Web/Tech

Online education continues to expand rapidly:

WASHINGTON—Saying the option is revolutionizing the way the nation’s 3- and 4-year-olds prepare for the grade school years ahead, a Department of Education report released Thursday confirmed that an increasing number of U.S. toddlers are now attending online preschool. “We found that a growing number of American toddlers are eschewing the traditional brick-and-mortar preschools in favor of sitting down in front of a computer screen for four hours a day and furthering their early psychosocial development in a virtual environment,” said the report’s author, Dr. Stephen Forrest, who said that the affordability and flexibility characteristic of online pre-primary education are what make the option most appealing, allowing young children to learn their shapes and colors on a schedule that works best for them. “With access to their Show-And-Tell message boards, recess timers, and live webcams of class turtle tanks, most toddlers are finding that they can receive the same experience of traditional preschooling from the comfort of their parents’ living room or home office. In addition, most cited the ability to listen to their teacher’s recordings of story time at their own pace as a significant benefit of choosing an online nursery school.” Forrest added that, despite their increasing popularity, many parents remain unconvinced that online preschools provide the same academic benefits as actually hearing an instructor name farm animals and imitate their noises in person.

From America’s Finest News Source but do consider this.

Peer-to-peer file sharing of movies, television shows, music, books and other files over the Internet has grown rapidly worldwide as an alternative approach for people to get the digital content they want — often illicitly. But, unlike the users of Amazon, Netflix and other commercial providers, little is known about users of peer-to-peer (P2P) systems because data is lacking.

Now, armed with an unprecedented amount of data on users of BitTorrent, a popular file-sharing system, a Northwestern University research team has discovered two interesting behavior patterns: most BitTorrent users are content specialists — sharing music but not movies, for example; and users in countries with similar economies tend to download similar types of content — those living in poorer countries such as Lithuania and Spain, for example, download primarily large files, such as movies.

“Looking into this world of Internet traffic, we see a close interaction between computing systems and our everyday lives,” said Luís A. Nunes Amaral, a senior author of the study. “People in a given country display preferences for certain content — content that might not be readily available because of an authoritarian government or inferior communication infrastructure. This study can provide a great deal of insight into how things are working in a country.”

Amaral, a professor of chemical and biological engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Fabián E. Bustamante, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, also at McCormick, co-led the interdisciplinary research team with colleagues from Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Spain.

Their study, published this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences…reports BitTorrent users in countries with a small gross domestic product (GDP) per capita were more likely to share large files, such as high-definition movies, than users in countries with a large GDP per capita, where small files such as music were shared.

Also, more than 50 percent of users’ downloaded content fell into their top two downloaded content types, putting them in the content specialist, not generalist, category.

The full article is here, the paper and data are here, and for the pointer I thank Charles Klingman.  Can you explain the rich-poor, music vs. movies difference using economic theory?

IBM on Tuesday revealed details of how several customers are putting Watson to work, showing that cognitive computing has garnered at least an initial interest among different sorts of businesses. Naming customers also helps other businesses feel more at ease about trying the new technology.

In Australia, the ANZ bank will allow its financial planners to use the Watson Engagement Advisor to help answer customer questions. The idea is that the bank can then better understand what questions are being asked, so they can be answered more quickly.

Also in Australia, Deakin University will use Watson to answer questions from the school’s 50,000 students, by way of Web and mobile interfaces. The questions might include queries about campus activities or where a particular building is located. The service will be drawn from a vast repository of school materials, such as presentations, brochures and online materials.

In Thailand, the Bumrungrad International Hospital will use a Watson service to let its doctors plan the most effective treatments for each cancer patient, based on the patient’s profile as well as on published research. The hospital will leverage research work IBM did with the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to customize Watson for oncology research.

In Cape Town, South Africa, Metropolitan Health medical insurance company will be using Watson to help provide medical advice for the company’s 3 million customers.

Watson is also being used by IBM partners and startups as the basis for new services.

Using Watson, Travelocity co-founder Terry Jones has launched a new service called WayBlazer, which can offer travel advice via a natural language interface. The Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau is testing the WayBlazer app to see if it can increase convention and hotel bookings.

Veterinarian service provider LifeLearn of Guelph, Canada, is using Watson as the basis of a new mobile app called LifeLearn Sofie, which provides a way for animal doctors to research different treatment options. The Animal Medical Center in New York is currently testing that app.

Watson is also being incorporated into other third-party apps serving retailers, IT security and help desk managers, nonprofit fund-raisers, and the health care industry.

There is more information here.

Google’s driverless car may still be a work in progress, but the potential for semiautonomous vehicles on American roads is no longer the stuff of science fiction.

By the end of the decade, a growing number of automakers aim to offer some form of hands-off-the-wheel, feet-off-the-pedals highway driving where a driver can sit back and let the car take control.

The very nature of driving, experts say, will be radically reshaped — and the biggest players in the auto industry are now vying to capture a slice of the revolutionary market they see coming within a matter of years.

From Aaron M. Kessler, there is more here.

Twitter’s science stars

by on October 7, 2014 at 9:48 am in Science, Uncategorized, Web/Tech | Permalink

Science picks a list of the top one hundred, I am flattered to have been selected.  Other designees from economics include Krugman (his bot actually), Sachs, Roubini, Florida, Goolsbee, Basu, Dambisa Moyo, Rodrik, Stiglitz, Wolfers, Jared Bernstein, Dean Baker, Mark Thoma, and Noah Smith.  “Science” is not quite the right word here, but “markers to science” might do, or in my own case perhaps “library science.”

The real news in the list is that economists are overrepresented and other scientists are, on the whole, underrepresented.  They don’t see the returns to it that we do, and if there is more room in our science for persuasion, you should slot that into your Bayesian estimates too.

Shenzhen fact of the day

by on October 6, 2014 at 3:22 pm in Web/Tech | Permalink

Worldwide sales of smartphones totaled 968 million devices in 2013, an increase of 42.3 percent over a 12 month period, according to Gartner. Perhaps most significantly, sales of smartphones made up almost 54 percent of overall mobile phone sales in 2013, and outnumbered annual sales of feature phones for the first time.

There is more here, mostly about the Shenzhen smart phone market, via Mark Bergen.

Hopscotching the globe as Thailand’s prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra repeatedly encountered a distressing problem: bad Thai food.

Too often, she found, the meals she sampled at Thai restaurants abroad were unworthy of the name, too bland to be called genuine Thai cooking. The problem bothered her enough to raise it at a cabinet meeting.

Her political party has since been thrown out of office, in a May military coup, but her initiative in culinary diplomacy lives on.

At a gala dinner at a ritzy Bangkok hotel on Tuesday the government will unveil its project to standardize the art of Thai food — with a robot.

Diplomats and dignitaries have been invited to witness the debut of a machine that its promoters say can scientifically evaluate Thai cuisine, telling the difference, for instance, between a properly prepared green curry with just the right mix of Thai basil, curry paste and fresh coconut cream, and a lame imitation.

Has there ever been a better committee name than this?:

The government-financed Thai Delicious Committee, which oversaw the development of the machine, describes it as “an intelligent robot that measures smell and taste in food ingredients through sensor technology in order to measure taste like a food critic.”

In a country of 67 million people, there are somewhere near the same number of strongly held opinions about Thai cooking. A heated debate here on the merits of a particular nam prik kapi, a spicy chili dip of fermented shrimp paste, lime juice and palm sugar, could easily go on for an hour without coming close to resolution.

The full story is here, excellent throughout, and for the pointer I thank Otis Reid.

Chores down, child care up

by on September 28, 2014 at 3:11 pm in Data Source, Economics, Web/Tech | Permalink

There is evidence that technology has already made household chores much less time-consuming. Parents together now spend 27.6 hours a week on chores, down from 36.3 in 1965, according to data from the American Time Use Survey and Pew Research Center. Some of their new free time is being spent on their children. They spend 20.8 hours a week on child care, up from 12.7 in 1965.

That is from Claire Cain Miller, most of the piece is about the economies of paying people to ship your goods for you.

There is a new report of interest, admittedly MIT physics-specific only:

…for the first time, researchers have carried out a detailed study that shows that these classes really can teach at least as effectively as traditional classroom courses—and they found that this is true regardless of how much preparation and knowledge students start out with.

The findings have just been published in the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, in a paper by David Pritchard, MIT’s Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics, along with three other researchers at MIT and one each from Harvard University and China’s Tsinghua University.

“It’s an issue that has been very controversial,” Pritchard says. “A number of well-known educators have said there isn’t going to be much learning in MOOCs, or if there is, it will be for people who are already well-educated.”

But after thorough before-and-after testing of students taking the MITx physics class 8.MReVx (Mechanics Review) online, and similar testing of those taking the same class in its traditional form, Pritchard and his team found quite the contrary: The study showed that in the MITx course, “the amount learned is somewhat greater than in the traditional lecture-based course,” Pritchard says.

A second, more surprising finding, he says, is that those who were least prepared, as shown by their scores on pretests, “learn as well as everybody else.” That is, the amount of improvement seen “is no different for skillful people in the class”—including experienced physics teachers—”or students who were badly prepared. They all showed the same level of increase,” the study found.

For the pointer I thank Samir Varma

From Joe Palazzolo at the WSJ:

There is no research yet on whether the use of risk evaluations in sentencing has aggravated, for example, the gap between sentences for black and white men for similar crimes.

Ms. Starr said the disparities created by risk measures are evident. “When it comes down to it, these assessments stand for the proposition that judges should sentence people longer because they were in foster care as children or had too many bouts of unemployment,” she said.

Christopher Slobogin, a Vanderbilt University law professor, said the alternative was potentially worse. “At least these risk-assessment instruments don’t explicitly focus on race or poverty, unlike what might occur in a sentencing regime where judges are making risk assessments based on seat-of-the-pants evaluations,” he said.

Some observers, such as U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf in Nebraska, say age or race should be considered if doing so yields a more accurate measurement of risk. He wrote in a blog post last month: “If race, gender or age are predictive as validated by good empirical analysis, and we truly care about public safety while at the same time depopulating our prisons, why wouldn’t a rational sentencing system freely use race, gender or age as predictor of future criminality?”

There is more here.

Logistics firm DHL is using a drone to fly parcels to the German island of Juist, in what it says is the first time an unmanned aircraft has been authorized to deliver goods in Europe.

The company, owned by Germany’s Deutsche Post, joins the likes of Amazon.com and Google in testing the potential for drones to deliver parcels and packages.

Its drone – the “parcelcopter” – can fly at up to 65 km (40 miles) an hour. It will deliver medication and other urgently needed goods to the car-free island of Juist, off Germany’s northern coast, at times when other modes of transport such as flights or ferries are not operating.

There is more here, via Eli Dourado.

Peter Thiel tells us:

Look at the Forbes list of the 92 people who are worth ten billion dollars or more in 2012. Where do they make money? 11 of them made it in technology, and all 11 were in computers. You’ve heard of all of them: It’s Bill Gates, it’s Larry Ellison, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, on and on. There are 25 people who made it in mining natural resources. You probably haven’t heard their names. And these are basically cases of technological failure, because commodities are inelastic goods, and farmers make a fortune when there’s a famine. People will pay way more for food if there’s not enough. 25 people in the last 40 years made their fortunes because of the lack of innovation; 11 people made them because of innovation.

I also liked this bit:

One of the smartest investors in the world is considered to be Warren Buffett. His single biggest investment is in the railroad industry, which I think is a bet against technological progress, both in transportation and energy. Most of what gets transported on railroads is coal, and Buffett is essentially betting that after the 21st century, we’ll look more like the 19th rather than the 20th century. We’ll go back to rail, and back to coal; we’re going to run out of oil, and clean-tech is going to fail.

This very useful post collates and presents all of Peter’s evidence for his view that modern technology has been stagnating.  It is both “interesting throughout” and “self-recommending.”  It is from this blog by Dan Wang.

I very much liked Peter’s new book, Zero to One: Notes on Start-Ups, or How to Build the Future.

DJs are now making mistakes on purpose

by on September 9, 2014 at 2:36 pm in Music, Web/Tech | Permalink

Graham writes:

DJs all over the world are now deliberately making mistakes during their mixes to prove to fans and critics that they are in fact real DJs.

The latest craze, known as miss-mixing, is proving very popular amongst digital DJs as a way of highlighting that they are actually manually mixing tracks rather than using the sync button.

Michael Briscoe, also know as DJ Whopper, spoke about miss-mixing with Wunderground, “Flawless mixing is now a thing of the past, especially for any up and coming digital DJs. You just can’t afford to mix without mistakes these days or you’ll be labelled as a ‘sync button DJ.’”

“I learned how to mix on vinyl years ago so naturally I’m pretty tight when it comes to matching beats,” continued the resident DJ. “I swapped to digital format a couple of years ago because it’s convenient, now I spend more time practicing making mistakes than I do practicing actual mixing.”

Of course the software can toss in some mistakes too…good luck.

For the pointer I thank Will Ivy.

Zeynep Tufekci on Medium.com says no.  It seems Twitter is considering (instituting?) a method that would ignore strict reverse chronology, and if a user hasn’t accessed his or her timeline in a while, the more popular tweeters would be given some kind of priority in the queue.

She considers how the tweets about the death of Osama bin Laden spread so effectively, and from the account of a user (Keith Urbahn) who did not have many followers:

I honestly doubt that there is an algorithm in the world that can reliably surface such unexpected content, so well. An algorithm can perhaps surface guaranteed content, but it cannot surface unexpected, diverse and sometimes weird content exactly because of how algorithms work: they know what they already know. Yet, there is a vast amount of judgement and knowledge that is in the heads of Twitter users that the algorithm will inevitably flatten as it works from the data it has: past user behavior and metrics. I have witnessed Twitter network’s ability to surface unexpected content again and again, from matters small to large.

I suspect the really big news will get out very quickly under just about any reasonable algorithm.  The broader question is what kind of model we should use to consider Twitter curation.  Believe it or not, I am led to the thought of Ronald Coase.

As a reader, I seek an algorithm which weeds out some repetition.   For instance I sometimes see a Vox.com article in my feed from three different sources — it would suffice to see it once, along with a color shading indicating that some other people in my feed were tweeting the same thing.  I also would like blocks on tweets about the Super Bowl, Academy Awards, and so on.

That said, from a Coasean perspective, the tweeters may wish to impose these messages on me nonetheless.  Allowing users to create their perfect filters would in equilibrium mean that those sources send fewer other tweets through the system.  Some might leave Twitter altogether.  They are producing a service for free, and the ability to impose the bundle on me and other readers is part of what they value.  And indeed I also send self-promoting tweets (a justifiable practice provided it is not abused), and that is for me one reason to be on Twitter.  In other words, a major goal is to keep tweeters interested in supplying content, not to give every reader a perfect experience, and those two variables often conflict.

At the margin, should Twitter institute queuing rules to encourage the tweeters with many readers or the tweeters with relatively few readers?  The answer is not obvious.  The major tweeters produce more social value through their greater number of followers, but they may be reaping such high returns from being on Twitter that they don’t need added encouragement at the margin.  One approach is to prioritize well-regarded tweets, regardless of the number of followers of the tweeter.

For myself, I believe the ideal algorithm is to prioritize tweets from those who are “like” me in the sense of following similar people.  Or perhaps using similar grammatical constructions, or having tweeted similar links in the past.

Within these rules there are further opportunities for Coasean bidding for attention, using the @ function and also direct messages.

A separate issue is whether Twitter may wish to remedy the “overfishing” of the common pool of our attention which occurs when too many people tweet at peak time, and not enough people tweet at off peak times.  I suspect the demand for immediate gratification is too high for there to be gains from reshuffling the supply of tweets across time.

Overall I don’t see why company-regulated customization has to be a negative.  Tufekci put her anti-curation piece on Medium, which itself seems to have algorithms of curation, which in this case (fortunately) led me to her argument, wrong though it may be.

Our new class on international finance is up here.  The class description reads as follows:

International finance covers some of the most complex but also important topics in economics. How are exchange rates determined? When if ever are ongoing trade deficits harmful? Are fixed or floating exchange rates better? What are the roots of the euro crisis and what resolution can we expect? Does China manipulate its exchange rate and if so how does that matter? We cover all of these topics and more, with an eye toward what a person really might want to know. There is no use of mathematics in this course beyond the very basic.

The interesting thing about international finance is that even a lot of professional economists don’t understand it very well, unless they have specialized in the area. If you complete this course, you’ll probably know a lot which they don’t!

You will find particular videos on capital controls, the classical gold standard, “dark matter,” “the Dutch disease,” the Asian financial crisis of 1997, and are devaluations contractionary?, among many other topics.

Again, here is Guinevere Liberty Nell’s recent class on the Soviet Union (still relevant alas!) and our Principios de Microeconomía, by Andres Marroquin, is growing as well.  There is more on the way!