Parts of the machine

Is it fair to try to treat people as if they were part of an electronic system? The NYT has a disturbing article on the effects of computer optimization and big data on the workforce in the retail industry. People are more called at the last minute by “the software” to do shifts that have been calculated depending on the weather, and optimized to reduce costs:

If the mercury is going to hit 95 the next day, the software will suggest scheduling more employees based on the historic increase in store traffic in hot weather. […] The [employee scheduling] program breaks down schedules into 15-minute increments. So if the lunchtime rush at a particular shop slows down at 1:45, the software may suggest cutting 15 minutes from the shift of an employee normally scheduled from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

[…] the scheduling software “helped us take 400, 500 basis points out of our labor costs,” or 4 to 5 percentage points, a savings of millions of dollars a year. The software keeps tabs on when workers are available, their skills and who makes the most sales per hour.

The result is that everybody works part time, flexible, unpredictable shifts. And who wins in the end? The stores of course. People who work 6h are more effective than those who work 8.

Mr. Flickinger, the retail consultant, said companies benefited from using many part-timers. “It’s almost like sharecropping — if you have a lot of farmers with small plots of land, they work very hard to produce in that limited amount of land,” he said. “Many part-time workers feel a real competition to work hard during their limited hours because they want to impress managers to give them more hours.”

Ms. Rosser, the Jamba Juice district manager, amplified on the advantages.“You don’t want to work your team members for eight-hour shifts,” she said. “By the time they get to the second half of their shift, they don’t have the same energy and enthusiasm. We like to schedule people around four- to five-hour shifts so you can get the best out of them during that time.”


What we have here is another case of businesses putting their computers interests ahead of their workforce’s interests. Humans have to adapt to the algorithms, not the other way around. I wonder how far this can go. Would you rather have a struggling to survive, secretly unhappy but optimized workforce, or people who love their jobs, are energetic but cost you 15m of extra time here and there?

This appears to me as short term thinking. Results will go up in the early years as the result of computer optimization, then they will decrease as good workers (those with options) avoid those particular stores, and clients start to be turned off by a poisonous atmosphere.

I’m constantly amazed by how much algorithms are governing our lives. On this very topic, check Kevin Slavin’s talk at Lift, a real masterpiece.

Anonymous assassination

In other hacking news, “security holes enable attackers to switch off pacemakers, rewrite firmware from 30 feet away”. Ouch!

IOActive researcher Barnaby Jack has reverse-engineered a pacemaker transmitter to make it possible to deliver deadly electric shocks to pacemakers within 30 feet and rewrite their firmware.

The effect of the wireless attacks could not be overstated — in a speech at the BreakPoint security conference in Melbourne today, Jack said such attacks were tantamount to “anonymous assassination”, and in a realistic but worse-case scenario, “mass murder”.


Betrayed by your wireless meters

“Smart” meters to monitor water and electricity consumption, sounds like a good idea right? No need to be at home when the inspector from the utility company visits, he can just get the data from outside the door, faster than ever. We save time, utilities save money, what’s not to like? Well, the meters are not really secured. $1000 worth of open-source radio equipment, information available through online tutorials, and anybody can read the meter without your consent, and know if you are home or not.

When the technology that should help us actually hurt us: “Wireless meters tell snoopers when you are not home”

Criminals no longer need to stake out a home or a business to monitor the inhabitants’ comings and goings. Now they can simply pick up wireless signals broadcast by the building’s utility meters.

In the US, analogue meters that measure water, gas and electricity consumption are being replaced by automated meter reading (AMR) technology. Nearly a third of the country’s meters – more than 40 million – have already been changed. The new time-saving devices broadcast readings by radio every 30 seconds for utility company employees to read as they walk or drive around with a receiver. But they are not the only ones who can tune in, says Ishtiaq Rouf at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, and his colleagues.

The team picked up transmissions from AMR meters – operated by companies that they did not name in their paper – and reverse-engineered the broadcasts to monitor the readings. To do this they needed about $1000 worth of open-source radio equipment and information available through online tutorials.

Link (top image from CyBlog)

Random links from #Wired12

David Rowan and his team at Wired UK delivered a great event last week. The talks have all been documented here, I just want to add a few random links/ideas/things I gathered while in London:

Local projects
Here is a company reinventing the museum experience. They do truly amazing stuff. Latest projects (not yet on their site): a camera taking pictures of your face, and searching the artefacts that look like you (ex: make a weird smile, get directed to ancient masks). A giant image wall with everything the museum contains. Make a preselection using a touchscreen, send what you want to see to your tablet, let the tablet guide you through the museum to what you selected.

Homeless city guide
An old project I rediscovered (it was mentioned by a Lift speaker a few years ago): the Homeless City Guide. “To deliver vital information more effectively to the urban homeless— a decentralized population with little access to mobile technology—designers Emily Read and Chen Hsu revived the centuries-old language of the hobo code. The homeless can use this series of simple symbols to communicate with each other about safety, shelter, and free food by inscribing them with chalk on sidewalks, buildings, and other surfaces”. I wonder if this has been used.

Dérive ‘urban exploration app’
An open source app to get lost in style in a city. As explained on Spontaneous Interventions“Dérive is an application for getting lost. Designed by architect Eduardo Cachucho, Dérive deals users a task card detailing an action, such as ‘follow a couple,’ or ‘find a tree’. Users are dealt a new task card every three minutes, prompting an unplanned journey through the city”. Don’t search for the iTunes link, it’s a web app to be opened from your phone’s browser.

When an american-born Indian – Vikram Gandhi – turns himself into a fake guru. It’s not a borat like movie, he reveals his true identity at the end of the movie and doesn’t humiliate people who believed in him. Worth watching, coming out on iTunes on December 11.

An ingenious kit created by MIT Medialab students to turn anything into a keyboard.

Killing Mosquitoes With Laser Beams
Old news apparently (2010), I missed it. There is a TED talk about this technology. What’s also very interesting is Intellectual Ventures, the organization behind this idea. They are a bunch of hackers bringing ideas to the market, and inventing more stuff. This from their website:  “We work on the very beginning stages of nurturing an idea to prove that it can work and demonstrate its potential. Some of these originated here, others came from outside inventors we work with.”

A major site for creatives where they can show and share their portfolios. The vimeo of social networks, with lots of amazing stuff all around.

A MIT app that turns anybody into a musician. Composing happens visually, using colors and shapes. I can’t test it as it’s on Windows, but apparently a nice tool.

Ferran Adria – one of the best if not the best chef in the world – is releasing a database on food. Search for ingredients, see what goes with what, explore cooking techniques and flavors. Should be a great tool for cooks once it comes out, in a few days apparently.
A platform to turn mobile data into health insights. It’s amazing what your phone knows, how much you move, how much time you are inactive, etc etc. “Healthcare providers and researchers can invite patients to install the mobile application on their phone. The mobile application runs in the background of the phone collecting passive (phone sensor) and active (patient-reported outcome) data. With patient consent, the data is securely displayed on a HIPAA-compliant web dashboard for healthcare providers and researchers.”

Lady Gaga’s manager on the future of the music business

If you work for the music industry, this is the one talk you don’t want to miss. Troy Carter is Lady Gaga‘s manager, and knows where the industry is heading. He is working on owning the connections to the fans, selling tickets directly, building a true relationship between the idol and her followers, and digging into the data to find out on Spotify which tunes people like in a particular city and change the concert’s setlist accordingly.

Here is the future heavyweight of the music business. He certainly knows how to monetize media, and will teach a lesson or two to anybody who is trying to make money moving content around.

The future of TV

I made a long interview with Mathieu Chevrier (in French) for the RTS, discussing the future of TV and of media in general. Here is a recap of our discussion.

  • Youtube is launching new channels with heavyweights of the media industry (Endemol, Lagardère, BBC, Wall Street Journal) to increase the quality of content available. What Youtube proposes is a cheaper access to audiences for channels that would otherwise have to go through the complicated and expensive process of obtaining a broadcast licence via the traditional system.
  • Youtube is doing this to attract more eyeballs, which in turn will allow for more ads.
  • Established channels are ignoring these developments as they are reluctant to work with Youtube, because it would force them to share their revenues with Google.
  • Still, some financially challenged channels might migrate exclusively to Youtube, just like Newsweek went completely digital. But overall I expect these new channels to complement the existing TV offering, not replace it.
  • TV is still way ahead of other media in terms of usage. In the US in 2011, 32 hours a week are spent in front of TV, 4 hours in front of online videos. The reason is that TV is a passive media, one you can leave in the background while doing something else. The web is different, you have to click every other minute, scroll, search. It is a “lean forward” media that requires attention, while TV is “lean back”.
  • Television revenues are still up a) because of these 32h a week b) because of the fact that 25% of the time spent watching TV is spent in front of ads (it’s only 1.3% for online video) c) because how much people really watch ads on television can not be measured. Every single person I have seen watching TV changes channel during the ads. But this is not what is reported to advertisers (and everybody seems very happy with that system).
  • Television is here to stay because it fills a certain need. TV is social (we watch it together), TV is in the background (you can watch it while tweeting), TV is public (which is useful when you have kids, you can know what they are watching). Rumors of TV’s death are greatly exaggerated.
  • Youtube is making money but still searching for an advertising model. At first they tried to do online what was happening offline, i.e. pre-roll ads. But it it not working. Nobody wants to sit and watch a 30 seconds ad to see a 2 minutes clip. So a new model needs to be found, and in that sense Youtube is similar to Facebook: it attracts a lot of attention but still hasn’t fully cracked the code on how to effectively monetize it.
  • Internet is not an enemy of media. In fact, internet is the reason why media consumption has increased greatly in the past years. I have never seen that many people consuming media since smartphones. If internet is not a positive force in the media industry, it is because of the lack of innovation of the industry. Let’s take TV shows, the channels had an absurd and long process to bring them to the market: release the episodes in the US, sell them to foreign broadcasters who put them on the market 2-3 years later. With the internet and the emergence of a global culture, users simply wanted their shows, and were left for years with no legal way to download them. Illegal downloads developed because of the lack of innovation, not because people are pirates. It is a huge missed opportunity. Blaming technologies for your own lack of innovation is stupid. Sending the lawyers to crack down on your clients is even worse.
  • Fighting innovation is typical of large companies. The big media has everything to lead their own future – money, network, experience – but they started to become arrogant and ignore weak signals that their markets was changing. Reminds me of what Tim O’Reilly was saying, that we must always chose between protecting the past from the future, or protecting the future from the past. Through the internet revolution, most large companies have tried to protect the past from the future.
  • The smart television is not working. The industry does not get it and is trying to push it down the throats of customers because it would force people to buy new TVs and generate more profits. Nobody needs a connected television. The screen is too far to read. Entering text with a remote is a nightmare, and nobody wants a floating keyboard in his living room. Connected TV already exists, but in another form. It is in our palms, smartphones and tablets, that we are using while watching our shows (26% of people report using their tablet in front of the TV several times each day).
  • Connected TV reminds me of MMS back in the days, a technology the telecommunication industry loved but that never took off because it was expensive and not user friendly.
  • Where is the media headed? I think that we are coming back to the expert era, with a new meaning behind the term “expert”. From being fascinated by having the most information possible, we are now seeking the most relevant information. It’s a good news for journalists, whose filtering role is taking a huge importance again. It’s also a good news for the industry, because a clearer role will be easier to monetize. It might be a less good news for users, as good media will have to be paid somehow, soon.
  • From TripAdvisor we are moving to systems like ChefsFeed, where there is less information but more qualitative, with an identity behind every comment. Experts are coming back, but they are not necessarily what they used to be. They don’t have to come out of the academic system, and could be a user that was promoted by the community.

Listen to the full interview

The business of office art

Hugh Macleod is one of the world’s best cartoonist (a good example above), and instead of exercising his craft for a newspaper, he is tracing his own road, from creating global microbrands to blogging to his newest venture into office art.

Most art is simply decorative. It sits passively on walls. In contrast, gapingvoid  art actively changes office environments. It amplifies and broadcasts beliefs, and transmits a dynamic worldview. As a result, Gapingvoid art is hung on the walls
of hundreds of companies large and small

Here is a great example of someone following his passion, attracting lots of attention through an undeniable talent, and slowly but surely building a successful business model out of that (passion + attention). Hugh is going where his constant conversations take him, he follows the community he has patiently built for the past 10 years and listens to their needs. This might very well be the business model of the 2.0 era, one that can make sense of any situation as long as there is talent and perseverance. I see more and more people that are ultra specialized, hyper focused, and patient, who end up making money from what they love the most. This is great news for many. As Hugh would put it, “Rock on”!

Disclaimer: Hugh is a friend and was a speaker at Lift06 (video)

Beta testing for an entire industry

Big news in the media industry: Newsweek is going all digital. It was only a matter of time until such a thing would happen. Now we’ll see how much paper was really worth. How many readers will they lose? How many people accidentally reading the magazine at the dentist?

This is a courageous move, with one company taking the lead in beta testing the future business model of an entire industry. From there, Newsweek will either learn before all its competitors, greatly benefit from that knowledge, secure first mover advantage and function in the correct way ahead of everybody else. Or they will hit unexpected walls, make wrong assumptions about the market, get in trouble, and basically save their smartest competitors the pain of making costly mistakes.

The question is whether the Newsweek management really has a choice. There are risks involved, but this is very likely where the industry is heading. And the earlier you confront yourself to the future reality, the better. Newsweek is now aligned to the way people consume media in the 21st century. What can go wrong?

Augmented conversations

Here is a very promising technology, a way to “augment” conversations carried out on the iPad. Just like more and more people are watching TV with a computer in their palm, this could be a similar technology for exchanges between friends or colleagues. I need to see this in action as soon as possible!!

Passive-aggressive wi-fi names

An article by the BBC on people using the name of their wifi networks to send more or less subtle messages to their neighbors. Creativity never ends really.

But what purpose do they serve?

“My neighbours would have to do something really bad to go over and knock on their door,” says James Robinson of OpenSignalMaps.

Instead of awkward face-to-face confrontations, the network name jokers can anonymously send a message, and can target unknown perpetrators.


“I keep renaming my neighbour’s linksys router to ‘Shut Up Your Damn Dog’,” writes eris_amazing on Reddit. “The war has been waged for months now, and at one point they changed the name to ‘Plz stop’. I’m petty, and persistent, but their dog never shuts up.”