About 20 some-odd years ago, right about this time, I was in a state of gut-wrenching dread.
Like dozens of other students just like me, I was lining up to see if I had pulled off a minor miracle and passed Dr. Morty Yalovsky's dreaded Statistics class at McGill University.
The barely-just-over-the-wire sympathy mark of 60 restored my faith in a higher power, and solidified my view that numbers were bad, unless they were yours in the bank.
So here's how I know times have changed big-time:
Numbers have become entertainment.
Analytics, once the raw material and domain of accountants and the most
hardcore geeks, have gone mainstream and have become--may I even
Google Analytics slices, dices, shreds and dreadlocks visitation to Surprise Central, not to mention my company Airborne Mobile's site, in a manner so detailed that I know what clothes you are wearing and what you're sipping while reading 'em.
Lijit, the majestic search engine I use for this blog (and a Godsend while researching my own stuff for my Pow! book), provides me with a weekly analysis--for free!--that just five years ago, I'd have to pay some consultancy thousands of dollars for. (And makes me wonder why in the world people are searching here for "Pink Polka".)
Then there's Xobni, the greatest thing to happen to Microsoft Outlook since...well, since Microsoft Outlook. While it does an incredible job of tracking emails and searching for people and things within them, it also crunches them into a statistical treasure trove of the essential and the sublime.
For ex, Xobni (that's "Inbox" backwards; how clever) ranks my contacts' email behavior by how many they sent me, how fast they respond, what time of day they do, what day they do the most (I can go on for hours here if I want to). I can also reverse the look and see how I do amongst all these parameters as well. The stuff is so fascinating and revealing that sometimes I find myself ignoring the emails themselves, instead too absorbed in the minutiae about them.
The "Funalytics" movement goes further. In this month's Fast Company, USC prof Marientina Gotsis talks about merging real-world physical activity into a gaming framework (one step further than the Apple/Nike+ iPod/running shoe marriage I suppose, itself documented as part of Wired's cover story this month). She says:
"It doesn't make sense that your Wii Fit data shouldn't be consolidated into the same system that your doctor uses for tracking your health.
"Right now, there are practically no interesting applications out there that let you use your personal sensor data or health records to have a fun gaming experience. That's going to change."
Change it will. And in a manner guaranteed to Surprise and open up new doors of perception. In fact, I suspect that stats and data, and those who can interpret them in a unique and somewhat twisted manner, will become the new breed of media stars.
And perhaps even more importantly, it may do for college stats classes everywhere what video games, the 'Net and CGI did for computer classes--make them hip.