Like many folks who earned their college degrees in the field of the literature of England (i.e., English Literature), I have a somewhat strained relationship with mathematics. This, however, was not always the case. This may seem obvious, but I was always good at math that made sense to me, which means that I did A-OK through like ninth-grade geometry, after which point things got a little bit fuzzy. Luckily, the SAT doesn't test on anything past the math I was comfortable with, leading to my scoring of an 800 on the math section of the exam, while earning like a C+ in pre-Calculus or whatever my eleventh-grade math class was called. That was kinda fun, because it made all my classmates who were actually talented mathletes jealous, because they scored something like 790. I still don't know how I pulled it off.
I was never able to articulate what changed, math-wise, until I read Moneyball. This book is seriously awesome, partially because of a train of thought attributed to Bill James, the smartest baseball thinker who ever lived:
The statistics were not merely inadequate; they lied. And the lies they told led the people who ran major league baseball teams to misjudge their players, and mismanage their games. James later reduced his complaint to a sentence: fielding statistics made sense only as numbers, not as language. Language, not numbers, were what interested him. Words, and the meaning they were designed to convey. "When the numbers acquire the significance of language," he later wrote, "they acquire the power to do all of the things which language can do: to become fiction and drama and poetry....And it is not just baseball that these numbers, through a fractured mirror, describe. It is character. It is psychology, it is history, it is power, it is grace, glory, consistency, sacrifice, courage, it is success and failure, it is frustration and bad luck, it is ambition, it is overreaching, it is discipline. And it is victory and defeat, which is all that the idiot sub-conscious really understands."James said what I started to understand about myself way back in like tenth grade: numbers are interesting only if they tell the truth, if they tell a story. That's why I was wholly uninterested in my stats class of eighteen months ago: knowing the probability of drawing a blue marble from an urn is a parlor trick, which doesn't reveal the truth about anything. Knowing which players really helped a baseball team succeed isn't necessarily of life-changing significance, but the point is that they tell the truth about something. And knowing what leads to success is somewhat of a big deal in a multi-billion dollar industry. At least to the people running that industry.
I had a similar Moneyball-type experience last week. We had the director of online marketing for Random House come present the type of stuff that he thinks about on a day-to-day basis. Some of it was trying to figure out where publishing is heading, and how authors are going to deliver their content to readers, the only two indispensable components of the book-making process. But he also took us on a tour of what the internet (in this case, mostly Google) allows you to learn about marketing. The real trouble with traditional marketing is that no one has any idea if the damned thing worked. I put an ad in the NYT, and it is impossible for me to know how sales were affected by that one ad. Did someone decide to buy, let's say, this book because of the ad in the paper, or did they hear about on NPR, or did their friend recommend it to them, or was it some combination of all of that and more? The effectiveness of a print ad is meaningless because it can't be measured with any type of accuracy. Companies can be throwing away money with unsuccessful ads and they'll have no way of knowing.
Compare that situation with what's possible on the worldwide internet. In this magical place you can see exactly how many people clicked on your targeted Google word-search ad, how long they stayed on your website, how many products they purchased, and a whole lot more. You can submit multiple ad wordings for the same product, and Google will automatically use the ones which prove to be most effective in getting the interwebular traveler to click on the link. I'm not all that fascinated by marketing, but this type of thing, for a change, tells the truth about the real world. You can measure things based on reality, based on how people actually behave. I think that's pretty powerful. These numbers tell a story.