Monthly Archives: March 2011

Why our cats “get it” more than Microsoft


I’ve been playing with the idea of drawing a model for how our cats seem to make decisions. I’m not sure why, it seems like it might be fun and, if not exactly useful, maybe an entertaining way into explaining something important one day.

It strikes me there are two major forces at work – comfort and curiosity. Our cats want comfort. They can take any amount of fuss and attention, up to the point where they become uncomfortable (e.g. discovering they didn’t really want a belly scratch after all) and then they will go off and make themselves comfortable elsewhere. The only thing which seems to stop them staying in one comfortable place all day is, I propose, the idea that they might find more comfort somewhere else, and curiosity is their internal drive which pushes them to take occasional risks. They will trade some short term comfort in search of more long term comfort. These cats are not stupid or lazy, but they love comfort a lot.

What’s interesting to me is how comfort and curiosity sometimes oppose each other (“stay here, it’s comfy” is the opposite of “don’t stay here, there might be something better outside”). But a cat makes decisions, judging between opposing options, and not in a random way. Each of our two cats has what we would call “character” or “personality”, its own way of making decisions which we recognise as consistent and different from the other cat. Character and personality are really interesting, and I guess the idea that we might learn something about these things by observing our cats might sound a bit weird. But it seems interesting enough to be worth a go, and I’m sure I’m not the only person to have thought about it.

So I searched online to see who else has explored this area, and found something I didn’t expect. Googling for “cat decision engine” (with quotes, so searching for the exact phrase) produced no results. No-one on the interwebs has ever used this phrase. Woo hoo, I’m a pioneer!

But what does come up when searching for a cat decision engine (without the quotes) is a lot of stuff about Microsoft designing Bing to be a “decision engine” rather than just a search engine. I’m back to asking a familiar question – does Microsoft still “get it”, or has all their cleverness evaporated somewhere along the way?

Well, let’s see how they came up with this “decision engine” idea. The foundation seems solid. My Google search pointed me to this article in which Bing director Stefan Weitz explains that search, in many ways that we currently use it, isn’t broken and doesn’t need fixing. This means there isn’t a big opening for a competitor to Google. So rather than try and do Google’s job 1% better, Microsoft looked to understand better how people use search, where it currently works well, and where it works less well. Sounds like a great start. So what did they find?

It seems that half of the time people search, their sessions are very short. They need an answer to a simple question, they find a fact listed which delivers that answer, job done. Current search engines seem to provide relevant answers quickly and efficiently. It’s the sort of job search engines seem to be designed for.

But the other half of a person’s search time is spent in “a few long sessions”. People are using the internet for more complex tasks than fact finding – booking a holiday, for example – and they may go straight to a specialist site (e.g. Expedia) to do that. However, people seem to use general purpose search engines a lot for this as well, and this takes a while. Weitz reflects on what he thinks this means for the average web user.

“Think of the futility they must be feeling when they are using an engine that’s looking at keywords and links and all of that when they’re trying to book travel. People’s expectations of what an engine should do are changing and they’re using them as a starting point for a lot of their tasks.”

I think I agree with the bit about using search engines a lot to start tasks, but I don’t agree that I must be feeling a lot of futility as I’m searching. 

Maybe I’m unusual, being the curious and investigative type, but I actually enjoy the process of looking around for places to go. I like reading unexpected things people are sharing about destinations and holiday providers, and stumbling over joyously ridiculous sites like No, I did not go out of my way to look for pictures of in-flight meal trays, but seeing them makes me think of travel, it reminds me of what it’s like to be on the journey, and it fuels my appetite for the holiday (even if the food itself looks a bit dodgy). 

I’m also inclined to think that while it’s very convenient for Expedia (founded by Microsoft) if I go straight to their site, I’ll only be happy I’ve got the best price if I do some more looking around. Weirdly, even if I only save £5 (less than an hour’s minimum wage) I’ll still feel it was worth an hour’s search time if I can pay less to the holiday company and spend a bit more on food and beer in the sun.

And this is why I think our cats “get it” – I’m doing what they do. I want the comfort of a holiday. I’d like to get that in a convenient way, but I also enjoy employing curiosity in the search process. Time spent searching tends to get rewarded with comforts, sometimes the desired ones (lower price, more money for beer) and more often unexpected ones (a picture of some nice looking sushi-like fruit salad). At the end of all of this search process, my head is stuffed with more facts than I needed, but I get to choose what to hold onto, what to do, how to make a decision.

This is why Microsoft doesn’t “get it”. I don’t need Bing to be a decision engine – my decision engine is in my head. While I need to get a search engine to look for fragments of fact, making the decision is the bit I get to do, and I enjoy it. 

Of course you can pick fault and suggest to me that my process could be far more efficient. Why waste my time when Microsoft Decisionbot 2011 can tell me the best holiday for the best price, or at least lay out all my options on one convenient page for me? I’m sure there is a market which wants exactly that. I’m not sure as it’s as big as Microsoft think it is. Even if we trusted Microsoft and their decision engine 100% (which I doubt we will ever do), there’s a fundamental problem with their strategy.

Engineers look for efficiency. People enjoy the unexpected by-products of inefficiency. It’s how we discover things, meet people, start relationships and, when we reflect on what made us happy and what made us mad, form the character which helps us make our next decisions. Without that character, we would be boring, predictable machines, which our cats are not.

So in this roundabout and rather unexpected way, I’ve yet again come to the conclusion that Microsoft don’t get it while, surprisingly, our cats do.


Cambridge – I love you, but get stuffed


I just received some glossy cards from my old university college (Clare) asking for help to fund student bursaries for people who can’t afford £9,000 a year tuition fees. While this sounds very laudable, almost like a charitable response to natural disaster, the university can’t actually raise the fees to this level unless (a) it chooses to and (b) it succeeds in raising more money to help students who can’t afford the fees. So this request to help students in dire need is, in effect, the university’s permission slip for causing that need to come about.


I respect Cambridge as a clever institution, but this is just mean and – I hope – self-defeating.

Here is the reply I sent to the development office. I’d welcome your comments and if you feel like copying any of it, please feel absolutely free to do so.


Dear Sir or Madam,

Thank you for your recent brochure on the Student Bursary scheme. I’m sorry that I rarely reply to such requests for funding, but on this occasion it feels too important to avoid.

The concern expressed for students facing tuition fees of £9,000 a year is gratifying – this is clearly a major and, in this country, an unprecedented burden which will prove offputting to many talented people. I greatly enjoyed my time at Clare and, while I came from an extremely cash-poor background, it was not only a privilege to be at the University, but also a character defining experience which has proven useful for life. I will always be inspired by the remarkable ingenuity of my fellow students and the system in general.

It is, therefore, somewhat surprising that you seem to have missed an obvious solution to this problem. If student welfare is really your “number one priority”, don’t raise the fees to £9,000 a year.

I note that the government will not, in fact, let you do this unless the University provides compelling evidence that you are doing more to make places accessible to poorer students. This scheme seems to be a step in that direction. Therefore, while contributing towards the fund will help the University to charge more for tuition, this seems counter-productive for anyone whose primary concern is student welfare.

On that basis, I won’t be contributing. Furthermore, I’d like to suggest that you can cut your costs further by not sending me any more brochures asking for money. Much as I will miss the pictures of trees and libraries, this small sacrifice seems the least I can do to help.

While I totally sympathise with students who cannot afford to pay the new fees, it seems to me that the cleverest among them will work out that they simply don’t have to – they can go elsewhere. I’m hoping the best will. After all, what kind of character building is going to happen among people who feel it’s right to demand £3,000 extra a year from each undergradute – because this is now possible – but call that inevitable while seeking charitable aid to help bring it about? This isn’t ingenuity to promote innovation, it’s disingenuity to defend an institution.

Yours faithfully,
Bern Leckie