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Archive for the month “November, 2015”

O Marlboroman

One of my first blog posts was a Laurie Anderson parody. An excerpt:

(telephone dialing)
VOICE (spoken) Bloody hell, who is this?
ANDERSON (spoken) Hello. This is Laurie.
VOICE (spoken) It’s three a m.
ANDERSON (spoken) It is earlier here. We have a different time.

This is obviously a parody of Anderson’s spoken word efforts, such as “O Superman.” But while listening to that song one day, I was struck by the dated nature of portions of the lyrics:

Here come the planes.
They’re American planes. Made in America.
Smoking or non-smoking?

Remember that the record was released in 1981. While the reference the “the planes” may have been inspired by the hostage rescue mission, the “smoking or non-smoking” line was inspired by something entirely different – a 1973 decision by the Civil Aeronautics Board to designate separate portions of airplanes as smoking or non-smoking. Contemporary fliers were not impressed:

As one critic of the policy put it: “A smoking section on an airplane is like having a peeing section in a swimming pool.”

By November 21, 1989, President George Bush (as we knew him then) officially banned smoking on domestic flights less than six hours in length. (Going to Honolulu? Light up.) By 2000, his successor President Clinton (as we knew him then) officially banned smoking on any flight entering or leaving the United States.

Then 9/11 happened, and performance artist Laurie Anderson was performing in Chicago that evening. Anderson lived in New York – I know this shocks you – and as she heard reports from home (and some dude named Lou Reed), she said nothing to the people attending her show that evening.

No, I take that back. Anderson is a spoken word artist; she’s always speaking.

The crowd was dead silent throughout [the concert], but when Anderson began “O Superman” you could hear the room shift as the already menacing song took on new layers of eerily contemporary meaning. “Hello? Is anybody home? Well, you don’t know me, but I know you. And I’ve got a message to give to you. Here come the planes. So you better get ready.” The lyrics chimed out like an answering machine message sent to the future, picked up several decades too late.

Smoking or non-smoking?

P.S. If you want to see a completely different perspective on the evolution of airplanes over the last forty years, read Jim Ulvog’s post.

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Can robots issue citations? More importantly, can people issue citations?

Let’s start with the big disclosure – this post discusses red light camera systems, and the parent company (Morpho) of my employer (MorphoTrak) sells such systems. Therefore, I have a financial incentive to make sure that every city in the country has red light cameras at every intersection.

But let’s start with an even bigger disclosure – as the linked article notes, the city of Montclair, California used to have a red light camera system (not from Morpho). Back when this system was operational, it cited me for a red light violation. Therefore, I have a financial incentive to make sure that no city in the country has red light cameras at any intersection.

And let me also add that these opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any present or past employer or association with which I have been…um, associated.

Done with the disclosures. Now let’s move forward by moving back to my previous post about automated procurement. Within that post, I went off on a little tangent about self-driving cars.

Initial reactions to the idea [of self-driving cars] were – well, they were emotional. “You’re going to let an uncontrolled car just drive around on the streets where it may hit somebody?” Yet people began to reconsider this when they realized just how bad human drivers are, and how good the self-driving cars perform.

But in the same way that a self-driving car is an automated replacement for a human driver, a red light camera system is an automated replacement for a human police officer or traffic officer. In essence, the systems are programmed to track the locations of the automobiles and compare them against the status of the traffic light. In the case of my citation, I was provided with a set of pictures that showed that the light was red when my car entered the intersection.

Generally, such a system is programmed in the simplest way possible. Was the car violating traffic law, or was it in compliance with traffic law? Shades of gray are usually not programmed into the system.

Which brings us to San Mateo, California and what The Newspaper had to say about San Mateo’s contract with Redflex. The people who write The Newspaper do not like red light cameras – The Newspaper consistently publishes posts about people who vandalize red light cameras and speed cameras. But if The Newspaper doesn’t like red light cameras in general, it REALLY doesn’t like Redflex, for reasons that are obvious to anyone who tracks the red light camera industry in the United States. (Since the parent of my employer is a competitor of Redflex, I’ll just leave it at that.)

But if you boil away these impassioned feelings, and some of the issues surrounding traffic enforcement, there’s a really interesting issue buried within the arguments.

Last year, Redflex issued 4462 tickets worth $2.4 million. Sixty-three percent of these tickets went to drivers who made slow, rolling right hand turns.

Now opponents to red light cameras will look at this and say that advocates keep on talking about how traffic accidents result in death and dismemberment…and in actually, the majority of things caught by red light cameras involve right hand turns without stopping?

(ANOTHER DISCLOSURE: when I first moved to California, I was pulled over by Upland Police one night. The police officer said that I had made a “California stop.” He saw my puzzled expression, and explained that a “California stop” is one in which the car is supposed to stop, but doesn’t stop completely. That human police officer DIDN’T give me a ticket that time.)

Back to San Mateo. One member of the City Council was not bothered at all by the rolling right hand turn infractions.

Councilman David Lim was vocal in his support for each and every one of those citations.

“One area that I’m not convinced is this whole notion that we should not be enforcing these California roll stops,” Lim said. “You know, I’m not here to debate… It’s not worth it. All the emails I’ve received about ‘Woe is us, we’re more important than the law. We should be able to make slower stops and not be punished for it…’ I feel so strongly about this that I had to put that on the record.”

In essence, Lim is saying the following: the law states that this particular action is a traffic violation. It is not up to me, or to an individual driver, to say whether this is truly a violation. If it’s against the law, then the law should be enforced. Therefore, the automated red light system is working properly.

Going back to the previous post, opponents of red light cameras would claim that automation lacks an emotional element. A human police officer would never stop someone for something that silly.

Actually, some police officers wouldn’t make the stop, while others would. And some imperfect police officers would use all sorts of emotional criteria to decide whether this is truly a violation or not. Maybe the driver is a really pretty woman. Maybe the driver is the son of the mayor.

Some police officers enforce the law no matter what. Some of you may have known the late Jim Conley of the Anaheim Police Department. Jim let everyone know that if you were cited for something, and if you said that you know Jim Conley…you’d still be cited for that violation.

An automated system usually employs a boolean system – traffic violation, or no traffic violation. Human beings are more complex, and their decisions have a non-boolean outcome – traffic violation, no traffic violation, or “well, but….”

One of the complaints about red light traffic systems is that they appear to be mainly revenue generators. Perhaps human traffic enforcement, which is more inclined to let people off the hook – the California newbie who doesn’t know what a “California stop” is, the pretty flirtatious woman, the person who is the son of the mayor – isn’t generating ENOUGH revenue.

Can robots close? It depends on whether they’re selling to robots.

I like a challenge.

I am a subscriber to Sales & Marketing Management, and noticed an interesting article recently. The title? “Robots Can’t Close.” The piece is an interview with Geoff Colvin, who has written the book Humans are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will. While Colvin acknowledges that technology has made great strides, he believes that certain tasks will still require human interaction.

Where the relational element is predominant – where it’s a really complex sale, and it may take years to sell a product or service that may last for years – the people who can do that kind of selling are only going to get more valuable. It’s all about human-to-human interaction. Everybody who has been in the world of sales knows that when a company is buying a power [turbine] for $10 million or buying computer servers, a human being in that company is responsible for that purchase and we all know that with something that big, there is an emotional element in the making of that decision. They need someone to talk to to help them with it. That’s not going to go away.

Or will it?

Today, some purchases can be made by routine or automated means – General Services Administration (GSA) schedules, Lowest Price Technically Acceptable (LPTA) bids, and other things that lend themselves to easy decision-making. Others require that “relational element.” In my employer’s industry, most biometric identification systems are purchased through a relational process that can take years, and often requires final approval by a government agency’s legislative body, such as a County Board of Supervisors.

But even in my industry, there has been at least one exception. I know of one buyer who bought a national biometric identification system via a reverse auction, which can be considered LPTA on steroids. Certain vendors were deemed to be technically acceptable, and the vendors competed against each other to see who could cut their price the most. While the determination of technical acceptability was made by humans in this case, it is possible to envision a case in which even this could be automated.

But what will happen in the future? Is it possible that more and more procurements will become routine – and automated?

For that to happen, the “emotional element” that Colvin mentions would have to be eliminated, and everyone would need to be convinced that automated systems – the robots – are better able to make purchasing decisions than people.

We’re seeing the first glimmers of this in the self-driving car industry. Initial reactions to the idea were – well, they were emotional. “You’re going to let an uncontrolled car just drive around on the streets where it may hit somebody?” Yet people began to reconsider this when they realized just how bad human drivers are, and how good the self-driving cars perform. (Of course, we are now getting to thornier issues – if I am in a car, and the car’s software has to decide whether to save my life by plowing into a crowd of people, or save the crowd of people by doing something that will kill me – what should the car do?)

Perhaps a day will come when automated procurement scoring systems are proven to result in better procurements than an overworked human procurement officer. If that happens, then perhaps the emotional element will be reduced, allowing more procurements to proceed without the need for a human “closer.”

Yet even then, there’s one thing that may derail any such effort.

Human politicians can receive campaign contributions. Robots cannot.

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