Silicon Valley v Hucksters

The recent WSJ article about how Theranos, a well-funded and highly valued blood testing startup, has certainly gotten the press whipped up. Everybody likes a scandal, I guess.

I have no idea if the allegations are true, but the situation reminds me of another company I’ve been following with curiosity: uBeam. This small company promises a technology whereby your cell phone can be charged wirelessly, by ultrasound. Like Theranos, it has a telegenic founder and solid funding from top-tier VC (including Andreesen Horowitz and Marissa Mayer).

Thing is, this company is making promises that I’m strongly inclined to bet against. What they’ve demonstrated so far is nothing like what there product needs to do to be useful. Though it is in theory possible to charge a phone by ultrasound, the physics make it seem rather impractical. It requires rather high sound levels and, to avoid massive inefficiency, very tight audio beam forming. It also needs to work through pants pockets, purses, etc, which is not easy for ultrasound. And of course, it needs to be safe around humans and animals. When asked for more information to support the concept, the CEO usually goes on the attack, making fun of people who didn’t think X: { flight, moon landing, electric cars} was possible. All of which makes me wonder about the geniuses in Silicon Valley who make these investments.  Every engineer I have spoken to about this company immediately smells BS, yet they’ve gotten top-flight capital.

Which makes me wonder. Are people like me too small-minded to appreciate grand ideas? Or is Silicon Valley easily duped? Or, is accepting a certain amount of fraud part of the business model?

Maybe they know most of these types of folks are hucksters, but for $10M a pop, it’s worth it to fund them on the off chance one changes the world.

I dunno.



Security v. Convenience

I’ve had my credit card credentials stolen a few times. Each time it has been a mostly minor convenience but still unsettling.

As a result, I am happy to see the new chipped credit cards and the chip-reading scanners to go with them. I don’t know how difficult this system is to crack, but I have noticed one minor annoyance: the card must stay in the machine for the entire transaction. I imagine this is so that the cryptographic challenge and response can be brokered all the way back to the credit card clearing agency and not just locally on the reader device. This should improve security, since we don’t have to worry about shoving our cards in compromised devices.

There is a catch, though. In the old world, you scanned your card and could put it back in your wallet while the (typically very slow) interaction with the credit card company continued on in parallel. Now, your wallet needs to remain out until the transaction is complete.

It bugs me. I guess, it’s just a very minor way in which the modern world is not as good as what we had before, and a reminder why though everyone likes security, nobody likes security.

Worse than TV?

The New York Times ran an article last week on the cost of mobile ads. I’m surprised it did not raise more eyebrows.

In it, they counted all the data transferred when accessing articles from various websites, and categorized it by ad-related and content-related. What they found was that on average, more than half the bits go to ads; in some cases, way more than half.

But I think it’s worse, because, aside from download time, the article doesn’t go into the computational resources consumed by ads. To a first approximation, a static webpage should only use the CPU needed to render, and after that, nothing. But ad-infused webpage continue to use the CPU doing all manner of peek-a-boo’s, hey-there’s, delayed starts, etc.  This is taking your time and your battery life. If your phone has a non-replaceable battery, it’s also taking your phone life.

A few observations:

  • This is worse than television. On TV, content was 22 minutes of every 30. That makes 27% advertising by bandwidth. I recognize that there was advertising embedded in the content, as well.
  • This is worse than the article implies since so much web content is paginated, meaning you have to pay the ad penalty several times to see the content.
  • Ads effect wealthy users, who are more likely to have high-performance phones and high-bandwidth data plans, less than poorer users. Wealthy users will spend less time waiting for content and less time looking at pages to load. This also is different from TV.
  • A lot of editorial web content is of very low quality (again, subjectively, worse than TV because with TV you needed to attract some non-trivial audience and hold it) and even that is covered with ads. In fact, like radio, it seems like rather than having the prevalence of advertising correlate directly with the cost of production and delivery, it correlates somewhat negatively.
  • There is a game on between ad-blockers and advertisers that seems to have a Nash Equilibrium at a very bad place. That is, the ads are getting much more aggressive and taking more and more resources, and the countermeasures to avoid them are getting similarly aggressive, and there seems to be no clear bottom.

More than one person has explained to me that the ad-driven web is a fact of life, like gravity, and that we must all accept it. I’m not so sure. Better outcomes do seem possible. One might be micropayments, allowing people to access content on a per-click basis without the need for ad revenue. It was tried and failed. Maybe the situation was just not bad enough yet?

Another alternative would be for media to aggregate into subscription-based syndicates. Perhaps that will result in a two-tiered “free” and “paid” web that will match our stratified society.

The current trend is obviously for the web to implode leaving us with an app-based world, though I see no reason in the long term that even the best apps won’t eventually race to the bottom, as well.