Web/Tech

Felix Salmon writes:

Facebook’s algorithm is already working overtime on trying to slim down a virtually infinite range of possible News Feed posts to a much smaller number. A significant chunk of the NewsFeed is already ads, so in order to make it into the News Feed if you’re not an ad, you need to be really, really good. Like, one close friend announcing her engagement, or a video of another friend pouring a bucket of ice water over her head, or a long and hilarious comment thread on a third friend’s status update. What’s not really, really good? A link to some random website which has a user experience which Facebook can’t control, and which is probably suboptimal on mobile.

In 2015, then, the winners of the Facebook attention lottery are going to be more videos, as well as genuinely native, in-app content from advertisers. The losers are going to be external websites who have become reliant on the Facebook traffic firehose. That traffic is going to start falling, in 2015, for the first time. And the repercussions are likely to be huge.

And here is a very good Nicholas Carson piece on the future of Google, I found this point (among others) interesting:

The only reason search makes money for Google is that people use it to search for products they would like to buy on the internet, and Google shows ads for those products. Increasingly, however, people are going straight to Amazon to search for products. Desktop search queries on Amazon increased 47% between September 2013 and September 2014, according to ComScore.

I often find that people take the current landscape of the web for granted when they try to imagine the future of media.

You need only 2,000 Facebook friends:

You’ve heard of internet celebrities getting paid to mention a product in a tweet or shoot out an Instagram with a brand in the shot. Now a hotel in Sweden is taking social media marketing to a new level by offering a free stay to anyone with a serious online following.

In the words of Stockholm’s Nordic Light Hotel, it “accepts personal social networks as currency.”

Anyone with more than 2,000 personal Facebook friends or 100,000 followers on Instagram gets a free seven-night stay at the luxury hotel, which usually costs $360/night. All you have to do is post when you make the reservations, when you check in, and when you check out, all with the requisite hotel tags. (“If the guest does not shares the posts that are necessary to take part of the discount/ free nights, the guest will be charged full price for the stay,” the hotel warns.)

The full article is here, and for the pointer I thank Bryan Lassiter, a loyal MR reader.

Zuckerberg on Facebook v. Apple

by on December 8, 2014 at 7:31 am in Economics, Web/Tech | Permalink

Tim Cook, echoing others, recently said “When an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product.” Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg took umbrage in an interview with Time:

“A frustration I have is that a lot of people increasingly seem to equate an advertising business model with somehow being out of alignment with your customers,” Zuckerberg says. “I think it’s the most ridiculous concept. What, you think because you’re paying Apple that you’re somehow in alignment with them? If you were in alignment with them, then they’d make their products a lot cheaper!”

Zuckerberg is only partially correct. Apple and Facebook both want to maximize profits but for Apple a key element in profit is increasing price above cost. Zuckerberg’s point is that one way of doing that is to take advantage of market power and raise price against the interests of customers. But Apple’s market power isn’t a given, it’s a function of the quality of Apple’s products relative to its competitors. Thus, Apple has a significant incentive to increase quality and because it can’t charge each of its customers a different price a large fraction of the quality surplus ends up going to customers and Apple customers love Apple products.

Facebook doesn’t charge its customers so relative to Apple it has a greater interest in increasing the number of customers even if that means degrading the quality. As a result, Facebook has more users than Apple but no one loves Facebook. Facebook is broadcast television and Apple is HBO. See my post Why Has TV Replaced Movies as Elite Entertainment for the diagram.

…Google announced that 56.1% of ads served on the internet are never even “in view”—defined as being on screen for one second or more. That’s a huge number of “impressions” that cost money for advertisers, but are as pointless as a television playing to an empty room.

This is not a big revelation. The web metrics company ComScore reported last year that 46% of online ads are never seen. Spider.io, an ad fraud company acquired by Google in February, has pointed out that a large portion of ads are “viewed” only by robots, revealing that one botnet of 120,000 virus-infected computers viewed ads billions of times, running up the tab for advertisers without offering them the human eyeballs they sought.

There is more here, by Zach Wener-Fleiner, and for the pointer I thank a loyal MR reader.

That is the theme of my latest column for The Upshot.  In Average is Over I offered a few sentences toward the end about how in the longer run technology might restore greater income equality. or at least greater consumption equality.  I thought I should turn that point into a column, here is one excerpt:

Another set of future gains, especially for lesser-skilled workers, may come as computers become easier to handle for people with rudimentary skill. Not everyone can work fruitfully with computers now. There is a generation gap when it comes to manipulating electronic devices, and many relevant tasks require knowledge of programming or, more ambitiously, the entrepreneurial skill of creating a start-up. That, in a nutshell, is how our dynamic sector has concentrated its gains among a relatively small number of employees, thus leading to more income inequality.

This particular type of inequality may very well change. As the previous generation retires from the work force, many more people will have grown up with intimate knowledge of computers. And over time, it may become easier to work with computers just by talking to them. As computer-human interfaces become simpler and easier to manage, that may raise the relative return to less-skilled labor.

Here is more:

A final set of forces to reverse growing inequality stem from the emerging economies, most of all China. Perhaps we are living in a temporary intermediate period when America and many other developed nations bear a lot of the costs of Chinese economic development without yet getting many of the potential benefits. For instance, China and other emerging nations are already rich enough to bid up commodity prices and large enough to drive down the wages of a lot of American middle-class workers, especially in manufacturing. Yet while these emerging economies are keeping down the costs of manufactured goods for American consumers, they are not yet innovative enough to send us many fantastic new products, the way that the United States sends a stream of new products to British or French consumers, to their benefit.

That state of affairs will probably end. Over the next few decades, we can expect China, India and other emerging nations to supply more innovations to the global economy, including to the United States.

Do read the whole thing.

Skype Translator is on the way

by on December 4, 2014 at 1:38 pm in Education, Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

In May, Satya Nadella and Skype Corporate Vice President Gurdeep Singh Pall unveiled Skype Translator, Microsoft’s breakthrough in real-time speech translation at Re/code’s inaugural Code Conference. Since then, the engineering team has been hard at work to get the technology behind Skype Translator ready for a preview release. Starting today, we are rolling out a Skype Translator preview program sign-up page.

There is more here, the pointer is from Lotta Moberg.

There is no great stagnation

by on December 4, 2014 at 5:15 am in Sports, Television, Web/Tech | Permalink

Tekla Perry reports:

To feel the impact of the [hockey] hits at home, TV viewers will need to purchase the $300 ButtKicker (I kid you not), a gadget that attaches to a chair or couch and uses low-frequency audio signals (the company calls it a silent sub-woofer) to shake the furniture in perfect synchrony to the on-screen action.

There is more here, via David Price.

Callisto, an online sexual assault reporting system under development by a nonprofit called Sexual Health Innovations, aims to change this and provide better options for victims of sexual assault on college campuses.

The project builds on the idea of “information escrows” proposed by Ian Ayres and Cait Unkovic in a 2012 Michigan Law Review article. Mr. Ayres, an economist at Yale’s law school, and Ms. Unkovic, a graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley, suggest that reporting of misbehavior that is difficult or costly for victims to disclose might be increased if people had the option to report that information to a third party who would make the disclosure only if others also reported misconduct by the same individual.

There is more here, from Brendan Nyhan.

Is SMS a form of net non-neutrality?

by on November 30, 2014 at 4:58 pm in Economics, Law, Web/Tech | Permalink

People have wondered how an Internet without net neutrality would work. Net neutrality is more than just a debate, it’s not a hypothetical, and it’s real and alive today with SMS.

It is currently hypothetical that on an Internet without net neutrality, companies would need to “pay to play” and live by arbitrary, ISP-devised rules for accessing consumers who want and pay for their services. This is the so-called “fast lane.” While ISPs argue this is about network utilization and bandwidth costs, businesses worry that it’s far beyond that.

At stake is access to consumers, and ISPs monetizing their subscriber bases instead of providing the open pipe consumers pay for. While some companies think it’s just a problem for Netflix or other high-bandwidth applications like streaming video, it’s not. The very real potential is that if you don’t have the right relationships, abide by arbitrary rules or pay appropriately, your company doesn’t get slow access – it gets no access. We know because this is how SMS in the U.S. works today.

That is from Jeff Lawson, there is more here.  Here is Steven Pearlstein’s column on net neutrality.

That is the early “computer,” remember?:

Who made the famed Antikythera Mechanism, the astronomical calculator that was raised from an ancient shipwreck near Crete in 1901?

The complex clocklike assembly of bronze gears and display dials predates other known examples of similar technology by more than 1,000 years. It accurately predicted lunar and solar eclipses, as well as solar, lunar and planetary positions.

For good measure, the mechanism also tracked the dates of the Olympic Games. Although it was not programmable in the modern sense, some have called it the first analog computer.

We now learn that the calendar of this mysterious device begins in 205 B.C.  The key point, in my view, is that we have discovered no other comparable machine from antiquity or any other era other than modern times.  It took us until 2006 to even understand what the device was supposed to do, using advanced tomography, and we had been holding it since 1901.

So what to infer?  The first option is that this device was a true outlier, standing sui generis above its time.  Cardiff University professor Michael Edmunds “described the device as “just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind””.

As an artifact that is true, but is that so likely in terms of broader history?  It is pure luck that we fished this thing out of the Mediterranean in 1901.  (By the way, further dives are planned to search for more parts of it.)  The alternative possibility is that antiquity had many more such exotic devices, which have remained unreported, at least in the manuscripts which have come down to us.  That would imply, essentially, that we don’t have a very good idea of what antiquity was like.  In my view that is the more rational Bayesian conclusion.  It is more likely than thinking that we just lucked out to find this one unique, incredible device.  To put it another way, if you found some organic life on a traveling comet, you ought to conclude there is more of that life, or something related, somewhere else.

And to me, the Antikythera Mechanism does not sound like a “lone genius” kind of device: “The gear teeth were in the form of equilateral triangles with an average circular pitch of 1.6 mm, an average wheel thickness of 1.4 mm and an average air gap between gears of 1.2 mm.” (Wikipedia)  That suggests it was made by some kind of regular industrial process.  It also had some sophistications which modern Swiss watches do not.

Given this Bayesian conclusions, which other strange claims stand a decent chance of being true of antquity?  Which other surprises await us?

I find this an interesting passage: “the mysterious device was already pretty ancient by the time it went down some time around 85BC to 60BC with a ship carrying a bride and her dowry, io9 reports…”  You don’t find a lot of people carrying around a lot of ancient PCs today, so might there have been an Antikythera Great Stagnation way back when?  I think maybe so.

Here is a Lego model of the device.  Here is an introductory YouTube video.  Here is Wikipedia on the Antikythera Mechanism, a very good entry.

I owe thanks to Vic Sarjoo for pointers and Robin Hanson for a useful conversation on this topic.

Defining Diversity Down

by on November 18, 2014 at 7:11 am in Economics, Web/Tech | Permalink

Marc Andreessen make some excellent points about diversity in a wide-ranging interview:

The critique of Silicon Valley is also that it isn’t very diverse. At Twitter, for instance, 90 percent of the tech employees are male and more than 50 percent of them are white.

I think these discussions are totally valid. Now, I disagree with many of the specific points.

What’s your take?

Shall we? Let’s launch right into it. I think the critique that Silicon Valley companies are deliberately, systematically discriminatory is incorrect, and there are two reasons to believe that that’s the case. No. 1, these companies are like the United Nations internally. All the diversity studies say that the engineering population is like 70 percent white and Asian. Let’s dig into that for a second. First, apparently Asian doesn’t count as diverse. And then “white”: When you actually go in these companies, what you find is it’s American people, but it’s also Russians, and Eastern Europeans, and French, and German, and British. And then there are the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Thais, Indonesians, and Vietnamese. All these different countries, all these different cultures. To believe in a systematic pattern of discrimination, you’d have to believe that we’re discriminatory toward certain people without being discriminatory at all toward an extremely broad range of ethnicities and religions. Because of Pakistanis, we’re seeing a higher-than-ever proportion of Muslim employees in a lot of our companies.

No. 2, our companies are desperate for talent. Desperate. Our companies are dying for talent. They’re like lying on the beach gasping because they can’t get enough talented people in for these jobs. The motivation to go find talent wherever it is is unbelievably high.

He is also spot on about online education.

Hat tip: Newmark’s Door.

Smart phones and child injuries

by on November 15, 2014 at 2:17 pm in Economics, Web/Tech | Permalink

Looking at your smart phone may in fact be more interesting than watching your small child, at the margin at least.  It seems that some child injuries may be going up for this reason.  Here is a new paper (pdf) by Craig Palsson at Yale:

From 2005 to 2012, injuries to children under fi ve increased by 10%. Using the expansion of ATT’s 3G network, I find that smartphone adoption has a causal impact on child injuries. This eff ect is strongest amongst children ages 0-5, but not children ages 6-10, and in activities where parental supervision matters. I put this forward as indirect evidence that this increase is due to parents being distracted while supervising.

Here is Palsson’s other work, I hope he sends me a copy of his Haiti research once it is available.

There are many good bits, here is one of them:

…I have a slightly different cut on the Snowden revelations. I think it shows the NSA more as the Keystone Cops than as Big Brother. What is striking to me is how little James Bond-like stuff was going on and how little they did with all this information. That’s why I think, in some ways, the NSA is more in this anti-technological zone where they don’t know what to do with the data they find. So they just hoover up all the data, all over the world. I think it was news to Obama that he was tapping into [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel’s cell phone.

One way to think about this is that if the NSA bureaucracy actually knew what they were doing, they would probably need way less information. What’s shocking about Snowden is how much information they had and how little they did with it.

Read the whole thing.

A terrified window cleaner was rescued by a high-tech drone after the scaffolding he was on malfunctioned.

The man was cleaning windows close to the top of a high rise building in central Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, when the motorised scaffold stopped working and started tilting dangerously.

The Security Media Department sent a wireless remote-controlled drone to rescue the cleaner amid dramatic scenes yesterday.

From the Daily Mail, there is more here, via the excellent Mark Thorson.

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.