Researchers Have “Solved” Poker and What it Could Mean

Today, Chezz pointed me to a really interesting article. Apparently have figured out how to pretty much guarantee a win in “Heads Up Limit Hold ‘Em” Poker. This is the poker equivalent to beating chess masters head to head, like what Deep Blue did in the 90’s and what Watson did more recently on Jeopardy! The difference between these instances though is all players in the game have the same basic information. In chess all the information to inform any move and future moves are available with a glance at the board. In Jeopardy! it’s a little different because it’s knowledge based, but to create the question to the answer, it’s what you know, but the answer is there for everyone at the same time.

In poker, it’s different because you, initially, know only 2 cards out of the 52 in the deck, as the play continues you know more. So you’re dealing with imperfect information about what action to take. This is important, because that’s what you need to do as a player is address that uncertainty. In this program the researchers developed a great learning tool that was able to determine the best course of play and with the experience the researchers gave the program they effectively created an unbeatable computer.

However, the game is limited to a 1 vs. 1 situation with a limit to how much the players are able to bet in any given situation. Those limits are based on multiples of the opening bid. These limits, I’m sure, will eventually be generalized to handle any number of players and then any number of betting options, such as no limit.

Once this happens, I think that these learning systems will have or could have a dramatic impact on a great deal of things. First, trading is essentially poker and the companies that will likely leverage this first will be the companies that deal in high frequency trading. This will make the computers act very differently than they are now and with these new learning algorithms built into them, it could dramatically reshape our stock markets (more than they have been to this point). Second, these systems would be used to “help” with negotiations in any number of situations. I’m thinking initially diplomatic situations where there are a great deal of stakes on the table, which most of them are known, but the information is incomplete. In these cases a computer can greatly augment the capabilities of the diplomat that wouldn’t have been possible in the past, which could either increase the likelihood of a war or reduce it depending on what the goals of the computer are. What does “winning” mean in those cases. So setting those clear boundaries will be important, but that’s why having a person there to augment the machine is crucial as they would provide that feedback over the course of the negotiations.

Finally, this one is by far the largest stretch, but it might be more possible to plan or react to a great deal of the actions of economic entities. This means that governments could leverage these applications to help determine the best determine where to invest as well as where to buy to help truly manage the economy. The central bank could change dramatically.

None of these situations are going to happen overnight. Most likely we’re 2-3 years from multiplayer with no limit hold ’em and 5 years for more monetizable uses for this application. Rest assured these algorithms will be used in a business at some point. Watson and Deep Blue have been repurposed to make IBM money. Expect something similar and I think that these are all very realistic applications that these researcher could pursue. What do you think?

Where I See The Sharing Economy Going: AirBnB

In my last post I talked about where I thought the sharing economy was going to be going. I wrote that I felt that Uber would grow up a little bit and change how they manage working with cities. This prediction has already born fruit in that Uber is taking a 3 month hiatus from Portland to allow the city to create new rules governing how the city licenses Uber and ridesharing. I think that this is an instance where both the city and Uber were acting like adults. Uber forced the issue, a bit like thugs, the city sued, so both flexed their muscle a bit then both backed down and came to the table to figure things out. We’ll see what happens in April whenever the city has completed its rule making to see how Uber responds.

AirBnB behaves in a similar fashion, moving into cities and pretty much breaking how things operate. The legacy industry wants the city to shut down the ability for people to rent out rooms from companies like AirBnB, while the cities want to collect more taxes from this newly created revenue source, and of course people want extra money from their unused rooms/spaces. So pretty much Lose-Win-Win. However, recent data argues that the hotels aren’t losing out on much of anything. Which means that AirBnB might be catering to a wholly different demographic than what typical hotels do, which might be the couch surfing crowd.

AirBnB already has plans to test turning people’s kitchens into restaurants. Which offers a pretty interesting opportunity for all those folks that you always have felt that should make a restaurant, but can’t afford to. I think that this has the unique opportunity to allow more people to eventually start food trucks and then move into a full restaurant after some time and enough demand. However, this venture has even more potential legal issues than renting or replacing cabs. This is because, there are a lot of people that are pretty much slobs and have cockroaches. It doesn’t even have to be your fault that you have them. When I lived in Pittsburgh we had tons of baby cockroaches because our neighbors next door, where we shared a wall, were dirty filthy slobs that didn’t take care of things. Personally, I found it pretty disgusting to be dealing with the roaches, so we had our land lord clean it. However, if you didn’t live there you wouldn’t know about it. My guess is that for this to be successful AirBnB will have to work with local governments to figure out the best way to address these concerns, they are valid after all. I believe that what should happen is that AirBnB either creates its own agency to do the policing or partners to enable policing of homes that want to sign up for this. AirBnB will likely have to develop some sort of background check and methodology for ensuring safety and quality at their “restaurants.”

Once AirBnB conquers the kitchen, it’s likely that they could move into Uber’s space, because after bedrooms and kitchens there’s cars. Other options could be to rent out a home or a space to host parties, where the home owners could act as cooks, wait staff, and/or a combination of both – this could depend on the price and the offer made by the home owners. AirBnB could of course move into more conventional hotelier, however, this drives down their profit margins and makes them liable for a lot more activities. I don’t see this happening in the near future, unless they begin to put the competition out of order. Another space could be managing office spaces or shared spaces, similarly to what a lot of hotels do now.

I think that AirBnB has a lot of options to innovate without pushing up against local governments, however they will still have to figure out how to manage their restaurant idea first. I think they will work with that out with a pilot city first, figure out what works for them (probably NYC), then they can more likely quickly expand into other markets with that approach. I think they will also very likely work with the governments beforehand. I’m imagining that a city like Portland might be a second or third market for them to move into since it’s great for food trucks and already has a great relationship with AirBnB.

I think that AirBnB is going to have an easier time with local governments than Uber because it has a better reputation and seems to have been working with the governments from the start. I’m interested in seeing where they go in the next few years.

What can Interstellar Teach us about the tragedy of the Commons? (spoilers)

This post will contains some minor spoilers for the movie Interstellar. If you don’t want to read any spoilers, then stop reading now.

The tragedy of the commons represents a common good that without proper communication and planning can be destroyed through maximizing an individual’s utility. What does that mean? Well, a group of ranchers are sharing a field. One of them decides to make some additional money by buying, just ONE more head of cattle. He lets it eat in the grass that everyone else is sharing. No negative impact happens, the farmers discuss the number of cattle, which they had all agreed upon beforehand to be a set number. Since he increased his, everyone else does the same, eventually the land will not be able to sustain all the extra head of cattle, and the next year cattle start to die of starvation. Creating a crash in the economy.

According to Stephen Gardiner climate change represents a tragedy of the commons. However, instead of the ranchers, we have our great grand parent’s decision impacting our climate today. Climate change effectively started during the Industrial Revolution and our actions will be impacting future generations. Since the future generation does not have a voice in the conversation, it’s hard for us to put off current needs for future needs. This is further exasperated by the fact that we cannot even work to improve conditions for our own children, let alone some faceless grand child or great grandchild down the road.

Interstellar offers a glimpse into why this is so difficult. First, there’s clearly gaps in education, Interstellar points this out through exaggerating what a lot of school boards are currently doing, they go to the extreme to say that the Apollo missions are faked as a propaganda tool to destroy the Soviet Union. Second, Matthew McConaughey is one of the few forward thinking individuals, but he knows that we are continually leaving worse and worse conditions for our children, as a farmer he can see how poorly we’re fighting the blight that is killing our crops. Third, the time dilation he experiences being close to a blackhole allows him, while he’s still young, to see the full effects of his generations decisions on his children. He’s fully impotent to do anything about it, but he knows that the choices they made have fully doomed his children. Finally and I think most impactful, is the scene where Murph dies. He sees his grand children and great grand children and doesn’t even acknowledge them. He did everything he could for Murph but had no interest in seeing how all of this impacted his’s child’s children. Furthermore, Murph didn’t seem to want him to try to bridge that divide. Rather than try to build a relationship with the world as it was she pushed him to reunite with a crewmate that came from the same “world” as him.

All of these indicate that we have a serious tragedy of the commons problem. That education is required to even have a hope to combat the tragedy of the commons for climate change. That we must figure out a way to see past the here and now and create a seriously forward looking plan. That we cannot simply rely on a few forward thinking people because even they are limited in how much they can look to the future.

This is a serious concern because we now have a leader on the environmental committee in the US congress that doesn’t accept the evidence presented by scientists. Furthermore, the fact that lawmakers aren’t scientists seems to excuse them from understanding what people are saying about climate change.

We cannot expect some “they” to come and allow us to rescue ourselves with “their” help. We have to figure this out on our own. We’re failing miserably right now.

Another book that does a good job outlining these intergernational problems is the Forever War.

My thoughts so far on Piketty and corruption

There are a lot of people that are arguing over Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the 21st Century. I’ve been reading it, i’m about a third of the way through the book. It’s pretty interesting in the way only dry economics can be. A lot of people are both tearing it apart and praising the content. He’s done something really novel and that’s to create an economic theory around the accumulation of wealth and the impact on the return on capital on growth and vice versa. This naturally is causing some concerns because the findings are disturbing people. Financial Times has found about a 12 errors that they feel invalidate the results, however, their graphs aren’t really all that different. I’m not convinced you’d reach different conclusions based on the data Piketty has accumulated.

I’m more interested in the results in relationship to behavior it drives in reinvestment in capital that can drive further growth. Based on what I’ve read so far, the fact that growth is less than the rate of return on capital means that capital will not invest in innovation, but rather in goods that they can easily receive rents from.

What does this mean? It means that those with capital will invest in lower risk or safer places for their money. This means that they will buy land and houses which acrrue value and provide a steady income of new capital to be reinvested elsewhere. If you’ve ever read the book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, that’s exactly what the author proposes doing. Once you have enough money to buy a house, you buy one pay enough down and improve it to get a profit, leverage favorable taxes so that you can sell it and upgrade to a duplex and have two familie paying rent. Repeats until you’re able to buy apartments and continually expanding the number of people paying you to have money.

This approach works, but doesn’t really do much of anything to actually help the economy grow, it helps increase wealth as it’s own goal. This is how Donald Trump got rich. It doesn’t help the economy grow because it doesn’t provide new jobs it relies on others to create new jobs. Furthermore, as the population naturally increases and the types of jobs change more people will move into the area and will continually to increase rents. Further increasing the wealth of a wealthy individual. Sure, the person might be a self made millionaire and possibly a business owner around their real estate empire, but that doesn’t truly mean that they are adding more value to the economy than they are extracting, which may prevent growth.

This creates a serious risk to the people that use both the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, because these book papers help support the wealthy get wealthier. They have a vested interest in seeing Piketty’s theories be disproven and discarded before policy makers have a chance to leverage them. I believe that this book along with the Origin of Wealth can point out ways to manage risks to our economy. Piketty’s theories are a purely macro economic construct, while the Origin of Wealth is a Micro theory that expands up through maro theory. I believe that Piketty’s theories help illustrate the impact of micro and behavior economic theories. We have inequality and it is unlikely to get better, unless we take action to change our policies and fight corruption.

I believe that the root cause of our problems relate back to a type of political corruption in nearly all our political bodies. Wealth is able to use their wealth to shape policies that create more wealth, while the poor are unable to do so. I think this is something that everyone can get behind regardless of your political beliefs. A true libertarian political body can’t exist with corruption any more than a complete comunist political body. Fighting corruption requires more than mouse clicks it requires people to act. People to force their leaders to be accountable for their actions. Inequality and power imbalances come through short terme thinking, political regimes, and historical choices. We can’t do much about the past, but we can drive change in our politics through voting, donating, action,  and through informing people.

Customers, Companies, and Power – imbalances drive inequities

I’ve been in the process of buying a house for the past month. It’s been a rocky process. Some of it has been on us, but a lot of it has been on the side of the lender. The first problem came when they basically started the process they day we were supposed to sign. This precipitated a series of events that as lead to the fact that it’s unlikely for us to actually fund the house on the last day we possibly could. Furthermore, they have been rather cavalier about the fact that we can just move closing dates without a problem. Essentially their poor processes have required us on multiple occassions to modify a private contract. We’ve been punished again and again because of their inability to meet their obligations. This strikes me as a serious inequity, especially since it’s not a big deal for them that we essentially lost out on a full month’s of rent from the seller. We have minimal to no recourse to address this loss.  On top of this, they still get paid. In my mind they’ve provided little to no value in this process and have in fact simply added a great deal of waste. They should no be paid and in fact should pay us the loss in rent we should have received from their inability to meet deadlines.

This sort of behavior is rampant in industries and companies that are essentially monopolies. Either their customers are fully locked in to a specific company because it is expensive or difficult to extract personal data or some other technical issue or the customers have no other option. In either case the company is able to act with a great deal of disregard for their customers. The goal of the business then becomes to extract maximum rents from their customers not to provide maximum value to the customer. This can create existential issues for a company that undergoes this transition, because many of the people that made that company great are pressured and have the quality of their employment decline without understanding why. Essentially these folks still try to do the right things and in many cases don’t agree with their corporate leadership. In many cases, such as with a Telecom, it’s likely they are exempt from the full rent seeking behavior of the company.

Thinking about these things have made me really frustrated the past few weeks. My job is to help my company deliver more value to the customer so seeing these actions is increasingly frustrating and counter productive to Lean principles. If companies aren’t adopting principles that improve value for end customers, then what can we do? Well, I think that in each of these cases the root cause comes from two totally different policy actions. First many of the issues we’re having are designed to protect customers so we enacted policies to that end. While the other problem, rent seeking behavior comes from the lack of policies to protect customers.

In each of these cases different government actions have lead to different actions for end customers. In actually these painful delays for our loan may for many other people, truly protect them. However, in our case, they aren’t. In the case of push deregulation on telecom the result has been monopolies and behavior designed to continually take more money from their customers. In each cases, these derive from two different philosophies around the value of government regulation. I think these situations highlight the nuances in this area.

In the end it’s important that we have real conversations about the underly reasons for different policy decisions. We need to understand that there are imbalances of power between customers and companies. In many cases those companies will exploit them to their best advantage. Unfortunately, these imbalances extend to the realms of politics as well. This of course is another area where we have issues and will continue to have issues. It is unclear how to address these imbalances, i’m not confident that we’re going to be able to do this in the next few years. If we cannot address these issues I believe they will continue to get worse as the economy remains flat in it’s growth.

Video Games, not just for Kids

So, today was one of those days where I had a few different topics that I wanted to write about. I had a request to write about video games. I’ve written one or two blogs about video games in the past. However, I think that there’s always more to be said about them.

I think it’s fair to say that video games are a bit of the red headed step child in the entertainment industry. They aren’t taken as seriously as movies and it’s not as culturally acceptable to geek out over video games as it is to geek out over movies (some movies) or television shows. However, I think that this is going to change and it’s not because of the video game designers and publishers.

I think that Twitch is going to drive to make video games more acceptable and shift video games location in culture. Through events like Intel’s championship series or DreamHack which is a collection of tournaments for games like DOTA 2, League of Legends, Star Craft, and many more, I believe that there is an opportunity for video games to reach an acceptance level akin to golf. For the most part these games are multiplayer and very team based. There are leagues, trading of players and everything else you would expect in a major league “sport.”

It’s not just these events, it’s the personalities that drive watching live streaming. As I’ve mentioned in the past I have a few friends that stream and there is a community that has sprung up around watching these guys play. It’s pretty awesome.

Through these streamers, I’ve been able to experience many more interesting games than I can actually play or even afford to play. This allows me to keep abreast of the video game landscape without having to really play (I play Civ V, Binding of Isaac, Super Meat Boy mostly). In the case where the streamers are playing single player games it’s similar to watching a movie with someone guiding the movie. It’s a lot of fun, especially since you’re able to have a conversation with the star and his fans all at the same time.

Furthermore, I think that video games have not been given enough credit for pushing the boundaries of technology. Game designers and players for PC together drive companies like Intel, AMD, and Nvidia to keep designing newer and more powerful products. Intel is able to make a massive profit on their platforms designed for gaming – they know it, they’ve changed their strategy a few times in regard to selling stand alone chips because of gamer’s demands. We should be praising the hardcore gamer because they are helping us continue to advance in one of the few bright spots in our economy.

Each video game community has it’s own quirks and idiosyncrasies, which can be seen in how new games are developed as well as in business practices for the developer. For example, Valve has several economists studying the naturally occurring economy around trading in games like TF2, I believe that through controlled economic settings like TF2 where there is no central control (Blizzard I’m looking at you!) unique economic conditions can emerge that will shape how the designers develop future releases in the game. This has been clearly shown in how Valve continually releases new hats (yes, hats).

Compared to Eve (a massive multiplayer online role playing space video game) TF2’s economic system is rudementary. In Eve you can buy, build, trade and develop true economic systems. Furthermore, it’s possible to see the effect of war and diplomatic missteps on the economy. Recently nearly $200k worth of money was wiped out because someone missed a monthly payment. It’s possible to see how various factions have recovered after a serious economic, material, and military shock hit the entire game.

Games are vital to our culture. We’ve always had both physical (sports) and mental (chess) games. I believe that video games are simply a new extension to both of those. Many games require you to think quickly and have quick moving fingers (Star Craft) while others are almost as passive as watching TV. Understanding the value of video games and the culture about them is important to understand how our culture can grow and develop in new ways.

Book Review: The People’s Platform: Taking back Power and Culture in the Digital Age

I just finished reading “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age” by Astra Taylor  I really found this book to be interesting. I believe it offered a very different critique on the digital age than Evegny Morozov’s “Click here to Save everything” where he focused on the arrogance of the algorithm and total solutionism of the movement, Taylor focused on the cultural cost of our digital economy. I think combined the philosophizing of Morozov with Taylor’s discussion of the value of culture and the economic forces behind these changes is an extremely powerful argument. Alone they are both excellent, but I think they offer balancing points that compliment each other well.

First of all, I don’t think everyone will like this book. I don’t think a lot of my readers will like large portions of the book. However, even the most libertarian will agree with some portions of it. I think that’s the power of this book. It’s not really fair to one side or the other, although is really obvious she has a bias – which she wears pretty proudly. Knowing this bias is there allows the reader to decide which portion is Occupy Wall street dreaming or which is really a problem (of course one can go too far either direction).

Taylor’s cultural argument is powerful because we are all part of that economy. We all consume cultural artifacts or perhaps, like myself, make them. The fact that these have been commoditzed to a cost of nothing while still valuable is something we deal with daily. The choice between pirating a movie, renting, streaming it on Netflix, or buying it all are choices we decide on a regular basis. I think that even the most hardcore pirate buys a lot of cultural goods.

Many of us, even if we don’t produce cultural goods, know someone that does. You might watch a video game streamer, you might have a friend or two that are in various bands, you might read my blog or another friend’s blog. All of these people want to use these artifacts to either live on or perhaps enhance their career in some fashion.

However, in the digital space most of the companies that share or distribute cultural activities are funded by ads. Twitch makes most of it money from ads, Google makes $50 billion/year on ads, Facebook makes the most money on an ad whenever a friend “Sponsors” that ad with or without our active agreement to “sponsor” the ad.

Taylor argues that we need to help develop a cultural public space that helps create value for other cultural goods that you may not actually consume (which is why I wrote this blog).

Many of the ideas in the book are anti-corporation, but not because they make money. Instead, it’s because they make money in ways that aren’t obviously ads and that control our cultural destiny. She is pro-net neutrality, she supports companies making profits from ads, but she argues for more transparency that an article is actually sponsored.

Her argument isn’t that we should tear down companies, but instead that we pull back some of the power that these companies have simply taken without any real conversation. We need to look at the ethics behind the algorithms they are using and understand their biases. We need to enable true conversations about these topics. Ad driven content leads to self-censorship and lower quality products.

Is this book perfect? Not by a long shot, but it really made me think about some topics and I think that we need to have more conversations about not just ads, but also about why companies behave the way they do. We need to find a better balance than we currently have.

I rate the book 5/5 for making me really think about topics