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The Numerati [Hardcover]

Stephen Baker
3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

12 Aug 2008

In a world teeming with data, we ourselves become the math nerds' most prized specimens.

In The Numerati Stephen Baker, a Business Week senior writer, takes us on a guided tour (no maths required) through an unprecedented new era, in which mathematicians are starting to map individual human behaviour - what we do, who we are, how we work, chat, play and shop -- and in so doing, will change every aspect of our lives, from the kind of medical advice we get, to the adverts we see, to our appraisals at work, to the way politicians try to win our votes and protect us from terrorist attacks.

There's the robotic librarian using a combination of algebra and geometry to analyse thousands of press articles and blog posts in English.Then there are the mathematicians helping to map out advertising campaigns, changing the nature of research in newsrooms and in biology labs, enabling marketers to forge new one-on-one relationships with customers. Baker asks the fundamental question: If long articles full of twists and turns can be reduced to a mathematical essence, what's next? Will the power of mathematicians to make sense of personal data and to model the behaviour of individuals inevitably erode privacy?More and more of the world economy is falling into the realm of numbers.

The Numerati is a book about one of the great undertakings of the 21st century - the mathematical modelling of humanity. Much in the same way as neuroscientists are mapping our brains, mathematicians are mapping our individual behaviour -- everything that makes the individual distinct. Stephen Baker navigates us through a world that otherwise might seem remote or disconnected, but one which is absolutely relevant to our everyday lives.

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company (12 Aug 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618784608
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618784608
  • Product Dimensions: 21.8 x 14.1 x 2.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,889,281 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"'The Numerati' is a kind of travelogue, a report from the shadowy regions where data mining, the search for new algorithms and the divination for the hidden meanings disclosed by our choices animates a type of research that was impossible to imagine before the computer . . . an interesting book . . . Baker knows well that the Numerati cannot answer the big questions, like where do we go from here? But perhaps they can help us avoid falling off whatever cliffs we decide to peer over." --This text refers to the Paperback edition.


`Baker paints an apocalyptic picture of a world teeming with data'

`Strikingly well-argued' --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

3.2 out of 5 stars
3.2 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Targeting customers through their data trails 19 Sep 2008
By Neil Lewis VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Companies, political parties, advertisers and individuals are harnessing the masses of data in our increasingly digitised world to know more about us than ever before. Businesses like Amazon and Google sift through our every click (and solicit our feedback) to find out more about us so they can customise what they sell us, both to keep us happy as customers and to increase their profits. Supermarkets use loyalty schemes to pinpoint their sales promotions to good prospects in increasingly elaborate ways. Political parties know who the floating voters are and what messages will make them vote for their policies. How do they do it, and what are the implications for our privacy? There are few technical details here, but this is a good introduction to the world of data mining.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing 8 Mar 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is well written journalism that concentrates on the numerati themselves. Nothing wrong with journalism per se (I was a journalist myself for some years), but there's a bigger story to be written about than this. I was hoping for a more insightful analysis of the techniques, implications and/or limitations of mathematical and statistical analysis being applied at massive scale on the world around us. But what the author delivered was a set of interesting anecdotes.
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A simple, clear and interesting popular introduction to the now ubiquitous field of smart data analysis, making up also a label for people working this field: "numerati"
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The Numerati - a Book 10 Feb 2009
This is an interesting book but it does in essence repeat it basic premiss over and over again and one wonders what the point is after a while or what anyone might do about the fact that ones every click is recorded somewhere.
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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  63 reviews
53 of 55 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Anything you browse can and will be used... to learn more about you 6 Sep 2008
By Kathy Grace - Published on Amazon.com
Stephen Baker, a technology writer for Business Week, takes us into the world of data miners, forecasters, and matchmakers. The math whizzes who analyze our blogs for trends, create the ads that make us eager to buy, and analyze the chatter that could conceal signs of criminal activity--these are the Numerati. Baker gives us a chapter each on work, shopping, politics, spy vs. spy, healthcare, and even [...] (What does the length of your ring finger have to do with the kind of person you're attracted to? Read and find out.)

Some of it is "house-of-the-future" stuff--imagine, for instance, a floor tile that will alert the doctor when your aging parent's gait seems more hesitant than usual. According to Baker, experts watching old reruns of Michael J. Fox shows can detect characteristic signs years before he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

And then there's the political game. With ever-more-insightful analysis, political math mavens have found that (thank god!) America is nowhere near as polarized as you would expect. Many a liberal Democrat lurks in the McMansion suburbs, and vice versa. But politics is tough--your grocery basket doesn't lie, but nobody wants to give the time of day to a pollster. How they craft the exact political messages that will get you to the voting booth might, oddly enough, be related to your shopping habits.

Shopping--now this is a chapter that should be of interest to every die-hard Amazon fan. Sophisticated algorithms designed to deduce your taste in novels or music can be frighteningly accurate (or, as my Quick Picks occasionally remind me, maddeningly stupid, but that's the topic for a different book). After finishing this chapter, I could think of half a dozen things my grocery store knows about me that I never told them. If they chose to sell their data to magazine publishers, say, we would surely be targeted for the cooking mags ("Look, this family buys at least four units of different fresh herbs a week, and their weight in extra-virgin olive oil every month"). They can tell we have a teenager in the house ("Lots of Clean&Clear products") and could probably guess how old within a year or two ("Look it up--when did they quit buying diapers?"). Any health insurer would be interested in knowing that we spend a lot in produce and seafood, and very little at the meat counter--but what about those frequent trips to the candy aisle? It's a false positive, I swear--they're for the snack bar at my office!

You should be a little frightened, and more than a little fascinated, by The Numerati.

[Edited to add: For a more detailed look at the doings of one of the Numerati, take a look at Click: What Millions of People Are Doing Online and Why it Matters, by Bill Tancer of Hitwise.]
62 of 66 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining but not enough substance 2 Nov 2008
By DWC - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I became interested in this book after reading the companion cover story in BusinessWeek. Although the stories and interviews were interesting, I thought the book fell short on connecting the math beyond the most basic concepts.

Baker admits he was a liberal arts major in college and doesn't pretend to fully understand the math behind the analysis. Obviously, an in-depth mathematical discussion would have been beyond the grasp of most readers and presumably the author. However, a little more detail on the methodologies beyond the simplistic descriptions would have given the book more substance and utility.

Data Mining and Data Warehousing have been around for many years. Retailers have used it extensively to understand their customers. Yet, Baker fails to discuss these established practices and compare them with this new emerging area.

Baker spends most of his book describing the people he interviews in a series of stories. The book is an easy read and is entertaining. If you read for entertainment and are interested in this subject, you will probably like this book. However, if you read for knowledge and are looking for a good, informative business book on this subject, it may disappoint you.
34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Review of A Trend, Better With Companion Reading 10 Sep 2008
By Bill Gossett - Published on Amazon.com
I would highly recommend reading Baker's book immediately before or after reading How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of "Intangibles" in Business by Douglas Hubbard. Baker would probably consider Hubbard one of the "numerati". Both authors talk about some of the specifics of the analysis methods (but moreso Hubbard) and both talk about the general trends and impacts (but moreso Baker).

Like his table of contents (which is simply worker, shopper, voter, blogger, terrorist, patient, lover), Baker's book is sweeping if a bit terse in places. As a quant, I find Numerati an easy read with virtually no math but still enlightening even for the most quantitatively adept reader. There were several examples in Baker's book where I already knew of the mathod but had not heard of that application. He did some great research and covered a lot of topics in this giant and elaborate field of work.

My main concern for many management-level readers of this book is that in some cases Baker gives a reader just enough information to think they can apply it to a similar problem they have, falling into the "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" trap. Again, this can be offset with a read of Hubbard's book. It might also have been helpful to talk about the rise of "crackpot rigour" in a world with lots of data and relatively few competent mathematical analysts (various "data mining" experts come to mind).

In all, its one of my favorite reads of the year. I felt like someone was finally casting light on my own obscure field.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Too Simplistic 5 Nov 2008
By Michael Gunther - Published on Amazon.com
Quantitative profiling of human behavior ranges from the beneficial (recommendation engines for books and movies) to the scary (employer and police monitoring), and everything in between. "Numerati" provides a journalistic introduction to this topic, that is easy to read and understand. I found it way too simplified, though:

1. The author treats this technology as a "black box" which makes it seem almost miraculous to the uninitiated reader. The first requirement in writing about any technology is to explain what it can and can't do; the book does not provide enough information about this.

2. Like all technology it has both good and bad uses (and most uses are good in some ways and bad in other ways), but the book does not provide enough information about the social and policy tradeoffs inherent in its development, use, and regulation.

In summary, the book provides a readers with a very basic introduction to the brave new world of statistical profiling, but doesn't explain enough about the technology or its consequences to be really satisfying.
39 of 47 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Fundamentally flawed, essentially annoying 29 Mar 2009
By Carl Zetie - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
It's extremely rare that I find a book so bad, so devoid of value that I can't even finish it. Even the worst book has some redeeming merit -- even if it's only to understand the perspective of its author. Numerati, then, joins a list so short I can count its members on one hand: books that are simultaneously so annoying and so devoid of value that I couldn't get through them.

The biggest reason I couldn't finish this book is that I was never convinced of Baker's fundamental thesis: that the "numerati" are a class apart, different in kind from the rest of us. This flawed idea seems to go hand in hand with the idea, commonly perpetuated by the mass media, that mathematicians in general possess some mysterious skill denied to others. I disagree. I think that anybody can be numerate and, with the tools and data that the Web increasingly make universally accessible, anybody can be their own "numeratus".

The people in this book are different from the average internet user in degree, not in kind. They may be as different from us as Tiger Woods is from the average weekend hacker... but, like Tiger, they are playing the same game with the same tools. Baker's awe-filled, almost worshipful descriptions makes it seem like the "numerati" are separated from "normal people" by an uncrossable chasm... and to me that is not merely wrongheaded, it's dangerous. It encourages the rest of us to abdicate control of our futures to this mythical over-class.

Even those flaws wouldn't be enough by themselves to make me set this book aside -- it would still be interesting to understand this apparently common attitude that I don't share. The last straw for me was Baker's irritating insistence on inserting himself into the narrative at every possible moment. I really don't care what block of what street he had brunch on, or how many times the interviewee's phone rang, or how long he had to wait for the elevator afterwards. The whole breathless narrative as if he were participating in a cross between Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Da Vinci Code, rather than conducting interviews with people who happen to be busy multitaskers, just struck me as annoyingly pompous and self-centered.

Yes, I know I'm going to get a lot of "unhelpful" votes -- negative reviews always do (for some reason, people who liked a book find it hard to tolerate people who didn't). But it's worth it to let people know: if you are in any degree numerate yourself, you're probably going to find "Numerati" intolerable.
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