plumber may push out a notification of his availability and his current route and let those in need of his services, pick it up and connect in real time. There is something fascinating about the idea of making such deliberate connections and creating unexpected opportunities.

Per my earlier rant about Google's asinine decision to kill Reader, I am in complete agreement with the author's conclusion "There’s no sign that Google has shown an interest in acquiring Waze, but I think the company would be stupid not to at least consider trumping Facebook’s offer. It could wind up losing its way, and a bunch of mobile users to boot." It would be sad though if Facebook acquires Waze and turns it into something completely unrecognizable from its current, wonderful state or worse - kills it.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013


Client I was meeting with today is in his late 50s and the father of a college senior. He was bemoaning the state of math education in grade school and beyond and how in his field of work, there is almost no local talent to be found. The issue of education being dumbed down to cater to the lowest common denominator came up and how his son did not study Algebra until 9th grade and struggled in physics because calculus was taught way too late. He talked about how both teachers and students were held to a much higher standard back in his day. It was interesting to read yet another excuse for not challenging kids more in school - they are too sleep deprived to use their brains. 

Closer home, J tells me how popularity in middle school is directly proportional to athletic ability. Interestingly though, the standard of competition in athletics is not translated to academics or other extra curricular activities. So, whereas the losing team does not get awarded a trophy, kids with straight As are bracketed together with the Bs and all Bs and only one C in a comprehensive Honor Roll list. There is no distinction made between these three sets of kids who in the least have applied very different degrees of effort to achieve what they have. Even if we wanted to completely discount innate ability, it seems fair to recognize the highest degree of effort. Since when did hard-work and motivation to succeed become things to de-recognize ?  The rationale for this strange Honor Roll system is to make sure no one is discouraged and completely gives up. In a sense the school system is conveying to the kids that they will not be able to handle in the classroom what they are able to handle out in the sports field. I find this whole thought process deeply troubling and incoherent. 

J makes snide remarks about she just needs to show up and be breathing and that will be enough to make the Honor Roll in her school. Since the school is not able to provide incentives for her to do well, I have tried to create artificial ones to keep her motivated and engaged. Mostly my strategies have failed resoundingly. To keep things interesting for herself, J has decided to focus most of her energy on her Art grade because it is difficult to maintain an A given the exceptionally high bar in that class and the very subjective nature of the grading process. It is troubling for me to see how the system's excuses for not demanding more from kids (and rewarding them for their effort) is hurting my child.