The value of an art history degree

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It was disappointing to hear President Obama’s comment recently that an art history degree was worth less than an engineering degree. For sure, the US needs to reshore manufacturing, and it needs to increase the levels of engineers it churns out. But at the same time, engineers without imagination will not create the leading companies of tomorrow. As I mentioned in this earlier post, the liberal arts education is under threat, which in turn threatens our collective imagination.

As often noted before, and noted also in Fareed Zakaria’s segment on this comment, Steve Jobs raved about his calligraphy classes, not his computer science classes. In a world where everyone is an engineer, we’ll have no companies that lead, and only companies that follow. The fast followers of the world, like Samsung, need an Apple to follow, otherwise they just churn out more incremental innovations that no one needs. On a grander scale, we could also argue that society is pointless without its culture and literature.

The solution should not be to make everyone study only computer science, but to incorporate a few courses in programming and big data for liberal arts majors so that they can codify their visions, and create apps for them. I mentioned in this earlier post how some countries are starting to add programming to their curricula.

The promise of Bitcoin falters?

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I’m all for the creation of an online currency. As we heard on e.g. this Cato podcast, the benefits of sending money for free on the Internet are huge, especially for poorer people who currently have to use money transfer firms. For ecommerce overall, relying on digital currencies and taking out the card transaction fees would enable vendors to lower prices further, benefiting all.

However, there are more and more signs that Bitcoin might not be it. First of all, the price would need to stabilize, which it doesn’t show any sign of doing. The price is now down below $500 from being above $1,000 less than 2 months ago. Second, it doesn’t seem to be ready for mainstream usage, given the recent news about Mt Gox closing down, possible due to insolvency. The unfortunate truth is that Bitcoin did start gaining popular momentum only after it was featured in the story about Silk Road being shut down. Bitcoin has felt somewhat a part of the global liquidity boosting trend, with the Fed’s QE money finding somewhere to be invested.

The future would look brighter if we had functioning digital currencies, but there is a long way to go.

Picture by CASASCIUS (CASASCIUS) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Big bets and bubbles in the Internet era

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We live in an era of punditry, where more experts than ever are making predictions, since social media gives everyone a platform from which to spread their opinions.

The idea of how easy it is to make predictions and get away with being wrong most of the time was illustrated well around the time of the latest Nobel prizes, with Fama and Shiller sharing the award. NPR’s Planet Money interviewed them both, and asked Fama what would make him trust Shiller’s predictions regarding bubbles. He wanted ten correct predictions, something Shiller rightly pointed out would be way past his lifetime. I mention some bubbles on my Bubble Watch page, but bubbles are few and far between.

For a shorter timeframe in which we can judge the accuracy better of predictions, we can instead turn to all the new prediction sites popping up. These span a wide range, differing in the areas they cover and their approach, but they’re all very interesting. Let’s have a look at some of them:

Inkling – This is a prediction markets site, where you buy and sell positions in predictions, like on a stock market. The consensus price, or probability, should reflect the wisdom of the crowd. It doesn’t always, probably due to some questions not having enough volume, but a fantastically well-executed site, and a source for insight.

Pundit Tracker – This site takes predictions from various pundits in the field, and allows users to grade their predictions. In a way, you are making your own predictions, but only in the sense of grading others’, and the main purpose is to keep track of which pundits out there are actually making good predictions.

Twediction – Here, you make your own predictions, and their value goes up or down based on whether other people agree or not. The interesting aspect is that it is all done via Twitter, but the downside to that is that it gets a bit messy. Felix Salmon has been known to use this one. He has a prediction going on the value of bitcoin. By the way, he also recently made a bet with Ben Horowitz on NPR’s Planet Money on whether Bitcoin will be around at all in 5 years, but that one doesn’t have a market attached to it, so we can’t join in.

Then, finally, there is the granddaddy of them all – Long Bets, from the Long Now Foundation, at least in terms of length of bets and their scope. No market there, but you can place a vote on whether predictions regarding humans on Mars, etc, will come true. We might not be alive to see the results, but perhaps we can bequeath our predictions to our kids, and hope they will know better.

Photo by Brocken Inaglory (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Has the nerd culture led to the buttoned-up shirt no longer being short code for special?

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One of my favorite Slate pieces was this June Thomas piece from 2009, on how buttoning the top button on your shirt was shorthand for “special”, i.e. in effect being like Forest Gump. She also said it was meant to signify nerds.

Has this now changed in our post-Zuckerberg, nerd-obsessed culture? This morning, the BBC Sports presenter suddenly had a buttoned up shirt (like this). If the buttoned-up look has reached the bastion of machoness that is TV sports, then clearly something is going on. A quick look around flickr suggests this might be true. See e.g. here.

What’s next for our generation of wannabe nerds? Computers worn on your face? Oh, wait.

Watson goes to Africa

IBM_WatsonGood news this morning that IBM’s Watson is coming to Africa. The project is named Lucy, after the first human ancestor, which is a bit odd and pretentious, but the idea of bringing big data and AI to Africa to help places like Lagos leapfrog, is a very positive one.

Google is grabbing all the headlines for AI these days, with for example the acquisition of Deep Mind the other week, but Watson is a good reminder that Google is not the only one working on it.

After Google’s blimps bringing Internet to Africa, hopefully Google and IBM can engage in an African land grab, similar to what China and Japan is doing, with positive effects for people and businesses across the continent.

 
Picture by Clockready (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Twitter is not a “social network”

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So the long-awaited day came when all of the IPO coaching from Goldman could no longer hide the truth, and the people who’ve been saying that Twitter is overvalued rushed to sell.

It naturally was overvalued, so a correction was of course due, but the metric that drove the sell-off was the wrong one. User growth for Twitter should not be the governing metric. Twitter will never reach the 1.2 billion users of Facebook. Neither should they. This is what happens when all “social networks” are put in one pile and measured against each other. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat are fundamentally different products. Twitter is not a “social network” – it is a media company. It is used by people who would earlier have gotten their news from TV or print. As many have pointed out, it is not a mass product. It is not as crowd-pleasing and easy-to-get as e.g. the photos on Instagram.

Twitter has lots of interesting initiatives coming up, and will be a sure revenue-generator through advertising revenue and media tie-ins. Its valuation should be more that of a robust and growing media company, with revenue growth the metric to look at. The main worry then with the report was the fall in timeline views. That’s the one we need to keep an eye on.

2014 – the year of gaming?

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So here we all thought that 2014 would be the year of wearables, and maybe it turns out it will be the year of gaming instead?

First there were reports that Apple is bringing games to the Apple TV, and now Amazon has purchased gaming company Double Helix.

It does make sense for both companies to do this, as all major tech companies are trying to get deeper into content creation.