Web/Tech

Here is an excellent interview with Nate Silver about his new project, interesting throughout.  Here is one bit:

People also think it’s going to be a sports site with a little politics thrown in, or it’s going to be a politics site with sports thrown in. I understand why people say that — what we’ve been known for, plus ESPN, plus ABC News. But we take our science and economics and lifestyle coverage very seriously.

Some of the interview made me a little nervous.  He inveighs against New York Times Op-Ed columnists (juicy passages, click on the link if you wish), but their knowledge is more synthetic and also more novel than I think Silver recognizes.  I am not sure why “predictable” points of view are necessarily less likely to be true, or less likely to be important, even though they are (to me as well) less interesting to read.

Here are some more words from Silver:

We’re not sociopaths, which means that we look at the world and have opinions. But we’re not trying to do advocacy here. We’re trying to just do analysis. We’re not trying to sway public opinion on anything except trying to make them more numerate. I would say we’re not going to do a ton of public-policy coverage. We think that space is pretty rich now with competition. I also think with something like the health-care bill, it’s going to take years to get a good sense of how that’s working and how it’s affecting the market.

That too makes me a little nervous.  For instance there is the risk of assuming that the most important issues always or usually involve measurement.   Technocrats who rail against the ideologies of others are often the most ideological people around, even if their biases do not line up with the political spectrum in the usual manner.  Is there really such a thing as “just do analysis”?  Is it not better to make the underlying value presuppositions more explicit?  And why the knock at people who don’t have opinions about public affairs?  They’re not sociopaths, and frankly I’m not even fully comfortable with a blanket condemnation of sociopaths.

Earlier today I was reading John Hauer’s excellent The Natural Superiority of Mules.  It is a deliberately species-ist book, without a shred of objectivity, and the title reveals the blatant biases of the author.  The book has data, but is not data-driven.  It is “advocacy of mules driven.”  Get the subtitle: “A Celebration of One of the Most Intelligent, Sure-Footed, and Misunderstood Animals in the World” (eyes roll).  Yet I learned a great deal from it, and I will read any web site that can do as well.

Vox.com

by on March 9, 2014 at 10:49 pm in Current Affairs, Education, History, Web/Tech | Permalink

That is the new Ezra Klein-led news site, and a demo version of the site is at www.vox.com, where you can watch an explanatory video.  You can follow them on Twitter here.  They are on Instagram here.  YouTube here.

You can also think of this as a project in history, or on-line education.

The Netherlands’ biggest newspaper and magazine publishers have agreed to start selling individual articles for as little as €0.10 through a start-up called Blendle that aims to be the “iTunes of journalism”.

The Dutch initiative highlights how publishers are searching for new ways to make money from online content as their print businesses face declining readership and advertising revenues.

Blendle was founded in 2012 by Marten Blankesteijn and Alexander Klöpping, both aged 27.

It plans to launch in the Netherlands in April and has signed up the vast majority of publishers that produce newspapers and magazines in the country, including De Persgroep, Sanoma, Hearst and Reed Elsevier.

From the FT there is more here.

Mitchell suspects Nakamoto’s initial interest in creating a digital currency that could be used anywhere in the world may have stemmed from his frustration with bank fees and high exchange rates when he was sending international wires to England to buy model trains. “He would always complain about that,” she says. “I would not say he writes flawless English. He will pick up words and mix the spellings.”

And he worked in secrecy:

Not even his family knew.

The full story is here, fascinating throughout.

Addendum: Andrea Castillo adds comment.

Try this:

Long years have passed.

I think of goodbye.

Locked tight in the night

I think of passion;

Drawn to for blue, the night

During the page

My shattered pieces of life

watching the joy

shattered pieces of love

My shattered pieces of love

gone stale.

Here is (supposedly) the most computer-like human poem, “Cut Opinions,” by Deanna Ferguson:

cut opinions tear tasteful

hungers huge ground swell

partisan have-not thought

green opinions hidden slide

hub from sprung in

weather yah

bold erect tender

perfect term transparent till

I two minute topless formed

A necessarily sorry sloppy strands

hot opinions oh like an apple

a lie, a liar kick back

filial oh well hybrid opinions happen

not stopped

Here are related rankings and explanation (sort of).  Was this poem written by a human or a computer?  I have no idea.

Joe Weisenthal reports:

Ponder for example that the leading technological companies of this age, I think for example of Apple and Google, find themselves swimming in cash and facing the challenge of what to do with a very large cash hoard. Ponder the fact that WhatsApp has a greater market value than Sony with next to no capital investment required to achieve it. Ponder the fact that it used to require tens of millions of dollars to start a significant new venture. Significance new ventures today are seeded with hundreds of thousands of dollars in the information technology era. All of this means reduced demand for investment with consequences for the flow of – with consequences for equilibrium levels of interest rates.

I don’t completely follow that argument (does it show up in the producer price index numbers?), but I pass it along to stimulate your thought.  Ashok Rao has excellent commentary:

…software (the blue line) is still only 15 percent of private investment and not significantly higher than points in the past two decades when interest rates were a lot higher. On the other hand, residential investment as a share of private investment, hasn’t changed much in structure since the mid-’60s and is still very sensitive to changes in the interest rate.

The full (short) piece on Summers is here.

Swear words on Twitter

by on February 25, 2014 at 5:08 am in Data Source, Uncategorized, Web/Tech | Permalink

In daily life it is thought that between 0.5% and 0.7% of the words we use are swearwords, but the proportion on the site is roughly twice this, at 1.15%. According to this study, about one in every 13 tweets contains a swearword of some kind.

Intriguingly, swearing also seems to be an early-week thing. Tweets become more and more likely to contain a swearword as the day progresses, perhaps reflecting the accumulation of things we have to swear about, and peak profanity is reached between midnight and 1.30am, suggesting that people who are awake at that time are, let’s say, the least inhibited. Yet Friday, Saturday and Sunday are consistently the least sweary days of the week.

Please note there are specific swear words (with data) at this link.  And there are lulls during lunch time.

For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

Have stuff delivered to your car

by on February 24, 2014 at 2:32 pm in Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

Via Mark Perry:

In a ground-breaking technology move for the automotive industry, Volvo Cars demonstrates the world’s first delivery of food to the car – a new form of ‘roam delivery’ services. The service will allow consumers to have their shopping delivered straight to their car, no matter where they are. Volvo’s new digital keys technology means that car owners will be able to choose their car as a delivery option when ordering goods online. Via a smartphone or a tablet, the owner will be informed when a delivery company wants to drop off or pick up something from the car.

Having accepted the delivery, he or she then hands out a digital key and can track when the car is opened and then locked again. Once the pick-up or drop-off is completed, the digital key ceases to exist.

For the pointer I thank Samir Varma.

Michael Bailey, who is an economist at Facebook, reports on Quora:

I currently (Feb 2014) manage the economics research group on the Core Data Science team. We are a small group of engineer researchers (all PhDs) who study economics, business, and operations problems. As Eric Mayefsky mentioned, there are various folks with formal economics training spread across the company, usually in quantitative or product management roles.

The economics research group focuses on four research areas:

Core Economics - modeling supply and demand, operations research, pricing, forecasting, macroeconomics, econometrics, structural modeling.

Market Design - ad auctions, algorithmic game theory, mechanism design, simulation modeling, crowdsourcing.

Ads and Monetization - ads product and frontend research, advertiser experimentation, social advertising, new products and data, advertising effectiveness, marketing.

Behavioral Economics - user and advertiser behavior, economic networks, incentives, externalities, and decision making under risk and uncertainty.

I think a more interesting question is “what *could* an economist at Facebook do?” because there is a LOT of opportunity. There are incredibly important problems that only people who think carefully about causal analysis and model selection could tackle.  Facebook’s engineer to economist ratio is enormous. Software engineers are great at typical machine learning problems (given a set of parameters and data, make a prediction), but notoriously bad at answering questions out of sample or for which there’s no data. Economists spend a lot of time with observational data since we often don’t have the luxury of running experiments and we’ve honed our tools and techniques for that environment (instrumental variables for example). The most important strategic and business questions often rely on counterfactuals which require some sort of model (structural or otherwise) and that is where the economists step in.

tl;dr economists at Facebook compute counterfactuals.

Here is a potential new development:

Verizon is adding more antennas to its network, forming smaller wireless cells with stronger coverage and rolling out service on new segments of the wireless spectrum, the digital equivalent of opening new lanes for traffic. Sprint is introducing a service called Sprint Spark that increases access speeds if customers have devices that can use multiple wireless frequencies at once.

If pCell works as promised, Mr. Perlman’s technology could result in much bigger gains in wireless speeds. In traditional cellular networks, antennas placed around a city transmit wireless signals to all of the mobile devices within their area. As more people enter an area, they share the wireless network with everyone else there, resulting in slower speeds. Wireless carriers cannot simply solve the problem by putting antennas everywhere because their signals can be disrupted if they are too close together.

With a network of pCell antennas, someone with a mobile device will get access to the full wireless data speed in the area, regardless of how many other people are sharing that network, Mr. Perlman said.

There is also this:

The plan is to bring Google Fiber to 34 cities and see how that goes.

Here are various satellite video streaming services.

I do not feel I can judge the prospects for these developments.  The point, however, is this.  Improving connectivity is an extremely dynamic market sector.  A high mark-up on cable internet connectivity, as might be applied by say a Comcast monopolist, is also creating a “prize” for further innovation in the sector.  Admittedly one does not prefer to have this prize funded by deadweight loss (less broadband consumption) but virtually all prizes are funded by deadweight loss in some manner rather than by lump sum taxation.

When people claim “the current mark-up is too high,” that is an entirely reasonable stance.  But when you rewrite it as “the current innovation prize, funded out of deadweight loss” is too high, that reframing brings some clarity, some moderation, and I think also induces some more agnosticism about the costs of the current semi-monopoly.  For similar reasons I don’t worry about monopoly in the eBook market and the like and there the case for simply ignoring the problem is much stronger because the options and cheapness have exploded so radically and so quickly.

So I don’t see the current cable semi-monopoly as lasting that long.  And its current cost cannot be that much higher than the cost of sending a disc in the mail, otherwise the disc would be sent.  Alternatively, most communities have public libraries which offer pretty good and pretty free internet connections, including video streaming of course.  If the argument is simply “this prize, for future connectivity innovation, cannot be funded from deadweight loss because it means that in the meantime some poorer people will have to wait to get their discs in the mail and make too many trips to the public library”…well, I guess I’m not that impressed this is a major public policy problem.

The longer and more you regulate cable prices, the longer it will take this sector to reach a more competitive equilibrium.

By the way, dear reader, I am not clever enough to use Netflix streaming, as I find the TV menu confusing.  So I still get the discs in the mail.

You will find his NBER paper here, in which he responds to critics and outlines his core argument that U.S. growth is doomed to be slow and subpar for a long time to come.  There is no point in summarizing this already-familiar debate, so let’s cut straight to the chase:

1. I agree with a great deal of this paper, to say the least, especially when it is compared to previous mainstream opinion on these topics.  My favorite parts are his discussions of how multi-faceted were the waves of earlier progress starting in the 19th century, compared to some of the more recent and weaker tech revolutions.  That said, in some key ways this piece falls short of meeting the standards of reasoned argumentation.

2. The single biggest question is how much the United States will be able to draw upon innovation from other countries, over the next say 40 years.  Gordon doesn’t discuss this in a serious way.  The rest of his paper simply lists a bunch of pessimistic factors (valid worries, I might add) and then declares he can’t think of anything else that might turn them around.  Maybe that should shift your “p,” but one’s own failure to imagine shouldn’t imply a very firm conclusion about impossibilities.

3. There is a key passage on p.26: “My forecast of 1.3 percent annual total-economy productivity growth in the future does not require any foresight beyond suggesting that the past 40 years are a more relevant benchmark of feasible productivity growth than the 80 years of before 1972.”  Fair enough, but how about looking at the last 120 years or last 120,000 years for that matter?  The overall pattern is lots of pauses, followed by eventual new bursts of progress.  That’s no proof of a future subsequent burst of progress, but so far history is not on the side of the long-term tech pessimists.  It may be on the side of the short-term tech pessimists, at least for a while.  Gordon, in 2003, wrote rather wisely: “But is it possible to be so sure which decades into the past are relevant for predictions…”

4. Gordon doesn’t know much about the literature on driverless vehicles and their potential, and yet he escalates his rhetoric to the point of giving the reader the impression that he approaches the entire question of tech progress with simple irritation: “This category of future progress is demoted to last place because it offers benefits that are so minor [compared to cars]…”

5. Advances in the biosciences are dismissed in two short paragraphs.  For sure, I am myself somewhat in tune with the pessimistic perspective here.  I think these advances were way over-promised and still may take longer than people think.  Still, Gordon doesn’t offer any argument.  His first sentence of that brief section says it all: “Future advances in medicine related to the genome have already proved to be disappointing.”  This is a simple confusion of past and future tense.

6. Gordon significantly underestimates already existing advances in software, automation, robotics and related technologies.

7. Gordon still fails to credit the originators of the growth slowdown idea, as applied to contemporary times, namely Michael Mandel and Peter Thiel.  The first sentence of his paper reads: “A controversy about the future of U.S. economic growth was ignited by my paper released in late summer 2012.”  I would add, perhaps with a bit of peevishness, that a lot of the actual debate was kicked off by my own The Great Stagnation, published in January of 2011 and which was covered and commented on extensively.  (And which by the way was dedicated to Mandel and Thiel, as well as citing them.)  And if I did not credit Gordon more aggressively at that time, it is because I was all too well aware of his 2003 essay, “Exploding Productivity Growth,” the contents of which I do not need to relate any further but if you wish read at the link.

Gordon would do well to reflect a little more deeply on how and why he has changed his mind over the last ten years and what this implies for when a bit more agnosticism would be appropriate.

Addendum: I agree with Kevin Drum.  Matt Yglesias comments too.

In his recent NBER working paper, Robert Gordon wrote:

This lack of multitasking ability is dismissed by the robot enthusiasts – just wait, it is coming. Soon our robots will not only be able to win at Jeopardy but also will be able to check in your bags at the sky cap station at the airport, thus displacing the skycaps. But the physical tasks that humans can do are unlikely to be replaced in the next several decades by robots. Surely multiple-function robots will be developed, but it will be a long and gradual process before robots outside of the manufacturing and wholesaling sectors become a significant factor in replacing human jobs in the service or construction sectors.

So how is it with those skycaps?  I queried Air Genius Gary Leff and he wrote this back to me:

There are still people picking up/loading bags onto the planes, but –

American Airlines has tested self-tagging of bags in Boston, Austin, and Orlando
http://boardingarea.com/aadvantagegeek/2012/11/14/american-airlines-orlando-mco-self-tagging-tag-bag-luggage-system-check-i/

Qantas has permanent bag tags that work with RFID readers at the airport, you check in online and drop your bag at the bag drop and leave.  This works for their Australian domestic flights.  (I do have a “Q Bag Tag”)
http://www.qantas.com.au/travel/airlines/q-bag-tag/global/en

British Airways is trialing an end to paper tags, they began with Microsoft employees in Seattle this past fall
http://boardingarea.com/viewfromthewing/2013/11/07/british-airways-new-electronic-baggage-tags/

Brussels Airlines on intra-European flights departing Brussels
http://brusselsairlines.prezly.com/brussels-airport-and-brussels-airlines-test-automated-self-baggage-drop-off-

BWI is working on their baggage systems to accommodate self-checking of bags
http://www.capitalgazette.com/news/general_assembly/bwi-moving-forward-with-new-hotel-self-bag-check-in/

And that required no more than a few minutes thought from Gary.

Hannah Kuchler has a new piece in the FT on this topic, here is one bit:

Another pioneering outfit is Sociometric Solutions, which puts sensors in name badges to discover social dynamics at work. The badges monitor how employees move around the workplace, who they talk to and in what tone of voice.

One client, Bank of America, discovered that its more productive workers were those allowed to take their breaks together, in which they let off steam and shared tips about dealing with frustrated customers.

The bank took heed and switched to collective breaks, after which performance improved 23 per cent and the amount of stress in workers’ voices fell 19 per cent.

…David Lathrop, its director of research and strategy, says the sensors are now so cheap they can be put “practically everywhere”, arguing that employees could benefit by tracking their own performance.

As I have stressed in Average is Over, improved measurement of worker value is very likely to increase income inequality.  When contributions are relatively vague, the natural tendency is to have weak egalitarian norms and relatively egalitarian pay structures.  When relative contributions are more clear, pay structures will follow, in the longer run dragging norms along with them.

Joseph Nocera calls me on the phone

by on February 15, 2014 at 12:35 am in Economics, Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

This is what he got:

On Friday, I called Tyler Cowen, the George Mason University economist (and a contributor to The New York Times) to ask what he thought about the relationship between technological innovation and jobs. He told me that he mostly agreed with Brynjolfsson and McAfee about the future, though he disagreed with their assessment of the past. (One of his recent books is titled “The Great Stagnation.”)

Yes, he said, technology would replace humans for certain kinds of jobs, but he could also envision growth in the service sector. “The jobs will be better than they sound,” he said. “A lot of them will require skill and training, and will also pay well. I think we’ll get to driverless cars and much better versions of Siri fairly soon,” he added. “That will make the rate of labor force participation go down.”

Then he chuckled. He had recently been in a meeting with someone, explaining his views. “So what you’re saying,” the man concluded, “is that the pessimists are right. But it’s going to be much better than they think.”

The Economist covers the economics of online education:

Alex Tabarrok…reckons the most salient feature of the online course is its rock-bottom marginal cost: teaching additional students is virtually free.

..as prices converge towards marginal cost, there will be little scope for undercutting the competition. Instead MOOCs are likely to compete on quality…Higher production costs are a small price to pay to attract much greater numbers of students. Such markets often evolve into winner-take-all, “superstar” competitions. The best courses attract the most customers and profit handsomely as a result. In this respect online education may more closely resemble information industries such as film-making than service industries such as hair-cutting.

The market for textbooks already fits this description. New textbooks are costly to write and design but can be reproduced fairly cheaply. Not surprisingly, only four introductory economic texts account for half of the American market, according to Mr Tabarrok. Indeed, says Tyler Cowen, a co-founder of Marginal Revolution University, it is possible that textbook publishers are better equipped than universities to develop MOOCs profitably.

I agree also with a point made by Caroline Hoxby:

Less selective institutions are close substitutes for MOOCs. Course content is often standardised and interaction with professors is limited in order to keep costs down.

…Elite institutions face very different circumstances, Ms Hoxby reckons. They operate like venture-capital firms, offering subsidised, labour-intensive education to highly qualified students. They aim to cultivate a sense of belonging and gratitude in students in order to recoup their investment decades later in the form of donations from successful alumni…. For top schools, the best bet may simply be to preserve their exclusivity.