Category Archives: computer science

A professional thanks and a personal goodbye to Steve Jobs

Small Apple tribute logo, created by Mak Long

10 Print "Hello"

That line typed on an Apple II computer in my Dad’s office in the fourth grade got me hooked on computer programming, an addiction I never outgrew.

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of owning, using, or programming on many of Steve Jobs’s creations, including Apple II+, Macintosh IIcx, Power Mac 7100, Newton, NeXT, Powerbook, Macbook Pro, and iPhone. I’ve been a consistent Mac in the Mac-vs-PC battle since 1984 (though I admit to a brief affair in 1998: it didn’t mean anything, Steve, I swear!). Jobs himself ignited an us-versus-them fire, which smolders on today in Apple’s John Hodgman-as-PC ads, back in 1985 with one of his best quotes:

Playboy: Are you saying that the people who made PCjr don’t have … pride in [their] product?

[Jobs:] “If they did, they wouldn’t have made the PCjr.” [Playboy, Feb. 1, 1985]

Around that time, my friends and I had a running joke: “I got a PCjr,” one of us would say; “you’re going straight to hell, kid,” the other would shoot back.

Old Apple II and Power Macintosh computers
Buried treasure: Old Apple II and Power Macintosh computers, waiting to be dusted off… someday

My wife and kids (ages 7 and 4) are more recent converts, owning a Duo, an iPhone, an iPad, and two iPod Touches among them.

I’ve owned Apple stock since about 1997, my single best investment, increasing 4,460 percent. (Priceline is my second best, gaining 3,990%.)

Like Lance, I’ll never forget where I was when I learned that Steve Jobs had died. Steven Colbert told me. Live. After a hilarious taping of the Colbert Report and four performances by the artist formerly known as Mos Def (apparently a perfectionist: who knew?), Colbert ended by balancing his iPhone on his desk, letting it fall over, then telling us, “Steve Jobs died. Sorry to be the one to tell you.” To say the mood of the audience changed instantly would be an understatement. Smiling faces turned down. Cries of anguish and “oh no!” rang out from nearly everyone in the audience, a mark of how Jobs’s influence and name recognition has grown from tech hero to global cultural icon. (Colbert gave Jobs a proper tribute the next day.)

There’s a thread in our office about the extent to which perceived success or failure at the CEO level is a fooled-by-randomness trick of the mind. But there are some examples where even the strongest skeptic must admit that an organization’s success is almost surely owed to the exceptional greatness of a single individual. Warren Buffet and Coach K come to (my) mind. But Steve Jobs must be the prime example. As if ushering in the era of personal computing and computer-animated movies was not enough, Jobs continued to outdo himself year after year, with iPod, iTunes, iPhone, and, barely a year ago, iPad. Sadly, or maybe purposefully, Jobs seemed to hit his stride just as he died. As a long-time disciple of Jobs, I’m amazed at the amount of focus in his obituaries spent on gadgets he created in the last ten years.

Jobs famously advised not to spend too much time celebrating success.

I think if you do something and it turns out pretty good, then you should go do something else wonderful, not dwell on it for too long. Just figure out what’s next.
—NBC Nightly News, 2006

Those were not empty words for Jobs: it’s how he lived his own life and how he squeezed so much out of the 56 short years he was given. The early storyline of Apple pegged Steve Wozniak as the brains and Jobs as the lucky business-minded sidekick. It turns out that Jobs was way more exceptional than the 1990s nerderati — who like me relate more to Woz — gave him credit for. Jobs had the brains, the vision, and the charisma in a combination so rare I’m not the only one who can’t think of another human alive who compares. To get a taste, read or watch Jobs’s Stanford commencement speech: it’s truly brilliant, inspiring, and one of the best ways you can spend the next few minutes of your time.

To the ultimate hacker painter, the first last analog, the nerdiest salesman, the studliest genius, the most productive perfectionist, the most detail-oriented visionary, and a personal hero:

20 Print "Goodbye"

A professional goodbye and a personal thanks to Carol Bartz

My geek CEO was fired. If you’re wondering whether she deserved it, or Yahoo! is better off for it, or Roy Bostock is a doofus or dorfus, I don’t really know.* But I do have a personal story about Carol Bartz that’s indicative of the kind of CEO she was and the kind of person she is, perfect for Ada Lovelace day, a day to blog about women in science and technology who inspire you.

In May 2010, my wife Lauren was diagnosed with breast cancer. On Sunday, May 9, 2010—Mother’s Day no less—I received a phone call. “Hello?,” I said. “Hi, this is Carol Bartz,” she said. “Wow!,” I couldn’t help saying. I had never spoken to her before. She proceeded to say how sorry she was for me and Lauren, to reassure us, to ask me questions, and to answer mine.

More than a year, multiple surgeries, and six chemo sessions later, I’m happy to say that Lauren is past the worst part of the treatment and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, cancer free. At the time, we were frightened, bewildered, and angry. To me, the most overwhelming feeling was disbelief. Was this really happening to us? It was surreal. Lauren’s strength and sheer will to keep our home life as normal as possible, and her ability to turn the ordeal into a positive is amazing and helped me cope. That my mom and Lauren’s mom went through the same thing also helped. The more we looked into it the more we realized breast cancer was everywhere—shockingly common even at Lauren’s age. (Especially in New Jersey, one of only five states in the top tier for both incidence of and mortality from breast cancer.) The calls to increase the age of first mammogram border on criminal. One silver lining for Lauren has been meeting the amazing support community of breast cancer sufferers, survivors, and their friends. They have inspired her to give back in many ways. My mom, a radiologist and ACR fellow, was herself inspired to specialize in mammography and pursue breast cancer research.

It turns out, Carol Bartz is a survivor herself and, in addition to being one of the fifty most powerful women in business, is just another member of the breast cancer support community who cares deeply. Carol had over twelve thousand employees. To take the time to call one of them on a holiday weekend to address personal problems and pain shows the kind of leader she is. (And shows the kind of bosses Preston and Prabhakar are, who thought enough to bring it to her attention.) It’s a “Yahoo! moment” and a Carol moment that I remember vividly and continues to stick out in my mind. I suspect most stereotypes of corporate and public leaders as conniving powermad ladder climbers are just that: stereotypes. But still, I’m convinced that not all—probably few—CEOs would do what Carol Bartz did. Goodbye, good luck, and, most of all: Thanks, Carol.

* I will say that I respect Carol’s willingness give her blunt assessment of the board, possibly risking $10 million to do so, and to come right out and say “I was fired” rather than hide behind “more time with family” cliches. I’m not surprised that the board gave their full confidence to her in public just two months before firing her—of course a board always has to say that they have confidence in their current CEO. I am surprised and dismayed that, at least judging by her reaction, it seems the board was also giving their confidence to her in private. That’s HR 101: No one who’s fired should be surprised.

Two upcoming NYC-area CS-econ events: AMMA & NYCE Day

  1. The Second Conference on Auctions, health more about Market Mechanisms and Their Applications (AMMA) is next Monday and Tuesday August 22-23, generic view 2011, web at CUNY in midtown manhattan. The program, including contributed talks on school choice, prediction markets, advertising, and market design, and invited talks by market designer extraordinaire Peter Cramton and private company stock exchange SecondMarket (where millionaires buy Facebook), look to be excellent. Hope to see you there!
  2. The fourth annual New York Computer Science and Economics Day (NYCE Day) is Friday, September 16, 2011, at NYU. You have until next Friday August 26 to submit a short talk or poster. The goal of the meeting is to bring together researchers in the larger New York metropolitan area (read: DC-Boston-Chicago) with interests in computer science, economics, marketing, and business, and a common focus in understanding and developing the economics of Internet activity.

2011 ACM Conference on Electronic Commerce and fifteen other CS conferences in San Jose

If you’re in the Bay Area, come join us at the 2011 ACM Conference on Electronic Commerce, June 5-9 in San Jose, CA, one of sixteen conferences that comprise the ACM Federated Computing Research Conference, the closest thing we have to a unified computer research conference.

The main EC’11 conference includes talks on prediction markets, crowdsourcing, auctions, game theory, finance, lending, and advertising. The papers span a spectrum from theoretical to applied. If you want evidence of the latter, look no further than the roster of corporate sponsors: eBay, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo!.

There are also a number of interesting workshops and tutorials in conjunction with EC’11 this year, including:


  • 7th Ad Auction Workshop
  • Workshop on Bayesian Mechanism Design
  • Workshop on Social Computing and User Generated Content
  • 6th Workshop on Economics of Networks, Systems, and Computation
  • Workshop on Implementation Theory


  • Bayesian Mechanism Design
  • Conducting Behavioral Research Using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk
  • Matching and Market Design
  • Outside Options in Mechanism Design
  • Measuring Online Advertising Effectiveness

The umbrella FCRC conference includes talks by 2011 Turing Award winner Leslie G. Valiant, IBM Watson creator David A. Ferrucci, and CMU professor, CAPTCHA co-inventor, and Games With a Purpose founder Luis von Ahn.

Hope to see many of you there!

Four free registrations to EC’11 for students

Thanks to a generous donation from Google, we are offering four free registrations for students to attend the 2011 ACM Conference on Electronic Commerce (EC’11) in San Jose.

To apply, please email David Pennock and Yoav Shoham by Wednesday May 11, 2011, with subject “YourLastName: EC’11 student registration award application” and include:

  1. Your name, university, personal homepage, and current student status (e.g., 2nd year Ph.D. student)
  2. Whether you are a member of ACM SIGecom
  3. Any papers at EC’11 for which you are an author or co-author
  4. Any papers at an EC’11 affiliated workshop (or under review) for which you are an author or co-author
  5. Please also arrange for your academic advisor to email verification of your student status in good standing to the same two email addresses with your last name in the subject.

Applications must be submitted by Wednesday May 11, 2011. We will award the four free registrations by Friday May 13, prior to the early registration deadline of May 16.

David Pennock, Chair ACM SIGecom
Yoav Shoham, General Chair, EC’11

P.S. This was announced on April 14 on the mailing list for the ACM Special Interest Group on Electronic Commerce (SIGecom). If you missed it, you should join! 🙂

There’s a new oracle in town

Cantor Gaming mobile device for in-running bettingLast January, a few friends and I visited the sportsbook at the M Casino in Las Vegas, one of several sportsbooks now run by Cantor Gaming, a division of Wall Street powerhouse Cantor Fitzgerald. Traditional sportsbooks stop taking bets when the sporting event in question begins. In contrast, Cantor allows “in-running betting”, a clunky phrase that means you can bet during the event: as touchdowns are scored, interceptions are made, home runs are stolen, or buzzers are beaten. Cantor went a step further and built a mobile device you can carry around with you anywhere in the casino to place your bets while watching games on TV, drink in hand. (Cantor also runs spread-betting operations in the UK and bought the venerable Hollywood Stock Exchange prediction market with the goal of turning it into a real financial exchange; they nearly succeeded, obtaining the green light from the CFTC before being shut down by lobbyists, er, Congress.)

Back to the device. It’s pretty awesome. It’s a Windows tablet computer with Cantor’s custom software — pretty well designed considering this is a financial firm. You can bet on the winner, against the spread, or on one-off propositions like whether the offensive team in an NFL game will get a first down, or whether the current drive will end with a punt, touchdown, field goal, or turnover. The interface is pretty nice. You select the type of bet you want, see the current odds, and choose how much you want to bet from a menu of common options: $5, $10, $50, etc. You can’t bet during certain moments in the game, like right before and during a play in football. When I was there only one game was available for in-running betting. Still, it’s instantly gratifying and — I hate to use this word — addictive. Once my friend saw the device in action, he instantly said “I’m getting one of those”.

When I first heard of Cantor’s foray into sports betting, I assumed they would build “betfair indoors”, meaning an exchange that simply matches bettors with each other and takes no risk of its own. I was wrong. Cantor’s mechanism is pretty clearly an intelligent automated market maker that mixes prior knowledge and market forces, much like my own beloved Predictalot minus the combinatorial aspect. Together with their claim to welcome sharps, employing a market maker means that Cantor is taking a serious risk that no one will outperform their prior “too much”, but the end result is a highly usable and impressively fun application. Kudos to Cantor.

P.S. Cantor affectionately dubbed their oracle-like algorithm for computing their prior as “Midas”, proving this guy has a knack for thingnaming.

CFP: Auctions, Market Mechanisms, and their Applications

From Peter Coles:

There is [less than] one week left to submit papers to AMMA, [The Second Conference on Auctions, Market Mechanisms and Their Applications], a market design conference that will be held in NYC this August. The conference brings together economists, computer scientists and practitioners who are interested in the use of market mechanisms to solve problems.

The best way to decide whether to submit to a conference you haven’t heard of is to look at the organizers and program committee. In this case, they’re superb.

Predictopus in the Times of India

Today, Yahoo! placed two full-page ads on the back cover of the Times of India, the largest English-language daily in the world, to promote Yahoo! Cricket, a site that reaches 13.4 percent of everyone online in India and serves as the official website of the ICC Cricket World Cup.

Take a look at the middle right of the second page: it says “Play exciting games and win big” and features… Predictopus! That’s the Indian spinoff of Predictalot, the combinatorial prediction game I helped invent.

Page 1 of two full-page Yahoo! Cricket ads in the Times of India, p. 31, 2011/03/30Predictopus on Page 2 of two full-page Yahoo! Cricket ads in the Times of India, p. 32, 2011/03/30

Predictopus has nearly 70,000 users and counting, and this ad certainly won’t hurt.


BTW, I grabbed these images from an amazing site called Press Display, which I discovered via the New York Public Library.

Times of India Mumbai edition
30 Mar 2011

Times of India Mumbai edition
30 Mar 2011

Also, congrats India, and thanks! I nearly doubled my virtual bet with the victory:

Dave's Predictopus prediction: India will advance further than Pakistan, 3/2011

Workshops @ACM Electronic Commerce: Ad Auctions, Social Computing, June 5, 2011

The 2011 ACM Conference on Electronic Commerce will be held June 5-9 in San Jose as part of the ACM Federated Computing Research Conference. FCRC is a collection of seventeen computer science conferences with joint plenary speakers, this year featuring David A. Ferrucci, head of IBM’s Watson project, CMU professor and GWAP founder Luis von Ahn, and 2011 Turing Award winner Leslie Valiant. I’d love to someday see a true unified computer science conference in the style of the math or economics national meetings. Barring that, FCRC is the next-best thing. I hope more conferences will join.

The EC’11 list of accepted papers is out and the program looks great (including six papers from Yahoo! authors). And it’s not too late to submit a paper to one of the associated workshops. Two of particular interest, both on June 5, 2011, are:

Workshop on Social Computing and User Generated Content

The workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners from a variety of relevant fields, including economics, computer science, and social psychology, in both academia and industry, to discuss the state of the art today, and the challenges and prospects for tomorrow in the field of social computing and user generated content.

Social computing systems are now ubiquitous on the web– Wikipedia is perhaps the most well-known peer production system, and there are many platforms for crowdsourcing tasks to online users, including Games with a Purpose, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, the TopCoder competitions for software development, and many online Q&A forums such as Yahoo! Answers. Meanwhile, the user-created product reviews on Amazon generate value to other users looking to buy or choose amongst products, while Yelp’s value comes from user reviews about listed services…

SUBMISSIONS DUE April 15, 2011, 5pm EDT

Seventh Ad Auctions Workshop

In the past decade we’ve seen a rapid trend toward automation in advertising, not only in how ads are delivered and measured, but also in how ads are sold… The rapid emergence of new modes for selling and delivering ads is fertile ground for research from both economic and computational perspectives…

We solicit contributions of two types: (1) research contributions, and (2) position statements…

Submission deadline: April 15th, 2011 (midnight Hawaii Time)

We’re baaack: Predictalot is here for March Madness 2011

March Madness is upon us and Predictalot, the crazy game that I and others at Yahoo! Labs invented, is live again and taking your (virtual) bets. Filling out brackets is so 2009. On Predictalot, you can compose your own wild prediction, like there will be exactly seven upsets in the opening round, or neither Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, nor Pittsburgh will make the Final Four. You’ll want your laptop out and ready as you watch the games — you can buy and sell your predictions anytime, like stocks, as the on-court action moves for or against you.

Predictalot v0.3 is easier to play. We whittled down the ‘Make Prediction’ process from four steps to just two. Even if you don’t want to wager, with one click come check out the projected odds of nearly any crazy eventuality you can dream up.

Please connect to facebook and/or twitter to share your prediction prowess with your friends and followers. You’ll earn bonus points and my eternal gratitude.

The odds start off at our own prior estimate based on seeds and (new this year) the current scores of ongoing games, but ultimately settle to values set by “the crowd” — that means you — as predictions are bought and sold.

Yahoo! Labs Predictalot version 0.3 overview tab screenshot

For the math geeks, Predictalot is a combinatorial prediction market with over 9 quintillion outcomes. Prices are computed using an importance sampling approximation of a #P-hard problem.

What kind of information can we collect that a standard prediction market cannot? A standard market will say that Texas A&M is unlikely to win the tournament. Our market can say more. Yes, A&M is unlikely to reach the Final Four and even more unlikely to win apriori, but given that they somehow make it to the semifinals in Houston, less than a two hour drive from A&M’s campus, their relative odds may increase due to a home court advantage.

Here’s another advantage of the combinatorial setup. A standard bookmaker would never dare to offer the same millions of bets as Predictalot — they would face nearly unlimited possible losses because, by tradition, each bet is managed independently. By combining every bet into a single unified marketplace, we are able to limit the worst-case (virtual) loss of our market maker to a known fixed constant.