I’m very excited to announce that Monkey Bites, Wired Magazine’s web-focused blog, has a really nice post about Betocracy up: “Bring Predictive Markets to the Masses”. Many thanks to writer Scott Gilbertson for covering the site; I think he managed to convey the concept quite well. Somehow he made the pretty basic HTML interface I put together look really nice as a screenshot, too; I don’t know how he did that.
Archive for November, 2006
Well, it kept getting delayed because of vacations and working on extensions to Discourse DB, but it’s finally time to really release Betocracy. Over the next few days I’m going to be sending out press releases, and maybe doing some advertising, to get the word out.
So, as to Betocracy: I mentioned it a little before, but in full, the site is an attempt to tap the power of prediction markets for a much greater usage than they’ve had up till now. Prediction markets are a slightly more involved form of regular bets, and there’s quite a bit of evidence, both anecdotal and statistical, that, by aggregating the opinions of a large group of people, they’re quite effective at predicting the future; see James Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds” for the definitive reference on the subject. What’s been missing up till now is an easy way for people to create their own prediction markets, on subjects too specialized, or classified, to be covered by the large market sites like TradeSports, Intrade or the Iowa Electronic Markets. Yes, a few other create-your-own market sites do exist, but their workings are (to my mind) a little bit overly complex. This site is really about democratizing decision markets; hence the name.
Markets created on Betocracy use only points, not money. So, to answer the first question almost everyone has had when I’ve told them about the site (”how will it make money?”) - I site will use the business model that some people call “freemium”: free usage for people who want just the basic features for the decision markets they create, and some sort of monthly fee for those who want a larger set of features.
So, if you can, please check out the site, use the functionality, and tell others about it. Any feedback you have would also be appreciated. There’s also a special blog I set up for Betocracy here (nothing there yet, but hopefully there will be soon), where probably most future Betocracy-related news will go.
The most-read topic on Discourse DB in the last few weeks has been, surprisingly, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. That’s the federal law that was passed after the Enron & co. scandals, that instituted greater accounting requirements for U.S. public companies; now many people are complaining that its requirements are too costly to implement; including, last week, the Secretary of the Treasury.
Is this really the biggest topic of the day? More likely, I’d guess it’s the one in which the level of reader interest most greatly exceeds the level of media reporting.
I referred before to Discourse DB, a site I helped create, as “the first true wiki database site”, defining a wiki database as a set of data that is editable by the entire world but functions like a database. Well, there was certainly room to question that statement, since there are other, pre-existing, sites that combine wiki and database functionality in various ways. ITerating, a product-review site, and WikiTree, a genealogy site, are two examples, not to mention all the other sites that run on Semantic MediaWiki, the technology that Discourse DB itself is built on top of.
Well, now I’m on somewhat firmer ground with my statement, with the creation of the Discourse DB analysis page. This page uses data from the site that was obtained via Discourse DB’s data export, written in a format called RDF, using an RDF-specific query language called SPARQL. What does this mean? It means that anyone in the world can query Discourse DB to get its set of data. Even though the page is on the discoursedb.org domain, it’s going through the publicly-available interface to get the data, and in fact the querying to create this page was done on another server. And SPARQL is an open standard, so there’s nothing proprietary about the process.
If you check out the page you’ll also find some interesting information. Besides the basic type of information, like the political topics that appear most frequently, I programmed the script to get more in-depth information (the entire page was generated by a script). You can find out, for example, that:
- the single most-popular opinion for a column or editorial in Discourse DB to espouse is that coalition troops should not pull out of Iraq; the site 36 editorials or columns arguing that view. That’s followed closely by the opinion that the “Military Commissions Act of 2006″, the act on the treatment of enemy combatants that was passed by congress, should not have been passed; that’s an interesting matchup that suggests that there’s a divergence between what matters most to the commentariat on the left and on the right.
- the most controversial positions, meaning those with the closest split between authors arguing for and against them, are whether the United States should negotiate with Syria in order to improve the situation in Iraq, and whether the U.S. should build a fence along the Mexican border.
- the least controversial position is that China should put pressure on North Korea to end its nuclear ambitions: 21 editorials or columns have been written arguing that, and none against or even mixed on the issue.
- the two “authors” who have agreed on the most issues are The Wall Street Journal editorial board and The Washington Times editorial board, with 9 opinions in common. The individual authors who have agreed on the most issues are neoconservative writers William Kristol and Robert Kagan (not very interesting, since most of those columns were jointly-written).
- the two “authors” who have disagreed on the most issues are, maybe not surprisingly, The New York Times editorial board and The Wall Street Journal editorial board. The individual authors who have disagreed on the most issues are right-wing Charles Krauthammer and left-wing Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman.
Now, none of this is entirely scientific; I’m not planning to try to get these results published in a public policy journal. The biggest issue is the spottiness of the information; the site is built to be able to hold opinion columns and such from any time in the past, but in reality there isn’t much from before three months or so ago. So while I can’t really vouch for the amount of truth contained in the data, I think it’s a good proof-of-concept of wiki-database querying and maybe semantic web querying in general.1f52
…to my American readers.
I’ll be eating a ball of soy.
The New York Times last week had an article that laid out the basic promise of the semantic web: “Entrepreneurs See a Web Guided by Common Sense” (via Semantic Weltbild). As the article points out, there’s a basic disagreement at the heart of the issue:
…the Holy Grail for developers of the semantic Web is to build a system that can give a reasonable and complete response to a simple question like: “I’m looking for a warm place to vacation and I have a budget of $3,000. Oh, and I have an 11-year-old child.”
Under today’s system, such a query can lead to hours of sifting — through lists of flights, hotel, car rentals — and the options are often at odds with one another. Under Web 3.0, the same search would ideally call up a complete vacation package that was planned as meticulously as if it had been assembled by a human travel agent.
How such systems will be built, and how soon they will begin providing meaningful answers, is now a matter of vigorous debate both among academic researchers and commercial technologists. Some are focused on creating a vast new structure to supplant the existing Web; others are developing pragmatic tools that extract meaning from the existing Web.
I’m on the side of the former group: for the semantic web to work, I think it’ll require entirely-new data, not text parsing. Though it sounds like a lot more work than using all the millions of pages already online, I don’t believe that an AI-based text parser will be able to reliably determine what all that text out there online means. The noise (i.e. bad data) will inevitably corrupt whatever meaning one attempts to get.
The article also uses the term “web 3.0″ to describe the semantic web, which I’ve read before but is not a widely-recognized term by any stretch.
Looking through YouTube for random background music to listen to, I found this collection of videos from Elliott Smith’s concert at NorthSix in the summer of ‘03. I was at that show, and standing right near the stage, so I figured I might be able to see myself. Sure enough, there I am - quite visible, actually, given where the camera was, and the fact that I was wearing some kind of light-colored shirt. I’m extremely conspicuous! It’s obvious at the moments when I turn my head a little and can see my high forehead. Basically the entire show is there; I haven’t looked at all the songs, but you can see me clearly in the beginning of “Between the Bars” (I’d recognize that maniacal fidgeting anywhere) and through a lot of “Christian Brothers”.
Apparently the video was uploaded by a 16-year-old Elliott Smith fan from North Carolina. I don’t know if she’s the one who videotaped it in the first place, but if so she must have been 13 at the time.
The whole effect is rather unnerving, partly because it’s weird to see myself in a random videotape, partly because I still remember a lot of that show, and partly because, though we didn’t know it at the time, it was one of his last performances before his untimely death about four months later.
It’s incongruent, to say the least.
I skim through a lot of editorials these days while populating Discourse DB. This is the best one I’ve read about the shape of the new Congress to come (though it’s unusable for the site because it doesn’t advocate anything): Wages of Victory. The Weekly Standard’s Duncan Currie argues that the victors, especially in Middle America, represented populism rather than the traditional left wing or right wing. Populism doesn’t fit on the spectrum: it’s socially conservative, fiscally liberal, and isolationist on foreign policy. The new Democratic congressmen tend to be against foreign trade and outsourcing, for Social Security, and against foreign interventions; on social issues like abortion and gay rights they’re all over the map, but those issues are of secondary importance to them. It’s the spot on the political grid where seeming opposites like Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader meet, not to mention Ross Perot and Lou Dobbs.
The transformation seems to have been going on for a while:
Nearly 40 percent of House Democrats voted for NAFTA in 1993. Twelve years later, less than 10 percent of House Democrats voted for CAFTA, an agreement of far smaller economic and political significance.
To be sure, some of the opposition to CAFTA can be chalked up to partisanship. But mostly it reflected a stark reality: The effects of globalization have made Democrats instinctively hostile to free trade.
Score another one for the online prediction markets: as usual, TradeSports got almost everything right in the U.S. midterm elections; including the Virginia and Montana senate races if they both go the Democrats’ way, as seems likely. (Interestingly, they still thought there was a 70% chance Republicans would keep control of the Senate, even though they got all the individual races right). The article doesn’t mention it, but Intrade, another major prediction market site, this one without the sports betting, had similarly correct numbers the morning of the race. If any single political analyst had been this consistently right about everything, they’d be famous.
If I were a real marketer I’d take this opportunity to do a full marketing blitz for my new site, Betocracy, which currently provides the easiest way for anyone to create their own prediction markets, and take advantage of the forecasting strength they provide. Sadly, it looks like for the time being I’m just going to keep mentioning it on my own site.
My reading material on the trip was Niall Ferguson’s The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000. I really recommend it: the book is basically a solid overview of macroeconomics, which is especially important if you’ve never taken a macroeconomics course (I never have). It covers the intersection of politics, economic policy, military strength, and cultural values, and their history in different countries over the last 300 (actually, even a little more than that) years; and how different countries have reacted differently to similar crises (bankruptcy, war, etc.) as a result of these four factors.
Ferguson writes from a liberal (that’s in the original sense of the term, the one they still use in Europe) perspective, so his conclusions aren’t for everyone, even though he defends them convincingly. He comes out as a vocal defender of British Empire and argues that the world would be well-served if America behaved more like an empire; portrays the current social safety net as on the verge of collapse; and argues that having too many voters who aren’t paying taxes can be harmful to a democracy; and there’s more where that came form. But the historical facts and graphs are pretty non-controversial. Holiday gift idea, maybe? Hey, it’s a thought.
I’m back from the trip, at last! And it was a good one. Caprica City, I mean, Vancouver, is fun and surprisingly metropolitan, and Acapulco is un ciudad fantastico. Between the fresh salsa and tortillas and the poolside dips, and the chilly mountain vistas and Pacific-rim cuisine (Vancouver’s basically the Hong Kong of the west), it was a full excursion. We also saw Seattle, land of nice parks and hipster barbershops. There may or may not be pictures forthcoming. In any case, I now have the remains of an anachronistic tan, and somewhat of a backlog of work to do.