Going Once…Going Twice…

“Paul, it’s Bob Wilson. You’ve won the Nobel Prize.”

A security camera in front of Paul Milgrom’s home in Stanford, California, recorded Wilson and his wife Mary sidling up to Milgrom’s front door in the predawn darkness and repeatedly knocking and ringing the doorbell to wake him up. After a short pause to take in the momentous news, Paul Milgrom responded, “Wow, yeah. Okay.”

Story by Melissa de Witte at stanford.edu.
Robert Wilson and Paul Milgrom, photo by Andrew Brodhead.

The Nobel Prizes for 2020 were announced earlier this month. I thought I should take it on myself to understand what it was that earned these folks the Biggest Blue Ribbon for Brains in the world. I know just enough economics to get myself into trouble, so this could be fun. Economics (and science for that matter) are like languages that I speak badly (hablando de español…) I can almost read economic theory with a little wikipedia and dictionary.com at hand, but writing about it might generate some misinformation. Nevertheless, let’s dive in and alleviate your curiosity. I know you saw the awards but did you understand what they were for. I’m especially proud since northern Californians took four out of the eleven Nobel awards, two from my alma mater and two from its rival but still my peeps, woot woot!

Not All Auctions Involve Cattle or Eyebrows

My favorite award this year has to be the Prize for Economics, which usually annoys me in its advancement of “free markets,” which aren’t. This year, however, the theories were comprehensible and practical. Understanding the math is something else entirely, but never fear—we won’t go there. Two fellows from Stanford (take off that red shirt!) won for their development of Auction Theory.

When I think of auction, I always visualize a Texan with a big hat and microphone who sounds something like Leroy Van Dyke, in his famous song from the 1950s:

Either that or auctions make me think of a scene in a spy movie or comedy, where fancy people are seated in a room, and the British butler begins auctioning the mysterious painting or golden egg or Wonka ticket, which might hold a clue to the whereabouts of the Austerioserlian terrorists. Numbers are randomly repeated as he points at audience members who do nothing more than move an eyebrow or lift a pinky. Or, if it’s a comedy, the lady inappropriately dressed keeps accidentally bidding when she sneezes. To me, that’s an auction. It turns out that those are not the only types of auctions.

Auction from the First Wives Club. Photo from artnet.com.

Those auctions are known as open-bid English auctions, where the price moves from low to high. There are also Dutch auctions (aka clock auctions), where the price starts high then moves down, as well as sealed bid auctions, multi-unit auctions… but wait, there’s more! These Stanford professors won their prize for describing the theory of combinatorial clock multi-unit auctions.

Let’s translate that into English. They were interested in auctions where things were sold in groups, where the price of the whole might be more than the sum of the parts. Multi-unit or combinatorial auctions might apply, for example, to estate sales. The clock part means an auction where the price for the whole is set high, then the auctioneer lowers the price, or combinations of prices, until a bidder accepts it.

Combinatorial Clocks Are Even Better With Flowcharts

What if buyers don’t want to buy everything in the group, but bundles of things? The tricky part for the auctioneer is to look at all the bids for various combinations of the items and determine which will maximize revenue for the auctioneer. This became an important practical challenge when the FCC decided to auction off radio frequencies, which before 1994 were allocated without auction. The combinatorial clock format worked better for the telecommunication industry, while the federal government (i.e. us taxpayers) earned more overall. The format the two prize winners invented (Simultaneous Multiple Round Auction) helped provide bidders with more information about what others were bidding, which improved the bidding process for everybody. I agree; more information = better.

Once I started looking at pictures related to combinatorial clock auctions, several flow charts popped up, so of course I was instantly in love:

From a fascinating treatise on “Market Design and the Evolution of the Combinatorial Clock Auction” here

What makes the combinatorial clock auction work is the ability to create multiple rounds and the ability for bidders to select multiple bits and pieces, kind of like off a Chinese menu. Still, the very idea of radio stations today is somehow quaint. The last time I was poking around the AM dial, looking for some sports or palatable music (I’ll even take Katie Perry, come on!), all I heard was enthusiastic warbling about Jesus, singing in Spanish, or conservative talk radio. Although I didn’t really stay long enough to hear if it was conservative, they just sounded angry. I’m sure my 23-year-old would patiently ask me why I didn’t just turn on Spotify.

Photo without Covid effects in the Financial Times, taken by Andrew Brodhead.

Curses, I Paid Too Much!

Wilson, the bespectacled grinner on the right, turns out to have started an economics dynasty. Milgrom on the left was one of his students and the third “offspring” to have won a Nobel prize–the fourth person related to Wilson if you count Wilson himself. Which we probably should.

What Professor Wilson was himself especially noted for is developing an understanding about “the winner’s curse.” People often bid less than the value of an object because they fear overpaying. Nobody wants to bid $45 for an object that ends up with a resale value of $2.99. Wilson’s work also demonstrated why having more information on common objects, such as on resale values, improves bidding.

It saves a lot of time on eBay when you can see whether other people have actually sold the precious Genuine Vintage Antique doodad that your Aunt Sadie left you, which you were planning to post for sale. If the other sales don’t even cover the shipping, then you might want to see if Sadie’s grandchildren would prefer to just keep the thing. Especially if it’s this kind of combinatorial clock:

Photo from pinterest.

I think I’ll pass bidding on that one. On the other hand, if you find one in the shape of a parasaurolophus, let me know.

Tapping

Should I try to kill the war elephants just with Nubian archers? The mathematical analysis by Muhabir on the East Nagach server suggests that I only need Nubian archers, but I have tried with an army before and lost, and it takes 4-8 hours to rebuild archers. It’s possible that the auto-attack mode in the Egyptian mode is set to the AI’s advantage, and that I should be attacking myself, but it’s been so long, I’ve almost forgotten how.

Also, I lost my pink piece of paper that my daughter helped me construct which explained the Circle of Life, so I’m a little at sea.

600 (Embassy) + 174×4=696 (Houses) + 428 = 1724 Deben Coins per day

Muhabir’s Mathematical Analysis of the FOE Egyptian Settlement
Kajmeister’s 2-year-old Forge of Empires settlement. Crowded, but it’s home.

App life in the 21st century is big business. Entertainment, during this pandemic, is a much larger part of what we have to do, especially when there are also hurricanes, wildfires, and police shooting at protesters at various parts of the country. Best to stay inside. I have been playing a game called Forge of Empires since 2016, since I first got my tablet. It’s now a love/hate relationship. I’m getting a little bored. But I have to solve Egypt first.

Gotta Play

Some of us oldsters back in the day played a game called Sid Meier’s Civilization, which let you build cities throughout history, from ancient days through medieval and industrial times, with the outcome building an Apollo spaceship. I spent many happy hours, sometimes even at work to take a break from the frustrations of middle management, moving my settlers around and trying to decide whether the Great Library of Alexandria was more important than the Lighthouse (it was a push… the Pyramids were key and Leonardo’s Workshop, which gave you gunpowder). Forge of Empires has some of the feel with settlers, cities, advancement–if you’ve played one of these, you know how they go.

KK has been playing the Simpsons game, which I looked into but felt it was more funny than intuitive. Lee used to play a game involving keeping Japanese anime cats happy; I tried that for a while, but it lacked any feel of advancement. The cats just were. Rather realistic, actually. Lee also goes online and shoots at terrifying-looking things with large guns. It scares me just to stand behind and watch them play. I will say that if the zombie apocalypse comes, I know who I will shelter with. Not the cats.

FOE Egypt… the most difficult extra settlement, which I probably will be unable to do, even in a month

The graphics with FOE are good, and they’ve added a lot of features in the last three years. There’s a tavern where you can sit and exchange coins, as well as get various boosts. They added an auction site where you can trade your 4 Shrines of Knowledge for something more interesting, like the 4th piece of the set for the Fall Harvest. A place to just shoot at other teams… randomly placed coins, supplies, or even diamonds you get clicking on strange-looking trees, hippos, or stranded parachutes out in the fields…and once a month or so, there’s a big event with special challenges. If you do these tapping kinds of games, it will sound familiar. Even in the blog space, I wrote about it before (scroll to the bottom). Where else can you build your Atomium next to the Capitol next to the Chateau Frontenac, between the blacksmith, Santa’s workshop, and the tar kiln?

The fundamental underlying problem is that the game limits the space you can occupy. At first, there’s plenty, but as soon as you start acquiring things –and I’m a big farmer/gatherer so I’m good at acquiring–you run out of space to put them. You end up with a giant inventory of Coin Boosts (completely useless), Victory Tower Upgrades, or Faces of the Ancient (37). You get way more stuff than you can use or need. A stupefyingly boring surfeit of stuff. I am at least seven levels away from the top of the game, but I got stuck at about this point two years ago. I think I’m going to have to start over.

Tapping Is Big Business

Ninety billion dollars is spent annually on mobile gaming. Or $1.2 trillion if you count global apps. This is not just big business but GIGANTORRRRR (*echo echo*) business. You may have heard about the “Let’s Play” format where celebrity gamers earn money by others watching them play; some dude named PewDiePie apparently is a millionaire. Hope he’s stashing it in a 401K and not blowing it on, like, online games.

Source: Top App Trend

Some of the companies designing apps, like Epic (which makes Fortnite) and Spotify are banding together because the companies that support the apps, like Apple, don’t give them enough money. Write-ups talk about pitting the “small” firms against the “giants.” Reminds me of what we learned about the railroad robber barons of the 1880s, such as Vanderbilt–yes, the guy with the mansions and universities named for him–who would get other companies to pay for him not to compete. On the other hand, railroads brought food and useful goods to people; the Apple apps that we are tapping are simply distractions. Should they be Giants of Industry?

I was speaking with a young woman yesterday, giving a little career exploration advice, and she said she got a job because she plays Minecraft. (Such things happen, whether through being part of a potential boss’s network or whatever the reason. Better than meeting on the golf course.) Given how tech savvy she is, she could probably get a job in the gaming industry, and why not? if we’re all going to be inside and tapping away, then someone has to be paid to program what it is tapped.

Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow diagram

Tapping in the Flow

The key to game design is to strike the proper design between Boredom and Stress. If it’s too easy, fugeddaboutit. If it’s too hard to reach the top levels, it’s also unpleasant. This is the essence of the famous idea of Flow, that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described in the groundbreaking research for his book. To get the most out of an activity you need to challenge yourself until it’s too hard, then practice and learn, then challenge, usw. (&c)

Difficulty takes different forms. KK, as her Pokemon friends know, is an avid Pokemon player, really a Master if there’s such a thing. She’s only a handful of levels above me numerically, but she plays with such care and dedication that she really ought to be nationally ranked. In our neighborhood, there are apparently several such people, some of whom hunt in a pack and others who can play the game without going outside and walking around as you are supposed to do. She gets vehemently frustrated when Other Knowledgeable Ones kick her out of the gym after only five minutes, but she also is annoyed when they don’t kick her out after a few days because then she’s missing out on coins. Last night, she went for a short post-prandial walk up the street, to put herself into a gym–there was an elaborate explanation as to why. I made the mistake of asking that it be repeated.

Five minutes after coming home, she checks her phone and gosh darn it (or words to that effect). They had already kicked her out. I was probably insufficiently sympathetic. If she reads this, I’m sorry. You were right to be annoyed that the people who kicked you out didn’t look at how long you were in so that you could have more coins. Selfish bastards!

I would never fight her in Pokemon; I’m no fool. I only take her on in something like Scrabble, which is just as ruthless but has clearer rules. We used to be roughly evenly matched, but then she started playing Words with Friends, and now we are allowed to check the two-letter word list that we have in our cloud… so even with Scrabble, there’s tapping involved. My mother and her sisters were wickedly good Scrabble players; my 86-year-old aunt who is legally blind still beats the pants off of me. Well played, Depression babies, well played.

FOE Circle of Life… what kills what. In theory, Archers kill elephants but…

I Despair

The Egypt portion of FOE still eludes me. It’s a sub-section from the main game, and I did master the Viking and Samurai versions, so I’m not a complete cretin. Here you build out your brick huts and war elephant stables, producing grain and flowers–down the road I think if I produce enough Ceremonial Sacrifices, then I will win a modest-sized pyramid. But you can’t just be a gatherer/producer, which is my specialty. You have to fight. The mathematical analysis said that I only needed Nubian archers and war chariots, but I keep getting killed with the elephants. And they take 8 hours to build. I’ve read so many portions of the Wiki; I think the problem is you have to be willing to read and understand about hit point values, and I just can’t keep that stuff in my head. Don’t ever make me a general in your army, really, put me in the back where I can handle the supply trains.

Because this is the most difficult of the sub-section offshoots, they give you a month to complete it, instead of only ten days, but I don’t think I’m going to make it. I did manage to replicate the Circle of Life. Lee, the gamer, explained to me that they’re all based on some variation of Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock. The key is remembering what the Light Infantry can kill because everything can kill them. Still, I’ve had my Nubian archers going after the Artillery (elephants) as directed, but I think the computer’s AI is not calibrated correctly. I may have to quit soon and start the whole game from mud hut level.

Although, on the other hand, we’re baking now, so I don’t want to quit before I make cinnamon rolls.

Forge of Empires fall harvest=baked goods. I never seem to get enough for pumpkin for the cinnamon rolls.

Author’s note: I have been pandemic-blessed to pick up two significant short-term gigs (one is writing-related) which are keeping me too busy at the moment to write frequently. This happy problem forces me to dial it back from weekly to bi-weekly or monthly. Those who gently commented that my entries are too damn long can catch up on the ones they missed.

Fate Has Already Been Decided

The Norns, weaving the past, present, and future. Artwork by Arthur Rackham.

Warning: Spoilers ahead for the TV series “The Travelers,” “The Umbrella Academy,” and the movie Interstellar, as well as The Time Machine, Star Trek’s “City on the Edge of Forever,” and Oedipus Rex. Plus thinking about things that make your head hurt.

Wyrd bið ful aræd: Fate is unalterable.
(“weird bidth ful ah-red”)

Old English poem The Wanderer and Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories

The Norse understood about Fate because their worldview envisioned Norns, Weird (Wyrd) Sisters who controlled all that happened, weaving the giant tapestry of our lives. The sisters represented what was, what is, and what is to be.  One Old English poet summed it up in that “weird” saying: Fate is unalterable. The Greeks understood it, too, at least the ones that told the story of Oedipus.

Science fiction writers are kind of on the fence.

Recently, I have been binge-watching series that happen to address time travel. We’ve gotten so used to this as a subject that we take for granted certain conventions, namely that it’s possible in a sci fi story to go back and change something in the past to alter the future. But what if it turns out that isn’t possible? What happens when Wyrd bið ful aræd — the idea that the future can’t be changed–smashes into the quantum technology that allows movement through time? Time travel, meet the Norns.

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Reclaiming the Mocked Suffragette

Ducking stool for suffragettes. Image courtesy of Mentalfloss.com.

We have all heard of the girl who asked what was the difference between a Suffragist and a Suffragette, as she pronounced it, and the answer made [by] her [was] that the ‘Suffragist jist wants the vote, while the Suffragette means to get it.’

From 1914 journal Suffragette of the British Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU). Quoted in Time.com.

When the women’s suffrage movement grew large and loud at the start of the 20th century, a British journalist mocked the suffragists by changing the ending of their label to the diminutive “ette.” The Brits, under the radicalized Women’s Social & Political Union (WPSU) founded by Emmeline Pankhurst, grabbed the insult and took it for their own. In one WPSU journal, Pankhurst changed the soft “g” to a hard one, emphasizing that they aimed to GET the vote.

Across the pond, American suffragists hated the change and, to this day, there’s some annoyance from historians that the distinction isn’t understood. Depending on which reference site you access, the term is either derogatory or explanatory. For example, the U.S. National Park Service says that the term is viewed as “offensive” and not used, while a British Library service explains that suffragists were “peaceful” while suffragettes were “militant.”

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote in the United States and revel in triumphant pictures of the sashed marchers, I found it interesting to look at how they’ve been insulted over that same period. The surprising part was how mockery can sometimes be transformed to admiration, using some of the same words or pictures.

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I Hereby Bequeath to You My Aloofness and My Fascination with Dinosaurs

Shared Shakespeare. Photo by kajmeister.

“Being of sound mind,” my grandfather said, licking the Colonel’s 11 herbs and spices from his fingertips, “I spent it all.”

We were seated in his huge steel gray Cadillac, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken because he seemed to get a kick out of contrasting his wealth with the idea of eating fast food in the car, as a weird way to impress out of town family. He had built up a thriving business and owned a huge house overlooking a creek that flowed into the Mississippi in a swanky suburb of Minneapolis. Grandpa liked to show off its technical gadgets to his grandchildren, although woe betide any who touched the remote control that opened the curtains or turned on the lights. Whenever my mother referred to “the rich,” I knew she meant her father.

When he died, though, I don’t know where the money went. He had nine children and there were medical needs for my grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s. The only thing my mother seemed to inherit from him was a restless industriousness and a fanatic desire to prove herself. She passed that on to her children.

This week’s topic is inheritance and, while first thoughts turn to wealth, for most of us inheritance is about traits, values, and interests. If we’re lucky, maybe a prized object or two as well. We all inherit; it’s rarely money.

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