Lost in Transmission

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I dread to think how much eBay is paying Waggener Edstrom to handle press relations for their Toy Crusade. At least I think that’s what is being launched — all the press stuff I received this morning, including image-laden email, attachments was all in Chinese. Oh, except for the headline.

I know I should, but I don’t speak Chinese.

Now, admittedly, the event is about China, it’s being organized in Hong Kong, and the website itself is entirely in Chinese (no English version in sight), but you’d think one of the world’s biggest PR agencies could have managed

  • to have a database of journalists’ language preferences clue: names are often a giveaway), or
  • perhaps an English-language version somewhere in the text, or
  • a link to an English-language version, or
  • an explanation that this is a Chinese-language only event/issue, or
  • a link on the email indicating it was sent by an intern with no idea of what mayhem he may be creating for himself by blasting off emails to all and sundry, or
  • a link in the email to a place where we journalists can complain volubly and ensure we never receive another email like it.

Serious lesson in this: At the very least, this kind of email is likely to end up as spam in a non-Chinese speaking recipient’s email inbox because the Bayesian filters will have been trained to treat it as such. (This is what happened to mine.) So that’s all pretty much a waste of everyone’s time.

But at the most, as a PR agency you’re being paid large amounts of money to target the message to the right people. I’m clearly not the right people. So either don’t send it to me, or send me an English language version, or send me a query about whether this might be of interest. Or expect me to get grumpy, and take 15 minutes of my day to write a grumpy blog post like this.

Update, Aug 27 2007: I’ve just heard from Waggener who have offered an apology and explanation:

In the case of the toy crusade press release, a staff member accidentally inserted the wrong distribution list, and this was overlooked by their supervisor during the checking process.

People do make mistakes and of course the individuals concerned are very apologetic.  To be sure, we have also added more safeguards to the process to minimize the likelihood of this ever happening again.

Fair play. Of course it’s better that these things don’t happen, but they do, and their response is measured and the right one. The proof will be in the pudding — will it happen again?

How to Make More Use of the Vicar

In last week’s WSJ column (subscription only, I’m afraid) I wrote about how Bayesian Filters — derived from the theories of an 18th century vicar called Thomas Bayes and used to filter out spam — could also be used to sift through other kinds of data. Here’s a preliminary list of some of the uses I came across:

  • Deconstructing Sundance: how a bunch of guys at UnSpam Technologies successfully predicted the winners (or at least who would be among the winners) at this year’s festival using POPFile, the Bayesian filter of choice;
  • ShopZilla a “leading shopping search engine” uses POPFile “in collaboration with Kana to filter customer emails into different buckets so we can apply the appropriate quality of service and have the right people to answer to the emails. Fortunately, some of the buckets can receive satisfactory canned responses. The bottom line is that PopFile provides us with a way to send better customer responses while saving time and money.”
  • Indeed, even on-spam email can benefit from Bayes, filtering boring from non-boring email, say, or personal from work. Jon Udell experimented with this kind of thing a few years ago.
  • So can virus and malware. Here’s a post on the work by Martin Overton in keeping out the bad stuff simply using a Bayesian Filter. Here’s Martin’s actual paper (PDF only). (Martin has commented that he actually has two blogs addressing his work in this field, here and here.)
  • John Graham-Cumming, author of POPFile, says he’s been approached by people who would like to use it in regulatory fields, in computational biology, dating websites (“training a filter for learning your preferences for your ideal wife,”, as he puts it), and says he’s been considering feeding in articles from WSJ and The Economist in an attempt to find a way predict weekly stock market prices. “If we do find it out,” he says, “we won’t tell you for a few years.” So he’s probably already doing it.

If you’re new to Bayes, I hope this doesn’t put you off. All you have to do is show it what to do and then leave it alone.  If you haven’t tried POPFile and you’re having spam issues, give it a try. It’s free, easy to install and will probably be the smartest bit of software on your computer.

I suppose the way I see it is that Bayesian filters don’t care about how words look, what language they’re in, or what they mean, or even if they are words. They look at how the words behave. So while the Unspam guys found out that a word “riveting” was much more likely to be used by a reviewer to describe a dud movie than a good one, the Bayesian Filter isn’t going to care that that seems somewhat contradictory. In real life we would have been fooled, because we know “riveting” is a good thing (unless it’s some weird wedgie-style torture involving jeans that I haven’t come across). Bayes doesn’t know that. It just knows that it has an unhealthy habit of cropping up in movies that bomb.

 In a word, Bayesian Filters watches what words do, or what the email is using the words to do, rather than look at the meaning of the words. We should be applying this to speeches of politicians, CEOs, PR types and see what comes out. Is there any way of measuring how successful a politician is going to be based on their early speeches? What about press releases? Any way of predicting the success of the products they tout?

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