Web/Tech

The central government told the Supreme Court on Monday that it wants an Aadhaar-like unique identification system for cows to track their movement and prevent inter-state and inter-country smuggling. Adducing a report by a committee appointed by the Union Home Ministry, Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar told a bench led by Chief Justice of India J S Khehar that the Centre has approved the recommendations in principle. The bench posted the matter for detailed hearing on Tuesday.

The committee, headed by a Joint Secretary in the MHA, was constituted after the apex court prodded the government to stop smuggling of cattle, especially through the porous borders with Nepal and Bangladesh. “Each animal (should) be tagged with a unique identification number with proper records of identification details such as age, breed, sex, lactation, height, body, colour, horn type, tail switch, special mark etc,” says the report.

Here is further information, via James Crabtree.

But the revered Icelandic language, seen by many as a source of identity and pride, is being undermined by the widespread use of English, both in the tourism industry and in the voice-controlled artificial intelligence devices coming into vogue.

…A number of factors combine to make the future of the Icelandic language uncertain. Tourism has exploded in recent years, becoming the country’s single biggest employer, and analysts at Arion Bank say that half of new jobs are being filled by foreign workers.

…The problem is compounded because many new computer devices are designed to recognize English but not Icelandic.

“Not being able to speak Icelandic to voice-activated fridges, interactive robots and similar devices would be yet another lost field,” Mr. Jonsson said.

Here is the interesting NYT piece.

Beggars in Jinan in China’s eastern province of Shandong use QR codes, the technology used by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s [NYSE:BABA] Alipay and Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s [HKG:0700] WeChat Wallet, in hopes of getting money transferred to them by passersby with smartphones.

One panhandler in Jinan’s Wangfu Chizi held a basket with a QR code on it, China.org.cn report, citing accounts from internet users.

The basket-bearer reportedly suffers from mental illness and the QR code was given to him by his family. When reporters’ search for him failed, local business owners said that the beggars might not be ‘working’ due to the rain, but are always around when the weather is good.

Residents living in areas frequented by tourists, such as Qushuiting Street and Wangfu Chizi, said that some local beggars use WeChat — and some even have a POS (point of sale) machine.

Here is the link.

Now operators have started scrutinizing complimentary drinks, introducing new technology at bars that track how much someone has gambled—and rewards them accordingly with alcohol. It’s a shift from decades of more-informal interplay between bartenders and gamblers.

Sports books have capitalized on big events, too. During March Madness, a five-person booth at the Harrah’s Las Vegas sports book cost $375 per person, which included five Miller Lite or Coors Light beers a person. In the past, seating at most sports books was free and first-come, first-served, even during big events. Placing a small bet or two could get you free drinks.

“The number-crunchers, the bean-counters have ruined Las Vegas,” said Brad Johnson, who lives in North Carolina and has come to Las Vegas almost every year since the early 1970s. “There’s no value to it; there’s no benefit.”

Casinos on the Strip now derive a smaller share of revenue from gambling. In 1996, more than half of annual casino revenue on the Strip came from gambling. Last year, the share was down to about a third, according to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. More of the revenue comes from hotels, restaurants and bars.

That is from Chris Kirkham at the WSJ, via Annie Lowrey.

Can Uber make it in India?

by on April 17, 2017 at 1:50 pm in Economics, Travel, Web/Tech | Permalink

From Farhad Manjoo at the New York Times:

India’s cellular networks can be spotty and slow, and banking, credit cards and other financial mainstays cannot be taken for granted. More than that, vast differences in education and wealth create a social dynamic between riders and drivers that cannot be smoothed over by improving an app interface.

Not only are many of Uber’s drivers here unfamiliar with smartphones, some are illiterate. Often, drivers and riders don’t speak the same language. Many drivers need financial help to purchase or lease cars, and then require continuing help to manage their finances and other details of their small businesses.

On top of all this is competition. Uber faces an aggressive and well-funded Indian rival, Ola Cabs, which operates in 100 cities and offers a wider range of services than Uber does.

…The companies must also spend time educating drivers on the social dynamics of working for themselves. Many drivers arrive after working as private drivers for middle- and upper-class Indians; those jobs can be grueling — drivers work long hours, are expected to be constantly on call, and often aren’t accorded much respect for their work. When they come to Uber and Ola, the same drivers have to adjust to a job in which they finally have some agency, and the change can be terrifying.

Those are all good points, but I don’t think they get at the two main reasons why Uber will continue to have a hard time making money in India.  First, in major cities you never will know when your ride actually is coming.  The vehicle could be around the bloc, but still take thirty minutes to arrive.  In the meantime, should you just wait?  Second, if it is immediacy you value, there is almost always an auto-rickshaw nearby.

By the way, it turns out that about 80 percent of Uber transactions in India are cash-based.

*Machine Platform Crowd*

by on April 15, 2017 at 1:44 pm in Books, Web/Tech | Permalink

The authors are Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, and the subtitle is Harnessing Our Digital Future.  Arguably McAfee and Brynjolfsson have become America’s leading authors of business/management books (with an economic slant).  This one is due out June 27, I am eager to read it.

Here is one bit:

I am reminded of a study of college friendships conducted by psychologists Angela Bahns, Kate Pickett and Christian Crandall. They found that students in a large, diverse campus sought out and befriended other students very much like themselves. In smaller universities with fewer friendship options, young people had more varied groups of friends because the alternative was to have no friends at all.

Our bias towards the status quo is not new — but perhaps we are taking advantage of new opportunities to indulge it.

Here is the full FT piece.

I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with him, no public event, podcast only.  Today by the way is his birthday, so send along some good questions as a birthday present to him, and a non-birthday present to me!

Garry’s forthcoming book Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins is just superb, and the podcast will be released around the time of book publication in early May.

The Economist has two good pieces on India’s Aadhaar card. First, the bright side:

IT TAKES a little over 90 seconds. At the government-subsidised ration shop in Sargasan, a village in Gujarat, Chandana Prajapati places her thumb on a fingerprint scanner. A list of the staples she and her family are entitled to this month appears on the shopkeeper’s computer: 10kg of rice, 25kg of wheat, some cooking oil, salt and sugar. The 55-year-old housewife has no cash nor credit card, but no matter. By tapping in an identifying number and presenting her thumb one more time, Mrs Prajapati authorises a payment of 271 rupees ($4.20) straight from her bank account. It is technical wizardry worthy of Stockholm or New York; yet outside buffaloes graze, a pot of water is coming to the boil on a pile of firewood and children scamper between mud-brick houses.

Like most Indians, Mrs Prajapati would have struggled to identify herself to the authorities a few years ago, let alone to a faraway bank. But 99% of adults are now enrolled in Aadhaar, a scheme which has amassed the fingerprints and iris scans of over 1.1bn people since 2010. With her authorisation, any government body or private business can check whether her fingerprints or irises match those recorded against her unique 12-digit identifying number in its database. When it comes to identification, India has unexpectedly leapfrogged every country with the possible exception of Estonia, a tiddler with a penchant for innovation.

The Aadhaar system has cut corruption and cleaned the rolls of people with fake identities trying to scam fertilizer, food or some other subsidized good. But the government wants the mark of the beast Aadhaar system to be used for just about everything including paying taxes, getting school lunches, buying airline tickets or a cell phone and that makes some people worried:

In theory, the law on Aadhaar passed last year by Mr Modi’s government includes stringent protections against the sharing of information; its rules allowing exceptions on grounds of national security, although vaguely worded, appear well intended. Sweden has required all citizens to have a national ID number since 1947—the year of India’s birth—with little trouble. Most Swedes consider the scheme, which is linked to tax, school, medical and other records, an immense convenience.

But India is not a tidy Nordic kingdom. Mr Modi’s government, with its strident nationalism and occasional recklessness—such as last year’s abrupt voiding of most of the paper currency in circulation—does not always inspire confidence that it will respect citizens’ rights and legal niceties. By sneaking the linkage between Aadhaar and tax into a budget bill, it raises concerns about intent: will the government stalk tax evaders, or perhaps enemies of the state, using ostensibly “fire-walled” Aadhaar data? Many Indians will remember that, following sectarian riots in the past, ruling parties were accused of using voter rolls to target victims.

As the Economist wisely concludes:

…for Aadhaar to fulfil its potential, Indians must trust that it will not be misused. Adopting coercive regulations, ignoring the Supreme Court’s qualms and dismissing critics peremptorily will achieve the opposite.

Solve for the equilibrium

by on April 12, 2017 at 6:48 pm in Web/Tech | Permalink

In the latest example of marketers entering the living room, Burger King will release television commercials on Tuesday that are intended to prompt voice-activated smart speakers from Google into describing its burgers — after the 15-second spots end.

A video from one of the fast-food chain’s marketing agencies showed the stunt in action: “You’re watching a 15-second Burger King ad, which is unfortunately not enough time to explain all the fresh ingredients in the Whopper sandwich,” the commercial’s actor says. He continues, “But I got an idea. O.K. Google, what is the Whopper burger?” Prompted by the phrase “O.K. Google,” the Google Home device next to the TV in the video lights up, runs a search and states its ingredients.

Here is the story, via the excellent Michael Rosenwald.

Patrick is co-founder and CEO of Stripe, based in San Francisco.  I recently told a reporter he was one of the five smartest people I have known; he is so smart, in fact, that he asked to interview me rather than vice versa, and so he and I created a new episode of Conversations with Tyler (transcript and podcast at that link, alas no video, and note that was recorded in January so on a few points the timeline may feel off).

We discuss whether macro is underrated, what makes Silicon Valley special, optimal immigration policy, whether Facebook is beneficial for society, whether I might ever vote for Donald Trump, how to start a new religion, Peter Thiel, Brian Eno, where I differ from Thomas Schelling, Michel Houllebecq, how to maintain your composure in an age of Trump, the origins of this blog, how I read so much, why Twitter is underrated, and the benefits of having a diverse monoculture, among many other topics.

Here is one bit:

COLLISON: …You’ve written a lot about how the study of economics has influenced your appreciation for the arts, and for literature, and for food, and all of the rest. You haven’t written as much about the influence in the reverse direction. How has your appreciation for and study of the arts influenced your study of economics? And is this a version of that?

COWEN: This is a version of that. Here would be a simple example: If you think about Renaissance Florence, at its peak, its population, arguably, was between 60,000 and 80,000 people. And there were surrounding areas; you could debate the number. But they had some really quite remarkable achievements that have stood the test of time and lasted, and today have very high market value. Now, in very naive theories of economics, that shouldn’t be possible. People in Renaissance Florence, they didn’t produce a refrigerator that we’re still using or a tech company that we still consult.

But there’s something different about, say, the visual arts, where that was possible, and it was done with small numbers. So there’s something about the inputs to some kinds of production we don’t understand. I would suggest if we’re trying to figure out, like what makes Silicon Valley work, actually, by studying how they did what they did in the Florentine Renaissance is highly important. You learn what are the missing inputs that make for other kinds of miracles.

Ireland and writing would be another example.

…COWEN: And I worry now that people in Ireland hear too much American English, too much English English, and that style of writing, talking, joking, limericks, is becoming somewhat less distinct. Still many wonderful writers from Ireland, but again, it’s like an optimal stock depletion problem, and maybe we’ve pressed on the button a little too hard.

COLLISON: The transaction costs should be higher?

And here is another:

COLLISON: Do we just need a sufficiently obfuscated version of the UBI and then we’re fine?

COWEN: We call it “disability insurance.”

And:

COWEN: Well, I voted on each of these hires. I voted for them. For a lot of them, I was on the hiring committee. Robin Hanson’s a good example. When we hired Robin, he was much older than a typical assistant professor would be. And of course, we don’t practice age discrimination, and neither does anyone else, but . . .

[laughter]

COWEN: Robin was going to have a tough time being hired. And I gave Robin some of my papers to read. He came in. He was a little, actually, obnoxious to me. Though he’s one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. He sent me back comments on my papers, that they were all wrong.

[laughter]

COWEN: There was no preliminary politeness: ‘I thought this was interesting, but…’ I thought this was great. So I thought, “We need to hire Robin. Robin is different.” And Robin wrote papers I thought were crazy, but he clearly also was a genius. I pushed very hard to hire Robin, and he made a good impression on a lot of other people. He’s been with us ever since.

COLLISON: Were the papers in fact all wrong?

COWEN: Robin’s criticisms were all good points.

[laughter]

COWEN: But they weren’t entirely wrong.

Self-recommending!

*Everybody Lies*

by on April 11, 2017 at 2:54 am in Books, Data Source, Economics, Web/Tech | Permalink

That is the new and fascinating book by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, with the subtitle Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are.  Here is one of many interesting bits:

Urban areas tend to be well supplied with models of success.  To see the value of being near successful practitioners of a craft when young, compare New York City, Boston, and Los Angeles.  Among the three, new York City produces notable journalists at the highest rate; Boston produces notable scientists at the highest rate; and Los Angeles produces notable actors at the highest rate.  Remember, we are not talking about people who moved there.  And this holds true even after subtracting people with notable parents in that field.

Many of the results in the book are taken from Google data and Google searches.  I was a little chuffed to read this part:

A child born in New York City is 80 percent more likely to make it into Wikipedia than a kid born in Bergen County.

[Actually I was born in Hudson County, but grew up in Bergen.]  And this:

Of the trillions of Google searches during that time [2004-2011], what do you think turned out to be most tightly connected to unemployment?  You might imagine “unemployment office” — or something similar…The highest during the period I searched — and these terms do shift — was “Slutload.”  That’s right, the most frequent search was for a pornographic site.

Here is previous MR coverage of Seth Stephens-Davidowitz.

Recently I read was Peter Gaskell’s Artisans and Machinery, from 1836 (later reprinted).

So much of his discussion of handloom weavers could come out of an Atlantic Monthly article from 2015, albeit with different historical references.  However today’s stories typically claim that automation favors tech skills, whereas Gaskell argues power weaving put the skilled workers out of jobs and empowered the less skilled machine supervisors.

Just as Bill Gates called for the taxing of robots, back in the early 19th century many people called for the taxing of machinery.  Gaskell believes this would help labor in the short run but in the longer run actually stimulate more innovation — to avoid some of the tax by lowering capital costs — eventually making labor’s lot all the worse.

Gaskell dives into sociology and suggests that the earlier, less technology-intensive workers were more religious, more devout, and less likely to make political trouble.  Distinctions of rank were in fuller force, and children were less likely to be pressured to work outside the home.  Insofar as the man worked inside the cottage as a sole proprietor, this encouraged an ethic of individual responsibility.  Society was truly decentralized, and those were “the golden times” of manufactures.  The downside is that such individuals were less likely to be literate, and of course output was lower, including food output, and prices were higher.

Since women and children also could work the new power looms, that increased the supply of labor and put downward pressure on wages and on male wages in particular.  Collectively speaking, it would have been better to preserve division of labor within the household, and keep male wages relatively high, and female household production relatively high.

One of the more charming sections of this book was the chapter on how factories spur too much of the animal passions, as men and women are working together long hours and will eventually…dine with Mike Pence.  Furthermore, factory work leads to new norms where women can have premarital sex and still expect to marry someone else later on, without much fear of a reputational penalty.  Premarital sex then rises all the more, and then the looser norms are passed down to the children, worsening the problem all the more.  Eventually England will end up with the sexual norms found in the “warmer climates.”

Overall, Gaskell paints a picture of a world where there are positive social externalities from having individual males tied to pieces of land.  Along those lines, he offers a kind of Georgist critique of the countryside, where too much land has been tied up in speculative enclosures.

Given ongoing mechanization, only in the long run can a society find a “healthy and permanent tone” once again.  He is optimistic about the long run, but not about the transition.

I don’t exactly agree with all of these perspectives, but I was impressed by the intricacy and also clarity of the analysis in this book, which usually does not receive significant mention in the history of economic thought.

Here are various copies of the book.  Even Maxine Berg doesn’t cover Gaskell much.

The syringe slides in between the thumb and index finger. Then, with a click, a microchip is injected in the employee’s hand. Another “cyborg” is created.

What could pass for a dystopian vision of the workplace is almost routine at the Swedish startup hub Epicenter. The company offers to implant its workers and startup members with microchips the size of grains of rice that function as swipe cards: to open doors, operate printers, or buy smoothies with a wave of the hand.

The injections have become so popular that workers at Epicenter hold parties for those willing to get implanted.

“The biggest benefit I think is convenience,” said Patrick Mesterton, co-founder and CEO of Epicenter. As a demonstration, he unlocks a door by merely waving near it. “It basically replaces a lot of things you have, other communication devices, whether it be credit cards or keys.”

Here is more, via Samir Varma.  Personally, I would rather sponsor a few seats at that crucifixion in Manchester…or better yet sit next to the bishop.

New cars loaded with high-tech crash-prevention gear are having a perverse effect on car-insurance costs: They are soaring.

Safety features such as autonomous braking and systems to prevent drivers from drifting out of their lanes are increasingly available on vehicles rolling off assembly lines. Auto companies and third-party researchers say these features help prevent crashes and are building blocks to self-driving cars. But progress comes with a price.

Enabling the safety tech are cameras, sensors, microprocessors and other hardware whose repair costs can be more than five times that of conventional parts. And the equipment is often located in bumpers, fenders and external mirrors—the very spots that tend to get hit in a crash. Insurance companies, unwilling to shoulder all the pain, are passing some of the cost off to buyers.

Here is more from Christina Rogers and Leslie Scism at the WSJ.