Tim Wu writes for the New Yorker about how Netflix uses a ~70/30 combination of data and human judgment to determine their recommendations and what shows/movies to make.
Over the years, however, I've started to wonder whether Netflix's big decisions are truly as data driven as they are purported to be. The company does have more audience data than nearly anyone else (with the possible exception of YouTube), so it has a reason to emphasize its comparative advantage. But, when I was reporting a story, a couple of years ago, about Netflix's embrace of fandom over mass culture, I began to sense that their biggest bets always seemed ultimately driven by faith in a particular cult creator, like David Fincher ("House of Cards"), Jenji Leslie Kohan ("Orange is the New Black"), Ricky Gervais ("Derek"), John Fusco ("Marco Polo"), or Mitchell Hurwitz ("Arrested Development"). And, while Netflix does not release its viewership numbers, some of the company's programming, like "Marco Polo," hasn't seemed to generate the same audience excitement as, say, "House of Cards." In short, I do think that there is a sophisticated algorithm at work here -- but I think his name is Ted Sarandos.
I presented Sarandos with this theory at a Sundance panel called "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Trust the Algorithm," moderated by Jason Hirschhorn, formerly of MySpace. Sarandos, very agreeably, wobbled a bit. "It is important to know which data to ignore," he conceded, before saying, at the end, "In practice, its probably a seventy-thirty mix." But which is the seventy and which is the thirty? "Seventy is the data, and thirty is judgment," he told me later. Then he paused, and said, "But the thirty needs to be on top, if that makes sense."
This reminds me of the situation in chess, where cyborg human/computer teams can beat computer- or human-only players in chess, although perhaps for not much longer.
Some of you will know that Average is Over contains an extensive discussion of "freestyle chess," where humans can use any and all tools available -- most of all computers and computer programs -- to play the best chess game possible. The book also notes that "man plus computer" is a stronger player than "computer alone," at least provided the human knows what he is doing. You will find a similar claim from Brynjolfsson and McAfee.
Computer chess expert Kenneth W. Regan has compiled extensive data on this question, and you will see that a striking percentage of the best or most accurate chess games of all time have been played by man-machine pairs. Ken's explanations are a bit dense for those who don't already know chess, computer chess, Freestyle and its lingo, but yes that is what he finds, click on the links in his link for confirmation. In this list for instance the Freestyle teams do very very well.
I wonder what the human/cyborg split is at Buzzfeed or Facebook? Or at food companies like McDonald's or Kraft? Or at Goldman Sachs?
From the newly launched site for the National Audubon Society, some gorgeous photos of owls from Brad Wilson.
It's not easy to get owls to mug for the camera. Even in captivity the birds remain aloof, unruffled by the flash and unmoved by attempts to bribe them. Photographer Brad Wilson learned that lesson firsthand after trying to win over owls from the World Bird Sanctuary in St. Louis and The Wildlife Center near Espanola, New Mexico. He spent hours with each bird, trying to capture its direct gaze. "It's hard to get animals to look at you like humans do," he says. "That shot became my holy grail."
I've featured Wilson's animal photography on the site before. Tons more on his site.
Wyatt Hull is a designer and photographer who has had this idea kicking around in his head for a while: a wall calendar that uses the signs of the Zodiac (Capricorn, Libra, Pisces) as the "months". Hull has turned this idea into a labor-of-love personal project on Kickstarter, the Astrologicalendar.
I admit to being initially skeptical when I first heard about the project because the pseudoscience of horoscopes have given the Zodiac a bad name. But after trading emails with Hull and watching the video, I was persuaded because 1) this doesn't have anything to do with horoscopes (aside from the winking references to Mercury being in retrograde); 2) the Astrologicalendar simply trades one arbitrary measure of a year's time (the Gregorian calendar) for another (the Zodiac); and 3) and the calendar itself is a beautiful design object. The calendar runs from Aries 2015 (Mar 21) to Pisces 2016 (Mar 20) and each page features an aerial photograph taken by Hull superimposed with a simple star chart of the corresponding constellation...no woodcut fish or crabs to be seen.
In addition to single calendar orders, Hull is also offering bulk orders (2, 5, or 10 calendars at a time), signed 12x12" and 20x20" prints, and even a personalized calendar with custom photography and important dates. Astrologicalendar is a fun and unusual way of contemplating the passage of a year; head on over to Kickstarter and get yours today.
The producers of A Most Violent Year, one of the year's most acclaimed movies, are doing something interesting to promote their film. They're running a blog that posts all sorts of media and information about NYC in 1981, the year the film is set. Today, they released a short documentary that features interviews with some people who were scraping together lives in NYC circa 1981. It's worth watching:
Featuring Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa, performance artist and former Warhol Factory fixture Penny Arcade, actress Johnnie Mae, Harlem street-style legend Dapper Dan, auto body shop owner Nick Rosello, and trucking union rep Wayne Walsh.
The trailer for A Most Violent Year is here...I've heard good things about this one and hope to catch it soon.
From Marginal Revolution University, three short videos on the economic concepts of supply, demand, and equilibrium using oil as an example good.
This is an ultra-HD time lapse of planet Earth in infrared. Infrared light is absorbed by clouds and water vapor, so the result is a sphere of roiling storms and trade winds.
Here's a video with both hemispheres at once and another offering a closer view. If you've got a 4K display, this will look pretty incredible on it. James Tyrwhitt-Drake has done a bunch of other HD videos of the Earth and Sun, including Planet Earth in 4K and the Sun in 4K.
Administrators at Palm Desert High School in California have banned 66 students who never got measles vaccinations.
"I think some parents see it as a personal choice, like homeschooling. But when you choose not to vaccinate, you're putting other children at risk." From WaPo: Why this baby's mom is so angry at the anti-vaxxers.
"I respect people's choices about what to do with their kids, but if someone's kid gets sick and gets my kid sick, too, that's a problem." A Marin County father has demanded that his district keep unvaccinated kids out of school.
Vox: How an Amish missionary caused 2014's massive measles outbreak.
Bonus tweet: "If my kid can't bring peanut butter to school, yours shouldn't be able to bring preventable diseases."
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In the tradition of the 80-minute video of the South China Sea shot from the bow of a container ship, here's six high-definition hours of 8000 fish and other aquatic animals swimming in the massive Ocean Voyager tank at the Georgia Aquarium.
Are you relaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaxed? (via @riondotnu)
A flock of starlings is called a murmuration, an apt word because the flocks move like a rumor pulsing through a crowded room. This is a particularly beautiful murmuration observed in Utrecht, The Netherlands.
Clive Thompson writes about the newest innovation in junk mail marketing: handwriting robots. That's right, robots can write letters in longhand with real ballpoint pens and you can't really tell unless you know what to look for. Here's a demonstration:
But it turns out that marketers are working diligently to develop forms of mass-generated mail that appear to have been patiently and lovingly hand-written by actual humans. They're using handwriting robots that wield real pens on paper. These machines cost up to five figures, but produce letters that seem far more "human". (You can see one of the robots in action in the video adjacent.) This type of robot is likely what penned the address on the junk-mail envelope that fooled me. I saw ink on paper, subconsciously intuited that it had come from a human (because hey, no laser-printing!) and opened it.
Handwriting, it seems, is the next Turing Test.
There is also a company that provided handwritten letters for sale professionals and I don't know if that or the robot letters are more unusual.
I've caught a couple of episodes of CNN's Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown and I've been impressed with the show so far. In it, chef/author Anthony Bourdain travels to places off the beaten path and explores the local culture. But it's not just about food and culture as with his previous shows. In Parts Unknown, Bourdain also delves into local politics and social issues. In Iran, he spoke with journalists about their tenuous relationship with the government (and two of the journalists he spoke with were subsequently arrested). Episodes in the Congo, Myanmar, and Libya are produced with a focus on their oppressive governments, past and present. Even in the Massachusetts episode, he talks about his former heroin addiction and the current addiction of poor whites in the US. Many of the places he visits, we only hear about the leadership and bad things that happen on the news, but Bourdain meets with the locals and finds more similarities amongst cultures than differences. I'd never considered going to visit someplace like Iran, but Parts Unknown has me considering it...what a great people.
Season four recently wrapped up and they're shooting season five now. The first three seasons are currently available on Netflix and all four seasons are on Amazon. (FYI to the web team at CNN: "Unknown" is misspelled in the <title> of that page.)
Unreal Engine 4 is the latest edition of Epic Games' acclaimed gaming engine for creating realistic gaming worlds. UE4 and its predecessors power all sorts of games, from Gears of War to BioShock Infinite to iOS games. But level designer Dereau Benoit recently used UE4 to model a contemporary Parisian apartment and damn if it doesn't look 100% real. Take a look at this walkthrough:
This + Oculus Rift = pretty much the future. (via hn)
In their latest full episode, Radiolab examines the concept of worth, particularly when dealing with things that are more or less priceless (like human life and nature).
This episode, we make three earnest, possibly foolhardy, attempts to put a price on the priceless. We figure out the dollar value for an accidental death, another day of life, and the work of bats and bees as we try to keep our careful calculations from falling apart in the face of the realities of life, and love, and loss.
I have always really liked Radiolab, but it seems like the show has shifted into a different gear with this episode. The subject seemed a bit meatier than their usual stuff, the reporting was close to the story, and the presentation was more straightforward, with fewer of the audio experiments that some found grating. I spent some time driving last weekend and I listened to this episode of Radiolab, an episode of 99% Invisible, and an episode of This American Life, and it occurred to me that as 99% Invisible has been pushing quite effectively into Radiolab's territory, Radiolab is having to up their game in response, more toward the This American Life end of the spectrum. Well, whatever it is, it's great seeing these three radio shows (and dozens of others) push each other to excellence.
Being an avid eater and cooker of steak,1 a passage at the end of Tom Junod's profile of Wylie Dufresne / obit of WD-50 caught my eye:
"That's why I'm really proud of what we did here," he said over his cup of sake. "I'm proud of the big things, but I'm also proud of the little things we routinely did well. Do you know what made me most proud in the meal I served you? The Wagyu beef. It was perfectly cooked."
"The advantage of sous vide," someone said.
"But it wasn't sous vide!" Dufresne said. "That's the thing. It was cooked in a pan. And it had no gray on it! Do you know how hard that is? Do you know how much work that takes? Turning the beef every seven or eight seconds ... And so that question you asked me before, about food and music -- that's my answer: a perfect piece of Wagyu beef cooked in a pan that comes out without any gray on it. It might not be 'When the Levee Breaks,' but it's definitely 'Achilles Last Stand.'"
I couldn't recall hearing about this fast flipping technique from the many pieces Kenji Lopez-Alt has published about how to and how not to cook steak, so I pinged him on Twitter. He responded with Flip Your Steaks Multiple Times For Better Results.
Let's start with the premise. Anybody who's ever grilled in their backyard with an overbearing uncle can tell you that if there's one rule about steaks that gets bandied about more than others, it's to not play with your meat once it's placed on the grill. That is, once steak hits heat, you should at most flip it just once, perhaps rotating it 90 degrees on each side in order to get yourself some nice cross-hatched grill marks.
The idea sort of makes sense at first glance: flipping it only once will give your steak plenty of chance to brown and char properly on each side. But the reality is that flipping a steak repeatedly during cooking -- as often as every 30 seconds or so -- will produce a crust that is just as good (provided you start with meat with a good, dry surface, as you always should), give you a more evenly cooked interior, and cook in about 30% less time to boot!
It works for burgers too. Thanks, Kenji!
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