Ass-backwards Analytics: From single case studies to general rules, from big data to little exceptions

People respond to data, or the lack thereof, in interesting ways.

Two tendencies that I have encountered as people respond to data (in excess or in shortage) would be that of (1) ascribing rules to the exceptions (i.e., inferring general rules from single case studies), or (2) asserting exceptions to the rules (i.e., highlighting slim exceptions when presented with big data patterns).

I think of these tendencies as biases, because I believe they may represent some underlying processing errors our brains fall into when dealing with data, particularly given the context within which the analyses take place.

Ideally, we should be responding quite differently, and oppositely, than these two tendencies when analyzing data.  Case studies should engage our understanding of exceptions, or the exceptional aspects of a specific situation.  Big data should trigger our pursuit of general patterns, or the unexceptional things that a wide range of cases might have in common.

Bias #1: Rules to the exceptions

How often have you heard, “What we learned from this example is that the best way to accomplish X is to do Y!”

Yet drawing broad conclusions from a single example is (most likely) not the way in which we should be responding to these sorts of data. In reality, we just learned about a single case of X and Y, and have no idea if across of range of attempts at X we would get a Y more often than not (or at an appropriate level of risk).

Case studies are compelling, however, because they are rich stories, capturing our interest in the specific and at times sordid details of some unique experience.  Oftentimes, the case studies we really love are those that recount truly exceptional experiences—breakaway successes or full on failures.

Bias #2: Exceptions to the rules

When presented with a large pile of data and the patterns therein, however, it seems that we can’t help but use each additional data point as a means to question, or counter, the general trends.  After (or while) presenting some large-scale analysis, how often do we hear, “Ok, but what about Z?” “Did you take Q into account?”

It is as if our brains just have to find something exceptional when presented with a pile of data through which we confront the unexceptional patterns therein. Or, problematically, we find it hard to believe patterns unless they apply to just about every instance we can imagine.

Yet general patterns are not supposed to be natural laws.  Patterns are simply links that exist “in general.”

The decision-maker’s paradox

So why do we respond to data scarcity and excess in these ways?  Are we fools?

I actually don’t think so.  And am trying to understand more.


Why you should care about the three words “First Sale Doctrine” and an upcoming Supreme Court decision.

A case is now headed to the Supreme Court and the decision on this case could have significant implications for the market for copyrighted works here in the US.  The question is whether works copyrighted in the US but produced overseas have been “lawfully” produced such that our First Sale doctrine would apply.

First Sale leads to the following scenario:  You go to the a store and buy a textbook or DVD.  After a few reads or views, you decide to sell that textbook or DVD, or rent it to someone, or lend it to someone.  Your opportunity to resell, rent, or lend the work is covered by first sale, and therefore OK under the law.  The “first sale” of the copyrighted work effectively brings to a close the copyright owners exclusive control over that copy of the work—only that copy.

In the absence of First Sale, owners of copyrighted works essentially retain ongoing control over the distribution, sale, rental, etc of  their works, as that control is defined under the law.

The first sale plot thickened in the past decade, however.

In 2008, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the US  ruled in favor of Omega (watch) in a case involving Costco (aka, Costco versus Omega).  Costco was purchasing Omega watches in cheaper markets overseas and then selling those watches in the US.  The Circuit Court determined that the first sale doctrine would not apply to copyrighted items manufactured overseas.  The Supreme Court heard the case on appeal, and split 4-4 in late 2010.

The result of of the Supreme Court’s lack of a decision was (a) a lack of national clarity on this first sale question, but (b) some clarity on when first sale might still apply.  In this case, if the product was manufactured overseas, but US sale was authorized by the copyright holder, then first sale could still kick in.

Meaning: Copyright owners could not simply manufacturer a product overseas to create a workaround for the First Sale doctrine. This doctrine would still apply to products manufactured overseas but legally sold in the US.  You could resell these CDs, DVDs, and Books after your first purchase.

Fast forward to 2012 and a case that is both similar and yet different in a important way now heads to the Supreme Court.  The pathway for the case flowed through the 2nd Circuit Court.  In the case Kirtsaeng v. Wiley, the court will come to an opinion on whether works first copyrighted in the US, then produced overseas, would or would not be covered by the first sale doctrine in the US.

The important difference in this case would be that the 2nd Circuit Court’s ruling applied even to those products manufactured overseas and then sold with the permission of the Copyright holder in the US.

Meaning: Copyright owners could simply manufacturer a product overseas and retain exclusive control over the sale, resale, rental of their work — control that could not be trumped by the First Sale doctrine.  Buyers of a CD, DVD, Book, or other copyrighted thing in the US could not legally resell the item.

This case has significant implications.  So please, pay attention.


Why Spotify’s “Play” button is an unfortunate hack.

Spotify’s “Play” button is an unfortunate hack.

In the same way that Google’s “Onebox” play button that was momentarily embedded in search pages (remember 2009, anyone?) was a cruddy hack. although somewhat less of an unfortunate hack than Spotify’s.

So, what’s the problem?  Well, everything comes in three’s so there are three parts to this problem.

(1) Music is so much a part of human culture these days, of web culture no less, that the necessity of playing the file through the Spotify app is ultimately of function of a copyright problem not a technical problem.  We should not have to jerry-rig technology just so we can fit within the eye of the copyright needle. Copyright law should adapt.

(2) and somewhat related to (1), The play button requires that we experience a technical inconvenience in order to work—confirm you have Spotify or you must download the app to hear the track.  That’s annoying. If the play button is on the page, all we should have to do is hit play.

(3) It could lead to the same sort of Highlander effect—”there can be only one”—that the music industry now finds itself whinging about, in regards to iTunes.  Tactically, the play button is ideal for Spotify.  First, the service has a way to virally spread beyond Facebook, triggering downloads of the application.  Second, the method for embedding provides a way to minimize competitive creep, since partner sites will probably not want to have 2 or 3 or 4 embedded “Play” buttons, accommodating the 2 or 3 or 4 (or more) services that are out there.