Games

Triply stupid policies

by on December 14, 2013 at 7:17 am in Economics, Games, Law, Political Science | Permalink

Doubly stupid policies are pretty common, but here is a triply stupid one:

Unique to racino legislation is the allocation of a statutorily set percentage of gaming revenue to purses to support racing and breeding operations in the state.

So what are the three layers of stupidity here?  First, there shouldn’t, as a special legal category, be racinos (that’s casino-style gaming at racetracks).  Second, this legislation is a response to competition from state lotteries, which in general I do not favor.  Third, the money from a dubious policy should not be spent “to support racing and breeding operations in the state.”  Those operations can pay their own way: how about spending the money on poor people, rather than on sectors which extract money from a disproportionately lower income clientele?  Or spending money on animal welfare without at the same time having to subsidize a “legally privileged against competitors” commercial sector?

So what is the background here?

A key theme of the enabling legislation in most states permitting casino-style gaming at racetracks [i.e., racinos] is preservation of the racehorse and greyhound racing and breeding industries in light of competition from other forms of gaming, such as state lotteries and casinos.

In other words, the racinos receive special legal exemptions to help the racetracks compete with state lotteries.  (Why not opt for the simpler solution of no state lottery in the first place?  Or some other notion of a regulatory level playing field?  Oh, how my brain HURTS to ponder how this “problem” arose in the first place.)  But it gets worse.  Often “racino gaming devices” are placed under the state lottery’s regulatory authority.  (Note to self: when attempting to protect B against competitive ravages from A, do not appoint A as regulatory overseer of B.)

So might we have a quadruply stupid policy here?

But wait, on second thought government lotteries, while I do not favor them, perhaps should not be described as “stupid” policies, since there are some reasonable albeit in my view misguided arguments on their behalf.   So maybe we are just back to triply stupid after all, I am not sure.

That is all from Richard Thalheimer’s “The Economics of Racetrack-Casino (Racino) Gambling,” from The Oxford Handbook of the Economics of Gambling, edited by Leighton Vaughan Williams and Donald S. Siegel.

Dear readers, can you think of examples of triply or even quadruply stupid laws and policies?

Sentences to ponder…

by on December 11, 2013 at 2:24 pm in Economics, Games, Philosophy | Permalink

Notably, easy-to-reach women are happier than easy-to-reach men, but hard-to-reach men are happier than hard-to-reach women, and conclusions of a survey could reverse with more attempted calls.

That is Ori Heffetz and Matthew Rabin, in the new AER.  An ungated version is here.  Understandably, the authors are worried about potential subject selection biases in studies of self-reported happiness.

Here is something for you to try out tomorrow with the family, well some families. The Betrayers’ Banquet is a dinner party/event that ingeniously combines the iterated prisoner’s dilemma with good food, bad food and entertainment. Here is their description:

The event works as follows:

A banqueting table is set with 48 chairs, 24 on each side, at which players are seated at random. For a period of two hours, the food is served in small portions every fifteen minutes, and varies in quality; at the top end of the table, it is exquisite – food you could expect at a fancy restaurant. At the bottom end, the food is charitably described as unpalatable. In between, it is a spectrum between these two extremes.

At regular intervals, pairs of opposing diners are invited to play a round of the prisoner’s dilemma with each other; They are each provided with a small wooden coin with symbols on each side representing cooperation and betrayal, which they place on the table concealed under their palms, and then simultaneously reveal:

  •  If they both cooperate, then they are both moved up five seats towards the good food.
  •  If they both betray, they are both moved five seats down towards the worse food.
  •  If one betrays and one cooperates, the betrayer moves up ten seats, and other down ten seats.

The event is presented as an initiation ritual of a freemason–esque secret society; service is run by servers in hooded robes and the game is arbitrated by a dour, unsympathetic master of ceremony, who punctuate the courses with grave speeches describing the discovery of the game in the court of Charlemagne in the eighth century.

From the participant’s point of view, aside from getting to play a game and try a variety of different foods, the main attraction is that they get to move around the table and talk to a variety of people throughout dinner. The iterated prisoner’s dilemma is famous for creating very complex social dynamics, which keeps conversation lively and generates a high eagerness to continue playing.

Being 50 minutes late for his first meeting with Pope Francis was nothing unusual for Russian President Vladimir Putin. That’s just the way he is — a character trait that provides some insight into his attitude toward power.

When Putin arrived on time to an audience with Pope John Paul II in 2003, the punctuality was considered a newsworthy aberration: “The President Was Not Even a Second Late,” read the headline in the newspaper Izvestia. He had been 15 minutes late for a similar audience in 2000.

The waits other leaders have had to endure in order to see Putin range from 14 minutes for the Queen of England to three hours for Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister. Few people are as important in terms of protocol as the queen or the pope, and there is no country Putin likes to humiliate as much as Ukraine.

The typical delay seems to be about 30 minutes. Half an hour is enough in some cultures to make people mad. Koreans saw Putin’s 30-minute lateness for a meeting with their President Park Geun Hye as a sign of disrespect.

Everybody endures the wait, though.

There is more here, hat tip to Elizabeth Dickinson.

A future service sector job?

by on November 22, 2013 at 11:23 am in Education, Games, Web/Tech | Permalink

Jason Kottke suggests:

I could imagine Glass Concierge becoming a future job title, basically a personal assistant who looks in on your Google Glass video feed to make helpful suggestions and advice, basically a rally co-driver for your life.

Most of the post is about using Google Glass to cheat at poker.  In response to inquiries, I will review the product once I can get one.

After six games, Carlsen leads by two points, with four draws added to the tally.  Anand seems hell bent on founding a campaign to abolish the advantages of playing with the white pieces.

I find two aspects of the match notable so far.  First, in the last two endgames Carlsen has been outplaying the computer programs (and Anand), sometimes for dozens of moves in a row.  That isn’t easy, to say the least.  And kudos to Alan Turing for realizing early on, in his 1953 paper, that chess-playing computer programs would face special difficulties in understanding some endgames.  The sequences required to establish the importance (or not) of a measurable material advantage can stretch beyond the time horizon of the program, for instance, and the endgame tablebases take us only so far.

Second, Carlsen is demonstrating one of his most feared qualities, namely his “nettlesomeness,” to use a term coined for this purpose by Ken Regan.  Using computer analysis, you can measure which players do the most to cause their opponents to make mistakes.  Carlsen has the highest nettlesomeness score by this metric, because his creative moves pressure the other player and open up a lot of room for mistakes.  In contrast, a player such as Kramnik plays a high percentage of very accurate moves, and of course he is very strong, but those moves are in some way calmer and they are less likely to induce mistakes in response.

Nettlesomeness is an underrated concept in our world, and kudos to Ken for bringing it to our attention.  It should play a larger role in formal game theory than it does currently.  It’s already playing a decisive role in the world of chess.

Addendum: Here are some of Ken’s metrics for “nettlesomeness.”

Companies, academics and individual software developers will be able to use it at a small fraction of the previous cost, drawing on IBM’s specialists in fields like computational linguistics to build machines that can interpret complex data and better interact with humans.

That is a big deal, obviously.  The story is here.

The link to the associated cartoon with that caption is here, from Tim Harford’s Twitter feed.

But is that claim true?  It depends on the margin.  Let’s say the standard tip is a dollar, and price inflation lowers the real value of that dollar.  A lot of customers won’t substitute into stuffing $1.43 into the stripper’s garments.  They might do two or three singles, but strippers will be shortchanged at various points going up the price pole.  There is something about handing out a single bill that is easier and more transparent, or so it seems.

Say inflation gets high, or runs on for a long time for a large cumulative effect.  At some point the customers switch to giving $5 bills.

Does it help strippers if the Fed issues lots of $2 bills?  Well, the leap up to the larger tip comes more quickly, but the customers also stay at the $2 tip level a long time before moving up to $5.

At some margins inflation is bad for current strippers, but good for some set of future strippers.  If the economy is close to the margin where individuals upgrade from a $1 tip to a $5 tip, then inflation is good for current strippers but bad for future strippers (for a while).

The answer also may depend on whether the Fed adjusts the ratio of $5 to $1 bills to keep in proper synch with the stripper customers.  If the Fed doesn’t increase the supply of fivers rapidly enough, future strippers may not get their deserved payoffs for a long time.

Let’s explore this assumption that handing out a single bill of a given kind is easier (admittedly there may be other ways to specify the assumptions).  And let’s assume that overpaying some strippers and underpaying others is less efficient for some reason, whether Benthamite or having to do with the unevenness of medium-run supply elasticities.

In that case tips may be more efficient, with ongoing inflation, at the $5 level than the $1 level.  Given that two dollar notes are rare, the step up from a one to a five involves a fivefold increase.  But the step up from a five to a ten is only a twofold increase, as is the step up from a ten to a twenty.  Even the switch from twenties to fifties involves a smaller multiple than from a one to a five.  So there are fewer problems with the non-convexities within the 5-10-20-50 range than within the 1-5 range.

Perhaps the sooner we get the strippers away from “the ones” the better — who needs those non-convexities?  Strippers sure don’t.

On the whole, therefore, strippers may prefer price inflation.  Of course once the $100 bill is the standard tip, the next notch upwards is again hard to come by, outside of the eurozone that is.

This is a fascinating article by Ben Lindbergh, and it does not require interest in baseball, here is one bit:

“The goal, of course, is no error, or as close to that ideal as we can possibly come. And so the best solution might be a hybrid approach that combines tradition with technology. Not robot umps, but regular umps with input from robot brains.”

Here is another good bit of many:

Over time, players have internalized some of the idiosyncrasies of the strike zone as it’s currently called. The zone called against left-handed hitters is shifted a couple inches away relative to righties. The size of the zone fluctuates depending on the count — expanding dramatically on 3-0 and shrinking severely on 0-2 — and according to the base-out state, velocity of the pitch, and many other factors. Yes, these are all arguments in support of standardizing the strike zone, assuming you like to see pitches called according to code. They’re also reasons to exercise caution. “Because it’s always worked this way” isn’t a good reason not to do something different, but it is a reason to think through the possible ramifications before making a major change that could upset the delicate batter-pitcher balance. Players will adjust to whatever the zone looks like, but it’s in baseball’s best interests to make those adjustments smooth.

McKean cautions that instituting an automatic zone “would ruin the game,” which makes him the latest in a long line of thus-far-incorrect critics who’ve warned that something would be the end of baseball. “If you told the pitchers to try and throw that ball with an automatic strike zone, which means it has to hit some part of that plate or be in some part of that strike zone, heck, the games would go on for five, six hours,” he says. My guess is that he has the direction of the effect right, but the magnitude wrong. Automating the strike zone would probably make it slightly smaller, on the whole, and more predictable for the hitter. That could increase scoring and perhaps lead to longer games, but not to such an extent that the sport would be broken.

However, standardizing the zone would remove a level of interplay between batter, pitcher, catcher, and umpire that many fans find compelling.

Interesting throughout, and for the pointer I thank Hamp Nettles.

Carlsen vs. Anand

by on November 6, 2013 at 4:29 pm in Current Affairs, Games | Permalink

They start playing Saturday, with a 12-game format.  Originally I had been picking Anand, on the grounds of superior match experience and better opening preparation.  But Carlsen’s results have simply been too strong lately, including in St. Louis.  Tarjei Svensen puts it well:

Against current @2700chess top 10 , @MagnusCarlsen has 21 wins, 53 draws and only 2 losses since Jan 2011.

Or if we judge the match by numerical rating, Carlsen again is a strong favorite.

The Chennai venue may help Anand, as Carlsen will be bringing a Norwegian chef to convert the local ingredients into…what…a $35 dollar small pizza?  Still, being surrounded by your friends, entire family, and numerous well-wishers is not always a net advantage in a competition.  Carlsen may find it easier to concentrate on the chess.  And Anand is 43 years old, which puts him as one of the oldest players in the top 100.  Carlsen is 22 and it feels like it is his time.

Here are some opinions from grandmasters, some of whom are being diplomatic.  Here Matt Wilson considers whether world champions simply got lucky.  Here are some options on how to watch the match.

Some of you will know that Average is Over contains an extensive discussion of “freestyle chess,” where humans can use any and all tools available — most of all computers and computer programs — to play the best chess game possible.  The book also notes that “man plus computer” is a stronger player than “computer alone,” at least provided the human knows what he is doing.  You will find a similar claim from Brynjolfsson and McAfee.

Computer chess expert Kenneth W. Regan has compiled extensive data on this question, and you will see that a striking percentage of the best or most accurate chess games of all time have been played by man-machine pairs.  Ken’s explanations are a bit dense for those who don’t already know chess, computer chess, Freestyle and its lingo, but yes that is what he finds, click on the links in his link for confirmation.  In this list for instance the Freestyle teams do very very well.

Average is Over also raised the possibility that, fairly soon, the computer programs might be good enough that adding the human to the computer doesn’t bring any advantage.  (That’s been the case in checkers for some while, as that game is fully solved.)  I therefore was very interested in this discussion at RybkaForum suggesting that already might be the case, although only recently.

Think about why such a flip might be in the works, even though chess is far from fully solved.  The “human plus computer” can add value to “the computer alone” in a few ways:

1. The human may in selective cases prune variations better than the computer alone, and thus improve where the computer searches for better moves and how the computer uses its time.

2. The human can see where different chess-playing programs disagree, and then ask the programs to look more closely at those variations, to get a leg up against the computer playing alone (of course this is a subset of #1).  This is a biggie, and it is also a profound way of thinking about how humans will add insight to computer programs for a long time to come, usually overlooked by those who think all jobs will disappear.

3. The human may be better at time management, and can tell the program when to spend more or less time on a move.  “Come on, Rybka, just recapture the damned knight!”  Haven’t we all said that at some point or another?  I’ve never regretted pressing the “Move Now” button on my program.

4. The human knows the “opening book” of the computer program he/she is playing against, and can prepare a trap in advance for the computer to walk into, although of course advanced programs can to some extent “randomize” at the opening level of the game.

Insofar as the above RybkaForum thread has a consensus, it is that most of these advantages have not gone away.  But the “human plus computer” needs time to improve on the computer alone, and at sufficiently fast time controls the human attempts to improve on the computer may simply amount to noise or may even be harmful, given the possibility of human error.  Some commentators suggest that at ninety minutes per game the humans are no longer adding value to the human-computer team, whereas they do add value when the time frame is say one day per move (“correspondence chess,” as it is called in this context.)  Circa 2008, at ninety minutes per game, the best human-computer teams were better than the computer programs alone.  But 2013 or 2014 may be another story.  And clearly at, say, thirty or sixty seconds a game the human hasn’t been able to add value to the computer for some time now.

Note that as the computer programs get better, some of these potential listed advantages, such as #1, #3, and #4 become harder to exploit.  #2 — seeing where different programs disagree — does not necessarily become harder to exploit for advantage, although the human (often, not always) has to look deeper and deeper to find serious disagreement among the best programs.  Furthermore the ultimate human sense of “in the final analysis, which program to trust” is harder to intuit, the closer the different programs are to perfection.  (In contrast, the human sense of which program to trust is more acute when different programs have more readily recognizable stylistic flaws, as was the case in the past: “Oh, Deep Blue doesn’t always understand blocked pawn formations very well.”  Or “Fritz is better in the endgame.”  And so on.)

These propositions all require more systematic testing, of course.  In any case it is interesting to observe an approach to the flip point, where even the most talented humans move from being very real contributors to being strictly zero marginal product.  Or negative marginal product, as the case may be.

And of course this has implications for more traditional labor markets as well.  You might train to help a computer program read medical scans, and for thirteen years add real value with your intuition and your ability to revise the computer’s mistakes or at least to get the doctor to take a closer look.  But it takes more and more time for you to improve on the computer each year.  And then one day…poof!  ZMP for you.

Addendum: Here is an article on computer dominance in rock-paper-scissors.  This source claims freestyle does not beat the machine in poker.

Allison Schrager writes:

This year, Americans on Eastern Standard Time should set their clocks back one hour (like normal), Americans on Central and Rocky Mountain time do nothing, and Americans on Pacific time should set their clocks forward one hour. After that we won’t change our clocks again—no more daylight saving. This will result in just two time zones for the continental United States. The east and west coasts will only be one hour apart. Anyone who lives on one coast and does business with the other can imagine the uncountable benefits of living in a two-time-zone nation (excluding Alaska and Hawaii).

And why?:

It sounds radical, but it really isn’t. The purpose of uniform time measures is coordination. How we measure time has always evolved with the needs of commerce. According to Time and Date, a Norwegian Newsletter dedicated to time zone information, America started using four time zones in 1883. Before that, each city had its own time standard based on its calculation of apparent solar time (when the sun is directly over-head at noon) using sundials. That led to more than 300 different American time zones. This made operations very difficult for the telegraph and burgeoning railroad industry. Railroads operated with 100 different time zones before America moved to four, which was consistent with Britain’s push for a global time standard. The following year, at the International Meridian Conference, it was decided that the entire world could coordinate time keeping based on the British Prime Meridian (except for France, which claimed the Prime Median ran through Paris until 1911). There are now 24 (or 25, depending on your existential view of the international date line) time zones, each taking about 15 degrees of longitude.

Now the world has evolved further—we are even more integrated and mobile, suggesting we’d benefit from fewer, more stable time zones. Why stick with a system designed for commerce in 1883? In reality, America already functions on fewer than four time zones. I spent the last three years commuting between New York and Austin, living on both Eastern and Central time. I found that in Austin, everyone did things at the same times they do them in New York, despite the difference in time zone. People got to work at 8 am instead of 9 am, restaurants were packed at 6 pm instead of 7 pm, and even the TV schedule was an hour earlier.

There is more here.

Here is one excerpt:

“If you’re not a good [chess] player,” Cowen writes, “the fact that you studied with a top teacher doesn’t mean a thing. … There is nothing [in chess] comparable to the glow resulting from a Harvard degree: Announcing ‘I studied with Rybka’ [a powerful chess engine] would bring gales of laughter, since anyone can do that. … The company selling Rybka tries to make its product replicable and universal, whereas Harvard tries to make its product as exclusive as possible. Now, which model do you think will spread and gain influence in the long run?”

Before you answer that, consider this: A year of tuition, room and board at Harvard will set you back more than $50,000. You can get a copy of Rybka for about $50.

The full piece is here.

From Aki Ito, here is a a good discussion of a new innovation, related to some trends I discussed in Average is Over:

To aid that search [for better workers], Juhl this month will begin using an online video game designed to track, record and analyze every millisecond of its players’ behavior. Developed by Knack in Palo AltoCalifornia, Wasabi Waiter places job-seekers in the shoes of a sushi server who must identify the mood of his cartoon customers and bring them the dish labeled with the matching emotion. On a running clock, they must also clear empty dishes into the sink while tending to new customers who take a seat at the bar.

Using about a megabyte of data per candidate, Knack’s software measures a variety of attributes shown in academic studies to relate to job performance, including conscientiousness and the capacity to recognize others’ emotions. Knack’s clients will also see a score estimating each applicant’s likelihood of being a high performer.

As for another company:

…The patterns gleaned since the company’s founding in 2007 have debunked many of the common assumptions held by recruiters, Evolv executives say. For example, a history of job-hopping or long bouts of unemployment has little relationship with how long the candidate will stay at his or her next job, according to Evolv’s analysis of call center agents.

“As human beings, we’re actually pretty bad at evaluating other human beings,” said David Ostberg, vice president of workforce science at Evolv. “We’re making sure people are using the right data, instead of the traditional methods that were previously thought to be valid but big data’s showing are not.”

And:

New York-based ConnectCubed has also developed software to determine the personality and cognitive abilities of job applicants that, at its largest clients, is tailored for that specific company. ConnectCubed has existing workers at those businesses complete its video games and questionnaires so the behavioral profiles of the star employees serve as a benchmark for who managers should hire in the future.

“When new people apply, you can say, wow this guy has all the makings of our top salesmen,” said Michael Tanenbaum, chief executive officer and co-founder of the service. “These are things that are impossible to measure from a resume, especially with educational backgrounds that are often more determined by socioeconomic status than your innate ability.”

To be sure, Knack and ConnectCubed, which say they can predict high-performers across a broad set of workers, haven’t been around for long enough to track, over time, whether their technologies actually are improving the quality of the employees their clients hire or those businesses’ bottom line.

The article is interesting throughout.

Nobel Offices

by on October 10, 2013 at 2:30 pm in Film, Games, Web/Tech | Permalink

Here is a panoramic peek inside the offices of a number of Nobel prize winners, including Al Roth for economics. More interesting than it sounds with lots of Easter eggs.

Hat tip: Justin Wolfers.