The Gambler Who Cracked the Horse-Racing Code

Bill Benter did the impossible: He wrote an algorithm that couldn’t lose at the track. Close to a billion dollars later, he tells his story for the first time.

Source: The Gambler Who Cracked the Horse-Racing Code – Bloomberg

A great in-depth feature on how algorithms, and a lot of automated betting, were used to win on horse racing. Sort of—there’s something of a twist at the end.

The Miranda Grosvenor Obsession

She said she was a beautiful, well-connected blonde named Miranda, and she enchanted an astonishing circle of powerful men—Billy Joel, Paul Schrader, Buck Henry, and Quincy Jones among them—with her flirtatious, gossipy phone calls. But who was the woman behind the voice?

Source: The Miranda Grosvenor Obsession | Vanity Fair

This starts off a bit slow but is very interesting in the end. I’m surprised the various men in the story—all famous, and most were friends with each other—didn’t put two and two together sooner. But that’s the male ego, I suppose.

How advertisers took a mallet to the English language

“In adland, we don’t call it language-mangling, we call it ‘Language DJing’ or ‘Langling’,” jokes Alex Myers, founder of agency Manifest. “In reality it’s just lazy creative work. Copywriting is a lost art. Ad agencies need to ‘Think more good’.”

Eagle-eyed bad-ad fans can quickly notice patterns emerging: “finding” something and it being “amazing” appear with the same clockwork regularity as Love Island contestants on Instagram. See, for instance, Rightmove’s “Find your happy” and Visit Wales’s “Find your epic”. Or Lexus’s “Experience amazing” and Deliveroo’s “Eat more amazing”.

Source: Smart knows that’s not English – how adland took a mallet to the language | Media | The Guardian

Baking the Most Average Chocolate Chip Cookie

We wondered if there was a way to leverage computers and hundreds of pre-existing recipes to create the most average chocolate chip cookie. Would it be bland and unremarkable? Or, perhaps like averaging human facial features, the results would be even better than each of its individual parts. Maybe an average cookie would be the most delicious of them all.

But what is an average cookie? We decided to interpret this idea using three different methods: a mathematical average, predictive text algorithms, and neural networks. After feeding each algorithm over 200 chocolate chip cookie recipes, they each generated something new. And, yes, we actually baked them.

Source: Baking the Most Average Chocolate Chip Cookie

Hello, my name is ________: Searching for names is not always straightforward

I really like names. There’s so much variation in the way people use their own names—formally and informally, at home, work, or online. And there’s even more variation in names across cultures. In this blog post I’m going to touch on some of my favorite kinds of name variation and how such variation can make it bafflingly hard to search for people “by name”, on Wikipedia or elsewhere.

Source: Hello, my name is ________: Searching for names is not always straightforward – Wikimedia Blog

This is exactly my sort of blog post, comprising interesting facts about how names are used and constructed around the world, and how Wikipedia overcomes the myriad ways this can negatively impact search. (The Wikimedia blog has been consistently great lately. You should subscribe.)

When Homer envisioned Achilles, did he see a black man?

By and large, then, ancient Greeks probably looked generally like darker versions of modern Greeks (which, incidentally, sheds interesting light on Homer’s ‘black-skinned’ Odysseus and Eurybates). They were, of course, shorter too: the average height of the owners of surviving ancient Greek skeletons was around 5ft 4in (163 cm) for men and 5ft (153 cm) for women. Also, at the time that the Iliad and the Odyssey were written, there is likely to have been a greater variation at the individual level than at the time of the study, because of the extent of Greek reach across the Mediterranean and into north Africa, and the likelihood of immigration and intermarriage. In brief: the Greek warriors that Homer imagined probably did not look much like David Gyasi (Achilles in the BBC show), but nor did they look like Brad Pitt (Achilles in the Hollywood movie Troy).

Source: When Homer envisioned Achilles, did he see a black man? | Aeon Essays

Real People Are Turning Their Accounts Into Bots On Instagram — And Cashing In

In late February, an Instagram account called Viral Hippo posted a photo of a black square. There was nothing special about the photo, or the square, and certainly not the account that posted it. And yet within 24 hours, it amassed over 1,500 likes from a group that included a verified model followed by 296,000 people, a verified influencer followed by 228,000, a bunch of fitness coaches, some travel accounts, and various small businesses. “I really love this photo,” one commented.

The commenter wasn’t a bot; nor were any of the accounts that liked the black square. But their interest in it wasn’t genuine. These were real people, but not real likes — none of them clicked on the like button themselves. Instead, they used a paid service that automatically likes and comments on other posts for them. Instagram says this is against its terms of service, but it continues to operate. It’s called Fuelgram and, for a few dollars a month and access to your Instagram log-in credentials, it will use the accounts of everyone who paid that sum to like and comment on your posts — and it will use yours to do the same to theirs.

Really strange that lots of people don’t see this as a shady thing at all. See also: Confessions of an Instagram influencer from 2016.

Source: Real People Are Turning Their Accounts Into Bots On Instagram — And Cashing In

Designing page previews for Wikipedia 

Wikipedia recently launched page previews for their content—hover over an internal link (i.e. from one Wikipedia entry to another) and you’ll reveal a pop-up with summary information about the destination page.

The link at the bottom of this post summarises some of the design and UX work that went into the new feature. But why so much thought? It’s a simple, straightforward new feature, right? Well:

  • Nearly ~28 percent of Wikipedia’s traffic comes from clicking on internal blue links. a.k.a going down the rabbit hole
  • Blue links account for ~230 million page views per month
  • ~2 million links get hovered per minute across all Wikipedias

In other words, blue links are the most frequently-used interactive elements on Wikipedia. This makes messing with or changing any feature related to blue links a bit more… delicate and challenging.

Not only that, but not every destination page has the same content. They can have long or short titles or descriptions; images of any size or aspect ratio; differing licence information; or other textual formats such as mathematical formulae or musical notation. The post gives a good idea of the challenges and how the feature might develop from here.

Source: How we designed page previews for Wikipedia — and what could be done with them in the future – Wikimedia Blog

Raw power: Britain’s changing appetite for veg

Who would have thought that cauliflower – which was traditionally served under what chef Jean Conil described in his 1953 book Haute Cuisine as “a merciful disguise of sauce” – might one day be so celebrated it would be served proudly whole and slow-roasted, like a prime cut of beef? For a while it felt as if the vegetables that inspired love in Britain were Mediterranean ones such as red peppers that were roasted and safely removed from anything we had grown up with. But there is a renewed appetite for locally grown root veg too. From 2016 to 2017, sales of beetroot in the UK grew by £34 million, an increase of 6% year on year. Still more startling is the rise in people who centre their entire diet on vegetables, gathering under the hashtag #plantbased. The number of self-declared British vegans has risen by more than 360% since 2006.

Great. Vegetables are increasingly the star of the show. But a diet rich in fresh produce is still out of reach for far too many:

At the vegetable summit, Kerridge said her teenage daughter often begged her for pre-packed spiralised courgettes in the supermarket because she had seen it idolised on social media. The problem is that Kerridge can’t afford to buy it.

Granted, it’s much more affordable to buy courgettes and spiralise them yourself. (If you must.) But the broader point is painfully clear—vegetables are cool again, yet large swathes of the population are missing out.

(Aside: I learned recently the that author of this piece, Bee Wilson, is the sister of classicist Emily Wilson, whose translation of the Odyssey is currently on my bedside table.)

Source: Raw power: Britain’s changing appetite for veg | Life and style | The Guardian

Why is New Zealand sparing crayfish but torturing rabbits?

Nikki Mandow:

Lobsters have a total of 100,000 neurons. In the overall scheme of things, this isn’t many. It’s less than half those of an ant and a tenth of those of a cockroach.

By contrast, a rabbit has nearly 500 million neurons. (Humans, in case you are interested, have around 86 billion.)

So it seems inconsistent at the very least that it is illegal in New Zealand to cause a couple of minutes of bubbling suffering to an animal with almost no feeling, on the basis that they nevertheless do have a functioning nervous system. Yet it is fine to cause up to four days of suffering to an animal with a sophisticated nervous system.

This seems an appropriate place to drop in a link to DFW’s Consider the Lobster (pdf).

 

Fact checking tools in the browser

Mike Caulfield has some ideas about how the humble browser could be used to combat mis- and disinformation. For example:

Site info: Browsers expose some site info, but it’s ridiculously limited. Here’s some site info that you could easily provide users: date domain first purchased, first crawl of URL by Google or archive.org, related Wikipedia article on organization (and please financially support Wikipedia if doing this), any IFCN or press certification. Journal impact factor. Date last updated. Even better: provide some subset of this info when hovering over links.

Likely original reporting source: For a news story that is being re-re-re-reported by a thousand clickbait artists, use network and content analysis to find what the likely original reporting source is and suggest people take a look at that.

Other suggestions: in-built reverse image lookups, OCR of image memes, related sites.

 

A new generation of food magazines thinks small, and in ink

Despite some off-putting names — like Toothache or Mold — many of these publications are beautiful and inviting, with ink-saturated pages filled with original art, and nuanced, complex stories you want to spend time digesting. Their cover prices are fittingly high, with many around $20, and a few don’t even bother to post their content online, focusing entirely on print.

Staffs tend to be tiny (often just one or two people), as do circulations (150 to 15,000). But what these titles lack in size or legacy, they make up for in originality and ambition, often zooming in on stories that have been overlooked or misrepresented in traditional magazines, and publishing them on their own terms.

Source: A New Generation of Food Magazines Thinks Small, and in Ink – The New York Times

I’ve bought and read a few of these—Mold, The Gourmand and Put a Egg on It spring immediately to mind, delivered as part of my Stack subscription—and they are things to treasure. Worth seeking out if you are in any way interested in food and culture.

Janus words are their own opposites

Frequently described as “words that are their own opposites,” Janus words are also known as contronyms, antagonyms, or auto-antonyms. These are words that have developed contradictory meanings. Cleave is often cited as the go-to contronym: it can refer to splitting something apart and uniting two things. But it’s not the only one out there, and there is usually some sort of logic behind most auto-antonyms.

Source: Contronyms, Janus Words, and Auto-Antonyms | Merriam-Webster

As well as cleave: clip, fast, oversight, sanction. All have contradictory meanings which arise from a word’s original specific definition becoming much broader. Or, somewhat appropriately, the opposite.

What to read on a subway commute

Adam Sternbergh on subway novels:

So I want thrilling plots, yes — but also thrilling language. I want sentences I’ll stop to read twice. This is why standard throwaway airport thrillers don’t migrate well beneath ground. The writing may be “muscular” and “spare,” but if it’s not also “inventive” and “excellent” there’s a good chance the book will wind up abandoned on a platform bench. With a long day behind me and a wearying commute ahead of me, I don’t want to settle for distraction; I want to look forward to reading my book with the palpitating excitement of a second date with someone I’ve already fallen for. I want to miss my stop. Ideally, I’ll miss a few.

 

This couple keeps getting mystery packages from Amazon they didn’t order

A new type of scam where companies send out their products solely so that they can themselves write 5-star reviews on Amazon.

Here’s how two experts who used to work for Amazon, James Thomson and Chris McCabe, say it probably works: A seller trying to prop up a product would set up a phony e-mail account that would be used to establish an Amazon account. Then the seller would purchase merchandise with a gift card — no identifying information there — and send it to a random person, in this case the Gallivans. Then, the phantom seller, who controls the “buyer’s” e-mail account, writes glowing reviews of the product, thus boosting the Amazon ranking of the product.