Math Nerd Party Tricks, Portuguese and SQL


My uncle, a former seminarian who has two masters’ degrees (one in English Literature and one in Business Administration) and has been running his own company for nearly fifty years, once told me that it isn’t enough to be good at just one thing. It isn’t enough just to be great at sales. You need to be great at sales and operations. One dimensional resources abound and the way to stand above the crowd is to be great at many things.

Analytics and business intelligence suffer from this same uni-dimensionality. Kaiser Fung, author of Numbers Rule Your World: The Hidden Influence of Probability and Statistics on Everything You Do  and VP of Strategic Analytics at SiriusXM, seems to agree.

Fung says the point of Numbers Rule Your World is that data analysts really should speak to people in English, and in the language of business as opposed to in the language of math and in the language of statistics. Of course the language of math and statistics is important for analyzing the data and reaching conclusions, but once analysts know what the insights are, they should look at communicating those insights in a way that’s different from doing the math.

That’s the challenge Fung is talking about—the challenge of communicating the findings.

 “I think that’s where the statistics community has not done enough yet,” he says. “We are very obsessed with coming up with methodologies and coming [up with] new techniques that may be marginally better than the existing techniques. That stuff is great for academia and research, [but] you’re talking about practice and business interpretations.”

Unfortunately, this kind of multi-discipline, multi-dimensional thinking is rare. Finance people congregate around finance people because they share a common language and often a similar set of experiences. IT people spend time trying to wow each other with their mastery of code or a nifty new configuration. When the two groups meet to discuss how to get something done, they often end up talking past each other. It takes a rare breed of person to act as the Rosetta Stone between the two groups. I can’t speak for disciplines like math or engineering, but Fung seems to think part of the problem is the way statistics & analytics are presented to students.

Fung points out that business thinking – how to teach data analysts to talk to the business in language the business understands – is often the hardest to develop because colleges and grad schools (outside of business schools) just don’t teach it

 I’ll buy that. Math is a language just like Portuguese or SQL and unfortunately at the undergraduate level it is very hard to see applications of things like the Taylor or Mclaurin series (I pick on those because I never saw the application of either in my undergraduate calculus classes beyond clever math-nerd party tricks). The problem is that there are very few professors who are, pardon the pun, polymaths. My uncle is one of them. My high school physics teacher, who would recite Shakespeare as easily as he could rattle off the number of electrons in each orbital for Carbon or Neon, was another. I’m lucky to have had them as role models.

 As business analytics professionals, we bear the responsibility of being examples for others of the value of speaking the language of business and analytics.

via Top Data Analysts Must ‘Speak the Language of the Business’.


Gordon Ramsay’s Own Kitchen Nightmares

@lawton_assoc,  & @felixsalmon point to the Bloomberg article on how Gordon Ramsay nearly went bankrupt.

For Ramsay, this was especially embarrassing because Kitchen Nightmares showcases him as a savior of other people’s restaurants.

“It’s not great if you’re making a show called Kitchen Nightmares and advising people on how to fix their businesses for you to go bankrupt,” says Pat Llewellyn,

I’ve watched Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares on BBC America (I can’t speak for any of his Fox shows in the US) and I find it an entertaining show particularly for the way Ramsay (known for his screaming and liberal use of the f-bomb) deals with the softer aspects of running a restaurant. In episode after episode he’s called in to punch up disillusioned staff and help return them to past glory. It’s usually morale and interpersonal relations that add to bad cash flow management in killing good restaurants. To see how Ramsay turns the attitudes of put-upon staff and restores their confidence is what really makes this show for me. Who wouldn’t mind having Jack Welsh or Vince Lombardi as your personal coach for a month?

Tyler Cowen, NY Mag: Restaurant Menu Analysis

Thanks to Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution for pointing this article from New York Magazine. Most restaurant patrons probably don’t consider all the work that goes into designing a truly effective menu. Apologies for sounding like a rube, but this analysis is brilliant.

4. In The Vicinity
The restaurant’s high-profit dishes tend to cluster near the anchor. Here, it’s more seafood at prices that seem comparatively modest.

I didn’t realize the degree by which my decision making at dinner has been manipulated by business considerations. I do now.

Should Business Leaders Act More like Artists?

At first blush, I”m not sure I agree with all of these– they seem to be wishful thinking. The fact that many artists actually cannot do any of these things is what makes them good artists and bad business leaders.

Artists constantly collaborate. The example given was the common occurrence of an exhibition with multiple artists showing together, or the so-called “group show.” Even in the context of a solo show, the artist works with the gallery owner, the curator, the framers, the installers, the lighting person, the publicist to bring their vision to life. Every exhibition is a collaboration to the nth degree.

Ok, I think this is stretching it a bit as a model for management. There are diva artistes as much as diva CEOs. “Collaboration”  is necessary for any successful activity, solo or otherwise.

Artists are talented communicators. The whole point of a work of art is to communicate something — a thought, an idea, a feeling, a vision. More explicitly, the artist frequently gives a talk to explain the thought process behind the artwork. Engaging the audience in a meaningful, expansive dialogue is often critical to the exhibition’s success.

I’ll buy this one.

Artists learn how to learn together. Perhaps the reason why artists collaborate and socialize so well is that they learn in the studio model — ten or more students in the same room for hours on end. Bonded together in a personal space of intimate self-expression, they come into their own through the familial ties of the studio setting. When interviewed recently about the differences in her education at Brown and at RISD, one student who is getting a dual degree from both institutions said, “At RISD there’s a lot of learning from your peers. Brown (in the classes I’ve taken so far anyway) is about listening and note-taking in class.”

But do they socialize well with others outside of their studio model?  And have you ever heard “Familiarity breeds contempt”?