Category Archives: commentary

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.

On Intrade CEO John Delaney’s death

A few words on the tragic death last May of John Delaney, the founder and CEO of prediction market company Intrade. John died near the peak of Mount Everest, climbing toward one of his life’s dreams and leaving behind a wife and three children, including one born only days before he died that he never met.

John founded Tradesports, a pre-cursor to Intrade, in 2000. Eventually, the non-sports contracts on Tradesports where spun off as Intrade, and Tradesports was shut down in 2008, in hopes of obtaining U.S. regulatory approval. I remember marveling at the technology, featuring ajax-ian magic like push updates — new bids appeared and filled bids disappeared live in a flash of color — well before its time, before we even knew what to call it.

The prediction market community embraced John, and John them. John was happy to take academics’ quixotic market ideas — like combinatorial markets, decision markets, merger markets, tax markets, or search engine markets — and float them on Tradesports or Intrade, and share back data for academic studies. I remember when we learned a Director at Intrade would speak at the first Prediction Markets Summit in 2005, we were thrilled to hear from a pioneer and innovator: one of the “big guns”. Chris Hibbert asked, “isn’t Tradesports the largest prediction market in the world?” It was hard to say: in a way, yes, it was and still is the largest market widely identified with the adjective ‘prediction’, but of course it depends how you define it: does Betfair count? Vegas? Stock options? If I recall, John himself spoke remotely at the second PM summit in New York.

Intrade became the prototypical example of a prediction market, mentioned in almost every academic paper on the subject. In 2008, Betfair, a goliath to Intrade’s David in terms of revenue and profit, got so annoyed they lashed out and sent the following attack on Intrade and defense of their own service dubbed Betfair Predicts (now shuttered):

InTrade’s election charts are republished frequently—despite continuing
problems with market manipulation.

Betfair is the world’s largest commercial prediction market with $33
Billion per year flowing through its exchange and is well known for
integrity and advanced technology…

I don’t believe I met John in person, but he and I emailed a bit, and beyond being whip smart and a fantastic entrepreneur, John was simply an incredibly nice guy. He kept repeating, at the end of nearly every email, that I must come to London so we could meet and have a beer. Talking to others, it seems I am far from alone in this standing offer from John. On the original prediction market mailing list, John Delaney was always the peacemaker: always diplomatic and rising about some surprisingly testy exchanges. He always spoke to raise the prominence of the field as a whole, ahead of his own interests with Intrade, not only believing but acting on his belief that “a rising tide lifts all boats”.

John didn’t seem like the type to seek out risk for the simple thrill of it; rather, he took calculated risks in business and life to progress. His success at work and at home attest to this. In hindsight, it’s easy to say he calculated wrong in attempting to climb Everest, but especially among prediction market proponents we know that decisions cannot be evaluated in hindsight. Decisions must be judged based on the information available at the time the decision is made. My guess is that John knew the risks and felt the climb was a gamble worth taking in an effort to achieve a long-standing goal and to accomplish a feat few others on the planet can claim.

John, you will be sorely missed, but your legacy lives on at Intrade, in the prediction market community, among your family and friends, and in the business world, sadly and suddenly now missing one of it’s great entrepreneurs with a spirit of adventure.

Crowdpark: Taking Facebook and now Florida by storm

Crowdpark logoCrowdpark is an impressive, well-designed prediction market game that’s already attracted 500,000 monthly active users on Facebook, the 11th fastest growing Facebook app in April.

It’s a dynamic betting game with an automated market maker, not unlike Inkling Markets in functionality (or even Predictalot minus the combinatorial aspect). What stands out is the flashy UI, both literally and figuratively. The look is polished, slick, refreshing, and richly drawn. It’s also cutesy, animation-happy, and slow to load. Like I said, Flash-y in every way. The game is well integrated into Facebook and nicely incorporates trophies and other social rewards. Clearly a lot of thought and care went into the design: on balance I think it came out great.

Crowdpark is a German company with an office in San Francisco. In addition to their Facebook game, they have German and English web versions of their game, and white-label arrangements with gaming companies. They launched in English just last December.

Crowdpark’s stunning growth contrasts with decidedly more mixed results on this side of the Atlantic. I wonder how much of Crowdpark’s success can be attributed to their German roots, their product, their marketing, or other factors?

Crowdpark has an automated market maker they call “dynamic betting” that I can’t find any technical details about [1]. Here’s their well-produced video explanation:

They say it’s “patent pending”, though my colleague Mohammad Mahdian did some nice reverse engineering to show that, at least in their Facebook game, they’re almost certainly using good-old LMSR. Here is a graph of Crowdpark’s market maker price curve for a bet priced at 1%:

Crowdpark's automated market maker price curve

Here is the raw data and the fit to LMSR with b=20,000.

risk   to win (CP)   to win (LMSR)
1 91 91.079482
2 181 181.750593
5 451 451.350116
10 892 892.847929
20 1747 1747.952974
50 4115 4115.841760
100 7535 7535.378665
200 13019 13019.699483
500 23944 23944.330406
600 26594 26594.687310
700 28945 28945.633048
800 31059 31059.076097
900 32979 32979.512576
1000 34740 34740.000000


Still, there’s a quote buried in the video at 0:55 that caught my attention: “you’re current profit is determined by the fluctuation of the odds”.

There’s only one market maker that I know of where the profit fluctuates with the odds, and that’s my own dynamic parimutuel market, which by coincidence recently went from patent pending to inventor cube delivered. :-)

David Pennock's dynamic parimutuel market (DPM) patent cube - 4/2011

With every other market maker, indeed almost every prediction market, the profit is fixed at the time of the bet. Add to that the fact that Crowdpark bought a majority stake in Florida horse racing circuit Saratoga Racing Inc. and plans to operate all bets exclusively through their system, leads me to wonder if they may have some kind of parimutuel variant, the only style of betting that is legal in the US.

Of course, it may be that I simply misinterpreted the video.


[1] The technical exec at Crowdpark seems to be Aleksandar Ivanov. I found a trade press paper on (internal) prediction markets he wrote in 2009 for the Journal of Business Forecasting.

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.

FBI seizes gambling domain names. Who’s next?

Michael Mitzenmacher recently made a “First they came…” argument, and now I will too.

Even if you detest gambling, this should send a chill down your spine: the FBI seized the domain names of several poker websites who operate offshore and arrested their owners.

The action exposes the lie that the US government does not control the Internet or does not exercise that control and perhaps hastens the day of a fragmented Internet. It’s an example of the government’s hypocritical position on Internet freedom: how can we express outrage at countries that block facebook or censor google when our own country seizes domain names and, in another recent example, tries to pass an Internet Blacklist Bill to block file-sharing websites? To the hundreds of thousands who spoke out against the latter, kudos, but I submit that the former poses just as dangerous a slippery slope.

These companies are obeying the laws of the countries in which they are based. Who are we to block them let alone seize their Internet property?

Update 2011/05/11: More scary developments in net censorship.

It’s Arab Spring, but is it Prediction Market Winter?

Is the growing prediction market industry graveyard an omen?

It’s hard to ignore the accumulating bodies, including, may they rest in peace, PPX, Hubdub, Protrade, Tradesports, Newsfutures, Hedgestreet, Yoonew, TheTicketReserve, FirstDibz, BettorFan, ipreo, Tech Buzz Game, The WSX, Storage Markets, FTPredict, real HSX, BizPredict [1], CasualObserver.net, Cenimar, Alexadex [2], Askmarkets, Truth Markets, BetBubble, Betocracy, CrowdIQ, Media Mammon, Owise, RIMDEX, Trendio [3], TwoCrowds, BBC celebdaq/sportdaq, Betfair Predicts, chrisfmasse.com [4], and more.

Is this churn rate normal for startups in general, even healthy? Is it a sign of PM’s place in the trough of the hype cycle? Is the current climate an opportunity for those left standing or someone new? Or does it simply suggest that prediction market proponents like me have lost?

A number of media-PM partnerships which on their face seem perfectly natural are history: USA Today+Newsfutures, Popular Science+HSX, Business 2.0+ConsensusPoint, Financial Times+Intrade, Techcrunch+Askmarkets [5], ABC7+Inkling [6], and CFO Magazine+Crowdcast.

At least two former PM companies found success only after switching gears: Protrade became Citizen Sports before being acquired by Yahoo! and Nigel euthanized Hubdub to focus on FanDuel. Cocision, launched just last fall, has already abandoned its PM roots in favor of breezy Q&A and voting.

Usable Marketeer Alex Kirtland nails exactly why all the “predict Wall Street” games may be fun but aren’t likely to be predictive. Research papers, including my own, report that the accuracy advantage of prediction markets, while real, may often be small compared to statistical models or polls.

Intrade, one of the most cited and well studied PMs, is trying hard with a radical remake that looks great and a new fee structure that’s likely to improve low-probability predictions. I don’t have any inside knowledge but the company and the exchange don’t seem especially strong; I even spotted some bugs in their exchange rules. The venerable Iowa Electronic Market and Foresight Exchange that, together with Robin, started it all, look, well, venerable. Betfair is still a powerhouse and soared in its IPO just last fall, but is perhaps showing signs of age as personnel turn over and the product remains decidedly 1.0.

A few startups like Crowdcast, MediaPredict, smarkets, betable, socialico/PremierX, and InklingMarkets are nimble and promising, but none have hit home runs yet. The SimExchange is well designed and chugging along. Bet2Give [7] and CentSports are both fascinating concepts and still alive, two of the most intriguing real-money markets. Others like ExtZy, RealityMarkets and PublicGyan are hanging on. New entrants like Prediculous, Predictalot, Predictopus, 4cast, beansight, I Called It, IBET, Prediction Book, HuffPo’s Predict the News, Slate’s Lean/Lock, Ultrinsic, Knew The News, Cantor Gaming’s Oracle [8], and the MNI Forecast Competition (Lumenogic) are still coming up, though at an admittedly slower pace than four years ago.

Update 2011/5/10: Crowdpark, a German company with an office in San Francisco, launched in English last December with a web game and an impressive, well-designed Facebook game that’s already attracted 500,000 monthly active users, the 11th fastest growing Facebook app in April. They have an interesting “patent pending” automated market maker that I can’t find any details about (yet).

One PM mailing list is of questionable transparency and another is often silent. The Prediction Market Industry Association is inactive.

The final post on Newfutures Blog in 2009 declares that “resistance is futile”. But is it the world’s resistance of PMs, or PMs resistance of irrelevance, that is futile?

Despite the negative tone of this post, I believe it’s the former. The prediction market spring will come. Here’s why. Prediction markets offer:

  1. Accountability
  2. Meritocracy
  3. A marketplace to reward information release
  4. Real-time updates
  5. Accuracy
  6. Increasing ease of use, as the technology matures and diffuses
  7. Self funding

No other prediction technology offers the same. There’s a great opportunity here for the companies that have squirreled away enough nuts to survive the winter.

P.S. Also read Paul Hewitt’s Prediction Market Prospects 2010.


Footnotes:

[1] In 2006, the teaser prediction for BizPredict was “Do you know when MySpace’s traffic will surpass Yahoo’s?”.

[2] Techcrunch declared Alexadex “the web 2.0 stock market”, back when Techcrunch encouraged Diggs

[3] I like Trendio’s post-mortem:

..Trendio rapidly became popular and attracted massive traffic from all over the world, as well as attention from major newspapers, TV-channels and blogs. To develop Trendio as a large-scale web property and an income-generating business would however have required to dedicate time and resources that I wasn’t able to provide.

I still believe there is a massive potential for prediction markets, both as games and for their predictive power…

[4] A truly sad loss, and not just because of the 2005 awards. Someone should archive the archive to be sure this gem, as information-rich as it was verbose and disorganized, survives. Hang in there Midas Oracle!

[5] Ironically, upon launch of Askmarkets in 2008 Techcrunch asked “who’s going to the deadpool?”

[6] Technically not dead, but seems neglected.

[7] We independently considered an idea similar to bet2give at Yahoo! in 2007 but never pursued it.

[8] Cantor Gaming’s odd-setting mechanism seems effectively like an automated market maker with intelligent prior.

Book of Odds is serious fun

In the Book of Odds, you can find everything from the odds an astronaut is divorced (1 in 15.54) to the odds of dying in a freak vending machine accident (1 in 112,000,000).

Book of Odds is, in their own words, “the missing dictionary, one filled not with words, but with numbers – the odds of everyday life.”

I use their words because, frankly I can’t say it better. The creators are serious wordsmiths. Their name itself is no exception. “Book of Odds” strikes the perfect chord: memorable and descriptive with a balance of authority and levity. On the site you can find plenty of amusing odds about sex, sports, and death, but also odds about health and life that make you think, as you compare the relative odds of various outcomes. Serious yet fun, in the grand tradition of the web.

I love their mission statement. They seek both to change the world — by establishing a reliable, trustworthy, and enduring new reference source — and to improve the world — by educating the public about probability, uncertainty, and decision making.

By “odds”, they do not mean predictions.

Book of Odds is not in the business of predicting the future. We are far too humble for that…

Odds Statements are based on recorded past occurrences among a large group of people. They do not pretend to describe the specific risk to a particular individual, and as such cannot be used to make personal predictions.

In other words, they report how often some property occurs among a group of people, for example the fraction all deaths caused by vending machines, not how likely you, or anyone in particular, are to die at the hands of a vending machine. Presumably if you don’t grow enraged at uncooperative vending machines or shake them wildly, you’re safer than the 1 in 112,000,000 stated odds. A less ambiguous (but clunky) name for the site would be “Book of Frequencies”.

Sometimes the site’s original articles are careful about this distinction between frequencies and predictions but other times less so. For example, this article says that your odds of becoming the next American Idol are 1 in 103,000. But of course the raw frequency (1/number-of-contestants) isn’t the right measure: your true odds depend on whether you can sing.

Their statement of What Book of Odds isn’t is refreshing:

Book of Odds is not a search-engine, decision-engine, knowledge-engine, or any other kind of engine…so please don’t compare us to Google™. We did consider the term “probability engine” for about 25 seconds, before coming to our senses…

Book of Odds is never finished. Every day new questions are asked that we cannot yet answer…

A major question is whether consumers want frequencies, or if they want predictions. If I had to guess, I’d (predictably) say predictions — witness Nate Silver and Paul the Octopus. (I’ve mused about using *.oddhead.com to aggregate predictions from around the web.)

The site seems in need of some SEO. The odds landing pages, like this one, don’t seem to be comprehensively indexed in Bing or Google. I believe this is because there is no natural way for users (and thus spiders) to browse (crawl) them. (Is this is a conscious choice to protect their data? I don’t think so: the landing pages have great SEO-friendly URLs and titles.) The problem is exacerbated because Book of Odds own custom search is respectable but, inevitably, weaker than what we’ve become accustomed to from the major search engines.

Book of Odds launched in 2009 with a group of talented and well pedigreed founders and a surprisingly large staff. They’ve made impressive strides since, adding polls, a Yahoo! Application, an iGoogle gadget, regular original content, and a cool visual browser that, like all visual browsers, is fun but not terribly useful. They’ve won a number of awards already, including “most likely company to be a household name in five years”. That’s a low-frequency event, though Book of Odds may beat the odds. Or have some serious fun trying.

Where is the betting market for P=NP when you need it?

HP research scientist Vinay Deolalikar has constructed the most credible proof yet of the most important open question in computer science. If his proof is validated (and there are extremely confident skeptics as you’ll see) he proved that P≠NP, or loosely speaking that some of the most widespread computational problems — everything from finding a good layout of circuits on a chip to solving Sudoku puzzles to computing LMSR prices in a combinatorial market — cannot be solved efficiently. Most computer scientists believe that P≠NP, but after decades of some of the smartest people in the world trying, and despite the promise of worldwide accolades and a cool $1 million from the Clay Mathematics Institute, no one has been able to prove it, until possibly now.

Scott Aaronson is a skeptic, to say the least. He made an amazing public bet to demonstrate his confidence. He pledged that if Deolalikar wins the $1 million prize, Aaronson will top it off with $200,000 of own money. Even more amazing: Aaronson made the bet without even reading the proof. [Update: I should have said "without reading the proof in detail": see comments] (Perhaps more amazing still: a PC World journalist characterized Aaronson’s stance as “noncommittal” without a drip of sarcasm.) [Hat tip to Dan Reeves.]

As Aaronson explains:

The point is this: I really, really doubt that Deolalikar’s proof will stand. And while I haven’t studied his long, interesting paper and pinpointed the irreparable flaw… I have a way of stating my prediction that no reasonable person could hold against me: I’ve literally bet my house on it.

Aaronson is effectively offering infinite odds [Update: actually more like 2000/1 odds: see comments] that the question “P=NP?” will not be resolved in the near future. Kevin McCurley and Ron Fagin made a different (conditional) bet: Fagin offered 5/1 odds (at much lower stakes) that if the question is resolved in 2010, the answer will be P≠NP. Bill Gasarch says that he, like Aaronson, would bet that the proof is wrong… if only he were a betting man. Richard Lipton recounts a discussion about the odds of P=NP with Ken Steiglitz.

But beyond a few one-off bets and declarations, where is the central market where I can bet on P=NP? I don’t even necessarily want in on the action, I just want the odds. (Really!)

My first thought was the Foresight Exchange. It does list one related contract — Good 3SAT Algorithm by 2020 — which should presumably go to zero if Deolalikar’s proof is correct. It hasn’t budged much, consistent with skepticism (or with apathy). My second thought was the PopSci Predictions Exchange (PPX), though sadly it has retired. InklingMarkets has a poll about whether P=NP will be resolved before the other Clay Institute prize questions, but not about how it will be resolved or the odds of it happening. (The poll is one of several markets sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program — hat tip to Vince Conitzer.) I don’t see anything at longbets, and anyway longbets doesn’t provide odds despite it’s name.

In 1990 Robin Hanson provocatively asked: Could gambling save science?. That question and his thoughtful answers inspired a number of people, including me, to study prediction markets. Indeed, the Foresight Exchange was built largely in his image. P=NP seems one of the most natural claims for any scitech prediction market.

All these years later, when I really need my fix, I can’t seem to get it!


2010/08/14 Update: Smarkets comes the closest: they have real-money betting on whether P=NP will be resolved before the other Clay Institute prize questions. They report a 53% chance as of 2010/08/14 (for the record, I would bet against that). What’s missing is when the award might happen and how the question might be resolved, P=NP or P≠NP. I also don’t see a graph to check whether Deolalikar’s proof had any effect.

If it wasn’t clear in my original post, I found Aaronson’s bet incredibly useful and I am thrilled he did it. I believe he should be commended: his bet was exactly what more scientists should do. Scientists should express their opinion, and betting is a clear, credible, and quantitative way to express it. It would be as shame if some of the negative reactions caused him or others not to make similar bets in the future.

I just wish there were a central place to make bets on scientific claims and follow the odds in the vision of Robin Hanson, rather than every scientist having to declare their bet on their own individual blogs.

Famous for 15 tweets

TV era: $quote = “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”;
Search era: $quote =~ s/minutes/links/;
Social era: $quote =~ s/links/tweets/;

This month I’ve had five times more traffic than in any other month since I began blogging in Oct 2006, even during woblomo.

Why? I paid Paul Graham a compliment that struck a minor viral nerve, spreading through twitter, facebook, and blogs and sending over six thousand people my way on July 16 alone according to quantcast. Of course most have since dispersed.

Oddhead Blog traffic according to Quantcast July 2010

Power on the web flows backward through referrals to the sites that people begin their day with, the sources of traffic. Referrals from social media, unpredictable and bursty though they may be, are inexorably on the rise. As they grow, power will shift away from search engines, today’s referral kings. Who knows, this may embolden publishers to take previously unthinkable steps like voluntary delisting, further eroding the value of search. This has all been said before, perhaps best by Mark Cuban starting in 2008. It would be a blow to openness and hurt users, but would spark a fascinating battle.

Another meta note: I installed a new WordPress theme: Suffusion. It’s fantastic: endlessly configurable, bug free, fast, and well designed. I happened upon it by accident when WP 3.0 broke my old theme and I couldn’t be happier. Apparently written by a teenager, I donated to his beer, er, coffee fund.