Saturday, January 04, 2014

Lab Notebook: Strange connections between baseball and Netflix

I discovered another repeating pattern for problem solving in baseball scouting and ... movie classification. In baseball, scouts and managers have to process a lot of vague information about many prospects. Nate Silver writes how Billy Beane ("a phenom in baseball management" and the main character in Moneyball, one of my favorite movies about sports) addressed the problem:

...when we have trouble categorizing something, we’ll often overlook it or misjudge it. This is one of the reasons that Beane avoids what he calls “gut-feel” decisions. (The Signal and the Noise. 2013.)

In short, Beane developed an elaborate system and a large number of explicit categories that his brain could rationally handle instead of relying on subconscious, gut-feel decisions. Using lots of  categories enabled him to pick the right player among many candidates.

Where do people experience a similar problem? In "scouting" movies on Netflix! To help users solve the problem, Netflix engineers developed a detailed content categorization system with thousands of fine distinctions, so that people can select the right movie among lots of candidates. Here's an example of their movie subjects:

Source: Alexis C. Madrigal. How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood. The Atlantic. Jan 2, 2014.

A couple of learning points:
- In Scalable Innovation (Chapter 5), we talk about the concept of "Aboutness" - an element that facilitates decision making in systems. The Netflix chart above would be a great way to show how generating movie aboutness helps solve detection problems for the users.
- "Gut-feel" decisions are a poor substitute for systematic thinking about the problem. Fundamentally, they are limited by our working memory and don't scale to handle complex choice situations.

tags: aboutness, problem, solution, detection, control, pattern

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