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Archive for the category “business”

Unintended consequences of seawater fuel – you can afford the drive to dinner, but can’t afford the dinner

Larry Rosenthal shared a Justin Rosario post about how a U.S. Navy technological advance will bring grief to evil Republicans as Big Oil gets smaller and no one cares about the Middle East any more.

But I’m not going to talk about that. First, I’m going to talk about the technological advance itself. Rosario quotes from the International Business Times:

After decades of experiments, U.S. Navy scientists believe they may have solved one of the world’s great challenges: how to turn seawater into fuel….

The new fuel is initially expected to cost around $3 to $6 per gallon, according to the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, which has already flown a model aircraft on it.

While the International Business Times focuses on the new technology’s application to U.S. Navy ships, Rosario speculates – correctly – that the technology could also be put to civilian use. While he looks at good things (well, good things from his perspective), it’s wise to remember that everything has unintended consequences.

Everything.

Let’s assume for the moment that the technology can be expanded from military use to civilian use, and that Big Oil companies and repressive Third World dictatorships disappear overnight, and that a vast network of fueling stations appears around the world, but that the fueling stations are all run by really really nice people who pay their employees $100 an hour while providing fuel at pre-1973 prices of 10 cents a gallon.

Everybody’s happy, right?

“Mom, can we go to Red Lobster tonight?”

“No, son.”

“But Mom, the Red Lobster is only 100 miles away, and it would only cost us a dime to drive there!”

“That’s right, son, but I can’t afford to pay $1,000 for a fish dinner tonight.”

“$1,000? Why do fish dinners cost so much, Mom?”

“Because of all the barges that are going up and down the coastline, converting seawater into fuel.”

“I remember those barges, Mom. They were a lot of them. They looked pretty cool!”

“Well, son, the fish don’t like all of those barges, so they all moved to other waters, and now the fishers aren’t catching that many fish any more. So fish dinners cost a lot more today. Back when I was a kid, I could get a fish dinner for less than it cost to buy two gallons of gas.”

“A fish dinner costing less than two gallons of gas? That’s really weird, Mom.”

Office on iPad – two thoughts

Loren Feldman shared a link to a New York Times article about the availability of Microsoft Office on the iPad.

My first reaction was to something the Times said:

Microsoft introduced the long-awaited suite of applications, which includes Word, PowerPoint and Excel, at an event here Thursday, where the company’s new chief executive, Satya Nadella, committed to making the software work on all major computing devices, including those made by its competitors. Microsoft plans to create Office apps for tablet computers running Google’s Android operating system, too.

To some, the move is a refreshing sign of a new Microsoft, one slowly unshackling itself from an era when its major decisions were made in deference to Windows, Microsoft’s operating system. But skeptics wonder if Microsoft has waited too long, giving people who use iPads, especially business professionals, years to get used to life without it and giving an opening to start-ups and Apple’s competing products.

The tenor of the article suggested that Microsoft was doing something new.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Unlike Apple, who enforced an “Apple only” mindset until reluctantly making iTunes available for Windows, Microsoft has consistently provided products for non-Microsoft platforms. In fact, when the Macintosh was introduced in 1984, one of the featured vendors was…Microsoft.

My second reaction was based upon Loren Feldman’s reaction to the idea of leading vendors offering subscription services – or, in Feldman’s words, “[p]aying to edit a doc.” This prompted me to add a comment that reflected what I’ve been saying in this blog (and others) for years, and to offer one of my extremely accurate (or extremely inaccurate) predictions. My comment:

I strongly believe in a pendulum model in which we’ve bounced between centralized and decentralized computing over the last few decades. We’re obviously in a centralized mode now, with cloud computing all the rage and with our mobile device applications (such as Siri) heavily dependent upon centralized servers somewhere else.

Subscription models can work well in such an environment, and are obviously lucrative for the companies.

But there’s always a chance that users, spooked by the NSA and tired of the Big Data Suckers, may suddenly decide that they’d prefer to have apps and data on their own servers, under their own control, with no Amazon or Apple or Facebook or Google sticking their noses in it.

I may be wrong, but I suspect that in the next few years there will be a lot of rain on the cloud parade.

Pong was just a training exercise. It trained the entire video game industry.

I’m sure that younger people stare in disbelief when they see the computer game Pong for the first time. “That’s it?” they probably say to themselves. Compared to modern games, or even 1980s games such as PacMan, Pong is one of the most boring games in history. Yet this game not only changed the company Atari, but it created an entire videogame industry.

According to ponggame.org, Atari’s original mandate was to create games for other companies. Along the way, one employee, Allan Alcorn, created Pong as a training exercise. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell made a few tweaks and put the game in a bar. The success of the game at the bar (yes, alcohol was involved in the creation of Pong) convinced Bushnell that Atari should manufacture the game itself, rather than licensing it out.

By the time Pong’s run had ended several years later, Atari had not only sold 35,000 Pong machines, but had also sold 150,000 units to the home market.

Today, the Pong Game is considered to be the game which started the video games industry, as it proved that the video games market can produce significant revenues.

If you want to experience Pong for yourself, go here. Your computer should probably be able to handle the game’s technical demands.

Are we more vulnerable than the Ingalls family on the prairie?

The Ingalls family, immortalized in a series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, had it rough. If a disaster struck the family during a long winter, they couldn’t just dial up 911 and get relief. If one of the Ingalls kids was going blind, they couldn’t consult WebMD or Skype the Mayo Clinic.

But they did have advantages over us.

If they were sitting at home one night, reading, they didn’t have to worry about a virus sweeping through the home and stealing everything that they – and their neighbors – own. But we have to worry about such things.

Researchers at the University of Liverpool have shown for the first time that WiFi networks can be infected with a virus that can move through densely populated areas as efficiently as the common cold spreads between humans.

The team designed and simulated an attack by a virus, called Chameleon, and found that not only could it spread quickly between homes and businesses, but it was able to avoid detection and identify the points at which WiFi access is least protected by encryption and passwords.

And while the Ingalls family could be snowed in, or perhaps blown away by a tornado, they wouldn’t necessarily have to deal with a geomagnetic storm that could cripple millions of people:

Geomagnetic storms can occur with little warning. The worst geomagnetic storms are the result of coronal mass ejections (CMEs) in which billions of tons of highly charged particles from the sun’s surface shoot into space toward the Earth and disrupt the Earth’s magnetic field. A geomagnetic storm would reach Earth between fourteen and ninety-six hours, leaving little time to safeguard critical infrastructure after a CME has been detected. NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite, located a million miles from Earth, can give a 30-minutes first-warning on the severity of an incoming geomagnetic storm.

A geomagnetic storm disrupts the Earth’s magnetic field by producing geomagnetically induced currents (GICs) on the Earth’s surface, which can enter the power grid at transformer stations and move along power lines, disrupting normal operations. Wild fluctuations in voltage across power lines could cause power failure as relays try to isolate vulnerable equipment. High-voltage transformers could become overloaded and overheat, leading to permanent damage. Old high-voltage transformers nearing the end of their service lives are most vulnerable.

“Pa, the geomagnetic storm’s coming in! Secure the candles!”

“I can’t do that right now, Ma. I have to go down to the bank and find out why all our money is in China!”

Live from Stamford, it’s the Sochi Olympics!

Remember my post from last month that predicted a time when the only people at a sporting event would be the players?

That time may be closer than we think.

Of course, the idea that EVERYONE has to be at a sporting event is a relatively new concept. Back in the days that Ronald Reagan was a radio baseball announcer, he and his fellow announcers often broadcast games from a studio, heavily dependent upon a stream of information from Western Union.

That offended modern sensibilities, and companies subsequently insisted that their announcers actually attend the games that they were broadcasting. And they did; during Monday Night Football’s heyday, the arrival of Gifford, Cosell, and Meredith in an NFL city was regarding as the circus coming to town.

But now, the pendulum is swinging back a bit.

If you live outside of Los Angeles, you may think that Petros Papadakis and Matt “Money” Smith have disappeared from the radio entirely. The truth is, however, that their show – initially local, then national – has gone local again. And on Thursday’s local show, Papadakis was talking about his Sunday night television partner, Fred Roggin, who had left Los Angeles to cover the Olympics. But Roggin hadn’t gone to Sochi, Russia – he had gone to Stamford, Connecticut.

Roggin, however, is a host, and hosts are usually broadcasting from some studio or another. It’s not like the Sochi Olympic play-by-play announcers were going to be in faraway Connecticut, would they?

Well, actually…

“We have a team in Stamford that will be grabbing event highlights, interviews with athletes, medals ceremonies, feature stories, amazing finishes,” [NBC Sports editorial VP Tom] Seeley said. “They will produce about 100 clips a day, long-form replays plus short-form clips of three to five minutes.”

It also means curling coverage, live from Russia and Stamford….

During curling competition in Sochi, video “will be coming to Stamford over digital paths,” [NBC Sports engineering VP Tim] Canary said. “The matches will come with natural sound, but the voicing will be done in Stamford. We will put curling experts in an announce booth and they will do play-by-play. So viewers will be hearing a call done in Stamford for a match being played in Russia.”

Unfortunately, these announcers will not be supported by Western Union.

When knowledge expands

A recent Mel Kleiman post began as follows:

Human knowledge is now doubling every 3.7 years. This means 50 percent of what you now know will be out of date in less than four years.

Let’s focus on the second word of that post. When Kleiman says that knowledge is doubling, is his definition of “knowledge” equivalent to my own?

To clarify, I have consistently used a four-step model from Sujatha Das that discusses data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. Clearly data is always expanding, but is actual knowledge expanding?

Based upon Kleiman’s example, I suspect that we are using the same definition of knowledge.

Just to bring it home, let’s imagine you need open heart surgery. How would you like to have it performed by someone who hadn’t learned anything new about the procedure in the past 48 months?

Open heart surgery requires knowledge. (But it also requires wisdom.)

If knowledge is truly doubling that quickly, this has significant ramifications for how things are done – and, as Kleiman notes, who we get to do these things.

An uncomfortable paragraph

Nathan Rabin has written an essay that begins with the following paragraph:

The blond, slight, hockey-obsessed Canadian teenager flirts outrageously with the camera, knowing full well that it is his greatest friend and professional asset. The young man is not just handsome, he’s downright pretty, with a delicate, androgynous beauty that drives the teenyboppers crazy but also, uncomfortably, makes him an object of erotic desire for adults as well. He’s still several years away from being able to drink legally in his adopted country of the United States but he looks much, much younger, less like a late teenager on the cusp of manhood than a boyishly handsome middle-aged lesbian.

Rabin’s essay was posted after Justin Bieber was arrested in Miami on multiple charges.

But the first paragraph (and the following one) are not about Bieber.

They are about Corey Haim, circa 1989.

Haim died 20 years after the completion of his film Me, Myself, and I – filmed after what turned out to be the first of many stints in rehab.

Why am I now discussing Sears here, instead of in my business blog?

On January 9, I wrote a post in my Empoprise-BI business blog that discussed Sears’ earnings warning.

So why am I writing about Sears in tymshft, my time-related blog?

Because Megan McArdle has placed Sears in historical perspective. Speaking of Sears’ early catalog business, she wrote:

It was the Amazon.com of its era: not only comprehensive, but — because of its enormous scale — also able to offer bargains that no one else could match.

According to McArdle, Sears’ move to the malls provided early success in sales to the middle class, but as McArdle put it:

Malls are struggling. So is the middle class.

Be sure to read McArdle’s entire analysis here.

The doctor comes to you – sort of

About a year ago, I wrote a story that appeared in this blog. Since so much time has elapsed, I’ll go ahead and give away the ending. A patient is in a doctor’s office where all of the procedures are performed remotely. After a pleasant appointment, she asks a question:

“You’ve been very helpful. But I’ve always wondered exactly WHERE you were. If you were in Los Angeles, or in Mississippi, or perhaps in India or China, or perhaps even in one of the low-cost places such as Chad. If you don’t mind my asking, exactly where ARE you?”

Drumroll please – or perhaps the scary music.

“I don’t mind answering the question,” replied the friendly voice, “and I hope you don’t take my response the wrong way, but I’m not really a person as you understand the term. I’m actually an application within the software package that runs the medical center. But my programmers want me to tell you that they’re really happy to serve you, and that Stanford sucks.” The voice paused for a moment. “I’m sorry, Edith. You have to forgive the programmers – they’re Berkeley grads.”

Naturally, it’s going to take some time before software can intelligently perform an array of diagnostic tasks. But we’re getting there, and the machines have already mastered one important skill – navigating down the hall.

With a simple push of an iPad button, [Dr. Robert] Vespa can send the robot gliding down the hall to a patient’s room. Equipped with 30 sensors that enable the it to “see” when its route is blocked by a gurney or curious bystander, EVA possesses the intelligence to self-correct and plot a detour to its destination.

After the robot reaches a patient’s bedside, Vespa can examine the patient in real time. A two-way video monitor in EVA’s “face” enables the patient and doctor to see and hear each other. A 120x zoom capacity allows Vespa to magnify a single word on the patient’s chart or zero in on the patient’s eyes to check for dilated pupils.

As of now, the robot is still under the control of the doctor.

Give it time.

(Thanks to Robert G. Male for sharing something that led me to this May 2013 UCLA news release.)

How technology advances improve accuracy in the new year

Remember when a new year would begin, and you’d always have to remind yourself not to write the old year on checks?

Well, since we rarely write checks any more, and since the electronic payment technologies pre-populate the date, this is less of a problem now.

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