I am NOT Defensive!

Malcom Gladwell has a tremendous ability to detect trends and patterns in places where most people see chaos. He dispassionately analyzes his chosen subjects deeply, and presents insights which are often challenging but unimpeachable. But something must have rattled him during his recent investigation of personality tests, because he turned out anuncharacteristically flimsy and defensivepiece of rhetoric more suited to grade school assignment or a hastily-crafted blog post.

His basic argument is that personality tests are not useful, because they cannot predict certain specific actions that specific individuals might take, as in the example of a mild-mannered soldier who acts with great valor in the heat of battle. But this is setting up a strawman. It is absurd to think that profiling is designed to predict at the level of distinct individuals, or at the level of specific actions like ?valor under fire?. And it is absurd to assert that profiling which does not achieve such a level of detail is somehow deficient. This is like saying that heart medication is useless, since many people who do not take itnevertheless survive, and people who do take it sometimes die anyway.

In fact, Jung said as much, in a quote that Gladwell cites, but Gladwell apparently fails to make the connection. Gladwell cites very little actual data in his analysis; it’s almost entirely rhetoric. About 50% strawman and 50% personal. He claims that MBTI is black/white, when personality is gradient (he is either ignorant or deceptive, since MBTI uses a graded scale on all 4 dimensions). He tries to argue that, ?some friends and I invented a personality test as a joke, and ours is just as good as anyone’s?, then he argues that, ?Meyers-Briggs was invented by busybody housewives with no formal education, anyway?.

But soon we find out what’s really bothering him. We get the impression that he didn’t like his own test results very much. For people who read his writings, his test results as he relates them to us seem eerily accurate. Incredibly, the one person who doesn’t see the test results as being obvious is himself. He spends much of the column trying to propose alternate theories about his test results, rationalizing that the psychologist would need to do many more refined tests to get a more ?accurate? reading, results only apply in a business situation, and so on. He eventually succeeds in convincing himself that his personality profile is only slightly accurate, open to broad interpretation, and deeply dependent on context. It’s a gripping example of denial and self-delusion that plays out before your very eyes.

To be fair, personality tests are not magic. Some are good for certain things, and none are all that good at predicting individual behavior with much certainty. But they can be incredibly useful, and reveal some totally unexpected correlations. The key is to look at them as a statistical tool like any other: ?people who score highly on these areas of MMPI are 40% more likely to get into physical confrontation than average?, or ?people which this specific MBTI type are 80% more likely than the general population to be republicans?. One could argue that a ?personality test? could just ask ?Are you democrat or republican?, since that test would be an even better predictor of political affiliation, but this would be to fall into Gladwell’s original strawman test. As a predictor for any specific standalone attribute, the indirection if a personality test clearly yields poorerpredictive power. If you want to know how a particular individual is going to act, your best bet is to just watch him. But the indirection is also the power. If you know that a certain MBTI type is more likely to support your opponent; and you also happen to know that this MBTI type is more responsive to a certain style of advertisement, you can tweak your political advertising to take advantage of this. In a sense, it’s no different than any clustering/decision-tree algorithm used in data mining. In the end, the labels put on the categories don’t matter, and the attributes used to partition the sample into clusters need not be intuitive, as long as the categories are useful predictors. And in fact, some of the most useful mining models used today are built on categories which are purely ?discovered? from the actual data and have no relation to actual conceptual categories that humans use on a daily basis to describe the same data.

The Apprentice as Team Builder

Recently one of the teams in my division used a mock competition based on ‘The Apprentice’ as a team building exercise. Luckily nobody got fired, and it turned out to be a good team builder. But I somehow doubt that thereality TV show as actually practiced demonstrates a good way to get people in a productive and cooperative frame of mind.

Interestingly, people exposed to business artifacts tend to be more aggressive and less cooperative. Some might say that the results show competition, and ?competition is good?. But there is a difference between competition and unproductive aggression, and the word replacement test looks suspiciously like the ?point subtraction aggression paradigm?. People exposed to business artifacts tend toward the disposition of a drunken brawler; that can’t be good.

Your Girlfriend Reads Tim Bray’s Blog

Tim Bray is speculating about how you could use your blog to interfere with a person’s chances at employment or procreation:

?Suppose I posted a piece here whose title was that person?s name, laying out in succinct but forceful detail the nature of the bad behavior, solidly illustrated by pointers to online examples. Suppose I offered a calmly-worded opinion that nobody in their right mind should consider hiring, or doing business with, or dating, this person.?

If you set aside the emotional aspect for now, you’ll see that Tim is basically talking about how the web enables everyone to have a voice, and we all can gossip on one another. I want to have this ability to gossip about restaurants that I like and dislike, products, and more. When you follow this idea, you run into some interesting problems. For example, how do people find the review (the low-tech solution Tim proposesis to use the identifier as the title of the blog post). How do you avoid hurting business at restaurants that are named the same as one you are panning? How do you disambiguate posts which are about personal fitness from those which simply cite the person? And so on. One starts to think that Tim would be best to just use RDF. 🙂

Now, if you consider the specific case of using blogs as weapons of personal destruction, the idea has been tried. Tim may have forgotten about Winerlog, which was an entire blog dedicated to nothing more than criticizing Dave Winer. Winerlog still ranks high on Google, although it’s been shut down since before Tim discovered blogging. More than one ?A-list? blogger have tried to ?take down? Dave Winer through the power of their blogs. But as Tim seems to have concluded, personalizing things is corrosive to the soul and rarely accomplish the intended goals.


At Microsoft, we sometimes use ?personas? when designing features and writing specs. A ?persona? is an imaginary character we invent to embody a set of characteristics for a particular target group of users. For example, ?Jane is an MBA who has a job in the IT department at a major insurance company. She writes code, but does not consider herself a ‘coder’ as much as a business analyst. She… (and so on)? Then the whole product team runs around citing Jane’s preferences when debating the relative merits of a particular design decision.

There is some controversy internally about how useful personas are. Real people always trump imaginary people, so personas become less useful when ready access to customers is available. And it is questionable how successful a product can be without ready access to customers, personas or not. And personas can easily become caricatures or stereotypes that don’t really accurately represent anyone. It is a lot easier to do personas wrong than it is to use them in a way that adds value.

And the Loser is…

Eminem. Young adults don’t like being treated like children, told what to think. That’s why Eminem is so popular among the under-30 crowd. He has been a master at sensing out the prevailing rules of youth conduct and doing exactly the opposite of what propriety suggested. Even when America was gripped in the patriotic fervor immediately after 9/11, he was one of the first to tweak in the opposite direction, playing Bin Laden in his videos and releasing ?White America?.

So Eminem’s ?mosh? was completely incongruous. For months we’ve heard that ?young people vote Democrat?, and young voters have endured a more concerted campaign for their loyalties than perhaps ever before. So when Eminem decided to release a video encouraging young people to vote Democrat, it’s not as if he was bucking any trends. But not bucking trends is not good for Eminem’s rep. Eminem came across as preachy, sanctimonious, and way too serious — something he has been able to avoid in the past. Suddenly he’s like your dad, telling you to respect your grandpa (a ?human yacht?, even). Worse yet, the video is accompanied by pictures of cookie-cutter young people twitching along in listless unison like puppets or zombies. So, let me get this straight. Eminem is telling me to rise up like a mindless zombie, and and march along with all the other mindless zombies, and join Barbara Streisand’s party? Kids are fickle. That wasn’t smart.

Controlling Access to Metadata

I really like the idea behind Flickr, but I am noticing a big problem. To allow my friends and family to see the photos I publish, I have to convince them to get Flickr accounts. Forcing geeks to memorize a different name and password for each system they use to communicate with friends is tolerable, but it doesn’t fly with normal people. Each additional account name and password you ask my grandma to maintain is another roadblock to her adopting a communication habit. This problem extends across all microcontent publishing systems. The instant you try to slap on access control, you chop off 95% of the potential users of the system, because they aren’t going to bother signing up for yet another account.

In a way, this is a good thing. The current situation is overwhelmingly biased in favor of public information, and public information is the best information. When the WWW first appeared, people panicked: ?What, it doesn’t have passwords?!? You mean anyone can read my web page?!Who would ever publish there?? We added various forms of authentication, but in the meantime people discovered that uncontrolled information can change the world. If the web had pushed SSL, certs, and authentication as part of the core model from the start, I doubt the WWW ever would have happened. So by the same token, I think that lack of access controls in metadata/microcontent systems is actually helping people to concentrate on things which do not need access control, but which have broader social benefit.

On the other hand, there are times when you want access control. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could control access to your metadata simply by using whichever account names your friends and family use most, whether e-bay, hotmail, yahoo, gmail, or whatever? Then as long as the corresponding service (Yahoo, e-bay, etc.) could give you a token affirming that the caller was indeed ?joe@gmail.com? or whatever, they could view the metadata. Or better yet, if the web had a single concept of identity that you could pin to, regardless of who the signin authority was.

Now, I am aware of things like Liberty Alliance, TypeKey, Passport (of course), which try to offer services for a shared ID across sites. These are all good ideas, and some of them even have adoption, but it is all still too geeky. Any site that wants to offer access-sensitive services to non-geeks is going to need to support the identity stores that non-geeks use. That means Amazon, E-Bay, Yahoo, Hotmail, and maybe Google one day. Telling my Grandma to get a TypeKey account in addition to an e-bay account is a nonstarter. She just won’t do it. So rather than waiting for the ?grand unified ID framework? to materialize, perhaps sites like Flickr should just implement Passport support and sign some deals with Yahoo, Amazon, and E-bay to honor their IDs as well. Supporting four incompatible identity services and getting 10 million extra customers as a result is not necessarily a bad thing.

History of Podcasting

Dave Winer doesn’t want to end up like Eric Bina, written out of the history of a creation he helped usher into reality. Adam steps up to make sure Dave gets credit. This time, there is less reason to worry. First, the WWW (which Eric helped enable) is now an independent and democratic public record which can triangulate the major media. And blogs, which Dave helped enable, are one source of that public record. The public record shows that Dave was planning ?Radio? via RSS for a very long time. Dave has talked about these ideas for a long time, but I have to admit that I wasn’t quite prepared for how fast it would actually happen. I believe credit goes to Adam for such a fast and effective bootstrap, but it also proves that all of the work on RSS laid a good foundation for quick incremental innovation.

I also think that one of the major success factors was that the nattering nabobs ignored podcasting and dismissed it until it was too late to inject their stop energy. Many of the nabobs were so convinced of their own stories about ?RSS is broken?, that it never occured to them that something like podcasting could be successful. They were so busy trying to reinvent RSS that they ignored an idea that Dave has been giving away for free for years.They had bettergo back and review some of the other ideas that Dave has been pushing, such as OPML directories, because Dave is out of control. He might just go deploy another great idea on ?broken? RSS and make it even harder to rip-and-replace the whole web when the priests get around to figuring out what the one true path is.