Amateurs and Experts: Netflix Challenge

Andrew Keen’s slim volume, The Cult of the Amateur, was an interesting* read. One question he asked came to mind as I read this month’s Wired (16.03): “Can a social worker in Des Moines really be considered credible in arguing with a trained physicist over string theory?”

What’s an amateur? I originally considered the guy from the Wired article an amateur: “This Psychologist Might Outsmart the Math Brains Competing for the Netflix Prize”.

Here’s my executive summary of the Wired article:

  • Netflix is offering a $1M prize to the individual or team that can improve their recommendation engine by 10% or more.
  • Heavy hitters in the math world, including a team from AT&T and Princeton alums, are competing.
  • So is “Just a guy in a garage”.
  • Gavin Potter, a 48 year-old psychologist in London is currently in 6th place (that was as of press time, he’s down to 8th currently).

I don’t think Gavin Potter is an amateur, though on the surface he may appear to be one. Certainly, he’s no programmer or mathematician. The other teams approaching the prize are heavy on professional numbers people. Potter, on the other hand, has asked his daughter to solve calculus for his Netflix Prize work.

The Des Moines social worker may have something to contribute to something outside his/her obvious expertise. The trick is in figuring out how to apply existing knowledge in other fields of study.
* “interesting” in the Chinese proverb/curse way: “May you live in interesting times.”

Why, You Can’t Live Without Apostrophes

My favorite grammar writer, Lynne Truss (of Eats, Shoots and Leaves fame) has written two children’s books. The Girl’s Like Spaghetti and Eats, Shoots and Leaves (the latter is a kids’ version). I had the chance to flip through them and was really impressed.

From the Amazon.com book description:

Just as the use of commas was hilariously demystified in Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference!, now Lynne Truss and Bonnie Timmons put their talents together to do the same for apostrophes. Everyone needs to know where to put an apostrophe to make a word plural or possessive (Are those sticky things your brother’s or your brothers?) and leaving one out of a contraction can give someone the completely wrong impression (Were here to help you).

Full of silly scenes that show how apostrophes make a difference, too, this is another picture book that will elicit bales of laughter and better punctuation from all who read it.

The books appear at first glance to be aimed at early readers because of the picture book format. But the grammar examples are the type you’d learn in later elementary school. But then again, given the grammar I correct at school, I think even my high school kids would get something out of Spaghetti and Eats.

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I *Heart* Cory Doctorow

Cover picture of Overclocked bookSince reading Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, I’ve been a fan of Cory Doctorow’s writing. Now, there’s Overclocked, a collection of short stories. The Kirkus review bills these books as “computer-related and bulging with knowing SF references”.

Overclocked is available for purchase at traditional booksellers and for free download. Each short story is available in several formats, notably as PDFs and podcasts.

What a great foundation for a lesson in Creative Commons! Here’s writing that’s also packaged as a dead-trees format, that presumably will make money for Mr. Doctorow, and he’s also giving it away. It defies all that I ever learned about making a living in this world. Yet, by most measures, Doctorow’s incredibly successful.


By the by, I’m always looking for computer-related writing to use with my computer classes so this collection is going on my list. To use at school, I look for short writing (full length novels are too difficult to include in a class not devoted to the topic) Other writings I like to use with computer classes:

  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (excellent lessons on a life lived online & social networking)
  • Wired magazine articles (especially “Mother Earth Motherboard” by Neal Stephenson that chronicles the construction of a fiber optic Internet cable around the world: great writing and great lessons on how data flows on the Internet)
  • Takedown by Tsutomu Shimomura (the story of Kevin Mitnick’s capture for hacking, used with pro-Mitnick web sources to go along with Internet security lessons)
  • All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward (ok, so I cheat on this one and show the Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford movie, which gets teens excited about Watergate and journalism’s role)