Friday, June 17, 2011

Really Old Idea

Sports really annoys me. Particularly at the end when they get boring. When they know they have a minute to go in football they start kicking the ball between them and generally acting the micky. I thought I was dead clever when I thought that they should have random end times of sports. If you do not know when the game will end it is harder to try run down the clock.

Axelrod had the idea of random endings years ago. Many other game theorists have had similar ideas at various times.

Then I heard that random endings have a much longer history. Adapt the new book from Tim Harford explains one really old example. This century IBM got a patent for "a “smooth-finish” auction, an auction that is programmed to end at a random time". This gets over the problem on ebay where at the end of an auction people try not to bid what they value the item at but at just enough to win the auction just before it closes. So instead of people bidding one cent over the current bid with one second left on the auction.

Paul Klemperer pointed out that this idea is quite old. Even though the is a US patent for it.

In a candle auction, the end of the auction is signaled by the expiration of a candle flame, which was intended to ensure that no one could know exactly when the auction would end and make a last-second bid. Sometimes, other unpredictable processes, such as a footrace, were used in place of the expiration of a candle.

Pepys wrote about such an auction in the 1660's
Auction by candle was known in England by 1641, when it is mentioned in the records of the House of Lords.[6] The practice rapidly became popular, and in 1652, John Milton wrote, "The Council thinks it meet to propose the way of selling by inch of candle, as being the most probable means to procure the true value of the goods."

This 350 years old idea is my current record on simple ideas that someone has beat me to. Hartford's book Adapt is full of these sorts of interesting stories. This extract about the Spitfire gives you a good feel for the book.

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