Do you like the taste of beer?

Here’s a good one that Doug passed along. It’s amusing on its own merits, but it’s also a stark illustration of the coming power of statistics. OkCupid is a dating site. There are thousands of dating sites out there, but this one was founded by mathematicians. So not only do they have tons of interesting data on coupling, they’ve also got the math skills to extract some pretty fascinating conclusions.

In a recent blog post, The Best Questions For A First Date, they posed this question. Is there an innocuous question you can ask early in a relationship that yields the same information as the rude question that you’d rather ask? That question of questions, “Will my date have sex on the first date?” turns out to correspond very nicely with a much much safer question: “Do you like the taste of beer?” According to the wizards at OkCupid,

whether someone likes the taste of beer is the single best predictor of if he or she has sex on the first date.

Why? That’s the beauty of statistics! It doesn’t matter why. I’m telling you that it works. Isaac Newton had much the same problem when he tried to explain his law of gravity. “I have no faith in this gravitational law of yours,” they would say, “because you can’t explain how it works.” To this day, nobody understands how gravity works, but Newton’s law is darned useful all the same.

Similarly, we’re a long way from understanding human nature. But the statistics you shed every day are now being stockpiled and distilled, and they reveal an invisible hand shaping your every move. There’s a lot more of this on the way. I suspect that first dates in the near future will start to sound like spies encountering each other behind enemy lines.

HE: The otter is shy but friendly, don’t you think?
SHE: Yes, but would you agree that it is better to be invisible than to fly?
HE: True, but tell me this… do you like the taste of beer?
SHE: >> SLAP! <<

Broken looms and IBM machines

I don’t know about you, but watching Watson demolish his human opponents in Jeopardy last week got me thinking about wooden shoes. Called sabots in French, these shoes were flung into weaving machines during the Industrial Revolution by angry workers. Clogs in cogs save jobs, or so went the reasoning. Ineffective at stopping automation, sabots nevertheless had a lasting impact on the English language. Sabotage became our word for the subversive use of footwear (and other implements of destruction).

I always tut-tutted at those misguided laborers for shoe-flinging in the name of job security. Who were they to stop progress? But watching Watson, I felt a pang of sympathy for the Luddites of the 19th century. Because as a knowledge worker, Watson is starting to work on my side of the street, and my reptile brain is not very happy about it. The speed with which mechanical brains are improving is intimidating. Even so, it’s easy enough for my non-reptile brain to calm down and be grateful for progress. I remind myself that it was ever thus. Progress has been intimidating humans since the invention of the pointed stick.

It was with these thoughts that I got a note from Jay Czarnecki pointing me to Adam Gopnik’s essay at the New Yorker, The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us. It’s a smart smart piece about the overwhelming wonders of the Internet. He divides Internet pundits into three categories: the pessimistic Better-Nevers, the Pollyanna Never-Betters, and the equivocal Ever-Wasers. As he says:

One’s hopes rest with the Never-Betters; one’s head with the Ever-Wasers; and one’s heart? Well… one’s heart tends to move toward the Better-Nevers, and then bounce back toward someplace that looks more like home.

We humans can never escape the feeling that that which frees us enslaves us. I wonder how Watson feels about it.