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,


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


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.


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…

 One of the biggest threats it faces is the rise of smartphones as the dominant personal computing device. A recent Pew Research Center report found that 39 of the top 50 news sites received more traffic from mobile devices than from desktop and laptop computers, sales of which have declined for years.

This is a challenge for Wikipedia, which has always depended on contributors hunched over keyboards searching references, discussing changes and writing articles using a special markup code. Even before smartphones were widespread, studies consistently showed that these are daunting tasks for newcomers. “Not even our youngest and most computer-savvy participants accomplished these tasks with ease,” a 2009 user test concluded. The difficulty of bringing on new volunteers has resulted in seven straight years of declining editor participation.

In 2005, during Wikipedia’s peak years, there were months when more than 60 editors were made administrator — a position with special privileges in editing the English-language edition. For the past year, it has sometimes struggled to promote even one per month.

The pool of potential Wikipedia editors could dry up as the number of mobile users keeps growing; it’s simply too hard to manipulate complex code on a tiny screen.

That is from Andrew Lih.  We do indeed face the danger that the quality of our digital universe may be deteriorating.  The inframarginal users who are benefiting are those who highly value texting, Facebook, and mobile access.  The relative losers include…?


A San Francisco biotech startup has managed to 3D print fake rhino horns that carry the same genetic fingerprint as the actual horn. It plans to flood Chinese market with these cheap horns to curb poaching.

And this:

The company plans to release a beer brewed with the synthetic horn later this year in the Chinese market.


The full story is here, via Max Roser.

He makes many good points, but this is my favorite:

From 1995 to 2004, productivity and real GDP rose at an unusually rapid rate.  The IT cheerleaders told us that this fast productivity growth was the long delayed fruits of the IT revolution.  Now we have very slow growth, and the digiterati tell us it’s also caused by the IT revolution, which is generating lots of stuff that doesn’t get picked up in the output data, because it’s free.  While I’m impressed by an explanation that’s as flexible as a circus contortionist, I’d prefer something that isn’t consistent with any possible state of the universe.  I’m no Popperian, but I like my theories to be at least a little bit falsifiable.

In other words, we know what a boom looks like, and this ain’t it.  I would, however, assent to and indeed stress two propositions:

1. Infovores are indeed much better off from the recent digital revolution.  And since most journalists and tech leaders are infovores (many academics too), they extrapolate too readily from themselves.

2. The “rate of productivity growth in consumption” is more mis-measured than is the rate of productivity growth in production.  Facebook really is fun for a lot of people, and unpriced on the consumption side; I sometimes say that I am a happiness optimist and a revenue pessimist.  But the production side of the economy matters in its own right, and indeed that is why they call it productivity.  Debts and bills must be paid, and jobs must be created at wages people will take, whether or not you’re having fun with Angry Birds or cursing at your (least) favorite blogger.  In fact we just had a recession where the jobless probably had more fun than ever before, due mostly to the internet.  It was still an event of significance.

So don’t aggregate consumption gains (e.g., learning to enjoy your Brussels sprouts more) with productivity gains, proudly parading a single number and claiming that everything is fine.  It is better, and more accurate, to say: “We’ve now learned to really love those Brussels sprouts, good for us, but we still may be in deep doo-doo.”

Samir Varma points my attention to this WSJ Christopher Mims piece:

Right now a college student in Sweden—let’s call him Sven—has a rather unusual summer job. He’s in sales, but he hasn’t met anyone from the company whose products he pushes.

His boss is an app. It considers Sven’s strengths and weaknesses as a salesman, matches him with goods from any of a dozen brands, and plots a route through Stockholm optimized to include as many potential customers as possible in the time allotted to him.

The app is like Uber, but for a sales force. It has many of the same dynamics: Companies can use it to get salespeople on demand, and those salespeople choose when to work and which assignments to accept.

I am very much an Uber fan, but if you are looking for drawbacks that passage expresses one potential problem.  Pre-Uber, acquiring worker talent required lumpier investments on the part of the employer.  You would hire a bunch of people, with the expectation of keeping them around for a while, and then train them to do a bunch of things.  Some of them would work their way up the proverbial ladder, based on what you had taught them, many would not.  But you would train and teach them quite a bit, if only because there was no alternative for getting things done.

In a “sharing economy,” a pre-trained worker is very often on call for a short stint, when needed.  The employer thus has less need to invest in option value from the full-time work force and that means less training.  The result is that more workers will have to teach and train themselves, whether for their current jobs or for a future job they might have later on.

I submit many people cannot train themselves very well, even when the pecuniary returns from such training are fairly strongly positive.  The “at work social infrastructure” for that training is no longer there, and so many sharing economy workers will stay put at their ex ante levels of knowledge.

Uber thus shares the same property which is common to so many other parts of the new knowledge economy, namely that the return to self-training is high, and the return to not-self-training is low.  This further helps those with high levels of discipline and conscientiousness.

Here is a good NYT article about French reluctance to accept Uber.

Here is Eli Dourado:

This is relevant when thinking about bringing the next few billion people online and into the global economy. These people will not have credit histories that are accessible to the same intermediaries that I am set up to use. They may have local intermediaries that they can use, or they may be willing to use Bitcoin directly. If that is the case, they will be able to enter into the stream of global commerce.

There are not right now many transactions between rich countries and the bottom couple billion people on Earth. Why is that? Is it because these people have nothing of value to sell or is it because we have no way of transacting with them? We are about to find out.

Against photos (rant)

by on June 6, 2015 at 1:11 am in Economics, Web/Tech | Permalink

I’m getting to the point where I flat out hate images on the internet.  Every article, every web page, seems to be a little nest of crummy, boring, slow to load photos.  Some photos are very good, but most of the time there is nothing to see, nothing to look at, just more distractions paraded in front of the eyes.

“Every page a home page.”  Boo.  It’s as if someone woke up and realized that one page leads to another, one click leads to another, and very little other than the headlines is being read.

And every page is supposed to invite placement on Facebook and clicks from Facebook viewers; maybe that is what the photos are for.

How should I feel about this development?: “Seemingly overnight, video uploading and viewing have exploded on Facebook, where users now watch 4 billion video streams a day, quadruple what they watched a year ago.”  Video on mobile is just getting going.  I now dread clicking on the ESPN NBA links with the volume on.

From my admittedly atypical, hyperlexic point of view, the quality of the digital universe is deteriorating rather rapidly.

I am not suggesting any of this is market failure, rather it is the “readers” getting what they want, good and hard.

I wish to thank two MR readers for discussions related to this blog post.

A resident of Mountain View writes about their interactions with self-driving cars (from the Emerging Technologies Blog):

I see no less than 5 self-driving cars every day. 99% of the time they’re the Google Lexuses, but I’ve also seen a few other unidentified ones (and one that said BOSCH on the side). I have never seen one of the new “Google-bugs” on the road, although I’ve heard they’re coming soon. I also don’t have a good way to tell if the cars were under human control or autonomous control during the stories I’m going to relate.

Anyway, here we go: Other drivers don’t even blink when they see one. Neither do pedestrians – there’s no “fear” from the general public about crashing or getting run over, at least not as far as I can tell.

Google cars drive like your grandma – they’re never the first off the line at a stop light, they don’t accelerate quickly, they don’t speed, and they never take any chances with lane changes (cut people off, etc.).

…Google cars are very polite to pedestrians. They leave plenty of space. A Google car would never do that rude thing where a driver inches impatiently into a crosswalk while people are crossing because he/she wants to make a right turn. However, this can also lead to some annoyance to drivers behind, as the Google car seems to wait for the pedestrian to be completely clear. On one occasion, I saw a pedestrian cross into a row of human-thickness trees and this seemed to throw the car for a loop for a few seconds. The person was a good 10 feet out of the crosswalk before the car made the turn.

…Once, I [on motorcycle, AT] got a little caught out as the traffic transitioned from slow moving back to normal speed. I was in a lane between a Google car and some random truck and, partially out of experiment and partially out of impatience, I gunned it and cut off the Google car sort of harder than maybe I needed too… The car handled it perfectly (maybe too perfectly). It slowed down and let me in. However, it left a fairly significant gap between me and it. If I had been behind it, I probably would have found this gap excessive and the lengthy slowdown annoying. Honestly, I don’t think it will take long for other drivers to realize that self-driving cars are “easy targets” in traffic.

Overall, I would say that I’m impressed with how these things operate. I actually do feel safer around a self-driving car than most other California drivers.

Hat tip: Chris Blattman.

I have been hearing this question more and more lately, even in China.  Overall I think it has gone from an underrated effect to an overrated effect.  Tim Worstall offers an introduction to this debate.

Let’s not forget that you do in fact pay for Facebook access, indirectly, when you pay for your cable connection, your iPad, and your smart phone. including the monthly bill, all of which are part of measured gdp.  The more value Facebook brings you, the more you would be willing to pay for these goods and services.  The same is true for Google and the like.  So Facebook and other internet services are part of a bundled package of market value, but that is very different from claiming they are not measured in gdp at all.

There is of course consumer surplus from the internet and Facebook, just as there is from Dunkin’ Donuts.  Might that consumer surplus be especially high?  Well, we don’t know, but don’t assume it will be.  I did some casual googling, and found a number of estimates suggesting that smart phone demand is relatively price elastic, with the iPhone a possible exception to that regularity.  That implies consumer surplus isn’t especially high, because many people aren’t willing to buy at the higher price.  I thus think Brad DeLong is far too optimistic in his estimates of ratio consumer surplus to market price.

You also could look at the literature on the demand for cable internet services.  The results are mixed, but again I don’t see a strong case for a disproportionately high consumer surplus from these services, if anything the contrary.

Now maybe these estimates are wrong, or looking at the wrong margin in some way, but the fact that I hear them mentioned so rarely gives me pause.  Cowen’s Third Law.

There is also advertising over the internet.  Let’s say Facebook is a profit maximizer.  Insofar as Facebook is of value to consumers, the company can get away with putting a lot of ads on the site.  These will spur additional market purchases, and so part of the value of the site is again captured in gdp.  Obviously some of these ad effects are simply expenditure-switching, and so there is no full capture of value, but still Facebook shows up in gdp statistics in yet another way.

Here are some previous posts on this topic.