Big Data/Analytics

The shock revelation that practice is useful

Analytics Jimmy Nicholls

14:28, June 20 2014


Book Review: 'The Two-Second Advantage' by Vivek Ranadive and Kevin Maney

As a rule, an approving Malcolm Gladwell citation is an advert for a book's intellectual flimsiness. His formula is to outline an idea that nobody believes, then twist the narrative to assert an idea that pretty much everyone believes, burying you in anecdotes while ignoring data as much as possible.

At the end everyone feels good, and virtuous, and even a bit counterculture. But nobody is any the wiser. Unfortunately, much the same can be said about reading the Two Second Advantage, by journalist Kevin Maney, and TIBCO chief executive Vivek Ranadivé.

The book's two basic messages can be easily summarised: practice is key to becoming good at something, and being able to guess what is about to happen is quite useful. Why anybody would feel this needed to be elaborated in a two hundred page book is not dealt with.

Illustrating this asinine message is a blur of anecdotes ranging from ice hockey to pickup artistry, topped with a dash of neuroscience and even a spot of economics. Underdog stories are a speciality: Wayne Gretzky gets good at hockey despite being a midget by the sport's standards, and "Mystery" learns to lay any woman he wants despite an adolescence spent playing Dungeons and Dragons.

What does this have to do with software? All the talented people portrayed in this book have predictive advantages that their competitors do not. Gretzky can skate where the puck will be, and Mystery can read women's body language so he knows just what to say. Perhaps, the authors suggest, it might be neat if data analytics could do this too.

It is hard to see why anybody with an interest in the field would not have already come to this conclusion. Even the most mundane tasks of life are subject to prediction and unconscious control: driving a car, typing on a keyboard, even walking down a street. If one has yet to apply this principle to more complex tasks you may require more wisdom than this book has to dispense.

"Fast data", as it is called, was not even particularly new when this book came out in 2011. Analytics has always been subject to what is known as the three Vs: namely volume, velocity and variety. The fact that processing power is now catching up with our ability to collect data is important, but hardly justifies the book.

Whether it is true that "predictiveness is the essence of talent" is not demonstrated either. All the predictive capabilities in the world would be useless without the physical ability to respond to it, and this is applicable for sportsmen as it is for businesses. Anybody can dream a beautiful painting, but not many have the dexterity to create the finished product.

The extent of the book's overreaching is best shown when the two non-economist authors suggest that the US central bank, the Federal Reserve, "hand over the power to adjust [interest] rates to its predictive system". This may or may not be a wise move, but it seems unlikely either author would have the financial knowledge to sensibly recommend it.

And this is the problem with the book: it is a bunch of tenuously related tales strung together as part of a marketing buzzphrase, namely the "two second advantage". As with Gladwell's books, there are some amusing anecdotes, and the odd takeaway fact you can impress people with at the pub. But those wanting originality, flair and substance in tandem should look elsewhere.

Source: Company Press Release

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