How Wolfram|Alpha Can Help You Discover Your Own Social Network

Ever wonder what your own personal network looks like?  You are likely connected to many different groups (family, friends, community, work), but do you know how they are connected?  Or are they connected at all?  Are you the glue that connects these various groups?

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This is a great age we’re living in, and I’m glad to be involved with developing lots of really advanced technologies.  One of the technology areas that I’m really fascinated with has been pushed forward by Stephen Wolfram.  He created the industry standard computing environment Mathematica, which now serves as the engine behind his company’s newest creation, Wolfram|Alpha.  (I’ve written a few posts on Wolfram|Alpha in the past, and you can read them here and here).

Nerd Pride Friday: ‘Wars’ Trumps ‘Trek’

It appears that Princess Leia and Captain Kirk are in a bit of interstellar combat, albeit 30+ years later.  And regardless of what Kirk has to say about it, I think that Star Wars rules!  So, the big question is, why are we even talking about this?…

Well, back in September, William Shatner, who portrayed Captain Kirk on the original Star Trek series, posted a YouTube video about how Star Trek was really better than Star Wars – how Lucas’ space opera was really “derivative” of Gene Roddenberry’s creation by 10-20 years. 

Well, a couple of weeks ago, Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy of movies, had to call Shatner out, posting her own video rebutting the critique.

Below are the videos to both Shatner’s original post, and Fisher’s reply.  Personally, I’d rather see the original Kirk and Leia duke it out, but I guess we’ll have to settle for their earthly thespians…


Book Review: “The Perfect Swarm” by Len Fisher

I love to read, and I especially love to read nonfiction books that help me understand how the world works.  So, I’m going to be providing reviews of some of the books that I’ve been reading lately, and let you in on why I like (or don’t like) them and what I’m learning.

Recently I picked up a copy of The Perfect Swarm by Len Fisher, Ph.D., which focuses on the science of complexity in everyday life  Dr. Fisher has also written books on game theory in real life (Rock, Paper, Scissors) and the optimal way to dunk a doughnut (aptly named How to Dunk a Doughnut).  It turns out that Fisher was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize for the dunking donut work – the award is usually reserved for work that just plain bad, but Fisher has apparently turned his lemon into lemonade…

In The Perfect Swarm, Fisher describes how bees, ants, locusts, and fish use swarm intelligence to guide group movements and to help in the search for food.  Humans use swarm intelligence as well, and Fisher describes multiple interesting ways that we can take advantage of these concepts to make better judgments in everyday life.  Here’s just some of the interesting concepts and principles that come out of his analysis of complexity:

  • To move a group in the direction you want (for example, within a company), lead from the inside, but take care not to let other members of the group know what you are doing.  Just head in the direction that you want to go, and leave it to the laws of the swarm to do the rest.
  • If you are in a crowd in a dangerous situation, use a mixed strategy for escape; follow the crowd 60 percent of the time, and spend the other 40 percent searching out escape routes on your own.
  • If you want to persuade a large group of people, or even start a craze, don’t rely on persuading someone with influence to pass the message on.  It is far better to try for a critical mass of early adopters – people who will take the idea or product up after a single exposure.
  • When confronted with a mass of data that you need to use as the basis of a decision, furst use Benford’s Law to check that the data haven’t been faked.
  • Avoid the perils of groupthink by escaping temporarily from the group environment, doing some independent thinking, and committing yourself to the conclusions of that thinking before returning to the group.
  • Spread your bets evenly.  Instead of choosing one alternative over another, allocate your resources equally to each.

And here’s a really interesting one – especially if you are hiring someone in your company:

  • If you want to give yourself the best chance of choosing the very best option in a situation that doesn’t allow you to go back to the options that you have rejected, look at 37 percent of those available, then choose the next one that is better than any of them.  This will give you a 1 in 3 chance of finding the best option, and a very high chance of finding one in the top few percent.

I am incredibly interested in systems that have simple rules yet create complex behavior.  The world can be modeled as a system using simple rules, and Fisher is quite effective in showing us some interesting and useful things that come from looking at these systems.  It’s a good read, interesting to understand the concepts he’s getting across, and, I would say, worth the time.  You can pick up a copy of The Perfect Swarm here

Video: Star Wars Trilogy in Two Minutes… With Legos!

The Lego Star Wars series is just cool – they’ve made kits for the Death Star and the Millenium Falcon.  Plus, they have video games (that my daughter really loves!…).  But, the video below is absolutely awesome, retelling the Star Wars trilogy (Episodes IV, V, and VI) in about two minutes with what appears to be the most incredible Lego Star Wars set ever!

Facebook viewers can watch it here

Einstein and Eddington

Albert Einstein and Arthur Eddington

HBO is airing a docudrama they produced in conjunction with BBC on the pursuit for a new theory of gravity.  The movie “Einstein and Eddington” details (if not dramatizes a bit…) Albert Einstein’s efforts to come up with his theory of general relativity, and Arthur Eddington’s efforts to prove him right, all in the backdrop of World War I.

The tensions of the times (and within the movie) highlight that, with World War I pitting German and English armies against each other, Einstein was German-born and Eddington was English, so their long distance correspondence went against the nationalistic trends of the day.

As many people know, Einstein allowed us to realize that objects with heavy mass, such as the Sun, bend the space around it, which is why planets orbit around the Sun.  The theory would also predict that light would also be bent in the same way as it traveled by the Sun. 

If this were true, stars would appear to us in slightly different places in the sky when stars are behind the Sun.  Eddington realized that this could be tested by photographing stars at night, and then photographing these same stars during a total solar eclipse.  In the solar eclipse, the starlight would have to pass by the Sun, but the Moon would block out any sunlight, allowing us to view the stars themselves.

Eddington had to wait several years for the right eclipse conditions, traveling to Africa in 1919.  There were rain and clouds that made the expedition a near failure – but only a near failure because he actually got two good pictures that were enough to confirm Einstein’s theory.  As a result of Eddington’s efforts, Einstein became a celebrity overnight and changed the way we view the universe around us.

There are some interesting ideas that are brought to light in this movie, which track the real-life arcs of these two great scientists pretty well, although there is a little literary license to make the scientists “Hollywood” interesting.  Still, if you run across it, “Einstein and Eddington” is worth the hour-and-a-half of your time.

“The Big Short” – Tale of the Financial Meltdown

Michael Lewis, author of The Big Short, interviewed on 60 Minutes

60 Minutes did a two-part story interviewing Michael Lewis on his new book, The Big Short.  In his book, Lewis details how probably only 10 or 20 people in the entire financial sector knew what was going to happen, and how Wall Street nearly created its own demise.

In the 60 Minutes piece, Lewis describes how, at a result of the financial crisis, many people think that everyone on Wall Street were just a bunch of crooks and knew that they were getting themselves into.  So the post-trauma reaction would be to punish a few banking CEOs and the problem will be taken care of.

However, according to Lewis, it’s quite the contrary – the financial meltdown is probably much closer to an example of mass delusion.  Everybody just kept thinking it was going to keep going – until it didn’t.

Probably the most telling part (at least in my mind) is where he describes the incentives that the financial industry operate under on Wall Street.  I am a strong believer that people make decisions based upon the incentives and disincentives in their environment – change the rules of the game and you’ll change the behavior.

Here’s what Lewis had to say on this topic:

 “Wall Street is able to delude itself because it’s paid to delude itself.  That’s one of the lessons of this story is that people see what they are incentivized to see.  If you pay someone not to see the truth, they will not see the truth, and Wall Street organized itself so people were paid to see someone other than the truth. 

And that’s one of the central messages of the story, you have to be very careful how you incentivize people, because they will respond to the incentives.”

Also described is how Michael Barry, an independent manager of a hedge fund, made $725 million on the credit default swaps that were created to “insure” the subprime mortgages that eventually defaulted.  He was able to do this by examining – by himself – the public information about the declining creditworthiness of these financial products.  Anyone, especially the bond rating agencies, should have been able to see this for themselves, but the Wall Street community was collectively blinded to the reality of the numbers that Barry was able to spot.

(Turns out Barry only has one good eye himself, and he wasn’t blind to this oncoming catastrophe…)

Lewis credits Barry’s ability to take advantage of this as “not being part of the collective”.  Even though Wall Street could have (and should have) seen this as well, they had different incentives at work than Barry did.  He was incentivized to look at the numbers rationally, and he profited from them – Wall Street was incentivized to keep the profit center going as long as they could, which they did, and it almost took the world’s financial markets down with it.

Change the incentives and you’ll change the behavior. 

Lewis is the author of 13 best selling books including Liar’s Poker and Moneyball.

You can watch the two-part 60 Minutes interview here

Seinfeld and Plan 9 From Outer Space

Unfortunately, I can’t find a real good reason to post this – except the fact that I LOVE Seinfeld, and I thought these T-shirts were some of the coolest things I’ve run across in a while.  Since there was a Seinfeld episode about Jerry going to see “Plan 9 from Outer Space”, I thought I’d use that “sciency” connection to brag about the cool T-shirts.

I did post earlier about some of the cool T-shirts and other stuff available at – I even got the Star Trek “Expendable” red shirt for Christmas. 

Well, anyway – enjoy!

The Math of the Oscar Voting

I ran across these blog posts about how the Motion Picture Academy did their voting for the Oscars, and I thought they were interesting enough to forward along.  (By the way, thanks to Nikki Love for bringing these to my attention…)

Unlike most American elections we’re used to, the Oscars used an “instant runoff” procedure to get to the winners this year.  You can read about how one economist viewed the new system here, and read more about Oscar’s instant runoff procedure here.

(As an interesting aside, the predictions in the first post for who would win Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress were ALL dead on!…)

I really enjoyed this connection with the instant runoff because back in the day (a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…), I headed the presidential nomination committee for Ross Perot‘s Reform Party, which used internet voting and an instant runoff to pick our nominee in 2000.  Turned out we only had two candidates, so the instant runoff never happened (also, the party convention split in half and devolved into choas – however, another story for another time…)

Take a read about the math of instant runoffs and see what you think!…