The Contrarian

“In the investment markets, what everyone knows is usually not worth knowing.”

The New Algo-Everything World May Kill Us All

Yes, we are now entering the world of robots and algorithm programs controlling our lives. We have algo-trading, algo-communicating, algo-writing, algo-driving (read autopilot) among others. We just read that news articles can be written automatically by a computer and an algorithm. How about our Wellington Letter? Will the algos have a sense of humor?

Wolf Richter, an excellent writer, tells a story of what the “algo” of Amazon did to him. The identical thing happened to us earlier this year, with the identical message, when we remembered that one of our books was on Amazon, but we hadn’t check it for many months. The Amazon robot may need some human attention. Read Wolf’s take on his experience with algos:

Amazon Algorithm Makes Decision about WOLF STREET, Hilarity Ensues

by Wolf Richter • September 19, 2016

If the broader ramifications weren’t so serious!

This just happened to me this morning. It would be purely and immensely hilarious, if its broader ramifications that impact our lives every day weren’t so serious.

It has to do with algorithms – software programs designed to replace human brains everywhere human brains used to make decisions. It has to do with how they can go haywire, how they don’t see the obvious, don’t even look at the obvious, and make totally stupid decisions.

In this instance, the algo made the entire company look idiotic. It’s so funny, I’m still grinning – at Amazon’s expense.

Some background: I have two books on Amazon and link to them on WOLF STREET. I sell a few of them a week. It’s not even pocket money. But it’s fun knowing that someone is interested in my books. They’re entertainment, and hopefully they’ll make someone laugh.

Back in the day while I still used the predecessor site, I had an associate account with Amazon. When I switched to WOLF STREET in July 2014, I let that account go and forgot about it. The other day, I remembered it and decided to log in and check it out. Turns out, Amazon had closed it. No big deal. It told me to open a new one. So I jumped through the necessary hoops, supplying all the tax and banking info, and opened a new one, tying it to my site.

Everything was hunky-dory and worked, until this morning, when I got an email from Amazon, from no particular person but from some nameless algo that doesn’t even know how to spell (though that would be the least you’d expect an algo to get right). Here it is, typos and all:


Thank you for applying for the Associate program. Upon review, we are unable to accept your application. A part of our criteria is that your site has to be established with enough unique content. We rejected your application due to one or more of the following reasons.

– Lack of content which is original to your site and beneficial to your visitors

– Pages that are mainly empty when advertisement content is removed

Unfortunately, we aren’t able to review an application once it’s been rejected. If your website has been further developed and now contains appropriate content, you’re welcome to submit another application by using the following URL:

So this algo said that the very WOLF STREET you’re looking at doesn’t have “enough unique content,” that pages “are mainly empty when advertisement content is removed.”

There are thousands of unique articles written by me and other authors on this site, plus over 31,000 unique and often excellent comments written by readers. And that silly Amazon algo failed to see them – and made a decision based on this failure.

“Pages that are mainly empty when advertisement content is removed.” Hilarious. I mean, such a HOOT!

Who wrote that algo? Humans, for sure. So we don’t blame the algo. That’s useless. We blame the humans at super-duper high-tech outfit Amazon that concocted this critter. And we blame management for allowing it to exist and make decisions that are just ludicrous.

When an algo like this goes haywire, it’s an institutional problem. Bezos did it.

In this particular instance, Amazon’s decision has practically zero impact on me. But algos like this are running our lives, from the mundane, like what ads you see on your computer or smartphone, to the crucial, like medical treatments and credit applications (mortgages, auto loans, etc.). Algos are used by financial firms to trade and manipulate the markets. They’re used by recruiters – and so your career depends on them. Algos are used for a million things.

They impact many essential parts of our lives – and most of the time, we don’t even know. It’s just when we notice that something went wrong that we begin wondering. But often times, we don’t even know something went wrong. The algo just did something in the background in a picosecond, and it’s undermining something that could be crucial to us. And there won’t even be a human available to fix the situation.

Which gives me second thoughts about self-driving cars: they’re driven by algos, and those algos make life-and-death decisions all the time.

When I wrote about self-driving cars the other day, it generated a torrent of excellent comments, at last count 152. It’s all part of the “Pages that are mainly empty when advertisement content is removed,” as Amazon’s algo put it so eloquently. Many of these comments are pooh-poohing the concept of self-driving cars, sometimes for the same reason I stated here, that an algo might go haywire and make the wrong decision. So I’ll eat a little crow. Read…  Self-Driving Vehicle Revolution to Wipe Out 4 Million Jobs

Our comment: it’s scary to think that there may be millions of cars someday being controlled by such stupidity. Of course, the intelligence of many human drivers today may not be higher. Car body shops will be very busy. There is a business idea: do a “roll up” of body shops around the country. Then go public. It’ll be able to make a fortune when autopilot cars start. Forget about forecasting the investment markets and retire on the beach of some island paradise.