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Super Crunchers
Cover of Super Crunchers
Super Crunchers
Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart
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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • With new information on crunching your own numbers to get the edge the experts haveAn international sensation—and still the talk of the relevant...
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • With new information on crunching your own numbers to get the edge the experts haveAn international sensation—and still the talk of the relevant...
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  • NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER With new information on crunching your own numbers to get the edge the experts have
    An international sensation—and still the talk of the relevant blogosphere—this Wall Street Journal and New York Times business bestseller examines the "power" in numbers. Today more than ever, number crunching affects your life in ways you might not even imagine. Intuition and experience are no longer enough to make the grade. In order to succeed—even survive—in our data-based world, you need to become statistically literate.
    Cutting-edge organizations are already crunching increasingly larger databases to find the unseen connections among seemingly unconnected things to predict human behavior with staggeringly accurate results. From Internet sites like Google and Amazon that use filters to keep track of your tastes and your purchasing history, to insurance companies and government agencies that every day make decisions affecting your life, the brave new world of the super crunchers is happening right now. No one who wants to stay ahead of the curve should make another keystroke without reading Ian Ayres's engrossing and enlightening book.

Excerpts-

  • Chapter One Chapter One


    Who's Doing Your Thinking for You?


    Recommendations make life a lot easier. Want to know what movie to rent? The traditional way was to ask a friend or to see whether reviewers gave it a thumbs-up.

    Nowadays people are looking for Internet guidance drawn from the behavior of the masses. Some of these "preference engines" are simple lists of what's most popular. The New York Times lists the "most emailed articles." iTunes lists the top downloaded songs. Del.icio.us lists the most popular Internet bookmarks. These simple filters often let surfers zero in on the greatest hits.

    Some recommendation software goes a step further and tries to tell you what people like you enjoyed. Amazon.com tells you that people who bought The Da Vinci Code also bought Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Netflix gives you recommendations that are contingent on the movies that you yourself have recommended in the past. This is truly "collaborative filtering," because your ratings of movies help Netflix make better recommendations to others and their ratings help Netflix make better recommendations to you. The Internet is a perfect vehicle for this service because it's really cheap for an Internet retailer to keep track of customer behavior and to automatically aggregate, analyze, and display this information for subsequent customers.

    Of course, these algorithms aren't perfect. A bachelor buying a one-time gift for a baby could, for example, trigger the program into recommending more baby products in the future. Wal-Mart had to apologize when people who searched for Martin Luther King: I Have a Dream were told they might also appreciate a Planet of the Apes DVD collection. Amazon.com similarly offended some customers who searched for "abortion" and were asked "Did you mean adoption?" The adoption question was generated automatically simply because many past customers who searched for abortion had also searched for adoption.

    Still, on net, collaborative filters have been a huge boon for both consumers and retailers. At Netflix, nearly two-thirds of the rented films are recommended by the site. And recommended films are rated half a star higher (on Netflix's five-star ranking system) than films that people rent outside the recommendation system.

    While lists of most-emailed articles and best-sellers tend to concentrate usage, the great thing about the more personally tailored recommendations is that they diversify usage. Netflix can recommend different movies to different people. As a result, more than 90 percent of the titles in its 50,000-movie catalog are rented at least monthly. Collaborative filters let sellers access what Chris Anderson calls the "long tail" of the preference distribution. The Netflix recommendations let its customers put themselves in rarefied market niches that used to be hard to find.

    The same thing is happening with music. At Pandora.com, users can type in a song or an artist that they like and almost instantaneously the website starts streaming song after song in the same genre. Do you like Cyndi Lauper and Smash Mouth? Voila, Pandora creates a Lauper/Smash Mouth radio station just for you that plays these artists plus others that sound like them. As each song is playing, you have the option of teaching the software more about what you like by clicking "I really like this song" or "Don't play this type of song again."

    It's amazing how well this site works for both me and my kids. It not only plays music that each of us enjoys, but it also finds music that we like by groups we've never heard of. For example, because I told Pandora that I like Bruce Springsteen, it created a radio station that started...

About the Author-

  • Ian Ayres ,an econometrician and lawyer, is the William K. Townsend Professor at Yale Law School, and a professor at Yale's School of Management. He is a regular commentator on public radio's Marketplace and a columnist for Forbes magazine. He is currently the editor of the Journal of Law, Economics and Organization, and has written eight books and more than a hundred articles.

    From the Hardcover...

Reviews-

  • Publisher's Weekly

    June 4, 2007
    Yale Law School professor and econometrician Ayres argues in this lively and enjoyable book that the recent creation of huge data sets allows knowledgeable individuals to make previously impossible predictions. He calls the data set analysts “super crunchers” and discusses the changes they're making to industries like medical diagnostics, air travel pricing, screenwriting and online dating services. Although Ayres presents both sides of this revolution, explaining how the corporate world tries to manipulate consumer behavior and telling consumers how to fight back, his real mission is to educate readers about the basics of statistics and hypothesis testing, spending most of his time in an edifying and entertaining discussion of the use of regression and randomization trials. He frequently asks whether statistical methods are more accurate than the more intuitive conclusions drawn by experts, and consistently concludes that they are. Ayres skillfully demonstrates the importance that statistical literacy can play in our lives, especially now that technology permits it to occur on a scale never before imagined.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    October 29, 2007
    An introduction to econometrics may not seem like the stuff that would keep listeners riveted—much less awake—during a long car ride, but Ayres’s provocative audio does just that. Ever wonder how an airline decides to lower its prices? Or why businesses have preferred shopper cards? The answer is data, gigabytes upon terabytes of data. Companies are increasingly relying on data and number-crunching statisticians to make decisions, like how much money they can extract from consumers while still retaining their loyalty. Ayres’s exploration of “super crunching” and its influence makes up the bulk of the audio, but listeners needn’t navigate a sea of numbers. The discussion is illustrated by eye-opening examples such as how Continental Airlines took customer service to a new, personalized level and how Mexico instituted an innovative pay-for-performance parenting program. The final chapter on standard deviations may have some longing for the printed page or a PDF file with a graph or two, but overall, Lurie’s mellow reading will make listeners firm believers in Ayres’s refrain: “in a super crunching world, consumers can’t afford to be asleep at the wheel.” Simultaneous release with the Bantam hardcover (Reviews, June 4).

  • Steven D. Levitt, author of Freakonomics

    "In the past, one could get by on intuition and experience. Times have changed. Today, the name of the game is data. Ian Ayres shows us how and why in this groundbreaking book Super Crunchers. Not only is it fun to read, it just may change the way you think."

  • Wired "Data-mining and statistical analysis have suddenly become cool.... Dissecting marketing, politics, and even sports, stuff this complex and important shouldn't be this much fun to read."
  • Portfolio "[Ayres's] thesis is provocative: Complex statistical models could be used to market products more intelligently, craft better movies, and solve health-care problems--if only we could get past our statistics phobia."
  • Discover "When statistics conflict with expert opinion, bet on statistics....Businesses, consumers, and governments are waking up to the power of analyzing enormous tracts of information."
  • John Podesta, President of the Center for American Progress "Super Crunchers shows that data-driven decisionmaking is not just revolutionizing baseball and business; it's changing the way that education policy, health care reimbursements, even tax regulations are crafted. Super Crunching is truly reinventing government. Politicians love to tout policy proposals, but they rarely come back and tell you which ones succeeded and which ones failed. Data-driven policy making forces government to ask the bottom line question of 'What works.' That's an approach we can all support."
  • Dr. Kenneth Arrow, Nobel Prize winning economist, and Professor Emeritus at Stanford University "A lively and yet rigorously careful account of the use of quantitative methods for analysis and decision-making.... Both social scientists and businessmen can profit from this book, while enjoying themselves in the process."
  • The New York Times Book Review "Ayres' point is that human beings put far too much faith in their intuition and would often be better off listening to the numbers.... The best stories in the book are about Ayres and other economists he knows, whether they are studying wine, the Supreme Court or jobless benefits.... Ayres himself is one of the [statistical] detectives. He has done fascinating research."
  • Chronicle of Higher Education "Ian Ayres [is] a law-and-economics guru."
  • Publishers Weekly "Lively and enjoyable.... Ayres skillfully demonstrates the importance that statistical literacy can play in our lives, especially now that technology permits it to occur on a scale never before imagined.... Edifying and entertaining."
  • The Economist "Super Crunchers presents a convincing and disturbing vision of a future in which everyday decision-making is increasingly automated, and the role of human judgment restricted to providing input to formulae."
  • Forbes "Insightful and delightful!"

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