Kelly LeVoyer from SAS Marketing Editorial spent some time yesterday with Stephen Baker at SAS Global Forum.
At Monday’s SAS Global Forum, I was fortunate enough to get a few minutes to chat with Stephen Baker, BusinessWeek writer, author of The Numerati and SAS Global Forum presenter. In addition to being interested in his book, I had learned from reading about Baker that we had a few things in common: working/living in Latin America, sons named Henry, he lived in Paris (I want to live in Paris), and a (surprising) lack of math training.
Despite the name (which Baker admits that, in hindsight, he might reconsider because it connotes a higher degree of math than he intended), The Numerati is an entertaining read, revealing the analysis and data at play in our everyday lives.
What’s it like being a journalist with a history degree who’s now a numbers rock star?
When I started, I had these two worlds separated, thinking they were so different. I realized as I interviewed the subjects of the book, the numerati don’t think that differently than I do. We all think statistically but we don’t think of it that way. Let’s say a neighbor asks you for $100. You immediately start processing the request: Do I trust him? What are the chances will he pay me back? What are the risks of saying no? And you’re weighing the importance of each question before answering. The people I interviewed are, for example, just trying to determine what consumers think of a certain product. People in business are doing the same thing: How much weight do we put on the fact someone has stayed at a certain hotel? Is that more meaningful to our decision-making than their annual salary? I don’t know how to do the math, but the logic was very accessible to me. [Note: Baker’s math education ended at intro to algebra in school. I barely got past pre-calculus. Finally, someone I actually surpassed in math!]. They just have some tools and know-how I don’t have. And many of them disproved the stereotypes I realized I harbored too.
What was one of your favorite discoveries you made while researching Numerati, and what other discoveries have you made since then?
We all know a lot of things, but sometimes a truth hits us hard and we gain a deeper understanding—I experienced a lot of those. I knew math and numbers connect various domains—meaning , for example, the same algorithms can be used for marketing analysis and cancer research. But I came upon these realizations in surprising ways.
I was looking into blindness with a researcher in Iowa, at how they look for the genetic markers for macular degeneration. It ended up being the process Dave Morgan uses at Tacoda to determine which ads to serve to serve to which people.
Another even cooler one was the Microsoft researcher, David Heckerman, who is both a physician and a computer scientist, working on software to defend computers against spam. Spammers regularly change their approaches to adjust to the spam filters, so he had to anticipate the changes that the spammers will make. He was anticipating mutations, and realized there might be a medical application. In 2003 he ended up shifting his work to focus on HIV research.
Back on the BusinessWeek side, what is one story you’ve written in the past few years that really stands out to you?
I wrote a story in December of ‘07 about Google’s computer. Google has built world’s biggest, and in many senses, greatest computer. It’s one huge machine with connections to data centers all over the earth. Many people don’t think of Google as a computer science company—but they can do things that nobody else can do in the world. They built it all out of cheap, practically disposable computers, so if one blinks out, they just plug in a new one. Of course the newer one will be faster, so the computer begins evolving in complexity, like an animal.
Your personal profile hints that you’ve written a novel. What’s that all about?
Yes, I have. It takes place in El Paso, deals with a bad lazy journalist who writes a bad story and gets a death threat from a Mexican drug lord, which makes him into a hero. I wrote it with the idea that I would get it published, turn it into a screenplay, make some money and live someplace cheap and warm. That plan didn’t work out. And then BusinessWeek sent me to Paris.
That’s not a bad consolation prize.
No, it certainly wasn’t!
Any ideas churning for a sequel to Numerati?
I’m working on a proposal. It’s in the same vein, but a bit less about the business side of things, more about the research and the experience of what happens when the Numerati have their way with you.
Oh my. And then Baker autographed my copy of The Numerati: “For Kelly, Had a nice time talking with you, give my best to Henry. Stephen Baker, March 09.”