This Is the Man Bill Gates Thinks You Absolutely Should Be Reading

Wired • 25 November 2013

Hard truths. Prolific author and polymath Vaclav Smil puts his no-nonsense spin on some of the more intractable problems facing the U.S., from its vanishing manufacturing sector to its self-defeating nuclear energy and agricultural policies. Smil's blunt assessments are a sobering reminder that mustering the political will to tackle education, economic and trade policies, rather than technology fixes, will be key to meeting these critical challenges.

This is relatively bleak but powerful. I see Smil's name popping up lots of places these days so this is a good introduction to his work. I was particularly taken with his characterization of many academics as "drillers of deep wells." (Michalko)

They're Watching You at Work

The Atlantic • 20 November 2013

Moneyball-istics. Atlantic journalist Don Peck covers one of the latest trends in corporate use of Big Data, reporting that some large companies are turning over HR functions like hiring and performance reviews to "people analytics" algorithms. Read on for an eye-opening exposé of the pros and cons of statistical assessment and why this creepy-sounding development may ultimately be a good thing for everyone.

A fine in-depth look at what is happening as predictive analytics points its techniques at careers. I was not surprised to find that the distance between your home and your place of work is one of the best predictors of staff engagement and retention. I was shocked that the analytics folks restrain themselves from using this info because of concerns that it might violate equal employment opportunity laws in the US. And doesn't the fellow mentioned in this article, Hans Haringa, have a really great job? (Michalko)

Four Keys to Great Customer Service

Bloomberg News • 26 November 2013

It's all about commitment. Check out these profiles of four top customer-centric companies—Amazon, Weber-Stephens, Bose and Southwest Airlines—for tips on incorporating great service into your own organization's DNA.

Weber (the BBQ grill company) and Bose (the mail order audio company) seemed like strange choices but they register some great comments. For a different take on customer service you might check out this report on the annual All-Japan Phone-Answering Competition for office workers. The Japanese customer support encounter is very, very choreographed. (Michalko)

How to Start Thinking Like a Data Scientist

HBR Blog Network • 29 November 2013

Marking time . . . and more. "Data doc" Thomas C. Redman lays out the ABCs of data tracking that can be used to document and analyze workplace dysfunction. His goal is to demystify the process for managers so they can "work a bit more effectively with data scientists, analytics, and all things quantitative." Read on for an easily digestible primer on the basics of data collection, analysis and visualization.

It's true that you don't need to be a data or software geek (like some people I know) to think quantitatively. Even I managed it this past Halloween which was spent with friends at their home. They asserted there would be more than 200 trick or treaters. I didn't believe it so we kept track of the number of arriving children and the time. Here's the arrival pattern. Here's the cumulative graph. We decided that the arrival pattern is probably a bimodal distribution—two normal distributions overlaid on one another—with young treaters peaking early and "older" treaters peaking later. (Michalko)

Peek Inside Your Own Brain! The Rise of DIY Neuroscience • 25 November 2013

Science for the masses. Expensive MRI and CT machines are beyond the reach of all but the most elite university science programs, but a new crop of science gadgetry is making DIY experiments more accessible to undergrad classrooms and home-grown science enthusiasts. Read on for a quick overview of how these simplified tools are sparking a "neuro-revolution" in scientific research.

Before you build yourself a "lucid dreaming" mask or a neural stimulation machine you might want to read Jump Starter Kits for the Mind. (Michalko)


The New Yorker • 3 December 2013

Productivity tool. A recently developed smartphone app puts a whole new face on mortality. Users key in personal stats like gender, date of birth and country of residence, and the app starts a countdown based on an estimated life expectancy. Days of Life is not billed as an accurate predictor, but a reminder that life is short, and we'd better get a move on.

Well, we began this string with a bleak article and here's the fitting bookend. This did remind me that I once proposed to my brothers that we not celebrate standard decade birthday anniversaries—you're 30, you're 40, etc. I argued for substituting percent completion based on the life expectancy for your birth year cohort—you're half way there, you're 80% finished, etc. No one would do it. (Michalko)

Above the Fold Quiz

According to an item in this week's News and Views section, how will domain experts benefit from contributing their research to VIAF in the form of authority data?

Get the answer.