Web/Tech

I very much enjoyed this Live Chat, and I thank the participants for all of their stimulating questions and remarks.  Here is one excerpt:

Ben Casnocha:

How do you think your career and life would have been different if blogging, twitter, and digital media had be ubiquitous in your teens and 20’s? Would you have still pursued an academic path or would you have become a full-time columnist/commentator/speaker earlier on? I seem to recall you saying at one point that you’re glad the internet didn’t exist early on in your life as it gave you the time to read the classics and develop a substantive base of knowledge.

Tyler Cowen:

I am glad I was forced to live in “book culture” and “meat space’ for my first forty years. Or maybe thirty-five years would have been enough. People these days have lost the sense of information being scarce, and counterintuitively that makes it harder for them to develop profound thoughts. It’s like practicing chess by asking the computer right away, all the time, what the right move is.

[and later] …contemporary academic is overly bureaucratized and there is a very good chance I would [if I were starting today] look for another model of success and contentment. It is an open question whether or not I could find one. Whatever its limitations, there is still a followable formula for academic success, which of course is part of the problem.

Other topics include when is the best age to live in various parts of the world, Alban Berg and Rilke, Marc Andreessen, my one hidden talent, Rene Girard, labor market networks, optimal travel into the past, and which is the most underrated or overrated wisdom tradition.  Do read the whole thing.

“I would never have been able to arrive at my destination without my smartphone,” he added. “I get stressed out when the battery even starts to get low.”

That is from Osama Aljasem, a 32-year-old music teacher from Deir al-Zour in Syria, who took a boat to Greece, walked to Belgrade, and hopes to continue to parts further north and west:

In this modern migration, smartphone maps, global positioning apps, social media and WhatsApp have become essential tools.

Recommended.  And yes, disintermediation is kicking in:

“Right now the traffickers are losing business because people are going alone, thanks to Facebook,” said Mohamed Haj Ali, 38, who works with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital — a major stopover for migrants.

Facebook groups are used to pass along GPS coordinates and the prices charged by the traffickers have fallen in half.

According to the O.E.S., songwriters and music directors saw their average income rise by nearly 60 percent since 1999. The census version of the story, which includes self-­employed musicians, is less stellar: In 2012, musical groups and artists reported only 25 percent more in revenue than they did in 2002, which is basically treading water when you factor in inflation. And yet collectively, the figures seem to suggest that music, the creative field that has been most threatened by technological change, has become more profitable in the post-­Napster era — not for the music industry, of course, but for musicians themselves.

That is from Steven Johnson, the piece is excellent throughout.  And note this:

The new environment may well select for artists who are particularly adept at inventing new career paths rather than single-­mindedly focusing on their craft.

A few points on the Amazon story everyone is talking about:

1. First, if the story is somewhat true but exaggerated (a plausible scenario for something anecdotally based), the story may help Amazon with its current (but not prospective) employees.   A lot of people suddenly are feeling better treated than the perceived average, and that may boost their morale and productivity.  Yet they still feel the surrounding pressures to succeed.  As a countervailing force, Amazon is now less of a high status place to work and that may lower productivity and also it may hurt recruiting.

2. Given the existence of a tax wedge, Amazon employees are perhaps treated better than they would be in an optimum.  There is in general an inefficient substitution into non-pecuniary means of reimbursing workers because workplace income is taxed but workplace perks are not.  So arguably Amazon is treating its workers too well.  Think of this as another form of corporate tax arbitrage.

3. There is no right to an upper middle class lifestyle.  And for a large number of people, getting one is not easy.

Here is my Washington Post review of that book, which I very much liked.  Here is one bit from the review:

My favorite parts of the book are about the military, an area where most other popular authors on automation and smart software have hesitated to tread. In this book you can read about how much of America’s military prowess comes from superior human performance and not just from technology. Future gains will result from how combat participants are trained, motivated, and taught to work together and trust each other, and from better after-action performance reviews. Militaries are inevitably hierarchical, but when they process and admit their mistakes, they can become rapidly more efficient.

The subtitle of the book is What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will.

…Adblock Plus has become the internet’s advertising sheriff. That’s because its software, by default, allows some ads through its firewall—ads it deems “acceptable,” meeting a series of strict criteria it came up with in conversation with internet users around the world. The criteria essentially eliminate most of the ads on the market today, rolling back ad technology to the 1990s: text only, no animations, no popovers, no placement in the flow of text. In the two months since I’ve installed the software, I don’t recall seeing any ads that meet the criteria.

Websites must apply to get “whitelisted,” and an Adblock Plus employee then works with the site to make sure that the selected ads comply with the criteria. Ben Williams, a spokesman for Eyeo, told me that 700 publishers and bloggers have been whitelisted. The whitelist is how the company makes money. Eyeo charges large for-profit publishers a cut of ad revenues to be on the list, a scheme some critics have called extortion. Williams declined to say who is paying or how much, but the Financial Times recently reported that Google, Microsoft, and Amazon were among those paying Eyeo for their acceptable ads to appear to Adblock Plus users.

There is more here, from Michael Rosenwald.

Will ad-blocking, over time, decimate the free web?

Is WeChat the future?

by on August 11, 2015 at 1:15 am in Economics, Games, Web/Tech | Permalink

This Connie Chan article about mobile in China is difficult to summarize or excerpt, but it is one of the most important pieces of the year so far.  Here are the opening bits:

This post is all about WeChat, but it’s also about more than just WeChat. While seemingly just a messaging app, WeChat is actually more of a portal, a platform, and even a mobile operating system depending on how you look at it.

Much has been written about WeChat in the context of messaging app trends, but few outside of China really understand how it works — and how it can pull off what for many companies (and countries) is still a far-off vision of a world managed entirely through our smartphones. Many of WeChat’s most interesting features — such as access to city services — are not even visible to users outside of China.

So why should people outside of China even care about WeChat? The first and most obvious reason is that it points to where Facebook and other messaging apps could head. Second, WeChat indicates where the future of mobile commerce may lie. Third, WeChat shows what it’s like to be both a platform and a mobile portal (what Yahoo could have been).

Ultimately, however, WeChat should matter to all of us because it shows what’s possible when an entire country — which currently has a smartphone penetration of 62% (that’s almost 1/3 of its population) — “leapfrogs” over the PC era directly to mobile. WeChat was not a product that started as a website and then was adapted for mobile, it was (to paraphrase a certain movie) born into it, molded by it.

Do read the whole thing, this is also one of China’s first major innovations in the classic sense of that term.

Alphabet and Google

by on August 10, 2015 at 5:58 pm in Economics, Uncategorized, Web/Tech | Permalink

Peter Klein has an interesting Rand Journal piece (pdf) on conglomerates:

This paper challenges the conventional wisdom that the 1960s conglomerates were inefficient. I offer valuation results consistent with recent event-study evidence that markets typically rewarded diversifying acquisitions. Using new data, I compute industry-adjusted valuation, profitability, leverage, and investment ratios for thirty-six large, acquisitive conglomerates from 1966 to 1974. During the early 1970s, the conglomerates were less valuable and less profitable than standalone firms, favoring an agency explanation for unrelated diversification. In the 1960s, however, conglomerates were not valued at a discount. Evidence from acquisition histories suggests that conglomerate diversification may have added value by creating internal capital markets.

In other words, today’s Google announcement isn’t as crazy as it may sound.  Here is further positive evidence on conglomerates, and Glenn Hubbard also thinks the 1960s conglomerates were largely efficient.  Here is some evidence, however, that conglomerates tend to be less innovative.  Scharfstein and Stein are less positive more generally.  Here is some evidence that the non-Google divisions will receive favoritism in the allocation of capital within the conglomerate.  That all said, conglomerates are understudied in microeconomics, in part because they are hard to study.

What do you all think of the news?

Imagine if I wrote a post that just served up a list like this:

The people who deserve to be raised in status:

Norman Borlaug, Jon Huntsman, female Catholics from Croatia, Scottie Pippen, Yoko Ono, Gordon Tullock, Uber drivers, and Arnold Schoenberg,

And

The people who deserve to be lowered in status:

Donald Trump, Harper Lee, inhabitants of the province Presidente Hayes, in Paraguay, doctors, Jacques Derrida, Indira Gandhi, and Art Garfunkel

You might get a kick out of it the first time, but quickly you would grow tired of the lack of substance and indeed the sheer prejudice of the exercise.

Yet, ultimately, the topic so appeals to you all.  So much of debate, including political and economic debate, is about which groups and individuals deserve higher or lower status.  It’s pretty easy — too easy in fact — to dissect most Paul Krugman blog posts along these lines.  It’s also why a lot of blog posts about foreign countries don’t generate visceral reactions, unless of course it is the Greeks and the Germans, or some other set of stand-ins for disputes closer to home (or maybe that is your home).  Chinese goings on are especially tough to parse into comparable American disputes over the status of one group vs. another.

I hypothesize that an MR blog post attracts more comments when it a) has implications for who should be raised and lowered in status, and b) has some framework in place which allows you to make analytical points, but points which ultimately translate into a conclusion about a).

Posts about immigration, the minimum wage, Greece and Germany, the worthiness of entrepreneurs vs. workers, and the rankings of different schools of thought or economists all seem to fit this bill.

Sometimes I am tempted to simply serve up the list and skip the analytics.

Addendum: Arnold Kling comments.

Interesting but worrying too:

The SmartGPA study uses passive sensing data and self-reports from students’ smartphones to understand individual behavioral differences between high and low performers during a single 10-week term. We propose new methods for better understanding study (e.g., study duration) and social (e.g., partying) behavior of a group of undergraduates. We show that there are a number of important behavioral factors automatically inferred from smartphones that significantly correlate with term and cumulative GPA, including time series analysis of activity, conversational interaction, mobility, class attendance, studying, and partying. We propose a simple model based on linear regression with lasso regularization that can accurately predict cumulative GPA. The predicted GPA strongly correlates with the ground truth from students’ transcripts…Our results open the way for novel interventions to improve academic performance.

That is from a new paper by Rui Wang, Gabriella Harariy, Peilin Hao, Xia Zhou, and Andrew T. Campbell (pdf).  Class attendance, by the way, does not predict grades very well.

For the pointers I thank Eric Barker and Dan Gould.

The share of teen girls who reported they’ve had sex at least once dropped from 51 percent in 1988 to 44 percent in 2013, they found. Abstinence was more pronounced among the guys: 60 percent of teen boys in 1988 said they’d had sex, compared to 47 percent in 2013.

That is from Paquette and Cai, the underlying CDC study is here.  One major hypothesis is that teen sex has declined because smart phone usage is up.  Teens are both better informed about the risks of sex and…they have something else to do.

All-robot Japanese hotel

by on July 20, 2015 at 12:37 am in Economics, Science, Travel, Web/Tech | Permalink

robothotel

There is no great stagnation:

The English-speaking receptionist is a vicious-looking dinosaur, and the one speaking Japanese is a female humanoid with blinking lashes.

“If you want to check in, push one,” the dinosaur says.

The visitor punches a button on the desk, and types in information on a touch panel screen.

And so starts your stay.  All or most of the other functions are automated in some manner or another.  This bit is clever:

Another feature of the hotel is the use of facial-recognition technology, instead of the standard electronic keys, by registering the digital image of the guest’s face during check-in.

The reason? Robots are not good at finding keys, if people happen to lose them.

The establishment is called Weird Hotel.  Snacks are delivered by drones, but the robots still cannot make the beds.

You will find additional details here, good photos here, and a room goes for only $73 a night.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Mark Thorson.

Here is one good bit of many:

I have a deep-rooted prejudice which is that if people can talk fluently in everyday language about their job, it strongly suggests that they have fully incorporated their work into their character. They feel it in their belly. There are people with whom you talk about technical stuff and it almost feels like they can only talk about it in a very formal way with their best work face on – as if the information they are talking about has not penetrated within. Twitter cuts through that and is a way of finding people who are insightful and passionate about what they do, like junior doctors one year out of medical school who take you aback when you realise they know more than people whose job it is to know about a particular field, such as 15 year-old Rhys Morgan. He has Crohn’s disease and went onto Crohn’s disease discussion forums and discussed evidence, whilst noting down people making false claims about evidence for proprietary treatments. He ended up giving better critical appraisal of the evidence that was presented than plenty of medical students. This was all simply because he read How to Read a Paper by Trish Greenhalgh and some of my writings, so he has learnt about how critical appraisal works and what trials look like along with the strengths and weaknesses of different kinds of evidence. Thanks to Twitter, I have been able to read about people like Rhys in action and to see ideas and principles really come alive and be discussed and for that, it is wonderful.

For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

The real internet of things

by on July 13, 2015 at 1:21 am in Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

From Daniel Miessler:

People are colossally underestimating the Internet of Things. It’s not about alarm clocks that start your coffee maker, or about making more “things” talk to each other on a global network. The IoT will fundamentally alter how humans interact with the physical world, and will ultimately register as more significant than the Internet itself.

The major technical components

  1. Universal Daemonization will give every object (humans, businesses, cars, furniture) a bi-directional digital interface that serves as a representation of itself. These interfaces will broadcast information about the object, as well as provide interaction points for others. Human objects will display their favorite books, where they grew up, etc. for read-only information, and they’ll have /connect interfaces for people to link up professionally, to request a date, or to digitally flirt if within 50 meters, etc. Businesses will have APIs for displaying menus, allergy information if it’s a restaurant, an /entertainment interface so TV channels will change when people walk into a sports bar, and a /climate interface for people to request a temperature increase if they’re cold.

  2. Personal Assistants will consume these services for you, letting you know what you should know about your surroundings based on your preferences, which you’ve either given it explicitly or it’s learned over time. They’ll also interact with the environment on your behalf, based on your preferences, to make the world more to your liking. So they’ll order a water when you sit down to eat at a restaurant, send a coffee request (and payment) to the barista as you walk into your favorite coffee shop, and raise the temperature in any build you walk into because it knows you have a cold.

  3. Digital Reputation will be conveyed for humans through their daemons and federated ID. Through a particular identity tied to our real self, our professional skills, our job history, our buying power, our credit worthiness—will all be continuously updated and validated through a tech layer that works off of karma exchanges with other entities. If you think someone is trustworthy, or you like the work they do, or you found them hilarious during a dinner party, you’ll be able to say this about them in a way that sticks to them (and their daemon) for others to see. It’ll be possible to hide these comments, but most will be discouraged from doing so by social pressure.

  4. Augmented Reality will enable us to see the world with various filters for quality. So if I want to see only funny people around me, I can tell Siri, “Show me the funniest people in the room.”, and 4 people will light up with a green outline. You can do the same for the richest, or the tallest, or the people who grew up in the same city as you. You’ll be able to do the same when looking for the best restaurants or coffee shops as you walk down an unfamiliar street.

I mostly agree…but when?  For the pointer I thank @elbowspeak.

Havekarma.com

by on June 28, 2015 at 2:22 pm in Web/Tech | Permalink

That is a new start-up.  The purpose is to help your “sharing economy” reputation be portable across a number of sites, for instance Airbnb, DogVacay, Uber, Craigslist, and so on.

In my column from yesterday I speculated:

At the moment, one problem with many online ratings is that the information isn’t all publicly useful; for instance, a good Uber rating remains within Uber and cannot easily be exported to market a driver for other jobs or opportunities. Perhaps in the future workers might have the option of being certified by Uber or other services in a more general and publicly verifiable manner. That could make such services useful for upward mobility, and it might make their credentials competitive with those of some lower-tier colleges and universities.

I wish them luck…