The many games of Jeopardy

January 14, 2020. Double Jeopardy Daily Double:
What is Chad?

Jeopardy is incredibly instructive. It has come up a number of times on the blog. The best summary is the June 2021 NPR Planet Money podcast.

First, Jeopardy is not a trivia game. Jeopardy is a television show. It’s a game within a game within a game within the game of life. Life is a game in the sense that there are rules (hard like physics, soft like psychology), consequences, and randomness.

Penn Jillette notes the gaminess. ‘Winning’ a game like Jeopardy or The Apprentice, wrote Penn, meant being interesting not being champion. His victory is selling tickets to the Penn & Teller theater show, not to make the best beans.

Like all games, the game maker can change the rules. Jeopardy is a pretty clean operation, but games like Survivor change the rules all the time. Governments change rules like “interest rates” or “bailout”. Regulators change rules too, maybe that’s their chief job?

Until 2003, Jeopardy contestants could only win five times. Then the rules changed and Ken Jennings showed up to win seventy-four games. Jennings has a very particular set of skills. Jeopardy was one of the few American shows Jennings watched growing up in South Korea and Singapore. But it wasn’t the clue collection, it was the cadence.

Jeopardy really isn’t a trivia game so much as (per the NPR episode) “a really crappy computer game.” Just as Jeopardy is a game within a game, there are three games within the game of Jeopardy too.

Before addressing the three games, it’s helpful to remind ourselves about the skill and luck spectrum. The “success equation” is to disentangle what games within games are skill based and which are luck based. Skill based games, wrote Michael Mauboussin, are games where some set of actions consistently returns some set of results. Another way to find skill based games is to ask: can you lose on purpose? Most games are a mix.

The outcome of this arrangement, says Mauboussin, is the “paradox of skill”. As each game within a game optimizes, the impact of luck grows.
Kawhi Shot

Jeopardy’s Three Games.

Jeopardy is a series of sequential games. If a contestant wins one, they get to try at the next, then the third, until the process resets. The first game is the buzzer.

Buzzer. “A crappy computer game”. There are a lot of ways to practice the buzzer, the most common among fans is the toilet paper roll holder.

During IBM’s Watson appearance some fans thought that the computer was too fast, though the engineers note the accommodations. Humans, wrote David Gondek, have the ability to anticipate when the buzzer window will open.

Like a basketball free-throw is preceded by a foul, winning the buzzer is precedes a chance to answer.

Trivia. Jeopardy screens contestants via a written test, then (a randomly selected) audition. Everyone that’s on Jeopardy is already good at trivia and getting much better is difficult. Not only that, Jeopardy as a sampling issue: it’s only full of people who really want to be there and do well.

The potential contestants (by now) know that not all trivia is important. The United States (capitals, geography) and its history (presidents) are important. Literature and Science are important. Professional wrestling and heavy metal are unimportant. Jeopardy’s trivia topics are wide but not deep, except for a few areas.

This used to be a data problem. Besides watching each night, how might a potential contestant figure out what mattered? Since 2004 there is a J-Archive, a fan curated collection of all things Jeopardy. Thanks to the internet, this part of the game within a game has shimmied from the luck end of the spectrum to the skill portion.

Though luck still matters. James Holzhauer only knew Sadie Lou was a nickname for Sarah Lawrence College because he and his wife considered ‘Sarah’ as a baby name.

In the season before James Holzhauer, the top ten Daily Double bets ranged from seven to fifteen thousand dollars. Holzhauer raised that to eleven to twenty-five. Holzhauer nearly doubled the Daily Double bets.

It’s not just the betting. Daily Doubles are tactical. If a player finds one early in the round, they won’t have enough to bet to make it ‘a true Daily Double’. Bet too little of a big stack and it lets the other players ‘stay in the game’. Bet too much of a big stack too late and a lead will evaporate.

It was gambling that let Holzhauer to reframe the Daily Double. Think of a coin flip. What is the price and payout someone would play? A dollar to win a dollar is kinda boring.

Or not? At our house we play this dice game called Left, Center, Right. At the start, each player has three chips and they roll three dice, one for each chip. If the dice say left or right, a player must pass a chip left or right. Center and the player adds a chip to the pot. A player can also roll a dot and they keep that chip. It’s a fun game, especially for the younger-non-gaming-gamers. But there’s no skill. The “successes equation” of LCR is: have fun.

The bet a dollar to win a dollar coin toss is meh. What about bet a dollar to win two? That is interesting. That’s how Holzhauer saw Daily Doubles. It cost a dollar to win a dollar but rather than the payout being skewed the odds were.

Jeopardy seems simple. It’s fun to feel smart, that’s part of the big game too, and play along at home. Like poker’s appeal maybe there’s more to it. What is, a richness of thinking?

Timestamps in the episode:
A jarring style, First 20 years, Trivia’s paradox of skill, Finding Daily Doubles, J-Archives, Betting Daily Doubles.

Unlocking the restricted actions section

There are (at least) four ways actions are restricted: macro-culture like society, micro-culture like an office, job mandates, and personal psychology. For Andrew Sullivan, the obstacle was the last one, the self.

“What I find that marijuana does, and to some extent — mushrooms definitely do, meditation does as well — is that they suppress the ego. They weaken the ego.” – Andrew Sullivan to Tyler Cowen, August 2021

Psychedelics, for Sullivan, offer a change in perspective., “You’re less attached to your own pride. Your mind is taken out of its normal rut,” he explained.

How much THC is TBD, but Sullivan’s point is healthy. Ego, for instance, is part of the reason Jason Blum is successful making horror movies. Ego, is part of the reason, Bank of America succeeded. The proletariat, it turns out, is profitable. “I don’t care where an idea comes from,” said Gregg Popovich, “You have to be comfortable enough in your own skin to realize that an idea can come from anywhere.”

A healthy amount of ego helped make Friends. An unhealthy ego meanwhile leads to dentists opening restaurants or financiers on movie sets.

This is one of those that-kinda-makes-sense ideas but a regular dose certainly helps.

Hurdling past covid

One way to think about “adoption” is as series of hurdles. If something is “adopted” it has succeeded by crossing the set of hurdles. There are few food bacteria “adoptions” because of hurdle technology: hot, cold, salt, and acid all make the process harder for food bacteria to survive.

Another metaphor for this approach is Swiss cheese: one layer has multiple holes but if the layers are independent, then stacking one on top of another removes the holes.

Part of the problem with studying, treating, and living with Covid is that it’s hard to figure out what works. There are models, but we’re still kinda guessing. As of August 2021, more than one-fifth of all FDA approved drugs were tried as off label treatment for Covid. Ironically, there’s not enough Covid to study it.

“What should give us reason to be hopeful is that there’s this cumulative effect that if you give the right drug at the right time along the way…there are these 15-30% reductions at each step so if you are someone that gets a monoclonal antibody early on, if you get fluvoxamine, you get remdesivir on admission, you get dexamethasone once you are on oxygen. We should model out where this puts you at.” – David Fajgenbaum, Wharton Moneyball, August 2021

Ah not so fast, Eric Bradlow follows up. How independent are these? Is this like a piece of Swiss cheese? “It’s shocking,” says Fajgenbaum, “they all seem to hit it from a different angle.” That angle appears to be time. Vaccines are like sunscreen, David explains, and that’s the pre-infection prevention. Then it’s one drug to stimulate the body’s immune response, then it’s another to slow that response way down.

Abraham Lincoln is attributed as saying, give me an hour to chop down a tree and I will spend the first fifty minutes sharpening an axe. Rather than trees and axes we can ask: Is our situation a hurdle condition? With Mr. Lincoln and the suggestion of Charlie Munger to invert, always invert (!), we can come up with a simple situational:

For deceleration, we want to create a series of independent hurdles an agent must cross. In the case of covid this might mean that a place mandates masks, vaccines, and social distancing — or maybe just be outside.

For acceleration, we want to create fewer hurdles for an agent. If not possible, we want homogenous hurdles. Smartphones did this for ride sharing: the who (payments), where (location), and when (on-demand) were all integrated into an app. Another way to consolidate hurdles is find the JTBD.

Even 17 months into it still feels early to say these are the treatments. While they may not be this approach still feels okay.

How to communicate well REDACTED

Spoilers ahead for Andy Weir’s book, Project Hail Mary.

Chapter seventeen opens on the spaceship Hail Mary with Rocky staring at Grace as he wakes up. “Food! Coffee!” Grace tells the computer. A robotic arm appears with both. The food on Hail Mary is good. So is the computer. “It’s kind of cool that the arms will hand me a cup when there’s gravity, but a pouch when there isn’t,” Grace says.

Grace begins eating, then, “I look at Rocky, ‘You don’t have to watch me sleep. It’s okay.’ He turns his attention to a worktable in his portion of the dormitory. ‘Eridian culture rule. Must watch.‘ he picks up a device and tinkers with it.”

Ok, that settles it. “We have an unspoken agreement,” Grace explains, “that cultural things just have to be accepted. It ends any minor dispute.”

The heart of communication is one individual’s information becoming another individual’s information. Sometimes this is done explicitly. Tom Sachs made a video to encourage communication like “message received”. James Mattis wrote that the critical intent is summed up in the words “in order to”.

Another way to communicate is visually. Good visuals, for instance, are crucial for sports analytics. Don’t tell players what to do, but do show them. “This is always the point that gets made,” said Mike Zarren in 2019 ,”how do you integrate analytics into your organization such that is doesn’t feel like something alien.”

The structure of someone’s communication is probably related to their cadence (is it a pool builder or movie distributor?). For Mattis and the military it had to be fast and firm. For Sachs it has to be clear and certain. Grace and Rocky too have a high cadence, they have problems to solve.

Good communication is a great destination with no singular path. It doesn’t matter how an individual shares their information about the world so long as it becomes someone else’s.

NFTs and Gary Vee

One way to support this time is different… is to say that the technology has changed. The smartphone’s GPS, camera, and chips all allowed a slew of businesses to serve customers in new ways.

Another way to see change is to ask the Bob Pittman question: is this another one of these? MTV followed from the idea of narrow-casting radio stations. If there was a rock station, country station, oldies station and so on on the radio shouldn’t there be something like that for television: a news station (CNN), a movie station (HBO), a music station (MTV)? This too was a technology shift.

“I believe there’s not a single sporting event or concert in ten years that the ticket is not an NFT. There’s no incentive for that organization or artist to launch it as anything but an NFT. A QR code or piece of paper means nothing. But if Luka Doncic drops a hundred points in that game it becomes a forever collectible. There’s a trillion-fucking-dollars worth of ticket stubs that have sold on eBay over the last twenty years.” – Gary Vaynerchuk, My First Million podcast, August 2021

A third way to consider change is to ask about the business model and the incentives. Sport is not a competition, sports is entertainment. Bob Iger wrote that he learned this lesson working the 1974 Olympics. “We weren’t just broadcasting events, we were telling stories.” There’s only one sport honest about this.

Are NFTs a new technology? Yes. Is this (NFTs) ‘another one of those (collectibles)’? Yes. Does the business model allow for this kind of innovation? Yes!

Local maxima

When stuck-at-home in 2020 my kids (12, 10 then) and I enrolled in the Marc Rober Creative Engineering course on Monthly. It was mostly above my engineering (and their in-depth interest) level but it was still great. We got to see Rober’s structure for brainstorming, more of the build process, and his thinking along the way. The hours of course video were like a documentary, a ‘Making of’ video.

One thing we saw was how Rober prototypes his builds. In the case of a making a candy launching device Rober made one using springs, one using compressed air, and one using hydraulics. The reason to prototype, Rober said, it to not get stuck at a local maxima.

Rober's sketches

We all have an idea for solving a problem and a lot of times we just do that. However in the situation we get more information. Rober suggests imagining a series of wooded hills. From the ground we don’t know which is highest (the best solution). So we need to hike up our best guess and look around from there. The hike up to, and the view from the top give us information on how best to act.

Rober’s process has come, in-part, from his years at Apple and NASA and making things like squirrel obstacle courses and glitter bombs. He’s a YouTuber with a very small staff, (no groupthink) so how might an organization avoid local maxima?

Rory Sutherland suggests following the bees. What’s great about Rory’s recounting is the structure. Organization direction is based on culture and incentives. Sutherland’s structure is one way to change the incentives.

“I think having two budgets, two sets of metrics, and two sets of incentives for exploit and explore. It would be utterly insane to learn something in a test and fail to exploit it by doing more of it. Make the most of what you know, but always invest twenty percent in what you don’t know yet. Bees do this where roughly twenty percent of bees ignore the waggle dance that tells you where to find nectar. The bees understand that if you don’t have these rogue bees the hive gets trapped at a local maxima and eventually starves to death.”

Part-of-the-question with a local maxima is the cadence of change: is a business more like Netflix or a pool construction company? Rober prototypes. Sutherland et al. ‘test counterintuitive things’. Some bees explore, some exploit. Each found a balance and designed a loose solution so not get stuck at the local maxima.


The doctor solves problems by triage, prioritizing ailments.

The electrician solves problems sequentially, following the flopping electrons.

The athlete solves problems by focus, working on one-part of their craft.

The lawyer solves problems by history, finding the precedent.

The marketer solves problems by magic, directing the audience’s attention.

The banker solves problems contractually, creating a structure for future events.

The child solves problems novelly, doing without knowing.

The researcher solves problems by legibility, collecting and categorizing.

The engineer plays 3-D Sudoku, considering constraints of the world.

The artist solves problems via subtracting, removing what doesn’t move ya.

The sales agent solves problems with empathy, finding what a buyer wants.

The venture capitalist solves problems backward, asking ‘what leads to this?’

Most of these are speculative. Though individual answers may be wrong the broader point is not. There are a variety of ways to solve problems and sometimes a new point-of-view is worth more than forty IQ.

My 62 Favorite Ideas

Are you familiar with “the travel guide”? Before the internet, maybe still – I don’t know, people bought books that acted as guides for the things they wanted to do. My shelves have/had: Italy, Disney, Disney, Orlando, and the Bahamas.

The guides gave a nice overview. Here’s what to know about the Sistine Chapel. It wasn’t a substitute for going and gawking, but the guides were a map, combining: geographic, informational, cultural, and other bits of information. That’s what I made, an idea map.

It’s like a travel guide. Each entry is short and to the point. Each entry also connects with other entries. A travel guide might say something like: “make sure you visit in the morning and stop at the nearby coffee shop after”. That’s a considerate connection, two attractions that are nearby in space and time (low crowds, tasty treat after standing). My guide does that too. Here’s two examples:

Alpha erosion

Alpha erosion is the idea that advantages erode as the market notices a success. When an organization balances the explore and exploit nature of work, it will land on opportunities to deliver value and earn profits. Competitors will notice and attempt to recreate this success. Sometimes competitors will succeed, even outperform, and sometimes they will not. The best way to avoid alpha erosion is to not be noticed. There are at least two ways. First is the path taken by Amazon, where the company was unprofitable but valuable and the desire to imitate was limited. For many competitors, unprofitability was a restricted action. The second is to create alpha in a business where the rewards are unappealing. There are many people who want to be movie producers or winemakers, but many less who want to operate a regional chain of construction dumpsters — even though the latter suffers less erosion.


Explore and exploit

Explore and exploit is the idea of a spectrum of work between exploratory work and exploitative work. At any given time there’s a better area on this spectrum to be for an organization as well as an individual. One way to view the explore and exploit spectrum is through two different businesses. One business is a streaming media technology firm. They have a direct relationship with their individual customers and bill them monthly. They also work with the providers of media to create content for the customers. Both the providers and the customers have a JTBD. The providers want freedom. The customers want choice, uptime, and lower bills. The competition meanwhile wants alpha erosion. This business must quickly move back and forth between the explore and exploit ends of the spectrum. They must innovate in delivery, technology, and marketing then implement each. A different business is the regional construction company. They too have customers who want a new kitchen or pool and they have suppliers who specialize, subcontract, or deliver supplies. But the regional construction company has to move back and forth at a different cadence. Someone’s system suggests their location on the spectrum. It is also rare for a situation at either extreme. Even the regional construction company must allocate resources to exploratory ends. The location between explore and exploit can guide a person or organization towards what type of work is best for the moment.

For the ideas in a daily email drip, buy the email-drip, pdf, and ePub in one package on Gumroad. Find it on Amazon too.

Swedish-style as a service

People love IKEA, to the effect of nearly one billion annual visits. The flat pack furniture and furnishings yields twenty-four billion euros in revenue each year. But could there be more in store for this store of galore?

One way to find business opportunities is to observe users and follow their lead. Instagram for example, developed both polls and shops (in-part) because users hacked those features before they were available. IKEA faces a similar opportunity.

If you’ve never been, IKEA is organized as an upstairs showroom and a downstairs warehouse. When a customer likes a lamp upstairs they note the aisle and bin code and when downstairs find the item. An upstairs room might look like this:
An IKEA "show room"

For larger item like couches and shelves, customers do the above and haul, unbox, and assemble their purchase. Flat packs, material selection, design choices, and scale all contribute to IKEA’s success.

Here’s the pitch: IKEA as a service.

The upstairs showrooms have appealing arrangements. It’s modern. It’s clean! For this made up start up an IKEA specialist comes to customer’s home to clean and arrange it in the flat packer’s fashion. The program includes a points program, where customers earn points toward future delivery and installation of IKEA products.

An IKEA saas offers a few advantages: recurring revenue, reduced churn, and a chance to grow their customer base. Wow Mike the house looks great, someone might say and of course I would tell them about the service, and offer my IKEA referral code.

Consider cleaning a car. My car isn’t new but it looks new after a good cleaning. The same thing occurred to college-me while shopping at The Gap. It wasn’t the clothes that looked good, it was the manikins! If I wanted to look good it wasn’t the clothes I needed, it was the body. Some number of people must do this at IKEA. Their goal is appearance and one way for that job-to-be-done is buying IKEA products.

The IKEA effect may be taken but this saas business might have great legs, like the beautiful bamboo ones available at IKEA.

Made up start ups is an ongoing series. They’re intended to be half-tongue-in-cheek and half-serious. The point is thinking in different ways, like Tyrone.

Apples to apples in Iceland

The basic base rate question is: what should I expect in situations like this? Most often we have looked at base rates through the lens of projects. We have an optimistic tendency to think, “yeah but…”. Sometimes it is! Sometimes it’s not.

but it might work for us

The general advice for using base rates has been to start with them, rather than our impressions, and then adapt from there.

Another way to think about base rates is as sampling. It’s important to get the “situations like this” part right, right? This is tricky, and this came up during the summer of 2021 as more and more covid vaccinated people became infected with the covid virus. At one point 67% of Iceland’s cases were among the vaccinated.

“When you look at Iceland and graph out (cases) by who is vaccinated, who is not, and where the cases are, you can see that there are more cases in the vaccinated group than the unvaccinated group.” – Dr. Kat, NPR Planet Money, August 2021

That sounds like the vaccine doesn’t work, or doesn’t work as well, or never-worked?! Maybe, but maybe our conclusions are muddied by an initial assumption that’s wrong.

Rather than jump right to Iceland, let’s pull a Zeckhauser and simplify everything. Imagine in Indiana there is a group of 100 people, half are vaccinated and half are not. In the vaccinated group there are five infections and in the unvaccinated group there are five infections. Putting aside “long-infection”, hospitalization, and death, it-looks-like, in-this-case, that the vaccine is meh.

Okay, now in Nevada there is another group of 100 people. This time there are 90 which are vaccinated and 10 are not. In the vaccinated group there are five infections and in the unvaccinated group there are five infections. Putting aside the same other-factors, in this case the vaccine is doing a lot of work! This was the case in Iceland too. Six of every thousand vaccinated people caught covid while fifteen of every thousand unvaccinated people caught covid. And all of the other-factors were much worse for the unvaccinated group. Vaccination reduced someone’s risk by more than half.

This idea is known as the “base rate fallacy” but really it’s comparing apples to apples which will make the idea stick better anyway(another bit of Zeckhauser advice is to keep explanations simple). BRF is good for talking with economists and behavioral scientists but for implementing this idea it’s an apple-to-apples question a day that will keep the bad decisions at bay.