The GUIey Middle of Artificial Intelligence

The basic premise of artificial intelligence, to use enormous amounts of data to find out new things, is easy to grasp. If any one of us had the time and stamina to study a million photos or stories about a thing, I’m sure we’d come up with insights about it too. 

Business products emerging from current applications of artificial intelligence are also logical and simple to get your head around. Smart thermostats sell because they are convenient and deliver energy savings. Marketing approaches that analyze shopping patterns to suggest items people are likely to buy are winners in retail for their potential to increase sales.

How does AI get from data analysis to creating desirable products? In diagram version, this seems to me:

A few hypothetical1examples:

1. Using AI to improve diagnosis of medical images. Input: One hundred thousand pathology slides of renal cancer and one hundred thousand slides of normal kidney tissue. Outcome: Improved differentiation between normal and malignant kidney biopsies. Doctors win because the accuracy of diagnosis increases, saving healthcare costs by prescribing the right treatment for patients. Patients win because they are either can carry on their lives disease-free or have greater certainty in the treatment they need.

Mysterious GUIey2inside: What is the AI looking at to distinguish between normal and cancerous cells in pathology slides?

2. Using AI to improve traffic flow. Input: Every car in the city communicates its starting point, destination, and real time location to a central database. The goal is to send a uniform volume of traffic via every available route so that none are over-used or under-used. The outcome is a clear win – optimum travel efficiency for everyone, saving time, auto costs and impact to the environment by decreasing energy consumption.

Mysterious inside: What is AI doing to manage all the permutations and combinations to direct even traffic flow?

The two examples are different. In the first one, the criteria AI uses to distinguish between normal and malignant cells are the mystery. Pathologists could list the traits they use to make a decision when looking down a microscope, but is AI using the same ones? In the second, it’s the speed and capacity to deal with volumes of users that’s amazing. It’s not difficult to suggest the best route for your mother to take home, based on knowledge of traffic patterns at the time of day in your home town, but who could do that for 3 million occupants of a city simultaneously?

I’ve read that we are unlikely to be able to extract the GUIey middle3from AI supported processes, due to the iterative nature of the learning. When a person really understands what they are doing, they can explain it. If a chef tells you their sumptuous meal resulted from ‘a little of this, a little of that’, they likely know exactly what went into the dish, but aren’t telling to protect their trade secrets. If my mechanic tells me they are basing the diagnosis of what’s wrong with my car on some data from other cars but doesn’t know which models or what kind of data, I’m looking for another mechanic.

Is not knowing how AI works any different than not knowing the detailed working of automobiles, or any other complex object or process in modern life – elevators, mortgage documents, dental implants? The fundamentals of the car I get – the energy of exploding fossil fuel is converted into angular momentum that torques the axels and moves me, in my steel and plastic carriage, to where I want to go. The business model is also easy – the speed and convenience of reaching destinations in relative comfort with the added efficiency of carting a group of people, sheets of drywall, or my dogs with me. There is someone who can explain ABS brakes, how the muffler is connected to the engine, and all the other components that make a car function. With AI, either by design or trade secret, the explanation is hidden.

We need to know the mysterious processes that AI systems use to derive new knowledge from the volumes of data consumed. Forget proprietary algorithms. This is brave new territory we are entering and transparency is important so we can be sure we are operating safely and ethically.4

History is full of examples of embracing new things without a full understanding of the implications5. From that, a machine would learn that we need to know how things work before we can use them safely.

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1Both of my examples are likely to be real enterprises but staying hypothetical is better for this discussion.

2This is a pun on GUI type computer interfaces, which use icons, rather than typed commands, to tell computers what to do. GUIs make programming simpler. I’m suggesting by making things simpler with AI, we are making them less transparent, dissectable or amendable to understanding how the parts work together to create the whole. Less concrete. More gooey. Gooey-er. Soft and flowing, changing shape easily.

3I do know that the process AI uses is a very large series of logic functions, of the sort: if X does Y, then A is the outcome. If X, K and J, do B, then L is likely to happen. If X does Y but K does something else, and it’s Tuesday, then Blue is the right answer. Etc. Oh, and the AI may start with a bunch of logic statements but change them on the fly as more data comes in or if in testing a hypothesis, it doesn’t deliver satisfactory answers.

4For many examples, read ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’ by Cathy O’Neil

5A few examples that spring to mind – nuclear weapons, cigarettes, social media, plastic, many types of home insulation, lead paint, breeding of dogs, trans-fats, mortgage backed securities.

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Ask What AI Could Do for You

Embrace new technology. Change life.

Who wouldn’t want that? Me, sometimes.

AI is the next big thing in disruptive creation. Errr, creative destruction. It’s not so new. Forms of AI have been embedded in commonly used products for decades: auto-correct typing, suggested products you may like, search results. Now, it’s becoming ubiquitous. The projected capacity of AI to make life easier is celebrated in investor conference calls, with services such as arranging for transportation to the airport when the AI knows you’ve bought a plane ticket, or ordering another box of laundry detergent when the one you have is about to run out. 

This makes me ask (and you can too), what would I love AI to do for me? Would it be great if AI ordered all my household consumables? Not really. I’m proud of my system for keeping a sufficient supply of life’s necessities (food, drugs, cleaning and pet supplies) on hand. It isn’t a big deal. If it is for you, or you just hate doing it, ok, I’d invest in that AI, if there were enough of a market to justify it.

Great new business models remove the pain of a current task, solve an existing problem. What do I see as really annoying, inefficient situations I would pay handsomely to change?

Here’s a starting1list:

  • the awkwardness of software updates – stop making me have to stop and think about something I’ve learned to do intuitively, like find the weather app on my phone screen.
  • the uncertainty of hiring competent contractors, plumbers, landscapers, auto mechanics. 
  • knowing when something I do regularly is going to change and how my life should adapt. When the bus schedule changes, I want to know if I need to get out of bed earlier, not just that the schedule has changed.
  • gardening solutions. Random bugs eat my leaves and buds. Critters steal my veg. Anticipating this, as preventative measures are likely the most effective, would be awesome.
  • interpreting what my cat says, translating to english. Seriously, why don’t we really know what ‘meow’ means, after domesticating cats thousands of years ago?

I happened on an application for AI that I didn’t know I needed until I needed it in a hurry. It required getting information from a series of government and corporate entities, late on a Friday afternoon, before a long weekend. And I got it. Because it was information that each entity stored electronically. So emails were generated to use the info to answer my questions. In 10 minutes! Huzzah!

There are probably many more services I consume irregularly that AI could speed up. From what I’ve read, the sorts of process AI is expected to be used in first are industrial/business applications. This means that many of the best uses of AI won’t be noticable to us consumers except in declining prices, faster delivery or a better selection of options.

Why my cautious approach to AI? There are many AI applications that I imagine would take the fun out of life. Anything that requires creativity. Or some combination of serendipity and knowledge. Interior decorating. Discovering new restaurants, clothing lines, bands, books to read. The whole point to discovery is that it’s random. If something tells you where to find it, that’s ok if all you wanted was to get the thingy asap. Roofing shingles, a new muffler, parts for your appliances, or shoe laces for your winter boots are like that. For other items, there’s the thrill of the hunt, randomly happening on the perfect wastebasket for the downstairs bathroom, shoes to go with your suit, or a gift for your three year old.

I strive to challenging myself to achieve more, learn more, do more, in physical, intellectual, and economic realms. If AI made it all easier, I’d cease to grow, learn or improve. Proponents of AI might say the technology would allow me to stop wasting my time on parts of life that don’t challenge, so focus is on improving in important areas. AI might even lead me to the next, more enriching challenge.

What do I wish AI would do for me? Take care of the annoying things and leave me the interesting ones. Bearing in mind that what I find annoying, you may find interesting, the key is to make everything more efficient but make the high efficiency version elective. A mundane example of this is that grocery stores sell loaves of bread, but also all the ingredients to make bread from scratch.

That’s real intelligence, delivering what each customer wants.

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1I’m writing as an individual consumer. I may be in a demographic of one, which doesn’t make for a good business model, unless the product costs millions of dollars, which I don’t have, so forget that. However, more than likely I am in a demographic of significantly more than one, as most of us are.

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Social Media 2.0

I’d like a new social media site/app.

Not an original idea? Entrepreneurs aren’t deterred by apparent competition or from looking for solutions to difficult problems. As long as existing products aren’t serving needs and there’s a way to provide a better solution, there is a good opportunity.

The Problem with Social Media1: (if you are already nodding your head, I’m playing the right tune, because good opportunities include easily recognized problems) 

Part 1: Shiny happy people2masquerading as your friends in everyday life. Not the first one to point this out, but broadband social media is depressingly deceptive.

Many personal posts are the high points of people’s lives. You’ve seen it: here’s [someone you know] looking good, graduating from astrophysics, running a marathon, winning the award for best strawberry jam ever, getting a Nobel Prize etc. Fabulous when these things happen and everyone should feel good about them. But there is more to life.

There are the tragedies too. I don’t begrudge anyone sharing these, because this is when support is needed and everyone should be able to reach out for it. Thankfully, this sort of thing doesn’t happen very often.

What’s left? The rest of life. Because the drama dial on social media is set to 11 – really great or awfully bad – the tendency is to make posts fit into one of these categories. So we end up with a lopsided view of everyone else’s life. And wonder why ours doesn’t measure up3.

Part 2: The death of depth. ’cause really, once you’ve seen 129 idyllic photos of your friend’s kid’s wedding, asking how the wedding was seems redundant. However, there is no photo of the tension with her mother-in-law over the venue or the unresolved issues the son has with his father. A person could post every hour of every day without revealing how they are really doing.

Part 3: Hardwired to Self Destruct. Metallica gets it. We’re trapped. Social media is our venue to communicate with everyone now. Regardless if they are friends, family, people we met once or businesses we frequent, they’re all on social media, somewhat indistinguishable from each other. Friend, commerce or romantic wannabe? 

Social media (1) isn’t genuine, (2) has no depth, and (3) is essential.

Therefore, a need exists for a platform that causes people to communicate with the people who are important to them in a genuine, deep way. A platform that simulates seeing and talking to close friends and family on a regular basis about things that are mundane but matter.

Ah, it’s all in the choice of the right platform, you say. I love this depiction of various social media apps, drawing parallels to the seven deadly sins. Platforms evolve to serve different purposes4, suggesting that different design elements tailor to different needs. I think that means there is hope for introducing a new platform. 

Throwing out a few ideas for my ideal site:

1. Emphasize small groups, of say 5 to 10. Do not allow them to get bigger.

2. Keep content personal – de-emphasize reposts of news stories, etc. maybe even get rid of shares. Focus on the individual’s thoughts about their lives.

3. Get away from constant updating. Hang onto the beginning of the thread so anyone in the group can see where the conversation began regardless of when they get there.

4. Change the business model – get targeted ads out of the equation. Paying for something that meets a specific need isn’t so bad and removes the need for distracting, extraneous content (i.e. suggested content, ads, sponsored stuff, prioritization that isn’t related to the user’s priorities).

I’ve argued myself into wanting to pay for social media. I’d come up with a subscription fee if it has all the features I want and none that I don’t. As long as everyone I want to connect with feels the same way, it will work. Hummm…. maybe someone has thought of this before, but now that we are all indoctrinated into social media, this could be the perfect time for Social Media V2.0.

——

1Sometimes, songs come to my mind that illustrate concepts really well, so I’ve included links to a few tunes.

2To me the song captures the duality of wanting to be happy and smiling and all loving, but the reality that life isn’t all fun and dancing, sometimes it’s hard work.

3Reminds me of a Fefe Dobson’s Stupid little Love Song

4How this happened is interesting, but another topic. Was it the original master plan, form defining function, or an outcome of the market segment that first populated the platform?

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Multi-factor Authentication Answers the Wrong Question

Two factor authentication. Securing your account with email address, phone number and password.

Seriously? When is it too much work to be worthwhile? We shouldn’t be asking how to make our accounts more secure. We should be asking what’s wrong with this system that we live in such fear of having our online accounts hacked.

It isn’t bad enough that passwords need upper and lower case letters, numbers, symbols, more than 8 of the above. And they need to be changed regularly. And we all have at least 50 of these, none of which should be the same. A mere password is insufficient to secure an account these days.

Signing in online is broken. Any system this clunky needs to be rethought. It reminds me of a common joke. Here’s a good example:

In ’80-90s shows of people in New York, they had with multiple, heavy duty deadbolts on their front doors. Took 10 minutes to lock and unlock. Huge waste of time. Then, the crime rate in NY City was high. In 2017, it hit record lows.1 Not because people got better locks or ways to defend themselves. The decline is attributed to a variety of factors, such as better policing, social programs and an improved economy.

Two factor authentication requires the user to provide two independent forms of information, such as a password and answer to security question or password and randomly generated six digit number. The six digit number is generated at 30 second intervals and relayed to a device that displays the number and the one deciding if access will be allowed to the secured account. A third party is involved, even if it’s an electronic one. How safe is that? From a brief survey of guru tech publications, the six digit random thing is considered state of the art in account security.

What disturbs me about this, in a very visceral way, is that being me is no longer enough to access my accounts. I need an assistive device. All by myself, I can memorize critical passwords so they are always there in an emergency. With two factor authentication, I need more than just me. I am not in control of my own accounts. Some device is.

Not only that, but this enhanced security to get into an online account is like putting an armoured door on the house, while leaving the windows open. Front door access may be secure but viruses and weakly protected internet connections may allow infiltration. That ‘remember me’ box you click after entering your username and password pretty much invalidates the complex password, because once access to the device is obtained, every app on that device is open.

Several accounts I have are encouraging me to link my phone number to an internet access account. This seems silly. If I add more personal information into my profile, when it gets hacked, doesn’t the hacker has even better ways to forge my identity? The phone number is supposed to allow a question to be asked if a suspicious entity is trying to login. Or the email address will receive messages to confirm or deny suspicious activity. Based the ample spam I get regarding breaches of accounts (I may or may not possess) that must immediately be responded to (just click this link), I’m likely to mark any correspondence about an account issue as junk. Dangerous, sloppy and unlikely to have the desired effect.

I find it clunkier and clunkier to operate digitally, suggesting to me we’re building silly systems that compensate for weaknesses rather than fix them. As each lower layer is breeched, we retreat to upper layers, abandoning were we once lived comfortably. It may be that we are achieving more and more security, but at what cost of restraining people’s lives?

What happened to biometric/facial recognition? Give me something I always have with me, like a body part or function to prove I’m me. Security was supposed to get easier with innovation. In the future, it should be trivial to identify each human beyond a shadow of a doubt, without any more than the wave of a wrist. And, how about getting at root causes of cybercrime?

I’m holding my breath until we get there, because multi-factor authentication is no way to live.

1https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/27/nyregion/new-york-city-crime-2017.html

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Are You Being Served (by online shopping)?

Online retail is ubiquitous. But is it any good?

Sometimes. Other times, not so much.

What about the environmental impact?

The good:

  • Consistently comprehensive information. Full product descriptions. Reviews by:
    • other consumers, consumer associations,
    • industry associations,
    • random bloggers. many of whom are professionals in the field.
  • Stock. It comes in that colour, your size, a format compliant with the electrical supply in Iceland and can be purchase without leaving the comfort of your lawn chair.
  • Products are easy to find. At the physical store, staff that don’t seem to be able to find one of the 200,000 products in the [warehouse] store. Because really, who could? Online, the droids in the warehouse find it for you.

Online allows the entire company’s warehouse to be within reach of every customer service representative and has other wonderful features, like convenience, variety, ease of finding the lowest price. These features suggest an overall positive environmental footprint. Fewer car trips by buyers, more efficient delivery through route optimization with one vehicle serving hundreds of customers. Lower shipping impact compared to a company stock dozens of outlets across the country. Less impulse buying and therefore throwing of unwanted items into the landfill.

The dark side:

  • Occasionally not so convenient. If you order something requiring a signature, such as wine or expensive electronics, and aren’t there when it is delivered (because you are at work during the day, when it’s always delivered), then you have to trek, drive etc., to an outlet that is only open during the day. Online shopping is meant to avoid this.
  • Prone to theft. Because of the point above, many packages are left on the doorstep. And some disappear while waiting for the buyer to come home from work. Various creative approaches are being suggested to overcome this. Meeting people at in the parking lot of their work. Designated, convenient pickup points. Secure approaches to allowing the delivery person to place the package inside the home. It is an opportunity for entrepreneurs to address.
  • All that packaging. Tape. Boxes. Bubble wrap for fragile things. A mountain of stuff that is left over after the UPS truck departs. Might packaging of home-delivered merchandise negate 50 years of carrying your own shopping bags?

While the first two points could lead to extra emissions due to unnecessary trips, the third is more worrying, because it seems to have garnered little attention. The stats are staggering1. For the 2017 holiday season, UPS was predicted to ship 750 million packages, over 30 million a day.2 According to one source3, 41% of Americans get 2-5 parcels a month. Between 2012 and 2017, average annual deliveries increased in number between 5 and 6% for UPS, FedEx and the United postal service. How much cardboard, tape, sticky labels, and other assorted wrapping was involved? Tonnes4. Literally. And I haven’t heard a peep about it as an issue. Cardboard boxes are recycled, but how efficiently? The tape and labels aren’t generally. Overall, environmentally concerning.

While we’ve learned to minimize the packaging for items we carry out of the brick and mortar stores, can the same be done for home delivery? Here’s a great entrepreneurial opportunity – a ready made, growth market. Socially conscious. Easy to identify buyers and an easy to make value proposition if the new solution is less expensive than the current mound of packing.

Somebody go for it, please!

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1 Unless you are in the delivery business and then they are great – indicative of a good growth industry.

2https://www.cnbc.com/2017/10/26/ups-expects-to-ship-750-million-packages-this-holiday-season.html

3https://www.shorr.com/packaging-news/2017-05/2017-package-theft-report-porch-pirates-purchase-habits-and-privacy

4 Incidentally, who is making cardboard boxes? -This also must be a great growth industry, especially with good recycling programs.

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Barriers to Innovation

My last post was an optimistic ode to the endless innovation currently possible, due to the state of technology, entrepreneurship and related support systems. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Today, I want to discuss some sobering limitations that thwart the introduction and uptake of new things.

Several broad categories of barriers to innovation spring to mind:

  • regulation
  • fitting into existing infrastructure
  • consumer habits
  • figuring out who is going to pay
  • short term vs long term thinking
  • benefit twice removed

To illustrate these, I’ll discuss barriers in a couple of hypothetical situations where delivering a solution seems easy.

Consider the challenges to providing real-time transit information. This was inspired by a comment I overheard: “in X,Y and Z city, you know exactly when the next bus will arrive; why can’t we have that here?”

Why indeed?

The technology exists to track a vehicle, create algorithms to integrate the traffic flow, rate of bus progress, passenger demand and weather conditions to estimate and adjust time of arrival for buses and trains. Multiple options exists for providing this information to transit customers, such as pixel boards at stops, a downloadable app or text message service. The information is useful to customers to plan their commutes and use their time wisely. Providing real time updates enhances the customer experience, because it’s more satisfying knowing that your bus will arrive in 14 minutes than not knowing and having it appear after you have fretted and peered into the traffic for 6 (much longer) minutes. Happier customers are repeat customers. So, there’s value to be shared between provider and customer.

Why can’t they have it everywhere?

I can think of a bunch of (hypothetical) reasons.

1. Perhaps the current fleet of vehicles aren’t GPS enabled. Perhaps there is no way of announcing the information at the stops, since all that currently exists are metal signs. (infrastructure issues)

2. The bus drivers union may object to such a system because it tracks driver performance in an unfair way. Or the legal team could be concerned about liability of promising something not under the control of the transit authority. (regulations)

3. How will the new infrastructure be paid for? Through fare increases, increased bank loans, or decreased dividends to shareholders? Although the value can be seen, is it enough to make people reach into their pockets? (who will pay?)

4. The cost to implement this new system will have to be paid long before rider retention can be proven. (short term vs. long term thinking).

To illustrate the other two barriers, I’ll use plastic utensils, especially straws. Much has been made of the earth- and ocean-clogging features of these implements of consumption lately. We need an alternative. Why do we use straws to consume beverages? (This is customer habit.) Innovations that replace the straw must overcome habit. And why do we have plastic utensils, food containers and other disposable, polluting conveniences? Because they are convenient. Eating your meal and cleaning up afterwards are things you will enjoy right now. Pollution of the oceans may only come to your attention years later. And you’re not sure how plastic in the waters effects the environment. It’s difficult to understand the vastness of the consequences of disposables in the sea when you put a single straw in your bubble tea. (benefit twice removed)

Yes, there can be significant barriers to implementing a genius idea that is good for people, business and society as a whole.

And yet, the answer is innovation. Business innovation. Get around the regulations or change them. Show stakeholders short and long term benefits. If there is value in an innovation, someone will be willing to pay. People only cling to their habits if they don’t see the benefit of changing.

Innovation is possible, if you understand the barriers and come up with ways to get over, under or around them.

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Is Bitcoin like a Tulip?*

If it sounds to good to be true,

or like it should be illegal,

it probably is,

or will be soon.

I call this Ann’s Axiom, although I’m not sure I can claim exclusivity to the sentiment. I did add the last line to cover the current business environment, where it often takes a while for laws to catch up with technology.

So, bitcoin. Many of us are face-palming with regret that we didn’t buy some of this nouveau currency years ago. A small gamble, out of intellectual interest, might be worth the downpayment on a lux condo in Toronto now.

Why did it start? Because it could. The concept of blockchain – a way of distributing information so it is always verifiable – spawned a bunch of new concepts, including a currency or two founded on the principle. Bitcoin, like all currencies, are surrogates for value1. People who think bitcoin has value (buyers) will trade their dollars, gold, stocks or whatever for it, while those that find more value in the dollars/gold etc will sell their bitcoin, honouring the fundamentals of supply and demand.

Bitcoin futures recently started trading on the NY stock exchange, meaning that people can speculate on whether they think bitcoin’s value is going to go up or down2. There are futures markets in all kinds of things, from pork bellies to natural gas to Japanese yen. So why not bitcoin? Originally, futures were established to make doing business easier, such as allowing a farmer to find a buyer for their grain harvest while it was still in the ground and make plans based on knowing the value of the crop. Future’s buyers are willing, because early purchase might lead to a deal on the grain. Then humans got clever and decided that futures trading was a way to make money by riding the waves of supply and demand. I question what fundamental need is served by bitcoin futures?

Yeah, but, that’s not how modern financial markets work, you say. I’m worried, and here’s as flaky an explanation as I got: Bitcoin futures, along with the wild gyrations in bitcoin value and incredible increase in value over the past few years leaves an unsettled feeling in my gut.

There’s more enthusiasm than logic with bitcoin. Do I smell tulips3? It also reminds me of 2008, and the almost collapse of world financial markets.

Much as been written about the causes and impacts of the mortgage crisis of the last decade, what stands out for me are a few principles:

  1. It may not have been clear to everyone what they were investing in. Securities (surrogates of value) were bundled together in such a way that made them sound safer than they were.
  2. Past performance is no indication of future performance. Mortgages – what’s a safer investment? They’re secured on real estate, which time has shown to be a stable, safe investment. Stable meaning that it retains value without fluctuation and is backed by a tangible asset. But that supply and demand thing happened. A whole bunch of people defaulted on their mortgages in a short period of time and when the mortgage-holders tried to recoup their investment by selling the underlying asset, the asset spiralled down in value because there were many houses on the market. And so, the mortgage backed securities plunged in value too.
  3. But that’s not all. A chain reaction started when the mortgage-backed securities unexpectedly lost their value. Price instability rattled through the financial markets because investors needed cash to cover their losses and tried to sell other securities like commodities and bonds and financial whatnots. The whatnots were especially complicated when they were futures because of the unpredictableness of the situation. Commentary I’ve heard was that it wasn’t generally understood how the various markets, stocks, mortgages, commodities, bonds, were tied together. Perhaps because they weren’t tied together by any simple logic, only that people and institutions with a lot of investments have a lot of investments. (Right, eh?)

Do we understand now how bitcoin could impact the world’s financial markets? The thing that we can’t know, and shouldn’t really, is how the value of bitcoin will effect individual holdings, and therefore the desire of individuals to sell other financial instruments. If the value of bitcoin crashes, what would bitcoin holders sell to compensate? If it’s the same whatnots, will there be echo crashes?

Presumably we have tighter controls in financial markets across the world now. But my gut is uneasy. Tulips might be a good hedge. I’ve heard the sale of flowers remains strong despite economic conditions because people need a little bit of hope.


*  This (and all posts on this site) are commentary and solely my opinion. They are meant to be thought provoking, not business or financial advice.

1Currency makes trade easy and social. If I want to buy cauliflower but make my living as a dental hygienist, the dollar makes this exchange easy. I get paid in dollars and hand the farmer dollars. So much easier than cleaning one of their teeth every time I want some vegetables.

2Futures basics: Futures are a contract to buy or sell something for a fixed price at a specified date in the future. If the current price of gas is $1/litre, and you think the cost of gas is going to go down, but your friend thinks it’s going to go up, they might agree to buy a thousand litres of gas from you at $1.10 two months from now, thinking the market value will be $1.20 and therefore saving ($1.20 x 1000) – ($1.10 x 1000) = $100. You on the other hand think it will be $0.90 two months from now and so are happy to make a deal with your friend, sure that you can sell them $900 of gas for $1100, and profiting $200. Multiply all that by more zeros, big business and lots of suits, and you have a futures market.

3Many business and psychology profs will tell the story about mania in tulip bulbs in the 1600’s. Tulips, yes the spring flowers, increased in price in the Netherlands to truly silly values, with people reportedly selling their homes to buy just a few bulbs, only to have the bulbs crash in value a little while later, leaving investors with nothing but a pretty flower as their net worth. For more details see here or here

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Stop Helping, It’s not Helpful.

There is a fine art to understanding how, if, and when a customer wants to be helped. We’ve all experienced it: the difference between the poorly timed, inane, nagging questions and a salesperson who comes to your side just as a question about a product forms in your mind, adds insight to your shopping quest, and has you smiling at the check-out desk. Or the professional who distinguishes between when you’re in a hurry to find one, specific thing, vs. a leisurely browse that might see you buy an entire cartload of items.

The internet has taken the challenge of good customer service to a whole new level. It’s making me crazy. Why? Because pop-ups. There are many fine examples of using the internet to deliver better information about products, and ways to make products more accessible, both financially and physically. However, more thought could go into the implementation of some web browser popups.

Here’s a list of various pop-ups that miss the mark, at least for me:

  • Offering your newsletter before the site has even fully loaded. I don’t know who you are, what you do, or if I’ve clicked on a link by accident. So no, I don’t want your newsletter. Ditto alerts, updates and notifications. If you waited a bit, I’d be more likely to say yes. So wait a bit. In person, this would equate to a person with a clip board, standing at the store entrance, demanding ‘Do you like our store?’
  • Trigger happy sidebar ads, especially ones that scroll down the page with you. If I I’m interested in what you are selling, I’ll click on it. If I click by accident because of poor page design, I will hate your company for the rest of my life. It’s like a sales person holding up jackets when you’re browsing shoes and repeating: “How about this?” “How ’bout this?” “How bout this?” “How ’bout tis?”
  • Chat with an associate before I’ve even read a sentence. Put the dialog box away until an appropriate time to suggest it. Yes, it’s great you have people or bots to answer questions, but why do you have a website in the first place? So people can read about your company/product. This is especially true for logging into email and being offered chat with my friends. If I wanted to chat, I’d open a chat app. I’ve opened an email app, so guess what I want to do?
  • Why are the only two choices for getting rid of an ad that I don’t want to see: it covers the page1, or, it’s offensive? I have reasons for not wanting to see the ad. Maybe it reminds me of my ex-husband or dearly departed pet. Do you really want to push that negative association on me, so I can forever be repulsed by whatever is being promoted?
  • I don’t want extra windows to pop open with suggestions for helpful things like saving my passwords, adding people to my contacts, creating events in my calendar, or downloading an app to make what I’m doing easier2. It would be easier if I wasn’t constantly interrupted with popups trying to do things other than the one I’m trying to do. This is like trying to buy milk and bread while an over-zealous salesperson offers to determine my shoe size, the colour of my aura, or what my family history reveals about the perfect pet for me.
  • Requiring sign-in three screens into a site. There should be a flag (maybe like the toxic waste symbol) for sites that require creating an account to access the info they’re offering. Spending time on a landing page to get excited enough about the content to ‘click here to download’, only to find out that you need to surrender enough personal information for military clearance, is poor communication. Facebook and LinkedIn landing pages make it very clear that you are going nowhere without an account. It’s like getting to the check out at a store with some fabulous finds and discovering that the marked prices are only available to members. Who have signed up. With their personal information.
  • There should be a special place in hell for ads with a hard to find, or absent, close window ‘X’. This is the equivalent of a salesperson who doesn’t understand ‘I’m just looking’ as the signal to GO AWAY but instead follows you around the store, quipping useless information with each item you look at, oblivious to each new sneer.

Maybe everyone except me else loves pop-ups because they provide useful information. Most of us have things to do and don’t want extraneous pop-ups filling out lives with the need to swath though screens, like an explorer with a scythe in the jungle, to see what we came to see.

I might like pop-ups better if they added value. I am curious to know what conclusions fancy algorithms draw from my various searches and posts, akin to the fascination my rational self has with having my fortune read. A clever observer of people can conjure an accurate reading by observing and responding to their subject’s cues.

Know your client. In the modern era, that has to be done without invading privacy, which is how any good human salesperson has always done it – respecting the client’s preferences. The challenge is doing the same online. I’m sure someone or something will figure it out. Soon. Please.

——

1I’m probably being too honest because I won’t click on ‘it covers the page’ unless it covers the page. It only covers a third or a quarter of the page, so I don’t click.

2I realize this may not be the fault of the designer of the website I’m perusing. It’s the helpful operating system on my device. Still, back off.

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Privacy. Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself. And Third Party Use of Data.

‘What do we fear could happen if we put our personal information online?’ A question I came across while researching internet privacy. Simple but brilliant, because the answer didn’t come easily to me. Like washing my hands before meals, I do it, but why?

Should I be concerned that I’ve made numerous posts on Facebook about my love of beer, my Twitter account reflects an interest in rock music, and how these leisure activities align with the professional profile I try to maintain on LinkedIn?

If I ran for Prime Minister, which I wouldn’t, what might someone turn up to incriminate me? Not that I’ve done anything terrible. That’s the thing. Fear may be rooted in how some mundane piece of information could be spun. With a little information, say that I’m an avid poker player, what horrible portrait could be drawn of me – the gambling addiction? Or my fascination with guns. (I played paint-ball war games once in 1986.)

We all have our hobbies. Many people fear that their, ahem, socially-shared, social interactions (i.e.. partying) will be frowned upon by future employers. Stories of job interviews ending in a request for Facebook passwords still float around, despite the clear invasion of privacy. Snapchat, with posts that disappear without a trace unless someone downloads them, may resolve the drunken photo-share problem. Social media is worrisome because of the foreverness of it. Can something we did years ago, that everyone’s forgotten about because it isn’t a habitual activity, come back to haunt us?

Not only can we fear the past being exhumed, there’s little to protect us from the practice of tracing our day to day web browsing activity. On average, I go to 20 different sites in a day. What does my cumulative surfing activity tell a keen marketing algorithm? The practice of tracking user activities (searches and website visits) may provide smarter observations about our tendencies than we can come up with ourselves. Is this a valuable service or an annoyance of spam and suggestive selling?

Some fears are rooted in reality. Identity theft. Credit card fraud. Or being sold something you don’t need because you’re vulnerable, like forest fire damage insurance. Don’t you feel bad for people who make a silly mistake and get caught on social media, like calling in sick to work when they aren’t, or ruining a surprise proposal or party. We all have lapses in judgement occasionally.

Privacy is a fundamental right. If I don’t want you to know ‘that’, then it’s my right to keep ‘that’ private. But often, it isn’t on web forms. How many have you filled out where a phone number is a required field even though you can’t see the need for one, but can’t place your order without it? More annoying is the site that insists you create an account, or ‘sign up’, with the requisite disclosure of personal information. I say NO to those sites because I’m convinced they get more out of me becoming a member than I do.

Most of us know it’s possible to track websites visited and location through the GPS on mobile phone. However, in one study, while 90% of a group of experienced internet users say they know what a cookie is, only 15% can actually answer questions correctly that demonstrate they really know what cookies are1. We may be vaguely aware that online actions are traceable, don’t know what does it really means, or what could someone do with the information. Facebook reportedly2 looks into browser history to target ads to users. If an organization is profiting by selling information about me, without my knowledge, that does not sound right.

Back to the original question – how much harm can be done if a company knows I’ve researched hemorrhoids, looked up recipes for grasshoppers, visited six shoe shopping sites, and watched way too many cat videos? It might be embarrassing, but it won’t ruin my love life, empty my bank accounts, or set fire to my car. Still, I’m uneasy about what’s being done with my personal information, because I don’t know what’s being done with it. I’m not alone. This study3 suggests only 28% of people in a group of about 1500 agreed with the following statement: ‘what companies know about me from my behavior online cannot hurt’.

I don’t have the answer to ‘what do I fear will happen if my personal information is online’. I don’t need to. I wash my hands, without knowing if a bacteria, virus or fungus is lurking, waiting to infect me, or how serious an infection it might cause. Similarly, I’m concerned that something sick and disabling might be done with my online personal information, so I’m cautious of what I share.

1 from Luzak, J. (2014) Privacy Notice for Dummies? Towards European Guidelines on How to Give “Clear and Comprehensive Information” on the Cookies Use in Order to Protect the Internet Users’ Right to Online Privacy J Consum Policy 37:547-559

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On Drugs: Emerging Business Models (an update)

Remember the pharmaceutical company(s) that started an avalanche of public outcry for snowballing costs (hundreds of fold increase in months) of certain generic drugs? Well, Imprisis Pharmaceuticals has come up with a solution to get reasonably priced versions of said drugs to patients.

Brilliant,” I thought, on reading how they are going to do it.

Then I chewed my lower lip for a while trying to poke a hole in the concept.

But couldn’t.

Finally, in awe of the simplistic genius, I did a classic face-palm and wondered, Why Didn’t anyone Think of this Before?

Before I get into the logistics of it all, let me say that I’m glad the people who need the drugs, such as the generic pyrimethamine of the branded Daraprim, have better access to them. This report indicates the price will be about $1 per pill, compared to $750 that Turing was reported to be considering at one time (but pulled back from).

The trick, not to imply that Imprisis is doing anything that involves slight of hand or fooling anyone, the clever bit, is that Imprisis will provide generic versions of pyrimethamine by using a method that is, and has been for centuries, a generally accepted practice in pharmacies – called compounding.

Compounding is ancient. Used to be, medicines were all individually made by someone with a mortar and pestle and an apothecary of ingredients. As the pharmaceutical industry became more sophisticated, the creation of medicines was standardized (generally a good thing for safety and cost-effectiveness) and pills were produced under strict manufacturing conditions for the masses. Mass-produced pills contain not only the active ingredient but other things to increase its shelf-life, make it easier to swallow, delay release so once a day dosing is possible, decrease stomach upset and some other side effects, and have become the norm.

Occasionally, a physician will prescribe a specialized formulation, which eliminates an allergen, or allows the drug to be administered in different form, such as flavoured liquid or rub-on gel. Compounding is a wonderful throw-back to physician discretion, allowing the doctor to make a professional decision about what’s best for his or her patient, rather than selecting from a menu of pharmaceutical company offerings. Compounding is also popular with veterinarians, who will suggest using a drug that’s been proven effective in humans but needs to be modified for use in animals.

I’ve used compounded drugs. For my cat – a specially formulated gel that I rubbed on his ear to ease long-term administration. For me – combination drugs for topical administration, antibiotics and anti-inflammatories all in one. What the Doctor ordered for the specific situation.

The differences between branded, mass-produced drugs and compounded ones often includes more extensive testing for the preformed pills because the pharmaceutical giant behind them has funded the studies. Also, the pharmaceutical company has the liability if their medicines do damage. With compounding, the prescribing physician takes on this risk, generally with significant knowledge of the properties of the ingredients in the compounded formulation. Somewhat like buying off the shelf versus DIY. Compounding isn’t practical for all the pills prescribed today – we’d need half the population working as pharmacists to provide the millions of drug doses Canadians take every year.

However, clever Imprisis Pharmaceuticals has come up with a practical approach to providing off-patent, rarely used but badly needed drugs, such as the active ingredient in Daraprim. This is the drug Turing jacked the price on and elicited an impassioned response from the public, often focused on the evils of capitalism, pharmaceutical companies and perhaps hedge funds for good measure.

I’d never heard of Imprisis before this and promptly looked them up. They are a very young company,

whose core business is in compounding of existing drugs for better patient outcomes. Although this year looks like their break-even year for sales, prior to 2015, they’ve lost substantial sums. A not unusual scenario for a biomedical startup.

Am I implying the Imprisis has deduced a brilliant solution, hidden in plain sight before everyones eyes and the company deserves the support to do more good, or am I suggesting that being a pharmaceutical Robin Hood is a brilliant marketing tactic by a small company wavering between financial hard times and glory?

I’m not. I’m just sayin’ there’s many perspectives to every good story.

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