Microsoft’s Racist Bot is the Most Human-Like Ever

Microsoft suffered a PR disaster with the launch of Tay, the AI-powered chat bot unleashed on Twitter. Long story short, Twitter users quickly shaped Tay into a bigot that spewed some pretty vile stuff. Microsoft shut it down quickly, which is no surprise.

This is a picture of things to come as autonomy intersects with technology services.

The question to consider is not whether a bot has any right to act in deplorable ways but if we, as humans,  will be served by having a looming generation of machine-powered services that conforms to a code of conduct dictated by a creator. A future that features services which through their very existence condition humans to behave according to specific norms is positively Orwellian.

These issues may seem academic in nature today but now is exactly the time to consider them. Do you want machines that conform to a corporate-defined standard of behavior and do not evolve according to human interaction but instead shape humans to the behaviors they are programmed to deliver?

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.

Living With a Chromebook

Last week I bought a Samsung Chromebook.

The reason for taking the plunge is that my son needs a new computer and I talked with my wife about getting him a laptop instead of a new iMac. The only desktop computer in the house is his, Lisa and I both use laptops and tablets while working, reading, whatever, and rarely sit in our home office. As a result, if my son used his computer he was often doing it unsupervised and at his age I still want to have a watchful eye on what he is doing.

The proliferation of free, and pseudo-free, applications available through app marketplaces also presents a challenge for parents because many of these apps have features that circumvent the parental controls that operating systems provide. For example, many games have embedded chat capabilities. With that in mind, I wanted to give him a laptop that cut off one of the avenues by which children can stumble into trouble, installed apps, which often also bring security risks that could impact our entire home network.

Lastly, I wanted to experience the Chromebook as a possible extension of my own computing needs for when I am traveling or out-and-around town for meetings and such. An 11″ lightweight computer with a long lasting battery makes a lot of sense, and with my Verizon mifi connectivity I can be connected in the absence of a fixed wifi network.

The Samsung Chromebook is an appealing laptop on several levels. It is lightweight, has great battery performance, features a surprisingly nice keyboard, and good enough performance. It delivers the goods and doesn’t promise any extras. it is certainly no Pixel but it is $250 so from a value perspective it is hard to beat. In addition to the basic features, it includes a couple of USB ports and, surprisingly, a full sized HDMI port; storage is extended with an SDCard slot in the side.

I like what Google did with the launcher and dock, and setup was really straightforward. Performance is, as I noted, good enough, but it really lacks responsiveness. which is to say it just isn’t very snappy. The only significant negative that I can point out is that the display is washed out and generally unimpressive.

The only surprisingly challenging thing to do on the Chromebook is print, but once I figured out how to add a “classic printer” to Google Cloud Print and then shared that across my multiple Google profiles, it worked but clearly Google has some work to do with Cloud Print although competitive offerings from HP and others could fill this gap. Eventually I will replace my printer with one that is cloud-centric, which will also help smooth over this issue.

The display brings up the topic of the Google Pixel, which by all accounts has one of the nicest hardware/software experiences available in the market today, and the display performance and quality is nothing short of phenomenal. However, as good as that is, it is a $1,300 price tag and a larger form factor at 13″, plus the battery life is not very good.

Despite a few shortcomings, I think the Chromebook will find a place in my toolbox and this reflects a broader trend that many people are experiencing where they end up with a proliferating array of devices that either depend on the cloud or are synced to reflect a unified user experience.

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Self-Driving Cars and Unwritten Rules

I had a funny experience on my way home from work last week. I was on i280 and spotted a Google self-driving car  ahead of me in the adjacent lane. As I drove up and then past it I noticed that it was maintaining a safe distance from the cars in front of it and falling farther and farther behind the passing cars.

Anyone who drives in moderately to heavy traffic commute traffic knows that there is a distance you can maintain behind the cars in front of you that is not by-the-book safe but prevents the phenomena where the gap is large enough to allow car after car to slip in front of you… it’s kind of like a traffic bullwhip effect. You drive just far enough behind that you can panic stop based on what is going on in front of the car you are following but not far enough back that you keep getting passed.

This particular Google self-driving car was, apparently, not coded with that rule and the result was rather comical. As a new car slipped in front of the self-driving car it dutifully dropped back to create a safe space which then became a new space for a different driver to slip in to, and so on and so on, the result being that the Google car dropped back at a predictable rate while car after car whisked by.

This is the challenge for all next generation technology to overcome, which is the requirement to adapt to situations that develop based on activities and patterns that are emerging in realtime. It’s not just a matter of more sensors and faster reaction times but a fundamentally different way of looking at software frameworks, and truth be told I have no insight to what the Google car is built on but one thing is clear, being able to parallel park or get from point A to B without incident is the least of their challenges.

Lastly, I am really excited about the prospect of self-driving vehicles. As much as I enjoy driving there is no doubt I would equally appreciate flipping into self-driving mode so I can take a call or read something or simply check out on my way home. On the commercial side, self-driving vehicle technology can remake logistics networks and shift commercial traffic patterns to have less impact on commute periods or reroute dynamically based on events that are happening. It’s exciting stuff, I think Google deserves credit for launching this experiment but the major auto manufacturers should also be recognized because they have been working on this longer than Google, despite getting far less attention.

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Content Management in the Social Age

I read this interesting piece on the redesign of the Reuters website, one paragraph jumped out at me as a consequential observation affecting a wide array of companies today:

Known internally as “Reuters Next,” the new will be a “state of the art” offering with a redesigned front-end and a proprietary content management system built from scratch, said our sources, who described the site as being remodeled into editor-curated, stream-based channels such as world news, politics, business and tech.

Content management systems are undergoing a social technology upgrade cycle that is not talked about very much but has two significant consequences that individually are disruptive and together are utterly transformative.

The first of these disruptions is how social content, which is just another way of saying user generated content, becomes an input into a website’s CMS in the same way that company sponsored content is enabled. In the advertising world there is a well understood concept of earned, owned, and sponsored media; the earned media being the most valuable because it is inspired rather than paid for and as such has broad utility in a company’s marketing efforts. In the social technology world getting people to create content about you, in the form of original source content (e.g. blogs) and interaction content (comments, shares, likes) but mainstream content systems that power websites have few capabilities for doing more than appending this to “owned” content.

The second major theme I want to highlight is the notion of company vs. community curated content. Having an editorial agenda in a website that is enabled by your employees is a no-brainer, but it ultimately proves to be a challenging scale problem because, in many cases, the most interesting content about your company and products isn’t created by you. As a result of this the curation capability relies on smart people who are good at discovering and organizing content, but increasingly mainstream is the notion of crowdsourced content and externally curated content sourced from your fans and followers… but none of this is integrate with the typical CMS that a company will rely on for a web experience.

The challenge that is facing companies, large and small alike, is how do they capture externally sourced and curated content, organize it in the structure of their website, and then providing a social experience in the presentation that takes into account the activities of your brand advocates. Yeah, it’s a big challenge and in the absence of a next generation of CMS capabilities it is unlikely that we will get there.

Windows 8 for a Mac User

I recently purchased an Asus Zenbook Touch laptop to replace my trusty Macbook Air. I was impressed by the hardware design being exhibited by the top tier ultrabook manufacturers, they embody sleek design elements and a fantastic build quality but more importantly Windows 8 has created a once in a generation opportunity to redefine what a PC is and much to my delight manufacturers like Samsung, Asus, Acer, Dell and HP are running with it.

Keep in mind that I switched from Windows to a Mac around the 2003 time period so for me this was not a decision to make lightly. I am accustomed to a Mac and did not object to paying a premium for the experience, however in recent years I was left feeling neglected as everything exciting that Apple did was around iOS while OS X was subject to incremental updates that often brought discomfort (e.g. performance on Lion) and the improved features were clearly aimed at people using iOS (e.g. Mountain Lion).

I long ago switched to Android for a smartphone and have no attachment to Apple’s software applications, instead relying on Google Apps. What I wanted from Apple was groundbreaking hardware that provided well integrated and reliable software experiences and Apple has been coming up short on both counts. Their hardware is consistently well designed and pleasing to look at, externally of course but the new Retina displays are amazing. but nothing they are doing with laptops is disruptive, it’s a turn here and a tweak there.

My Macbook Air was getting a little long in the tooth and in need of replacement. I was intrigued by Windows 8 and on a whim I walked over to the Best Buy a block away from my office and tried a few out. I was really impressed by the array of premium hardware and by how positive my initial hands on experience was with Windows 8. Even more surprising to me was how naturally I was reaching for the screen to interact with the system as a touchscreen.

Before I took the plunge I spent a couple of weeks reading up on Windows 8 and the shortlist of hardware that I liked. The Asus Zenbook, Acer S7, Samsung Series 9, and Sony models were on my list, all featuring an Air like hardware profile, fantastic displays, SSD storage, and comfortable keyboards. I selected the Asus Zenbook Touch because it met all of the above and offered strong battery performance, something the sexiest ultrabook in the category, the Acer S7, did not. I really wanted to convince myself to buy the Acer but the battery issue is a showstopper for me.

I actually found the experience of buying a Windows laptop to be really frustrating on several levels. What these manufacturers need to understand is that Apple flattened out the hardware curve by reducing the options and making it easier to buy. PC manufacturers still dwell on specifications and numbers, and the result is that even when you think you know what you are buying you may end up with something completely different. Asus has a family of Zenbook Prime computers, spread across several major groupings, the UX21A and UX31A groups. In the UX31A group there are 3 distinct models with many option sets. I ended up buying the UX31A-BHI5T11. Really.

It turns out that Asus doesn’t even provide the specific model numbers on their site, I found it on a retailer site in the fine print and then used that to search for other sources. It was a horrible experience and if they don’t come up with a better way to sell these things they will turn away more people than they serve.

The initial experience with the packaging and power up was impressive, Asus has clearly learned from Apple on this front. I was also massively happy to see that the computer was not crapified with manufacturer supplied software, there were a few apps bolted on to the UX but no AOL and Intuit tiles! Power up was instant, per the promise that Microsoft designed to, and the initial setup was really easy. I was on my network and doing stuff within 10 minutes of unboxing the laptop.

The Windows 8 tile experience is really exciting because the desktop does a lot more than just present icons, you can consume content through the tiles and the way the layout is presented begs to be interacted with. I love the touch experience and this is the most surprising aspect of my initial journey. you actually want to use the touch gestures in addition to the keypad and touchpad.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see that Windows found my network printer and set it up without prompting me, as well as provides a “devices” experience for bringing my smartphone and other bluetooth enabled devices into the mix.

Switching from the tile experience to the traditional Windows desktop is not as disruptive as I initially imagined although I am looking forward to more applications that are built to Win8 for a dedicated focus. This is subtle but really does depart from the multiple open windows focus that prior versions of Windows delivered to. I do one thing at a time but I want to rapidly and seamlessly task shift when I am working so that I can do other things in a dedicated fashion. Like I said, it’s subtle but important to me.

Here’s what I don’t like about this so far. The touchpad on the Asus is a challenge, prone to random clicks and gestures. Speaking of gestures, Windows 8 is proving to be a learning curve as it relates to where all the features are, they really need to put in place a better first power up getting started routine to highlight where stuff is. The Asus power supply is really compact but why can’t these manufacturers deliver a magnetic coupling connector? The SSD is pretty small but I decided to take a chance on this because I increasingly use cloud storage for photos and videos (which consume a ridiculous amount of my Macbook’s SSD).

I have been using this laptop for a couple of days now and have not once felt the need to reach for my Macbook except to move files, which thanks to everything being in the cloud now is a breeze. As I get more time under my belt with Windows 8 I will post additional observations and experiences.

UPDATE: It occurred to me that the problems I am having with the Asus touchpad are twofold… it is way too sensitive and does not have adequate “palm rejection” but it is also setup for a right handed user, I am left handed and it was never an issue on the Mac touchpad because there is not an explicit left vs. right in their hardware.

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Marc Cuban Is Psyched About Cable

Cuban is PSYCHED! Hey, it’s not like he doesn’t have a reason to shake the pom-poms for cable, right? He’s also been pretty vocal about his belief that content owners will never give up the fees they get from cable and go to a free online distribution model.

Marc Cuban just told me advances in cable technology are more exciting than what’s happening on the Internet right now.

[From Marc Cuban Is Psyched About Cable – Media Money with Julia Boorstin –]

It’s pretty hard to argue with any credibility that cable is a hotbed of innovation. I look at my Comcast on demand and I’m struck by the fact that the big content developments they have to show off are used car listings. Who the hell cares?

It’s also worth pointing out that Comcast’s on demand services only work with their set top boxes, if you have a current generation flatscreen and want to take advantage of a cable card you will just get a tuner without any on demand capabilities. So much for the mythical cable technology advances that Cuban talks about.

Here’s the core problem with cable operators, they are operating a walled garden where any new content offerings have to come from them in order to reach the last inch between the TV and a person. It’s not just that the distribution network is closed but the development platform as well and this ensures that cable will never be a hotbed of content and application innovation.

Apple’s distribution system for the iPhone is closed but accessible, and by that I mean they have opened up the development tools and provided a low hurdle for access to the distribution capability that is the iTunes App Store. The result is that this is the place app developers want to be and because the flywheel is spinning more consumers want the device in spite of few hardware upgrades.

The cable companies, pretty much off of them, by contrast have little third party developer support and the integration of online to television content is weak, practically nonexistent. Video is the single hottest driver of audience today and the cable companies have done the bare minimum insofar as pursuing this an an online strategy.

To add insult to injury, cable companies have silo’ed themselves based on how content is distributed and have not invested in an integrated advertising sales effort, meaning the online initiatives run ad network content as often as their own sold inventory and because they believe they don’t know how to sell online they simply don’t try. This revenue suboptimization leads to a vicious cycle of underinvestment and experimentation that risks their core business.

Cuban may be “psyched” about cable because he has to given where his investments are but it’s hard, make that impossible, for any rational person to argue that cable has eclipsed the internet when it comes to innovation. Lastly, Cuban is wrong about one very significant part of the argument, bandwidth does not develop to meet applications but rather the expansion of bandwidth leads the development of applications that take advantage of bandwidth whether it be network or processing capability.

Intel Debuts Wireless Power

This could be huge but before we get too frothy about it we should take a breath and realize that not only will device makers have to build this into their hardware designs, and pay Intel for the privilege of doing so, but with a range of a couple of feet us consumers won’t be completely untethered. Having said that, this is a welcome innovation.

The Times said Intel, which employs 6,000 in Folsom, will demonstrate using a magnetic field to broadcast up to 60 watts for a range of 2 to 3 feet and lose only 25 percent of the power.

[From Intel looks at way to wirelessly recharge electrical device – Sacramento Business Journal:]

Early Adopters’ Secrets For Success With New Tech

The CIO’s role within global 2000 companies has changed in recent years from leading big systems projects, like ERP deployments, to business transformation. The objective for a lot of big companies is to use technology innovations to drive business innovations, not just achieve cost and productivity efficiencies.

“Ten years ago, CIOs spent a lot of time getting transactional systems—the giant stuff—in place. But that’s not so much the job anymore,” says Robert Urwiler, CIO of Vail Resorts. “CIOs have more freedom to explore innovative ways to provide business transformation and more freedom to look around at emerging technologies. I feel like I have an obligation to do that.” If Rogers were to revisit the idea of early adoption in IT in 2008, that classical distribution curve might not look so bell-shaped anymore.

[From Early Adopters’ Secrets For Success With New Tech]

This article in CIO Magazine, link courtesy of Vinnie Michandani, caught my attention because it features the CIO of Virgin America, the airline that I have been flying a lot lately. Virgin’s in seat entertainment system, they call it “Red”, is an example of technology edge pushing in action and it’s great if for no other reason than it gives you a lot of control in what is an otherwise captive environment.

First and foremost, the entire system is built on Linux, which in itself is pretty cool but is also representative of a larger commitment to open source technologies by CIO Maguire. The focus on Linux is also representative of how technology is being used to drive business innovation at Virgin.

The entertainment system also has a food ordering system, which can be used to order everything from free drinks to box meals at $9 each. My personal experience suggests that the ability to select from a menu of food options instead of one or maybe two box options results in me spending more money per flight on food, probably on average $12 for a long flight.

The streaming video options are extensive and priced below the psychological threshold where you feel like you are getting ripped off. Throw in a movie and you are up another $6 or $8. There is a tab for online shopping that has yet to be activated, and I can imagine that being a popular service that results in additional affiliate revenue.

Essentially what Virgin America is doing is using technology to not only deliver a better in flight experience but also drive additional revenue per seat that is independent of arbitrary fees being tacked on by the airline. There are 140 seats, assuming a relatively constant load factor of 80% you end up with 112 butts in seats and if they can generate on average $8 per seat the revenue uplift is $900, roughly equivalent to 2 SFO-NYC round trip tickets.

There are 100 flights a day, assuming the short flights are less likely to produce additional seat revenue, let’s average that down to $300 per flight. Making some rough guesses about the flight schedule, let’s say that it’s 60/40 short to long haul which results in a combined additional revenue of $54k per day across their entire schedule. That’s an additional $20 million of revenue (no idea what the margins would be) per year that was enabled by a better piece of technology stuffed in the back of an airplane seat. Not bad.

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Save The Newspaper Industry and Still Lose Weight

This is a really interesting article on the newspaper business; how the eyeball model is failing and why a “subscription consortium” could be a positive development if Congress changes the antitrust laws that likely restrict newspapers from enabling this now.

Harder to foresee was the emergence of a painful paradox: Newspapers’ revenues have shrunk even as their audience has grown, because online-ad revenue does not come close to replacing print-ad revenue. Exactly why is not perfectly clear, but one reason is that only some newspaper advertising has moved to newspaper websites, with the rest shifting to such online upstarts as Google and Craigslist. Another reason is that readers seem to perceive print ads as information but Web ads as distractions, and so ad rates are much lower online than in print.

[From National Journal Magazine – How to Save Newspapers–and Why]

Before tackling the subscription concept, I do wish to take issue with Rauch’s suggestion that it is not “perfectly clear” why online advertising is failing to bridge the gap for newspapers with declining print distribution. While not “perfectly clear” it may fall into the rather obvious category that online advertising is more transparent than print and thus is less likely to benefit publishers through inefficiency. In other words, even CPM based display ads are performance based in that the advertiser pays for exactly what is delivered, not what is reported to be delivered.

Newspaper advertising is not monolithic either, there are classifieds, business card ads, information ads, sale ads, coupons, and spotlight ads. Of all these categories it is classifieds that have most certainly been negatively impacted by Craigslist et. al. For the other ad variants there is a good analog to online display ads but it’s not entirely clear that newspaper ad sales groups understand how to sell online ads, but having said that it is also true that coupons are far different from spotlight ads.

Perhaps the real problem that the newspaper business has is not a lack of options but a lack of imagination. Why is it that the best newspapers can do is interstitial and display ads?

There is one problem that newspapers face which is difficult to overcome and that is the fact that newspaper advertising is predominately local whereas online the boundaries presented by geography simply don’t apply. If I am placing ads for an automotive dealership and SFGate’s numbers present a picture that suggests only half of the online audience is within the 5 Bay Area counties that I care about then the consequence of that is that their ad rates are only worth half of the rate card to me.

This only serves to illustrate the weakness that display ads have online… if your .46% click through rate is now no better than .23, the 1:30 ratio of people who click on an ad to buy a car now causes a chain reaction that results in having to display the ad 12,000 times to get a lead across the finish line. What this means is that the CPM rate is worth about $8.30 to me if my competitive marketing costs are $100 per car buyer, and this is a success story! If my RPM (collective CPM to a page) is $25 on average, I have to generate 10 million pageviews just to generate $250k in revenue.

Rauch presents an interesting concept of a consortium subscription but here’s why it won’t work. News is fungible and with the explosion of news sources that are available online it is unlikely that newspapers as represented online today could justify a subscription cost on the basis of unique reporting alone. Even a meaningful consortium of newspapers would have a hard time sustaining this concept.

This is because newspapers by and large have taken a chainsaw to news gathering operations and as a result do very little in the way of unique local coverage. Cable news in particular has been aggressive about picking up alternative forms of local coverage and are ramping up initiatives to collect user submitted videos in particular, all of which further threatens the newspaper model of journalism.

Newspapers can, I believe, succeed online but they will need to broaden their reach and deepen the portfolio of advertising products they offer. As advertisers demand more precise targeting and yield the newspapers will have to respond with much better targeting and probably something like technographics that predict how different audience groups engage brands and online media.

As I have written before, I don’t think that newspaper executives are stupid or incapable of understanding what is happening to their collective industry. I do believe that smart people fall into a trap of viewing something different as simply an extension of what they have already been doing, and as such tend to be incremental in their innovations. Journalism is not broken, nor is the notion of print newspapers, but what is clear is that simply doing online what you were doing offline isn’t working and no amount of volume will make it up. If The Huffington Post can do as well as the rumor numbers have them doing, then the Washington Post can as well.

Lastly, the title of this post is something I played around with while thinking about television advertising for products that promise weight loss without any work. Eat all you want and shed the pounds! Of course they don’t work because losing weight is a simple equation about burning more calories than you are taking in (lot’s of factors, but in a nutshell this is it). The newspaper industry isn’t going to be able to save itself without some serious work to remake the culture of the newspaper business, deal with the costs of their unionized print operations, and optimize what is a generally expensive and low yield news operations. Nothing is free, same goes here.

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