# Web/Tech

## The Age of the Centaur is *Over* Skynet Goes Live

on December 7, 2017 at 12:35 am

“Mastering Chess and Shogi by Self-Play with a General Reinforcement Learning Algorithm”

The game of chess is the most widely-studied domain in the history of artificial intelligence. The strongest programs are based on a combination of sophisticated search techniques, domain-specific adaptations, and handcrafted evaluation functions that have been refined by human experts over several decades. In contrast, the AlphaGo Zero program recently achieved superhuman performance in the game of Go, by tabula rasa reinforcement learning from games of self-play. In this paper, we generalise this approach into a single AlphaZero algorithm that can achieve, tabula rasa, superhuman performance in many challenging domains. Starting from random play, and given no domain knowledge except the game rules, AlphaZero achieved within 24 hours a superhuman level of play in the games of chess and shogi (Japanese chess) as well as Go, and convincingly defeated a world-champion program in each case.

In other words, the human now adds absolutely nothing to man-machine chess-playing teams.  That’s in addition to the surprising power of this approach in solving problems.

Here is the link, via Trey Kollmer, who writes “Stockfish Dethroned.”  Here is coverage from Wired.  Via Justin Barclay, here is commentary from the chess world, including some of the (very impressive) games.  And it seems to prefer 1.d4 and 1.c4, loves the Queen’s Gambit, rejected the French Defense, never liked the King’s Indian, grew disillusioned with the Ruy Lopez, and surprisingly never fell in love with the Sicilian Defense.  By the way the program reinvented most of chess opening theory by playing against itself for less than a day.  Having the white pieces matters more than we thought from previous computer vs. computer contests.  Here is the best chess commentary I have seen, excerpt:

If Karpov had been a chess engine, he might have been called AlphaZero. There is a relentless positional boa constrictor approach that is simply unheard of. Modern chess engines are focused on activity, and have special safeguards to avoid blocked positions as they have no understanding of them and often find themselves in a dead end before they realize it. AlphaZero has no such prejudices or issues, and seems to thrive on snuffing out the opponent’s play. It is singularly impressive, and what is astonishing is how it is able to also find tactics that the engines seem blind to.

Did you know that the older Stockfish program considered 900 times more positions, but the greater “thinking depth” of the new innovation was decisive nonetheless.  I will never forget how stunned I was to learn of this breakthrough.

Finally, I’ve long said that Google’s final fate will be to evolve into a hedge fund.

## A simple theory of Moore’s Law and social media

on December 4, 2017 at 1:19 am

1. Moore’s Law plus the internet makes smart people smarter, and stupid people less smart.

2. Manipulable people can be reached with a greater flood of information, so over time as data on them accumulate, they become more manipulable.

3. It is often easier to manipulate smart people than stupid people, because the latter may be oblivious to a greater set of cues and clues.

4. Social media bring smarter people together with the less smart more than used to be the case, Twitter more so than Facebook.  Members of each group are appalled by what they experience.  The smarter people see the lesser smarts of many others.  The less smart people — who often are not entirely so stupid after all — can see how manipulated the smarter people are.  They also see that the smarter people look down on them and attack their motives and intellects.  Both groups go away thinking less of each other.

4b. The smarter people, in reacting this way, in fact are being manipulated by the (stupider) powers that be.

5. “There is a performative dimension that renders both sides more rigid and dishonest.”  From a correspondent.

6. Consider a second distinction, namely between people who are too sensitive to social information, and people who are relatively insensitive to social information.  A quick test of this one is to ask how often a person’s tweets (and thoughts) refer to the motivations, intentions, or status hierarchies held by others.  Get the picture?  (Here is an A+ example.)

7. People who are overly sensitive to social information will be driven to distraction by Twitter.  They will find the world to be intolerably bad.  The status distinctions they value will be violated so, so many times, and in a manner which becomes common knowledge.  And they will perceive what are at times the questionable motives held by others.  Twitter is like negative catnip for them.  In fact, they will find it more and more necessary to focus on negative social information, thereby exacerbating their own tendencies toward oversensitivity.

8. People who are not so sensitive to social information will pursue social media with greater equanimity, and they may find those media productivity-enhancing.  Nevertheless they will become rather visibly introduced to a relatively new category of people for them — those who are overly sensitive to social information.  This group will become so transparent, so in their face, and also somewhat annoying.  Even those extremely insensitive to social information will not be able to help perceiving this alternate approach, and also the sometimes bad motivations that lie behind it.  The overly sensitive ones in turn will notice that another group is under-sensitive to the social considerations they value.  These two groups will think less and less of each other.  The insensitive will have been made sensitive.  It’s like playing “overrated vs. underrated” almost 24/7 on issues you really care about, and which affect your own personal status.

9. The philosophy of Stoicism will return to Silicon Valley.  It will gain adherents but fail, because the rest of the system is stacked against it.

10. The socially sensitive, very smart people will become the most despairing, the most manipulated, and the most angry.  The socially insensitive will either jump ship into the camp of the socially sensitive, or they will cultivate new methods of detachment, with or without Stoicism.  Straussianism will compete with Stoicism.

11. Parts of social media will peel off into smaller, more private groups.  At the end of the day, many will wonder which economies of scale and scope have been lost.  And gained.  Others will be too manipulated to wonder such things.

12. The “finance guy” in me thinks: how can I use all this for intellectual arbitrage?  Which camp does that put me in?

13.  What bounds this process?

## My Conversation with Douglas Irwin, audio and transcript

on December 1, 2017 at 8:11 am

Doug’s new book Clashing over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy is the greatest book on trade policy ever written, bar none. and also a splendid work of American history more generally.  So I thought he and I should sit down to chat, now I have both the transcript and audio.

We covered how much of 19th century American growth was due to tariffs, trade policy toward China, the cultural argument against free trade, whether there is a national security argument for agricultural protectionism, TPP, how new trade agreements should be structured, the trade bureaucracy in D.C., whether free trade still brings peace, Smoot-Hawley, the American Revolution (we are spoiled brats), Dunkirk, why New Hampshire is so wealthy, Brexit, Alexander Hamilton, NAFTA, the global trade slowdown, premature deindustrialization, and the history of the Chicago School of Economics, among other topics.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here goes. The claim that 19th century American growth was driven by high tariffs. What’s your take?

IRWIN: Not really true. If you look at why the US economy performed very well, particularly relative to Britain or Germany or other countries, Steve Broadberry’s shown that a lot of the overtaking of Britain in terms of per capita income was in terms of the service sector.

The service sector was expanding rapidly. It had very high productivity growth rates. We usually don’t think as that being affected by the tariff per se. That’s one reason.

We had also very high productivity growth rates in agriculture. I’ve done some counterfactual simulations. If you remove the tariff, how much resources would we take out of manufacturing and put into services or agriculture is actually pretty small. It just doesn’t account for the success we had during this period.

COWEN: Is there any country where you would say, “Their late 19th century economic growth was driven by tariffs?” Argentina, Canada, Germany, anything, anywhere?

IRWIN: No. If you look at all those, once again, in late 19th century, they were major exporters, largely of commodities, but they did very well that way. You know that Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world in the late 19th century. It really wasn’t until they adopted more import substitution policies after World War I that they began to fall behind.

## Is Bitcoin just a bubble?

on November 30, 2017 at 7:53 am

Some people think so, in the associated video clip Joe Stiglitz says Bitcoin should be banned.  Here is some FT skepticism from Jean Tirole.

I used to think Bitcoin was a bubble, but I no longer hold this view.  If nothing else, put all the more complicated factors aside and think of Bitcoin as competing for some of the asset space held by gold and also to some extent art.  Gold, too, in its hedging functions is a “bubble,” though not a bubble.  It is hard to ship, but has some extra value because it is perceived as a focal asset and one that does not covary positively in a simple way with the market portfolio.  The same is true of Bitcoin, yet that kind of focality-based “bubbliness” can persist for centuries.  Note by the way that gold has become less of a hedge, partly because inflation has been low and partly because China and India dominate the gold market more than a few decades ago.  So new and better hedges are needed.  And what a backstory Bitcoin has, making it a strong competitor in this regard.

I am not saying that is the Bitcoin story, it is simply a Bitcoin story, a minimalist account that can appeal to skeptics.  And you can buy this story and still think the current price is either too high or too low.

This estimate claims there is $241 trillion of wealth in the world, make of that what you will (there is something nonsensical about such aggregate measures because they are not traded against anything). If you imagine people wish to hold one quarter of one percent of that in crypto form, that gets you to about$600 billion in value.  Currently crypto assets (on good days) hover near $300 billion in market capitalization. Is that so crazy? I genuinely don’t know, but that is one way of thinking about market cap in this sector. I will continue to watch with interest. ## Another unpopular idea about blockchains, from the comments on November 30, 2017 at 2:59 am 1 – My favorite unpopular blockchain ideas: 99% of corporate experiments regarding blockchains are better handled with Apache Kafka and multiple archivers. Anything that attempts to be a fast, global ledger has to accept the reality that global ordering is a limitation, not a feature, and instead use logical clocks. The intersection between blockchain enthusiast and distributed system researchers is close to zero. When we look back 100 years, Bitcoin itself will be seen as far more relevant in retrospect than blockchain technologies. That is from MR reader Bob. ## *Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age* on November 30, 2017 at 12:07 am That is the new and excellent history by Leslie Berlin, substantive throughout, here is one good bit of many: In March 1967, Robert and Taylor, jointly leading a meeting of ARPA’s principal investigators in Ann Arbor, Michigan, told the researchers that ARPA was going to build a computer network and they were all expected to connect to it. The principle investigators were not enthusiastic. They were busy running their labs and doing their own work. They saw no real reason to add this network to their responsibilities. Researchers with more powerful computers worried that those with less computing power would use the network to commandeer precious computing cycles. “If I could not get some ARPA-funded participants involved in a commitment to a purpose higher than “Who is going to steal the next ten percent of my memory cycles?”, there would be no network,” Taylor later wrote. Roberts agreed: “They wanted to buy their own machines and hide in the corner.” You can buy the book here, here is one good review from Wired, excerpt: While piecing together a timeline of the Valley’s early history—picture end-to-end sheets of paper covered in black dots—Berlin was amazed to discover a period of rapid-fire innovation between 1969 and 1976 that included the first Arpanet transmission; the birth of videogames; and the launch of Apple, Atari, Genentech, and major venture firms such as Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia Capital. “I just thought, ‘What the heck was going on in those years?’ ” she says. ## What is driving the decline in entrepreneurship? on November 26, 2017 at 1:03 am Nicholas Kozeniauskas, a job candidate from NYU, has a job market paper on that topic: Recent research shows that entrepreneurial activity has been declining in the US in recent decades. Given the role of entrepreneurship in theories of growth, job creation and economic mobility this has generated considerable concern. This paper investigates why entrepreneurship has declined. It documents that (1) the decline in entrepreneurship has been more pronounced for higher education levels, implying that at least part of the force driving the changes is not skill-neutral, and (2) the size distribution of entrepreneur businesses has been quite stable. Together with a decline in the entrepreneurship rate the second fact implies a shift of economic activity towards non-entrepreneur firms. Guided by this evidence I evaluate explanations for the decline in entrepreneurship based on skill-biased technical change, changes in regulations increasing the fixed costs of businesses and changes in technology that have benefited large non-entrepreneur firms. I do this using a general equilibrium model of occupational choice calibrated with a rich set of moments on occupations, income distributions and firm size distributions. I find that an increase in fixed costs explains most of the decline in the aggregate entrepreneurship rate and that skill-biased technical change can fully account for the larger decrease in entrepreneurship for more educated people when combined with the other forces. This is one of the more important papers of this job market season. ## Cryptocurrencies don’t belong in central banks on November 24, 2017 at 9:19 am That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column. Here is one excerpt: An additional reason for skepticism stems from the nature of crypto assets. The word “cryptocurrency” is far more common than “crypto asset,” but it’s a misleading term. Bitcoin, for instance, is used only rarely in retail transactions, and for all its success it isn’t becoming more important as a medium of exchange. Bitcoin thus isn’t much of a currency in the literal sense of that term. There is a version of bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash, that changed the initial rules to be better suited as an exchange medium, but it isn’t nearly as popular. If you think of these assets as “cryptocurrencies,” central bank involvement will seem natural, because of course central banks do manage currencies. Instead, this new class of assets is better conceptualized as ledger systems, designed to create agreement about some states of the world without the final judgment of a centralized authority, which use a crypto asset to pay participants for maintaining the flow and accuracy of information. Arguably these innovations come closer to being substitutes for corporations and legal systems than for currencies. Put in those terms, an active (rather than merely supervisory) role for central banks in crypto assets is suddenly far from obvious. Consider other financial innovations: Does anyone suggest that central banks should run their own versions of ETFs or high-frequency trading? Is there a need for central banks to start managing the development of accounting and governance systems? Central banks are too conservative anyway, which of course is how they should be. Don’t forget: …consider a simple question: Would any central bank have had the inspiration or taken the risk of initiating the bitcoin protocol in the first place? ## What it would take to change my mind on net neutrality on November 24, 2017 at 12:30 am Keep in mind, I’ve favored net neutrality for most of my history as a blogger. You really could change my mind back to that stance. Here is what you should do: 1. Cite event study analysis showing changes in net neutrality will have significant and possibly significantly negative effects. 2. Discuss models of natural monopoly, and how those market structures may or may not distort product choice under a variety of institutional settings. 3. Start with a framework or analysis such as that of Joshua Gans and Michael Katz, and improve upon it or otherwise modify it. Here is their abstract: We correct and extend the results of Gans (2015) regarding the effects of net neutrality regulation on equilibrium outcomes in settings where a content provider sells its services to consumers for a fee. We examine both pricing and investment effects. We extend the earlier paper’s result that weak forms of net neutrality are ineffective and also show that even a strong form of net neutrality may be ineffective. In addition, we demonstrate that, when strong net neutrality does affect the equilibrium outcome, it may harm efficiency by distorting both ISP and content provider investment and service-quality choices. Tell me, using something like their framework, why you think the relative preponderance of costs and benefits lies in one direction rather than another. Consider Litan and Singer from the Progressive Policy Institute, they favor case-by-case adjudication, tell me why they are wrong. Or read this piece by Nobel Laureate Vernon Smith, regulatory experts Bob Crandall, Alfred Kahn, and Bob Hahn, numerous internet experts, etc.: In the authors’ shared opinion, the economic evidence does not support the regulations proposed in the Commission’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Regarding Preserving the Open Internet and Broadband Industry Practices (the “NPRM”). To the contrary, the economic evidence provides no support for the existence of market failure sufficient to warrant ex ante regulation of the type proposed by the Commission, and strongly suggests that the regulations, if adopted, would reduce consumer welfare in both the short and long run. To the extent the types of conduct addressed in the NPRM may, in isolated circumstances, have the potential to harm competition or consumers, the Commission and other regulatory bodies have the ability to deter or prohibit such conduct on a case-by-case basis, through the application of existing doctrines and procedures. 4. Consider and evaluate other forms of empirical evidence, preferably not just the anecdotal. 5. Don’t let emotionally laden words do the work of the argument for you. 6. Offer a rational, non-emotive discussion of why pre-2015 was such a bad starting point for the future, and why so few users seemed to mind or notice as the regulations switched several times. 7. Don’t let politics make you afraid to use your best argument, namely that anti-NN types typically develop more faith in an assortment of government regulators in this setting than they might express in a number of other contexts. That said, don’t just use this point to attack them, live with and consistently apply whatever judgment of the regulators you decide is appropriate. If you are wondering why I have changed my mind, it is a mix of new evidence coming in, experience over the 2014-present period, relative assessment of the arguments on each side moving against NN proponets, and the natural logic of the embedded trade-offs, whereby net neutrality typically works in a short enough short run but over enough time more pricing is needed. Of course it is a judgment call as to when the extra pricing should kick in. Here is what will make your arguments less persuasive to me: 1. Respond to discussions of other natural monopoly sectors and their properties by saying “the internet isn’t like that, you don’t understand the internet.” If someone uses the water sector to make a general point about tying and natural monopoly, commit internet error #7 by responding: “the internet isn’t like water! You don’t understand the internet!” 2. Lodge moral complaints against the cable companies or against commercial incentives more generally, or complain about the “ideology” of others. Mention the word “Trump” or criticize the Trump administration for its failings. Call the recent decision “anti-democratic.” 3. Cite nightmare or dystopian scenarios that are clearly illegal under other current laws and regulations. Cite dystopian scenarios that would contradict profit-maximizing behavior on the part of the involved companies. Assume that no future evolution of regulation could solve or address any of the problems that might arise from the recent switch. Mention Portugal as a scare scenario, without explaining that full internet packages still are for sale there, albeit without the discounts for the partial packages. Are you up to the challenge? If I read say this Tim Wu Op-Ed, I think it is underwhelming, even given its newspaper setting, and the last two paragraphs are content-less, poorly done emotive manipulation. Senpai 3:16 is himself too polemic and exaggerated, but he does make some good points against this piece, see his Twitter stream. Net neutrality defenders, as of now you have lost this battle. I’d like to hear more. ## Further thoughts on why the end of net neutrality will be fine on November 23, 2017 at 12:53 am If a cable company really is a monopolist, still they (mostly) maximize profit by giving customers (cost-constrained) what they want. When the de Beers cartel had a monopoly on diamonds, did they also make you buy their favorite soda brand? No, that would lower the overall value of the package and thus lower profits. The main exception to this argument is that the monopolist may favor its own content. Monopolizing instances of that practice still would be regulated under standard antitrust law, and also transparency requirements, and most of the critical discussion seems to ignore this. Furthermore, it is harder to make a profit this way than you might think. If Comcast promotes “the stupider Comcast version of CNN,” a lot of people just won’t be interested. Most of these websites aren’t that valuable — look at the recent revenue results for Buzzfeed. Nor do I think Comcast can get away with denying its customers say Google or Skype, either legally or economically. That said, advocates of removing “neutrality” need to face up to the reality that they will be relying on discretionary regulation to a greater degree in some regards. Read p.1 of the actual proposal: Restore the Federal Trade Commission’s ability to protect consumers online from any unfair, deceptive, and anticompetitive practices without burdensome regulations, achieving comparable benefits at lower cost. In the current debate, there is a common presumption that paying for slots hurts “the little guy.” During the payola debates for radio, it turned out that payola favored the independent labels over the majors; see my book In Praise of Commercial Culture. It doesn’t have to work out that way, but refusing to price scarce resources often helps the big established players, who can invest$\$ to get what they want through bigger brand names or other means.   Note:

Pai says that one of the major mistakes of Net Neutrality is its pre-emptive nature. Rather than allowing different practices to develop and then having regulators intervene when problems or harms to customer arise, Net Neutrality is prescriptive and thus likely to serve the interests of existing companies in maintaining a status quo that’s good for them.

Furthermore, are there external benefits from small web upstarts?  Or are the external benefits from the big superstar internet companies?  If you are a Progressive who loves stable jobs and decent wages, you might think the more significant externalities are from the superstar companies.  Yet when it comes to net neutrality, all of a sudden the smaller companies are glorified and we need an ecosystem to foster them.  Overall, I don’t trust the regulators to make these decisions well, so I would rather take my chances with the market, even with some monopoly power at the cable end.

As Megan McArdle points out, over the last ten years consumers have opted overwhelmingly for the non-neutral private garden of Facebook.  That’s the real “threat” to net neutrality.  Personally, both as internet writer and user, I much preferred the older, semi-open, more neutral architecture of RSS and related systems.  The masses have spoken, however, and quite decisively in favor of less open systems and apps.  Nonetheless Alex and I still can do our thing on MR and in fact the project is thriving, and I would be shocked if it did not survive the new FCC decision.  That said, people want non-neutralities and they will introduce them to internet systems one way or the other, and suppliers will have to find ways to cope or perhaps even benefit.  To believe it could be any other way is a kind of wishful thinking, yes I want those old usenet groups back too.  All things considered, “net neutrality” is a biasing term, because the 2015-2017 period was by no means neutral either.  The notion represents a kind of undeserving “victory by language,” as who would wish to favor “bias” over “neutrality”?

Perhaps this point is misused a bit to make extrapolations, but still it is worth noting:

Pai…noted that today’s proposed changes, which are expected to pass full FCC review in mid-December, return the Internet to the light-touch regulatory regime that governed it from the mid-1990s until 2015.

More generally, I don’t see anything intrinsically morally wrong with a person deciding to “buy only one third of the internet.”  How many net neutrality supporters also favor or maybe even insist upon a’la carte pricing for cable TV?  What percentage of the public library do they take home over the course of their lifetime?

Or think of the whole issue in terms of a regulatory principal-agent problem.  Let’s say the water company has “too much” market power, and the public regulator doesn’t have the will or the resources to constrain the company properly.  Said company refuses to let Perrier flow through the pipes as an alternative option to plain tap water, for fear too much of the profit would go to France.  That somewhat mirrors potential problems from net non-neutrality.  But is it likely that a zero price for water is close to the correct solution?  I do get that alternative solutions might in some ways involve greater faith in outside regulators, such as antitrust authorities, but zero price is an awfully blunt instrument for a rapidly changing setting such as data flow.  It certainly hasn’t worked well for water, in a wide range of settings.

Finally, Viking notes in the MR comments:

The real benefits of net non neutrality would be applications that require a guaranteed minimum latency. Non net neutrality would allow some market participants to pay more for reduced latency, which could benefit video conferencing, virtual reality, remote surgeries, VOIP (already part of video conferencing) and other possibly new applications, say remote monitoring and control various kinds.

Are the defenders of net neutrality considering those opportunity costs in their assessments?  I don’t see it.

To be sure, net neutrality really might be better.  You might have a high opinion of the net neutrality regulator and a low opinion of all the other regulators of unjust or inefficient conduct.  You might think bandwidth won’t become scarce anytime soon, and that new, alternative uses for greater bandwidth just aren’t that promising.  You might think that access auctions disadvantage “the little guy,” and furthermore the positive externalities are on the side of the little guy, and thus we should stifle price-based access auctions.  You might think that rationing on a quantity/access basis will be more fair or efficient than rationing by price.  All that is possible.  But it seems hard to know those claims might be true.  Instead, those comparisons would seem to suggest a fair degree of agnosticism.  But when I read proponents of net neutrality, I am more likely to see a harsh excoriation of commercial incentives, or cable companies, than a balanced weighing of those considerations.

Neutrality ain’t neutral, it’s time to get over that myth.

Here is Tom Hazlett on the topic, here is my earlier column.

## The end of net neutrality isn’t the end of the world

on November 21, 2017 at 3:20 pm

That is the title and topic of my latest Bloomberg column.

## Hacking the Nazis

on November 16, 2017 at 8:50 am

Some resisters fought the Nazis in the streets while others fought them from within by hacking some of the world’s first information technology systems. Ava Ex Machina has a fascinating post discussing some of these unheralded hackers. Here is one:

René Carmille — was a punch card computer expert and comptroller general of the French Army, who later would head up the Demographics Department of the French National Statistics Service. As quickly as IBM worked with the Nazis to enable them to use their punch card computer systems to update census data to find and round up Jewish citizens, Rene and his team of double-agents worked just as fast to manipulate their data to undermine their efforts.

The IEEE newspaper, The Institute, describes Carmille as being an early ethical hacker: “Over the course of two years, Carmille and his group purposely delayed the process by mishandling the punch cards. He also hacked his own machines, reprogramming them so that they’d never punch information from Column 11 [which indicated religion] onto any census card.” His work to identify and build in this exploit saved thousands of Jews from being rounded up and deported to death camps.

Rene was arrested in Lyon in 1944. He was interrogated for two days by Klaus Barbie, a cruel and brutal SS and Gestapo officer called “the Butcher of Lyon,” but he still did not break under torture. Rene was caught by the Nazis and sent to the Dachau concentration camp, where he died in 1945.

Hat tip: Tim Harford.

## “A Perfect Fit,” by Isaac Asimov

on November 16, 2017 at 2:03 am in Books, Law, Web/Tech

Gold said, “You underwent due process in great detail, and there was no reasonable doubt that you were guilty–”

“Even so!  Look!  We live in a computerized world.  I can’t do a thing anywhere — I can’t get information — I can’t be fed — I can’t amuse myself — I can’t pay for anything, or check on anything, or just plain do anything — without using a computer.  And I have been adjusted, as you surely know, so that I am incapable of looking at a computer without hurting my eyes, or touching one without blistering my fingers.  I can’t even handle my cash card or even think of using it without nausea.”

Gold said, “Yes, I know all that.  I also know you have been given ample funds for the duration of yoiur punishment, and that the general public has been asked to sympathize and be helpful.  I believe they do this.”

“I don’t want that.  I don’t want their help and their pity.  I don’t want to be a helpless child in a world of adults.  I don’t want to be an illiterate in a world of people who can read.  Help me end the punishment.  It’s been almost a month of hell.  I can’t go through eleven more.”

That is from the short story “A Perfect Fit,” from 1981, reproduced in the volume The Winds of Change and other stories.  I’ve been rereading some Asimov lately, in preparation for my chat with Andy Weir, and much of it has held up remarkably well.

## Might tech super-firms mean the Great Stagnation is over?

on November 10, 2017 at 7:13 am

I am now giving this a chance of somewhat over 50 (!) percent, and that is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one bit:

Gross domestic product growth for the last two quarters was over 3 percent, even in light of hurricane damage in August and September, and middle-class income growth has resumed. You might think that would mean high price inflation from credit growth and “overheating,” but the 12-month change in core prices for personal consumption expenditures has fallen to 1.3 percent.

And:

Low rates of inflation, however, reflect productivity gains that already are here. The tech giants — Google, Amazon.com Inc., Facebook Inc. and Apple Inc. — have become major managers of our information, our businesses and our lives. They’re meeting political resistance, but whatever you think of those complaints, they are signs the major tech companies are having transformative effects. I used to say that we are overrating what tech has done for us to date, and underrating what it will do in the future. Perhaps reality has caught up with that prognostication.

And:

The major tech companies are growing their platforms quickly, supporting low prices with scale, product diversity, data ownership and superior service. Hardly anyone today worries about the eventual disappearance of competition and monopoly prices from Amazon or the other major tech companies. Do you really think Amazon is going to double book prices five years from now?…The tech companies have shown that their radical model of low price, high market share, high quality rapid expansion will keep them profitable for a long time to come.

Big if true, as they say…do read the whole thing.  The still-remaining negative possibility, of course, is that the current positive wave is like 1995-1998, and we will sink back to less positive economic times, as we did back then.

## China degree of the day

on November 6, 2017 at 1:42 am

Competitive video game tournaments enjoy a huge following in China, and now, 18-year-old Feng is among 60 students enrolled in the country’s first-ever college program specializing in esports.

Last year was a landmark year in the world of esports. In September, “esports and management” was added to the Ministry of Education’s list of permitted college majors. Three months later, the Communication University of China, Nanguang College, in Nanjing announced the launch of its own esports-related degree: Art and Technology (Esports Analysis), a four-year undergraduate program teaching event organizing, data analysis, gaming psychology, video content production, and esports team coaching. According to the school, graduates can expect to carve out careers in China’s booming esports industry as tournament organizers, online show producers, commentators, strategy analysts, and club managers.

Here is the full story, from the consistently interesting Sixth Tone. And note:

Staffordshire University in the U.K. will offer an undergraduate esports program starting in September 2018, while a number of U.S. colleges now provide esports scholarships for talented gamers.

Just don’t tax their tuition waivers!