Turning in my Yahoo! badge

Last day: Turning in my Yahoo! badge after 8 or 10 years, depending how you countOn Thursday April 26, 2012, I resigned from Yahoo! after nearly 10 without actively changing jobs. Here is the full text of the goodbye letter(s) I sent. It’s the kind of long-winded last salvo that few people actually read, and now I’m foisting it upon you, dear reader, but I can’t help myself. Writing it brought back many wonderful memories and a tinge of sadness at the end of a truly amazing work environment for me, but I found the exercise rewarding. I really appreciate the many kind words and well wishes: some were poignant and immensely gratifying. The feeling is mutual. If nothing else, throughout my career I have had the great fortune of working with amazing people who are equal parts brilliant, effective, and nice, including my bosses, peers, reports, and students.

——– Original Message ——–
Subject: last Yodle (and last corny Yodle joke)
Date: Wed, 25 Apr 2012 16:44:31 -0400
From: David Pennock

After 8 wonderful years (almost 10 if you include Overture), it is with
very mixed emotions that I leave Yahoo!. My last day is tomorrow,
Thursday April 2526. You can reach me in plenty of ways and I hope you do:

[my email address]
+1-732-XXX-XXXX
Y!IM pennockd | facebook pennockd | twitter pennockd | linkedin
http://dpennock.com | http://blog.oddhead.com

I’ve grown to love this company (purple blood, yada yada) and one of the
deep ironies is that I have a feeling Scott Thompson may actually know
what he is doing and that maybe just maybe Yahoo!’s return to revenue
growth and good public perception will finally come (note I didn’t say
return to profitability — a steady $1 billion in cashmoney profit in
our pocket every year is very far from shabby). I plan to hold on to
some of my stock.

In the early 2000s Google was an amazing Bem+Wom story yet almost no one
(me included) had a clue how they would make money. In 2002, Gary Flake
introduced me to Overture, a company already making hundreds of millions
on search, and suddenly it was clear. I joined Gary in what became
Overture Research and later, under Usama Fayyad’s protective wing, the
inception of “Yahoo! Research Labs”. When Gary left, we hired Prabhakar
and Ron. The rest is history. Andrei, Andrew, Raghu, Ravi, Ricardo,
Preston, Duncan. An absolutely amazing place that was my pleasure to
watch grow and mature. I still remember the excitement of our first
offsite at Half Moon Bay to map out the future of the place.* I remember
a fateful week when Preston, Duncan, and David Reiley simultaneously
gave up their tenure to stay at Yahoo!.

From the beginning Prabhakar saw the importance of including social
science research in the mix for online media. In my little corner, where
we mixed computer science and economics (“algorithmic economics” we
called it), I believe we had enormous effect both internally and
externally. In 2007, Jeff MacKie-Mason, one of our Big Thinker lecturers
and now Dean of the School of Information at the University of Michigan,
wrote (ok, informally to me in email) that our group was “the most
exciting and successful group I’ve seen crossing the CS/Econ boundary”.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I believe we had a
significant positive impact on the growth in hiring in the social
sciences and in algorithmic economics at both Google and Microsoft. In
our group alone, we published more than 70 papers including at least two
award winners (Arpita just this year). We literally wrote the book
(chapters) on sponsored search and prediction markets. We co-founded the
Ad Auctions Workshop and NYCE Day. People who left often did
fantastically well, including Yiling Chen to Harvard, Mohammad Mahdian
to Google, and Dan Reeves to found his own successful startup Beeminder.
We filed dozens of patents (take that fb!). Former intern Nicolas
Lambert who is now a Stanford professor once told me he hoped to one day
say “it all started at Yahoo!”. I just left a Ph.D. student’s defense
whose three (!) weeks at Yahoo! were good for two chapters in his
thesis. We’ve had academic visitors leave after a week here and follow
up that they wanted to apply for a job — the environment was that great.

Inside Yahoo!, we worked on sponsored search (“squashing” and so much
more by the incomparable Sebastien Lahaie, who we recently discovered is
the central hub of research in New York), display ads, and UGC among
many topics. My passion has been in prediction (markets), and some of my
best memories have been trying to play product manager for a day (or a
couple months) for Predictalot and The Signal. Often it felt more like
operating a startup but with incredible advantages in resources, people,
and of course access to that monster traffic firehose. This was Yahoo!
at it’s best — marshaling talent from all over the globe in many
divisions and specialties to produce a product that no one had ever seen
before, and that no one including us even knew would work. One of the
saddest parts of departing now is leaving The Signal behind, an
incredible effort and in many ways our biggest and best, led by David
“force-of-nature” Rothschild and so many people behind it. Sadly, some
were let go and others are leaving on the own accord, and we’ll never
know what could have been in a counterfactual universe. Yet I believe
The Signal will live on in the good hands of those who remain, including
Chris Wilson, Alex, Ingemar, and the absolutely phenomenal Bangalore team.

By far the best part of working at Yahoo! was the people. It’s been my
pleasure to work with so many fantastic colleagues in Labs and
throughout the company. In the recent turmoil many in Labs have been, as
Preston said, “evaluated by the market”, and came out looking pretty
darn good, with calls, interviews, and offers from the best companies
(Facebook, Google, Microsoft) and universities. Early on we set a goal
to always hire above the mean, and I truly believe we did that. (Having
been here from the beginning, you can see where that leaves me in this
incredible crowd.) It’s a cliche but a true one: I am only as good as
the people working with me, and I’ve truly been blessed with amazing
colleagues, bosses, employees, postdocs, and interns. To Sebastien,
Arpita, Giro, and David Rothschild, plus Mridul, Navneet, Sudar, Arun,
Shrikant, Kim, Chris, Janet, Ron, Michael and dozens more and everyone
who has come before, from Preston & Prabhakar on down, I can’t thank you
enough and I owe you almost everything.

Goodbye for now,
Dave

* For history buffs, these were the people at the initial Yahoo!
Research offsite: Prabhakar Raghavan, Dennis DeCoste, David Pennock,
Omid Madani, Shyam Kapur, Andrew Tomkins, Winton Davies, Ravi Kumar,
Bernard Mangold, Ron Brachman, Marc Davis, Michael Mahoney, Kevin Lang,
Seung-Taek Park, and Dan Fain.

** I also remember the first few days of Yahoo! Research New York in
2005, with just Ron, John, and I. It’s amazing to see what we have
become since.

*** An even more arcane note of history: the Overture control room made
a cameo as NASA Mission Control in James Cameron’s 2003 movie Ghosts of
the Abyss. I am on somewhere on the cutting room floor trying to muster
that awestruck look one gets upon seeing alien life for the first time.

——– Original Message ——–
Subject: one more thing
Date: Thu, 26 Apr 2012 11:20:01 -0400
From: David Pennock

I’ll abuse my final act of spam to add one more thing. For those of you
remaining, you’re in good hands with Ron. I believe he can do something
special with Labs. In case you’re not familiar with his background, Ron
is frighteningly smart (Princeton undergrad, Harvard Ph.D.), was a
pioneer in artificial intelligence, wrote a seminal book on Knowledge
Representation, served as President of AAAI, the main AI society, ran
research groups at Bell Labs & AT&T, and is a highly organized, fair,
diligent manager who listens actively, gets things done, and, in
addition is a genuinely nice person. Best of luck to everyone.

Next post: A dream job come true.

Congratulations Pete Wurman and Kiva Systems, a bellwether of the automated economy

Congratulations to my academic sibling, friend, and Detroit Red Wings fan Pete Wurman, whose company Kiva Systems just became Amazon’s second largest acquisition ever.

In short, Kiva Systems designs, builds, and operates intelligent autonomous robots to pick and stow products in giant distribution centers for companies like Toys R Us, Walgreens, and Zappos. (The latter is an Amazon subsidiary.) The best way to understand Kiva Systems is to watch their robots in action: an amazing sight to see. Here is a clip from IEEE Spectrum:

In 2003, I remember sitting in the back seat of a car with Pete, him excitedly demo-ing the concept to me via an animated simulation on his laptop, little dots representing robots weaving in and out of each on the screen. (Pete’s laptop was a mac. In grad school, Pete was every bit the Apple fan I was and more. He and I programmed HyperCard and Newton together. Pete advocated for simplicity in design before it was cool. When I briefly switched to Windows, he never wavered.)

By 2006, the robots were real. Pete took me and our shared academic parent, Mike Wellman (who I believe also played an early role in the company), on a tour. Dots on a laptop had become squat orange robots receiving orders, fetching products, avoiding each other, seeking power, and otherwise navigating around a complex environment with computational minds of their own. The designs were inspired: for example, to lift a box, the robot spun underneath it to extend a corkscrew so that the product wouldn’t get jarred. They even added noise in the robots’ paths, so their wheels wouldn’t wear grooves in the floor (call it a floorsaver algorithm).

By coincidence, a few weeks ago, I was speaking to someone from Amazon who works on optimizing the way people (ha!) retrieve, store, and pack items in their distribution centers and I mentioned Pete’s company. He said “until that happens” he would focus on optimizing their current systems. Little did we (or at least I) know how quickly “until” would come.

Kiva Systems isn’t just an incredibly cool company run by amazing people. It’s a harbinger of things to come as the world moves inexorably toward an Automated Economy.

By the way, if you’re worried that robots will take jobs away from people, don’t. The world is a better place with mechanical devices doing mechanical tasks, leaving people to do more interesting and creative things, for example turning crazy ideas into companies. Remember that the purpose of jobs is to produce valuable things and improve the world. Despite political rhetoric, jobs are not an end to themselves. Otherwise, we should all be happy digging ditches and filling them back up, or pumping gas for people who would rather do it themselves. Think about where society should go in fifty or a hundred years when automation can handle more and more tasks. It would be a real shame if at that time people were still “working for a living” in jobs they don’t enjoy simply for the sake of keeping them occupied.

Prediction Market PowWow at Yahoo! Research New York, August 2011

I am incredibly lucky. Last August, I spent three days straight thinking almost exclusively about one topic: prediction markets, mostly algorithms. Even better, I was in great company: eleven incredible visitors from across the country took time out of their busy schedules to join me at Yahoo! Research NYC in an impromptu “prediction market powwow”: Yiling Chen, Sanmay Das, Lance Fortnow, Nicolas Lambert, Abe Othman, Mike Ruberry, Rahul Sami, Florian Teschner, Jenn Wortman Vaughn, Christof Weinhardt, and Lirong Xia. (Plus fellow Yahoos Miro Dudik, Sebastien Lahaie, and David Rothschild.) It’s amazing to have a job that allows this kind of time for research and blue-sky thinking: thanks Yahoo!. It’s humbling to have such stellar colleagues to work with: thanks everyone who came. It’s also wonderful to see “the kids” (former interns and postdocs) doing so well: Rahul now has tenure at U Michigan, Yiling is a professor at Harvard, Jenn is a professor at UCLA, and Nicolas is a professor at Stanford. (Lirong: You’re next!)

Here are our notes and here is a photo:

Prediction Market Powwow Yahoo! Research Aug 2011

Slipjockey: A marketplace for buying and selling Las Vegas bet slips

In late 2010, I began talking to a very early-stage startup named Slipjockey, based in Salt Lake City. When we first started corresponding, Slipjockey was little more than a good idea coupled with some very basic technology and passionate co-founders. In the time since, Slipjockey has taken appropriate steps to bring their concept to market, including securing a favorable legal opinion and filing a patent for their technology.

The core concept of Slipjockey is ingenious. It’s a marketplace for buying and selling Las Vegas bet slips. The process starts when someone makes a bet at a licensed Nevada race and sports book. If he or she wants to sell the bet slip for whatever reason — suppose the predicted team is winning in a landslide at halftime and the slip has doubled in value — they can log onto Slipjockey and list it for sale. Another Slipjockey user may agree to buy it. The buyer takes ownership of the bet slip and he or she can keep it or resell it again to another Slipjockey user, etc. The final owner of any bet slip is paid in full directly from the sports book that originally issued the ticket.

Real-time trading on Slipjockey is similar to the action on betting exchanges like Betfair. The key difference is that all wagers must originate from a licensed Nevada race and sports book where gambling is legal.

The Slipjockey business concept grew from the notion that handicappers should have an option other that win, lose, or push. Slipjockey provides that fourth option by enabling handicappers to terminate their outcome risk, locking in a gain or avoiding a total loss prior to the end of the event. With the growth in live betting (aka “in-running betting”) around the world, and in Las Vegas courtesy of Cantor Fitzgerald, it’s clearly an option that people want.

Initially, Slipjockey is focused on launching with coverage of US football, tennis, and golf before expanding into other sports.

I’ve spoken mainly with Ryan Eads and his brother Rory, two of the co-founders. They are smart, well spoken, and tireless entrepreneurs. I have every expectation that, to the extent this idea has wings — and I believe it does — they will make it fly.

The first question you’re likely to ask is: is this legal? Indeed, that’s the first question I asked Ryan. As a pre-condition to launching, he secured a legal opinion from a former Nevada Gaming Control Board attorney that says, in effect, that because bets originate in Las Vegas and are ultimately paid out in Las Vegas, the Slipjockey exchange is legal. The attorney’s opinion is just that: an opinion, and not a guarantee. But it is convincing and credible. Certainly Slipjockey users are safe.

Currently, Slipjockey is inviting users to participate in a soft launch for trading National Football League games. To participate, create a profile at www.slipjockey.com and send an email to info@slipjockey.com. Mention that you read my blog post and I’m sure they’ll send you an invitation containing all the details if they have spots remaining.

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, Market Mechanisms and Their Applications (AMMA) is next Monday and Tuesday August 22-23, 2011, 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.

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.

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:

Workshops:

  • 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

Tutorials:

  • 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!

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.

Musings of a computer scientist on predictions, odds, and markets