Saturday, January 31, 2009

Theory and Practice of “Customer Focused”

While reading Adaptive Path’s Subject to Change, I came across this telling graphic:

The data’s original source is Bain & Company’s paper Closing the Delivery Gap, from 2005.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

On Colophons

After the end of a book—beyond the bibliography, index, and other afterwordage—you might find a note about the book’s production. It will probably tell you the name of the typeface used in the book; it may even go on to extol the typeface’s qualities and pedigree.

For example, from the hardcover version of Thomas Hine’s Populuxe, “A Note on the Type” informs us that the book’s choice of typeface, Primer, “makes general reference to Century—long a serviceable type, totally lacking in manner or frills of any kind—but brilliantly corrects its characterless quality.”

Or, from the paperback of Joseph Ellis’ Founding Brothers, we not only learn that its typeface is Adobe Garamond but also that the typeface’s namesake, Claude Garamond, “gave to his letters a certain elegance and feeling of movement that won their creator an immediate reputation and the patronage of Francis I of France.”

Once you’re up to speed on a book’s typeface, there may be more to know: “The paper, which is Glatfelter Laid, from the Spring Grove Mill, is of archival quality and acid-free.” (Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, version 2.5, paperback)

Most books, especially paperbacks, do not have such notes. However, in the technology field, books from the publisher O’Reilly often have an extended “colophon.” For example, the colophon in Sal Mangano’s XSLT Cookbook details the software and fonts used to produce different parts of the book, profiles the red mullet fish that adorn the cover, and credits the person who wrote the colophon!

Another O’Reilly book, Scott Berkun’s The Myths of Innovation, has a colophon with the final word on colophons:

Page numbers were hand-carved, based on a Dutch interpretation of a sketch of reproductions of a famous 13th-century Chinese monograph series....[The ink is] stored in the finest French hardwood kegs, which are wrapped in a layer of Egyptian velvet and left to age for centuries while a secret tribe of the world’s finest chorally trained children bless them with chants of salvation for all those who read words in colophons written in this ink....

Before you go, know that I, anonymous colophon writer, have spared the human race from certain extinction dozens of times through use of my varied colophonic powers. Out of respect you should always read colophons—you never know what you might find.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Engagement with Learning at MIT

I admire efforts to make classroom learning more interactive and hands-on. Earlier this week, The New York Times had an article that illustrates the potential.

The article was about MIT’s overhaul of its introductory physics classes. The classes’ old format had a professor lecturing to hundreds of students, 50 minutes at a time.

The traditional 50-minute lecture was geared more toward physics majors, said Eric Mazur, a physicist at Harvard who is a pioneer of the new approach, and whose work has influenced the change at M.I.T.

“The people who wanted to understand,” Professor Mazur said, “had the discipline, the urge, to sit down afterwards and say, ‘Let me figure this out.’” But for the majority, he said, a different approach is needed.

“Just as you can’t become a marathon runner by watching marathons on TV,” Professor Mazur said, “likewise for science, you have to go through the thought processes of doing science and not just watch your instructor do it.”

In the new format, classes are held... high-tech classrooms, where about 80 students sit at 13 round tables equipped with networked computers.

Instead of blackboards, the walls are covered with white boards and huge display screens. Circulating with a team of teaching assistants, the professor makes brief presentations of general principles and engages the students as they work out related concepts in small groups.

Teachers and students conduct experiments together. The room buzzes. Conferring with tablemates, calling out questions and jumping up to write formulas on the white boards are all encouraged.

In addition to this excitement about learning, the new format has brought an important, measurable result: The failure rate has been cut in half.

I’m sure the quality of the classroom technology can lead to better or worse results. But I suspect that variance is dwarfed by the positive effect of simply having an interactive, collaborative environment.

That is, by giving students specific things to do in class—beyond passively receiving information that they could just cadge from the textbook—the new format is all but forcing engagement with the subject. The students who would have failed before but are now passing, they’ve always had the latent ability but now they have the engagement.

Put another way: If the only thing the technology accomplishes is to give students a reason to show up and get involved, it is still a real step forward.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

What Can You Learn from 40 Million Resumes?

From a New York Times article about, this excerpt describes a few analytical applications—by Monster, for its users—that leverage the company’s massive database of resumes:

Monster has added three features to the site, based on the 40 million résumés it has collected in its nine years in business, that are intended to attract passive seekers.

One presents profiles of jobs, called Career Snapshots. Enter “fire ranger,” and users can review duties (direct crews during forest fires, ensure fire-regulation compliance at campsites); the rate of job growth in the industry from 2006 to 2012 (12.1 percent) and the number of similar jobs posted on Monster (more than 1,000).

The second is called Career Benchmarking. Users enter information about their career, education, salary and benefits and see how they compare with others in their field.

The third is called Career Mapping. Users enter a starting job and an ending job, and Monster plots how other people who have made that transition have done it. To go from nanny to spy, for instance, one suggested path is nanny, to youth behavioral counselor, to probation officer, to police officer, to intelligence analyst/security specialist, to intelligence analyst/imagery.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Turbulence Ball

Today I found an interesting item at a local toy store. Here it is, in 50 seconds:

I believe it is a Play Visions Mondo Hi-Bounce Pearl Water Ball. Although a toy for kids, it could be repackaged in unbreakable glass with a nice stand, then sold as an executive desk tchotchke. I’ve got to think it would outsell the likes of Newton’s Cradle (the contraption with hanging metal balls, knocking each other back and forth). After all, chaotic turbulence is so 21st century.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Risky Business of “Value at Risk”

In today’s New York Times Magazine, Joe Nocera’s Risk Mismanagement tells the story of a metric, Value at Risk (VaR), that was central to 2008’s financial woes.

VaR is a single number that “measures the boundaries of risk in a portfolio over short durations, assuming a ‘normal’ market. For instance, if you have $50 million of weekly VaR, that means that over the course of the next week, there is a 99 percent chance that your portfolio won’t lose more than $50 million.”

Much of the article is about the financial establishment’s willingness—in some respects, eagerness—to embrace VaR’s simple rendering of risk while ignoring the one-percent-chance scenarios VaR did not quantify. Although firms had risk experts that understood this blind spot, Nocera concludes the experts lacked either the will or the clout to stop everyone else from misunderstanding it:

There were the investors who saw the VaR numbers in the annual reports but didn’t pay them the least bit of attention. There were the regulators who slept soundly in the knowledge that, thanks to VaR, they had the whole risk thing under control. There were the boards who heard a VaR number once or twice a year and thought it sounded good. There were chief executives like O’Neal and Prince. There was everyone, really, who, over time, forgot that the VaR number was only meant to describe what happened 99 percent of the time. That $50 million wasn’t just the most you could lose 99 percent of the time. It was the least you could lose 1 percent of the time. In the bubble, with easy profits being made and risk having been transformed into mathematical conceit, the real meaning of risk had been forgotten. Instead of scrutinizing VaR for signs of impending trouble, they took comfort in a number and doubled down, putting more money at risk in the expectation of bigger gains. “It has to do with the human condition,” said one former risk manager. “People like to have one number they can believe in.”

The full article is worthwhile reading.

How Big is a Trillion?

Recently we contemplated the smallness of 0.02 parts per billion. Today, we think big.

Unless you’ve got a hobby like hand-counting the U.S. national debt, it’s hard to grasp how much a trillion is. Even if you know that a trillion is a one followed by twelve zeros, and that such quantity is one thousand times larger than a billion, you only know the theory, not the practice, of a trillion.

My favorite source for making big numbers understandable is The MegaPenny Project. It illustrates a trillion and other biggish numbers in terms of an everyday item, the humble penny.

For perspective, nearly 50,000 pennies fit into a cubic foot. That doesn’t seem so big. But how about a trillion pennies? Visualize a city block containing a cube of pennies rising almost 300 feet in the air. That’s a trillion.

Or, to use a familiar object, think about the Empire State Building as a solid block of pennies. That’s 1.8 trillion.

The best way to experience the bigness of big numbers is to go through the MegaPenny Project sequentially, from a single penny to one quintillion. Unlike counting a quintillion pennies, it doesn’t take long, and each page has a clever visualization.

So go ahead and think big: Here is The MegaPenny Project start page.