Just Press Go

Posted in Politics, Technology by Arasmus on December 13, 2007

Here is an idea that I think would be very cool. But first let me start with some background. There is a lot talk right now about crowd-sourcing – but what is it? I think it can be best explained by a real world example taken from the first chapter of an excellent book on the subject entitled Wikinomics by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams. Rob McEwan was the CEO of a Canadian gold mining company. The company was besieged by unfavorable market conditions and internal problems, the most important of which was that there was almost no gold left in the company’s 50 year old mine. McEwan gave his geologists a $10 million budget to go and find more gold somewhere in the mine. The search was unsuccessful. Then McEwan had an idea. He took the company maps and the geological surveys dating back to 1948 (some 400 megabytes of data) and put it all on the internet. In the mining business a company’s maps and geological surveys are valuable secrets and McEwan was thought insane in turning this information over to the public. He then offered a prize of $575,000 to the individual that could find the gold and provide the best estimates and methods for its extraction. As news of the challenge spread throughout the internet more than 1,000 people from 50 countries participated in the search. Entries came from geologists, graduate students, consultants, mathematicians and military officers. The contestants identified 110 targets, 50 percent of which had not been previously identified by the company’s own geologists and 80% of the new targets yielded substantial amounts of gold. McEwan’s struggling $100 million company was converted into a $9 billion success story such that $100 invested in the company in 1993 was worth over $3,000 in 2006. That’s crowd-sourcing.

If we pull back one level of abstraction, all that McEwan did was to turn a real world problem into a game. The goal of the game was to find the gold. The way to find the gold was to go through the labyrinth of data. In the video-gaming world you have many strategy games that ask players to similarly think through problems such as how to build a successful civilization (Sid Meier’s Civilization franchise) or manage a city (Will Wright’s Sim City franchise). These games are played by millions of people around the world and today you can even play them online and compete with rival players in a virtual world. Now these games are dismissed by polite society as cesspools for social rejects and perpetual Phd candidates. I think they are amazing, which may be an unflattering confession since I am not a Phd candidate. For example, the Civilization games reinforce the opportunity cost of public policies – if you choose to spend most of your national budget on military expenditure you could nonetheless be over-run by a rival nation that has spent more of its resources on research and development and as a consequence has just developed nuclear technology. Spend your wealth on palaces instead of economic growth and you will definitely be overtaken by your rivals. These ideas may sound like common sense to you but apparently they are not so common that they have reached the ear of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. And in practice all these common sense rules can become quite intricate when you layer them one on top of the other as they occur in the real world. For example, many of us know that you increase the interest rate when you think an economy is over-heating and you lower it when you think an economy is stagnating. Yet the best economists in the world were all stumped by stagflation in the 1970s. How do you deal with an economy that is experiencing inflation and high unemployment at the same time? Increase the interest rate and you kill investment which leads to greater unemployment. Lower the interest rate and you increase inflation. What is great about computer strategy games is that they provide models of the world in which you can test different approaches. In the 1990’s Britain decided not to adopt the common European currency preferring to adopt a wait and see approach. That was a risk and economists were divided as to whether that was the right approach. In essence the UK government was testing its theories in the real world. Those kind of tests can be expensive – ask the Soviets.

Somewhere in Zimbabwe right now there is an economist standing in line for hours for a container of milk. Although he may be the brightest member of the University economics faculty he is not affiliated with the current regime which apparently has no need for economists since they no longer have an economy. Our humble professor just shows up, does his job and then stands in line again. When Mugabe is overthrown (the tolling bell fell off the steeple yesterday) the new government will be faced with the unenviable task of trying to rebuild the economy. They may drive to the local grocery store and ask our talented economist to help. When he arrives in his ransacked office that day his position is going to be very similar to that of McEwan (except for the share options and the severance package). If the professor was to start work today he would face the following set of challenges: (1) Zimbabwe has defaulted on its loans and thus even if the international financial community is willing to lend to the new government its going to be a very high interest rate (current interest rates in Zimbabwe are 60%); (2) unemployment is at 50%; (3) inflation is at 60%; (4) the country is 25% over-budget; (5) GDP is projected to shrink between 2-5% and (6) real income has declined by 75% in the last 10 years. And on top of all this you can fold in qualitative problems like (7) post-rebellion civil unrest, (8) the second highest rate of HIV infection in the world and (9) a decaying educational infrastructure. What should the professor do next?
Well, imagine this. Imagine if the makers of the Civilization game franchise or perhaps an affiliation of independent game designers and university academics were to create a new game called say “Virtual Zimbabwe.” Its an online game so anyone around the world with internet access can log in to the website and play in their own individual virtual version of present day Zimbabwe. At the outset all players would face the same depressing statistics listed above. What happens next depends on what actions they take. To win – you have to turn a bankrupt state into a functioning viable economy as measured by (i) GDP per capita, (ii) income distribution, (iii) the rule of law, (iv) health and (v) education. These metrics are already used in the current Civilization games. Let’s say the game is run for 6 months. People would play the game because they either (a) want to be acknowledged as the greatest Virtual Zimbabwe player in the world, (b) they want to help to make the world a better place but don’t want to change out of their pyjamas or (c) they just like playing strategy games which seems to be a sufficient enough reason to create a $7.4 billion industry in the U.S. alone in 2006. If all those reasons fail then create a prize of $100,000 for the winner. That would probably equal the cost of flying a fancy team of economists to Zimbabwe on business class and have them cut and paste the recommendations they gave Tanzania into a new document. After the game has been running for 6 months you have a collection of say 10,000 different virtual models of Zimbabwe in a single centralized database. Congratulate the winner and then turn to the data. Now, with all these models, you can ask – what worked and what did not work? Of the strategies that worked what did they have in common? Similarly what can we learn from the models that failed. Now put together a list of recommendations for our besieged economist in Zimbabwe and give him the comfort of knowing that this strategy was tested on over 10,000 different models of his country’s economy and the odds are there won’t be a bill. And we really don’t even have to wait for 6 months after Zimbabwe has shed the Mugabe yoke to come up with that report. We know now that Zimbabwe will have to be fixed and there is probably someone working at the World Bank walking around the Farragut North subway stop right now trying to figure out how. A whole host of well-financed non-for-profits are also now trying to solve the same problem. In addition to these two groups there are countries such as the United States and South Africa that have a vested strategic interest in building stable democracies in Africa. And of course there is always Bill Gates who knows a thing or two about technology. Any of these organizations and individuals people could initiate a simulation at this point before the rebellion.

The overall theme here is that a game is nothing more than an exercise in problem solving. We have millions of people who pay a lot of money so that they can solve problems in this way. On the other hand we have a whole lot of problems to solve and we don’t always have a lot of resources with which to solve them. The key to connecting this supply of problem solvers to this demand for problem solvers is to make the process whereby the problem is solved entertaining. The video game industry has already done this. So we have supply, process and demand. Can someone please press GO?

La Corrida

Posted in Food, Literary, Short Story by Arasmus on December 10, 2007

Diego tried not to look at himself in the mirror as he vigorously shook the can of shaving foam. There wasn’t much left but he was determined to make it last until he and Maria could head to Costco next weekend for their Christmas shopping. Was it F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote that an artist is one who can hold two opposing views at the same time? Diego thought of himself as an artist and he felt the tension of two opposing views as he applied the razor to his throat. The static sound of the blade cutting through the stubble failed to keep him present. His mind was lost in questions. Yesterday he phoned his family back in Huelva to see what was happening for Christmas. It all began well. His mother relayed how his sisters and brothers were all coming home from Barcelona, Madrid and Brussels. He was the only one whose whereabouts and plans were unknown. His mother didn’t say anything but his father didn’t come to the phone. It was the end of the month. Last night he and Maria had sat around the table and worked out the expenses and the bills that needed paying. It was clear something needed to be done. His face was shaved clean. Two patches of foam hung from his ear lobes. He wiped one away and then looked at himself. He was a Spanish conquistador with a single precious pearl to mark his adventures.

Its funny how something can mean nothing to everyone and something to someone. For Diego the sound of a pot hitting the sink sounded like a key turning in the door of a prison cell. He barely had time to tie his apron when the first one arrived. What are you doing Diego? He heard his mother’s voice pronounce very word even though she had never asked that question. What am I doing? He reached for the liquid soap to wash the large black pot. Pupo. He could smell the sea of his childhood as he scrubbed the inside of that pot. His earliest memory of octopus was when Uncle Alessandro pulled one into the fishing boat during that summer when he first went out with the villagers. Diego watched the lost creature crawl around the boat looking to escape. Its reaching, stretching ambitious tentacles pointed to him. Then there was that cosy smell of charcoal and the white suckers looking at him from his grandmother’s yellow platter. It tasted so good and in his mind’s memory that whole summer tasted good. The translucent lines of so many fishing nets like elfish gossamer pulling magic from the warm sea. He rinsed the pot.

Today was a special day in the restaurant. Maria knew. For several years, Chef, the renown José Andrés, had been lobbying the United States government to allow the importation of jamón ibérico. Today the first package was due to arrive. It was going to be a very grand affair. The Spanish ambassador was slated to appear that evening with a host of other dignitaries to celebrate the occasion. The press and the critics were all going to be there. Diego ran his finger along the skin by the back of his jaw bone and felt a patch of unshaven stubble. How many times has Maria teased him about missing that spot? He prayed that Chef would not notice. He thought of that late night several weeks ago when he and Chef had sat at the only illuminated table in the dark empty restaurant. “It’s done,” Chef said. The Americans had agreed to lift the ban and Chef had just placed the first order with Embutidos y Jamones Fermín. Together they raised their ruby red glasses of Rioja, to Spain, and to dreams. For Chef, the bureaucratic decision was loaded with emotion and significance and that evening he let Diego see an exhausted peace that no one had ever seen before. Diego felt he should say something, but instead he just wanted to close his eyes and imagine the taste of the translucent jamón laid across his tongue. He saw the olive groves around his grandmother’s farmhouse, his sister’s yellow boots and multiple annotated copies of Cervantes stacked high in the stable. He saw the laughing smiles of aunts and uncles and felt the earth breathing in summer like a sleeping baby. Moments later he returned. Chef was staring at the floor through half-opened eyes, his hand resting half-dead on his apron. Diego reached for the delicate stem of the glass. Chef awoke, looked at him and smiled.

Diego recognized the voices of the investors approaching the kitchen. As he rinsed the pot they entered in their pinstripe suits. A beautiful tall blond haired woman stood among them as Chef arrived with the first box of jamón ibérico legally imported into the United States. “Congratulations Jose,” the woman said. Chef raised his hand in the air like a successful matador in the corrida. They all smiled and laughed. Deigo quietly placed a small knife next to the box on the table and Chef reached for it, knowing it should be there, and used it to open the seal on the box. It was 7:20 pm. The Ambassador was arriving at 7:30. Chef reached for the best platter and started to plate the ham, delicately laying each individual slice like memories in a eulogy. Diego reached for another pot and started scrubbing intently. The sous chefs were busy chopping. One of the investors glanced sideways and then whispered urgently to Chef – “he’s here – you should be the first to welcome him.” Chef went to the sink to wash his hands, grabbed a towel, dropped it and left. The platter lay there. Diego couldn’t help staring. How silly that we should all get excited by a plate of ham he thought, and then, at the same time, it looked like the most beautiful thing in the world. “Diego, Diego!” “Si Papa.” His father lay crouched beside him, his finger pointing through the tall grass. About five feet ahead, among the oak trees stood a family of black Iberian pigs eating acorns. “You see Diego – this is why it tastes so good – do you see now?” “Yes Papa.” At that time the wild pigs seemed like magical creatures moving through the evening forest as the first leaves began to fall. He was close to his father then. He could smell pipe tobacco and the cold steel of the shotgun.

“Jose wants everyone to come out front,” the head chef bellowed to the line and sous. They all smiled, moved various dishes off the heat, and quick-paced out to the front. Diego rinsed the pot and reached for a colander. The kitchen was empty, white and cold. Chef burst in and reached for the platter. His foot had just returned to the saddle of the kitchen door when he stopped and turned. “Diego!” “Si Chef!” Chef stopped, walked towards Diego and reached for a fresh plate. He grabbed a baguette, broke it, split it, and laid a slice of jamón across the white soft center and handed it to Diego. “A aquellos que pagan el precio mas alto por sognar, debe de ir la primar prueba del cielo.” Diego felt the hard crustiness of the bread, the soft whiteness like clouds viewed from an airplane, and then the velvet, fruity softness of the jamón ibérico and home. He felt his father beside him and the aroma of sweet tobacco. La primar prueba del cielo.