#LifeOnMars

I was listening to a media overview of the Life On Mars Project. The short version is that 6 people, 3 men and 3 women, will spend 365 in a biosphere located on the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. They will be permitted to leave the dome but will be required to wear a space suit to simulate the conditions on Mars.

In an unfortunate naming twist, the acronym for the effort is HI-SEAS. I think they should have gone with a different acronym.

The project will study the effects of long-term isolation and co-habitation. The results of the 1-year study will be used in the planning of an actual manned mission to Mars. This is certainly interesting research and the kind of work that can’t be simulated given the complexity of the human condition.

I thought it was curious that the crew features 3 men and 3 women. Given the fact that this is a 1-year project in close quarter conditions, with no external human contact, it would appear that the organizers were anticipating the human needs beyond food, shelter, clothing.

This leads to a number of interesting questions about the consequences of limited human interactions and self-enforced rules of order. What if one crewmember commits a crime against another crewmember? In a 36-foot diameter dome do you quarantine that person? Each crewmember holds specific skills that are necessary for the ongoing support of the station, putting an individual in isolation would deprive the rest of the crew of essential support.

What if someone unexpectedly binges and eats all the chocolate? Seems like a small thing but human conflict is often the result of small things piling up over time.

What happens when someone dies? This being a research project, one can presume that there would be an intervention in the event of life-threatening illness, but in space that isn’t possible so what would happen? Would you shoot the body out of a port, say a few words and move on? How do you replace the essential skills that person held?

There are obvious questions about long-term co-habitation in a small space that this research will shed light on. Entertainment, fitness, conflict resolution, communication, and mental health are all obvious questions, but it would be fascinating to learn about all the not so obvious issues that the planners have on their list.

I hope NASA departs from the usual media strategy of sunshine and rainbows to describe their work. This is a rare opportunity to shed light on the complexity of the human condition in anticipation of actual long-term cohabitation in space. I am also left to wonder why the International Space Station is not being used for this research given that it is an actual installation in outer space designed to support long-term co-habitation.

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The Ashley Madison Data Dump

madisonThe hack itself is an old story; Ashley Madison was hacked and profile information stolen. What is new is that the group behind the hack, Impact Team, dumped all the data. It has now been made available by many legitimate folks who created searchable online services against the data.

As much as I could enjoy the schadenfreude in this story, I simply cannot. I’m compelled to point out that just because an email is in the database does not mean it is a legitimate account. Email is a notoriously weak verified identifier, and while many websites have a sign-up flow for email verification, many don’t do anything to purge unverified emails. My thesis is that even unverified emails harvested in the sign-up flow have value for marketing purposes and, therefore, remain in the company’s database.

My email, jnolan@gmail.com, has been used by far too many “jnolans” to count. Often signing up for mundane services like car buying sites, but also for things that would certainly make my wife ask questions, like BlackPeopleFinder.com and an unrelated service for making arrangements with dominatrixes for a variety of, well, services.

The amount of crap I get from websites I have never visited is simple extraordinary. My oldest son has a gmail address that is first name only and I purge over a thousand emails from his account each month, and he’s only used it a few times for sending schoolwork.

2013101108The Impact Team has shrewdly wrapped themselves in a veil of moral righteousness to conceal a criminal act. While they aren’t stoning adulterers in the town square – or beheading them in a stadium – they are stealing personal information and using that in a form of extortion.

I find the entire affair, no pun intended, reprehensible and while AshleyMadison is itself objectionable, they are also a victim (of stupidity first and foremost). Despite complete awareness of the risks to the company and their customers, they did not employ best practices to secure their data. In addition to that, they had a sign-up flow and password recovery process that made it exceptionally easy to determine whether or not an email was in their user database. The flawed password recovery feature allowed for an entirely different line of attack employing social engineering to hijack individual accounts.

I won’t shed any tears if they shut down, which they likely will because recovering now is all but impossible, but I won’t celebrate the fact that a group of hackers brought their demise. To do so would welcome a global online sharia law where only those services that pass a moral test can exist.

PS- yeah, I searched for my email in the database! Who wouldn’t?

Amazon Dash, the Device Web, and Speech Verification

I purchased an Amazon Dash button recently. It’s a clever product concept and an example of a headless device that will be a major theme in the emerging Internet of Things movement.

The Internet of Things represents a massive shift in how we will consume services. I would assert that we will reorganize the existing Internet around three functional Internets:

  • The Web: This is what we know today. Constantly evolving, the complexity of services delivered to HTTP endpoint will increase, and as more web consumption moves to mobile, the interoperability of smartphone apps with web services will be transparent.
  • The Dark/Deep Web: This web already exists, it is beyond the reach of search or obscured behind secure and untraceable browser and domain technologies. Most often associated with illegal activity, the Dark/Deep Web will evolve to meet the needs of security and privacy, as well as conduct criminal activities. The Deep internet, that which is not obscured behind technology, it is simply not discoverable via search.
  • The Device Web: The proliferation of connected devices will overwhelm the traditional namespace. The devices that connect to the Device Web will be, predominately, headless. Lacking displays and traditional input modes, these devices will have speech interfaces, simple activation modes, and be tethered to a smartphone via a dedicated app.

My interest in the Device Web is what led me to spring the $5 for a Dash button. A Tide Dash button, we like Tide so what could be better than a simple push button replenishment mode? As it turns out, quite a bit.

dash1The Dash arrived in a simple package and activating the button was a simple process. I pressed the button and held it until the blue light blinked rapidly. Simple enough, just like a Bluetooth device.

With the blue light blinking, I went to the Amazon app that was already installed on my phone and found the “device” menu in the account menu. It was not immediately apparent because I was expecting a dedicated app, but when in retrospect it makes perfect sense the way they built this into their mobile app. I probably should have read the one pager that came with the device first.

The process of configuring the button is two parts, first adding the button to the network and then attaching it to a product option to purchase. The first part is interesting, the Amazon app forces my phone to drop the WIFI connection and form a direct connection to the Dash button. At this point, the app prompts you to select the network to connect the Dash button to. Dash then stores the WIFI password in the device, or in their cloud; it wasn’t clear where the password is being stored.

I wasn’t particularly excited about Amazon having my WIFI password in their network. To me, this represents a new front in privacy strategy because having access to my WIFI network opens up a lot of possibilities for Amazon that I would not endorse.

With the button configured I then needed to attach my product options to the buy button. At this point, my enthusiasm for this device went to zero. The number of products eligible for the Dash button are limited, and our preferred Tide option was not available. I detached the button from my account and put it back in the package. It will be a conversation piece now rather than a method for procuring laundry detergent.

When my six-year-old son saw the Dash button, the first thing he did was press the button, repeatedly. Had it been configured, I would be getting a truckload of Tide. Amazon has designed around this with the purchasing workflow, giving you the opportunity to cancel a transaction before fulfillment, but the problem I have with this is that I have to do it. The button itself does not discriminate between those in my household authorized to buy Tide and those that are not.

The Dash buttons would be significantly improved with a voice verification technology that responds only to an authorized and enrolled user. This authentication could be enabled with a fingerprint sensor but with current technology the cost of the sensor is an obstacle while adding a mic is trivial. Taking this to the next level, redesign the button to remove the button itself to enable Dash with a trigger phrase and voice verification to authenticate a transaction.

I love where Amazon is going with this, pushing the buying transaction out to the natural endpoint. I can envision this being evolved and improved with new technologies and improved backend integration, but I can also see this package being integrated into appliances. Not everyone wants to purchase exclusively through Amazon, so much like smart TVs now come preloaded with multiple streaming services, appliance makers could embed multiple retail options for the consumer.

Crisis Management for Lion Killers

The story of the Dr. “Lion Slayer” Palmer is all over the internet and people are outraged, for good reason. His dental practice is in limbo and he is in hiding after receiving death threats. Well done Internet… you have already surpassed the attention span of a #hashtag with this one.

I am conflicted on this story for many reasons. Big game hunting is deplorable, and there is no justification for it with licenses sold to the ultra-wealthy who are partaking in the experience for the sport of it. If the goal is herd management, have trained naturalists do the killing in a clinical manner and take advantage of the carcasses for research instead of skinning it and mounting the head as a trophy.

Here’s where my conflict hits a high pitch, the outrage that is being expressed by this story is disproportionate to the actual harm. In no small measure, this is due to the victim is an animal, a majestic animal rather than a deer or furry ground squirrel. African lions are threatened, not endangered, and the bulk of them live in a cluster of habitats like the one the one that was killed. Habitat destruction is a bigger threat to lions than hunting.

syrian atrocitiesHow do we square the universal outrage expressed about the killing of a lion with the antipathy to 200,000 people killed in Syria, including women and children gassed to death by the Assad regime? What about the near 8 million Syrians who have been forced to abandon their homes because of this civil war? Where can I post a satirical comment on Bashar al-Assad’s Yelp page?

The Internet is a marvelous creation that engages and connects people throughout the world. However, the unintended consequence of social media activism is that it is often a substitute for actual activism but with far less impressive results. We live in a world of #hashtags that create a false sense of engagement and deludes people into believing they made a difference. The half-life of a hashtag is hours; it is nothing more than an expression of vanity to attach your online personality to a cause… and then move on.

Where is the outrage about African countries selling the rights to kill these animals to the highest bidder? That, to me, is missing in focus here.

Here’s what I recommend that the Lion Slayer do to rehabilitate his image:

  1. Ride it out: We hit the crescendo of public outrage yesterday and by the end of the week the majority of people will have moved on. Making statements now does nothing to quell the firestorm and based on what he has already released, more damage is being done.
  2. Ignore the Zimbabwe authorities: This is a country run by a notorious thug, Robert Mugabe, who has ruined the economy and perpetuated many human rights abuses over his 33 year dictatorship. The U.S. ignores him, so should Palmer.
  3. Rebrand the clinic: River Bluff Dental is cooked, time to start over. He will have to actively manage the social media and review sites for NewCo. so plan on hiring a firm to do that over a protracted period of time.
  4. Focus on the local community: A dental practice is inherently local, it doesn’t matter what “Kim T. from San Gabriel, CA” thinks. Palmer needs to reach out to his local community and focus on the collective values of the practice, the people who rely on it for jobs, and the many people who have been served (apparently he is an accomplished dentist).
  5. Give up big game hunting: As already stated, it’s just immoral so give it up. Hunting is a big part of life in Minnesota so his local community will not object to hunting for local game. If he wants to go to Africa, take a camera instead of a bow.
  6. Take up animal conservation: His crime was in killing a majestic animal, the penance for that is supporting the preservation of majestic animals. I would recommend a strategy of donating a fixed percentage of revenue from the clinic to vetted causes, and being transparent about it.

If Michael Vick can rehabilitate his image after going to prison for dog fighting, I think Palmer has a good shot, no pun intended.

Tough Doesn’t Quit, Except at Breakfast

I was at a dinner on Sunday night and seated next to me was retired Admiral Eric Olson, who had a long and distinguished military career. He retired from the Navy in 2011 as the commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command. Interesting man, to say the least, but also incredibly gracious and unassuming.

I asked him what qualities he could identify that would be indicators of success as s Navy SEAL. His response was predictable in some ways, unexpected in others. Above all, he said, the SEALs look for problem-solving, intelligence and mental toughness in candidates. I expected to hear this, and he added that chess and water polo players seem particularly well suited for special operations, which certainly fits the profile.

seals-toughnessWhat he added, which was unexpected, is that they study the well-documented attrition rate during training. Within each cohort, they looked at the time of day that candidates would quit and found that the majority of drop-outs quit at breakfast and lunch. In other words, they didn’t quit during the grueling training exercises but in anticipation of them.

It makes a lot of sense in retrospect because this training program is designed to instill the commitment of team and capacity of the human body to go far beyond believed physical limits. Giving up occurs not in the moment of exertion where your team is counting on you but in the comfort of being alone and anticipating the grueling assignment.

Draw your own analogies to everyday life.

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Corporate Activism: The Uber Edition

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio really stepped in it by picking a fight with Uber. Acting as the puppet for the powerful taxi medallion owners in NYC, who despise Uber, the mayor proposed capping the addition of new Uber cars to 1%. Given the customer growth that Uber has been experiencing in NYC, a 1% increase in drivers would kneecap the company.

Uber fought back, which seemed to catch both City Hall and the yellow cab cartel off guard. Anyone who has watched Uber grow will tell you the company redefines the term being aggressive.

Making critical arguments that they were creating jobs, customers are being served that are neglected by taxi cabs, and the congestion claims didn’t match the numbers. Indeed, the congestion argument that De Blasio relied on was particularly curious because it is now clear that is based on anecdote.

In addition to a wave of advertising and protests by the very people who rely on Uber to earn income, Uber enlisted allies across the political spectrum. However, it was the use of the application as a tool for activating customers that is particularly brilliant. The de Blasio mode that rolled out provided every Uber customer in NYC with a picture of what service would look like if de Blasio successfully capped growth.

img_7479

What is different about Uber fighting City Hall versus WalMart or an energy company, is that Uber has user experience on their side. This is where De Blasio fatally erred in taking on Uber. He attempted to use worn our arguments about safety and employee rights to define Uber as a threat to the public welfare when anyone who has ridden in a yellow cab – anywhere – will tell you it is quite the opposite. The data didn’t back up De Blasio’s claim, on the surface or at that level that we just intuitively know.

de Blasio backed down and his allies are attempting to spin a victory out of this defeat. Highlighting the fact that Uber agreed to “restrain” growth to their current level (it’s hard to imagine Uber juicing growth in NYC at this point) and sharing data for the traffic study. Make no mistake about this, it was a defeat for De Blasio and only further weakens him in the eyes of New Yorkers who are already fed up with him.

This loss comes on the heels of a humiliating showing in Albany. Mayor de Blasio sought permanent control of the city school system; instead he got a 1-year extension on the current oversight agreement. He bitterly opposes charter schools, doing the bidding for the teacher’s union, which bitterly opposes charter schools, and instead of reducing their numbers he was handed 50 more. He wanted pro-tenant changes to the rent control laws, he got nothing but a 4-year extension on the status quo. He wanted changes to the 421 real estate law, for which he got bupkis. His showing within NYC politics shows much of the same. He opposed hiring more police officers, and Bratton got 1,300 new officers pushed through.

And now he just lost to Uber.

In the end, it is customers that win. For years, the taxi industry has one constituent, regulators. The regulators derived their power from the fact that there was an organized industry to regulate and did little to improve customer experience and affordability. The money generated by taxes was spread around to mass transit projects and used to enrichen organized labor, who like the taxi industry had little incentive to improve customer experience. Just ride on San Francisco’s MUNI system, a textbook example for why a municipality should not be entrusted with public transportation.

Uber and Lyft came along and demonstrated that superior customer experience wins every time. It’s not just the taxi industry that sees this threat, cities with crowded and inefficient transit systems are watching their ridership shift to ride services and as companies introduce car-pooling services the trend will accelerate. Preparing for a long battle ahead, it is obvious that Uber and their counterparts are prepared to wage a direct and aggressive battle on behalf of their interests, and because their interests align with consumers I am okay with that.

The Coming Robot Invasion in Fast Food

102277923-IMG_3958.530x298I was driving up Woodside Road last week and the KFC store had a huge “Hiring!” banner hanging on the front of the outlet. This caught my attention for two reasons.

It’s well established that cost of living on the Peninsula is not amenable to the income generated by low skilled, fast food work. It just isn’t and raising the minimum wage or whatever you want to call it isn’t going to make a difference. As a result, few people want to work these jobs. How can you blame them if flipping burgers and banging on a cash register all day isn’t providing an income that makes it possible to cover the basics?

It used to be that fast food was a job that kids filled in their off hours or during summer, it is not a career. Today’s young people have many competing demands on their time, from school to sports to activities that they are expected to participate in order to make them competitive for college admissions. There is also a youth entitlement factor that comes into play in wealthy communities. However, in my conversations with small business owners the number one problem with hiring teens is that they cannot commit to the time that is required to hold down a job.

Today I read an interesting piece on McDonald’s:

“For example, labor needed to run stores during lunch hour,” one franchisee wrote. “Our competitors have 6-8 people to run close to the same volume that we need 20-25 people.

It’s a perfect storm of changing consumer tastes, poor brand management, and food quality hitting McDonald’s at the moment. If we throw in labor efficiency, we may have hit the tipping point that results in an unsalvagable business. It is this last issue that is most interesting to me.

robot-fast-food.0.0There is no reason at all why fast food restaurants could not be staffed primarily by robots. I’m not talking about cute humanoids delivering food to tables but rather the heavy lifting part of fast food… the kitchen.

Fast food is designed to be repeatable in preparation and presentation, a perfect scenario for robotics. Fast, efficient, and consistent preparation of food can be accomplished with sensor heavy automation that manages food quality, consistency, and safety far better than humans can at the pace that is required in a fast food process. The novelty factor of automation would soon give way to a preference in much the same way that other businesses have used automation for competitive advantage.

robot-restaurant-3.0If you carry this forward, the interesting thing to consider is how automation informs the fast/casual dining user experience from a design standpoint. Automation completely changes how a kitchen would be laid out, how logistics are managed and even how we use technology to interface with the front end processes as a customer. A maps interface on your phone could now include order entry while driving and beacons could interact with me while en route and in the restaurant itself. It’s pretty exciting to think how everything changes as a result of robotics in the fast food process.

I will close by saying that for McDonald’s these issues cannot be tinkered with. Re-establishing leadership will require bold strategies that remake the entire fast food experience, not just the McDonald’s brand experience. Automation won’t address the menu issues they have, but it will address the labor issues that are plaguing the franchise model. They could start incrementally and insert automation in the kitchen but they also need to lay out a vision for the total experience they are designing to.

Hillary Clinton Attacks Uber, Airbnb

On the wrong side of history yet again, Hillary Clinton has decided that her road to the White House is tearing down one of the great economic movements of the last decade, the sharing economy. 

In an economic speech she is planned to give, Clinton will highlight the stagnating wages of the middle class and points to causes that include Uber and Airbnb. This is mind blowing for two reasons, one is that the bloc of voters that she absolutely has to appeal to is not only benefiting from these services but sees them as a part of their economic portfolio. Secondly, the marketplace for services is fundamentally shifting from one of hardened connections between companies and employees to one of loose connections that increase and decrease based on personal preferences.

Clinton’s aide said she will discuss some of the structural forces conspiring against sustainable wage growth, such as globalization, automation, and even consumer-friendly “sharing economy” firms like Uber and Airbnb that are creating new relationships between management and labor (and which now employ many Obama administration alumni). But she will argue that policy choices have contributed to the problem, and that she can fix it.

Hillary Clinton wants to return Americans to an era where earning income happened exclusively in the context of an employee-employer relationship. In addition to that, she wants to restrict individuals access to a market where utilizing assets like home, apartments, and vehicles for income is an option and is effectively excluded from the worst aspects of government, rent-seeking, which conspires to depress the stagnated incomes that Clinton is right to call out!

UPDATE: I finished the above paragraph after my friend, Paul Greenberg, alerted me to the incomplete sentence in my original post. He also made a comment about this not being a “sharing economy” but rather a new dimension on renting and I largely agree. More than anything else, Uber and Airbnb are just two examples of a bigger movement that enables income to be extracted from 2 of the biggest capital expenses of the middle class, homes and cars. 

Mary Meeker’s recently published 2015 Internet Trends Report highlighted some of the generational changes that are occurring and the impact on the future of work. See Slide 111. Flexible hours and freelancing are integral beliefs underpinning economic freedom for this generation and Clinton’s position is directly at odds with that.

Far from being a cause of middle-class stagnation, the sharing economy offers a rare moment of optimism. Roy Bahat recently published an outstanding essay titled Your Career is a Mess that highlights one of the seismic shifts affecting employment in the 21st century, which is that we are no longer single threaded in the employee-employer relationship.

Hillary Clinton’s entire campaign is emerging as a grab bag of tired progressive policies that have actually attacked the middle class rather than empowered it. Wage growth has stalled because growth itself has stalled, this is not shocking to any economist and yet the candidate continues to parrot talking points about childcare and paid time off, infrastructure investment, and clean energy. Rather than embracing and expanding the economics successes of the last decade, Clinton would take us back to the last century, proving that she is on the wrong side of history yet again.

PS- Comments were not enabled in the original post, I corrected that with this update.

Forced Encryption Rendering Nexus Devices Useless

UPDATE: I unlocked the devices and installed a modified bootloader that disabled encryption. It was a bit of a hassle I had to reformat the device storage but Google has a nice recovery feature for apps in Lollipop. The results were beyond expectation, the phone feels 3x as fast and the Nexus 9 no longer has any of the lag issues that were causing problems with Chrome.

I have a Nexus 9 and a Nexus 6, both running Android Lollipop 5.01. Almost immediately I noticed that there was a lot of lag in the UI and performance was generally slow. After doing a lot of research it appears that forced encryption in 5.0x is a huge performance drag on hardware that would otherwise be quite snappy.

Lollipop 5.1 is rumored to be available but despite being on Nexus devices I have not received OTA updates (Verizon for the 6, T-Mobile for the 9). I can sideload 5.1 on the 6 but there is not image available as of yet for the Nexus 9.

While this feature is well intentioned, the fact remains that it should never have gone into production with the enormous performance penalty it imposes. Furthermore, Google knows of the issue and has removed the forced requirement but has not yet made a fix available to those devices that already have it.

As much as I like the Nexus hardware, I would not recommend buying any Nexus device until Google disables encryption.

The Challenge of Being a Russian Security Software Company

Passwork. Password manager for teams. Collaboration and password sharingI came across Passwork today and was really impressed with the presentation as well as focus of the product. This is the kind of product that I would instinctively sign up for and test drive… but for an unrelated reason I started poking around on their site to find out more about the company.

It became clear that the company is Russian and this fact alone represents a major impediment for any company in the security software space. In all fairness I am making this assumption off factors like domains and language… the company itself provided no contact information on their website, which is itself kind of weird.

There is obviously a lot of good tech that comes out of Russia but there is an intractable problem when going global and that is the ambiguity about the extent to which Russian government activities encroach on the activities of commercial companies. The same can be said of China and in the interest of being fully objective about this topic, the same can be said of the U.S.A. as more attention and disclosure was put on NSA, FBI, and other government agencies. Selling globally I know this is the case, companies not based in the U.S. have significant objections about domiciling data in U.S. datacenters.

The problem for companies in Russia (and China) is that of the perception of egregious bad actors, including overt criminal activity. It’s one thing to have the government accessing your data, it’s another altogether to believe you would be exposed to criminal industrial espionage. I simply would not try to build a security software company in Russia if I have an aspiration of selling to a global enterprise market. Kaspersky Lab is a notable exception here when it comes to endpoint security but it’s clear that the company is aware of this and also the rising tensions between the U.S. and Russian governments.

Passwork is also, apparently, aware of the obstacles and goes to lengths on their website to highlight open algorithms, data security and privacy. In addition to addressing these issues up front, they also offer a version of the software that is on-premise. I’m not sure any of these measures really overcome the perception of risk, which in many ways is a binary condition.

As much as I liked the marketing for Passwork, I didn’t sign up.