Why Netflix Has Never Envied the Success of Google or Facebook
Netflix is a major player in the so-called "big data" game, as the success of programs like House of Cards demonstrates, but they don't envy larger companies like Google or Facebook for one simple reason.
Todd Yellin started working at Netflix over ten years ago and his current role as VP of Product Innovation revolves around changing the way people find great streaming content to watch over the Internet on their TVs, computers, and mobile devices. He is responsible for leveraging vast amounts of data, sophisticated algorithms, and best-in-class user interfaces across numerous viewing devices to create an easy, compelling way for Netflix members to find something great to watch. He also oversees member acquisition and how to best leverage social and messaging.
Before Netflix, as a documentarian, Todd became the only person ever to film Tibetan children escaping over the Himalayas; the footage was shown worldwide by Reuters. His written account was published in The Progressive and syndicated by the NYT. He also wrote/directed a short documentary for British TV on political oppression in Myanmar, which was broadcast throughout Europe.
Todd Yellin: So it's funny, big data has been kind of a cliché in Silicon Valley for the last few years: big data this, big data that. Big data is really one big mountain of garbage with little gems buried it in this tremendous trash heap, and you want to find those gems — you really want to find out what's going to make the experience better. So there are a lot of sophisticated machine learning algorithms that Netflix and other companies deploy to really figure out what are the gems that are going to make a better experience, and what's the rubbish that you want to separate out and push to the side? Once you find those gems, it doesn't make it a more alienated, machine experience — it actually makes it a more personal experience. It becomes much more about the individual member.
When I first got to Netflix we were looking at other companies that were doing personalization and leveraging the kinds of data they couldn't learn from. And one company that obviously wasn't competitive with Netflix was also doing some interesting things was Pandora, the music company. And Netflix is in Silicon Valley and they're up in Oakland, not too far away, and we're down in the South Bay. So we went up to - we had a meeting, a little powwow, this was many years ago, with Pandora. And they were really small then and Netflix was much smaller and we were just comparing notes. What was interesting about Pandora is Pandora had the Music Genome Project where they were tearing apart and deconstructing lots of music on all these different dimensions and trying to really understand the music. And I remember back in these days, and this was like ten years ago, they had their walls lined with CDs all over and they had a whole line of people in this cramped office with headphones on and they were listening to music with this big spreadsheet open and tagging everything about it.
At that's time at Netflix we were all about rating our titles on a one to five star system and we were very much using a lot of behavioral - a lot of algorithms around the behaviors of what users were doing and based on a lot of clustering techniques. We weren't really deconstructing the titles yet, we would get to that soon after — they weren't really deploying a lot of the collaborating filtering models that we were using on our algorithms. So we compared notes and we influenced each other and we only met a couple of times with them and were paying attention to what other companies were doing in terms of personalization. And based on these learnings, everyone kind of evolved across, it's not just Netflix, other companies that are trying to leverage big data to make it much easier to find something great to watch, great to listen to, great to read, great to buy, and figure out how to use, when to use human created data, a lot of metadata, a lot of deconstructing of what the material is people are watching or listening to or reading and so forth and how to use a lot of behavioral clustering data, what kinds of people are watching these kinds of shows and movies? What kinds of people are watching these or listening to these and so forth?
So it wasn't just Netflix, it's just we are very monomaniacally focused at Netflix and we really want to create great content and we want to get that great content to the right people at the right time. And so that's why we're using the data. Let me throw in one more thing. There are a lot of great companies deploying a lot of interesting techniques, not only in Northern California but around the world. And so right up the road from Netflix you have companies like Google and Facebook and they can be great partners for Netflix at times and there are brilliant people working there, but I don't envy their jobs because their jobs are different than what myself and my team have to do. When we have all this data we have one purpose for this data and that's to make each individual member's experience better. There are no advertisers. We're only subscription. And in a subscription model you use everything you can and you're basically on your knees and you saying please stay with Netflix. Stay another month. It's a great experience. There's lots of great stuff to watch. Here's another great TV show or movie.
But if you're at a Google or a Facebook you're doing really interesting work but you serving two masters: you're serving the consumer and you're serving the advertiser. So when you getting all that big data you're constantly in this conflict of, "do I use this big data to serve the advertiser and put the right advertising front of the right customer to get them to buy something that they didn't sincerely come to the service for, or am I serving the customer showing them the right thing in their newsfeed, showing them the perfect search result and so forth?" So they're very, you know, they're incredible tools in the modern age, whether on using Google Search or using the Facebook newsfeed, but once again, they're even at a more perplexing challenge, we just use the data to serve each individual member.
According to Netflix's VP of Product Development, there's a misconception about big data. It's not a treasure trove of information, as many people and their companies assume, but more like "a big mountain of garbage." The problem, as Todd Yellin sees it, is sifting through the data to find the information that will actually benefit users, and that data is few and far between.
Yellin appreciates the simplicity of the subscription model on which Netflix depends. While making the on-demand entertainment company entirely beholden to their customers for success, unlike Google and Facebook which draw substantial revenue from advertisers, it simplifies their understanding of big data. Ultimately it means serving one master, the customer, instead of two.
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What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?
Some people just aren't bothered by the cold, no matter how low the temperature dips. And the reason for this may be in a person's genes.
Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.
- A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
- The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
- Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.
An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.
- A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
- A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
- Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.
The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.
Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .
The Barry Arm Fjord
Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach
Image source: Matt Zimmerman
The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.
Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest
Image source: whrc.org
There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.
The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.
"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."
Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.
What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord
Moving slowly at first...
Image source: whrc.org
"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."
The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.
Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.
Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.
While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.
Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."
How do you prepare for something like this?
Image source: whrc.org
The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:
"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."
In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.
The famous cognition test was reworked for cuttlefish. They did better than expected.
- Scientists recently ran the Stanford marshmallow experiment on cuttlefish and found they were pretty good at it.
- The test subjects could wait up to two minutes for a better tasting treat.
- The study suggests cuttlefish are smarter than you think but isn't the final word on how bright they are.
Proof that some people are less patient than invertebrates<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/H1yhGClUJ0U" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> The common cuttlefish is a small cephalopod notable for producing sepia ink and relative intelligence for an invertebrate. Studies have shown them to be capable of remembering important details from previous foraging experiences, and to adjust their foraging strategies in response to changing circumstances. </p><p>In a new study, published in <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2020.3161" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Proceedings of the Royal Society B</a>, researchers demonstrated that the critters have mental capacities previously thought limited to vertebrates.</p><p>After determining that cuttlefish are willing to eat raw king prawns but prefer a live grass shrimp, the researchers trained them to associate certain symbols on see-through containers with a different level of accessibility. One symbol meant the cuttlefish could get into the box and eat the food inside right away, another meant there would be a delay before it opened, and the last indicated the container could not be opened.</p><p>The cephalopods were then trained to understand that upon entering one container, the food in the other would be removed. This training also introduced them to the idea of varying delay times for the boxes with the second <a href="https://www.sciencealert.com/cuttlefish-can-pass-a-cognitive-test-designed-for-children" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">symbol</a>. </p><p>Two of the cuttlefish recruited for the study "dropped out," at this point, but the remaining six—named Mica, Pinto, Demi, Franklin, Jebidiah, and Rogelio—all caught on to how things worked pretty quickly.</p><p>It was then that the actual experiment could begin. The cuttlefish were presented with two containers: one that could be opened immediately with a raw king prawn, and one that held a live grass shrimp that would only open after a delay. The subjects could always see both containers and had the ability to go to the immediate access option if they grew tired of waiting for the other. The poor control group was faced with a box that never opened and one they could get into right away.</p><p>In the end, the cuttlefish demonstrated that they would wait anywhere between 50 and 130 seconds for the better treat. This is the same length of time that some primates and birds have shown themselves to be able to wait for.</p><p>Further tests of the subject's cognitive abilities—they were tested to see how long it took them to associate a symbol with a prize and then on how long it took them to catch on when the symbols were switched—showed a relationship between how long a cuttlefish was willing to wait and how quickly it learned the associations. </p>
All of this is interesting, but what use could it possibly have?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTcxNzY2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MTM0MzYyMH0.lKFLPfutlflkzr_NM6WmnosKM1rU6UEIHWlyzWhYQNM/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C10%2C0%2C88&height=700" id="77c04" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7eb9d5b2d890496756a69fb45ceac87c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A diagram showing the experimental set up. On the left is the control condition, on the right is the experimental condition.
Credit: Alexandra K. Schnell et al., 2021<p> As you can probably guess, the ability to delay gratification as part of a plan is not the most common thing in the animal kingdom. While humans, apes, some birds, and dogs can do it, less intelligent animals can't. </p><p>While it is reasonably simple to devise a hypothesis for why social humans, tool-making chimps, or hunting birds are able to delay gratification, the cuttlefish is neither social, a toolmaker, or is it hunting anything particularly <a href="https://gizmodo.com/cuttlefish-are-able-to-wait-for-a-reward-1846392756" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">intelligent</a>. Why they evolved this capacity is up for debate. </p><p>Lead author Alexandra Schnell of the University of Cambridge discussed their speculations on the evolutionary advantage cuttlefish might get out of this skill with <a href="https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2021-03/mbl-qc022621.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Eurekalert:</a> </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"> "Cuttlefish spend most of their time camouflaging, sitting and waiting, punctuated by brief periods of foraging. They break camouflage when they forage, so they are exposed to every predator in the ocean that wants to eat them. We speculate that delayed gratification may have evolved as a byproduct of this, so the cuttlefish can optimize foraging by waiting to choose better quality food."</p><p>Given the unique evolutionary tree of the cuttlefish, its cognitive abilities are an example of convergent evolution, in which two unrelated animals, in this case primates and cuttlefish, evolve the same trait to solve similar problems. These findings could help shed light on the evolution of the cuttlefish and its relatives. </p><p> It should be noted that this study isn't definitive; at the moment, we can't make a useful comparison between the overall intelligence of the cuttlefish and the other animals that can or cannot pass some variation of the marshmallow test.</p><p>Despite this, the results are quite exciting and will likely influence future research into animal intelligence. If the common cuttlefish can pass the marshmallow test, what else can?</p>