On the Wisdom of Crowds and The Good Judgment Project

This is a very interesting NPR piece on The Good Judgment Project, whereby 3,000 ordinary citizens are making incredible predictions about world events/current affairs.

In fact, Tetlock and his team have even engineered ways to significantly improve the wisdom of the crowd — all of which greatly surprised Jason Matheny, one of the people in the intelligence community who got the experiment started.

“They’ve shown that you can significantly improve the accuracy of geopolitical forecasts, compared to methods that had been the state of the art before this project started,” he said.

What’s so challenging about all of this is the idea that you can get very accurate predictions about geopolitical events without access to secret information. In addition, access to classified information doesn’t automatically and necessarily give you an edge over a smart group of average citizens doing Google searches from their kitchen tables.

The story focuses on Elaine Rich, a so-called superforecaster:

In fact, she’s so good she’s been put on a special team with other superforecasters whose predictions are reportedly 30 percent better than intelligence officers with access to actual classified information.

Rich and her teammates are that good even though all the information they use to make their predictions is available to anyone with access to the Internet.

When I asked if she goes to obscure Internet sources, she shook her head no.

“Usually I just do a Google search,” she said.

Google FTW.

Candy Crush Saga: On the One Hit Wonder in Gaming Apps

This is a very smart take from James Surowiecki on the one-hit wonder game “Candy Crush Saga,” which is propelling the maker of the gamer, King Digital Entertainment, to file for an IPO:

In its I.P.O. filing, King claims that a “unique and differentiated model” for developing games will enable it to create new hits, and plenty of analysts believe that King has cracked the code of hooking consumers. But that’s unlikely. The world of pop culture contains many more one-hit wonders than hit factories. After all, luck plays a huge role (is there really a good explanation for the hula-hoop frenzy of the fifties?), and, more fundamentally, serial innovation is just tough: studies suggest that most new products fail. In the gaming industry, success has always been highly unpredictable. Parker Brothers, according to a history of the company, found that there was no secret formula: products that tested well often flopped in the marketplace, while “an in-house flop could become the hit of the industry.” It says something that King, which has been making games for a decade, had profits of just $7.8 million in 2012. The company didn’t make eighty times more in 2013 because it had cracked a code; it just caught lightning in a bottle.

If you read King Digital Entertainment’s F-1 carefully, you’ll notice this statement:

Our top three games accounted for 94% of our gross bookings in 2013. This compares to 61% of our gross bookings in 2012. As we continue to launch new games, we anticipate that the concentration of gross bookings across our top games will decline.

Those top three games are Candy Crush SagaPet Rescue Saga and Farm Heroes Saga. All of those games sound like a fad, as evidenced by this statement:

Gross bookings in the quarter ended December 31, 2013 slightly declined compared to the quarter ended September 30, 2013. The decline was driven by a decrease in Candy Crush Saga gross bookings, which was mostly offset by an increase in gross bookings across all of our other games. This growth in the other games was driven by a further diversification of our portfolio in the mobile channel as we released more games on that channel in the middle and later part of 2013.

I think, as an individual investor, you’d have to be a fool to buy into this IPO. The word “decline” appears 35 times in the F-1. But you can’t blame the owners for wanting to cash out quickly.

 

On People Who Don’t Derive Pleasure from Music

A recent study has found that some people don’t derive much (or any) pleasure from listening to music, compared to other worldly pleasures (such as money). From the study’s abstract, describing this as specific musical anhedonia:

Music has been present in all human cultures since prehistory, although it is not associated with any apparent biological advantages (such as food, sex, etc.) or utility value (such as money). Nevertheless, music is ranked among the highest sources of pleasure, and its important role in our society and culture has led to the assumption that the ability of music to induce pleasure is universal. However, this assumption has never been empirically tested. In the present report, we identified a group of healthy individuals without depression or generalized anhedonia who showed reduced behavioral pleasure ratings and no autonomic responses to pleasurable music, despite having normal musical perception capacities. These persons showed preserved behavioral and physiological responses to monetary reward, indicating that the low sensitivity to music was not due to a global hypofunction of the reward network. These results point to the existence of specific musical anhedonia and suggest that there may be individual differences in access to the reward system.

The study focused on recruiting college students, so I am not sure if the generalizations of the study can apply to people younger or older than the sample. Perhaps our affinity toward enjoying music changes with age?

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(via The Verge)

On Rashard Mendenhall’s Decision to Retire from the NFL at Age 26

After six years in the NFL, Rashard Mendenhall has decided to retire at the young age of 26. In this post, he explains his reasoning:

So when they ask me why I want to leave the NFL at the age of 26, I tell them that I’ve greatly enjoyed my time, but I no longer wish to put my body at risk for the sake of entertainment. I think about the rest of my life and I want to live it with much quality. And physically, I am grateful that I can walk away feeling as good as I did when I stepped into it.

The most interesting part of the essay were Rashard’s thoughts on how the game of football has evolved:

What was more difficult for me to grasp was the way that the business of entertainment had really shifted the game and the sport of football in the NFL. The culture of football now is very different from the one I grew up with. When I came up, teammates fought together for wins and got respect for the fight. The player who gave the ball to the referee after a touchdown was commended; the one who played through injury was tough; the role of the blocking tight end was acknowledged; running backs who picked up blitzing linebackers showed heart; and the story of the game was told through the tape, and not the stats alone. That was my model of football.

Today, game-day cameras follow the most popular players on teams; guys who dance after touchdowns are extolled on Dancing With the Starters; games are analyzed and brought to fans without any use of coaches tape; practice non-participants are reported throughout the week for predicted fantasy value; and success and failure for skill players is measured solely in stats and fantasy points. This is a very different model of football than the one I grew up with. My older brother coaches football at the high-school and youth level. One day he called me and said, “These kids don’t want to work hard. All they wanna do is look cool, celebrate after plays, and get more followers on Instagram!” I told him that they might actually have it figured out.

Wishing him the best.

The Amtrak Residency Program is Now Official

It began with an interview in PEN in December 2013, in which author Alexander Chee declared “I still like a train best for this kind of thing. I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.”

Last month, writing in The Paris Review, Jessica Gross blogged about a trial run on an Amtrak train, exploring the concept of the writer’s residency:

I am in a little sleeper cabin on a train to Chicago. Framing the window are two plush seats; between them is a small table that you can slide up and out. Its top is a chessboard. Next to one of the chairs is a seat whose top flips up to reveal a toilet, and above that is a “Folding Sink”—something like a Murphy bed with a spigot. There are little cups, little towels, a tiny bar of soap. A sliding door pulls closed and locks with a latch; you can draw the curtains, as I have done, over the two windows pointing out to the corridor. The room is 3’6” by 6’8”. It is efficient and quaint. I am ensconced.

I’m only here for the journey. Soon after I get to Chicago, I’ll board a train and come right back to New York: thirty-nine hours in transit—forty-four, with delays. And I’m here to write: I owe this trip to Alexander Chee, who said in his PEN Ten interview that his favorite place to work was on the train. “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers,” he said. I did, too, so I tweeted as much, as did a number of other writers; Amtrak got involved and ended up offering me a writers’ residency “test run.” 

This weekend, Amtrak formally announced the Amtrak Residency program and is encouraging writers to apply. They will pick up to 24 writers to join the program:

#AmtrakResidency was designed to allow creative professionals who are passionate about train travel and writing to work on their craft in an inspiring environment. Round-trip train travel will be provided on an Amtrak long-distance route. Each resident will be given a private sleeper car, equipped with a desk, a bed and a window to watch the American countryside roll by for inspiration. Routes will be determined based on availability.

Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis and reviewed by a panel. Up to 24 writers will be selected for the program starting March 17, 2014 through March 31, 2015.  A passion for writing and an aspiration to travel with Amtrak for inspiration are the sole criteria for selection. Both emerging and established writers will be considered.

Residencies will be anywhere from 2-5 days, with exceptions for special projects.

Definitely worth a look!

On Competitive Running with Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis has no cure, and yet, Kayla Montgomery, age 18, has found a way to persevere. She is a competitive track and medium distance runner and has been setting records. What’s unusual is that when she breaks her running stride at the end of the races, she collapses:

At the finish of every race, she staggers and crumples. Before momentum sends her flying to the ground, her coach braces to catch her, carrying her aside as her competitors finish and her parents swoop in to ice her legs. Minutes later, sensation returns and she rises, ready for another chance at forestalling a disease that one day may force her to trade the track for a wheelchair. M.S. has no cure.

Last month, Montgomery, a senior at Mount Tabor High School, won the North Carolina state title in the 3,200 meters. Her time of 10 minutes 43 seconds ranks her 21st in the country. Her next major competition is the 5,000 meters at the national indoor track championships in New York on March 14, when she hopes to break 17 minutes.

Kayla Montgomery, #4, racing.

Kayla Montgomery, #4, racing.

No pain, no gain. Amazing story.

On the Brief History of the SAT Exam

From this excellent piece about a mother who decided to take the SATs (and naturally, decided to write a book about it: The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT), we learn about the history of the SAT exam:

The SATs were administered for the first time on June 23, 1926. Intelligence testing was a new but rapidly expanding enterprise; during the First World War, the United States Army had given I.Q. tests to nearly two million soldiers to determine who was officer material. (Walter Lippmann dismissed these tests as “quackery in a field where quacks breed like rabbits.”) The SAT’s inventor, a Princeton professor named Carl Campbell Brigham, had worked on the Army’s I.Q. test, and the civilian exam he came up with was a first cousin to the military’s. It contained some questions on math and some on identifying shapes. Mostly, though, it focussed on vocabulary. Brigham intended the test to be administered to students who had already been admitted to college, for the purposes of guidance and counselling. Later, he argued that it was foolish to believe, as he once had, that the test measured “native intelligence.” Rather, he wrote, scores were an index of a person’s “schooling, family background, familiarity with English, and everything else.”

By this point, though, the test had already been adopted for a new purpose. In 1933, James Bryant Conant, a chemist, became the president of Harvard. Conant, the product of a middle-class family, was dismayed by what he saw as the clubbiness of the school’s student body and set out to attract fresh talent. In particular, he wanted to recruit bright young men from public schools in the Midwest, few of whom traditionally applied to Harvard. Conant’s plan was to offer scholarships to ten such students each year. To select them, he decided to employ the SAT. As Nicholas Lemann observes in his book “The Big Test” (1999), this was one of those small decisions “from which great consequences later flow.” Not long after Harvard started using the SAT, Princeton, Columbia, and Yale followed suit. More and more colleges adopted the test until, by the mid-nineteen-fifties, half a million kids a year were taking it.

In the early decades of the test, scores were revealed only to schools, not to students. This made it difficult to assess the claim made by the College Board, the exam’s administrator, that studying for the SATs would serve no purpose. Still, a brash young high-school tutor named Stanley Kaplan concluded, based on the feedback he was getting from his pupils, that the claim was a crock. Kaplan began offering SAT prep classes out of his Brooklyn basement. Accusations that he was a fraud and a “snake oil salesman” failed to deter his clientele; the students just kept on coming. In the nineteen-seventies, Kaplan expanded his operations into cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami; this is when the Federal Trade Commission decided to investigate his claims. The commission found that Kaplan was right: tutoring did boost scores, if not by as much as his testing service advertised. The College Board implicitly conceded the point in 1994, when it changed the meaning of the SAT’s central “A”; instead of “aptitude” it came to stand for “assessment.” Then the board took the even more radical step of erasing the meaning of the name altogether. Today, the letters “SAT” stand for nothing more (or less) than the SATs. As the Lord put it to Moses, “I am that I am.”

Read the rest here.