Saturday, March 26, 2016

Peter Thiel: Startups shouldn't be looking to disrupt

Silicon Valley has become obsessed with "disruption." ...

However, disruption has recently transmogrified into a self-congratulatory buzzword for anything posing as trendy and new. This seemingly trivial fad matters because it distorts an entrepreneur's self-understanding in an inherently competitive way. The concept was coined to describe threats to incumbent companies, so startups' obsession with disruption means they see themselves through older firms' eyes. If you think of yourself as an insurgent battling dark forces, it's easy to become unduly fixated on the obstacles in your path. But if you truly want to make something new, the act of creation is far more important than the old industries that might not like what you create. Indeed, if your company can be summed up by its opposition to already existing firms, it can't be completely new and it's probably not going to become a monopoly.

Disruption also attracts attention; disruptors are people who look for trouble and find it. ... Think of Napster... Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, Napster's then-teenage founders, credibly threatened to disrupt the powerful music recording industry in 1999. The next year, they made the cover of Time magazine. A year and a half after that, they ended up in bankruptcy court.

PayPal could be seen as disruptive, but we didn't try to directly challenge any large competitor. It's true that we took some business away from Visa when we popularized internet payments... But since we expanded the market for payments overall, we gave Visa far more business than we took.
--Peter Thiel, Zero to One, on the real downside of a trendy buzzword

The hottest Ph.D. market in the world

Fei-Fei Li, a Stanford University professor who is an expert in computer vision, said one of her Ph.D. candidates had an offer for a job paying more than $1 million a year, and that was only one of four from big and small companies.
--John Markoff and Steve Lohr, NYT, on the brains arms race in artificial intelligence

Friday, March 25, 2016

Why are there so many one-word pop song titles?

Over the last several years, pop music has been inundated by massive hits with one-word song titles: “Happy”, “Fancy”, “Rude”, “Problem”, “Jealous”, “Chandelier, “Hello”, and “Sorry” are just a few examples of this trend. ...

We analyzed Billboard Hot 100 song title data and discovered a steady upward trend in the number of one-word titles. Today, the probability of a one-word title is two and a half times greater than in the 1960s. The average number of words per song title has also declined substantially.

We can’t be sure, but it is probably no accident that the shrinking of the song title coincided with the rising importance of single sales. ... With the single replacing the album as the most important commodity in popular music over the last twenty years, the music industry has become exacting about improving the chances of a song’s commercial success. ...

Why might shorter song titles be better commercially? Mostly because they are easier to remember, particularly if they are repeated over and over in the song. The last thing the music industry wants is for you to love a song but be unable to remember its name when you go to stream or download the song. But it’s tough to forget “Hello” or “Happy” when Adele and Pharrell keep repeating the one-word title throughout the song. ...

If our hypothesis that commodification led to the shortening song title is correct, then we would expect to see even shorter titles at the very top of the charts. And that is just what we found. The following chart shows the trend in single word song titles over time for songs that reached the top 20—and songs that did not.

--Dan Kopf, Priceonomics, on unforeseen consequences of the MP3

The emptiness of bucket-list living

As a therapist, I’ve talked to numerous seniors as both patients and colleagues. Rather than feeling exhilarated by a life of bucket-list adventures, they often end up feeling depressed and disconnected.

As they travel the world to soak up experiences, too many seniors inevitably lose track of what really matters—their connections to family, friends and community. They feel like strangers in their own homes. Eventually, the bucket list becomes something of an addiction: The high from an adventure doesn’t last, so seniors find themselves piling on experiences to keep the thrills coming, further alienating them from real life back home.

There’s a way out of this trap. Retirees should think about using all of the advantages that make a bucket list possible, such as wealth and vigor, to build something much deeper and more meaningful. Instead of taking a dream vacation to chase fleeting thrills, they should use their time to create something more lasting instead—whether that means building bonds with family or their community or reimagining travel adventures as an opportunity to share experiences and wisdom with grandchildren.
--Marc Agronin, WSJ, on doing what really matters

Monday, March 14, 2016

Gale-Shapley was rejected twice for being too simple

One of Mr Shapley’s better-known achievements is the Gale-Shapley matching algorithm, which he devised after an old university friend (David Gale) asked for help to solve a problem. Given two groups of people, each with slightly different preferences, is there a way to match them in such a way that people aren’t constantly ditching their partner? After much head-scratching, Mr Gale suspected there was no solution, but could not prove it. As Mr Shapley told it, the solution took him the best part of an afternoon.

The solution is as follows: imagine a hall full of heterosexual singletons, with equal numbers of men and women. They have done enough idle chitchat to know who prefers whom—everyone has their own ranking of people in the other group. In round one, a starting gun is fired, and each man approaches his favourite women. The women reject everyone apart from their favourite, and then the process is repeated in a second round. No man should look too smug having not been rejected; if a woman is made a better offer, she should ditch an earlier one. The rounds continue until everyone is matched. The outcome is ‘stable’; no two people would prefer to partner with each other than their current match, otherwise the algorithm would already have paired them.

Mr Shapley wrote up the paper with Mr Gale, proving without equations that this method would always yield a stable solution. After two initial rejections (for being too simple) it was published, and fifty years later in 2012 he won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences “for the theory of stable allocations and the practice of market design” (see Free Exchange column here).
--The Economist on Lloyd Shapley (1923-2016)

Saturday, March 12, 2016

People in richer cultures cry more

In 1906, the American psychologist Alvin Borgquist considered the fruits of his own global survey of explorers and missionaries, and asserted that “tears are more frequently shed among the lower races of mankind than among civilised people.” Borquist’s terminology may not have survived the 20th century, but the assumption of Western emotional dryness proved extraordinarily durable. ...

The modern era was seemingly content with this narrative. Then, in 2011, a team of Dutch clinical psychologists produced a study that consigned it to the out-tray of history. Ad Vingerhoets and his team examined data from 37 countries – the results of interviews in which respondents had told stories of their lachrymal lives. ... “Individuals living in more affluent, democratic, extroverted, and individualistic countries,” they wrote, “tend to report to cry more often.” Although people enduring unenviable economic circumstances might be more plagued by depression, those from richer cultures shed more tears.

Australasian and American men emerged as the weepiest in the world; their Nigerian, Bulgarian and Malaysian counterparts the most dry eyed. Women in Sweden outcried those in Ghana and Nepal. The female populations of countries where gender equality was highest wept more copiously than those where it was lower. The evidence also showed – contrary to centuries of stereotyping – that the inhabitants of colder climates wept more frequently than those who lived in warmer zones. Tears, the study suggested, were not evidence of primitivism, as they had been for Darwin. They were not even good indicators of distress. Rather than being the habit of the wretched of the Earth, weeping appeared to be an indicator of privilege – a membership perk enjoyed in some of the world’s most comfortable and liveable societies. “If you live in really distressing and difficult circumstances, crying is a luxury,” says Dixon. “We know when we have been bereaved, we might be so shocked or traumatised that tears don’t come. So perhaps we should see tears as a sign of moderate grief, of bearable negative emotion. If you are enduring extreme distress or extreme hardship, that is not the time for tears.” ...

In 1890, the philosopher William James drew a distinction between the “crying fit” – a psychological event accompanied by “a certain pungent pleasure” – and the much less bearable sensation of “dry and shrunken sorrow”. Some experiences, it seems, are too bleak for tears. Former inmates of Nazi concentration camps have reported, sometimes guiltily, that they did not weep during their ordeal. At a war-crimes trial in May 2015, Susan Pollock, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, recalled her dry eyes as she watched her mother being despatched to the gas chamber. “I wasn’t crying,” she said. “I just wanted to recede into myself, never to be seen.”
--Matthew Sweet, 1843 Magazine, on the luxury of tears

Friday, March 11, 2016

The emergence of a new intelligence

At first, Fan Hui thought the move was rather odd. But then he saw its beauty.

“It’s not a human move. I’ve never seen a human play this move,” he says. “So beautiful.” It’s a word he keeps repeating. Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.

The move in question was the 37th in the second game of the historic Go match between Lee Sedol, one of the world’s top players, and AlphaGo, an artificially intelligent computing system built by researchers at Google. Inside the towering Four Seasons hotel in downtown Seoul, the game was approaching the end of its first hour when AlphaGo instructed its human assistant to place a black stone in a largely open area on the right-hand side of the 19-by-19 grid that defines this ancient game. And just about everyone was shocked.

“That’s a very strange move,” said one of the match’s English language commentators, who is himself a very talented Go player. Then the other chuckled and said: “I thought it was a mistake.” But perhaps no one was more surprised than Lee Sedol, who stood up and left the match room. “He had to go wash his face or something—just to recover,” said the first commentator.

Even after Lee Sedol returned to the table, he didn’t quite know what to do, spending nearly 15 minutes considering his next play. AlphaGo’s move didn’t seem to connect with what had come before. In essence, the machine was abandoning a group of stones on the lower half of the board to make a play in a different area. AlphaGo placed its black stone just beneath a single white stone played earlier by Lee Sedol, and though the move may have made sense in another situation, it was completely unexpected in that particular place at that particular time—a surprise all the more remarkable when you consider that people have been playing Go for more than 2,500 years. The commentators couldn’t even begin to evaluate the merits of the move.

Then, over the next three hours, AlphaGo went on to win the game, taking a two-games-to-none lead in this best-of-five contest. ...

Rather unexpectedly, I felt this sadness as the match ended and I walked towards the post-game press conference. ... Oh-hyoung Kwon, a Korean who helps run a startup incubator in Seoul, later told me that he experienced that same sadness—not because Lee Sedol was a fellow Korean but because he was a fellow human. Kwon even went so far as to say that he is now more aware of the potential for machines to break free from the control of humans, echoing words we’ve long heard from people like Elon Musk and Sam Altman. “There was an inflection point for all human beings,” he said of AlphaGo’s win. “It made us realize that AI is really near us—and realize the dangers of it too.”
--Cade Metz, Wired, on childhood's end

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Super Size Me doesn't replicate

This is the movie that made you swear you'd never set food in a McDonald's again (until the next time you drove by one). For 30 days, Morgan Spurlock decided he would only eat food sold by McDonald's. He had to eat everything on the menu at least once, had to have three meals a day, and would only Supersize when offered. He documented the bizarre and terrifying changes his body went through while eating what according to science is not actual food.

In one scene, this nice doctor tells Spurlock he's been eating an average of 5,000 calories a day, even though he only Supersized 9 in 30 meals. At the end of the documentary, Spurlock had not only gained a bunch of weight and seen his cholesterol go through the roof (as you'd expect), but also had severe liver damage, as well as mood swings and depression.

Here's the thing: No one has been able to replicate Spurlock's results, and even basic math disputes the claim that his McDiet consisted of 5,000 calories a day.

As Tom Naughton points out in his documentary, Fat Head, there's simply no way Spurlock could have been eating that much food if he was sticking to his own rules. ... Naughton attempted to contact Spurlock to obtain his food log, but Spurlock (who makes a huge deal in his documentary about McDonald's never calling him back) never called him back.

Meanwhile, researchers from the Making Sure Movies Aren't Stupid department of Sweden's University of Linkoping tried to replicate Spurlock's experiment by tasking healthy college students with the challenge of eating 6,000 calories of fast food per day, inadvertently also answering the question "What's the easiest way to get guinea pigs ever?" At the end of the 30 days, the students had none of the liver or cholesterol troubles Spurlock reported. According to the guy in charge of the experiment (aka an actual scientist, not the guy who created MTV's I Bet You Will), the students' metabolism was able to adapt to the extra amount of food they were eating. They did feel more tired, but none of them experienced the mood swings and depression Spurlock claimed to have endured.
--Amanda Mannen, Cracked, on Hollywood science. HT: DB