Web/Tech

Here is a very interesting piece by Claire Cain Miller, here is one excerpt:

The Pew and Rutgers researchers measured stress levels in a representative group of people by using a standard stress scale that ranks people’s responses to questions about their lives. Then they measured their frequency of digital technology use. They controlled for demographic factors like marital and education status.

They found no effect on stress levels among technology users over all. And women who frequently use Twitter, email and photo-sharing apps scored 21 percent lower on the stress scale than those who did not.

That could be because sharing life events enhances well-being, social scientists say, and women tend to do it more than men both online and off. Technology seems to provide “a low-demand and easily accessible coping mechanism that is not experienced or taken advantage of by men,” the report said.

Social media, particularly Facebook, increased stress in one way: by making people more aware of trauma in the lives of close friends. This effect was strongest for women. The finding bolsters the notion that stress can be contagious, the Pew and Rutgers researchers said.

But when such users of social media were exposed to stressful events in the lives of people who were not close friends, the users reported lower stress levels. Researchers said that was perhaps attributable to gratitude for their own lives being free of these stressors (the joy of missing out, offsetting the fear of missing out.)

Do read the whole thing.

A new computer algorithm can play one of the most popular variants of poker essentially perfectly. Its creators say that it is virtually “incapable of losing against any opponent in a fair game”.

…That means that this particular variant of poker, called heads-up limit hold’em (HULHE), can be considered solved. The algorithm is described in a paper in Science1.

The strategy the authors have computed is so close to perfect “as to render pointless further work on this game”, says Eric Jackson, a computer-poker researcher based in Menlo Park, California.

“I think that it will come as a surprise to experts that a game this big has been solved this soon,” Jackson adds.

…Bowling and colleagues designed their algorithm so that it would learn from experience, getting to its champion-level skills required playing more than 1,500 games. At the beginning, it made its decisions randomly, but then it updated itself by attaching a ‘regret’ value to each decision, depending on how poorly it fared.

This procedure, known as counterfactual regret minimization, has been widely adopted in the Annual Computer Poker Competition, which has run since 2006. But Bowling and colleagues have improved it by allowing the algorithm to re-evaluate decisions considered to be poor in earlier training rounds.

The other crucial innovation was the handling of the vast amounts of information that need to be stored to develop and use the strategy, which is of the order of 262 terabytes. This volume of data demands disk storage, which is slow to access. The researchers figured out a data-compression method that reduces the volume to a more manageable 11 terabytes and which adds only 5% to the computation time from the use of disk storage.

“I think the counterfactual regret algorithm is the major advance,” says computer scientist Jonathan Shapiro at the University of Manchester, UK. “But they have done several other very clever things to make this problem computationally feasible.”

The computer does engage in a certain amount of bluffing, full story here, via Vaughan Bell.

Of all the moderns who have written on automation and rising joblessness, Martin Ford is the original.  His Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future is due out this May, you can pre-order here.  Self-recommending.

Here is my earlier post Will you lose your job to a robot?

The progress of Bitcoin

by on January 5, 2015 at 2:49 pm in Economics, Web/Tech | Permalink

Timothy B. Lee has a good short essay on that question, here is one piece of it:

Between January 2013 and today, the amount of money invested in Bitcoin startups has grown more than 100-fold. Even after 2014’s declines, Bitcoins today are worth 20 times what they were worth at the start of 2013. The number of Bitcoin ATMs has gone from 0 to 342. Yet during the same two-year period, the number of Bitcoin transactions each day has not even doubled.

In short, there’s a lot of excitement among Bitcoin hackers, Bitcoin investors, and other insiders. But normal people are hardly using the network at all.

Recommended throughout, he argues that 2015 will be a make or break year for Bitcoin.

According to forecasts from Match.com and Plenty of Fish, two of the country’s largest dating sites, the single most popular time for online dating — the window when the most people sign up, log on and poke around — will be Jan. 4, from roughly 5 to 8 p.m. Zoosk, another data-focused dating site, backs that estimate up; in 2014, it’s most trafficked time was on the Sunday after New Year’s.

The full article is here, via Ninja Economics.  Might it mean that a) online dating is a kind of palliative against holiday depression?  Or that online dating is a kind of New Year’s resolution, a willingness to undergo a brutal experience for a supposed potential long-run benefit?  Or a bit of both?  Personally, I engage in some of my least productive work on Sunday evenings.

Your model, by the way, should not neglect these corollary facts:

Interestingly, this cycle doesn’t just play out on dating sites — in fact, it’s far broader than that. Researchers have also observed a post-holiday spike in searches for porn, for instance, and a 2012 study by Facebook’s data team found that people are far more likely to change their relationship status in January or February than they are at any other time of year. Offline, the holiday season tends to see a jump in both condom sales and conceptions.

I talked about this phenomenon in Average is Over, here are some recent developments:

In two nonfiction books, scheduled to be published in January, technology experts examine similar consumer-ranking techniques already in widespread use. Even before the appearance of these books, a report called “The Scoring of America” by the World Privacy Forum showed how analytics companies now offer categorization services like “churn scores,” which aim to predict which customers are likely to forsake their mobile phone carrier or cable TV provider for another company; “job security scores,” which factor a person’s risk of unemployment into calculations of his or her ability to pay back a loan; “charitable donor scores,” which foundations use to identify the households likeliest to make large donations; and “frailty scores,” which are typically used to predict the risk of medical complications and death in elderly patients who have surgery.

That is from Natasha Singer, interesting throughout.  And I just received a review copy of the relevant Bruce Schneier book Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Capture Your Data and Control Your World.

…”the internet is now a major driver of the growth of cognitive inequality.” Or in simpler terms, “the internet makes dumb people dumber and smart people smarter.”

The post is here, Kevin’s earlier post on that theme is here.

Just two months ago, e-commerce company Markhor, which works with local artisans to produce high-quality men’s leather shoes, became Pakistan’s most successful Kickstarter campaign, raising seven times more than its intended goal, catching the attention of Seth Godin and GOOD Magazine.

There is no greater evidence of this positive change than in Pakistan’s burgeoning technology ecosystem. In a new report released by my company, Invest2Innovate – which was commissioned by the World Bank’s Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) – we mapped the number of startup competitions, incubators, university programs, coworking spaces and forums, and analyzed the gaps and challenges entrepreneurs continue to face in the country.

Three years ago, the ecosystem was relatively nascent, with just a handful of organizations. Today, the space is unrecognizable and brimming with constant energy and activity.

That is from Kalsoom Lakhani, there is more of interest here.  Here is my earlier post on Pakistan as an underrated economy.

“Digital preservation is really just an oxymoron at this point,” says Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive. “It’s really just putting plus and minus electronic charges on plastic — and that plastic has an extremely short half-life. So that most digital media, even if you take it and store it correctly, is probably not going to last more than eight or ten, maybe 15 years.” By contrast, with 35mm film, “we just need to put it into a cold, dark, dry place, pay the electricity bill, and it will last for 500 to a thousand years.”

In one of the most famous examples of the perils of digital preservation, when the makers of Toy Story attempted to put their film out on DVD a few years after its release, they discovered that much of the original digital files of the film — as much as a fifth — had been corrupted. They wound up having to use a film print for the DVD.

From Bilge Ebiri, there is more here.

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.