pass alongs

I heard about this at the Hemant “Friendly Atheist” Mehta’s talk, but they seem more organized than I’d realized.  Great!  I love the message!  I’m On The Bus!

Which of these batteries is actually low?

My family latched on to these battery testers a few years ago, clever little things that gauge the size of your battery and use that to figure out how much power to expect from them, so that they can compare that to how much power they are putting out, thus giving you a reading on how much “juice” is left in them.  Lots of batteries seem to have the same kind of thing built into them these days.  Whatever.

I’ve been noticing something recently: lots of products use multiple batteries (2, 4, whatever).  When the device starts to complain about its batteries being low, I take them out and test them.  Often – usually, I’d say – I find that only one of them is actually low.  Take out four batteries, three of them test perfectly fine, and the fourth is totally dead.  I have to suspect that this isn’t just because the one battery is failing, I think it’s something to do with the physics of batteries.  But, I don’t know what.  And, I could just be wrong.  But, anyone else experience this?

Whatever the case, you might think about checking all of your batteries instead of just throwing them all away when the device they are in says they are low.  Curious to hear if others experience this as well.

Well, I finally found an online computer game that suits my personality: NewsFutures.

NewsFutures is just one of many Prediction Markets available online. They come in a variety of flavors, focusing more on sports, Hollywood gossip, financial news, etc. I’m curious about The Popular Science Predictions Exchange, where you can examine the likelihood of questions such as “Will a blood test for breast cancer be released in the U.S. by the end of March?” (presently 50.75%), “Will the Western U.S. suffer a catastrophic water crisis by 2010?” (66.25%), and that question haunting so many of us: “Will a team of androids beat the human World Cup champs at a game of soccer by 2050?” (48% likely).

Whatever their subject matter, these things all have about the same format. You “buy” (usually using a pretend currency) shares that will pay (usually 100 units) if some future event happens, and will be worthless if the event doesn’t happen as specified. In some elections on some markets, shares will pay out the amount of the percentage popular vote of a particular candidate or party… so, if you “buy” a share in candidate X for 50 units, and that candidate earns 52% of the popular vote, you net 2 units.

Exciting, huh?

Well, yes, to some people, including me. The thing is that from that very simple setup, you see extremely accurate predictions. There’s a big debate amongst academics over whether these markets are actually better at predicting elections than polls are. I’m not in a position to even have an opinion on that question, but considering that polling is extremely complex and expensive, it’s remarkable to me that a simple web site and a bunch of self-selecting participants from around the world can even be close in accuracy, let alone possibly better.

Who doesn’t want to know the future? There are many events on which I certainly do want to know, and the upcoming US presidential election is one. Although, I guess it’s more fair to say I want to have a sense of the relative likelihood. So, this is a big draw to me. It also puts an element of fun into listening to news reports and polling data. So, contrary to so many computer games, this one actually encourages me to pay more attention to the news.

I picked NewsFutures mostly because I liked their mix of solid rational approach and usability for average users. Some sites I found I couldn’t even figure out how to sign up, which I take as some kind of indication that they are there only for some “in crowd”. Also, I didn’t want to bet real money, at least not at first (the Iowa Electronic Markets is actually a legal place to play with a small amount of real money). Finally, NewsFutures focuses on news, broadly defined. I’m much more interested in political news than I am in things like sports scores and Hollywood gossip, but you can buy shares in those things too on NewsFutures.

But, who would spend any amount of time playing such a game for fake money? Well, those of us who think it’s fun, of course. And those of us who want to feel like they have a sense of how viable (or not) certain political candidates (or whatever) are… or at least find out if we really do have a good sense of such things or not.

NewsFutures presently claims 19,323 players. I’m presently ranked number 3,340. This is pretty funny, actually, because I’m definitely not in a position where I’d think I’d be above the 80th percentile of players. Almost all of my 12,419 “exchange dollars” (abbreviated “X$”) were given to me through the sites’ program by which people with net worth less than X$20,000 can just get “free X$”, X$1000-X$1500 per day. So, in other words, over 80% of those 19,000 players don’t even bother to play often enough to get all the free fake money they are entitled to. On the other hand, everyone on their “top 1000” board has over X$30,000, so more than 5% of players have played enough (and well enough) to earn a 50% or greater return on their free money.

By the way, the real leaders have WAY more than the rest of us (the present leader presently has a net worth of X$55,697,715). I’m almost positive that most of these earning are coming from “faster moving” markets than these elections. Sporting events are very popular, including trading on outcomes during games! Imagine, there are probably as many NBA games to bet on this week as there will be elections to bet on throughout all of next year! So, I doubt I’ll be among the real leaders at any point.

But I’m fine with that. I like the game I’m playing. I like playing by a very precise set of rules on a bunch of precisely defined outcomes of interest to me. I’ll be curious to see how my status as an NPR junkie stands up to a test.

My biggest complaint is that I’d like there to be way more things to bet on. We’ve got a lot of very important decisions to make regarding the future. To take one example, environmentalism has largely shifted not to environmental problems of the present but to potential problems of the future. I hear countless people making and denying predictions of future events, but I hear very little accounting for how well people have predicted things. I think it’s a good challenge for the information age to keep track of such things, and, with a bit of clever work, fortune telling might start to become more science than pseudo-science.

One organization’s interview to find out who you should vote for…

These things are always fun, right? And especially when we’ve got this many candidates they can actually be useful, because we don’t always know that much about the different candidates.

According to the quiz, I should be excited about Chris Dodd, who I must admit I know practically nothing about (but, I live in Indiana, where primaries don’t matter, so why should I expect to know anything about him? (Are we all sick of the Primary status quo, or is it just me (and my parents)?)). Barack and Hillary tie for second place, with Joe Biden close behind them. Fascinating. Regardless of any libertarian leanings I may have, I found it interesting that all of the Democrats ranked higher for me than all of the Republicans. And all of this is perhaps especially interesting considering that I wasn’t at all confident about my answers on this survey. To take the most simple example, I had a terrible time answering the Iraq question. None of the choices were anything like “Well, I felt strongly that we shouldn’t have gotten into this mess, but now that we’re 4.5 years into the mess, I don’t know how the hell to get us out of it. But it sure is a terrible mess!”

Anyway, I’d be very interested to hear anyone else’s results, if you care to take the time (2-3 minutes).

Someone on the Bloomington Linux Users Group mailing list pointed out that if you ask google maps for directions from NY to Paris, you get this. Check out step 23.

Those of you who read (and maybe even enjoyed) my post on the resolution of human perception, please join me in thanking Michael and Michael for bringing this New York Times Article to my attention. David Pogue agrees with me, there’s a limit to how much resolution we can perceive, and by his argument, the maximum resolution for common purposes is even smaller than I expected… And he even ran experiments to back it up! So… wow. Not surprisingly, he’s less philophical about the implications to the relations between humans and machines, and more just about how to be a smart shopper. But hey, I’m in to that, too. :) What’s just a little weird is that he also alludes to that 640K comment falsely attributed to Bill Gates… Hmmm…

Vectren Screen ShotI was please to see that my Natural Gas company, Vectren, has expanded their eBill service to include actual real DATA about consumption patterns. As one who thinks a lot about things like “what is the most efficient way to keep my house a comfortable temperature in the winter?” I love to see that they are drawing me this graph. I hope that in the future it will go back further in time. But I’m particularly pleased that they give the option of downloading the data as a spreadsheet. It’s pretty simplistic, just the dates and numbers in a chart, but… still, I love it! Thanks, Vectren! And I see that it really is using more gas for me to be working at home instead of being at work with the house turned down to 55 F.

Years ago I wrote an email to Kroger suggesting that they make the information that they make collection with their Kroger Plus Card (you know the type) available to the customer in question. I would love to see a history of my shopping. I would love to run queries such as “how much of my food budget am I spending on produce” (or, dare I question it, beer and wine?). They never replied. And they certainly aren’t offering this service. I think it’s a shame. I’m sure they are thinking “we don’t want to give consumers that kind of power, they might change their buying habits. Perhaps. But I suspect most people would never use it. And some of us would probably lean towards buying things at Kroger so that they could include it in their data analysis. So, I present it now publicly as a challenge to all you big SuperMarket companies… the programming should be trivial, simple queries of your huge database. Some of us would really love it. Thanks.

Meanwhile, thanks Vectren.

I heard this story on NPR yesterday and found it really thought provoking. To use their blurb:

The Polonium Restaurant in Sheffield, England, has had slow business since it opened less than two-years ago. Then, British investigators found traces of polonium in former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. The news sent customers flocking to the restaurant.

One would not think that an association with a poison would be good for business at a food establishment. But apparently, at least in this case, it is. In fact, it was only after polonium became widely known as a poison that business picked up.

So, what gives? Are there that many people with morbid senses of humor in England? Or is it actually only members of the press that are eating there, because they are covering the story of how popular it suddenly became? My guess is that it’s just an instance of the name being in people’s heads, and therefore making it more likely that people will choose it… a case of “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”. If that’s the case, it’s a very striking example of that phenomenon…

Any other opinions?

Well, this one slipped under my radar, so maybe it did yours as well: Google Music Search.

I don’t know how long it’s been available, but I immediately made a Firefox Quicksearch for it (the key URL, to save you the sleuthing, is: “”).

So, yeah, search for the name of a band, or a song, or an album, or whatever, and it gives you a nice listing of recordings, links to lyrics and places to buy it online and stuff. And of course, it’s all in the simple and thorough presentation that we’ve grown to expect from google. If this all sounds unfamiliar but interesting to you, you might want to check out Google’s complete list of specialty searches. I’m particularly a fan of the Define, the Movie, and I guess the Local. I should use some of these more, actually…
Anyway, enjoy!

Hadn’t noticed this before, but somewhere quasi-recently, google added a feature to its “Personalized Home” page (which for any other web site would have been called “My Google”).  Now you can have Tabs!  Such a simple concept, but it basically means have mutliple My Googles…  This is great for me, because I was being very picky about what to put on there because I was running out of room.  Now I have a page just for blogs, another just for news, and then other stuff like weather and recent searches and stuff.  I like it.

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