Bluebird skiing in Telluride, a brief briefing, and reading The Second Machine Age

by Rob Tiller

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Last week Sally and I joined Gabe and several friends in Telluride, Colorado, for a few days of skiing, eating, and talking. When I describe Telluride, I always mention how beautiful it is, but when I got there, I realized I’d forgotten how massive and magnificent the mountains are. The craggy alpine vistas surround you, regal and timeless. And the town itself has a friendly, unassuming charm. I tried to capture some of these feelings, but was uncomfortable taking my D7100 onto the slopes, and so used my little Canon point-and-shoot up there.
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Telluride has a lot of challenging terrain, and the question always is, can you handle it? Gabe Tiller has been living here five years, and he can answer that question with a yes. On our first day, he took me down a double black diamond mogul run called spiral stairs, which, once we were committed, he told me was “really steep.” He wasn’t kidding! He also led me into a tree run called Log Pile. These were pressing the outer edge of the envelope for me. Getting through in one piece was a great happiness!
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Moguls — aka bumps, or areas of irregular snow that form in steep areas — are terrifying for beginners, frustrating for intermediates, and challenging in varying degrees for those more advanced. If you want to ski the steep wild places, you just need to figure out moguls, and there’s no simple solution. It’s like three-dimensional chess – or make that speed chess. We complimented Gabe on how smooth and strong he looked in the tough mogul runs, and he noted, with admirably humility, that it only took him five years of work.

There is no way I’ll ever reach Gabe’s level, but I got a bit stronger and more stylish this week. I averaged three falls a day, which I take as an indicator that I’m still pushing my limits and improving. I also found new joy in the gladed runs – basically moguls with trees. These require creativity and intense concentration. We did on called Captain Jack’s, which Gabe told me would get “kind of loggy.” Indeed. I had only one scary crash, after I saw Gabe flash by doing hyperspeed turns, and was inspired to give chase. I made the first three turns, but missed the fourth and ran into a tree. I did some minor damage to my left shoulder, but I think it will heal up OK. My worst injury was sunburn on my lips. I got everything except the lips protected with sunblock – a rookie mistake.
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Our four ski days were all remarkably clear and sunny, with pleasant ski temperatures in the mid-30s. The snow was generally good – not too hard and not too soft – Goldilocks snow. Of course, it’s always a treat to get fresh light powder, but if it doesn’t happen, I’ll take bluebird days and Goldilocks. We were on the lifts almost as soon as they opened at nine and went at it hard until 3:30 or so. Then hot tub, relaxing, cocktails, and dinner. We particularly enjoyed eating at the Telluride Bistro, Siam, 221, and Hongas.
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I had one important work project: an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank. The case involves a patent concerning financial intermediation, and presents the question of when software is patent eligible under 35 U.S.C. Section 101. I’ve thought about the paradox of software patents for a long time: how a system meant to foster innovation ends up hindering it. I was happy to take on the out-of-ordinary-course assignment of writing the brief myself, but the due date fell in the middle of the ski trip. With hard work, I got most of the writing done before the trip, and while my colleagues took care of cite checking and filing mechanics, I took responsibility for the needless worrying. In the end, I was reasonably happy with the brief, which I hope will help move the debate in the right direction. It can be downloaded here.
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For leisure reading, I made it most of the way through Brynjolfsson & McAfee’s new book , The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. Their subject is how robots and automation are dramatically changing the world. Technology tends to provide more and more extraordinary wealth for the lucky few and the risk of redundancy for the rest. It’s a good introduction to the subject. They explain with clarity and verve why technological change is accelerating, point up examples of the disruptive technologies just starting to take over human work, and play out some of the economic implications.

They seem determined to be optimistic about the future, with examples of how humans and machines can each complement the other. I didn’t think some of their policy prescriptions (e.g. improved education, improve infrastructure, immigration reform, IP reform ) matched up very well with the long-term risks they identified (that is, machines becoming better than humans at almost everything and destroying the labor market). They give some weight to the idea of a guaranteed basic income, which would serve the purpose of preventing mass starvation, but they worry that it might result in dysfunctional communities. The identify employment as a social good, and like the idea of a negative income tax, because it would subsidize and encourage employment. This seems worth thinking about.