Watching Election Results With Tears In My Eyes

 

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump stands during the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump stands during the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

I have become a political junky of late. I’m sure I’m not alone but it’s getting worse. I’ve always been fairly interested but as a “damn foreigner” unable to vote my opinion never mattered. I have watched the GOP campaign with fascination turning into horror…and I can’t look away.  I arrived in the US on a permanent basis about 20 years ago. As a Brit I had only a passing understanding of US politics but as I learned more much of it didn’t seem to make sense. Coming from a multi-party political system I was used to poor people grouping together to further their interests just as the wealthy band together to protect theirs. I was a kid during the Labor administrations of the 70s which led to coal strikes and power blackouts. As a lefty punk-rocking teen I watched in horror as Margaret Thatcher then Ronald Regan seized the reins of power. I understood what caused the backlash which led to Thatcher and I assumed it was similar in the US.

When I arrived here 16 years later we were in Clinton I and things looked pretty decent. Still some things didn’t make sense. Why were poor white people such fervent supporters of a party dedicated to furthering the interests of the rich and powerful? Why such a political fascination with women’s reproductive health….an issue which has been beyond politics in Europe for decades. What I was missing was the race factor. In the UK we have had racial problems of our own. Back in the 60’s there was a significant influx of people from the Caribbean countries which were parts of the Commonwealth. These people tended to jobs which Brits had no interest in but there were protests from the skinhead sector. In later years there were several waves of immigrants from India, Pakistan and Uganda. Each of these was met with some disruption but on the whole it was all fairly civilized. In more recent years the barriers to entry from Commonwealth countries have risen and the barriers to living and working for anyone in the EU have essentially been removed. As a Brit I could live and work freely anywhere in the EU….no papers required.  This long history of immigrants settling and blending (to one extent or another) has routinely been met with racially based resistance from mostly white working class folk who see them as “taking our jobs” and “polluting the culture.” It was a vocal minority with extremists on the far right getting headlines rather than traction. We muddled along, we even replaced Fish and Chips with Curry as our national dish. People with limited education and job prospects were typically the most impacted but as immigrants (especially those from the Indian Sub-Continent) integrated and succeeded those complaints were less vocal. I have somewhat lost touch with the story back home now, but from what I can gather from regular visits these factors remain a concern but a manageable one.  Europe has significant problems caused by the nightmare in Syria, globalization and automation has hit low skill jobs there too but none of that prepared me for the US.

I simply didn’t have a frame of reference for the kind of systemic endemic racism and resentment which haunts significant parts of the US zeitgeist. In 1865 the Brits were drinking tea and building an empire as the US tore its self apart. We don’t teach the US Civil War much in UK schools. We do cover slavery but since we outlawed it in 1833 and our economy was never as completely reliant on it as the US was it felt very remote. We didn’t have reconstruction, Jim Crow or the Civil Rights Movement. The political developments of recent years has been fascinating and shocking. The ascendency of “Mr.” Trump has been eerie to watch. To see the level of xenophobia, misogamy and good old fashioned racism which has driven his ascent is very disquieting.  I realize I’m not breaking new ground here, but as a foreigner who has the advantage of being white and (passingly) educated who has come to love the US as I do, this is like discovering that the woman of your dreams was never really that into you and was cheating with her ex all the time. It makes you question what you thought you knew…it’s scary and sad. My profound hope is that if we stack all the liberals, all the LGBT folk, all the kinksters, all the immigrants who can vote, most of the people of color, most of the women and men who think rather than hate into one pile, that pile will be bigger than the pile of angry white men and bigoted white people who have found their perfect vehicle to protest history.  I don’t know anybody who says they are voting for Trump but then I don’t know anyone who is openly racist or anti-female equality either. The privacy of the voting booth allows people to express their truth in secret. Am I optimistic?…yes, but I’m also scared.

The Possibility of Pliable Electronics

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Panasonic has recently developed a soft, flexible, and stretchable polymer resin insulating film which stretches 2.5 times its length and returns to its original shape. It can be folded and adapts to varying free-form surfaces, as to reducing existing design constraints.

The possibilities for this type of technology could be endless! For an example, it would enable the construction of soft and stretchable electronic devices that are adaptable to various forms such as clothing and the body. This would open the window to many wearable technologies, and make clothing “smart” clothing.

Overcoming the Numerous Challenges

Polyurethane and rubber materials need to overcome challenges associated with adhesion, heat resistance, and the fact that they are brittle. Panasonic’s insulating material, made of thermosetting resin, is, both flexible and stretchable.

Devices implemented on clothing or worn on the body should be made of materials that withstand repeated use and allow no change in mechanical properties even after repeated deformation. In normal circumstances, materials subjected to repeated stretch and restore would tend to degrade in mechanical strength and recovery performance. Going beyond simple softening, Panasonic employed a unique resin design technology that makes optimal use of the characteristic three-dimensional cross-linked structure of thermosetting resin. By relaxing internal stresses arising from stretch, the newly developed insulating material returns to its original shape and withstands repeated use

Usually, copper or other metal wiring would break when its base material stretches or contracts. Due to this problem, it is not easy to use metal wiring to form complex circuits. Furthermore, metal fatigue resulting from deformation makes it difficult to achieve metal wiring that withstands repeated stretch. Panasonic has developed a technology to combine a stretchable resin as a binder with a silver filler. The result is conductive paste that retains a conductive path, hence conductivity, even after stretch and restore.

It will be interesting to see where this technology’s future lies, and how it will evolve over time.

Be Comfortable at Work with the Altwork Station

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Maybe you slouch in your chair. Maybe you have tried to make using a standing desk a habit. Maybe, your preferred working position is curled up on a sofa. The California startup Altwork has what may be the solution: the Altwork Station.

While adjustable sit/stand desks have been done before, the Altwork Station takes things to the next level: it’s an integrated workstation combining seat, desk, and monitor stand, and it’s all electrically controlled to support not just sitting and standing but also a horizontal position: you lie back with your monitor or monitors above you. The keyboard and mouse stay affixed to your desk through the magical power of magnets.

At the push of a button, the desk can tweak the position of everything or fully shift back into sitting or standing. As the back moves, the monitor moves with your eyes, the desk moves with your hands, and the back headrest shifts slightly in or out to best support your head.

It’s available now to pre-order for a still-steep discounted price of $3,900, but once that promotional price period is over, the Altwork Station will increase to an eye-popping $5,900. The company says its trying to price things in the same realm as a really high-quality mechanically adjustable desk alongside a similarly excellent chair and a monitor arm, but no matter how you slice it that’s a lot of cash.

Ultimately, it’s a product that’s hard to recommend to most normal people, but it’s also a fascinating engineering study. It’ll be interesting to see if Altwork can find an audience with this product — and if it does, hopefully it can bring some of this technology to more people at a lower price point down the line.

Google Glass Turning 2….But Still Sucking

About a million years ago (actually June 2004) I was invited by a dude I knew at Google to join an upstart email system called Gmail. It was in its infancy and 56 thousand emails later I’m still using that account. Of course now everybody has a Gmail account and Google reads our mail to target us with advertising.

Back then Google was a fraction of the behemoth it has become and it was kinda neat having an email address which was exactly what I wanted…no need to add a year of birth or similar to make the name unique.  Over the next couple of years they opened up the program to everyone and the rest is history. 

Google Glass turns two this week and it has been a quite different story. Even tho Google launched it two years ago it’s still in its “Ambassador” stage. That’s not entirely surprising as Google famously keeps products in “Beta” mode for much longer than most.  It does get tons of press (most of it controversial if not actively bad) sightings are rare and noteworthy and the prevailing opinion seems to be that Glass wearers are pretty much pariahs….I had a better word which rhymes with “brick head” Google themselves coined the term “Glasshole” for users without the social smarts to use the product appropriately.There are several things counting against Google Glass which are keeping it in Beta and may even doom it entirely.

Privacy:  Aside from the idiots who actually wore it in the locker room it is creepy to think that the guy over there with the Brooklyn hipster beard may be filming or photographing you without even the needing to pretend not to be.

Price: At $1,500 and holding it’s completely out of reach of all but the wealthiest of nerds and at least initially was only available to those invited to become “ambassadors” by Google. The result is that the only folks you ever see wearing them are early 30 somethings in silicon valley….as sub group who are rapidly becoming as popular are timeshare sales people at the airport in Mexico. We get it…you are rich and well connected.

Features: Put simply Glass is essentially an extension of your smart phone.  The battery life is pretty miserable and although there are cool thing it can do it’s tough to trade instant pariah status for those limited features.  Wearables at a much lower price point are rapidly becoming the new norm. At about $100 and available from Amazon you don’t need to be a founding member of SnapChat to join the game.

Although Google is amazingly wealthy and powerful the products it makes its money from are essentially both egalitarian and empowering…most folk don’t hate Google. Glass is a clear departure from that norm. Google’s other recent adventure into hardware the ChromeCast TV plugin priced at a very approachable $35 has been a huge hit and has sold millions.  The message is clear, cool and affordable beats cool and elitist every time.

A Momentary Loss of Reason?

I don’t usually use my little soap box for more than raging at the thunder in the online space. I’m an immigrant to this fair country, I can’t vote and I mostly leave the Politics to those who can.  Back when I used to sing with a large barbershop chorus in New England my fellow singers would tease me about singing the star spangled banner at various events. In response I used to say “you are here by accident of birth…I chose to live here… damn it” or words to that effect. So it was with a weird mixture if incredulity and real sadness that I have been watching the machinations in Arizona over the past week or so.

ArizonaLike most good Americans I hold dear life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…also freedom for religion and freedom from religion. I gave up praying to the thunder a while back…but I still understand the inclination and have been known to lament “I miss God” from time to time. Democracy is an odd way to run a country…but still better than all the other options. We all hold it dear but many of us don’t vote. If we don’t vote that holds the door open for the activists (on all sides) who are prepared to get out their vote to set that agenda. Sometimes things can go horribly wrong and we end up electing a former wrestler as Governor or deciding to teach creationism as coequal with evolution.  The good news is that what can be voted in can also be voted out, and we tend to have a self-correcting system where things get voted in because the sensible majority just weren’t paying attention can be voted out in short order by the same reasonably sane majority.

Alongside this political horse race runs the typically much less volatile game of business.  I run a business….not a huge one (yet) but none the less one of some size. I think I’d find the vast majority of my fellow entrepreneurs in agreement that no matter what our personal opinion might be on any given matter it makes utterly no sense to attempt to codify religious bigotry, intolerance or homophobia into the law of the land…or the state in the case of Arizona.

Why would you do that? Even if you are so unreconstructed that you might feel that way, why would you attempt to bring that into that which pays the bills?  You may have a “sincerely held religious belief” that women are second class citizens, Jews are the devil and left handed people should be stoned for wearing both synthetic and natural fibers at the same time or on a Sunday…but this is America and you don’t get to monkey with the law to suit your own “sincerely held” bigotry. If you don’t like gay people or Armenians or left handed people you don’t have to marry one or invite one home to meet Mom…but you don’t get to not serve them in your restaurant, not fix their broken pipes or not rent them a room in your apartment block.  You are (supposedly) part of a civil society, one in which we all pay for the roads, the schools the fire department and the F16s. You don’t get to pull up your teensy weensy draw bridge because you think gay people are “Icky.”  I (like many I imagine) might find your intolerant and idiotic “sincerely held” views completely objectionable…but I will defend to the death your right to have them and express them. What you don’t get to do is foist your sad and idiotic bigotry on the rest of society….to cause chaos which the rest of us have to fix.  Were we asleep at the switch?…I guess so. Are there a lot of people in Arizona who find anyone who doesn’t think and act like themselves “Icky” no doubt…but turning Arizona into the one state where you can discriminate without fear of recourse “just because” is idiotic.

Business leader are scrambling to get the Hail Mary save of a Governor’s veto to stop this bill, indeed several Republican law makers who actually voted for the bill (presumably to appease their activist constituents) are even now also pressing for a veto to save themselves from themselves. Arizona is a big, hot, rich supposedly grown up state, with hundreds of thousands of federal and military jobs. It’s also home to millions of private sector jobs in companies who need this kind of religiously driven distraction like they need a hole in the head. I suspect the Governor will do the right thing and veto this ridiculous legislation and I imagine heads will roll….well we can at least hope so.

Search Can Be Dangerous to Your Health

Freshly back from vacation and other assorted adventures I was catching up on search stories and there are some head scratching items out there. What seems to be happening is that the role of search as a measure of intent is potentially getting criminalized. Here’s a couple of examples:

You are probably familiar with the Cannibal Cop trial which is currently happening in New York. It’s an incredibly creepy and weird story which surrounds either a bunch of fantasists or would be murdering psychopaths. My personal experience with the police is that it could easily be either (possibly both) but a good chunk of the police case centers around searches done by the accused. Leaving aside simple questions like “why didn’t he use an anonymous browser like Chrome Incognito” (oh no wait he’s a cop) the larger question is does the mere fact that someone is searching for something online can that search be used against them in a court of law. Do you in fact have a first amendment right to search for ways to kill and cook a woman. Taking that to it’s logical conclusion does searching for Silence of the Lambs on Amazon make you part of Hannibal Lectors fan club?….where do you draw the line?

There’s an interesting regulatory question which could also end in search based Jail for somebody. This tracks back to our good friends at the FDA. If there is any example of our tax dollars at work to a fault it’s the FDA. Whilst they are happy to allow meat processors to feed pink slime to our children they are fanatically keen to be sure that no herbal product ever make claims that it do more than gather dust on your bathroom shelf. The issue here is where herbal companies who are not allowed to make any claims for efficacy link their products with disease conditions with things like meta data on web pages which gets those products found for disease relates searches. Pretty much any medical related search will bring up unconventional solutions to the problem. The other use case they are bothered by is where on a companies own website a search for a disease term brings up product which the retailer would like to link to that disease but can not make legitimate disease claims for.  I would have thought that anyone (even a cannibal cop) with a modicum of common sense would read the warnings and might figure out that the supplements which are coming up in the results aren’t FDA approved drugs….but you never know.

The billion dollar question this raises is can the FDA attempt to regulate search in that way. If they can where does it stop? Google was recently cleared of FTC violations are they going to be up before the FDA now for including herbal products in results sets for disease queries. Could merely doing the query “cure for cannibalism” get me hard time in the Big House….it’s OK I just did that query Incognito.

The Mobile Stampede Accelerates

There were a couple of interesting items this week which point to the continuing ascendancy of mobile. Google inked a deal with Apple; Google will pay Apple a cool 1Billion in cash “unmarked 20s I imagine” to remain the default search on iPhones through 2014 and Comscore  announced over all search data for 2012 and although search continues to grom desktop search saw its first decline since…well since ever. The rapid growth of mobile and vertical search growth on sites like Facebook and Amazon contributed to the overall decline.

In parallel announcements Google’s Q4 was good but not great. It continues to see a decline in click prices (6%) YOY a decline which is now 6 quarters old….and again driven by the ocean of mobile clicks with in sufficient inventory to support the price. This is a tough spot for big G. In an attempt to at least partially stem the bleeding they recently announced a self service online package incorporating desktop and mobile targeted at local businesses.  It’s a clever product which (in theory) let’s SMBs target searchers based on location and time. For example a doughnut shop might want to focus on the 7-9 AM slot whereas a wine bar might target happy hour.

As always adoption by traditionally recalcitrant SMBs is going to be the main issue. Cost is also going to be a factor. The bundling Google is offering essentially rolls the mobile clicks involved up to a desktop click price…which is usually significantly higher than mobile. That’s great for Google but not such great value for the SMB. You have to wonder why Google continues to treat SMBs as cattle fattened for slaughter with their ‘do it for me’ packages which consistently maximize Google’s value ratether than SMB returns.

There’s also an interesting trend I have observed from various recent Google presentations (especially to local/SMB audiences) where they focus of ROI which shows up all over the place not just in the obvious places. It’s an argument which is well made, but sounds a little desperate “don’t just look at directly track-able obvious conversion metrics, check behind the sofa too”. That’s a tough message to receive from the super thin smart young things which Google sends out to preach to the masses. In all my years of knowing Googlies I have yet to meet any with any kind of weight issues…there are literally no over weight Google employees. That’s perhaps not surprising when you read about the latest Google project to provide street level views. Over the summer they send a bunch of their brightest and best to cool hard to reach places like the Grand Canyon to show the rest of us what it looks like. This week they released detailed renditions of 38 top Ski resorts….come on guys we know you are super rich…but what’s next great yacht basins of the world?  I will be off line probably all of next week looking for Googlies doing street level views of Maui. Aloha till then.

Google Bug Watching for Beginners

Google watching is endlessly entertaining….today it got entertaining in an unexpected way. A geek with I’m guessing way too much time posted on Quora that some searches which should be impossible to resolve rather than returning no results at all actually return tons of porn.

This isn’t something the average user is likely to have come across accidentally, most people don’t do advance syntax based searches on Google…but if you did and asked Google for an answer to a logically impossible query like “-4 “1 4″ in which you are essentially asking for results which don’t contain the number 4 but do contain the number 1 space 4, rather than returning no results in this case Google returns 808,000 results most of which (upon very cursory inspection) are porn links. This trick even works with “safe search” filter turned on. Weirdly, similar impossible queries like -4 “4” return no results and -4 “14” returns results which don’t have porn links.

Leaving aside what kind of extreme search jiggery pokery you would need to be doing to even find this effect it’s a hilarious bug. According to Google engineering post on the topic sadly it’s not a secret lonely nerd feature, it’s just a bug.  This is fascinating. We don’t often get to see explicit bugs in Google search in real time…especially not bugs of this magnitude. This presents interested parties with the opportunity to witness just how long the Googlies take to track down, fix and deploy a really clear bug in main search. I’m guessing less than two days. The clock is running, let’s see how long it takes.

Meet the New Boss…Same as the Old Boss

Search at Yahoo has languished somewhat since Bing took over their search back in 2008 after a failed bid by Microsoft to buy Yahoo. There has always been an antitrust concern about the search on Yahoo being powered by Google…so I was interested but not that surprised to read today that Google contextual ads will now start showing up on Yahoo properties and more importantly Yahoo mobile traffic. To be clear this isn’t the same as main search on Yahoo being taken over by Google, rather these are contextual AdSense ads displayed on billions of Yahoo web and mobile pages…which will presumably represent a significant revenue opportunity for Yahoo.  It makes perfect sense as Google’s ads are generally more valuable than Yahoos and they have a larger stack of advertisers to play with. At the core of the deal is the dramatic growth of mobile. Millions of people use Yahoo mobile content to keep them up to date with news, celebrity, finance sports and email. Google has a much stronger mobile platform so adding Google mobile ads to the enormous Yahoo mobile inventory. Google doesn’t (yet) have the kind of vertical interest Yahoo boasts so that’s likely to be an upside for them both.

Google survived an  FTC investigation into monopolistic practices last year and is still under scrutiny in the EU, so making a move which further centralizes Google commercial control could be thought of as ballsy.. but in a race to grab as much real-estate as possible before the new Search at Facebook gets out of short pants it makes perfect sense.

Google is Racial Profiling?

You can’t make this stuff up. I checked the calendar and it’s not April 1st. According to a story I found in the Boston Globe Latanya Sweeney a Harvard University academic noticed that when she searched for herself on Google or more precisely a site powered by Google search she received ads back for (amongst other things) criminal back ground checks for her name. She then did a more extensive test and actually wrote a research paper which found that distinctively “black” male first names are 25% more likely to return an ad from instantcheckmate.com offering background or criminal record checks than traditionally “white” names. She doesn’t draw any conclusions other than that this could be problematic for people of color….but the allegation that Google is somehow racially profiling is in the mix.

Of course even a cursory examination of the facts (as opposed to the hilarious conspiracy theory) is (allegedly) that instantcheckmate.com is in fact targeting what it believes to be ‘black’ names with ads for criminal background checks as opposed to more generic services for ‘white’ names. Google racially profiling would be a much better story.  The same thing would apply were I targeting Russian fur hats or nesting dolls to people with Vladimir for a first name.  It is a sad reflection on our society that (according to federal statistics) black males are seven times more likely to end in jail than their white non Hispanic peers. Logically that makes them more likely to have a criminal record, so it makes a twisted kind of common sense to target uniquely black male names with criminal background checks advertisements….but it’s not the Google Geeks doing it.