Category Archives: technology

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 * 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.

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.

mad scientist geek with test tube & lab coat

Casinos for geeks

Gambling has been mocked as “a tax on the mathematically challenged”. Gamblers are stereotyped as losers in life. Casinos reinforce this by literally kicking out people who display too much intelligence. They ban card counting and people who simply win too much. They don’t allow computers or Internet connections in the sports book to block out information. They emphasize familiarity over innovation, cementing their appeal to habitual gamblers over geeks.

floating dice 2 and 5In the eyes of a casino, a sharp is indistinguishable from a cheat. More than boring, this seems fundamentally unfair and unsustainable, inviting disguise. It also turns off a wealthy, influential, and game-loving segment of the population.

What I want: A casino by geeks for geeks that celebrates innovation, encourages cleverness, welcomes gadgets and wifi, and fosters hacking, outwit, and outplay.

At least one casino has seen the light. The M Casino in Las Vegas is parterning with Cantor Fitzgerald to support in-game sports betting with few rules and caps, inviting sharps to, more or less, “bring it on”.

…gamblers can bet on the game even during play, accepting ever-changing point-spreads and odds. They can invest money on a Knicks foul shot going through the hoop or a Dodger getting to first base — contending with ever-evolving odds.

More critically, bettors can create hedges while jumping in and out of positions. But instead of buying into the fast-breaking moves of Microsoft, they’re betting on the Mariners’ impending fortunes.

This form of wagering is new to Las Vegas but old-hat in other markets.

unlike in most other casinos, laptop computers are welcome.

…”The M wants [sharp bettors] to be there,” believes [professional sports-bettor Steve] Fezzik. “They want your information, and that’s a progressive attitude.

Kudos to M for taking a chance on a more interesting future and to Cantor for making it happen.

What Cantor is debuting may not be a whole lot more than betfair indoors, but it’s a long overdue start. Here’s to hoping we see even more innovation, including smarter and more expressive markets.

How high can high-level programming go?

Our first prototype of Predictalot was written mainly in Mathematica with a rudimentary web front end that Dan Reeves put together (with editable source code embedded right on the page via etherpad!). It proved the concept but was ugly and horribly slow.

Screenshot of pre-alpha Predictalot: Mathematica + etherpad + web

Dan and I built a second prototype in PHP. It was even uglier but about twice as fast and somewhat useable on a small scale (at least by user willing/able to formulate their own propositions in PHP). Yet it still wasn’t good enough to serve thousands of users accustomed to simplicity and speed.

Screenshot of alpha Predictalot: PHP + YAP

The final live version of Predictalot was not only pleasing to the eye — thanks to Sudar, Navneet, and Tom — but pleasingly fast, due almost entirely to the heroic efforts of Mridul M who wrote a mini PHP parser inside of java and baked in a number of datbase and caching optimizations.

Screenshot of live beta Predictalot: Java + Javascript + YAP

It seems that high-level programming languages haven’t climbed high enough. To field a fairly constrained web app that looks good and works well, we benefit greatly from having at least three specialists, for the app front end, the app back end, and the platform back end (apache, security, etc.).

Here’s a challenge to the programming language community: anything I can whip up in Mathematica I should be able to run at web scale. Math majors should be able to create Predictalot. Dan and I can mock up the basic idea of Predictalot but it still takes tremendous talent, time, and effort to turn it into a professional looking and well behaved system.

The core market math of Predictalot — a combinatorial version of Hanson’s LMSR market maker — involves summing thousands of ex terms. Here we are in the second decade of the new millenium and in order for a sum of exponentials to execute quickly and without numeric overflow, we had to work out a transformation to conduct all our summations in log space. In other words, programming still requires me to think about how my machine represents my number. That shouldn’t qualify as “high level” thinking in 2010.

I realize I may be naively asking too much. Solving the challenge fully is AI-complete. Still, while we’re making impressive strides in artificial intelligence, programming feels much the same today as it did twenty years ago. It still requires learning specialized tricks, arcane domain knowledge, and optimizations honed only over years of experience, and the most computationally intensive applications still require that extra compilation step (i.e., it’s still often necessary to use C or Java over PHP, Perl, Python, or Ruby).

Some developments hardly seem like progress. Straightforward HTML markup like border=2 has given way to unweildy CSS like style=”border:2px solid black”. In some ways the need for specialized domain knowledge has gone up, not down.

Visual programming is an oft-tried, though so far largely unsuccessful way to lower the barrier to programming. Pipes was a great effort, but YQL proved more useful and popular. Google just announced new visual developer tools for Android in an attempt to bring mobile app creation to the masses. Content management systems are getting better and broader every day, allowing more and more complex websites to be built with less time touching source code.

I look forward to the day that computational thinking can suffice to create the majority of computational objects. I suspect that day is still fifteen to twenty years away.

The most prescient footnote ever

Back in 2004, who could have imagined Apple’s astonishing rise to overtake Microsoft as the most valuable tech company in the world?

At least one person.

Paul Graham wins the award for the most prescient parenthetical statement inside a footnote ever.

In footnote 14 of Chapter 5 (p. 228) of Graham’s classic Hackers and Painters, published in 2004, Graham asks “If the the Mac was so great why did it lose?”. His explanation ends with this caveat, in parentheses:

And it hasn’t lost yet. If Apple were to grow the iPod into a cell phone with a web browser, Microsoft would be in big trouble.

Wow. Count me impressed.

To find this quote, search inside the book for “ipod cell”.

To get into a 2004 midset, look here and here.

Computer science = STEAM

At a recent meeting of the Association for Computing Machinery, the main computer science association, the CEO of ACM John White reported on efforts to increase the visibility and understanding of computer science as a discipline. He asked “Where is the C in STEM?” (STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, and there are many policy efforts to promote teaching and learning in these areas.) He argued that computer science is not just the “T” in “STEM”, as many might assume. Computer science deserves attention of its own from policy makers, teachers, and students.

I agree, but if computer science is not the “T”, then what is it? It’s funny. Computer science seems to span all the letters of STEM. It’s part science, part technology, part engineering, and part math. (Ironically, even though it’s called computer science, the “S” may be the least defensible.*)

The interdisciplinary nature of computer science can be seen throughout the university system: no one knows quite where CS departments belong. At some universities they are part of engineering schools, at others they belong to schools of arts and sciences, and at still others they have moved from one school to another. That’s not to mention the information schools and business schools with heavy computer science focus. At some universities, computer science is its own school with its own Dean. (This may be the best solution.)

Actually, I’d go one step further and say that computer science also involves a good deal of “A”, or art, as Paul Graham popularized in his wonderful book Hackers and Painters, and as seen most clearly in places like the MIT Media Lab and the NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program.

So where is the C in STEM? Everywhere. Plus A. Computer science = STEAM.**

* It seems that those fields who feel compelled to append the word “science” to their names (social science, political science, library science) are not particularly scientific.
** Thanks to Lance Fortnow for contributing ideas for this post, including the acronym STEAM.

Why doesn’t Pittsburgh have a Silicon Hill?

I grew up in Pittsburgh. I love Pittsburgh. I still run into people who believe Pittsburgh is a steel town. Pittsburgh is not that — the steel industry cleared out (and the air cleared up) before I moved there at age 10 in 1981 — though driving through its streets it sometimes feels like one: gritty row houses, dive bars, old-growth neighborhoods, and independent shops, worn and welcoming.

Then what is Pittsburgh?

A sports town, no doubt, but that doesn’t count.

A hospital town, perhaps. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is a sprawling conglomerate of hospitals, doctors, researchers, and medical school, growing organically and through acquisition. Several other private hospitals and networks dot the city.

But with one the the top five computer science departments in the world at Carnegie Mellon University churning out grads at all levels, you might think Pittsburgh would have the seeds of a high-tech ecosystem. Yet there are few major technology companies, startups, or venture capital firms to nurture them locally. (Two exceptions I can think of: Google and CombineNet. Update: Also Intel Labs Pittsburgh.) Instead, CMU students tend to flee for the coasts after graduation.

Could Pittsburgh develop a startup row, a mini Silicon Valley? Pittsburghers have been hoping for and heralding such a transformation for decades. Given the city’s famously steep (SF-worthy) gradients, there’s even a perfect name for it: Silicon Hill.

In selecting Pittsburgh for the G-20 summit, the Obama administration cited Pittsburgh as a post-industrial success story with “renewed industries that are creating the jobs of the future”. But that seems very glass half full as (paraphrasing) one of my Pittsburgh friends noted on Facebook.

Paul Graham wrote a terrific essay (as Paul Graham is wont to do) about how a city might go about buying their own Silicon Valley.* He concludes that it may be possible. “For the price of a football stadium, any town that was decent to live in could make itself one of the biggest startup hubs in the world.” His main conjecture is that the money would fund a large number of good local startups in their infancy but without forcing them to stay — the best startups simply won’t take money that constrains their future options. The funding would have to be rich enough and the environment nice enough that they simply would not want to leave.

Is Graham right and, if so, could Pittsburgh pull it off?

* See also Graham’s older and longer essay How to be Silicon Valley.

Wanted: Bluetooth sethead

In a typical pairing of a cell phone and a bluetooth device, the “smart” phone drives the “dumb” bluetooth. The computational brains and user interface controls live inside the cell phone together with the antenna. The bluetooth device simply follows orders. For example, a bluetooth headset acts as an alternate microphone and speaker for the phone. The bluetooth truly is an accessory to the phone.

I’d like a reverse sort of bluetooth device. A bluetooth “sethead”, if you will. The cellular antenna lives inside the earpiece, or maybe stays inside your pocket or bag — technically this is the “phone” but it is a dumb device with no screen or interface. The “bluetooth” part is the thing you hold in your hand with all the smarts: the processor, the address book, the screen, the controls, the camera, the gps, another microphone and speaker — everything you normally expect in a phone except the antenna.

Why do I want this? If it existed, I could choose any carrier with any phone. I select a dumb phone from the best carrier and a smart sethead from the best hardware company. A version of an iPod touch with a camera, microphone, and gps would make an ideal sethead.

A MiFi device comes close: it’s a dumb cellular antenna that creates as a mobile wifi hotspot that can connect you to Skype, etc. (I have one from Verizon Wireless and love it.) But it’s not “always on”. MiFi + iPod is great for making calls but not for receiving calls, so is not sufficient for replacing a cell phone.

Sure, the advent of setheads would speed the carriers’ transformation into “dumb pipes”, something they are resisting, but that is inevitable anyway.

The key to understanding net neutrality: Anonymity=good, egalitarianism=bad

For a long time I was terribly confused and conflicted about net neutrality (and embarrassed about being uncommitted on such a core issue in my industry). On the one hand, paying more for higher quality of service is only natural and leads to better provisioning of resources and less waste. HD movie watchers can pay for low latency streaming while email users need not. Treating their packets the same is madness, even worse legislating it so. On the other hand, many people I respect including economically literate ones vociferously argue for net neutrality. And Comcast “shaping” Skype traffic scores an 88 on the Ticketmaster scale of evil.

The key to understanding this debate is recognizing the difference between anonymity and egalitarianism. A mechanism is anonymous if the outcome does not depend on the identity of the players: two players who bid the same are treated equally. It doesn’t matter what their name, age, or wealth is, what company they represent, or how they plan to use the item — all that matters is what they bid. This is a good property for almost any public marketplace that ensures fair treatment, and one worth fighting for on the Internet. AppleT&T should not block Google Voice just because it’s a threat. In fact, even without legislation, it’s almost impossible to bar anonymous participation on the Internet. Service providers can, if forced to, encrypt their packets and hide their content, origin, and purpose, making them indistinguishable from others.

However no one would argue that everyone in a marketplace should receive identical resources. Players who bid more can and must be distinguished (for example, by winning more items) from players who bid less. So, while it’s wrong to discriminate based on identity, it’s absolutely essential to discriminate based on willingness to pay. That is the difference between an egalitarian lottery (silly) and an anonymous marketplace (good).

Somehow the net neutrality debate has confounded these two issues. I agree that any Internet constitution should include that all packets are equal regardless of their creator or purpose (charging $30 for “unlimited” data and in addition 30 cents per 160-char text message scores 72 on the ticketmasterindex). However, users or services who are willing to pay for it can and should receive higher quality. To do otherwise virtually guarantees wasting resources.

Update 2009/08/27: Mark Cuban (as always) says it well. [Via Tom Murphy]

Thank you Bangalore

Sunday I returned from a trip to Bangalore, India, where I gave a talk on “The Automated Economy” about how computers can and should take over the mechanical aspects of economic activity, optimizing and learning from data in the way people cannot, with detailed case studies in online advertising and prediction markets. You can read the abstract, watch archive video of the talk, view my talk slides, browse the official pictures of the event, or see my personal pictures of the trip.

Some say everything’s bigger in Texas (most vociferously Texans). They haven’t been to India. My talk is part of Yahoo!’s Big Thinkers India series — four talks a year from (so far) Yahoo! Research speakers. If the Thinking isn’t Big, the crowds certainly are — the events can draw close to 1000 attendees from, apparently, all over India. Duncan Watts says its the largest crowd he’s spoken too; me too. This time they disallowed Yahoo! employees to attend the main event and the hotel ballroom still filled to capacity.

Here is a linked-up version of my journal entry for the trip, a kind of windy and winded thank you letter to Bangalore. If you’re not interested in personal details, you might skip to Thoughts on Bangalore.

Getting there

The Philadelphia airport international terminal is dead empty. I breeze through security — the only one in line. I’m inside security two hours early thinking that either the recession is still in full force or traveling internationally on a Monday night out of Philadelphia is the best ever. Maybe not. Get on plane. Wait two hours on tarmac. Apparently a two hour layover isn’t enough leeway on international flights. Miss my connecting flight in Frankfurt by a few minutes. Team up with a fellow passenger in the same boat. We are rebooked via Dubai. Fly directly over Bagdad. Dubai is an impressive airport. Endless terminals lined with upscale shopping. Packed with Asians, Europeans at midnight and beyond. From there, Emerites Air to Bangalore. Only 9 hours behind schedule. Sneezing fits begin after 28 hours of airplane air.

Day 0: Yahoo! internal practice talk

Driver right there outside baggage claim, nice guy. Takes me to hotel. Over an hour. Traffic. Time for shower, NeilMed nasal rinses (bottled water), Sudafed, but not sleep. Call home. Yahoo! Messenger with Voice doesn’t roll off the tongue like ‘Skype’, but it rocks. Super clear and dirt cheap. Lauren and the girls are so sweet. Miss them. To Yahoo! office. Meet Anita, Mani. Time for Yahoo! internal version of Big Thinkers talk. Nose is still running. Drips and wipes during my talk. Talk goes well but I run out of time for prediction market section and this seems what people are most interested in. I’m glad I had the practice run to work out the kinks and rebalanced the talk. Back to hotel. Call home again for a recharging dose of home. I missed Ashley’s graduation from pre-school: she did great: they sang six songs and she knew them all. She was dressed up in a yellow cap and gown. I’m upset I had to miss such an adorable milestone but am proud of my little girl (and dismayed she is rapidly becoming not so little!). More NeilMed. Room service. (Called “private dining” here — sounds illicit.) Sleep! For a few hours at least. Wake up in the middle of the night since it’s NY daytime. Finally get back to sleep again.

Day 1: Meetings

Hard to wake up at 9am = midnight. Shower. Feel 1000% better. Driver takes me to the Yahoo! office. It’s in a complex with Microsoft, Google, Target, Dell, and many other US brands. Once you’re inside it’s like every other Yahoo! office except the food — built essentially to corporate spec. Meet with Anita, Raghu, and Rajeev: go over PR angles and they brief me on the media interviews. These guys and gal are on top of things. Meet with Mani and her team: great group. Skip intern pizza talks because I can’t eat cheese, going for the cafeteria instead. Mistake. Order a veggie grill thinking that since it’s grilled, it’s cooked enough. I only take a few bites of this before thinking it’s too risky. I eat some bread and Indian mixtures. Not sure what the culprit is but something doesn’t sit well in my stomach. Give prediction markets portion of my talk to a few interested people in labs. Very sharp group. Meet with Dinesh and Sachin, their intern, and one other. Interesting work. Meet with Chid and Preeti on Webscope. Back to hotel. Call Lauren. Good to hear her voice. Ashley wants to say hi. She’s so adorable. She finds it hilarious that I am about to have dinner while she is eating breakfast. I can hear her laughing uncontrollably at the thought. Sarah says hi too and even ends our conversation without prompting with a “bye, love you”. I go down to the restaurant for dinner. Have a chicken Indian dish with paratha (is it lachha paratha?) bread. Spicy (sweat inducing) yet so delicious. The bread is fantastic — round white with flaky layers. Back to room. TV. CNN. CNBC. ESPN. Hard to sleep. There is an incredible thunderstorm with torrents of rain. I open my balcony door briefly to catch its power. I find out later that monsoon season is just beginning. I also find out that it rained so hard and so long that the roads flooded to the point of becoming impassible. In fact, Anita, the Bangalore PR lead, had a near-disastrous experience in the rapidly flooding streets on her way home and had to turn back and check into a hotel before going home briefly in the morning and then back to Yahoo! for our am meeting. Finally get to sleep.

Day 2: My talk!

Hard to wake up at 8:30am too. Talk’s today! Nerves begin. Media interviews are first! Even worse. Turns out they went fine. Two nice/sharp reporters, especially the second one who really knows her stuff and spoke to us (Rajeev and I) for 1.5 hours. She’s especially interested in the prediction market stuff since that is something new. She may write two articles (for Business World India). Lunch, then a bit of time to rest and freshen up. Stomach is not doing well. Pepto to the rescue. Back down to lobby. They take my picture in the courtyard. Then into the ballroom. Miked. Soundchecked. They accept a final last minute change to my slides: hooray! Room starts filling. 100 people. 200. 300. Now 500. It’s time to start! Rajeev gives a very nice intro. I walk up the stairs onto the stage. I’m miked, in lights, speaking in front of 500 people expecting a Big Thinker. Here I go! “Four score and seven years…” Ha ha. Actually: “Thanks Rajeev, and thanks everyone for your time and attention. I am happy and honored to be here. I’m going to talk about trends in automation in the economy…”

David Pennock speaking at Yahoo! Big Thinkers India June 2009Audience at Yahoo! Big Thinkers India June 2009

65 minutes later “Thank you very much.” Applause. I think it went well: one of my better talks. I covered everything, including the prediction market stuff. It turns out, like at Yahoo!, and like the journalists, the audience is more interested in prediction markets than advertising. Lots of questions. Some I follow, some I can’t parse the words, others I hear the words but just don’t understand. I do my best. Several people mention they follow my blog: gratifying. After the official Q&A session ends, there is a line up of folks with questions or comments and business cards. It’s the closest I’ll ever be to a rock star. A handful of people wait patiently around me while I try to get to everyone. Eventually the PR folks rescue me and take me to a “high tea” event with Yahoo! Bangalore execs and some recruiting targets. Relief and euphoria kick in. It’s over. I talk with a number of people. I make my exit. Private dining. Call home. Lauren has explained to Ashley that I am on the other side of the world, so when she has the sun, I have the moon. So I can hear Ashley asking in the background, “does Daddy have the moon?” I do. She can’t stop laughing. A repeat of game 6 of the Stanley Cup is on Ten Sports India. I watch it, getting psyched for Game 7. I check online for Ten Sports schedule. Game 7 will be on at 5:30am! I can’t miss that! Set my alarm. Try to sleep. Can’t sleep. Try to sleep. Can’t sleep. Try with TV on. Can’t sleep. Try with TV off. Can’t sleep. Finally fall asleep… Alarm!

Day 3a: Penguins win the Stanley Cup!

Really hard to wake up at 5:30am. Actually maybe not quite as hard since it’s 8pm in my head. Game on! Nerves are racked up. Can’t sit down: bad luck. Pacing. No score first period. Tons of commercials, all for Ten Sports programming: wrestling, cricket, tennis. Every commercial repeats three times. Is period two coming? Yes, it’s back on! Pens score first! Fist pumping and muted cheering. Can they really do this? No sitting rule in full effect. Pacing. Pens score again! Talbot second goal. Wow, is this real? Can it be? Don’t think about it yet. Don’t celebrate to soon. Plenty of time left. Period two end at 2-0. Unbelievable. All the same commercials come back, three times each. Period three begins. Stand up. Pace. Clock ticks. Pens are playing too defensive: not taking shots, just throwing the puck out of their zone. This isn’t good. Detroit is getting tons of chances. Fleury is awesome. Five minutes left. I let myself think about winning the cup. Mistake! Detroit scores! It’s 2-1! Nerves are ratcheted up beyond ratcheting. I think about it all slipping away. How awful that would feel. If Detroit ties it up, imagine the let down, the blown opportunity. Clock ticks. More chances. More saves. More defense. It’s working! Detroit pulls their goalie. Pressure. Final seconds. Faceoff in our zone. Detroit wins control. Shot. Rebound. Right to a Red Wing — Nick Lidstrom — in perfect position. He shoots. Fleury swings around. He saves it! It’s over! Pens win the Cup! Super fist pumping, jumping around, dancing, muted cheering. They did it! How amazing it feels after last year’s loss to the same team. After falling behind 2-0 and 3-2 in the series. They came back! A delicious payback with the same but opposite script as last year: a two goal lead cut in half in the waning minutes, a flurry of attempts at the end including a few-inch miss of the tying goal in the last seconds. These guys are young and have the potential to rule hockey for several years if they’re lucky. Mario Lemieux is on the ice. How sweet. Twice as player, now as owner, the one who saved hockey in Pittsburgh. What a year for Pittsburgh sports! Two nail biter games, two comebacks, two championships. City of Champions again. Too bad the Pirates have no shot to join them in a trifecta. Back to sleep.

Day 3b: Sightseeing

Phone rings at 11am — my driver is here. Off to do some whirlwind sightseeing. Everyone here who finds out I have a day off recommends I leave Bangalore — Bangalore is just not that nice, nothing really to see, they say. They all recommend Mysore, 3.5 hours away, but that is too far for my comfort level given that my flight is late tonight and it’s supposed to thunderstorm. We start with some souvenir shopping on “MG Road”. My driver takes me to a store and waits in the car outside. I walk in an instantly there are people greeting me and showing me things. One aggressive man takes over and remains my “tour guide” through the whole store. The fact that I reward his aggressiveness by following along and eventually buying stuff will only bolster him to do more of the same in the future. Annoying but clearly it works. I do negotiate him down, but I leave still feeling I didn’t bargain hard enough and with a bit of distaste in my mouth that I fueled and validated the pushy tactics. Next we drive past parliament and the courthouse. Impressive, large, old buildings. But I can just gaze and take photos from the car — can’t go inside. Next we drive past Cubbon Park — tree lined paths and flower gardens in center city. Next is ISKCON temple. But it’s closed. So one more round of shopping at a place called Cottage Industries. I’m wary given the last experience, but go anyway. This one is better. Again one person escorts me around but I feel less pressure. Plus I’m more prepared to say no and negotiate harder. I leave with what seems like a fair amount of value in goods. I recommend Cottage Industries to future visitors: more professional, more familiar (items have price tags), lower pressure, greater variety, and higher quality than at least the first shop I visited. Now we’ve killed enough time and the ISKCON temple is open. It’s a giant Hare Krishna temple. The parking lot is full. I tell the driver it’s ok — we don’t need to go. He says “you go, you go”. “Ok” I say. We drive around again to the same full parking lot. The attendant waves at us to leave, blowing a whistle. My driver is talking to him. They are talking quite heatedly. The attendant in his official looking uniform is waving us on vigorously. Although I can’t understand the words, he is clearly telling us the lot is full and we must leave immediately — we are holding up traffic. My driver is getting more insistent. They are yelling back and forth. I have no idea what he says but it works. The guard let’s us in. Meanwhile another car sees our success and tries to argue his way in too but to no avail. I ask my driver what he said: he simply replies “don’t talk”. Indeed once we’re in, there is an empty spot. We put all my bags in my suitcase in the trunk and cover my backpack. We take off our shoes and my driver leads me to the temple. He knows the back entrance and is guiding me to cut in front of lines everywhere. We walk past the main attraction: the altar with some people on the floor worshiping. Then the line weaves past a gift shop of course: I buy a crazy looking book (Easy Journey to Other Planets). We need to kill some time. We go to the gardens again to walk around. We walk into the public library. Most books are in English. Most seem old and worn. The attendant says the library is 110 years old. We start walking through the garden but I am paranoid about mosquitoes/malaria so we turn around early to return to the car. We go to UB City where I meet Rajeev. It’s a thoroughly modern office tower half owned by Kingfisher of Kingfisher Airlines. The building is full of high-end shopping like almost any upscale western mall with all the same brands. Here is the Apple Store. Here is Louis Vuitton. We have dinner at an Italian restaurant that could be anywhere in the western world, owned by an Italian expat. The only seating is outside and I remain worried about mosquitoes but don’t see any. The food is good and the conversation is good.

This place is the closest I’ve seen of the future of Bangalore. In the center of town, a gorgeous building filled with gleaming shops and tantalizing restaurants and bars, with apartments and condos within walking distance, and a palm-tree-lined street leading to the central town circle and the park. As Rajeev says, though, whereas New York has hundreds of similar scenes, Bangalore has one. For now.

Thoughts on Bangalore

Bangalore is a city of jarring contradictions, a hard-to-fathom mix of modernity and poverty. Signs with professional logos and familiar brands are set askew on dilapidated shacks and garages lining the road. While many live on dollars and day and others beg, the majority are smartly dressed (men invariably in button-down shirts), have mobile phones, and are intelligent and friendly. There are gleaming office towers indistinguishable from their western counterparts, yet a strong rain can flood the roads to the point of become impassible for hours and day-long blackouts aren’t uncommon. Many billboards are in English, sporting familiar brands and messages. Others, like sexy stars promoting a Bollywood film, are entirely familiar, English or not. Others are impenetrable. Still another advertises a phone number to learn why Obama quoted the Koran.

BMWs and Toyotas join bikes, motorcycles, pedestrians, aging trucks and buses, and colorful open-air motorized rickshaws in a sea of disorganized line-ignoring sign-ignoring traffic. People drive here the way New Yorkers walk sidewalks: weaving past one another in a noisy self-organized tangle that somehow — mostly — works. You can eat outside in a restaurant bar next to upscale shops, a fountain, and smiling yuppies, yet worry that a malaria-infected mosquito lurks nearby or that a washed vegetable will turn a western-coddled stomach deathly ill. When two people ride a motorcycle, as is common, only the driver wears a helmet — the passenger clinging on behind does not: new and old rules on display atop a single vehicle. And the traffic. Oh, the traffic. Roads are clogged nearly every hour of every day. My Saturday of sightseeing was as bad or worse than weekday rush hour. The extent of congestion itself illustrates Bangalore’s two faces: so many people with youth (India is one of the youngest countries in the world), energy, purpose, and the means and intelligence to accomplish it overtaxing a primitive infrastructure. Buildings are going up according to western specs, but under old-time rules where corruption reins and bribery is an accepted fact of life by even the western-educated aspirational class (about 20% and growing, according to Rajeev).

Thoughts on Yahoo! Labs Bangalore

The folks I met are impressive. Rajeev has done a great job hiring talented, driven folks. Mani‘s group of research engineers is fantastic. One is headed to Berkeley for grad school and asks great questions about CentMail. Another proposes an attack on Pictcha. Another (Rahul Agrawal) has read up deeply on prediction markets, including Hanson’s LMSR.

Thoughts on the Yahoo! Big Thinkers India program

The whole event was organized to precision. Anita, the PR lead, was incredible. I especially appreciated the extra “above and beyond” touches like having someone pick up Yahoo! India schwag for my family and send it to my hotel after I forgot: so nice. Raghu, who arranged the media interviews, is supremely organized and on top of his game. The fact that the event draws such a large crowd shows that there is great thirst for events like this in Bangalore. I’m not sure whose idea it is, but it’s a brilliant one: great marketing and great for recruiting.

Thank you Bangalore

In sum, thanks to the people of Bangalore for a fascinating and rewarding trip. Thanks to Rahul at the travel desk whose instant replies about the driver arrangements calmed my nerves on the stressful day of my departure. Thanks to the Yahoo! folks who arranged and organized my talk, and the Yahoo! Labs members for seeding an exceptional science organization. Thanks to my driver who got me everywhere — including into full parking lots, back entrances, and fronts of lines — with efficiency, safety, and a smile (when I tipped him, I tried to think wwsd and wwdd: what would Sharad or Dan do?). Thanks to those who attending my talk and whom I met afterward: it’s gratifying and invigorating to see your level of interest and enthusiasm (and your numbers). And thanks Bangalore chefs for keeping any stomach upset relatively mild and brief.

At the airport on the way out, the flight is overbooked and they are offering close to US$1000 plus hotel to leave tomorrow. Not a chance. It’s been fun and an adventure but my nerves are on high and I miss my family: it’s time to make the 20+ hour journey home.