Archive for January, 2008

How can you help?

January 27th, 2008

Obama had a great win in South Carolina yesterday. Unfortunately, it was expected and seems not to have moved the prediction markets much. Yet, I think our country and the world would be much better off if he wins. With our help, he can win.

Sadly, Obama’s chances only rose slightly from 31% before his victory to 35% after his victory. See the chart from Intrade:

Intrade 1-27-08

Why isn’t the market impressed with Obama’s success in campaigning? I think the markets are skeptical that Obama can translate his state-by-state success into what amounts to a national primary.

But our country would be much better off with Obama as President. There are many reasons, but I think that Caroline Kennedy strikes just the right note in her powerful editorial today in the NY Times:

I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them. But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president — not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans.

How can you help? You can donate or volunteer to phone voters. Never before has it been so clear to me that a deserving candidate could benefit from a pure increase in awareness. He has proven that his message resonates; he hasn’t yet proven he can spread it nationally. With our help, I believe he pass that final test.

Win? Yes, we can!

2. politics ,

Yahoo Picks, R.I.P. (1995-2008)

January 27th, 2008

Yahoo is shutting down it’s “picks” section. Although I have not visited that section in 8 years or so, I have a special place in my heart for it. I started visiting yahoo picks in the first few months after it opened its doors in 1995. For years, I have had this vague recollection of my early experiences: a list of recently opened “cool” new sites like, the government of Ireland and “Deb and Jen’s” Land o’ useless facts. In 2000, my own site “” (now called was a daily pick.

Sad to see you go. Here is a screen shot of what the early web looked like:

Yahoo Picks

(Via techcrunch)

1. technology

The psychology of facebook

January 25th, 2008

I was asked by PARC to present again on the psychology of facebook. (Why do some applications go viral? You can read my speaking notes or watch this 1 min 52 sec screencast that is almost identical in content or grab the slides or handout.) But the main reason to reprise that post is to link to this pdf of my academic research paper, “Six patterns of Persuasion in Online Social Networks.” The paper makes that case that online persuasion follows simple patterns that can be explained with social psychology. Enjoy!

1. technology , ,

Mad science: What could it teach us?

January 23rd, 2008

mad scientistAt an interesting talk today, I found out that behavioral economists cannot use any form of deception in their experiments. I found this norm somewhat puzzling, because psychologists often include mild deception (like confederates) that cause no harm to the subjects but offer new research opportunities. At previous talk, I heard a researcher say that it would be unethical to offer variable compensation to survey respondents in order to help reduce non-response bias.

These two examples are from a broader class of what I call “mad science”: potentially unethical but otherwise scientifically valid research techniques. My mind wandered to an interesting but scary topic: what is the most valuable lesson we could learn from mad science?

I immediately thought of medicine. There are many tests of efficacy of treatments and even answers to certain basic biological questions that could result in dramatic improvements in the human condition for centuries, but are entirely unacceptable because of the potential harm (and even death) to individual subjects. I then thought about military research. Sometimes the virtual reality and other technology research in my communication department is deemed “creepy” but it’s not unethical.

Dear readers, do any of you have any ideas of potentially valuable but unethical research? I would be especially interested in social science examples. Or perhaps mad science is an idea that just best to be avoided.

3. et cetera , ,

How to hire a good technologist

January 11th, 2008

I was just thinking about this issue as I read this post about how to get hired by Google. Then, along comes this terrific list of criteria is about screening for good tech hires. Hint: what you want is not printed on the resume. I am sad that the cat is out of the bag.

I’ll only mention one caveat: it is hard to test people against these criteria unless you are yourself high in them yourself.

1. technology

Informed voting via prediction markets

January 7th, 2008

My friend Richard sent me this interesting link and email in response to my post yesterday:

[ is] moving beyond prediction markets that try to determine who will win
the election, towards markets that predict the effect of someone
winning the election. In other words, markets that attempt to predict
the price of oil, interest rates, # troops in Iraq, etc. conditional
on the person or party that wins the election.

The design of these markets is theoretically interesting as are
questions as to whether you can get enough liquidity in these more
complex markets to get good results.

But beyond that, there is the potential, mentioned in the blog post,
of using these markets to help people decide how to vote. On one
hand, this seems ridiculous – and maybe even open to abuse or
manipulation. On the other, it’s eminently reasonable. I really want
to vote for the candidate that will be the best president and have the
best outcomes for the country. To the extent that I feel that the
markets are better predictors of these things than I am alone (or in
conjunction with the spouting of pundits or even deliberation),
shouldn’t I base my vote on them?

In my opinion, the most important questions facing voters are: what is the consequence of your voting decision? How will the world be different if one candidate wins rather than the other? Using prediction markets to understand these consequences seems entirely reasonable to me.

1. technology, 2. politics , , , , ,

Reading the tea leaves

January 6th, 2008

Obama’s win in Iowa was quite impressive for two reasons: it is important and it was indeed unexpected. On’s prediction market, Obama implicit probability of capturing the nomination jumped from below 20 percent on January 1 to 64 percent after the Iowa caucus. See the huge spike in this graph of Obama’s prospects over the last month:
In comparison, Huckabee’s prospects went down on Intrade with his victory. Apparently, he did not do as well as expected. See the chart here:
According to Intrade, Obama has about a 90 percent chance of winning New Hampshire and South Carolina (separately) and about an 80 percent chance of winning them both. So, the market shouldn’t move much if Obama actually wins those states, because his chance of capturing the nomination already includes a high expectation that he’ll win in those states.

It is also interesting how little “bandwagon effects” that are baked into these probabilities. The market is giving Clinton and Edwards a pretty good shot at dethroning Obama on Super Tuesday even in the high likelihood of Obama running the board on the early primaries.

I guess it really has been one of those elections that is too close for anyone to call, and several more opportunities for candidates to shake things up again.

2. politics ,

Understanding Iowa

January 5th, 2008

I am a little late to the game here because I was traveling yesterday, but I have some thoughts to share about Obama’s historic victory. I disagree that Thursday’s Iowa caucuses were a victory for extremism, something proposed on today. I also disagree with Kent Wicker’s highly rated comment that Hillary Clinton is the same as Obama only more experienced. Nothing could be farther from the truth, in my opinion.

I like both Obama and Huckabee because I think that they are listening to people from all political stripes. They have very different core values, but they are not fixing for a fight. Rather than the combative style of politics that we have seen under George W Bush, and would almost certainly see under Hillary Clinton, they want to build bridges. I know more about Obama than Huckabee, so I will give three examples from Obama’s policy positions:

  • the goal of abortion policy should be to reduce the number of abortions in the country
  • faith and religion are important to public policy, but any policy derived from religious sources must be justified by reasons not religious authority
  • issues facing black voters, like education, health care and poverty, are best addressed as universal not racial terms

I think each of these positions constructively takes valid conservative criticisms of knee-jerk progressive/liberal policy to generate pragmatic solutions to real problems in our country. I really believe that a large majority (e.g., 55-60%) can support these positions, and that adopting these positions would improve many people’s lives.

Of course, Obama and Huckabee have very different values and political philosophies. Obama’s positions are similar to my own preferences whereas Huckabee’s positions are almost diametrically opposed to mine. At this point, I’d rather have Huckabee as President than any other Republican. And in what would almost certainly be a losing campaign, I think he would sharpen the policies of the eventual Democratic winner.

But more importantly: GObama!!! And if you doubt me, please watch Barack’s victory speech here:

2. politics ,

Deception on facebook

January 5th, 2008

This article details how an application on facebook is helping to spread spyware called “Zango”. When I saw the headline, I was worried that this violation involved the features that facebook offers. But in fact, the spyware is just a link to install malicious code on your computer. It can only be installed with your consent, so it’s user stupidity not facebook’s fault. Blaming facebook is like blaming email: Facebook’s only contribution is having a viral medium to spread Zango’s ridiculous proposition. (I suppose there is one difference in that facebook “approves” applications that are listed in its directory.)

It is sad but inevitable that these third-party developers will violate facebook’s environment of trust.

1. technology

Olark Livehelp