29 July 2014

People of Britain

As a follow up to the previous post, if an olympic swimming pool has under a million gallons of water, rather than the billion gallons claimed by Glasgow 2014, what does have a volume of 1 billion gallons?

Well, obviously an olympic-size swimming pool of depth 3–4 km deep would have that volume, but you don’t see too many of those around.

Also, the volume of the Great Pyramid of Giza is apparently around 2.5 million cubic metres, which is about 550 million gallons, and as far as I can tell both the John Hancock Tower and the Burj Khalifa have volumes of around 330 million cubic metres so other possibilities are:

  • 2 Great Pyramids of Giza
  • 3 John Hancock Towers
  • 3 Burj Khalifas.

But a more interesting answer is suggested by Wolfram Alpha. It suggests “1% of all humans alive on the planet Earth” (which I suspect is very similar to “1% of all humans alive”). This is a fantastic answer, especially since the population of the world is about 7 billion and the population of the UK is roughly 1% of that (some 63 million in 2012). (Wolfram alpha defaults to US gallons, but that’s a only a factor of 0.8, and in fact if you switch to imperial gallons the the 1% just switches from being a slight underestimate to slight overestimate.) So perhaps the best answer I can come up with is

  • all the people in Britain.

We can sense check that, and it seems to work. 1 billion divided by 70 million is about 14, so if a person is about 14 gallons, this is right. And since a gallon is about 4.5 litres, this is about 63 litres, and since people are mostly water and have a rather similar density to water, this corresponds to an average weight of about 63kg. This is at least in the right ballpack, and perhaps quite close, since the BBC reports the ONS as saying that the average British man weighs 83kg and the average woman 70kg. Allowing for some children, 63 sounds about right.

In fact, since people are 70% water, a billion gallons of water isn’t even that far off the amount of water in all the people of Britain. Fantastic!

28 July 2014

One billion gallons

1 Billion Gallons of Water

A friend mentioned that the diving events in the current (Glasgow) Commonwealth games are being held here at Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Pool. She was right:


(That’s a screenshot from Glasgow 2014, which, with luck, will change soon.)

But what’s this “1 billion gallons of water”? Surely that can’t be the amount of water in the pool, can it? I mean, that’s obviously wrong. Isn’t it? It is obviously wrong. But let’s just double check.

As we all know, an Olympic/Commonwealth pool is 50m by 25m. And the depth is something like 2m on average. So the volume is 50m x 25m x 2m = 2,500 cubic metres. That still doesn’t seem like it’s going to turn into a billion gallons, but let’s carry on. A cubic metre is 1,000 litres (a cube of side 10cm has a volume of 1 litre). So the pool has about 2.5 million litres of water. And a gallon is more than a litre. So QED.

Trying slightly harder (and still not looking anything up) a gallon is 8 pints and there are about 1.75 (imperial) pints in a litre (or about 2, if we only care about orders of magnitude). So we need to divide that 2.5 million litres by something between 4 and 5 (8/1.75 = 4.57) which will give us something a little over half a million gallons.

So there not only aren’t a billion litres of water in the pool: there aren’t even a million by my estimate. The claim is out by 3 orders of magnitude.

Now, of course, if you want to defend Glasgow 2014, they don’t actually say that the pool’s volume is a billion gallons. They just stick the phrase “1 billion gallons of water” under “Royal Commonwealth Pool”. Maybe it’s the amount of water the pool will use over its lifetime. Maybe it’s just an impressive amount of water. Who knows.

Why do I care? Only because I think it’s important people develop a good sense of scale, and can spot when numbers are “obviously” wrong (even if sometimes “obviously” wrong numbers turn out to be correct). An excellent discipline physicists are often taught is

  • Guess
  • Estimate
  • Calculate

meaning that whenever you’re calculating anything you should first guess the answer (literally, just guess); then make a crude estimate by approximating the key components of the formula; then calculate the precise answer. The idea is that this leads you to first to develop better intuition about orders-of-magnitude sizes (by seeing when your guess is significantly off), but also helps you to avoid believing calculations that are orders of magnitude off, because the guessing and estimation stages lead you to be surprised by an answer that seems as if it can’t be right.

Ordinary people, quite reasonably, have no feeling at all for what a billion is, because in ordinary life you rarely if ever encounter such numbers in contexts where they can really be appreciated. Sure, people might know that the population of the Earth is about 7 billion, but you can’t see 7 billion people. Even more, people will hear about states and companies spending and earning quantities of currency measured in billions (or occasionally even trillions), but again, those are just abstract numbers. Even when there’s hyperinflation and prices begin to measured in millions or billions, the appreciation doesn’t really increase, because the million or billion just becomes a suffix.

If you don’t have a feel for a billion (and who really does?), my two favourite ways of getting some kind of handle on it are the following:

  1. I always remember the number of seconds in a year as “pi times ten to the seventh”, i.e. about 31 million. Since pi squared is ten (roughly), this means that a billion seconds is about 31 years.

  2. The other way I like to think about it is with respect to centimetre cubes and metre cubes. When I was at school, we had wooden 1cm cubes that you could assemble into larger volumes. Obviously, a 1-metre cube contains one million centimetre cubes (100 ⨉ 100 ⨉ 100 = 1,000,000). If you don’t immediately get a sense of just how big that means a million is, get hold of some of those 1cm cubes, and start arranging them to make the bottom layer of the 1-metre cube. (You’ll need 10,000 of them.)

A billion centimetre cubes is either one thousand of these metre cubes, or a single cube of side 10 metres. Now a 10m by 10m room is a pretty decent size, but will typically only be 2–4 m tall. So a billion centimetre cubes would fill a room (say) 50m by 10m by 2m tall.

And so we come full circle. Because that 50m x 10m x 2m is not so far off the size of an Olympic swimming pool (too narrow, at 10m, but pretty similar otherwise). And it only contains a billion centimetre cubes. So even if you have no real sense of how big a gallon is, you probably know it’s orders of magnitude bigger than a 1cm cube.

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27 September 2013

IVR-to-English Dictionary

  • Your call is valuable to us. Please stop bothering us.
  • Your call is valuable to us. (Variation for premium rate phone numbers): we make money by keeping you waiting on a premium-rate phone line, and the longer we keep you holding, the more we make.
  • We are currently experiencing exceptionally high call volumes. The call centre is open.
  • All of our operators are currently dealing with other customers. Neither of our operators is currently available.
  • Did you know that you can [long list of things you aren’t calling about] on our website at double-u, double-u, double-u dot ourwebsite dot com? The only good service is self-service.
  • One of our agents will be with you as soon as possible. One, Two, Three, Four, make 'em wait outside the door. Five, six, seven, eight, always pays to make 'em wait.
  • You may prefer to call back at another time. Preferably, once our lines are closed.
  • Please call back later. We’re going to disconnect you right now.
  • Please have your account number and password ready. We may have spent millions building this call centre and collecting data about you but don’t think we’re going to figure out your account number from your phone number.
  • For security reasons. We have crap IT systems that don’t talk to each other.
  • I’ll just need to pop you on hold for a minute. The system is about to drop the call.
  • I’ll just transfer you to the right department. Despite making you walk a telephone tree so we know how to direct your call correctly, we misdirected your call and now the system is about to disconnect you.
  • I’ll call you right back. I’m going home now.
  • Could you just confirm your phone number please? Our crap IT system doesn’t show me the number you’re calling from.
  • I’ll just need to take you through security. Our crap IT system handed you off between departments but didn’t pass on information that you’d cleared security.
  • Please listen carefully and choose from the following options: I’m now going to list four things you didn’t call about.
  • For anything else, type 4. Type 4 for another list of things you aren’t calling about.
  • Would you like to hear that list again? I don’t care that none of the options I listed is remotely relevant to your call. You have to pick a number. Take your time. I have all day.
  • In your own words, describe why you’re calling. You can say things like “to check my balance” or “to pay a bill”. You can say “to check my balance”, or “to pay a bill”. Of course, I might not understand you if you do. Pro tip: No IVR system in the world understands “I need to speak to a human being.”
  • I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that: could you say it a different way? I already told you, the only things I understand are “to check my balance” and “to pay a bill”.
  • You said “to check my balance”. Is that right? I didn’t understand you.
  • Your call may be monitored for customer quality and training purposes. The NSA may be recording this call.
  • If you prefer, we can keep your place in the queue and call you back when an agent is free. We might or might not call you back. If we do, you might find there’s no agent on the other end. And regardless, you’ll have to type in the same security information you’ve already given us again. And even though we’ll have called you, we will still ask you for your phone number because our crap IT systems won’t show it to the agent.
  • Calls to this number from a mobile phone are not free. Just waiting to talk to an agent is going to cost you an arm and a leg.
  • You are calling the international access number from a UK phone. Please redial on 0870 XXX XXXX. We’d really like to charge you through the nose for this call, and ensure that you can’t use bundled minutes or all-you-can-eat plans to cover the cost.
  • Interactive Voice Response (IVR) System. Customer Alienation System. [Definition from Herb Edelstein of Two Crows]

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26 September 2013

Bank of Scotland 1, Customer Alienation Systems 0

Today I called Bank of Scotland because my credit card has almost snapped in half.

Here’s what happened:

  • I dialled the number on the back of the card.
  • After one ring, a human being answered and said “Hello, Bank of Scotland Card Services. How can I help?”
  • I explained that my card was damaged.
  • He asked for a few details (card number, address, and a couple of other straightforward, reasonable things).
  • And then he said: “No problem at all; we’ll get a new card out to you in the next few days.”

Twenty years ago, that would have been normal. Today, it counts as such exceptional telephone customer service that I was moved to blog about it.

How times change.

By way of comparison, earlier this week (on 24th September), when my land line (and therefore internet) had been down 5 days, and I was trying to get better information from BT on a likely fault resolution date than the website was predicting (23rd September, i.e. the previous day), it took me 40 minutes, multiple lies, multiple security interrogations, multiple holds, interminable muzak, endless exhortations to visit bt.com and inordinate frustration before I succeeded in talking to a human being. And when I did, he not only had no information, but didn’t call back, as he promised to do within 15 minutes.

Twenty years ago, that would have been unimaginable. Today, its as common as the constant “exceptionally high call volumes” that seem to characterize modern customer alienation systems.

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16 August 2013

The Misfit Shine: Points and Steps

Summary: As far as I can tell, 10 steps = 1 point.

UPDATE: As I didn't (but perhaps should have) known, the Shine App can also just tell you how many steps (it thinks) you have taken. If you tap in the big orange circle for the day:

Shine Steps Detail

it expands to show the number of steps it recorded and (based on the height an weight estimates you gave it) an estimate of the number of calories your exertions burned and the distance travelled.

Shine Day Summary

As you can see, it isn't exactly 10 steps = 1 points, but it's close (in this case 1686 points for 16422 steps). So I guess it's adjusting for something else. I'll do another post with a summary table

As discussed in my last piece, I got the beautiful Misfit Shine Activity Tracker and have been happily using it.

When you set it up, you need to choose a daily target number of points. You get points for movement, but it doesn’t really tell you anything about the scale. It suggests three levels, which (from memory) were 600, 1000 and 1600, and it described these with fuzzy terms that were something like “kinda active”, “active” and “super active”. I chose 1,000 points.

The obvious question is: how many steps is that, and how does it relate to the widely used recommendation that people do 10,000 steps a day (e.g. the UK National Health Service; according the Horizon episode Monitor Me, this is recognized standard).

Misfit Wearables don’t really tell you, so I thought I’d measure it. I did a short walks around the block three times, taking 1630 steps the first time and 1640 steps the second and third times. (I didn’t have a pedometer handy, and didn’t really want to compare one measurement error against another anyway, so I used a counter app, Tally Counter on the iPhone and counted every 10th step. I walked a few extra steps to make it a multiple of ten each time.) It doesn’t make any difference, but I know my typical stride length is just over a yard so this walk was around a mile (1680 yards). For the first circuit I wore the Shine using the sports band on my right wrist (I was also holding the phone in my right hand and tallying). The second time I used the magnetic clip on my shirt near the neck. The third time I clipped it onto the ticket pocket on my jeans. I synchonized the Shine immediately before going out and immediately upon return.

These are the results:

Circuit Start Points End Points Points Delta Steps
First (right wrist) 162 325 163 1630
Second (neck) 325 480 155 1640
Third (jeans ticket pocket) 504 643 139 1640

The first result seems very strongly to support my guess that they are simply using 1 point for every ten steps and seems to suggest that the Shine is very accurate at detecting steps both on the wrist and on the neck. The second and third ones are slightly off, but still close to that at 10.6 steps and 11.8 steps per point respectively. Obviously I don’t know whether I got lucky the first couple of times, or whether the wrist is a better location, but I still think this data suggests quite strongly that the Shine uses 10 steps = 1 point.

One thing the Shine doesn’t seem to have is a way to export the data (either in processed or raw form) from the phone. As a data analyst, I would definitely interested in getting some kind of data export so that I could look at other things myself. It would be great if Misfit were to add this at some point.

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07 August 2013

The Misfit Shine: A Review

A long time ago I backed a crowd-funded project on Indiegogo for the Misfit Shine “the world’s most elegant physical activity monitor”. It blasted through its funding goal and suffered delays, but about a month ago they asked for a shipping address, though I don’t recall receiving a shipping notice. Nevertheless, two days ago my doorbell rang and a man from FedEx handed me a packet containing a Shine.


And I love it.

The Shine is elegant, beautiful even. It is understated but playful. It looks like a small, grey pebble, until you tap it twice. Then one or more of its twelve, twinkling, pure-white LEDs will shine, telling you how much you have moved today, relative to your goal. After that, in a delightful, ingenious way, the lights tell the time, to five-minute accuracy, a small antidote to the second-precision punctuality that modern life and gadgets so often seem to demand.

For me, so far, everything about the Shine is perfect. To sync it to an iPhone, you download and launch the app and then place the Shine on the phone’s screen. Activity data uploads, while the Shine puts on a light show and ripples spread out on the iPhone’s screen. It’s simple, but satisfying. One synchronized, the app shows graphs of your movements, highlights notable achievements and summarizes how you’re doing, this week, relative to a points target that you can set.

Unlike many activity trackers, the Shine uses a replaceable battery that lasts 4–6 months, so no recharging is required and you can wear it at night if you want to track sleep. It is waterproof and rugged, so you can swim with it. It comes with a simple magnetic clasp that makes it very easy to attach to clothing, and there are various watch-strap and necklace attachments too. In a touch reminiscent of the special tool Apple provides for iPhone users to open their SIM slots, the Shine comes with an elegant dedicated, tool for opening the battery compartment. (You could use a screwdriver, but it all adds to the feeling that they’re not skimping, that everything should be perfect.)


Oh: and as far as I can tell, it works. I don’t know how accurate it is, but the activity graphs look to match what I have been doing well, and the granularity of information is just right. Both days, so far, it’s encouraged me to move more, and it doesn't seem as if it's going to become a burdon.

I think Misfit Wearables has got just about everything right. I hope Shine becomes a massive hit.

So what’s this got to do with Scientific Marketing?

I didn’t post this with a view to its relevance to the usual themes of this blog; I just wanted to spread the word about my lovely new toy. But in fact, it’s not so far off topic.

The main focus of this blog is how marketing is used—well and badly, for good and for ill—to attempt to change people’s behaviour. Effective marketing campaigns cause people to do things (purchase, renew, stay, click, visit) that they would otherwise not have done. Proper campaign design, with appropriate use of control groups, allows measurement of the effectiveness of marketing in changing behaviour, while uplift modelling allows us to identify the people for whom a given campaign, action, or activity is likely to be most effective.

In a marketing context, one entity (the marketing organization) is trying to change the behaviour of another (typically a customer or a prospective customer). In the case of activity monitors, the two entities are the same: I wear a Shine with the goal of influencing my own behaviour. Like many others, I know that I am less active than I should be, and would like to get a little fitter. The raison d'être for activity monitors is to encourage us to move more, by providing feedback on how we’re doing and incentives to do more.

Two days in, with only myself as a test subject, there is clearly a limit to how much I can really say about the true effectiveness of the Shine. But I think it gets a lot right.

By being small and beautiful, and pleasing to interact with, it immediately encourages us to use it, to wear it and to interact with it.

By providing only coarse information (it can show only 12 different activity levels) it discourages obsession and constant checking every few minutes (which could easily be negative), but encourages periodic checking, which is helpful.

By including a rather elegant, minimal watch function, it gives another reason to interact with the Shine, giving activity feedback along the way. Additionally, my sense is that the implicit message of the 5-minute accuracy meshes perfectly with the big-picture message of Shine itself: don’t obsess about exactly what Shine’s points measure, just try to make sure you move enough to accumulate plenty each day.

By having a non-rechargable battery that lasts for months, and being sturdy and waterproof, it encourages wearing all the time, even at night, reducing the likelihood of finding yourself without it or breaking the habit of using it.

By making the iPhone app simple and minimalist, and making the sync process artificially pleasing, it encourages frequent interaction with the app, reinforcing progress (or lack thereof).

I think the people behind the Shine have pulled off something pretty amazing, and my prediction for myself is that I won’t abandon it any time soon, and it will prove a useful tool for changing my own behaviour.


My only connection with Misfit Wearables is that I backed their Indiegogo campaign and am the proud owner of a Shine. I would love them to succeed because I think they’ve made something excellent.

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17 May 2012

The Not-Quite-So Amazing Case of John O'Donnell

According to the BBC (17th May 2012):

Labour MP John McDonnell has defied odds estimated at 58,000 to 1 to top the annual Private Member's Bill ballot for two years in a row.

That sounds pretty amazing. Where does that estimate come from?

In the next sentence, we learn:

MPs' names are selected at random, with 240 having entered the draw this year.

See what they've done? If we assume (as I suspect the estimator did) that 240 people entered in 2011 as well, then the probabity of Mr. McDonnell's winning in both 2011 and 2012 is indeed 1/(240 x 240) = 1/57,600.

But that's like saying "isn't it amazing that even though the odds on winning the lottery are about 14 million to 1 against, someone wins most weeks?"

I don't know how many people who enter the ballot year to year are the same, but it seems likely it's quite high. Let's assume (conservatively) that it's half. Then the odds of the same person winning in 2011 and 2012 are not 1/57,600 but 1/480.

So it should be a rare event; but not that rare.

And of course, the odds of Mr. O'Donnell's winning in 2012 were 1/240. Just as, if he enters along with 239 others next year, he'll still have a 1/240 chance of winning. That would, however, be more genuinely remarkable.

15 March 2012

Book: Getting Started With Fluidinfo

I wrote a book, with my friend and colleague Nicholas Tollervey (@ntoll). It’s published by O’Reilly Media and is available both as a printed tome and a DRM-free, multi-format electronic book direct from O’Reilly. If you use the code AUTHD at checkout, you can get a discount, as described here:


The book is also available from Amazon.com, Amazon (UK), Waterstones, Barnes & Noble and all good booksellers, even local ones staffed by real people who love books. Ordering direct from O’Reilly is probably quickest and lets you use the discount code.

All O’Reilly “animal” books come be known by the species on their covers: the rather striking animal on our cover is “a jellyfish-like animal of the genus Stephalia”, and you can read all about it in the book’s Colophon. The image is from Lydekker’s Royal Natural History.

For avoidance of doubt, the animal appearing on this work is real. Any resemblance to fictitious persons, animals or deities, is purely coincidental.

It is acceptable to refer to the book as “The Jellyfish Book” or the “The Stephalia Book”, but definitely not “The Flying Spaghetti Monster Book”.

13 March 2012

1-Pager Available: Customer Savability (Mobile Telco)

A new single-page description of uplift modelling in the context of retention for mobile phone companies is available from Stochastic Solutions. It aims to be the simplest, shortest description of the problem yet.
You can get it here.

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23 February 2012

Google, Search History, Personalization and Bubbling

If you use Google and are worried by either the amount of data it captures about you, the amount of personalization it does or its consolidation across different services (Web Search, Gmail, YouTube, Picassa etc.) you need to act before 1st March to change some settings.
There are four main things you may wish to consider doing.
  1. Deleting your web search history.
    To do this:
    1. Go to http://www.google.com/history
    2. Log in
    3. Delete your search history.
    It may or may not also pause collection of your web history when you do this.
  2. Stopping search history being collected.
    If you want to do this, from the same login as above, click the button to pause web history collection.
  3. If you would like to stop Google using its data about you to personalize ads, you can opt out by going to
    and opting out of personalization.
I’m not saying you should do this: if you like Google keeping and integrating data about you across its services and then using that to personalize ads, you probably want to leave these settings as they are. But I don’t like it, so I have turned off my Web History completely and Opted out of personalized ads.

Search Bubbling

I have been using a different search engine called DuckDuckGo a lot of the time for a few months now. It doesn’t retain data about your searches and also, doesn’t do what’s become known as bubbling. Bubbling is the process of returning different results to different users based on what the search engine thinks you want, based on many different signals such as what you’ve clicked on before, where you’ve been on the web, where you are in the world etc.
I’m not going to go so far as to say bubbling is bad or evil: many people like it. But a consequence of it is that the range of information you get presented to you is filtered by something guessing what you want, with the result that you see an increasing narrow, unchallenging range of content.

There are a couple if good resources to learn more about bubbling. One is DuckDuckGo’s explanation of it at http://dontbubble.us/. Another is a TED talk by Eli Pariser, who explains the issue very clearly. You can see it at: http://www.thefilterbubble.com/ted-talk. He also has a book called The Filter Bubble (which I haven’t yet read).

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26 November 2011

Microsoft, iPads and the Innovator's Dilemma

This article was motivated by listening to Episode 44 of Hypercritical, the episode of John Siracusa‘s weekly podcast that focused on the question “What Ails Microsoft?”; listen to it for context. I agreed with most of Siracusa’s analysis, but thought he missed a few key insights and perspectives.

You should listen to Siracusa’s podcast, but here are some of the key points in his analysis of what ails Microsoft are:

  • Microsoft consistently refuses bet-the-company radical changes that will be good for the user and its own long-term business prospects because it are scared of damaging its cash cows (primarily Windows and Office, but also servers, Exchange etc.);
  • Microsoft serves primarily PC vendors, IT departments, backward-looking developers and perhaps Intel rather than its end-users; this leads to poor user experiences;
  • Microsoft follows rather than leads and so is always behind the curve (think Bing, XBox, Zune, Windows Phone etc.)
  • Microsoft underestimates its own position of strength, which would in fact allow it to upset its customers more (to everyone’s long-term benefit) for fear of losing what it has;
  • The demands of its core customers for a roadmap mean Microsoft always overpromises and underdelivers, has low marketing impact and never surprises competitors etc.
  • Apple is the reverse of all this, repeatedly taking bet-the-company risks, always focusing on the end user, repeatedly canibalising its own products, being secretive and never publishing roadmaps, constantly leading and redefining categories (without necessarily being first mover), all in manner of what Steve Denning calls Radical Management, which has led to its current position as the world’s most valuable company.

While I agree with most of these points, here is what I think Siracusa missed.

Clayton Christensen and The Innovator’s Dilemma

Clayton Christensen‘s The Innovator’s Dilemma is the best business book I’ve ever read. Unusually, it contains a thesis that can’t be reduced to a single sentence. His interest is in how great companies get overthrown by disruptive innovators. His key ideas are as follows:

  • Christensen defines a disruptive technology as one that is worse than the incumbent technology on the key metrics that are usually used to measure quality in that space, but better in some other, traditionally less important metrics.
  • Although he offers several examples, Christensen’s clearest example is disk drives. Here, the two traditional key metrics are speed and capacity. Disk technologies have been replaced in waves, first with 8” disks being replaced with 5.25” disks, then 3.5” disks, then 2.5” disks then 1” disks. (Solid-state drives are now gradually starting to replace rotating disks.)
  • Christensen argues that incumbent leaders almost always succeed with sustaining (non-disruptive) innovations that improve the performance of the technology against the standard metrics, but almost always fail to bring to market new disruptive technologies, even though these are often first developed by the market-leading company. He says this happens primarily because leading companies tend to be “well managed”, and are strongly influenced by their best customers and partners, who are, almost by definition, mostly bought into the existing metrics. So when, for example, Winchester (the leading 8” disk manufacturer) asks its customers “would you be interested in lower power, physically smaller disk that has lower speed and less capacity they say “no, that’s a terrible thing, we need speed and capacity”.
  • New entrants, often start-ups, see an opportunity to serve new markets, often consisting of people not using the incumbent technology, for whom the alternative metrics (in this case, size and power consumption) are more important than the traditional ones. For example, 8” disks didn’t work for PCs but 5.25” disks did; 5.25” disks didn’t work for laptops but 3.5” disks did (and then 2.5”); 2.5” disks didn’t work for iPods but 1” disks did. Now solid-state memory, which is fast but expensive/lower capacity, works for phones, cameras, tablets etc. in a way that even 1” disks didn’t.
  • A key point Christensen makes is that the new market, of non-consumption, is often unattractive to the incumbent leader, who typically sees it as small and offering low margins, but is highly attractive for newcomers, who typically hone themselves on lower margins as they serve it.
  • Over time, sustaining improvements to the new technology tend to improve it against the traditional metrics as well as the new ones: current 3.5” disks have much larger capacities and better latencies than did early ones. As they improve, they become more viable in increasing parts of the “old” market, and the old leader tends to be reduced to ever smaller, more niche parts of the market. Eventually, the new technology tends to get good enough for mainstream use and at this point the advantages of the new technology start to be more interesting to old customers. (“So I can enough speed and capacity, but with a smaller footprint, less power consumption and a lower price: well sure!”) If it survives at all, the previous leader ends up serving only the very high end where the extremes of the old metrics are required.

iPads, PCs and the Innovator’s Dilemma

Apple was not the first to come up with the idea of a Tablet PC. In fact, Alan Kay came up with many of the key ideas in his remarkable 1972 paper on the Dynabook. But in the more recent past, Microsoft (especially Bill Gates) championed tablet computers and brought them to market a decade before Apple built the iPad. Microsoft, however, saw a tablet, through the ever-present and distorting lens of its Windows cash cow, as an enhancement to a traditional Windows PC: you add a touch-screen (and a stylus) to traditional laptop running (of course) Windows and voilà, a tablet is born.

The iPad received a very luke-warm reception when it was launched, and was widely derided as (merely) a giant iPod Touch. It was criticized for being underpowered, closed, not running even standard Mac applications, let alone Windows software, not supporting “true” multi-tasking or windowing and more besides. Yet it quickly sold in the tens of millions and is clearly now replacing PCs for some people.

With some caveats, this fits Claytonsen’s model very well. The iPad is a worse general-purpose computer against the traditional metrics. It has slower hardware (though rarely feels slow), few ports, no user accounts, comparatively little storage, no hardware keyboard, limited, vetted software and (cough) no true multitasking, no Flash, no replacable battery and limited upgrade options.

But look at the alternative new metrics, that show all the ways in which it is better for some people and purposes. It is extremely small and light. It is fantastically easy to use. Thanks to Apple’s control-freakery, installing software is simple and worry-free. It has a touch screen. It has no significant issues with viruses etc. Its battery genuinely lasts over 10 hours even when you use the machine intensively. It has stores for software, books, music and videos built in (and it probably already knows your credit card number). It has numerous sensors (cameras, microphones, accelerometers, gyroscopes and more). Software for it tends to be really cheap and some of it is of fantastic quality. It is supremely relaxing to use.

For people who mostly surf the web, do light email, play games, watch films, read books etc., the iPad is not just a “good enough” alternative to a laptop or even a desktop PC: it may actually be signficantly better. The iPad 2 (and iOS 5) followed the pattern of sustaining improvements, both on the new metrics (usability, weight, size, sensors etc.) and the old (speed, capacity, ability to link to an external monitor, multitasking etc.).

Crucially, while Microsoft saw a tablet as a way to extend the PC, and added Touch features to Windows and made its tablet PCs full Windows PCs “with added Touch”, Apple redesigned all the upper layers of the operating system to give the best possible experience for the iPad as a new class of device. It didn’t worry about disrupting sales of its own Mac laptops, still less (naturally) those of Windows PCs: it just made the iPad as good as it could, in its own right.

Risk and Perfect 20-20 Hindsight

The other major point I feel Siracusa failed to make, and many people are missing, is that Steve Jobs’s and Apple’s Radical Management is a genuinely high risk strategy: it can fail as well as succeed, and frequently does so. I think we need to separate out two ideas that I feel are being conflated. The first is “betting the company” on an uncertain new thing, which isn’t necessarily a good idea for a leading company, but makes more sense for a struggling company. The second is the the aggressive development and marketing of new technologies that might canibalize your existing business; this probably is a good idea, even if the new business is lower margin or lower value, because almost certainly someone will do it, and it’s better for the leader to do it to itself than for a competitor to do so.

113/365: Flippin' coins

[Image: Flippin’ Coins , by Pauli Antero on Flickr, Creative Commons, some rights reserved.]

In terms of the risk side, a comparison I like to make is with finding lucky people. Contrast two situations. If I say to you “Give me a coin and I’ll toss it ten times and get heads each time”, and then I do it, you’ll probably think that is quite impressive and either very lucky or (more likely) manipulated. But if I take a thousand people and get each of them to flip a coin repeatedly, and after each round of flipping I get all the people who got tails to stop, after 10 rounds I might well have a single person who got a sequence of 10 heads. But there would be nothing odd about that, and it certainly doesn’t require the person to have special powers or be “lucky” (in any non-scientific sense).

Apple now has the largest market capitalization of any company in the world, with massive success and profits, after a series of audacious, high-risk moves that worked out. I’m not saying for a moment that this is pure luck, or that Apple is like the one-in-a-thousand kid who got ten heads in a row, but I do think that the world has annointed Apple after the fact when many other companies have made “audacious” moves that didn’t work out and, in some cases, sent them under. (Time-Warner’s merger with AOL was certainly audacious.) I think the modern Apple has made a series of good moves, and combined those with backtracking where necessary (allowing native apps, giving Final Cut Pro a stay of execution, allowing various apps and books into the stores after poorly judged bans etc.), and has won for reasons that combine skill and luck; but even if Steve Jobs had lived, that doesn’t mean he didn’t have more lemons in him, and that these might not have come out and eventually hobbled or even killed the company.

Even today, when Microsoft is routinely left off the list of the key tech companies (now typically Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon), or is at least seen as the laggard among these, it remains massively profitable and powerful. I think it is in terminal decline, and deserves to be, but it is far from irrelevant yet.

19 May 2011

The Queen's Hall of Shame

[NOTE: I'm very happy that Andy Catlin, the Marketing Manager at the Queen's Hall, has taken time to respond to this post in the comments: his responses are interesting and illuminating and I strongly recommend everyone to read them.]

In general, I am a big fan of the Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall. It has a wide and varied programme that frequently includes many of favourite (living) performers; why, I’ve even listened rapturously to some of favourite dead performers there (none more than John Martyn). I like to think of myself very much as a friend of the Queen’s Hall.

One of the roles a friend sometimes has to perform is that of purveyor of unpleasant truths, and I feel that is necessary today.

I received a mail from the excellent Songkick service informing me that Janis Ian will play the Queen’s Hall in October. If you don’t know Songkick, I strongly recommend that you check it out. It is a site that implements an service I’ve wanted (and considered building) for the best part of a decade, namely, you tell it which artists you like and, where you might be interested in seeing them, and it informs you whenever they announce a new concert that meets your criteria. It has been a long source of frustration to me that I sometimes miss concerts that I would have gone to had I only known they were on, and Songkick aims to eliminate that situation, which it does with a reasonable degree of success. If anything, it issues the notices slightly too early, often a few days before it’s possible to book them; but it remains an extremely useful service.

Anyway, I dutifully looked up the gig on the Queen’s Hall website. All is in order. But here is the ticket information:

Tickets: £22.50 + £1.50 booking fee per ticket. This fee is charged on all sales for this event (ie telephone, internet, in person).

As far as I can see, this is a willfully distorting way of presenting the information a prospective customer needs that I strongly suspect is bad for business.

If the Queen’s Hall had simply said

Tickets: £24.00

I would undoubtedly have bought tickets by now and been happily looking forward to seeing this excellent performer in October. Instead, well, I’m writing this blog post. If the primary breakdown of the £24.00 cost of a ticket of interest to the Queen’s Hall is really into a £22.50 “ticket” and a £1.50 “booking fee”, then obviously its internal systems could report that, though I strongly suspect that £1.50 is an entirely spurious, pretend number that has no more real meaning for the Queen’s Hall than it does for its customers. But the breakdown is entirely bogus from the perspective of the customer, since it’s always payable. Why not

Tickets: £23.86 + 14p chair handling fee (always payable)


Tickets: £23:72 + 28p lighting fee (always payable)


Tickets: £18 + £6 performer fee (always payable)


Tickets: £23.99 + 1p directors’ daily biscuits fee (always payable).

£22.50 is either a made-up number that has no basis in reality (my best guess) or is an approximation to a number that is of no relevance or interest to (almost) any paying customer.

So why does the Queen’s Hall do this? I can see three plausible explanations.

  1. Deliberate deception. Although I think it's pretty clear that this isn't the case with the Queen's Hall, especially given Andy Catlin's comments below, it is not unusual for businesses to try to present a low price to “suck people in” towards a sale, holding back extras (mandatory or otherwise) in the expectation that, having been sucked in the customer will be willing to pay a higher actual price that she would have prepared to pay had it been declared initially.
  2. Comparability. There is an argument that if other venues present a headline ticket price that excludes a booking fee (as they do), then by failing to do the same, the Queen’s Hall would put itself at a competitive disadvantage, making its prices appear higher than they really are relative to other venues. This explanation makes very little sense for a concert venue, since people almost never have a practical choice of venue, but it remains a possible “explanation”.
  3. Historical relic. Sometimes, booking fees are in fact avoidable. The most obvious case is that when tickets may be bought both directly from the venue and through a third party, the third party will often mark up the ticket with a booking fee, while it can be bought directly from the venue without a booking fee. In that case, it can be helpful for the customer to see the booking fee, because she actually has an option of avoiding it by going direct instead. Obviously, however, this does not apply in the present case.

(I suppose there is also a possibility that there is some poorly drafted or poorly understood legislation requiring booking fees to be broken out, but I am not aware of any such law, and if it does exist, it would have to be very poorly drafted indeed to apply to mandatory, unavoidable booking fees.)

Needless to say, I don’t regard any of the three plausible reasons as a good reason for the Queen’s Hall to do as it is doing. In particular, I think any possible benefit of a (slightly) lower headline price is more than offset by the customer hostility generated by booking fees. (In strict economic terms, my guess is that for every customer who will not buy with a headline price of £24.00 but will buy at the same price if a headline price of £22.50 is presented and a £1.50 booking fee is charged, there will be a more than counterbalancing number who will be so irritated by the deceptive pricing that they will not buy when it’s broken out in this way but would if it were presented plainly; but this is no more than a guess.)

So come on, Queen’s Hall. Strike a blow for transparent pricing. Call a £24 ticket a £24 ticket and let people who expect a booking fee to be added to come away pleasantly surprised, rather than annoying those who don’t.


29 March 2011

New Uplift Modelling Theory Paper Available

There is a new paper available for download discussing the theory of uplift modelling. It is available here.

This paper, for the first time, details the algorithm that has formed the basis for the uplift models built by the product now known as Portrait Uplift, from Pitney Bowes, and which was originally part of the Decisionhouse software from Quadstone Limited. These uplift models are based on one or more decision trees built using modified split criteria and alternative pruning methods. Because the modified split criterion is based on a significance test, we call the trees Significance-Based Uplift Trees.

The paper also details many of the insights that the Pitney Bowes Business Intelligence team and I have gained over some twelve years of building commercial uplift models, and was written jointly with my long-term collaborator, Patrick Surry.

The paper is called Real-World Uplift Modelling with Significance-Based Uplift Trees and the abstract is below. We hope to publish it in a (peer-reviewed) publication, perhaps in modified form.


This paper seeks to document the current state of the art in ‘uplift modelling’—the practice of modelling the change in behaviour that results directly from a specified treatment such as a marketing intervention. We include details of the Significance-Based Uplift Trees that have formed the core of the only packaged uplift modelling software currently available. The paper includes a summary of some of the results that have been delivered using uplift modelling in practice, with examples drawn from demand-stimulation and customer-retention applications. It also surveys and discusses approaches to each of the major stages involved in uplift modelling—variable selection, model construction, quality measures and post-campaign evaluation—all of which require different approaches from traditional response modelling.

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11 February 2011

1 + 1 = 2? Nokia and Microsoft Better Hope Not

There's a lot of topical interest in the decision by Nokia and Microsoft to form a partnership around Windows Phone 7.

From a UK perspective, quite a lot of attention has been given to the market shares, as reported by comScore (original Data Gem here). I've reproduced their chart below (my estimates of their numbers, reading quite carefully from the graph).


Obviously, it is anything but automatic that when two companies combine the result will resemble a simple sum of their pre-combined market shares. But health warnings apart, it's interesting to see what happens if you do just add them.


Unsurprisingly, it doesn't look any better.

Is the Nokia-Microsoft partnership a good move? Who knows? From my perspective, it looks unambiguously positive for Microsoft, but far less clear for Nokia. I think Stephen Elop's memo suggests he has diagnosed the problems Nokia faces rather accurately; whether embracing Microsoft is a way out is much more open question. It will be very sad, both for Finland and for Europe, if Nokia dies. As a long-time Nokia fan, it took the iPhone to persuade me to buy a non-Nokia phone, and I'll personally be very sad if the company does fail. But I have to say, embracing Microsoft is not a way to win me back.