CCK08: Review of the “The Numerati”

Back in Week 2 of CCK08, George Siemens told me of a new book entitled “The Numerati” by Stephen Baker. Reading the Amazon publisher’s comments gave me the feeling Baker was another conspiracy theorist. I held off buying the book for 2 weeks due to course readings but found it at my local Chapters (much to my surprise!). I still had a feeling he was anti-something, but by the end of chapter 1, he had me hooked.

Baker describes how math is being used to understand social networking in a variety of subjects. This is not unlike the CBS TV “Numbers” where some local mathematics professors help the FBI crack some hard cases by applying math to behaviours of criminals.

What got me hooked was his description of how IBM is trying to create mathematical models of its workforce so it can better optimize the selection of workers to fit the right projects (PP 33-40). Baker describes how IBM started with a skills database, integrated with calendars and basic demographic information about the employee, looks at past projects worked on, but wisely stays away form annual performance evaluations. Like IBM, the company I work for realized that in today’s competitive world, workforce optimization was critical to continuing success. So Baker hit close to home with his book.

Baker then goes on to describe in various chapters how mathematical models are in use in consumer shopping behaviour analysis, voting (US), blogging, terrorism, patient care, and even matching-making. Match-making was the funniest by far as he tests the mathematical models of one website site by trying to “match-up” with his wife whom he co-opted into the experiment. I won’t give away what happened!

His chapter on voting and the breaking down of the electorate actually stuck home here in Canada in our own Federal election of Oct 14, 2008. I actually say a Conservative Party of Canada TV commercial that made the same “family values” appeal that was described as one category of swing voters in the US. It would appear someone in the CPC has read this book too or is using applied mathematics in the same manner.

This book is of very good value in understanding networks and trying to get to “understand” them. While it lacks some academic rigour documentation, it makes up for it in its excellent discussions of examples. Understanding what a network and a group are has been tough to understand in CKK08, so I welcomed these examples.

There were several places where a chart would have helped in understanding the content especially in the terrorist networking diagrams. There has been some excellent papers writing on social networks, but Baker does not refer to anything in his bibliography other than published books. His citation technique was one of the weirdest I have ever seen. He did not use any indication some text had a notation. Rather, you had to read the Notations section at the back of the book to realize that he was discussing something in further detail. Ideally, the book should have been published as a series of articles/blogs, but I understand it took him a year to write this, so he needed some sort of remuneration at the “end of the rainbow”. Baker does have a Blog site which discusses various aspects of the subject in more detail.

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