Reality Mining

Cool News of the Day

The biggest of big data is that which tracks what people "are actually doing rather than what they are looking for or saying," reports Steve Lohr in The New York Times (4/15/14). For example: "Tracking a person’s movements during the day via smartphone GPS signals and credit-card transactions … is far more significant than a person’s web-browsing habits or social media comments." That’s according to Sandy Pentland of MIT, who calls the analysis of such data "reality mining."

Sandy has been onto this concept since the 1970s, when he "worked on a government-financed research project that used satellite images to study animal life on earth. The focus was on beaver populations and the animal’s movements in Canada." "That’s not a bad model for everything I’ve done since," says Sandy. "But I’ve been looking at people, not beavers … using sensors to understand people."

He’s been at this for decades, "attaching sensors to people to study their patterns of movement and communications in work and community settings. In the early days, the sensors tended to be big and clunky," but now "are only a bit thicker than a credit card." Smartphones can work, too. Such data ushers in the ability to measure "communications and transactions as never before" and "accelerate the pace of innovation." Sandy writes about this in his recent book, Social Physics.

April 24, 2014   Comments

The Multiverse

mathematical universeMax Tegmark lives in world that "is not just described by mathematics, it is mathematics," writes Amir Alexander in The New York Times (4/22/14). Max is author of Our Mathematical Universe, and his "vision of a purely mathematical universe, one that can be understood solely through rigorous mathematical reasoning, is far from new." It’s an idea dating back at least to "the sixth century BC," when "the Pythagoreans declared that ‘all is a number’," but Max puts his own, special stamp on it.

His focus is on "the building blocks of matter, the elementary particles governed by the laws of quantum mechanics. The position of a particle at a given time is described by its ‘wavefunction,’ but this provides only a probable distribution of locations, not an absolutely determined one." Niels Bohr and Werner ‘Say My Name’ Heisenberg "resolved this problem by positing that the wavefunction ‘collapses’ into a specific location when a measurement is made." Max disagrees, and says that wavefunction values do not collapse, but rather "continue to exist, side by side."

The implications of this just might blow your mind. It would mean "that the universe is constantly splitting into more and more realities, in each of which the particle is in one of its possible locations … Since we are made of elementary particles, our actions, thoughts and feelings ultimately depend on their position, and our world, too, is constantly splitting into all its possibilities." Max terms this our "multiverse," or a world where "everything that can happen does happen — in at least one of an infinite number of universes."

April 24, 2014   Comments

The New NASCAR

Hub Live: CMO Steve Phelps on why NASCAR drivers sometimes show up in unexpected places.

April 23, 2014   Comments

Thinking Soccer

Soccer may be emerging as "the perfect sport for the Internet era," reports Alex Williams in The New York Times (4/17/14). "It is often said that baseball blew up in America in the age of radio, and the NFL rose to dominance once television took over," says Roger Bennett, a soccer talk-show host on SiriusXM. Because of the Internet, says Roger, "American fans can follow games and instantaneously track information from global leagues, both big and small."

This opportunity is not lost on Brooklyn intellectuals. "It’s almost guaranteed that almost any male literary person under the age of 45 is going to be somewhat versed in soccer," says Sean Wilsey, author of The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup, "a 2006 compilation of essays by the likes of Dave Eggers and Robert Coover." As such, soccer talk "has become inevitable at book parties" as a happy alternative to discussing "the sad state of publishing." It’s "the new baseball — the go-to sport of the thinking class."

"You buy into the history and the tradition, the values of the club," says Bryan Lee, a fan. Liverpool’s Reds, for example, are "the people’s club," with "hardworking, blue-collar values." Chelsea is more about "West London Flash and privilege." Then there’s the drinking. "If you’re in a bar at 7 am with a pint of Guinness, you have a social problem," says Roger Bennett. "If you are in a bar at 7 in the morning with that same pint of Guinness and Chelsea is on TV, you’re a football fan."

April 23, 2014   Comments

Fan Graphs

1969 metsThe economic benefits of a World Series championship are "at least twice as valuable as previously thought," writes Seth Stephens-Davidowitz in The New York Times (4/20/14). Traditional analysis suggests that a team’s increased ticket sales would be limited to its championship year and the year following. Seth’s analysis suggests that loyalties made during a winning season — specifically among boys between the ages of five and 15 — will last their lifetimes, roughly doubling the team’s initial revenue boost over time.

This is based on Facebook data, which shows a correlation between when a male fan was born and his team loyalties. The Mets, for instance, "are popular among an unusually high number of men born in 1961 and 1978," who were "both 8 years old when the Mets won the World Series. Fandom is determined by a huge number of factors, like which team your father supports, but winning when boys are young stands out clearly in the data." The same does not bear out relative to female fans — exactly why is not clear.

The implications of such bonds may be applied beyond baseball: "The explosion of big data sets should lead to the rapid development of precise insights into how events at every year of our childhood affect how we think as adults." For example, economists at Yale and Harvard have found that "if you are just old enough to vote in a presidential election, you will be more likely years later to be a partisan of the party you voted for than if you were slightly too young to vote in that election."

April 23, 2014   Comments

PS 62

A new school in New York will be the first to "be billed as ‘net zero,’" reports J. Alex Tarquinio in The Wall Street Journal (4/16/14). PS 62, scheduled to open in the fall of 2015, will house some "444 pre-K through fifth-grade pupils" and "produce at least as much energy as it consumes over the course of a year, and possibly even be able to sell energy back to the grid." Net-zero buildings of any kind "are extremely rare," particularly "in the relatively harsh climate of New York" and its relatively shady urban environs.

Sunshine should be in ample supply for PS 62, however, as it will sit "on a 3.5-acre lot" on Staten Island. "The first sight parents will see when they drop off their children at the new school … will be an array of solar panels covering an area approaching the size of a football field." In addition, "a small wind turbine will serve as a demonstration project" and "children can do their bit by using energy-generating exercise equipment." The design also makes use of plenty of interior windows and skylights to invite natural light.

Each classroom will also have "flat-screen monitors displaying current energy usage … intended to create a friendly competition among the students about which classes are saving more energy. Math and science teachers will be encouraged to work this data into their instruction." Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, PS 62 will measure 68,000 square feet and cost $70 million to build. It’s hoped the school will be a "laboratory for ideas for future construction" of city schools.

April 22, 2014   Comments

Planet Walmart

walmart logo Walmart chairman Michael Duke wants to grow the retailer’s business, while reducing its carbon footprint, reports Gerard Baker in The Wall Street Journal (4/9/14). Michael says "there’s nowhere in our strategy that says we want to shrink the company … we do want to keep growing the company, but at the same time, per store, per square foot, per customer served, per associate, we want to improve the impact that we’re having on the world."

Those goals include "100% renewable energy" as well as "products that are sustainable for both individuals and the planet" and "a reduction of 20% of energy consumption, kilowatt-hours per square foot." In terms of producing "zero waste," Michael says that "80% of what used to go to the landfill no longer goes to the landfill. It goes to recyclable efforts and to produce good material from what some might call trash." He also says Walmart is working with "suppliers in China" to improve "energy efficiency" and "sustainability."

Meanwhile, Michael says Walmart last year launched "a big initiative on product made in the United States," so that more products are "made closer to the consumer." Michael says Walmart’s green goals are "really about customers" and "also about the people who work for the company. People want to work for a responsible company today … It’s about getting two million people that work for Walmart excited all over the world about sustainability … And along the way, we’ve saved hundreds of millions of dollars."

April 22, 2014   Comments

Digital Depot

The Home Depot’s e-commerce platform now ships both bricks and mortar, reports Shelly Banjo in The Wall Street Journal (4/17/14). Instead of "blanketing the US with giant stores," Home Depot is now focused on building distribution centers and investing in "supply chain and technology improvements to link its stores and Internet businesses." CEO Frank Blake says this is because opening new stores no longer drives growth, as there’s a "finite number of households" for each physical location.

"When we get to the point where … we can’t think of anything to invest in the business to make it better, then you would say, let’s build some more stores," says Frank. The result of such thinking had Home Depot and its competitors "duking it out, on average, for just 30,000 households per store by the time the financial crisis wrapped up, down from 77,000 a decade before." Such limitations do not apply online: The Home Depot now "offers more than 600,000 items on its website, compared with 35,000 in a typical store."

This does present significant logistical challenges. "We don’t just ship little books," says Frank. "You’d have to have some big goddam drones to carry our stuff." Near Atlanta, at "a warehouse the size of 20 football fields" workers pick everything from extension cords to major appliances "and load them onto winding conveyor belts to be packed into boxes that will be shipped to customers’ homes, job sites and to stores for pickup … Online generated just 3.5% of sales last year," for Home Depot, but "are growing faster" than other sales.

April 21, 2014   Comments

Catalog Commerce

bonobosOld-fashioned catalogs are playing "a crucial creative role in modern e-commerce," reports Elizabeth Holmes in The Wall Street Journal (4/17/14). Catalogs are "bait for customers, like a store window display, and a source of inspiration, the way roaming through store aisles can be." Bonobos reports that about 20% of its website’s "first-time customers are placing their order after receiving a catalog" and "spend 1.5 times as much as new shoppers who didn’t receive a catalog first."

"A catalog gives us a bit more breathing room to grab folks’ attention," says Bonobos marketing vp Craig Elbert. "We’re able to tell a bit of a fuller brand story." Done right, says Williams-Sonoma marketing chief Pat Connolly, catalogs give shoppers "ideas for things they didn’t even know they wanted before they got there." Producing catalogs is not without challenges. Long lead times make it difficult to stage seasonally-appropriate photo shoots and it can be hard to coordinate what’s in the catalog with what’s in the stores.

However, producing and mailing catalogs typically cost "much less than a dollar" all in, but "each catalog mailed results in about $4 in sales," according to Polly Wong of Belardi/Ostroy, a consulting firm. Shanie Cunningham of Boden says shoppers "spend up to 15 to 20 minutes with a catalog … compared with an average of just eight seconds for a Boden email and about five minutes with the Boden iPad app." Boden catalogs include "sticky tabs that can mark pages with sayings like, ‘Must Have,’ and ‘I Need This Now’."

April 21, 2014   1 Comment

Act Naturally

joe dobrowFinding accountability at the nexus of corporate goals and organic yogurt. By Joe Dobrow. In 2010, after years of experimentation, the organic bottled-tea company Honest Tea rolled out an innovation that was sure to please its millions of kitchen-scrap-composting, Prius-driving, Real Goods-shopping fans: a lighter-weight bottle.

The original Honest Tea PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottle had been 38 grams; the new one would be about 30 grams, or 22 percent lighter. Both would still accommodate 16.9 ounces of tea. The lighter bottles would mean the elimination of about one million pounds of PET resin each year, and significant savings on the fossil fuels used to ship the bottles. To accomplish this feat, Honest Tea worked with its supplier, Graham Packaging, to design an entirely new bottle that featured a little plastic dome at the base to provide structural integrity once the bottles were filled with a hot liquid. Not everyone was thrilled. continue

April 21, 2014   Comments