Online Reviews Have Serious Issues

If you’re like me then you use online reviews to help you pick an awful lot of things. Books, movies, electronics, services, restaurants… you name it. Unfortunately, there are some very serious issues with online reviews in their current form. A couple of examples:

Let’s start with the GoodReads page for my latest published work, Ghost of the Frost Giant King. Now, Silver Empire is still a pretty small publishing house. We’ve only been in operation since January – less than three months. So our sales are pretty small at this point, and the number of advance preview copies we’ve sent out is pretty small as well. And most of our sales have been direct or nearly so. What this means is that we have customer data for about 90% of the copies of this work that are “in the wild” currently.

So, back to the GoodReads page. As of this writing, there are two ratings – neither with a text review. One of those ratings is from a contest winner who won the book on a GoodReads.com book giveaway. The only problem is, that rating was entered before the book shipped. The person had not yet received it before leaving a rating. The second review was left by someone who is not on my customer data. Now, it’s possible – possible – that it’s a legit review. But no reviews have been left at any of the locations where that purchase would have been made if it were legit, so it’s a tad odd that there would be a review on GoodReads and not the purchase site. Possible. Just odd.

Now, I’m not complaining. These two reviews averaged together give us a 4 star rating. And it’s better to have a 4 star rating from two reviewers than no rating at all. So hey, it’s a win for us. But this is completely unhelpful for our potential customers, which is uncool. It also completely fails to give us any actual feedback – constructive or otherwise – about the product. That’s kind of frustrating, because we’d really like to know if what we put together is any good or not.

Second example: Facebook reviews for my dojo. Out of all of the reviews on our page, we currently have two that are not five star reviews. One is a two star review from a man who explicitly acknowledged that he didn’t mean to leave it… and yet he also hasn’t removed it or changed it. One is a one star review from someone whom I have tracked down and shown to be a student at another dojo. The reviewer has never set foot in my dojo. I’ve even talked to his sensei about it. And yet the review is still there.

I’m still not really complaining. This one is a bit more annoying than the first, as these are definitely bringing down my dojo’s rating on Facebook. But… they bring it down to a 4.8 star rating. I can’t complain about that. And there are also a number of five star ratings from friends who haven’t been students but who are trying to help me out (thanks, by the way – I really appreciate that from all of you!). Which is great – but Facebook really shouldn’t allow it. Hell, Facebook allowed me to leave a rating, even though it’s my own page. Talk about a fail.

Not all online reviews are created equal. Amazon, for instance, does a lot to help things out. If a customer leaves a review on an item that they purchased through Amazon, it gets flagged with a “verified purchase” note. That lets you know that that person actually got that item. Amazon will not allow me to leave ratings on any items that I’ve published, which is good. That keeps at least some honesty in the system. But even there the system isn’t perfect.

Do I still use online reviews? Definitely. But be aware that there are issues, and try to actually read some of the reviews if you get a chance.

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Majority of One or Just an Asshole

Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one. — Henry David Thoreau

A more accurate but less feelgood version of the original quote:

Any man who is actually right when his neighbors is wrong constitutes a majority of one.

And the corollary:

Any man who isn’t actually right but insists that he is a majority of one is just an asshole.

The world seems to have a plethora of people in the first and third categories. It’s unfortunate that we have so few in the second category.

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Kids Smoke More Pot When They Have More Time To Smoke Pot

Breaking news:

Schools that use suspension to punish drug use, or that weakly enforce any of their drug policies, have higher rates of student marijuana use than schools with more consistent and less-punitive approaches, according to a new study.

First, that sentence doesn’t even make sense. Schools that “weakly enforce” have higher rates than schools with “less-punitive” approaches. What? And before you jump on the “those idiots at Fox News” bandwagon, note the byline and realize that this story is from Reuters and is just being served up by Fox.

Second… um, duh? Kids smoke more pot when they get suspended and… have more time to smoke pot?

Look, we all knew it when we were in school. The vast majority of the kids who get suspended don’t view it as a punishment. They don’t want to be there anyway (who does?). Also, if they’re smoking pot or getting suspended frequently (much less both), it’s very likely that they don’t have parents that are paying enough attention to them. So you send them home and they have more unsupervised time to… smoke pot.

The second half of the “findings” should fall under the “duh” category as well: that schools with consistent enforcement policies have less marijuana use than schools with inconsistent or lenient policies. Um… yeah. Consistent punishment and enforcement lowers the behavior you’re punishing. This is basic psychology.

These people get paid to do this kind of thing?

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Power Law

power-law

A Power Law curve.

Take a look at the image to the right. It is very likely the most important chart they never taught you about in school. Failing that, it’s almost certainly the most important chart that you may have seen from time to time and learned a bit about but never realized the significance of.

What is it? Depending upon how you label the axes, it could represent a whole host of things. In fact, it’s kind of shocking just how many things in the real world this curve represents. Depending upon the dataset, you may have to flip the curve.

It goes by several names: Exponential distribution. Logarithmic function. But one of the most popular names, and perhaps the most ominous, is the Power Law curve. From Wikipedia:

In statistics, a power law is a functional relationship between two quantities, where one quantity varies as a power of another.

Or, more simply, it’s what you get when you plot out a function that looks like this:

f(x) = axk

normal

Normal Distribution – the “Bell Curve”

The name “Power Law” comes from the k – the “power” or exponent in the function. If you’ve had any introduction to statistics at all, you’re probably much more familiar with the chart to the left – the famous “Bell Curve,” or, more accurately, the Normal Distribution. Unless you took an actual “full” statistics course from the math department (many science majors these days get away with “statistics for <insert your department> majors” instead of taking the one from the actual math department), you probably didn’t spend enough time studying it. Even if you did take a “real” statistics course, you probably didn’t fully appreciate the significance of it. Don’t feel bad. It’s very likely that your professor didn’t appreciate it, either.

Most people are taught that the Normal Distribution is the most common distribution that you find in nature. Indeed, this is why it’s called the “normal” distribution. It’s very common. Quite a few people, however, mistakenly believe that it’s the only distribution you find in nature – that everything follows a bell curve distribution.

The second variant is patently false. Quite a few things follow other distributions (these are not the only two you will find; there are quite a few others). The first formulation, though, isn’t quite accurate either. Yes, a lot of things follow normal distributions. But quite a lot of things don’t. In fact, the prevalence of the normal distribution is actually what leads to so many cases of the power law distribution.

Because there are some key things about the power law distribution that you were never taught. Here are a few:

Power Law Distributions arise from iteration of Normal Distributions

OK, what does that mean? Let’s consider the following very generic set of circumstances:

  1. A competitive event.
  2. The population of competitors is unequal
  3. The inequality is distributed along something resembling a normal distribution.
  4. Winners from any given round of competition keep their winnings.
  5. The winnings form any round confer an advantage in subsequent rounds.
  6. Competition is iterated over multiple rounds.

Whenever these six conditions are met, after many rounds of competition the results will always form a power law curve. Always. Without exception.

With Power Law Distributions, Averages are Meaningless

Not just averages. The mean, median and mode are all meaningless in a power law distribution. They literally tell us nothing. We are taught as early as middle school to use these numbers to analyze large datasets. Indeed, for many of us they are the only ways we know to get meaning out of those sets. But for anything that follows a power law curve, they literally tell us nothing about the data. Well, OK, not quite nothing:

If the mean (average) and the median are wildly different, that’s a strong hint that the data actually follows a power law curve. In a normal distribution, they will be very close together. In a power law distribution they might be, but they probably won’t be. [The converse is not true: a power law distribution doesn’t necessarily have wildly different medians and means.]

What it all Means

The Power Law curve, combined in some cases with other important information, is the iron law of mathematics defining why:

  • Income and wealth inequality are an inescapable part of the human condition.
  • Top members of some professions (sports, film, tv, music, writing, journalism, and many others) make millions while nobody else can even make enough to live on.
  • Globalism is very bad for everyone except those at the very top.
  • Current levels of immigration in the US are too high.
  • Tenure is bad.
  • Big corporations are terrible.
  • Big government is worse.
  • Most mature industries coalesce around a very small number of very large firms.

And much, much more. But more on those another day.

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Side Business – You Should Have One

I’ve long been a believer in small business. I believe it’s the lifeblood of the economy. Small businesses (those with less than 500 employees) have created 64% of all new jobs in the US since 1995. I also believe it’s the path to true prosperity for most individuals. But for most of my life I’ve believed that you needed your small business to be your full time job for it to be worthwhile.

In the last five years, I’ve learned better. Most people should be operating a small side business. My wife and I currently operate two side businesses (a third business we operate is technically and legally part of one of the others) – and they’ve been really great for us.

Side businesses have several huge advantages over businesses that require you to work full time.

  • You don’t have to quit your day job, so you don’t lose that income.
  • You don’t have to find the cash to pay yourself a full time salary that replaces your day job, so it’s much easier to make the business profitable. In fact, with some kinds of businesses they can be profitable – or nearly so – from day 1 (Ever After Videography was profitable after Morgon’s first paying job).
  • If you pick the right business, the major investment can be your time rather than your money.
  • You don’t have to make a full time living at it, so you can scale the business up or down to fit your needs. If the workload is too high, scale it back.
  • Keeping it part time can make it a great fit for a “stay at home” spouse.
  • You get (almost) all the same tax benefits as if you had a full time business.

A quick example that combines several points: my wife is a stay-at-home-mother. Her side business does videography. She does all kinds of video work, but the main “bread and butter” work is weddings. This is a wonderful fit. Most of her workload occurs on Friday evenings or Saturdays – times when I’m already home. So we very seldom have to pay extra for childcare for her to work (we do, very occasionally – 4 to 5 times a year – have to make use of a drop-in daycare facility near us; the kids go so seldom that they view it as a treat).

The business has been profitable since the first paying job we landed her. Now… it’s not making us enough money for me to quit my day job. It’s not even making her what a typical “professional” job would make. But for about a dozen weekends a year worth of work, she makes more money than she would if she worked full time at a fair amount above minimum wage. That alone isn’t bad.

But on top of that, there are quite a few tax benefits to be had for having income in the stay-at-home-spouse’s name. You can now contribute to retirement accounts for the second spouse, not just the first. Dependent care expenses become tax deductible, if they help the second spouse work (or go to school). A lot of things you’re already paying for can become legitimate tax deductions (be careful with this, though – you do need to understand the rules well; or better yet, get an accountant who does).

I just finished doing our taxes for the year, and the business deductions alone from my wife’s business just impacted our personal tax bill to the point where they effectively increased her net profit by 25% (anybody need 20% off on TurboTax?). Now… if you grow your business past a certain point, it will definitely increase your tax bill – but then, you’ll be making a tidy profit at that point, too.

Think carefully before you jump in – not every business model will work as a side business. And you need a plan, not just an idea. But there can be a lot of benefits. What side business are you thinking of?

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Hillary’s EMail Server Might Actually Have Been Legal

In typical Clintonian fashion, today’s press conference leaves a lot of questions unanswered. However, it does provide a small clue around which the whole thing might hinge:

She also said her server, set up for President Bill Clinton’s office, contained “numerous safeguards,” was protected by the Secret Service and experienced “no security breaches.”

The question is, set up by whom? As a former US President, Bill Clinton is entitled to an office and a staff paid for on the taxpayer dime. If the server was paid for via government funds and operated by government staff, then technically Hillary never violated the law – her “private” email was a government email all along.

If this is the case, though, then I wonder why she didn’t just come back with that defense right away. My guess? That despite their hinting at it, this isn’t actually the case.

Update 3/12/15: Nevermind, it wasn’t legal after all:

A Clinton spokesman also emphasized that no taxpayer money was used to purchase or maintain a private email server operated for the former president’s staff starting in 2007, which Hillary Clinton started using in 2009.

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Ghost of the Frost Giant King FLASH SALE!

Not only is the Ghost of the Frost Giant King PDF version finalized and ready for download, but we messed up and it got released early. Now we COULD roll it back and turn it off for another week… but why do that when we could have a FLASH SALE instead! Purchase the PDF version this weekend only for only $2.99! To get this special price, you must use this special link!

For those who would rather have a physical product, the print edition will be available very soon!

Ghost of the Frost Giant King

Click this link to get the special FLASH SALE price!

 

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