Friday, February 18, 2011

Is the NFL the New NASCAR?

USA Today ran a front-page story today about how NASCAR's ratings and popularity have plummeted since Dale Earnhardt's death 10 years ago. No drivers have died since, and the article speculates that NASCAR has overemphasized its safety improvements, to the point that fans feel that the sport has lost its exciting edge.

I see some parallels with the NFL's recent crackdown on helmet-to-helmet hits this year. This is not to mention the longer-term increase of protections on receivers and quarterbacks via strict roughing the passer and pass interference penalties. All the while, the defense becomes increasingly marginalized.

It's sort of uncomfortable to speculate on where we stand on the trade-off between death and entertainment. The NFL has had an easier time favoring the latter, because, as Robin Hanson points out, the adverse health effects are often delayed beyond the player's retirement and thus less in the public view. I've always loved how he's framed the devastation:
Surely we can see football hurts players – we often see them carried off in on stretchers. But I wonder: would we accept this harm nearly as much if we saw it all up close? Players would suffer the same average loss if each season one out of ten players just dropped dead on the playing field! (A dead 25 year old player loses 55-25 = 30 years, which is ten times the three years life lost per player per season.)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Watson's Unfair Buzzing Advantage on Jeopardy

By now you've probably heard about the exhibition Jeopardy! match between the IBM-designed machine Watson and the two most heralded players of the show's history.

After watching the constant frustration on Ken Jennings' face, I was confident that all the players knew most of the answers. It was just a matter of who buzzed in first, with Watson doing so most of the time.

Check out this description of the Jeopardy! buzzer, from Jennings' Web site:
If you watch Jeopardy! casually, it's easy to assume that the player doing most of the answering is the one who knew the most answers, but that's not necessarily true. All three contestants, after all, passed the same very hard test to be there. Most of the contestants can answer most of the questions. But Jeopardy! victory goes not to the biggest brain—it goes to the smoothest thumb. Timing on the tricky Jeopardy! buzzer is often what separates the winner from the, well, non-winners, and the Jeopardy! buzzer is a cruel mistress.

Here's how it works: the buzzers don't get activated until Alex is finished reading each question. If you buzz in too early, the system actually locks you out for a fifth of a second or so. But if you're too late, the player next to you is going to get in first. Somewhere between too early and too late is a very narrow sweet spot, like swinging a tennis racket or a baseball bat. No, that's not right. The Jeopardy! buzzer, she is like a woman. No, that's not it either. All I know is, the more I thought about the timing, the less I could nail it. When I could somehow just Zen out and not think about what I was doing, I would do okay.
Watson won primarily because it had first dibs on every question it pleased. I'm much less impressed by this victory because it involved a machine "hitting a button" much more precisely than any human ever could.

Yes, it's still impressive that the machine can perform so well on Jeopardy!-style questions, but the lopsided final score shouldn't imply that Watson is vastly superior to its human counterparts.