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Five reasons to read The Numerati by Stephen Baker

You don’t have to be part of it to understand it.
You don’t have to be a member of the numerati—a group of persons who try to predict human behavior using mathematics, among others—to understand The Numerati, a book written in 2008 by Stephen Baker, a journalist and, by his own accounts, a blogger. [See: Baker, The Numerati]
Anyone can read the book and immediately appreciate its concepts in one sitting.
But then again, that’s what books—or at least those in the non-fiction category—are all about.
Besides being edifying, these non-fiction titles should also be enjoyable.
And that’s certainly the case with The Numerati.
Readers don’t have to go far to see the adventure that they’ll be embarking on.
In the introduction alone, Baker already cites the question posed by David Morgan, the head of Tacoda, an internet company that helps advertisers “pinpoint the most promising Web surfers for their message.”

““What do [people] do [online],” he asks, “that might predict what [people will] do next?””

The jury’s still out as far as the answer to that is concerned.

After all, while experts can already determine patterns of human behavior—the subject of another book, Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi—they still don’t have the faintest idea of what you—as an individual—will do next. They can predict the number of phone calls you will make over a given period but they can’t put a finger on the exact time you’ll make them, let alone identify the person you’ll be calling.* [See: Bursts]

But here’s my fearless forecast, even though I’m not a numbers guy. You’ll be hooked by The Numerati and here are my five reasons why.

1) The book explains the Internet (or at least parts of it). 

(theoatmeal.com)

Yes, we’re all on the net 24/7. And yes, many of us are all self-proclaimed Internet experts. But do we get it? I, for one, don’t. Fortunately, Baker does and he doesn’t take long—nor does he find it difficult—to explain it.

“Let’s say you visit the Boston Globe and read a column on the Toyota Prius,” Baker writes. “Then you look at the car section on AOL. Good chance you’re in the market for wheels. So Tacoda [the web company we talked about earlier] hits you at some point in your Web wanderings with a car ad. Click on it, and Tacoda gets paid by the advertiser—and gleans one more detail from you in the process. The company harvests 20 million of these behavioral clues everyday.”

A few pages later, Baker writes that each person visiting sites in Yahoo’s network of advertisers leaves behind more than 2520 clues on the average. Too bad I don’t have that much traffic.

2) The book helps explain the contradictions in human nature.

The UP academic oval is carless on Sundays. (warhead/lomography.com)

As consumers, the numerati categorize us into “buckets”—depending on our preferences and spending habits—and further identify us as either “barnacles” (regular shoppers always going for a discount) or “butterflies” (irregular shoppers who spend big). However, we still go beyond these easy categorizations.

“We confound those who categorize us, and we do it most of the time without even trying. Life is complex,” Baker writes in the book’s last few pages.

As an example, Baker cites his neighbor who built a more expensive house but refuses to move to a plushier neighborhood.

“If our neighbor two houses down make three times as much as the average income on our block, or if they spent twice as much as I did for my house, they stand out. Why don’t they live with their own kind? It might be a signal that they have different values,” Baker says in a chapter about how the numerati classify American voters.

Meanwhile, in my parochial world of trivial concerns, this might also explain why rich kids with their pricey vehicles visit the University of the Philippines in Diliman. This happens especially during Sunday when the academic oval is closed to all traffic, except for bipeds, babies, and bicycles. Since their SUVs and high-end cars clog the university’s remaining open lanes during Sundays, I have more than once asked myself—and anyone who cared enough to listen—why these rich kids can’t go to upscale Bonifacio Global City and leave carless bums like me alone in UP. Is it because these coño kids have different values and that—gasp!—we might even share some of them? Now that would be a good idea for a book. Any takers? Mr. Stephen Baker?

3) The book explains why we are all just numbers, at the end of the day.

This was taken at Occupy Brisbane. (demotix.com)

We’re all just cogs in the machine. But that metaphor is so last century, just like Friendster, Yahoo! Mail, and Palm Inc. [See: Friendster, Yahoo! Mail, Palm Inc.]

We’re more like numbers now.

And thanks to the power and resources allotted to the numerati, they’re all just figuring us out—how we can spend more at the grocery, how we can be healthier as patients, and—another gasp right here—how we can be more productive as workers. Take it from Samer Takriti, a Syrian-born who does stochastic analysis** for IBM.

“…if his system is successful, here’s how it will work,” Baker writes. “Picture an IBM manager who gets an assignment to send a team of five to set up a call center in Manila. She sits down at a computer and fills out a form. It’s almost like booking a vacation online. She puts in the dates and clicks on menus to describe the job and the skills needed. Perhaps she stipulates the ideal budget range. the results come back, recommending a particular team. All the skills are represented. Maybe three of the five people have a history of working together smoothly. They all have passports and live near airports with direct flights to Manila. One of them even speaks Tagalog. Everything looks fine except for one line that’s highlighted in red. The budget. It’s $40,000 over! The manager sees that the computer architect on the team is a veritable luminary, a guy who gets written up in the trade press. Sure, he’s a 98.7 percent fit for the job, but he costs $1,000 an hour…The manager asks the system for a cheaper architect. New options come back. One is a new 29-year-old consultant based in India who costs only $85 per hour. That would certainly patch a hole in the budget. Unfortunately, he’s only 69 percent fit for the job. Still, he can handle it, according to the computer, if he gets two weeks of training. Can the job be delayed? This is management in a world run by the Numerati.”

4) The book raises questions very few have rarely thought about asking.

Let’s say you’re later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

During the disease’s early stages, when you’re lucid enough (and if the technology’s affordable and available), you agree to hook your body up to a computer that monitors your vital signs and body movements. The computer, in turn, generates reports for your doctors.

But who else gets to have access to that data?

“How do you help an elder with Alzheimer’s, who’s not computer savvy, decides who gets the data and who doesn’t?” Eric Dishman, an anthropologist interviewed by Baker, says. “It’s a huge design problem. You can go into one house and they say, ‘Anyone can have this data.’ You go into another and they say, ‘My son can have the data on finances, my daughter can have the data on health, and my other son who I’m pissed at can’t have any data about anything.’”

Early detection combined with sufficient medication and treatment can delay Alzheimer’s effects. As a result, with these advancements, “it’s only natural that at least some of us will train a few sensors on ourselves and send the feeds to the Numerati-powered consultants.” But that will “raise a host of social and economic issues,” Baker writes.

“Will those of us who resist using sensors be viewed as reckless, like those today who go for years without getting a medical checkup? Will government demand a certain level of electronic reporting? Will insurance companies treat unmonitored customers as high risk, denying them coverage or saddling them with the same extortionate rates they levy today on teenage and drunk drivers?”

5) The book offers the occasional dose of humor.

People weren’t the best test subjects, Baker writes, explaining why researchers in Kansas State University finally decided to install sensors inside cows.

While invasive, these devices—some about the size of frisbees—checked the cows’ location, diet, and health, which will help researchers—in the future—identify the origin of the steak that poisoned a diner in say, Omaha.

“[Steve] Warren and [Dan] planned eventually to put a wireless computer on half a million cows in Kansas—a state where the 7 million cattle outnumber people by nearly three to one. This would produce untold mountains of cow data. Heartbeats, headbobs, munch-munch, a siesta under a shade tree, a glug of water. Run that stream of data 24/7 and multiply it by half a million, and it would create perhaps the most tedious reality show in the long history of agriculture.”

Of course, there’s more to Baker’s humor than this nugget.

Except that one, it would be better if you read the book yourself, and two, I wouldn’t want to ruin your fun.

From the What in Heaven’s Name Does That Mean Dept.

*In chapter 9 of Bursts, Barabasi says that “no engineer is privy to your future calls.” He adds: “Rather, he knows that the typical cell-phone user makes an average of three phone calls per day. He also assumes that everybody’s calling pattern is random, so, using Poisson’s formula, he can predict the number of people planning to use their phones at any given time. He will then add enough capacity such that no more than three out of a hundred calls on average will be dropped, ensuring his company meets the industry benchmark for “spotless” mobile service.”

**Stochastic Analysis is “the math that attempts to tie predictions to random events,” Baker says. “Say it rains in Tuczon from zero to six times per month, and you listen to the weather report, which has been right 19 of the past 20 days, only three times a week. One of your three jackets is suede. What are the chances it’ll get drenched tomorrow? Imagine that same question with one thousand variables, and you’ve stepped into the stochastic world.”

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