Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Focal points, culture, and cities (with some fun)

Focal point: The clock at Grand Central Station

I was going to start this post by relating focal points (aka Schelling points) to open source projects and the way in which some projects gain critical mass quickly (and others don’t). Think docker and other projects around containerization today as an example of a concept gaining adherents among both true believers and some who may just be sensing the direction of the wind. I think there’s something there. Computational biologist Luis Pedro Coelho writes about Schelling Globalization as an explanation for the popularity of soccer—his idea is that people watch things in part because other people are watching them. There’s also a cultural element that makes the concept a bit different from power laws and network effect that also lead to coalescing around particular approaches, technologies, or outcomes. 

But my game theory isn’t solid enough to tackle this today—although I do think that there’s an aspect of shared cultural understanding and implicit agreements about mutually beneficial outcomes that’s relevant to the most successful open source projects.

Instead I’m going to do something that you may find entertaining. Feel free to play along at home and in the comments. 

First, a modicum of background. 

Thomas Schelling is an American economist. He won the 2005 Nobel Prize in economics for his work on "understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis.” Among his ideas was the concept of a focal point. Schelling describes them as "each person’s expectation of what the other expects him to expect to be expected to do.” That’s a bit of a mind twister but, in other words, everyone in a group tries to guess an outcome—say, a number from a list of numbers—that they expect others from the group to pick as well and to do so without communicating.

Schelling also presented the best-remembered and quoted example of a focal point as applied to locations. In the words of Wikipedia:

Schelling himself illustrated this concept with the following problem: "Tomorrow you have to meet a stranger in NYC. Where and when do you meet them?" This is a coordination game, where any place in time in the city could be an equilibrium solution. Schelling asked a group of students this question, and found the most common answer was "noon at (the information booth at) Grand Central Station." There is nothing that makes Grand Central Station a location with a higher payoff (you could just as easily meet someone at a bar, or the public library reading room), but its tradition as a meeting place raises its salience, and therefore makes it a natural "focal point".

It seems a rather remarkable result. Two people could randomly find each other in Manhattan? Which is doubtless the reason the story is so memorable. The noon part is fairly trivial. (Pretty much everyone picks noon when asked a question of this form.) But what of the location? Would Grand Central win out today? What of other cities?

In 2005, economist Tyler Cowen posited the clock at Grand Central would still win out but only because of awareness of Schelling’s result. Here’s my take on New York and some other cities. If you’d like to play along, here are some cities I know well enough to have an opinion about. Think about it and come on back.

New York, Boston, Cambridge MA, San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans, London, Paris, Tokyo, Beijing, Philadelphia, Washington, St. Louis, Geneva.

New York. 

I imagine Tyler travels in circles where the name Schelling rolls off more tongues than the ones in which I do, so I don’t really buy into his rationale. I don’t really believe that a broad cross-section of even New Yorkers would tend to pick Grand Central as a meeting place these days; Amtrak doesn’t even come into that station. It’s a great meeting place but it’s just not going to pop into the mind of most people who don’t commute in and out of there. 

The top (well 86th floor) of the Empire State Building is, of course, enshrined in countless movies. But it would be a horrible meeting place; you have to pay and may have to wait for hours. I imagine few would pick it anyway.

I can think of a number of imposing steps that would make a good meeting place: New York Public Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Museum of Natural History. But that’s the problem. I couldn’t really choose one over the other.

I think I’d go for Times Square. The problem is that it’s a big place with lots of people. But, if you either know the area or scout it a bit, there’s actually a fairly modest wedge of pavement where the George M. Cohan statue, Father Duffy statue, tkts booth, and a set of bleachers sit. Barring New Year’s Eve or Tony Awards level crowds, you’d probably find another person with a rose in their lapel easily enough.


I think that in front of Faneuil Hall is probably the obvious choice. I could offer up alternatives such as the swan boats or Fenway Park but my heart wouldn’t be in them. There is a cultural context to how one answers though. If I were playing this game with certain friends, I would certainly pick Fenway along Yawkey Way. (And, generally, there’s a contextual element to all this that might lead us to, say, the baseball park in a given city.)

Cambridge MA

Out of Town News in Cambridge seems the logical choice. Though that might be assuming locals. For a broader group of tourists though it’s hard to say where exactly—maybe the John Harvard statue? (Unless they were MIT students in which case it would be 77 Mass Ave.)

San Francisco

In front of the Ferry Building. I don’t really feel comfortable with this and I doubt most non-residents would answer this way. But the Golden Gate Bridge? Hard to get to and the most obvious meeting point on the Marin side isn’t even in San Francisco. Fisherman’s Wharf? Maybe. Yuk. And Golden Gate Park is both out of the way from downtown and doesn’t really have a single obvious meeting place.


Pike Place Market at Rachel the piggy bank. I realize that this is probably a very tourist-centric answer but, as a very occasional tourist, I have absolutely no alternatives to offer.

New Orleans

This is tough. Bourbon Street is obvious, but where? There’s no single focal point within the focal point. There’s Pat O’Briens but that’s actually a little off of Bourbon. Cafe du Monde for locals perhaps though that’s probably overthinking it.


Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, right? I haven’t spent a huge amount of time in London but seems likely.


Presumably the Eiffel Tower although I confess I don’t know what that means exactly with respect to a meeting spot. I guess the pyramid at the Louvre is a possible alternative but probably not a very likely choice.


Hachiko’s statue is apparently already a popular Tokyo meeting spot so I’ll go with that. It’s also at Shibuya which is one of the city’s big railroad stations. Other options likely include places like Studio Alta but I doubt they’re a better guess. 


Tiananmen Square seems obvious although it’s huge. So I’ll say Tiananmen Square in front of the Forbidden City.


In spite of the fact that I grew up outside of Philadelphia, I’ve spent very little time in the city, so I’m really coming at this from the perspective of a tourist. So I’m going to go with the Liberty Bell. (Independence Hall is across the way.)

Washington DC

This is hard; there are so many iconic locations on the Mall. I’m split between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument but I’ll narrowly pick the former.

St. Louis

The Arch.


Jet D’Eau, I assume?

 I hope you enjoyed reading this and possibly playing along. Before we close though, a coda by way of a quote from a 2005 Schelling interview:

When I first asked that question, way back in the1950s, I was teaching at Yale. A lot of the people to whom I sent the questionnaire were students, and a large share of them responded: under the clock at the information desk at Grand Central Station. That was because in the 1950s most of the male students in New England were at men’s colleges and most of the female students were at women’s colleges. So if you had a date, you needed a place to meet, and instead of meeting in, say, New Haven, you would meet in New York. And, of course, all trains went to Grand Central Station, so you would meet at the information desk.

So, in fact, the Grand Central result was perhaps not all that remarkable after all given the context in which it was asked. And perhaps this points to an important lesson for reaching points of intersection and agreement; the assumptions, experiences, and culture of the participants matter a lot.

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