Indicators

Indicators condense measurements into metrics—a jumble becomes a number, perhaps a color. The intent is that the indicator not only summarizes a particular state or situation, but allows a fair comparison to others.

Our age, measured in years, is a good example. But because its usefulness as an indicator varies through life, babies are classified in weeks, then in months. Over a middle period of your life, perhaps twenty-five through sixty-five in the developed world, differences are less meaningful. A comparison between ages five and ten, or seventy and eighty, highlights much sharper differences, just as dawn and dusk when compared to midday.

In poorer countries that scale is both compressed and radicalized, because life is so much cheaper and shorter. In the West, families lose children to serious illnesses or accidental death. Out of one hundred, how many cases do you know? But in developing countries, the death of a child is not unusual.

The number of views for TheIndiaRoad is an example of an indicator. Not fantastic, because the orange scale ranges from 1-1000. It shows me I’ve been viewed pretty much everywhere, and tells me China is an exception, most probably due to language barriers. It doesn’t tell me if you read the text, and whether you liked it. Or how many literary agents have been here—I mention this site when I pitch my book.

Neither was it in the West, back in the day. On my Rabbit mother’s side, she was the only one of three that made it. For her mother, the ratio was even worse. Two women survived out of a family of ten or so. I wish I didn’t need to write ‘or so’, but the fact is verbal knowledge about your ancestry founders as digital trivia replace oral tradition.

Which is a shame, because population growth is geometric. If every generation doubled its output, so that ten people would produce twenty offspring, Adam and Eve would be 830 years old, living happily while contemplating the existence of around six billion offspring. All told, they would have been responsible for double that, the others having died along the way.

But maybe alternative indicators of life on a broader scale might be the number of girl or boyfriends, serious illnesses, or years of employment. Age itself has a very relative significance. Somewhere in the bowels of an insurance company computer, or (perish the thought) a Google server, someone has your number. In it, your age will be only a fraction of the data. That number of yours will include gender, life expectancy in your part of the world, medical records, and so on.

If the map  above was completed with data on your internet protocol, or IP, a group of four numbers that says we know where you live, together with how long you were on, and whether you come here often, then a pattern would emerge. Google sells exactly such a service, a product called Google Analytics—corporations love it, because it focuses and targets their marketing. And they pay good money for it.

Of course, some people like or even need to stay anonymous. Terrorists are an example, as in this excerpt of my new book.

The little worm also headed home, six time zones east. The Cairo computer used an anonymous communications system known as onion routing, which had started life in the U.S. Office of Naval Research. The name and concept were based on an onion’s many layers, and built up a network smokescreen to hide the sender.

As the engineer negotiated the Cairo traffic, busy even on the weekend, he contemplated the ignorance of most internet users. Nassir had helped Islamic terrorist groups identify Israeli businessmen who were imprudent enough to access corporate email in clear. After the destination address was identified, he could quickly trace the sender’s location through microviruses in various internet nodes in Arab countries. After that, the engineer’s brothers decided whether to act.

One indicator that surfaced this week in southern Europe is supplied by the food giant Nestle, in the form of a product called Nestum baby cereal. In austerity-stricken southern Europe, sales have jumped, because the cereal mix is made up with water or milk, and makes for a very cheap nutritious meal. Twenty cents and you’re done.

When I heard the report, and an interview with one of the people from the Swiss multinational, he also mentioned that dog food sales are up. Now, I had a touch of deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say, because a few years ago I saw a show about illegal immigrants in Spain, in this case construction workers from Zaire, and dog food was their staple diet.

So I’m wondering in these difficult days whether the canine stimulus package is finding its way into the stew in more mainstream households. I type into Google how many people eat dog

As usual, Google helpfully suggests how I’d like to finish my quest. The first four suggestions are: dogs, dog food, dog meat, and hot dogs. Yum! This looks extremely promising. I pop into my London server, to see what Google suggests in a different country—yup Google knows where I live, and search suggestions are different by region. Yikes! dog food comes up tops. OMG, maybe the British economy is worse that they’re telling us. No, wait. They’re animal lovers—it’s bonding. Phew.

I don’t get an answer to the question as such, instead there’s a lot of nonsense on the page. If you search human consumption of dog food, it’s the ony page I’ve seen in donkey’s years (sorry) that has no paid ads. Go figure! There is an in-depth article that you may like, if your mind is half as twisted as mine, prepared, of all people, by the American Association of Wine Economists. Now there’s a job I’d like to have, except if I had to participate in their experiment. And what on earth are they doing comparing spam and dog food? Have they run out of wine? Been overrun by the canine police?

One of the more bizarre images of the 2012 presidential race, until you put it in context…

Apparently, only three people out of eighteen, less than twenty percent, identified the dog food sample. But they all said it was consistently the worst paté of the five samples. Dog food sales at stores in areas of low pet ownership would be a pretty good indicator. Or maybe other indicators such as an abundance of humans with a shiny coat. Either way, I have no doubt that plenty of this is going on. It’s just one of those dark family secrets people don’t talk about.

One thing that emerges in a metadata kind of way is the fact that lots of kids have tried dog food, and that when the discussion arises, the elderly are often mentioned. So we’re back to gradients at both dawn and dusk. The difference is that children do it out of curiosity, old people out of necessity.

So… this time Google underwhelmed me. Except for an exchange between presidential campaigns that makes it into UK Google, but is not on the front page in Portugal. Guys, we’re exactly thirty days away from the election and this  is still moving the world? I have to say the canine crapping on the Romney roof is by far the better story—guess the woofer was part of that 47% of hounds.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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