The "Napoleon Dynamite" Problem

Yesterday I saw the movie Napoleon Dynamite. And what did I think of it? If you've read my blog you might think that you can figure out what I thought about the movie based on other movies I liked and did not like. But as it turns out Napoleon Dynamite is a very particular movie in this respect. It is particularly difficult to predict what people think of this movie, even when their movie tastes are well known. And that made me really curious, I just had to see this movie.

Netflix is an online company that lets you rent as many movies as you like against a monthly fee. For them, it's important with happy customers that wants to keep renting movies. And one way for them to make their customers stay is to give them accurate recommendations. In fact, making accurate recommendations is big business for them. Netflix have had people working on improving their recommendation system for many years. But after some time they hit a well, they didn't make any improvements anymore. Or if they did, they were minuscule. But they still had their mind set on improving the recommendation system so they took drastic measures: in the spring 2007 they announced a competition. Any programmer who could improve upon Netflix own recommendation system by 10% would win the competition. The prize was set to one million dollar.

Given that kind of prize money this has naturally attracted a whole lot of programmers world wide. And initially they were making good progress towards the 10% goal. They were making leaps of several percentage units coming up to seven, eight and now even over nine percents improvements. But as they crept closer to the goal it keeps getting harder to make new improvement. And as it turns out there is a small class of movies that turn out to be extra hard to predict. And the hardest one seems to be Napoleon Dynamite. This movie has some special quality that makes it singularly unpredictable. It is this movie and a small set of others that are fooling the algorithms to make anymore progress.

You can read about all this in more detail in this interesting article in New York Times.

So, what did I think about Napoleon Dynamite? It was not my kind of movie, I didn't like it at all. It was actually a pain to watch it until the end but I forced myself though it. But I can see why some people like it. The movie is set in an 80's style and the protagonist is an incredible looser. I would have maybe appreciated the retro style if I liked the rest of the manuscript but as it is now it didn't help the film a bit for me. The people in the movie are quite angry with each other and that's one thing I certainly don't appreciate in a movie, especially if it's over small stupid things. The only redeeming things for the movie is the intro and the fact that the ending is a happy one.

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