Web/Tech

A new ranking shows that for the second year running, the world’s fastest supercomputer is TaihuLight, housed at the National Supercomputing Center in Wuxi, China. Capable of performing 93 quadrillion calculations per second, it’s almost three times faster than the second-place Tianhe-2. And in third spot this year is a newly upgraded device, called Piz Dain, at the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre, which recently had its performance boosted by the addition of Nvidia GPUs.

Sadly for America, the upgraded Piz Dain pushes the Department of Energy’s Titan supercomputer, which is housed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, into fourth spot. Able to make 17.6 quadrillion number crunches per second, Titan is just a fifth as fast as TaihuLight. In its defense, the U.S. still claims five of the top 10 spots, and it is home to 169 of the supercomputers that make up the fastest 500. China, meanwhile, can only claim 160.

Here is the full article.

Ben Thompson writes:

…you can see the outline of similar efforts in logistics: Amazon is building out a delivery network with itself as the first-and-best customer; in the long run it seems obvious said logistics services will be exposed as a platform.

This, though, is what was missing from Amazon’s grocery efforts: there was no first-and-best customer. Absent that, and given all the limitations of groceries, AmazonFresh was doomed to be eternally sub-scale.

WHOLE FOODS: CUSTOMER, NOT RETAILER

This is the key to understanding the purchase of Whole Foods: to the outside it may seem that Amazon is buying a retailer. The truth, though, is that Amazon is buying a customer — the first-and-best customer that will instantly bring its grocery efforts to scale.

Today, all of the logistics that go into a Whole Foods store are for the purpose of stocking physical shelves: the entire operation is integrated. What I expect Amazon to do over the next few years is transform the Whole Foods supply chain into a service architecture based on primitives: meat, fruit, vegetables, baked goods, non-perishables (Whole Foods’ outsized reliance on store brands is something that I’m sure was very attractive to Amazon). What will make this massive investment worth it, though, is that there will be a guaranteed customer: Whole Foods Markets.

…At its core Amazon is a services provider enabled — and protected — by scale.

Here is the full piece, with many more background and points.

Matt Yglesias: “A big city daily newspaper, physical bookstores, a supermarket chain. Bezos’ futuristic vision is all coming together.”

Alex T. tweeted: “I already do 80% of my shopping at Amazon and Whole Foods. I am beginning to get worried.”

Ross Douthat: “What if Bezos intends to turn Whole Foods into a Mormon-style charitable storehouse …”

Me: “Perhaps preserving my favorite brands of Whole Foods dark chocolate is Jeff Bezos’s plan for short-run public charity.”

@JesalTV: Jeff Bezos: “Alexa, buy me something from Whole Foods.” Alexa: “Sure, Jeff. Buying Whole Foods now.” Jeff Bezos: “WHA- ahh go ahead.”

Here is an earlier Conor Sen piece on Amazon acquisition strategy.

And Stratechery on Amazon.

And above all else: “Dow opens down 10 points. Amazon jumps 3% after deal to buy Whole Foods. Walmart slumps 7%, Kroger plunges 16%”

Here are more retail share price declines.

Car fact of the day

by on June 9, 2017 at 3:00 am in Web/Tech | Permalink

Twenty years ago, cars had, on average, one million lines of code. The General Motors 2010 Chevrolet Volt had about 10 million lines of code — more than an F-35 fighter jet.

Today, an average car has more than 100 million lines of code. Automakers predict it won’t be long before they have 200 million.

That is from Nicole Perlroth at the NYT.

I consider that question in my latest Bloomberg column, and actually contrary to conventional wisdom the rationality of extreme presidential tweeting cannot be ruled out.  Here is just one bit in a longer argument:

On top of all that, now imagine that you consider nationalism, resurrecting America as it once was, negotiating from strength, returning to older notions of masculinity and “building a wall” as the major issues of the day. You don’t see the traditional Republican concerns with cutting taxes and repealing Obamacare as all that salient for reversing America’s deterioration, even if you are willing to go along with those reforms. Nor, given your nationalism and unilateralism, do you see alienating allies as a major cost of opining so openly.

In that rather pessimistic view of the world, it might make sense to give up entirely on the idea that your administration will accomplish much in the way of policy, at least as the concept is traditionally understood. Instead, you might be thinking of shifting the window of policy debate over a 10- to 20-year period. That is, you might be hoping the American public will be thinking in more Trumpian terms a few administrations from now, even if outwardly they have rejected your legacy. It then will be the case that mainstream politicians will work to implement some Trumpian ideas through more traditional channels.

Do read the whole thing.

My product: http://marginalrevolutionbooks.com/books/2017/5

Marginal Revolution is one of the most popular economics blogs on the Internet, with a libertarian slant. It has been in constant operation since 2003, and has posted over 4000 links to books on Amazon.

I got the idea for this product from the Indie Hackers interview for Hacker News Books. https://www.indiehackers.com/businesses/hacker-news-books

The site is totally functional, now I need to promote it and get some users (like me) who are superfans of Marginal Revolution and often buy books after reading about them on there.

Feedback and ideas appreciated!

Here is the link, that was posted by linuxfan2718 at IndieHackers, and for the pointer I thank P.

That is a long and very interesting post by Dan Wang, it is hard to summarize, here is one tiny excerpt but better to read the whole thing:

2. You don’t need a CS degree to be a developer. This is another valid statement that I don’t think explains behaviors on the margin. Yes, I know plenty of developers who didn’t graduate from college or major in CS. Many who didn’t go to school were able to learn on their own, helped along by the varieties of MOOCs and boot camps designed to get them into industry.

It might be true that being a software developer is the field that least requires a bachelor’s degree with its associated major. Still: Shouldn’t we expect some correlation between study and employment here? That is, shouldn’t having a CS major be considered a helpful path into the industry? It seems to me that most tech recruiters look on CS majors with favor.

Although there are many ways to become a developer, I’d find it surprising if majoring in CS is a perfectly useless way to enter the profession, and so people shun it in favor of other majors.

And this, which runs close to my own thoughts:

Perhaps this is a good time to bring up the idea that the tech sector may be smaller than we think. By a generous definition, 20% of the workers in the Bay Area work in tech. Matt Klein at FT Alphaville calculates that the US software sector is big neither in employment nor in value-added terms. Software may be eating the world, but right now it’s either taking small bites, or we’re not able to measure it well.

Finally, a more meditative, grander question from Peter Thiel: “How big is the tech industry? Is it enough to save all Western Civilization? Enough to save the United States? Enough to save the State of California? I think that it’s large enough to bail out the government workers’ unions in the city of San Francisco.”

Here is Dan’s follow-up tweet on other answers to the puzzle.

That is an unpopular point — with both sides — but it might just well be true.  Here is a newly published study by Robert W. Crandall:

More than a year after a court invalidated its “net neutrality” rules on broadband Internet service providers (ISPs), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided to extend public-utility (Title II) regulation on broadband services. This paper uses traditional event analysis of the movements in the values of major communications and media companies’ equities at key moments in the FCC’s path to this decision to estimate the financial market’s assessment of the likely effects of regulation on ISPs, traditional media companies, and new digital media companies. The results are surprising: the markets penalized only three large cable companies to any extent, and even these effects appear to have been short-lived. The media companies, arguably the intended beneficiaries of the regulations, were unaffected.

That is via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Is this a good idea?  A whole station devoted to Beatles music and Beatles music-derived products, plus a few early musical inspirations?  I ask as a fan, not a critic.  Based on about a week of listening, here are my impressions:

1. No Beatles songs were better live.  Paul McCartney had a few gems in concert, most notably the 1976 Wings over AmericaMaybe I’m Amazed.”  Oddly, “Magneto and Titanium Man” is also better live, perhaps because it was silly to begin with.

2. There are too many extant versions of “Here Comes the Sun,” though Nina Simone had a good one.

3. Ringo songs from the early 1970s, while you would never listen to them voluntarily, hold up OK in this context.

4. The worst feature of the channel is how they use short bursts of Beatle songs to advertise the channel itself.  To play only the first few chords of “Getting Better” is an abuse of the ear and maltreatment of the art, like seeing Mondrian designs on shopping bags.  Why can’t the station just advertise itself by…playing Beatle and Beatle-derived songs?  In their entirety.

5. The last sequence of “Rain” still seem to me their finest moment.  “Let it Be” remains the most overrated major Beatles song.

6. The early solo songs are what are most welcome to hear, at the margin.

7. The way this station operates doesn’t mesh well with the rest of satellite radio.  No single station on satellite radio is that good, except for the classical music station.  Yet the medium as a whole works because you can always switch to another station, especially with voice activation.  Yet one is reluctant to switch away from the Beatles station.  Even if the current song is bad, you feel something wonderful always might be coming up, and besides most of the songs are pretty short and so they will be over soon.  But if it’s just the Beatles you want to hear, you don’t need satellite radio to achieve that end.  So a funny kind of intransitivity kicks in, and maybe the Beatles satellite radio channel can nudge you away from satellite radio altogether, precisely because it is better than all the other channels, and it thus pushes you away from an approach based on a diverse menu of DJ-driven choice.

8. Would it hurt to play more Dylan, a major influence on the Beatles?

A British prison has become the world’s first to use a new system designed to stop drones flying over perimeter walls to drop contraband into jails.

The device creates a 2,000ft (600m) shield around and above a prison that will detect and deflect the remote-controlled devices.

It uses a series of “disruptors”, which are sensors to jam the drone’s computer, and block its frequency and control protocols. The operator’s screen will go black and the drone will be bounced back to where it came from.

Drones have become a major security problem in Britain’s prisons and are increasingly used to smuggle in drugs, weapons, phones and other valuables.

The new system, called Sky Fence, is being introduced at Les Nicolles prison on Guernsey, where around 20 “disruptors” will be installed on the perimeter and inside.

The Channel Island jail was initially going to install a drone detection system, but went a step further to put in the technology that stops drones in-flight.

Here is the article, via Tyro.  By the way, the newly available BBC TV show, Planet Earth II, is an amazing illustration of the use of drones to track and film nature (that includes us!).

That was then, this is now

by on May 14, 2017 at 2:58 am in Economics, Law, Web/Tech | Permalink

Several of London’s largest banks are looking to stockpile bitcoins in order to pay off cyber criminals who threaten to bring down their critical IT systems.

The virtual currency, which is highly prized by criminal networks because it is difficult to trace, is being acquired by blue chip companies in order to pay ransoms, according to a leading IT expert.

That is from October of last year, via Brian S.  I wonder how much such “precautionary demand” has pushed up the price of Bitcoin?

A California-based lifestyle company has created Smalt (pictured), which is designed to make shaking salt…less strenuous by automating the process of seasoning your food through Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant.

…Users will be able to request that Alexa issues a command to start shaking salt, without the need for any strenuous twisting or grinding.

Here is the article, via the excellent Mark Thorson.

Yes, the Garry Kasparov, here is the link to the podcast and transcript.  We talked about AI, his new book Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins, why he has become more optimistic, how education will have to adjust to smart software, Russian history and Putin, his favorites in Russian and American literature, Tarkovsky, his favorite city to play chess in, his match against Deep Blue, Ken Rogoff, who are the three most likely challengers to Magnus Carlsen (ranked in order!) and who might win.  Here is one excerpt:

GK: The biggest problem, and I’ve been talking about for quite a while, that we’re still teaching very specific knowledge in the schools. Instead of teaching what, we have to teach how because this knowledge may be redundant 10 years from now. We are preparing kids for the world that will change dramatically. By the way, we already know it will look different. So what’s the point of trying to teach kids at age 10, 11, 12 without recognizing the fact that when they finish college, when they will become adults looking for jobs, the job market will be totally different?

And:

COWEN: …If we look back on centuries of Russian history, do you think there’s something in Russian geography or demographics or geopolitics — what has it been that has led to such unfree outcomes fairly systematically?

Where do you find the roots of tyranny in the history of Russia? Is it a mix of the size of the country, its openness to invasion, its vulnerability, something about being next to a dynamic Europe, on the other side, China? What is it?

KASPAROV: It’s a long, if not endless, theoretical debate based on our interpretation of certain historical events. I’m not convinced with these arguments about some nations being predetermined in their development and alien to the concept of democracy and the rule of law.

The reason I’m quite comfortable with this denial . . . We can move from theory to practice. While we can talk about history and certain influence of historical events to modernity, we can look at the places like Korean Peninsula. The same nation, not even cousins but brothers and sisters, divided in 1950, so that’s, by historical standards, yesterday.

And:

Let’s look at Russia and Ukraine, and let’s look, not at the whole Ukraine, but just at eastern Ukraine. Eastern Ukraine is populated mostly by ethnic Russians. In the former Soviet Union, the borders between republics were very nominal. People could move around, it was not a big deal. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the official state border between Russia and Ukraine was respected, but people still could move around. They didn’t need special visas.

When we look at ethnic Russians born and raised in Kursk and Belgorod on the Russian side and across the border, say in Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk on the Ukrainian side, there were people that could be hardly separated anything. They read the same newspaper, Pravda, watched the same television, spoke the very same language, not even accents. But somehow, in 2014, after Putin’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, we saw a huge difference. Most of ethnic Russians in Ukraine signed for the Ukrainian army, fighting against Putin’s invasion, against the same Russians that came from the other side.

It could be a long debate, but I would say that one of the main reasons is that Ukraine experienced in 1994 a gradual transition of power from one president to another after sitting president Leonid Kravchuk lost elections and walked away. Ukrainians somehow got an idea that power is not sacred, and government can come and go, and they can remove it by voting.

And even despite the fact that Ukraine never experienced higher living standards than Russia, people realized that keeping this freedom, keeping this ability to influence their bureaucrats and government through the peaceful process of voting and, if necessary, striking, far more effective than Russia’s “stability” where the same leader could be in charge of the country with his corrupt clique for a long, long time.

On computer chess, I most enjoyed this part of the exchange:

KASPAROV: But I want to finish this because what we discovered in this process . . . I wouldn’t overweight our listeners with all these details. I don’t want just to throw on them the mass information.

COWEN: It’s amazing what people will enjoy, though. You’d be surprised.

Self-recommending!  We cover many other topics as well, again you can read or listen here.

And I strongly advise that you buy and read Garry’s wonderful new book Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins.

Here is a link to the download and partial transcript, Russ is one of the very best interviewers and of course he is a pioneer in the podcast genre.  Here is one excerpt:

Tyler Cowen: And I think overall academics are among the most complacent of the complacent groups in American society.

Russ Roberts: Fair enough.

There is more…

There is a new and very good paper on that question by Amy Finkelstein, Nathaniel Hendren, and Mark Shepard (pdf).  In reality, the price elasticity of demand for health insurance is quite high, at least among lower-income groups:

How much are low-income individuals willing to pay for health insurance, and what are the implications for insurance markets? Using administrative data from Massachusetts’ subsidized insurance exchange, we exploit discontinuities in the subsidy schedule to estimate willingness to pay and costs of insurance among low-income adults…For at least 70 percent of the low-income eligible population, we find that willingness to pay for insurance is far below the average cost curve – what it would cost insurers to provide coverage to all who would enroll if the premium were set equal to that WTP. Adverse selection exists, despite the presence of the coverage mandate, but is not the driving force behind low take up. We estimate that willingness to pay is only about one-third of own costs; thus even if insurers could offer actuarially fair, type-specific prices, at least 70 percent of the market would be uncovered.

That is from both the abstract and conclusion.  I do understand the ideal of universal coverage, but note this:

For example, we estimate that subsidizing insurer prices by 90% would lead only about three-quarters of potential enrollees to buy insurance.

The somewhat depressing and underexplored implication is that the beneficiaries do not love Obamacare as much as some of you do.  In fact you may remember a result from last year, from the research of Mark Pauly, indicating that “close to half” of households covered by the unsubsidized mandate, by the standards of their own preferences, would prefer not to purchase health insurance.  And that was before some of the recent rounds of premium increases, and overall these new results seem to imply even lower demands for health insurance relative to cash.

Now, I think it is an open question how much “non-paternalism” is the correct moral stance here.  Maybe we should force upon people more health insurance than they would purchase in an adverse selection-free market, because a) they are ill-informed, b) they have children, or c) ex post we still need to take care of them in some way, if indeed their gamble to not purchase insurance turns out badly.

Do, however, note the words of the authors: “We conclude that the size of uncompensated care for low-income populations provides a plausible explanation for their low WTP.”  In other words, many of the poor do not value health insurance nearly as much as many planners feel they ought to, in large part because they are already getting some health care.

In any case, consider a political economy point if nothing else.  If you institute a policy that forces on people more health insurance than they think they wish to buy, do not be shocked if a huckster comes along offering them a supposedly better deal, and gets away with it.

Along related lines, consider also this result:

From the perspective of social welfare, to justify connecting the 5% least dense areas of North Carolina would require each adopting household value high speed wired broadband access at more than $1519 per month.

For the pointers I thank Peter Metrinko and Kevin Lewis.