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Psychologist Beating Math Nerds in Race to Netflix Prize 205

s1d writes "An almost-anonymous British psychologist named Gavin Potter has suddenly risen to the top of the Netflix prize charts. With his very first attempt, he got a score which took the BellKor team seven months to reach. Currently at a score of 8.07, he has only five teams ahead of him now in the race for the ultimate Netflix algorithm. 'Potter says his anonymity is mostly accidental. He started that way and didn't come out into the open until after Wired found him. "I guess I didn't think it was worth putting up a link until I had got somewhere," he says, adding that he'd been seriously posting under the name of his venture capital and consulting firm, Mathematical Capital, for two months before launching "Just a guy." When he started competing, he posted to his blog: "Decided to take the Netflix Prize seriously. Looks kind of fun. Not sure where I will get to as I am not an academic or a mathematician. However, being an unemployed psychologist I do have a bit of time."'"
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Psychologist Beating Math Nerds in Race to Netflix Prize

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  • Domain Knowledge (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 04, 2008 @11:27PM (#22645772)
    It's called domain knowledge people. It helps being a psychologist when you're write a program reacting to people's behavior. If programmers knew how to do that, they would get laid more.
  • Psychologist? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Otter ( 3800 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2008 @11:43PM (#22645890) Journal
    I don't understand why Wired insists on playing along with Potter's pretense of being an "unemployed psychologist". He's a PhD candidate in machine learning, has a masters in operations research, is ex-IBM and Pricewaterhouse, runs a VC firm -- he has plenty of quantitative and computational training and experience, probably more than most of the contestants.
  • Re:Psychologist? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Vexorian ( 959249 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2008 @11:52PM (#22645932)
    Well, it is just that dog bytes man"Psychologist beats math nerds" is a more interesting headline than actual facts.
  • Re:Psychologist? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Ambiguous Coward ( 205751 ) on Wednesday March 05, 2008 @12:29AM (#22646140) Homepage
    Stranger to these parts? Dude, did you notice his user id? 3800. Yes, three-thousand-eight-hundred. He's been around these parts since before you were born. Which, I suppose, may actually be "strange" in, he's stranger than everyone who's ID is > 3800, but less strange than 3799 other people. Still!

  • by mattOzan ( 165392 ) < minus pi> on Wednesday March 05, 2008 @12:37AM (#22646176) Homepage Journal
    I like being jack-of-all-trades too. But I'm finding that one must tread very carefully on this path.

    If you aren't careful, you end up being the fall guy for a widening array of mishaps.

    For instance, you help set up the video projector a couple of times for presentations. Then during the next presentation the projector fails. In some eyes it will be your fault, because you're now the "PowerPoint Guy." Nevermind that the bulb was past its recommended use hours, or that the presenter forgot his VGA dongle, or whatever.

    It seems like if I want to come out as the go-to guy for some area of tech, I'd damn well better get up to pro-level speed really quick. Because soon I'm going to have to be mitigating crises and solving complex problems that before were just chalked up to "well, that thing's always been a problem." Yeah, now it is *your* problem!
  • Re:Uh, no... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 05, 2008 @12:55AM (#22646268)
    What a bunch of drivel. Just because their level of knowledge isn't what we have today, doesn't make it any "easier." Do you have any idea at all, or can you even comprehend, the kind of mathematics that were employed back in the day to solve anything? Take a look at the Principia for example. The geometry is insane. I'm a graduate student in Physics and I can't really follow his proofs.

    Furthermore, because early scientists did not have as much to build on, that makes it all the more difficult. Where was Faraday to get his inspiration on lines of force? What lead Maxwell in the right direction to unifying light with electromagnetism?

    It's great that 3rd graders know about electric circuits. That's the point of scientific progress. That doesn't make the original task trivial in any sense.

    In other words, I hate you.
  • by zappepcs ( 820751 ) on Wednesday March 05, 2008 @01:00AM (#22646302) Journal
    Yes, the story is old now (by Internet standards) and no, he's not actually winning. What he did do was make a great leap in the success of his process by using a better group of knowledge for a base to work with. This is neither new or amazing in anyway. The only reason it makes news is that it's so much common sense that the story is told as if he has had some huge breakthrough.

    Even if he only gets to 9.25% I will bet he gets offers to work with AI researchers around the globe. That is, after all, what their stated goal is - more or less. Every programmer knows about the GUI wars, and has read stories about how programmers have trouble writing code or designing web sites that are intuitive for users. If you want to see you code break, put a user on the keyboard and wait a few minutes.

    Just about everything that I do with computers shows me something that could be more impressive or intuitive. Can you say 'click START to shutdown' ? Applying psychology and math to a computer problem is a problem that programmers are faced with all the time, and the industry as a whole fails on this repeatedly. A matter of personal interest, hobby robotics, holds a particular problem that seems simple but is not and demonstrates the scope of the problem with this story. Try to build a small robot that can wander around your house and never get stuck behind the couch, or anywhere else. Even cockroaches can accomplish this, but sophisticated robotics cannot.

    We've all seen people come from nowhere, solve a problem because they looked at it a different way than everyone else based on their experiences. I think that it is about time that we started doing more of this. The biggest problem that I can see thus far is that people don't act like computers, they seldom repeat anything with precision. Can you say manufacturing robot? Everyone of us has personal tastes, and it's usually only when Hollywood tells us what movies are good that we all fall in line. Sure, some 'blockbusters' fail, but they make money because of the hype. When you remove the hype, it falls apart. Picking out what other people like or might like based on a very small data set is a difficult task. Not everyone likes kids or movies for kids. Not everyone likes hollywood-ized cookie cutter movies. The task is daunting at best.

    Apply that thinking to other things, and you can see why some websites work and others do not. Why some software works and why others fail. Should F1 be the help key or F3? Why not CTRL-H? Maybe your preferences for such things differ from mine. What I'm getting at is that predicting what a human will do is not simple. Categorizing movies by story, style, genre etc. is like applying a tag cloud to it and matching the tag hits of one group to your personal tag choices. It kind of works, kind of does not. Either way, it needs to be applied more often. Just today I received a thank you note from the local Honda dealer where I got my seat belt replaced under warranty. I bought the car 15 years ago from the dealer my mother likes, and is two states away from me now. The dealer that send the card is local to me (2 states from my mom) but they sent the card to her, at MY address. Tell me how a human would have done that?

    The basic problem is that we humans accrue various bits of information and make decisions based on that. Our thinking process halts when something 'just doesn't make sense' to what we are doing. Computers don't do that... yet. Perhaps this guy is on to something, but then maybe not. A human would not only ask what other people liked this movie, but also "you really liked that piece of crap?"

    To put the I in AI is going to take a lot of rethinking. Simply acting like a perfect human won't do it. Oh, you liked that movie? yeah, me too, I love the city where it was filmed. -- get a program to do that? That oddball out-of-left-field thinking is what will make the software very good at predicting what you will or will not like, maybe.

    Have you ever tried to figure out what kind of music someone wou
  • by Cylix ( 55374 ) on Wednesday March 05, 2008 @01:01AM (#22646310) Homepage Journal
    Surprisingly enough, there are fields that pay much better which require a broad range of expertise.

    However, no one will dare mention all of the real requirements. You see, the valid candidates will run screaming away because it looks to be too much, but what you end up with is a person who scoffs at all the extra that wasn't mentioned when he was hired.

    Thus, eventually the cycle continues until you no longer need the jack of all trades and have many very specialized people who cannot get anything completed.

    Welcome to Corporate America.
  • by BorgCopyeditor ( 590345 ) on Wednesday March 05, 2008 @01:25AM (#22646418)
    OK, how do you solve a cubic? Or grind the lenses for a telescope? Or build a water pump? How do you dress a head wound? Or isolate pure gases? Or calibrate a thermometer?

    If you know how to do all those things, good for you. My point is that a secondary school education in "science" does not by itself provide one with the same understanding as the great scientists who first among all others figured out how to do each of these things.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 05, 2008 @01:41AM (#22646490)

    we call them bastards. Einstein was one such bastard. He treated his wife and children terribly - and not just because he was basically a German man - but because his work came first.

    I love it when women aren't interesting enough, men are blamed. Seriously, if she's too shallow to take an interest in the things he likes, then she should have not married him. Some women are so busy trying to find a sugar daddy they forget they're going to have to live with the "bastard."

  • The team at the University of Toronto, who are using a neural networks approach, are led by Geoffrey Hinton [] who has a bachelors degree in experimental psychology.
  • by LS ( 57954 ) on Wednesday March 05, 2008 @04:10AM (#22647054) Homepage
    I don't know who you moderators are or when you got your nuts cut off but I've never felt more cognitive dissonance to a Slashdot post than this one. Every geek I've ever known is dying to get laid but just doesn't have the wherewithal to get it done. Or maybe you, parent poster, are a woman. Calling deadbeat husbands bastards and referring to casual sex as "sport"... hmmmm, I detect that someone may have gotten burned in her past.

  • Re:what a fraud (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Icarium ( 1109647 ) on Wednesday March 05, 2008 @07:02AM (#22647626)
    Eh? How does making use of bog standard free market principles constitute fraud?

    Netflix have set out exactly what product they want and the price they are willing to pay. If there are people out there willing and able to supply them with the product at that price, why shouldn't they?

    And government employees doing research in thier own time is not costing you a dime.

    Netflix benefits through a better product offering, thier customers benefit through a better product, and a fair number of contestants benefit (through exposure and experience if nothing else).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 05, 2008 @12:05PM (#22650458)
    Sorry, I have already married her, some eleven years ago.
  • by repapetilto ( 1219852 ) on Wednesday March 05, 2008 @02:05PM (#22652406)
    Don't marry someone who cares about new shoes (or at least doesn't care if you do or not) and you don't have to deal with that.

"The number of Unix installations has grown to 10, with more expected." -- The Unix Programmer's Manual, 2nd Edition, June, 1972