Google Accused… Again

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There are some arguments that just won’t go away. The “Google is skewing their results” argument has been kicking around for several years, and a new version has just popped up. I’ve commented multiple times on this deathly dull topic, but let’s review for old time’s sake.

Google skews its results. It’s a simple fact. They have done it for years. For example, if you use SafeSearch, it will skew away from adult content. When you make a local search, it skews results to fit your location. Nobody complains about that kind of skewing; it’s the type where they favor their own results or partners in reference to a competition that causes concern.

The FTC investigated this a year or more back in the US and found no fault. It’s unlikely to revisit this challenge, in part because it’s tricky to prove and in part because Google has a monster lobbying engine and the tech jobs issue (much like guns) is a third rail issue. The equivalent of the FTC in Europe is looking at taking on Google. Those EU guys hate Google with a passion and are always on the lookout for a stick with which to beat them.

This latest stick comes from a study commissioned and paid for by Yelp. That in of itself probably makes it worth less than the paper it’s printed on, but it’s an interesting study nonetheless. Essentially, they showed Google search presentations with and without the Google “Focus on the User Listing” OneBox container. In their testing, they found that users clicked on the plain results rather than the optimized version 45% more frequently. Their conclusion was that Google is deliberately sabotaging the end user by making the results less easy to use, forcing users to search again or…what, give up in tears? For a complaint of this kind to prosper, you have to show harm, and their version of harm here is a lower click through rate.

They aren’t claiming that a Google OneBox business being preferred is actually benefitting Google financially. Rather, by featuring OneBox registered businesses, Google is harming the end user. The overall claim is at best paper thin.

There are several quite good reasons why Google often prefers OneBox results. To start with, OneBox businesses have taken the time to validate their business, confirm the info is correct and, in many cases, create a nice business profile page that the searcher may well click through to. Either way, what does seem to be clear is if this is annoying users, it’s doing so to the extent where they are changing their search engine. Most people have bigger fish to fry.

Search and how that search is presented (much like the weather) is a big, complicated topic. If you stare hard enough, you are bound to find things that might look a bit off. Keep staring and it will change. Complaining about it to an FTC which has been bought and sold by Google won’t get you very far. I imagine these researchers will be mailing their results to the EU commissioners right away.

Scan Your World, Then Live in It

Untitled-1As Virtual Reality inches close to an everyday reality, we need clever people coming up with the components to make it real and useful. One of those groups has just received a large chunk of venture funding, and I’m delighted.

These guys have come up with a clunky-looking camera, which can scan the interior of your house (or pretty much anything) quickly and cheaply. It’s fairly expensive to buy; at $4,500 per it’s not exactly discretionary income level. But it’s fast, and the subscription rates and monthly fees are really reasonable. They are predictably targeting the Realtor market, thinking that having a fully realized high definition virtual interior will make selling upscale property that much easier. Panoramic tours of property are not new, but fully navigable VR 3D at this price point and availability probably is.

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It’s also a fascinating opportunity for museums and galleries that can offer an easy-to-navigate, high-quality virtual tour on any browser. The results are very easy to navigate and understand; if you can use Google Maps Street View, you can use this. It’s supposed to be compatible with VR headsets. I haven’t have the chance to experience that yet. I can imagine game developers must be salivating at the prospect of being able to digitize in 3D and physical location. If they can get access to that location one time, they can build an immersive experience around it and populate it with virtual people.

What’s exciting is that these guys, Oculus Rift, Google, GoPro and many more are coming out with VR implementations that make sense and are reasonably affordable. Non-individual deployment is the full solution, but each step takes us closer.

Wearable Meets Medical

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We are all familiar with wearable tech like Fitbit that screams, “Look at me, I’m a jogger! Be impressed by my fitness!” But in reality, they aren’t much use as medical devices. Medical practice has used lab monitoring for many years, but the moment the patient leaves, so does most of the opportunity to monitor the treatment in a meaningful way. That might be changing. The Google X research division — home to Glass and WiFi by balloon — has announced plans for a wearable device designed to monitor patients with the kind of accuracy and reliability medicine would find useful.

It’s a brilliant idea that, in many ways, makes more sense than most of the consumer wearable applications littering the market right now. Initially, they are targeting clinical trials, but I could see this going much wider. Imagine a not-too-distant future where your doctor dispenses prescriptions along with the watch needed to track the efficacy of the treatment in real time. I have no idea which parameters could be tracked without compromising the skin, but we already track things like blood oxygen level and alcohol that way, so I imagine the opportunity is out there.

At first glance, this looks like something of a niche play, but if you factor in the enormous growth in conditions like diabetes and childhood asthma (both of which benefit from constant measurement of critical levels), I wouldn’t be surprised to see the early versions of this kind of tech seeing very rapid adoption. It’s good to see yet another technology imagined in Star Trek becoming reality. Now if only we could figure out matter transportation too.

The Subscription Game

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I was very impressed to read today that Dollar Shave Club just raised an additional $75 million to support their growth. I love these guys with a passion. I have to buy razors and I only like the good ones, but paying a fortune for the Gillette product has gotten up my nose for as long as I can remember. There are two marketing triumphs of the past 20 years: Starbucks, who got us used to paying $5 for a cup of coffee and Gillette, who has convinced the American male to spend $7 a blade. Both brilliant moves.

The Dollar Shave guys (and their imitators, who now include Gillette) simply mail four really great blades to your house each month for just $9. It’s simple, it’s brilliant and I can now forget about buying blades. They are one of the latest successes on the subscription circus, and they won’t be the last.

As a keen podcast listener, I’m constantly assFullSizeRender (1)ailed by subscription offers. I’ve been a member of Audible for close to a decade, and I have about 1,000 audio books in my library. I joined Blue Apron a few months ago, and ever since then, I’ve been cooking pretty much Cordon Bleu meals for two to three nights a week. It includes every single ingredient and the recipe to make it happen for $10 per person, per meal. I have no idea how they do it for the price, but it’s amazing. It’s also much cheaper than shopping for two and watching produce I don’t need go off. Here’s a pic of the very tasty salmon cake burgers I made last night:

Some of these services save money, all of them save time to some extent or another, and some are just wildly convenient. It feels like this is a trend that is building steam. Online shopping, especially Amazon Prime (a subscription service) has seriously hurt shopping malls. They are closing by the thousands all over the nation. Online music wiped out all physical copies of music as we knew it, and live music became the dominant way artists make money. Even if all that these services do is free up time for us to binge watch Orange is the New Black on our Netflix subscription, that’s a good thing in my mind. I’m doing less of what I hate and more of what I like. I’m in. Next up: Trunk Club for buying clothes.

VR Fans: It’s Essay Time

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It’s about now that I wish I’d spent time developing a strong YouTube presence rather than developing a company or having a life. Google is looking for YouTube stars to test out their new Jump rig, which is essentially 16 GoPro cameras bolted onto a lazy Susan with software to stitch the video together into a 360 experience. It’s not quite true VR, but it’s an interesting, relatively low budget way of moving the concept forward.

What Google’s doing, in true Google form, is asking end users like you or me to fill out an application form to be one of those early creators. There’s a bio section, a short questionnaire and the all-important essay section, where no doubt bearded hipsters and their female equivalents will try to pitch the perfect combination of approachable elitism and cuteness we have come to expect from things like Google commercials. There will be hundreds wanting to take the rig up in a plane and jump out; there will probably be virtual safaris and virtual tea ceremonies and kittens.

Since I don’t have nearly enough social juice to qualify, I’ll save my breath to cool my porridge (as my dear mother would say). But here’s what I’d apply for:

I’d put the rig on a shoulder-mounted harness and go visit places like Rio at peak Mardi Gras, or the Red Light district in Amsterdam or Bangkok. I’d strap a rig to a Seal team member doing ISIS interdiction. I’d cut a deal with a leading NASCAR or F1 team and follow an entire race season. Let’s put a rig on the pitcher’s mound at Yankee stadium. Sure, I’d base jump and water ski with it, but I’d also put it on the Dakar Rally and tour the Vatican and Machu Picchu. Let’s get a rig on the set of Game of Thrones and let’s see how that gets put together.

Then I’d make every adventure available online as they happen. Anything that gets VR moving into our mass consciousness has got to be a good thing. Let’s not waste cycles being cute and elitist; let’s get the people what they are actually interested in ASAP. A bread and circuses approach, which plugs right into the things which we already care about enough to buy season tickets and airfares to do will move the dial much quicker. Google, please let’s not be Silicon Hipsters about this. Let’s do something that people actually care about.

Using Your Tongue to “See”

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A new device uses your tongue to help the blind become aware of their surroundings, and has recently been approved by the FDA.

The BrainPort V100 has three parts: a camera that has been attached to a pair of dark sunglasses that takes photos of what is in front of the person, a hand controller that receives the image data from the camera and then sends them on the stimulation device in the form of low intensity electrical stimuli.

The stimulation device is a square lollipop-like device that can produce up to 400 electrical stimulation points, aimed at the person’s tongue. On a normally developed person, this would feel like tactile stimuli on the tongue, but for those that are blind, it seems that the visual cortex can actually be stimulated.

The device does not make a blind person see actual visual images, but rather these stimulations on the tongue help the blind interpret what object is in front of them. This can offer the blind some independence, because they can learn how certain object feel on their tongue and become aware of what is present in front of them.

The device can help blind people tell the difference between certain objects that they have in front of them, such as a banana and a ball. Furthermore, it could even enable them to read some small words, such as EXIT, that bares great importance in their independence.

The visually impaired can practice with the BrainPort device in specialized areas, so that they can learn how it works and how to use it. One type of practice rink is an oval track which they can learn to walk in, without assistance. By practicing, the blind can identify certain patterns in their usual routes much better than using a walking stick.

The initial price of the BrainPort V100 is steep, and will be $10,000. Hopefully, as the technology is improved and its use becomes more widespread, the price will become more affordable.

It’s Happened Again

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Let me predict what we will find out about the shooter in the appalling church massacre that happened last night. I’m doing this without benefit of much more than the basic CNN headlines this morning.

He’s a loner, not popular in high school or college. Probably bullied. Probably doesn’t get on well with women of any kind. He will have a history of mental health issues and/or drug problems. Those drugs will likely be from his parents’ medicine cabinet. Those problem will have gone under-treated or entirely untreated.

He’s probably very focused on guns and all things gun. I’ll give you any bet that his family has a good sized gun collection, which he used extensively. It’s also likely that school and perhaps family medical professionals were unable to escalate the care he was receiving because of reporting limits and patient confidentiality.

How can I be so sure that I’ll hit the bulls-eye on most of these? It’s easy; they are always like that. I’ve ranted about this issue so many times in this blog, it feels like a broken record. This country has two huge problems, simply put: mental health and guns. Our medical system is horrible at spotting and escalating mental health problems, in part because of resources and in part because the draconian patient privacy regulations mean that what they can do is drastically curtailed.

This country has always had a weird relationship with mental health. Our Puritan roots lead us to regard it as a character flaw to be mocked, feared or hidden rather than treated. It’s true that in earlier times it was possible for people to be cast into psych ward hell for the wrong reasons, but the pendulum has swung back too far.

When Reagan closed the majority of mental hospitals in the early 80s, it set the direction. Now, our inner cities are littered with the broken remains of the homeless and mentally ill — a growing group of which are returning veterans. We have a massive problem of over prescription and abuse of narcotic pain meds.

Now let’s add in widely available guns held as a political third rail by a vocal and powerful gun lobby, and there is a recipe for disaster. I have said this so many times it’s becoming a cliché, but it bears repeating. The UK and the US have so much in common. We speak alike, we love our kids, our teams and our countries. We think alike (in many ways), but the one thing I can think of where our cultures differ dramatically is in guns.

In the US in 2013, the deaths by firearms per 100K of population was 10.64. In the UK, the same prorated number for 2010 was 0.25. That’s 42 times the death rate. I can’t think of a single other area where our societies differ so dramatically.

As I write this, I see that he’s been caught, apparently alive. The president will speak, people will hold candle-lit vigils. There will be a trial with an insanity defense, nothing will change, and we will all go back to usual. Until the next time.

Not My Circus…

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As an old fashioned European liberal who actually voted for the UK Labor Party (that’s as close to socialist when compared to any US party) and who doesn’t have the right to vote in the US, I should probably stay out of politics over here completely. But really?! Donald Trump? Really?

We shouldn’t be surprised that The Donald is officially entering the GOP 2016 circus. Lord knows there are enough clowns already in that race. Trump befuddles me. He’s gone broke several times and done more harm to the New York skyline than 9/11, but yet he’s supposedly worth $8 Bn and plans to fund his own campaign. I’m sure the acres of publicity he will garner from this stunt will be worth it, but we all look a little ridiculous. To add insult to injury, he suggested that Oprah Winfrey would make a great vice president. Yes, and so would my American Bulldog, Hedwig.

I don’t mind that his absurd, self-aggrandizing exercise in media titillation will clog up a couple of news cycles, but his name recognition and notoriety will likely mean that he will qualify for the GOP debates starting in August. The criteria Fox plans to use is name recognition and popularity running up to the debate. Even though Voldemort himself recently polled better than most of the GOP field, Trump will be in the hunt. That will leave us with a nationally televised debate featuring a reality TV show mogul who can say or do anything he wants without any requirement that he follow the beat of any drum other than his own.

Trump argues that’s part of his strength. He’s not answerable to anyone else. Hm, let’s think. Can we recall any ego maniacal, populist, rabble-rousing politician who simply told civilized norms to take a hike in his quest for power? Yeah, me too. Is it hyperbolic to speak of The Donald in those terms, of course. However, in a celebrity- and media-drenched society where goldfish have been shown to have longer attention spans than most Americans, it’s a little worrying.

The other thing to think about is what China or Russia must make of this billionaire buffoon becoming a candidate for the big red button. If Trump develops into a self-funding serious contender, things may not go well.

There’s an old Polish saying — “Not my circus…not my monkeys” — meaning it’s not my problem, so I shouldn’t worry about it. To the extent that I can’t vote and wouldn’t vote GOP if I could, it’s not. To the extent that it affects my country and my family and my company, it is. This is one monkey that could really hurt the circus, and I do find that worrying.

IBM Doubling Down on Apache Spark

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IBM has long been involved with Apache Spark, an open source data analytics project, since its inception but has now upped the ante by releasing some of its own software and adding the technology to several of its own products.

IBM announced that they plan to embed Spark into its analytics and commerce platforms and offer Spark as a service on Bluemix. As part of the commitment, IBM is donating its IBM SystemML, a machine learning technology, to the Spark open source ecosystem.

Apache Spark began as a project at the University of California-Berkley in 2009, and IBM claims it is the fastest growing open source project in history. Federal agencies benefit greatly, as Spark should help them more quickly use and manage the massive amounts of data they produce; IBM is working with NASA and the SETI Institute to analyze terabytes of deep space radio signals using Spark’s machine learning capabilities.

IBM also pointed to the Agriculture Department as a beneficiary. The USDA collects data about farming, food inspections and economic data related to food production. They also have access to weather data and agricultural data from around the world. Spark can put all of those disparate forms and sources of data into a single data stream for analytics.

Oculus Reveals 1.0

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It’s here! And as predicted, it will launch with Xbox One and Windows 10. Yay! Sorry, let me back that up, I was momentarily exuberant. As you may know, I’m one of the idiot geeks straining at the leash for the launch of meaningful virtual reality. The gamers want it for that total immersive kill factor; I want it because there’s a bunch of stuff I want to do and a bunch of places I want to go that I may not get to in the real world any time soon. I’m also hopeful that we may just figure out how to cheat (or greatly delay) death in my lifetime, and VR will no doubt be an important factor.

Anyhow, my exuberance is a little premature because yesterday they revealed the equipment, but not the price or launch date, which is a vague “Q1 2016.” But still, the equipment looks like the real thing and the gizmos that go with it allow you to virtually touch and hold things in the VR world. That’s a little more than I’d expect out of the box with v1.0.

Importantly, they are announcing with Xbox One and Windows 10. That will give them a ton of early adopter gamers to sell to.  They are also offering $10MM in incentives to game manufactures to support VR. If you add in the recent announcement by GoPro of a 360 VR rig to allow users to record their own VR content, by the time the final thing is ready for release, there may well be a ton of VR enabled content out there that isn’t just VR versions of big selling games.

Their schedule means they will miss the Christmas window for this year, but they will be showing more details and announcing more partnerships at E3 in a couple of weeks. I wonder if that will include the price?