Business Analytics Textbook plus Discussion Book

Many undergraduates take at least one business analytics course at the 200 course level. A book that I and other professors at our business school have selected to teach business statistics is by Albright and Winston

Business Analytics: Data Analytics and Decision Making (Amazon link)

This book provides three essential ingredients to a successful course:

  1. Covering core concepts like descriptive statistics and optimization
  2. Providing relevant examples in a business context (e.g. how much inventory should a retail store order)
  3. Showing step-by-step instructions for how to do applications in a specific software which in this case is Excel

Microsoft Excel is essential for business school graduates (arguably all college graduates). No one is born knowing how to select cells or enter formulas. The book does not assume anything, so the professor does not have to require supplementary material on how to use Excel. There are lots of exercise and examples that teach proficiency in the tool while demonstrating the concepts. Analytics courses should be hands-on.

Sometimes statistics courses do not feel like they allow for critical thinking or discussions. There is only one correct formula for an average, and it is merely and exactly what the formula determines it to be. Therefore, an interesting addition to a technical class is the book by Muller

The Tyranny of Metrics (Amazon link)

Muller spends most of the book pointing out cases where measuring results backfired. He is not so much against “analytics” as he is skeptical of pay-for-performance management schemes. Many of these schemes were sold to the public as incredible technocratic improvements, such as No Child Left Behind. I do not always agree with Muller, but he gives students something to debate. Note that only select chapters should be assigned so that it does not take up too much time from the other course material.

Data Analytics with R Textbook

For an advanced undergraduate analytics class for business school students, I use a textbook by Saltz and Stanton called

Data Science for Business with R (Amazon link)

This textbook teaches R and analytics at the same time. The professor does not have to provide a separate R curriculum or require students to buy a second book.

The running example in the textbook is an airline business scenario that is interesting and builds with the complexity of the subject matter. The authors provide the dataset that students can work with for the airline case study. Many examples in the textbook use data that is available online and therefor can be imported to R with just a few lines of code.

One semester is not enough time to cover every chapter in the book. I emphasize predictive analytics, so I skip the chapters on maps and shiny apps.

I do some supplemental lectures on concepts in predictive analytics before students reach the chapters on regression and decision trees. For example, overfitting is a new concept to undergraduates. I want them to have a more intuitive grasp of that subject before learning the R code to separate data into training and validation sets.

Note that these students have already taken what has traditionally been called Business Statistics, so they already understand basic descriptive statistics and graphing. The book is no substitute for that primary class.

There are free supplementary materials online for learning R. Students find message boards especially helpful in pinpointing answers for questions that come up while coding.

Book Review: Big Data Demystified

Last year, our economics department launched a data analytics minor program. The first class is a simple 2 credit course called Foundations of Data Analytics. Originally, the idea was that liberal arts majors would take it and that this class would be a soft, non-technical intro of terminology and history.

However, it turned out that liberal arts majors didn’t take the class and that the most popular feedback was that the class lacked technical challenge. I’m prepping to teach the class and it will have two components. A Python training component where students simply learn Python. We won’t do super complicated things, but they will use Python extensively in future classes. The 2nd component is still in the vein of the old version of the course.

I’ll have the students read and discuss “Big Data Demystified” by David Stephenson. He spends 12 brief chapters introducing the reader to the importance of modern big data management, analytics, and how it fits into an organization’s key performance indicators. It reads like it’s for business majors, but any type of medium-to-large organization would find it useful.

Davidson starts with some flashy stories that illustrate the potential of data-driven business strategies. For example, Target corporation used predictive analytics to advertise baby and pregnancy products to mothers who didn’t even know that they were pregnant yet. He wets the appetite of the reader by noting that the supercomputers that could play Chess or Go relied on fundamentally different technologies.

The first several chapters of the book excite the reader with thoughts of unexploited potentialities. This is what I want to impress upon the students. I want them to know the difference between artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). I want them to recognize which tool is better for the challenges that they might face and to see clear applications (and limitations).

AI uses brute force, iterating through possible next steps. There are multiple online tic-tac-toe AI that keep track records. If a student can play the optimal set of strategies 8 games in a row, then they can get the general idea behind testing a large variety of statistical models and explanatory variables, then choosing the best.

But ML is responsive to new data, according to what worked best on previous training data. There are multiple YouTubers out there who have used ML to beat Super Mario Brothers. Programmers identify an objective function and the ML program is off to the races. It tries a few things on a level, and then uses the training rounds to perform quite well on new levels that it has never encountered before.

There are a couple of chapters in the middle of the book that didn’t appeal to me. They discuss the question of how big data should inform a firm’s strategy and how data projects should be implemented. These chapters read like they are written for MBAs or for management. They were boring for me. But that’s ok, given that Stephenson is trying to appeal to a broad audience.

The final chapters are great. They describe the limitations of big data endeavors. Big data is not a panacea and projects can fail for a variety of what are very human reasons.

Stephenson emphasizes the importance of transaction costs (though he doesn’t say it that way). Medium sized companies should outsource to experts who can achieve (or fail) quickly such that big capital investments or labor costs can be avoided. Or, if internals will be hired instead, he discusses the trade-offs between using open source software, getting locked in, and reinventing the wheel. These are a great few chapters that remind the reader that data scientists and analysts are not magicians. They are people who specialize and can waste their time just as well as anyone else.

Overall, I strongly recommend this book. I kinda sorta knew what machine learning and artificial intelligence were prior to reading, but this book provides a very accessible introduction to big data environments, their possible uses, and organizational features that matter for success. Mid and upper level managers should read this book so that they can interact with these ideas prudentially. Those with a passing interest in programming should read it for greater clarity and to get a better handle on the various sub-fields. Hopefully, my students will read it and feel inspired to be on one side or the other of the manager- data analyst divide with greater confidence, understanding, and a little less hubris.

How to Read Aloud Kindle and Other Text on iPhone, iPad, and Android

What if you could get your phone or tablet to read Kindle or other text aloud to you? I have recently come across an easy way to do this. This is an economics blog, so I will note that this approach saves considerable money versus paying for audio books like Audible, or paying for the Narration option on Kindle.  Most of us already have text books we have bought from e.g. Kindle. Also, if you search on the subject, there are various sources for free on-line books, including hundreds of thousands titles available through Libby/Overdrive via your public library. This text-to-voice method should work with all of these e-books.

Directions for iPhone/iPad: A short YouTube video “How to get your iPhone to read Kindle books aloud” by Kyle Oliver tells you all you need to know. The key step is to go to Settings, then Accessibility, then Spoken Content. At that screen, turn on Speak Screen. With Speak Screen ON, whenever you are on a page with text (including Kindle or other e-book), you swipe down from the top of the screen with two fingers. That will activate reading of that page of text. Also, a little speech control panel will appear. That panel will allow you to play/pause/jump forward and back. It will also allow you to  you toggle between multiple speeds: 1x, 1.5x, 2x, & 1/2x. 

If you want, while you are in the Spoken Content screen you can also turn on Speak Selection. That will give a Speech option to read aloud just whatever text that you have select, and then stop.

Also, on in the Spoken Content screen there is a Voices link, for selecting what voice you want to hear. You can experiment with various voices. I have found that the male Siri voice (“Siri voice 1”) is preferable. The female Siri is too syrupy sweet listen to for long, and most of the other voices are robotic. I find that if I select a new voice, I have to turn the reading off, then on again to get the new voice to start working. One more tip from that YouTube is to dim your screen, since with continuous reading of Kindle pages, the screen will stay on, and drain the battery quickly if the screen is bright.

Once you do the two-finger swipe down to commence reading, it should keep reading onto following pages as well. For unknown reasons that does not work sometimes. I find that using the jump forward then jump back buttons on the little speech control panel unsticks this functionality.

For Android: The YouTube Kindle Android Text to Speech by Ad Vice has similar directions for Android. In this case you end up opening the speech function by triple clicking the home button.

There is a harder way to do all the above, which is to download a separate text-to-speech app like Speechify or Voice Dream Reader. These apps will read most text that is on your screen, but NOT Kindle or other e-books that have Digital Rights Management (DRM) protection. For these e-books, you’d have to download yet another app such as Epupor Ultimate on your computer, download your Kindle files onto your computer, then run Epupor on these files to create unprotected versions. Then, I suppose, load these files back onto your phone/tablet where the text-to-speech app can access them to read aloud. This does not seem worth it (compared to the simple method above using built-in iPhone/Android capabilities) unless you want to utilize some extra feature of the outside text-to-speech app.

Note: under the subject of low cost text to speech, there are apps like Librivox or (using your local library) Overdrive or Libby that offer free audiobooks – see this article by LifeWire. If a book is already available as an audiobook, it is probably better to use that format for listening to it, rather than downloading it in text form and then using the approach here for listening.

Is Las Vegas decadent?

By one definition of the word, Las Vegas is the textbook example of decadence. Is the physical structure of The Strip evidence of American decline? Ross Douthat specifically mentions Disneyland and Las Vegas together in his book, The Decadent Society. He calls them “consumer sublime” which, along with the iPhone, creates a fake experience rather than building something real (like Space Travel).

In his CWT, Douthat expounds on Vegas explaining that, “it represents a kind of simulated sublimity where you are creating models of all of the great achievements of the human species in the modern world and practicing various forms of entertainment around them. So in that sense, it is under my definition too, not just the chocolates-and-bondage-dens definition. I think it is decadent.”

I wrote about Disney World last month and I happened to have just been to Vegas. These places are nice, especially in Spring when it is sunny but not yet too hot.

The New York-New York resort was built in Las Vegas in 1997, followed by the opulent Bellagio in 1998. Paris and the Venetian, both nods to Old World centers of art and culture, were finished in 1999. This construction explosion was all happening during my childhood, and now it is established in modern culture by films such as Ocean’s 11 and The Hangover.

One thing Vegas has all to itself is its sign.

It also boasts to be a place where you are encouraged to overdose on drugs, alcohol, sex, and gambling. That’s not great, but it’s not what Douthat means by decadent. What I noticed is that it’s a loosely regulated place where they will sell you anything that gets you to take out your credit card. There are marijuana stores right across the street from Gucci stores. You pass slot machines on the way out of fancy restaurants.

Tattoo shop next to weed shop, directly across the street from upscale fashion boutiques.
l’Arc de Triomphe brought to you by Martha Stewart

The entertainment-by-spending-money enterprise (Walt Disney World was expensive, too) all takes place in a cool physical setting. The pedestrian bridges on the main streets make it fun and practical to walk around, right past all the stores. The Strip is bordered by shiny tall hotels that each have a theme. The centerpiece, in my opinion, is the Paris resort.

How do you signal that civilization is here, when you are in the middle of Nevada-Mars? Meme the heart of European culture. Considering how yucky activity can get on the Strip, that nod to Europe provides a veneer of respectability to lure in rich people with families. I don’t only think of it in that cynical way. Plenty of Las Vegas is unique and new, but humans can only handle so much new at once. The Eiffel Tower is code. It’s a form of language that people understand. It makes us feel safe and perhaps even makes us safe by setting a tone for the style of partying.

Tourists are in a new place surrounded by strangers. Are we going to attack each other? Are Russian soldiers about to come through and massacre us? Do we agree about what is admirable? Everything feels like it is going to be fine, because we are here in civilization. If Americans ever do settle Mars, we’ll build an Eiffel Tower there, too.

This might all seem trivial, except that I have heard multiple people saying something about how Putin thought he could attack Ukraine at this moment because “he thinks the West is decadent.” That makes investigating the issue seem worthwhile.

As I concluded about Disney World, the problem is not that we have a few nice areas to practice escapism. A progressive society would build more of these places with access for more people. Let’s build a bigger Eiffel Tower in the desert that more people can fit under. If the French object, then make it a fake Empire State building. Big Ben, anyone?

The non-superficial problems Douthat mentions are serious. Our declining birth rate has plunged further since he published his book. Our political system seems just as sclerotic (Vegas is the place where developers got a “yes” while every other American city was saying “no”). As I said in my previous post, everyone should read his book and ponder.

To leave Las Vegas, I took an Uber for a morning flight. My driver came from Afghanistan three years ago. I told him I was glad he made it out before the Taliban took over and he said that it is bad there right now. He had to learn English in 6 months out of dire necessity so that he could get better jobs. Now he dreams, like so many Americans, of “getting out of this town”. What does he think of Las Vegas? His complaints are that it is too sunny and boring.

The destinations of his dreams are San Francisco or New York City. I informed him of the places I know that have less sunny days. I wish we could have talked more, but from what I can tell he has embarked on his American Dream. He was located with his parents (and perhaps more family members) in Las Vegas directly from Afghanistan. He’s young and dreams of leaving. However, he said his parents like where they are and want to stay put now that they have found a secure home. That puts the city in a new perspective. It may not be the aesthetic that Ross prefers, but families have found a home where there used to be uninhabited wilderness.

When Keynes was gearing up for a second war

This is from The Price of Peace by Zachary Carter. What strikes me is the fact that a fleeing refugee doctor enabled Keynes to join the fight, again at the age of 58.

The following passage starts on page 316: “In the meantime, Keynes was at last in good health again. He owed his new energy in part to Hitler’s aggression. In 1939, Keynes had hired János Plesch, a Hungarian Jewish doctor who had relocated to London after fleeing Nazi persecution.

[Plesch resolved Keynes persistent throat infections by administering one of the earliest antibiotics (that was developed in German labs by Bayer before the war!).]

“After two decades of depression, however, the British economy was entering the fight of its life in ragged condition. … On the eve of war, worker productivity was 125 percent higher in the United States than it was in Britain.

“In the meantime, Germany had shifted its offensive focus to London. The Blitz…

“British diplomats didn’t have time to waste. After trying everything else, they brought in Keynes.”

“So Keynes went to Washington in May 1941 to negotiate more practical terms of cooperation and promptly infuriated nearly everyone he met.”

My thoughts: Money wins wars. Wars redistribute talent. Talent makes money. Is the cycle still going? Is this a post-industrialization phenomenon only? Will Tyler’s upcoming book on talent shed any light on this topic?

Two links for learning about Ukraine:

Post on the Donbas HT: Tyler

Podcast with Anne Applebaum on dictators (May overlap considerably with your Twitter stream of info, but at least you could walk while learning and take a scrolling break.)

The Carousel of Stupid

The destruction of value is graphic and tragic, caused by Russia invading Ukraine this month. Of course violence is common, around the world and throughout history. Violence and repression lead to poverty. Only in rare circumstances have autocracy and despotism been escaped, so that commerce can flourish and wealth can be shared.

Last week I blogged about my nice experience at Disney World. I was happy to see them telling the story of technological growth at The Carousel of Progress ride. At Disney, people really commit to their stories. Adults don’t wear mouse ears or Jedi robes ironically, in the park. The Carousel of Progress message is 100% optimistic about our future, without any cynicism or hedging. There is no mention of government institutions or which legal arrangements will allow progress to continue.

Here is some political economy that is missing from the ride. I quote, without indenting, from the late P.J. O’Rourke’s book On the Wealth of Nations. O’Rourke explains, sometimes using Adam Smith’s words, how in rare circumstances humans managed to rise out of poverty and subjugation.

Beginning of Chapter 7: The first two books of The Wealth of Nations are Adam Smith’s creed of economic progress. Smith placed his faith… in the logic of common sense. We are required to care for ourselves. We act upon this requirement. Our actions are demonstrably beneficial to others. The economy progresses, QED. Or it would, Smith wrote, “if human institutions had never thwarted those natural inclinations.”

More from Chapter 7, on pre-Medieval history of Europe: Smith wrote that the “rapine and violence which the barbarians exercised” left Western Europe “sunk into the lowest state of poverty.” Commerce was destroyed, towns were deserted, fields were left uncultivated. But although the rule of law and the legal title to property that goes with it were destroyed, the result was not “Imagine no possessions/ I wonder if you can.”

End of Chapter 7, an explanation of how economic progress started in the West when the merchants gained some freedom: Adam Smith argued that the inclination of the feudal overlords to be selfish was so strong that it overwhelmed their instinct for self-preservation:

All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind. As soon, therefore, as they could find a method of consuming the whole value of their rents themselves, they had no disposition to share them with other persons. For a pair of diamond buckles… they exchanged… the price of the maintenance of a thousand men for a year, and with it the weight and authority which it could give them. The buckles, however, were to be all their own… whereas in the more ancient method of experience they must have shared with at least a thousand people… and thus, for the gratification of… vanities, they gradually bartered their whole power and authority.

Never complain that the people in power are stupid. It is their best trait.

Joy writing again: “Stupid” refers to the fact that the European lords could have maintained their own power if they had been willing to keep themselves and everyone else poor through continued violence. Consider who is currently being being crazy versus “stupid,” in Europe and elsewhere.

In Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, you can get off the Carousel of Progress and walk across the park, past the Main Street shops, to a dark scary ride called The Pirates of the Caribbean. Someone could teach a travel course where students do both rides and then discuss wealth creation. It would pair nicely with a Doug North reading. Then, everyone could ride “It’s Small World” ironically.

My view from the “It’s a Small World” ride

School workbooks recommendation

This is a different kind of book review. If a product helps me with raising kids, I like to share it. I’m on my second book in a series of age-appropriate Brain Quest academic workbooks.

These workbooks are well designed. I’m not promising that your kids will not see it as a chore, but I think these books make practicing math and writing about as fun as it can be.

We found Brain Quest in a bookstore while we were looking for things to do in my son’s summer after kindergarten. The K-to- 1 summer workbook was fun and helped maintain what he had learned in kindergarten. He loved adding a new sticker to the adventure path after finishing each activity. You can finish it in one summer by doing about 5 pages per day, which only takes about 10 minutes.

The First Grade school-year book is huge (320 pages). There aren’t as many stickers as the K-to-1, but they still have a way of marking off accomplishments that my son finds satisfying. It’s a kind of gamification, but it’s not more screen time.

These pages can be done after school on weekdays. What I like best is that it gives us some structure to leaning on weekends and holidays. It’s cheap considering that it has every subject. The cost is nothing when you consider the price of outside tutoring.

Amazon link to K-to-1 summer workbook (160 pages)

Amazon link to First Grade book (320 pages)

The series goes up to Sixth Grade.

I don’t see this a substitute for reading together. If you only have time for one thing, I’d recommend reading a fun story out loud over assigning workbook pages. If money is no object, then paying a tutor is better because you won’t have to spend time supervising.

Teaching Price Controls (Poorly)

Economics textbooks differ in their treatment of price controls. None of them does a great job, in my opinion. The reason is mostly due to the purpose of textbooks. Despite what you might suspect, most undergraduate textbooks are not used primarily to give students an understanding of the world. They are often used as a bound list of things to know and to create easy test questions. If a textbook has to change the assumptions of a model too much from what the balance of the chapter assumes, then the book fails to make clear what students are supposed to know for the test.

I think that this is the most charitable reason for books’ poor treatment of price controls – even graduate level books. The less charitable reasons include sloppy exposition due to author ignorance or an over-reliance on math. I honestly would have trouble believing these less charitable reasons.

I picked up 5 microeconomics text books and the below graph is typical of how they treat a price ceiling.

The books say that the price ceiling is perfectly enforced. They identify producer surplus (PS) as area C and consumer surplus (CS) as areas A & B. There are very good reasons to differ with these welfare conclusions.

Problem #1

Continue reading

Best Books 2021

I read 23 books in 2021, but none that were written in 2021. Tim Ferriss stopped reading new books deliberately but for me it just happened, something about this year made me want to hang out in the ancient world instead.

I read about how five thousand years ago the Indo-Europeans figured out how to ride horses and use wheels, and so ended up spreading their language to half the world. I read about the Bronze Age Collapse three thousand years ago. Also set three thousand years ago are the semi-mythical events of the Aeneid and the Odyssey; I particularly enjoyed Emily Wilson’s new translation of the latter. From two thousand years ago, Caesar’s Commentaries reads like an action-packed fantasy novel but gives real insight into history and strategy. It was also a good year to go back to the Biblical events of two to three thousand years ago, though I didn’t make it cover to cover.

The one book about the modern world I gave 5 stars in 2021 was The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics. The short version of my review is that it’s secretly a development economics book:

Bueno de Mesquita, author of The Dictator’s Handbook, is a political scientist but his analysis is very much economic, in both the methods (rational choice & methodological individualism) and in the focus on material incentives as the main driver of behavior. The book is good as a manual for aspiring tyrants, but suprisingly great as an explanation for why many poor countries stay poor.

So overall compared to 2020 I don’t have many good books to share, apart from things like The Odyssey that you presumably already know about. The best new writing in 2021 probably isn’t happening in books at all, but in Substacks. Many bloggers switched to the Substack blogging/newsletter platform last year because it makes it easy to monetize their writing, while many professional journalists switched over as a way to keep being paid to write while enjoying near-complete editorial freedom. I recommend Byrne Hobart on finance and business strategy, and Razib Khan on history and genomics. Probably my favorite writing of 2021 was the return of Scott Alexander to blogging, now at Substack as Astral Codex Ten. He is also a great demonstration of just how much the monetization game has changed, as less than a year into the new Substack he is making enough money to start giving large amounts of it away.