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.

 

 

Blanket Apology

Apparently the Pope made a vague apology the other day for unspecified transgressions, and the media world has reacted with a bit of raised eyebrow.

Not knowing the first thing of Catholic doctrine, I won’t opine, but it did make me think a bit about Judaism and how it views forgiveness and apology.

The basic story as I understand it is that if your offense is against a fellow person, you’re not in a position to make right with God until you have first made every effort to correct the offense and seek forgiveness from the person you wronged. The wronged person is also under an obligation to grant forgiveness after receiving an earnest apology and reasonable recompense. It is only after that process is complete that you’re all ready to move on.

It’s interesting, and one of the thoughtful bits of Judaism that I really admire.

Mockery as political tool?

I posted before about the futility of using firearm statistics to try to win over gun rights advocates to gun control. Different language, different priorities.

Right now there is something quite a bit different going on as UT Austin. Students are carrying around sex toys in protest to new rules that allow open carry of firearms on campus.

Though this criticism of gun culture works well on several levels, it also seems unlikely to win over gun rights advocates. Can it still be a useful tactic? It seems to depend on how it impacts people who are not passionate about guns either way. If teasing successfully marginalizes the rights folks, it can work, even if it further motivates them.

At least it is something new. Curious to see if this sort of thing catches on.

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.

Zero Net ${bad_thing}

James Bushnell has a nice little piece on why economists do not get super enthused about “zero net energy” or whatever we’re zeroing today.

I tend to agree with him, but as usual with my interactions with economists, I’m a bit more angled to think of policy in a political context.

Yes, mathematically and logically, if you want to manage carbon or whatever, it is always better (or strictly speaking, never worse) to optimize over a larger system than a smaller system. That is, it is better to have a zero-net-energy neighborhood than a neighborhood of zero-net-energy homes, and it is better to have a zero-net-energy country than a bunch of zero-net-energy states.

But one needs to account of human behavior.

  1. All politics is local. You can affect smaller things and you can see the effect of smaller things. This does not work for climate change, but … that’s what’s so hard about climate change.
  2. Bushnell points out that “zero promotes a fiction of self-sufficiency,” but I think he actually has it exactly backwards. People, Americans in particular, have a love affair with the fiction of self-sufficiency and that can be used to sell anything, including net-zero policies.

The end of the beginning of data privacy?

I don’t really understand exactly what is afoot in the EU regarding data privacy, or if it is the right thing. But I’m pretty sure I’m happy they’re taking a crack at it and hope the results work out well for end users.

I do believe that the Silicon Valley approach of “click to accept our terms, take it or leave it, and we can change the terms at any time,” deserves to die. Most human beings (some would say all) are not lawyers, and are not in a position to be weigh the infinite-term implications of their first tweet or FB post. Moreover, as most of us are not futurists (and even the best futurists are terrible at it) nobody can understand the ways their data may be used against them in future, as yet never imagined scenarios. Yes, rules will slow down SV innovation, particularly when the rules are in flux. It may well be worth it.

What worries me more is that rules will eventually benefit the largest companies like Google and Facebook, which can easily build whatever infrastructure is necessary to comply, whereas upstarts may have a hard time. There is ample evidence that regulation has a funny way of ultimately benefiting incumbents, even if they complain the most when it is first suggested.

 

 

Unhinged?

I do not want this blog to be overtly political, but I’m already bending my rule. I have to post this.

I recommend everyone take a gander at this floor speech that Ted Cruz made last week.

Policy aims aside, this speech is from an unhinged person. An unhinged sitting US Senator, that is. My better half suggested that this is just rhetoric to fire up his constituents. But it is more, as it outlines the real strategy his caucus persues.

His caucus’s simple reality is they lack the votes to enact their agenda. So, democracy aside, he’ll just take the whole country hostage, for its long-term benefit, presumably.

I dunno. I find it stunning and extremely un-conservative.

For better or worse, the US has a two-party political system. It won’t work if a faction of one of the parties wants to play global thermonuclear war every time they don’t get their way.

Reading, writing, and refactoring?

I saw today that Ramm Emanuel thinks every high schooler in Chicago should learn to code. The folks on Slashdot think it’s a really bad idea.

I’m with Ramm. The point of teaching all young people to code is not to create an army of coders. In fact, I think the world would probably be better off with an Army of Darkness than a bunch of people with one high school class in programming writing software.

But that’s not the point. (Well, maybe it is Ramm’s point.) I would say that most people don’t use trigonometry much, nor do most people write term papers in their daily lives. But those things are worth being exposed to. They teach you how to think abstractly and how to organize ideas for consumption by someone else. Moreover, even if math is hard for you, you hopefully learned that it’s not mysterious or magical. Same goes for writing.

And so it should be with computers. People should feel that they understand them at some basic level, that they know what programming is, and is not. It will help them make better choices in life about computers and software. And those choices come fast and furious these days.

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.