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Archive for the month “January, 2014”

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.)

Luckily it was Gore, not Clinton, who was talking about the “hits” (1996 Presidential campaign web sites)

After seeing something shared by Tad Donaghe, I ended up at the 4presidents.us website, a site that documents U.S. Presidential campaigns since 1960. Beginning in 1996, you can see how the World Wide Web played an increasing role in Presidential campaigns, with many of the candidates setting up websites. 4presidents.org preserves the comments made by Vice President Al Gore upon the July 10, 1996 launching of the Clinton/Gore 1996 web site. You may already know this, but Vice President Gore had a passing interest in technology, and in some cases he was absolutely giddy about the advantages of this new technology:

This is the first thing you see when you go to our home page, and it has a couple of innovative features for those of you who are familiar with the Internet and the World Wide Web. It’s not very common to have this kind of ticker with a changing message at the bottom constantly moving or to have a server pushing new pictures onto the page with regularity right to your own computer….

In any event, it is exciting for me to officially unveil this new Clinton/Gore ’96 home page, and we look forward to lots of “hits”, as they say, on the World Wide Web…

Considering his boss’ former activities (but he didn’t inhale!), I guess Gore needed to be very explicit when talking about what a “hit” was.

For Gore, however, the true advantage of the website is that it provided an easy way to fact-check items about the Clinton-Gore campaign. Referring to the Republican symbol, Gore repeatedly said “one click of the mouse proves the elephant’s wrong.”

For an opposing view, you can visit the Dole/Kemp 96 website, which has been preserved intact. Despite its age, some of the issues that Dole addressed on his own technology page still resound today – it’s just that the names have changed.

Within his first 100 days as President, Bill Clinton proposed the Clipper Chip — a secret government-controlled encryption algorithm — and a companion key escrow system where two government agencies would hold a copy of the keys for every Clipper user. Since then Bill Clinton has released updated versions of encryption proposals which insist that the government hold a key to individual’s private data communications….

Bob Dole strongly supports the observations made in the recent National Research Council report that widespread use of encryption to promote information security outweighs the difficulties encrypted communications place on law enforcement. Economic espionage from foreign countries and companies is a serious threat, and Bob Dole believes Americans should have the right to guard themselves using encryption.

These issues are still being discussed today.

A picture is worth how many words?

DISCLOSURE: I work in the biometric industry.

As we continue to use new technologies to solve crimes, some older technologies are still used.

“There’s not always going to be a camera,” [crime analyst/forensic artist] Conlon said. “Until we start getting to [an] age where computers are everywhere and Big Brother is watching you, for now the sketch artist is watching you.”

But in the post-NAS world, people are sharing concerns about the use of composite sketches.

In a 2008 study, [journalism professor John] Watson and two other researchers surveyed nearly 400 people who were asked to compare a set of 12 composites with 12 photos and say whether the sketch matched the person. About 30 percent of the respondents thought the sketch matched its corresponding photo. But, it turns out, all of the sketches depicted the person in the matching photo.

In his coming research, Watson will insist that police departments come up with a way to calculate how effective their artists are and develop a system to decide whether the benefits of composites outweigh the possible risks.

So you have to weigh the pros and cons – perhaps composite sketches (generated by an artist, or by software) can help you solve crimes that wouldn’t be solved otherwise. On the other hand, the use of composite sketches may introduce misleading data that leads you to the wrong conclusion.

The Washington Post author, Lynh Bui, concluded that things work best when this technology is used with other technologies. Bui tells the story of a video and composite sketch being used together. The sketch caused people to recall a face of a particular person, but while that person had a similar face, the person’s body was NOT similar to the 220 pound person whose image was captured in the surveillance video.

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.

The benefits and drawbacks of autonomous vehicles, courtesy RAND Corporation

The RAND Corporation (not to be confused with Rand Paul) has released a study entitled “Autonomous Vehicle Technology: A Guide for Policymakers.” The study, which can be downloaded for free, analyzes the benefits and drawbacks of the emerging technologies behind self-driving cars.

It’s always important to remember that the development of a technology itself is not the only thing that needs to happen. The environment around the technology, such as the legal environment, often has to change. In my industry, it’s technically possible for an automated fingerprint identification system (AFIS) in state A to talk to an AFIS in state B, even if the two systems come from different manufacturers. However, until the two states complete various agreements for the transfer of the data and the resulting increases in workload, AFIS data transfer isn’t going to happen.

Returning to autonomous vehicles, the RAND corporation notes that there are several benefits to the technology. In addition to increasing mobility for people who cannot drive today, the study asserts that the accuracy of autonomous vehicles over human-driven vehicles will result in a decrease in accidents. This also solves parking issues in urban areas, since the cars don’t have to park next to your workplace; they can go off and park somewhere else, kind of like how valet services work.

However, there are drawbacks:

Because the technology would decrease the cost of driving, congestion might increase, rather than decrease.

Occupations and economies based on public transit, crash repair, and automobile insurance might suffer as the technology makes certain aspects of these occupations obsolete.

The latter point is important, as Jason Calcanis reminds us, and as Goodyear France’s most recent hostage crisis reminds us.

Now some may doubt the findings, since it runs counter-intuitive to anecdotal evidence to think that a “robot car” could be more accurate than a car with a “real driver.” As I have previously noted, Loren Feldman prefers human-driven cars to autonomous ones, and raises valid points about possible infection of driverless cars. And, of course, cars can be hacked.

However, the RAND Corporation study is a real study, and I can cite clear evidence that the study is a real study. Look at the study’s first recommendation:

Further research should be conducted to better quantify the likely costs and benefits of the technology and, just as importantly, to whom they will accrue.

When a study states that further research is needed, you know that it’s legitimate.

Why Frank Zappa’s alternative to the PMRC wouldn’t work today

Lost in all of the drama of Frank Zappa vs. the PMRC is the detail that Zappa actually proposed an alternative to the PMRC’s record rating system. Here’s how Zappa proposed to address the question of record content in his September 19, 1985 appearance:

I have got an idea for a way to stop all this stuff and a way to give parents what they really want, which is information, accurate information as to what is inside the album, without providing a stigma for the musicians who have played on the album or the people who sing it or the people who wrote it. And I think that if you listen carefully to this idea that it might just get by all of the constitutional problems and everything else.

As far as I am concerned, I have no objection to having all of the lyrics placed on the album routinely, all the time. But there is a little problem. Record companies do not own the right automatically to take these lyrics, because they are owned by a publishing company.

So, just as all the rest of the PMRC proposals would cost money, this would cost money too, because the record companies would need — they should not be forced to bear the cost, the extra expenditure to the publisher, to print those lyrics.

In subsequent questioning by then-Senator Al Gore, the idea was discussed more fully:

[Senator Gore] Your suggestion of printing the lyrics on the album is a very interesting one. The PMRC at one point said they would propose either a rating or warning, or printing all the lyrics on the album. The record companies came back and said they did not want to do that.

I think a lot of people agree with your suggestion that one easy way to solve this problem for parents would be to put the actual words there, so that parents could see them. In fact, the National Association of Broadcasters made exactly the same request of the record companies. I think your suggestion is an intriguing one and might really be a solution for the problem.

FZ: You have to understand that it does cost money, because you cannot expect publishers to automatically give up that right, which is a right for them. Somebody is going to have to reimburse the publishers, the record industry.

Without trying to mess up the album jacket art, it should be a sheet of paper that is slipped inside the shrink-wrap, so that when you take it out you can still have a complete album package. So there is going to be some extra cost for printing it.

But as long as people realize that for this kind of consumer safety you are going to spend some money and as long as you can find a way to pay for it, I think that would be the best way to let people know.

Senator Gore: I do not disagree with that at all. And the separate sheet would also solve the problem with cassettes as well, because you do not have the space for words on the cassette packs.

FZ: There would have to be a little accordion-fold.

Gore’s interjection of the issue of cassettes illustrates where we were back in 1985. At the time, both Gore and Zappa were thinking of vinyl record albums as the presentation medium for long-form music. Record albums, of course, are large, and have plenty of space to include lyrics – something that the Beatles demonstrated in 1967.

However, by 1985, cassette tapes – which were much smaller – were becoming very popular.

And within the next few years, compact discs – which include “compact” in their name – would emerge.

Today, for many people, all of these physical distribution forms are meaningless. Even a Luddite such as myself hasn’t bought music in a physical form in years.

So if your LP cover has become a smaller cassette or CD cover – or no cover at all in the case of downloads – then there’s no place to put the lyrics.

Yet the question still remains – before I buy a song, how do I know whether the contents are something that I would find to be objectionable?

“Go to the online lyric sites,” one may respond. However, the financial issues that Zappa addressed nearly 30 years ago still exist today. You see, many of those lyric sites engage in illegal activity by posting those lyrics.

Music publishers are staging a press conference in Washington on Monday to announce that they have targeted 50 websites with takedown notices for unlicensed song lyrics, arguing that they profit from the copyrighted works by collecting advertising revenue.

The National Music Publishers Assn. said that they will take legal action against sites that don’t remove the content.

For a list of the Undesirable 50, look at the PDF at the end of this press release. Rapgenius subsequently agreed to meet with the NMPA.

Oh, and while we’re talking about lists, I have one question about the PMRC’s Filthy Fifteen – how come there were no country songs on the list? Oh, I forgot – country music is filled with songs such as “I Will Only Consume a Small Amount of Alcohol” and “Cover Your Body, You Brazen Hussy!”

Why non-myopics appreciate that disruption is disruptive

When a normal person hears the word “disruption,” it is regarded as a negative thing.

But not everyone is normal, and Jason Calacanis’ recent post reminds some people that unqualified praise of disruptive technology is not a good thing.

And keep in mind that the “disruption” that is so lauded in our industry is largely one that removes inefficiencies, frequently defined as a “humans” working in “jobs.”

H/T Larry Rosenthal.

Why is the Rose Bowl called a bowl?

(If E.M. Forster’s fiction becomes reality, it will be realized in incremental steps.)

Bob and Judy were in the basement, celebrating New Year’s Day in their entertainment center. The display screen, which Bob and Judy still occasionally called a “TV,” was currently displaying the items that were going to be delivered to their home in the next half hour. Bob and Judy, Luddites that they were, still liked to order real meat, and occasionally Judy would even contact the specialty stores and have them drone some organic meat over to them.

The order perused, Bob switched the display back to the Huffington Entertainment Channel, just in time to hear an announcement about the forthcoming Rose Bowl football game. This year’s matchup appeared to be a competitive one, in which Ohio State was cast to face Reed College.


Bob turned to Judy. “I’m bored,” he said. “Do you think our grandson’s awake yet?”

“Probably,” Judy replied.

“Are you up for an adventure?” Bob asked.

Judy nodded, and went to wake North up.

North walked into the basement eating a bowl of Soylent. “North,” asked his grandfather, “how would you like to go to the Rose Bowl today to watch the football game?”

North looked puzzled. “What do you mean, go to the Rose Bowl?”

Judy smiled. “Well, instead of watching the game on the TV – I mean display – we can go right to where the game is being played. Did you know that it’s being played in Pasadena, just a few miles from here?”

North still looked puzzled. “Why would you want to do that?”

Bob smiled. “Because then you could be right there and see the players as they play, rather than watching it through the display!”

North remained silent as Bob continued. “There are actually seats surrounding the field, and we can sit in them and watch the players!”

North’s puzzled look returned. “But then you wouldn’t get all the camera angles and the supplemental information feeds. Are the seats more comfortable than the seats in this room?”

Despite the fact that they hadn’t been in a stadium for decades, Bob and Judy quickly answered, “No.”

Judy smiled. “But it’s an experience that you’ll never forget. Back when Grandpa and I were kids, tens of thousands of people would go to the Rose Bowl just to watch the game. I don’t want you to miss this. You’re coming with us.”

“OK,” said North in a grudging tone. “But this sounds weird.”

30 minutes later, the car had deposited them at the Rose Bowl, and they stood outside in the sun. Each of them was wearing a (southern California) winter jacket, and they weren’t used to them.

“What is that Tickets building?” asked North, gesturing to an empty structure.

“Well,” explained Bob, “years ago, people would pay lots of money to come here and sit in the stadium and watch the game. Some people paid hundreds of dollars for the tickets alone, which was a lot of money in those days. And if a team from Ohio were playing in the Rose Bowl, then thousands of people from Ohio would fly in airplanes to Pasadena and stay here for several days, culminating in the big game.”

“I know it seems silly,” Bob continued, “but back when my parents were kids, displays often had a screen size of less than 30 inches. And the entertainment channels just showed the game, without the supplementary information, and with just two or three people talking about it. Back in those days, you’d actually have a better time going to the game itself than trying to watch it on a tiny little TV – I mean display.”

As Bob talked, the three of them walked past the empty ticket building and entered the stadium. Unlike the scene at previous Rose Bowls, the stands only contained a few hundred spectators, mostly older people like Bob and Judy. Ticket sales had ceased 20 years ago, and there was even talk of eliminating the physical game – and all physical football games – altogether, and just asking the Madden Company (named for a 20th century football figure and early game pioneer) to create simulations for the games.

Despite the empty stadium, football was still football, although the rules that had emerged over the years tended to favor the offense over the defense. Rare was the game in which either team scored less than 50 points, but there was still some competitive balance in the game, and it was not as ridiculous as it could have been.

Despite the discomfort, North was actually enjoying the game – especially since Reed had jumped out to an early 21-7 lead against Ohio State. He was smiling as he munched on his Soylent snack, and Bob and Judy were smiling also, happy that North could have this experience.

During a break in the action, North turned to his grandparents and asked a question.

“Grandma, Grandpa,” asked North. “Why is it called the ROSE Bowl?”

Bob and Judy found themselves at a loss for words.

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