Joe Kauzlarich writes "In 2006, the on-line movie rental store Netflix proposed a $1 million prize to whomever
could write a movie recommendation algorithm that offered a ten
percent improvement over their own. As of this writing, the
and Dinosaurs team holds first place by a slim margin of .07
percent over BellKor,
their algorithm an 8.82 percent
improvement on the Netflix benchmark. So, the question remains,
how do they write these so-called recommendation algorithms? A new
O'Reilly book gives us a thorough introduction to the basics of this
and similar lucrative sciences." Keep reading for the rest of Joe's review.Among the chief ideological mandates of the Church of Web 2.0 is that
users need not click around to locate information when that
information can be brought to the users. This is achieved by
leveraging 'collective intelligence,' that is, in terms of
recommendations systems, by computationally analyzing statistical
patterns of past users to make as-accurate-as-possible guesses about
the desires of present users. Amazon, Google and certainly many other
organizations, in addition to Netflix, have successfully edged out
more traditional competitors on this basis, the latter failing to pay
attention to the shopping patterns of users and forcing customers to
locate products in a trial and error manner as they would in, say, a
Costco. As a further illustration, if I go to the movie shelf at Best
Buy, and look under 'R' for Rambo, no one's going to come up to
me and say that the Die Hard Trilogy now has a special-edition
release on DVD and is on sale. I'd have to accidentally pass the 'D'
section and be looking in that direction in order to notice it. Amazon
would immediately tell me, without bothering to mention that Gone
With The Wind has a new special edition.
Programming Collective Intelligence is far more than a guide to building recommendation systems. Author Toby Segaran is not a commercial product vendor, but a director of software development for a computational biology firm, doing data-mining and algorithm design (so apparently there is more to these 'algorithms' than just their usefulness in recommending movies?). Segaran takes us on a friendly and detailed tour through the field's toolchest, covering the following topics in some depth:
Searching and Ranking
... and a lot more
As you can see, the subject matter stretches into the higher levels of mathematics and academia, but Segaran successfully keeps the book intelligible to most software developers and examples are written in the easy-to-follow Python language. Further chapters cover more advanced topics, like optimization techniques and many of the more complex algorithms are deferred to the appendix.
The third chapter of the book, 'Discovering Groups,' deserves some explanation and may enlighten you as to how the book may be of some use in day-to-day software designs. Suppose you have a collection of data that is interrelated by a 'JOIN' in two sets of data. For example, certain customers may spend more time browsing certain subsets of movies. 'Discovering Groups' refers to the computational process of recognizing these patterns and sectioning data into groups. In terms of music or movies, these groups would represent genres. The marketing team may thus become aware that jazz enthusiasts buy more music at sale prices than do listeners of contemporary rock, or that listeners of late-60's jazz also listen to 70's prog, or similar such trends.
Certainly the applications of such tools as Programming Collective Intelligence provides us are broader than my imagination can handle. Insurance companies, airlines and banks are all part of massive industries that rely on precise knowledge of consumer trends and can certainly make use of the data-mining knowledge introduced in this book.
I have no major complaints about the book, particularly because it fills a gap in popular knowledge with no precursor of which I'm aware. Presentation-wise, even though Python is easy to read, pseudo-code is more timeless and even easier to read. You can't cut & paste from a paper book into a Python interpreter anyway. It may 've been more appropriate to use pseudo-code in print and keep the example code on the website (I'm sure it's there anyway).
If you ever find yourself browsing or referencing your algorithms text from college or even seriously studying algorithms for fun or profit, then I would highly recommend this book depending on your background in mathematics and computer science. That is, if you have a strong background in the academic study of related research, then you might look elsewhere, but this book, certainly suitable as an undergraduate text, is probably the best one for relative beginners that is going to be available for a long time.
You can purchase Programming Collective Intelligence from amazon.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.