Archives for Technology



How to Solve the “Reply-All” Problem?

E-mail has been around long enough for most of us to fall in love and hate and love with it at least a few times. Problems arise and are quashed, or dealt with. Innovations come along; customs evolve. But one grisly bad habit won’t go away: the “reply-all” dilemma. You know what I’m talking about. Someone sends you a group e-mail. Maybe it’s your company’s marketing boss, or the head of your bowling league, or the parent-teacher liaison in your kid’s school. And even if that e-mail was meant to be simply explanatory, or to garner responses only to the sender, inevitably a few of the people on the receiving end simply hit “reply all” and suddenly your in-box starts to fill up with a chattering storm of crap. Sure, you could mark all those senders as spam but then you might miss something important later. Sure, you could politely tell people not to use “reply-all” when it’s unnecessary but plainly they don’t think it’s unnecessary, and you’ll come off sounding like a jerk. Sure, you could just deal with it and chalk it up to a downside of a great invention. But does anyone have any better ideas?



Why Cell Phone Networks Crash During an Emergency

Maggie Koerth-Baker of BoingBoing interviews Brough Turner, a phone system expert, about why it’s hard to make cell phone calls during an emergency. Turner addresses the mechanics and limitations of cell phone networks and points out that, nostalgia notwithstanding, the pre-cell phone era faced its own technical problems:

Well, say you’d have an earthquake in California. This was for the old Bell system. The national long distance routing has a set of standard, predefined routes and it had network control centers in New Jersey and other places. Things would get overloaded and they would manually intervene by putting access restrictions on new calls coming into the area that was congested. In the 60s, 70s, and 80s they would let through one out of every five call attempts. They were doing that manually and just arbitrarily to reduce congestion.

(HT: The Big Picture)



When Hacking Is the Smaller Crime

Here’s a fascinating article in the Yale Journal of International Affairs, by Paul Rexton Kan of the U.S. Army War College, about cyberwar between non-state agents — in this case, Anonymous versus Los Zetas, the Mexican drug cartel. Read the whole thing; here’s the first paragraph:

In the fall of 2011, two clandestine non-state groups—a hacktivist collective and a Mexican drug cartel—stared each other down in the digital domain, with potentially fatal real world consequences for both sides. Los Zetas, a Mexican drug trafficking organization composed of former members of Mexico’s Special Forces, kidnapped a member of Anonymous, the global hacking group, in Veracruz on October 6th. In retaliation, Anonymous threatened to publicize online the personal information of Los Zetas and their associates, from taxi drivers to high-ranking politicians, unless Los Zetas freed their abductee by November 5th. The release of this information on the Internet would have exposed members of Los Zetas to not only possible arrest by Mexican authorities, but also to assassination by rival cartels. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Los Zetas then attempted to “reverse hack” Anonymous to uncover some of its members and to threaten them with death. As a consequence, a few members of Anonymous sought to call off the operation and disavowed those members who wanted to go forward. With time running out and locked in a stalemate, Los Zetas released their kidnap victim on November 4th with an online warning that they would kill ten innocent people for each name that Anonymous might subsequently publicize. Anonymous called off its operation; each side appeared to step back from the brink.

(HT: LTC Scott Kelly)



Forget About Anchored Putters…This Is What the USGA Should Really Be Doing

Last week, the governing bodies of golf announced a ban on anchored putters.  Historically, when golfers putt (i.e. roll the ball along the green to try to get it into the hole), they swing the putter back and forth freely.  In recent years, a growing number of golfers have used a different technique, wedging the butt end of the putter into their stomach, or resting it against their chin.  For a variety of reasons, the head honchos of golf are against anchoring the putter.  I don’t have a strong opinion pro or con on this decision.  My hunch is that a careful data analysis would show that anchoring the putter doesn’t do much to help or hurt most golfers.  (For instance, I am about equally bad either way.)  Golfers who don’t play in tournaments can continue to use anchored putters if they like.  Tournament golfers will adjust.

In my view, the attention given to anchored putting is a distraction from the real issue that bedevils golf: pros hit the ball too far and everyday golfers hit the ball too short.  Pros hitting the ball too far is a problem because there is a huge stock of old golf courses, the value of which are greatly depreciated by the increases in distance.  Classic old courses aren’t hard enough to challenge the pros.  In response, large investments are made to stretch the distance of these courses to keep up.  And changes in the tournament courses alter the perceptions of golfers.  The course I grew up playing was hard enough when I was a kid, but now is perceived as too easy because it doesn’t compare to the championship courses.  Read More »



The Hidden Upside of Crowdfunding?

Reader Noah Dentzel claims that crowdfunding has overlooked virtues, and that it is giving rise to products that may never have happened via the traditional business model:

Most companies either a) raise money through traditional financing avenues or b) build a business slowly and invest first and then bring a new product to market. Crowdfunding allowed us to do everything backwards: by pre-selling a product before the tooling for it even exists, we get a good feeling for market demand and we then gain a clear picture of whether or not to move forward.

Meanwhile, because companies like us are financed through consumers (pre-selling), it’s essentially consumer driven business growth and innovation. We don’t have to wait around for angels or VCs, we can allow anyone from around the world (and a good third of our orders are from overseas) to invest in new ideas, new businesses and whatever will be crowdfunded next. What’s also pretty cool is that we’re making this product right here in California which isn’t too typical for a consumer electronic device these days. People ask why we’re not doing it in China and I just tell them that both in terms of quality and cost, we couldn’t afford it if we wanted to–these are some of the twists and turns that you see in the Crowdfunding consumer product long tail of manufacturing.

Check out Noah’s project here. Crowdfunding can, of course, also give rise to products like this.



Massimo Young Reports from Kenya: The Surprising Secret to Banking Success

My good friend Massimo Young recently moved to Kenya, where he is seeing what happens when you mix a little American ingenuity into a thriving but chaotic developing economy.  In what I hope is the first of many blog posts, Massimo reports on just what it takes to succeed in the banking industry in Kenya.  (Massimo does not have a financial interest in any of the companies discussed in his post, although he wishes he did!)

M-PESA: The Story of the Most Successful Bank in Kenya
By Massimo Young 

It’s not easy to do business in Kenya. Business people complain all the time that despite a wealth of opportunities, there are often major roadblocks to accomplishing much on the ground, especially at scale. In fact, Kenya ranks 121st out of 185 countries in the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” survey.

On the other hand, there are some amazing examples in recent years of businesses that have managed to accomplish a lot very quickly. In particular, the wild success of mobile banking in Kenya has changed the way people use money here. Launched just 5 years ago, Kenya’s leading mobile money transfer service, M-PESA, now processes a total of about $5 billion in transactions per year, equivalent to an astounding 15% of the country’s GDP. Before it launched, only 14% of Kenyans participated in the formal banking sector. Today, about half the adult population uses M-PESA. Read More »



What Will the Smartphone Kill?

Today’s smartphone, it is often said, has more computing power than an Apollo rocket.

So it should not be surprising that is it disrupting daily life left and right. Every day or two I seem to notice another common item whose usage is plummeting, perhaps bound for oblivion.

I will likely never buy an alarm clock again since my phone can handle the job better. Are clocks and wristwatches on the way out? Has anyone bought a road atlas lately — or even a dedicated GPS system for your car? Read More »



The Economics Revolution Will Be Televised

There’s a revolution underway in economics. It’s not due to the financial crisis, but rather something more mundane: Data, and computing power. At least that’s the claim that Betsey Stevenson and I make in our latest Bloomberg View column:

“Consider the stream of data you will create today. Your metro card will record what time you caught the train. Your Web browser will note how you go about your job, and how much you procrastinate. A mid-afternoon purchase at Starbucks will reveal your penchant for lattes and the occasional cookie. Your flow of e-mail traffic will trace out your professional and personal networks.

At the same time, computing power has made it extremely easy and cheap to analyze all the data you produce. An economist with a laptop can, in a matter of seconds, do the kind of number crunching it used to take a roomful of Ph.D.’s weeks to achieve. Just a few decades ago, economists used punch cards to program data analysis for their empirical studies.”

Two weeks ago, Harvard’s Raj Chetty gave a spectacular talk at the National Bureau of Economic Research, about what he called “The Transformative Potential of Administrative Data.” He documented that today’s cutting-edge research is based on crunching newly-available data from the vast databases which underlay our schools, welfare state and tax systems.  I’m just as optimistic that new data coming online from the private sector will prove to be just as useful. Read More »