Tuesday, November 13, 2012

FtB has a problem

Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, but FtB has a problem now. It's not on every blog, but it seems like it's spreading to more and more of them. The problem is very similar to what a lot of the FtB haters have been complaining about, except that their complaints predated the problem, so I'm not exactly sure what happened here. In any case, the problem is this:

In the comments on some of the blogs, if you deviate even slightly from certain unwritten assumptions of the commentariat, people will be a total asshole to you. You might even be wrong, and in that case it's good that there are folks there to set you on the right track... but they will be downright fuckin' mean to you, and that's just not necessary. There are certain blogs where the commentariat has stopped differentiating between full-blown MRAs vs. men who are trying very hard to be feminists but maybe have a couple of unexamined assumptions that are clouding how they see things. Get one thing wrong, and not only will they tell you, but they will tell you just what a worthless fuckup you are too.

My guess as to how this happened is that a lot of people there are fed up with trolls, fed up with people JAQing off, fed up with the online hate. And I don't want to draw a false equivalence here: What I am complaining about in the FtB comment section is light years away from some of the horrible vitriol that has been hurled at some of the bloggers there.

Nevertheless, it's a problem, and there are more and more blogs there where I just simply avoid the comment section altogether. It's too bad. FtB is still a really cool place, but it could be even better if certain folks just took a deep breath and thought for a second about positive intentions before ruthlessly excoriating people for falling somewhat short of perfect.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Nate Silver may be overrated, but poll aggregation isn't

tl;dr version: It's not exactly clear whether or not Nate Silver is the wunderkind he is made out to be (his true gift may be more in the explaining than in the predicting), but poll aggregation is an idea whose time has come -- and pundits and pols ignore it at their peril.

Let's get one thing out of the way up front: I really like Nate Silver. His writing style is pitch perfect, and people like me really get off on his blend of scientific humility and technical swagger. Independent of anything else, his mini-celebrity status is well-deserved, in my opinion.

Still, there are many who have questioned whether his "special sauce" is really contributing anything of value. There are even people whom I really respect that are quite down on Silver. I think this all raises some fair questions. Despite Silver's legendary performance in 2008 and 2010, and even despite the fact that he continued the streak by making (by some measures) the most accurate predictions in 2012, there is still room to argue that some of this is just statistical flukiness.

To be sure, while Silver was arguably the most accurate quant on this most recent election, his advantage over other poll aggregators was razor-thin. I consider it an open question whether the "special sauce" really does yield a consistently more accurate answer than other simpler approaches, or if Silver has just gotten a little lucky. But the thing is, it doesn't matter all that much.

Whether Silver is really doing something special, or if one can make do with a more streamlined approach that simply seeks to aggregate polling data in a sensible way, without all of the meticulous adjustments performed by the 538 model, one thing is perfectly clear: In the last several election cycles, poll aggregators have yielded consistently accurate results, even while blowhard pundits have floundered.

I think Silver's predictive success (as opposed to his professional success, which as I have mentioned I think is largely due to his excellent writing style and explanatory abilities) is in large part an inevitable result of the vast increase in the amount of independent state-level polling being done these days. While Darren Sherkat is correct when he says, "on average, if you heap together shit, it doesn’t equal filet mignon. The Central Limit Theorem is not something to be fucked with...", it now appears (if you'll allow me to extend the metaphor) that there is enough meat in modern state-level polling to at least make a decent hamburger, if not filet mignon.

There's a bit of an epistemological Catch-22 here, in that the low sample size will always give the doubters enough wiggle room to argue that it's all a fluke. But it really seems to me at this point that the most parsimonious explanation for Silver's continued streak, as well as the excellent performance of his quant counterparts, is that there is a core of legitimacy to poll aggregation, and that models like the one employed by Silver (if not his specific model) should now be recognized as far and away the most reliable method for predicting the results of an election.

There's still plenty of room to doubt some of Silver's more exotic "voodoo", but it is increasingly hard to deny that the basic idea is sound: Take all of the data that you have available, calibrate it to take into account each polling outfit's historical performance, and average it all together. Apply error bars of appropriate size (e.g. Silver should not get credit for calling 50 out of 50, since his 50.3% "prediction" on Florida hardly counts as "calling it"), and you now have a stable and reliable and sufficiently hedged prediction. How many more elections will it take before we can agree on this?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Scrabble and Intellectual Property

My post on the differences between Scrabble and Words with Friends continues to garner huge numbers of hits, as well as a lot of comments. A number of comments have expressed anger or bewilderment over Words' transparent rip-off of Scrabble. While some related legal issues can be murky -- and the ethical issues are murkier still -- there is one thing that is not in doubt: Zyngo, the makers of Words with Friends, are in no danger of being successfully sued by Hasbro. The reasons why are alluded to in the comments of the other post, but there seems to be enough interest/emotion regarding this that I figure it warrants its own post.

Different types of intellectual property

First things first, a little bit of intellectual property 101. There are three ways of protecting intellectual property in the United States, and indeed in most of the world. I am not a lawyer by any means, so I will not pretend to give a comprehensive explanation of what each of these are. But in short: A patent is something you use to protect an invention or an idea; a copyright is something you use to protect a specific work, like a book or a song or what-have-you; and a trademark is something you use to protect a name.

All three of these can apply to certain aspects of Scrabble, and Zyngo could have -- but clearly did not -- infringe on any of them. I will take each type of protection one at a time.

Scrabulous Trademarks

The easy one first: Trademarks. As mentioned before, trademarks are used to protect a name. It sounds simple in principle, but it can actually get very complicated. For an example, look up the long-running dispute between Apple Computers and the Apple Records, the label founded by The Beatles.

Again, I am not a lawyer, and there are better resources to learn about the vagaries of trademark law. But for our purposes, it's really simple: Zyngo didn't use any words that sound anything like "Scrabble" or "Hasbro" or anything else that could have gotten them into trademark hot water. Not an issue.

It bears mentioning that an early Scrabble clone on Facebook went by the name "Scrabulous" -- and unsurprisingly, there was a lawsuit. Frankly, the name was a really dumb move and they probably didn't think it through that much. They changed their name to Lexulous and still exist to this day. Other changes were made as well to get Hasbro to drop the lawsuit, which we'll discuss when we get to copyright. But first, another easy one...

Patents, Deadlines, and Expiration Dates

So it turns out you actually can patent a game. This could get really sticky, as patent law is tremendously murky, and I say this as someone who has multiple patents to his name (Google me!).

Luckily, patents expire after a relatively short amount of time (typically 20 years in the United States), so even if there were a patent on Scrabble, it would have expired long ago. Furthermore, it seems that the only Scrabble-related patent dealt with tile design rather than gameplay, which would be a non-issue for an online game even if it hadn't expired before I was even born.

And don't entertain any notions that Hasbro could file a patent today. While the law in the US recently changed (to be even more restrictive), it's never been the case that you could file a patent any later than one year to the day after your invention became public. The deadline for protecting Scrabble passed sometime around when Hitler invaded Poland.

Napster's Bane

Which leaves only one form of intellectual property protection: Copyright. You know, the reason 95% of your music collection is technically illegal.

Copyright is used to protect an "original work", like a story or a song or a picture whatever. I'm actually a little shaky on what defines an "original work", but typically if you can write it down or record it, that would count.

So what in Scrabble counts as an "original work"? The board for sure -- and this is why Words with Friends uses a different board layout. The instructions would also count, but you can always just paraphrase them (similar to the way you can copyright a cookbook, but you can't really protect an individual recipe). An argument could be made that the tile frequency and scoring might count, since that is something you could write out in a tabular form (just as I have done in my other post).

It is notable that Lexulous nee Scrabulous changed exactly these things when they got Hasbro to drop the lawsuit, and it's notable that Zyngo has altered all of these from the original Scrabble as well.

Final thoughts, and a word about ethics

Have no doubt: I'm sure Hasbro would like to have their official Scrabble app be the only game in town. If there were a reasonable chance of them winning a lawsuit, they would take it.

Again remembering that I am not a lawyer, I think that if for some reason Zyngo decided they wanted to keep the tile frequencies and scoring the same, that could get really dicey. I don't think it's a slam dunk, but it would be murky enough that I'm pretty sure Hasbro would sue, just to try their luck. Of course, it's totally not worth it (for any of the parties involved, really) so Zyngo is playing it safe and making sure they change enough that any attempt at a lawsuit would get laughed out of court.

So -- we know Words with Friends is legal. Is it ethical? Well, I'm not going to make a strong pronouncement here, but I will say this: Hasbro could easily have the #1 word game app on Facebook due to the distinct advantage imparted by their trademark, if they also had the best app. Furthermore, I can't imagine that Words with Friends significantly cuts into sales of physical Scrabble games (even if this travesty were actually popular, note that Hasbro got the rights to sell it -- hah!). If anything, a popular and playable Scrabble clone probably stimulates sales, as people get hooked online and then want to play it in person.

Lastly, it's worth noting that Scrabble was a similarly close tweak of an earlier game by the name of Lexiko. So don't cry for Hasbro, please.