Tuesday, April 22, 2014

NIMBY in Boston - the town and gown debate preventing, or causing, bioterrorism

When a country is faced with a dangerous threat, the country needs to counteract that threat. Unfortunately, sometimes the counteractive measures are themselves dangerous.

Take Biosafety Level 4 Agents:

Biosafety levels (BSL’s) are assigned to designate the level of biological containment used when an agent is studied or manipulated in the laboratory setting. Biosafety level does not correspond to the level of contagiousness of an agent from one individual to another. Agents studied at BSL-4 are indigenous or exotic agents capable of causing severe disease through the inhalation route of exposure, and for which there is no treatment or vaccine.

Obviously, it would be nice if there WERE treatments or vaccines for such agents.

You know where this is going.

It's going to Boston:

More than 300 Boston University officials and Boston residents attended a hearing at City Hall Wednesday to debate an ordinance that would ban BU from conducting research on deadly pathogens in its National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratories.

City Councilor Charles Yancey’s proposed ordinance would prohibit research on Biosafety Level 4 agents in Boston, which look at dangerous and potentially fatal diseases and viruses.

On the one side, you have Boston University, which this research is presently conducted.

“This vital research can be done safely and securely in Boston,” said BU’s Associate Provost for Research Gloria Waters. “Beyond making important scientific contributions, the NEIDL will also spring the local economy. The facility is expected to bring in $45 million in federal funding. It sends a clear message that Boston is open for business, scientific advancements and life-changing research.”

On the other side, you have certain City Council members.

In the proposed ordinance, Yancey claims that deadly biological agents researched at the NEIDL could be released to the public accidentally or stolen and “weaponized.”

“My concern is that the research that will be taking place in this facility can cause very serious risks to the health and safety of the people of Boston,” Yancey said at the hearing.

City Councilor Tito Jackson echoed Yancey’s fears, and said he does not want to put first-responders at risk in the event of an accident at the NEIDL.

“It would be reckless and irresponsible to invite a Level 4 lab into the city of Boston,” he said. “The research would take place on pathogens for which we have no known cure. Just one human mistake can be catastrophic for the rest of society.”

If the ordinance is passed, and such research is banned within the city limits of Boston, this does not necessarily mean that Boston will be a safer place. In fact, it's possible that the entire National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratories could just pick up stakes and move outside of the Boston University Medical Campus to a new location outside of Boston's city limits.

And even if it's not worth it for Boston University to remain committed to this research, the research will still be conducted at other places. And as Boston knows all too well, someone with a grudge (a scientist who lost funding, maybe?) could conceivably take a "weaponized" biological agent anywhere.

Monday, April 21, 2014

My first impressions of the second generation Google Nexus 7

I am not trendy.

I wrote the following back in 2011 while discussing low cost computing:

My netbook works fine for most of the things that I use it for, and its low weight and long battery life make it ideal for some situations. If (in the words of my comment on Feldman's thread) I treated computer purchases as short-term expenses rather than capital expenses, I'd go buy a newer computer in the same form factor that has 2 GB of RAM rather than the 1 GB that last year's netbook has. (Tablets or iPhones/iPods don't meet my needs; I like keyboards.)

Yes, I really like keyboards - my phone has one - but a personal use case has recently emerged for something that is lightweight, with a long (business day) battery life, that will allow me to take notes even if no wi-fi or power is available. Since the market for such devices has expanded since 2011, I was able to select a second-generation Google Nexus 7 this past weekend. (I'll eventually add a keyboard.)

I'll admit that my OCD mind is having problems with the name of the device. Back in 2012, Google marketed a device called the Nexus 7. When Google made some changes to the device in 2013, the new model was called...the Nexus 7. Therefore, when I made my purchase, I had to make sure that I was buying a Nexus 7, and not a Nexus 7. Argh.

Why Google? Because I knew that with a Google-branded device, I'd get the true Android experience. As it turns out, my old netbook and my new tablet are both manufactured by Asustek. However, my netbook has a low-end version of the Windows operating system, along with some so-called "value-added" stuff from Asustek that is jarringly different from the base OS. This is not only true of netbooks - take my Samsung Stratosphere phone, in which the Android OS has some "value-added" stuff from Verizon. Or even take the desktop computer on which I'm typing this post (again, I don't have the keyboard add-on for the tablet yet) - the computer has a regular-level Windows OS, with some "value-added" stuff from Hewlett Packard. Of course, Apple has operated that way since forever, but I have a commitment to both Microsoft and Google, so I figured that Android would be the way to go.

Since I set the computer up on Saturday, things have been going well. Most of the sites that I visit on my netbook are available as Android apps, and most of these apps have pretty good functionality. So far, I only have a few quibbles.

My first quibble involves the accessories that come with the Google Nexus 7 - specifically, the USB cable. The cable is two inches long, more or less. I exaggerate, but during my initial setup and charge of the device, it was disconcerting to be turned around sideways and staring at the power outlet all the time. I borrowed the USB cable from my phone a little later, and was then able to charge the device and use it simultaneously.

My second quibble involved the note-taking part. As I mentioned, I wanted to be able to take notes even when wi-fi was not available. I figured that Google Drive would do the job for me, since I had heard that this application can even work offline. And I set it up, and was actually able to VIEW a Google Drive document even when I was offline. Unfortunately, I couldn't EDIT the document - a problem encountered by others such as Benjamin Werres (see the first comment in this thread). However, Quickoffice appears to meet my needs - or will, once I get a keyboard.

My third quibble relates to some of the apps that are available for the Nexus 7. I had already been exposed to the Twitter app on my phone, and found that the tablet version of the Twitter app was equally limited. For example, if lists are available in the app, I can't find them. (Of course, I've recently had problems finding lists in the desktop version of Twitter.) In the Spotify app, I couldn't figure out a way to move a playlist into my folder of older playlists.

And my fourth quibble is a doozy.

I have been playing the online game Starfleet Commander for years. In fact, the planet "Morphing Planetrak" that I mentioned in a 2009 post is still there, although those mines are a lot larger. The biggest news in the Starfleet Commander world - other than the fact that Blue Frog Gaming keeps creating new Starfleet Commander universes every few months - is that a fully legal aid for Starfleet Commander users, OpenParser, has been available for a while.

By installing this script you will automatically and unobtrusively send the data from the galaxy screen in each of the Starfleet Commander and Stardrift Empires Universes to our databases as you play the game as normal. (Data from systems in which you have planets or a Heph/Titan is not parsed.) This information is then stored in the database and is accessible from your galaxy screen.

By clicking on the O! next to the player's name you will be taken to the main database with the players planets listed for you. You can then view tracking information for all of the player's planets, perform further searches by player name or alliance, and access other resources available.

By clicking on the (?) in the actions area you will open up a popup within the game window which will contain all the coordinates known for that person you are searching for. All the coordinates are clickable and will take you there, useful for checking if a target is online.

For the 99.9% of you who don't play Starfleet Commander, I should explain that the script helps you locate your enemies very quickly - an obvious help when playing a battle game. To the 0.1% of you who do play Starfleet Commander, get the script NOW.

So, how do you install the script? It can be installed in two browsers - Google Chrome, and Mozilla Firefox. (For Firefox, you have to install Greasemonkey first.) After you've installed the script as an extension, you can go merrily away looking for "O!" and "(?)" information.

Well, you can do this...unless you are running Chrome for Android, which does not support extensions.

Does Chrome for Android support apps and extensions?

Chrome apps and extensions are currently not supported on Chrome for Android. We have no plans to announce at this time.

This caused me to come face-to-face with an important decision - should I install Mozilla Firefox on my pristine new Google Nexus 7 tablet, even though Mozilla actively discriminates in hiring, is non-inclusive, and is non-diverse? I could demonstrate my principles by refusing to download Mozilla Firefox. But I really wanted to use the script...so I downloaded Mozilla Firefox.

I then went to install Greasemonkey...but it is not compatible with the current version of Firefox, version 28.

So if you review all four of my quibbles, you'll see that I was able to find workarounds for the first two. At present I have to resort to a Windows operating system computer (netbook, laptop, or desktop) to work around the other two issues.

But the advantages of the Google Nexus 7 outweigh the disadvantages. It has the two gigabytes of RAM that I was lusting after in 2011, and at present that is enough for the types of multi-tasking that I do on the device. Some of the apps work better than their mobile phone counterparts because of the larger screen (my Solitaire app is a key case in point). And the device is much more portable than a netbook, and certainly much more portable than a laptop. And the battery life for this new device is even better than the battery life for the netbook when it was new (over the years, my netbook battery life has understandably decreased dramatically).

More later, I'm sure.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Why restaurant patrons may want to turn their menus upside down

I work as a proposal writer for a living, but my proposals are never read by more than a few dozen people. If I wanted to be a widely-read proposal writer, I'd quit my job and go to work for a restaurant chain - or even for a single-location restaurant. More people read the menus in a restaurant in one day than will read one of my proposals over my entire lifetime.

A restaurant menu is a business proposal. The menu offers a variety of items that you can purchase, and then you as a restaurant patron choose which items to buy.

If a restaurant has any smarts about what it's doing, it will use its menu to guide you to the items that it wants you to buy, using a concept known as "menu engineering." Gregg Rapp outlines a four-step process to re-engineer - or re-re-engineer - a restaurant menu:

1. Cost your menu. (You can’t skip this step!)
2. Categorize menu items according to profit and popularity levels.
3. Design your menu.
4. Test your new menu design.

As part of the second step, categorization, the items on the restaurant menu are divided into four categories:

Stars—high profitability and high popularity
Plow-horses—low profitability and high popularity
Puzzles—high profitability and low popularity
Dogs—low profitability and low popularity

While the organization of items on the restaurant menu isn't the only determinant of profitability - waiter/waitress suggestions of menu items are obviously also important - the knowledge that the restaurant owner gains in the first two steps of Rapp's process (costing and categorizing) contributes to the menu design in the third step. For example, if one of the items on a restaurant menu is a "plow-horse" (low profitability, high popularity), you probably don't want to prominently feature it on your menu.

So where SHOULD you place the menu "stars"? Rapp and others have performed studies of various menu types are various positioning options, and have determined that for a two-panel menu, the area that garners the most attention is the top of the right-side panel. So perhaps that is the place that you want to place a "star," or a "puzzle" that you think will do well with just a bit more prominence.

If you're a RESTAURANT OWNER, read more of Rapp's suggestions in the article or at Rapp's company website.

And if you're a CONSUMER...do the same.

When a police department reads a proposal that I write, the intelligent people in the department figure out what I'm trying to emphasize...and what I'm trying to gloss over. They evaluate what I'm saying against their needs, and if I'm not addressing one of their chief needs, they'll ask questions about it.

Similarly, when a restaurant patron reads a re-engineered menu, and hears the waitress talking about the "two entrees for $39.99" special, an intelligent patron will figure out what's being sold.

Perhaps the patron will turn the menu upside down and see what's featured in the NEW top right corner - which was formerly the bottom left corner. What's being hidden there?

I'm not necessarily arguing that restaurants and patrons should be in an adversarial relationship - and if the featured item in the REAL top right corner best meets your needs, go ahead and order it.

Just remember that knowledge is power.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Glenn Shriver, espionage, and the slippery slope

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is promoting an old story about a man, Glenn Shriver, who was convicted of espionage on behalf of China. But while this particular story involves the recruitment of a U.S. national by the government of China, the same principles apply to the recruitment of a Russian national by the government of the United States - or the recruitment of Starwoods Hotels executives - and their private information - by Hilton Hotels.

The fascinating part of the story is that Shriver didn't wake up one morning and say to himself, "I want to spy for China." While he admitted to eventually receiving $70,000 for espionage, the whole process started with a simple $120 writing request.

Around October 2004, Shriver—living in Shanghai and financially strapped—responded to an English ad offering to pay individuals to write political papers. A woman named “Amanda” contacted him, met with him several times, and then paid him $120 to write a paper.

This part of Shriver's story was dramatized in a U.S. government video entitled "Game of Pawns" (transcript here). Note how innocuous the conversation sounded at the time.

Amanda: Hi, Glenn.

Shriver: Yes, Amanda. Nice to meet you. Thanks for having me.

Amanda: Thank you very much for coming. So how do you think the average American views China today?

Shriver: I think China is an enigma to many in our country. There are some who view China with suspicion, even fear, over the way you control your currency and your people, and quite frankly your fantastic economic growth.

Amanda: Well, what do you think?

Shriver: It’s complicated, but I found the people here to be remarkably free, and there is a fantastic entrepreneurial class emerging.

Amanda: You are a very thoughtful and candid young man, qualities I admire. We want to make Shanghai the business center of the world. We want Americans to think of Shanghai first when they expand to China. To do that we need to know how westerners perceive us as a country and as a city.

Shriver: So you want me to write about the business climate here?

Amanda: First, something political. Use your judgment.

Shriver: O.K. Cool.

Shriver wrote papers, Amanda paid him in cash, and things were going well. After a while, Amanda introduced Shriver to some other people.

Amanda introduced him to two associates who said they were interested in developing a “friendship” with him and who began suggesting that he consider applying for U.S. government jobs. Eventually, Shriver realized that the men and Amanda were affiliated with the PRC government; nonetheless he agreed to seek a government job.

And no, Shriver's friends didn't want him to apply to the National Park Service. We're talking about agencies such as the U.S. State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency.

This is a classic example of a slippery slope. A cash-strapped student in Shanghai finds a job that pays, in cash, for just writing some simple papers. Within the space of a few years, the student is receiving tens of thousands of dollars from people whom he knows are foreign agents, and is applying for a job with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

During the CIA application process, Shriver broke several laws:

Shriver ... made false statements on the CIA questionnaire required for employment stating that he had not had any contact with a foreign government or its representative during the last seven years, when in fact he had met in person with one or more of the officers approximately 20 times since 2004. He also deliberately omitted his travel to PRC in 2007 when he received a $40,000 cash payment from the PRC for applying to the CIA. In addition, Shriver made false statements during a series of screening interviews at the CIA, and he admitted he made each of the false statements to conceal his illicit relationship with the PRC intelligence officers.

As the dramatization notes, if Shriver had been successful in getting a job with the CIA, his Chinese "friends" had already acquired enough information about him to blackmail him into doing anything they wanted.

Which is why the name of the government dramatization is "Game of Pawns."

To be fair, I should note that some people were not as impressed with the video as I was. Business Insider:

The movie ends up being unintentionally hilarious, as many government-sponsored ostensibly cultural artifacts tend to be. It basically looks like an updated version of the shlocky anti-Soviet films the government used to pump out during the Cold War.

Plus, it's nearly a half hour long.

The Wall Street Journal:

What are those bizarre orange candelabras decorating tables in the restaurant where the actor-as-Shriver dines with his attractive Chinese female handler? Why are there large swaths of red fabric randomly draped around Mr. Shriver’s campus? (Presumably they’re there to remind the viewer that this is China, not the U.S.?)

As some observers have pointed out, most glaringly of all, the film actually appears to have been shot in downtown D.C.’s Chinatown, not Shanghai — perhaps because the U.S. government decided it wasn’t a great use of taxpayer money to do an on-site shoot.

Um, I don't think that China would have ALLOWED an on-site shoot.

And I still believe that this video is better than the IRS "Star Trek" video and some other government videos that have been produced over the years.

Keep it uncomplicated, stupid?

Our proposal process includes a mandatory quality assurance step.

When I submitted a recent proposal to QA, it included the word "uncomplicated."

When I received the proposal back, the word "uncomplicated" had been changed to "simple."

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

No, pay-at-table credit card processing is NOT necessarily more secure

A recent article in PMQ Pizza Magazine describes a security problem:

There aren’t many places where a customer would hand over his credit card to a complete stranger and lose sight of it for several minutes, but this transaction is routine at restaurants. Most consumers don’t give it much thought, but as identity theft becomes more commonplace and more lives are ruined every day by scam artists with pilfered credit card numbers, some technology companies have begun offering alternatives that allow restaurant guests to pay for their meals without having to surrender their plastic to a stranger.

I recently discussed one of these alternatives, the Ziosk device, in a post on my Empoprise-NTN NTN Buzztime blog - not because of its pay-at-table capabilities, but because the device potentially encourages customers to spend more money at restaurants. But the Ziosk device certainly offers the capability to pay your bill without giving a credit or debit card to your server. And there are other devices that offer this, including devices from TablePay of America and PayAnywhere.

However, it's a stretch to think that such a payment system is necessarily more secure. While such a system eliminates one type of fraud, it does not eliminate EVERY type of fraud. A dedicated hacker could presumably hack the device, or the wired or wireless network, and obtain the credit card information from the network. While the devices are relatively small, I'm sure that an enterprising cracker could develop a credit card skimmer. Look at what a skimmer recently did on the New York subway system:

According to New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) City Transit, an unidentified rider discovered [a] device at New York's 59th Street Columbus Circle subway station late Thursday. It consisted of a credit card skimmer placed over the vending machine's official card reader and — here's the ingenious part — a credit card camera situated just above the vending machine.

That camera was actually hidden inside a tiny, two-outlet power adapter. There was a tiny hole in its base for the camera.

Apparently, the camera was activated whenever an unsuspecting MTA customer inserted or removed their card. That meant the thieves would have both the scanned card info and any details about the card (and person) they can glean from the over-the-head photo. The camera was powered by a large battery pack hidden on top of the vending machine.

Of course, my transaction last Thursday was safe. For that particular restaurant visit, we paid with cash.

Do carry cash?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Circle of life, 21st century edition

So you can use Outbrain to drive traffic to your Kickstarter campaign - a fact I learned from a Facebook ad.

Unless Scar - I mean Heartbleed - interferes with the circle...

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Brendan Eich, a political rights expansion of the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act...and everybody else

The whole issue of political activity by employees of private organizations is broader than California Proposition 8...or Brendan Eich...or Mozilla...or California law.

At least two writers, Jamelle Bouie and Rod Dreher, believe that the Employment Non-Discrimination Act is a possible solution to the problem. If you want to prevent Brendan Eich - or anyone - from being fired because of their political activity, then this may be the solution. Dreher wrote:

I would support a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, protecting gay and lesbian employees from being fired over their sexual orientation. I say “a version,” because I would want strong, clear carve-outs for companies and organizations for whom the sexuality of the employee is directly related to the organization’s ability to carry out its mission. (Similarly, I would want a group like the Metropolitan Community Church or the Human Rights Campaign to be able to dismiss an employee whose stated views against same-sex marriage directly affected their missions. The point is, I believe it’s wrong to fire an employee simply because he or she is gay or lesbian, and as long as a few conditions are met, should be illegal. We could have a federal labor law protecting the right of employees to off-the-job political speech, but that wouldn’t protect any employee from the force of boycotts and witch-hunting. Remember, the Hollywood blacklist was not imposed by the government, but by studio heads. This is about culture.

While the Employment Non-Discrimination Act does not specifically address "protecting the right of employees to off-the-job political speech," it could conceivably be expanded to protect such rights. After all, California workers, unlike Florida workers, are protected from losing their jobs because of off-the-job political speech. (Well, theoretically.)

Federal protection for private company employees from firing for off-the-job political activity would address numerous concerns. It would address the concerns of those who believe that Brendan Eich should be able to donate to Proposition 8 and be CEO of Mozilla. It would address the concerns of those who believe that Michael Italie should be able to campaign for mayor of Miami on the Socialist Workers Party ticket and work for Goodwill.

But Dreher raises a point - there may need to be some exceptions to the rule. Using one of his examples, would it be appropriate for Brendan Eich to be an employee of the Metropolitan Community Church?

And there are other examples.

Would it be appropriate for someone to be an employee of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod or the Roman Catholic Church who politically supports an end to gender discrimination in all employment, including the pastorate/priesthood?

Would it be appropriate for someone to be an employee of PETA who owns a cosmetic company? Or who owns stock in a cosmetic company? Or who buys cosmetics?

And could Goodwill/Mozilla argue that it is entirely appropriate to require that employees be "American"/"gay friendly," and that they should therefore be excluded from the proposed act?

Unless these questions can be adequately addressed, the message is clear - people should NOT engage in political activity.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

My latest Jim Bakker moment - Brendan Eich's de facto firing may have been illegal under California law

I have previously stated that Mozilla's firing of Brendan Eich was perfectly legal. (Firing? I'll get to that in a minute.) This was based on a comparison of Eich's case with the case of Michael Italie, a Florida Socialist who was fired from Goodwill. From Slate:

[W]hen the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union looked into Italie's case, it discovered...that Goodwill was on strong legal footing. "There is no legal case to be brought," explains Miami chapter president Lida Rodriguez-Taseff. "The law is pretty clear that a private employer can fire someone based on their political speech even when that political speech does not affect the terms and conditions of employment."

But Italie was in Florida. Eich was in California. And Robert Cooper has shared a link to a post at the California Workforce Resource Blog. The post cites a particular California law:

Under California law it is blatantly illegal to fire an employee because he has donated money to a political campaign. This rule is clearly set forth in Labor Code sections 1101-1102:

More details here.

And what of the claim that Eich wasn't fired by Mozilla? OK, he wasn't fired by Mozilla (wink wink), but as a Slashdot commenter notes, Mozilla certainly didn't support its employee.

As Eich stepped down, Re/code reported that Mozilla Executive Chairwoman Mitchell Baker said Eich's ability to lead the company had been badly damaged by the continued scrutiny over the hot-button issue. 'It's clear that Brendan cannot lead Mozilla in this setting,' Baker was quoted as saying. 'I think there has been pressure from all sides, of course, but this is Brendan's decision. Given the circumstances, this is not surprising.'

Personally, I doubt that Eich is going to file a wrongful termination suit, since the disadvantages of doing so far outweigh the advantages. However, I'll say it again: Mozilla is going to have a hard time finding a new CEO with any amount of talent.

One person who is clearly unqualified to be CEO of Mozilla is Sam Yagan, for two reasons.

First, as Michael Arrington points out, Yagan gave a $500 political contribution to U.S. Congressman Chris Cannon - who has received a 0% rating from the Human Rights Campaign regarding support of gay rights. Obviously Mozilla couldn't have anyone like Yagan running Mozilla, since he's just as bad (well, technically, half as bad) as Eich.

Second, as Arrington also notes, Yagan already has a job.

Sam Yagan is the co-founder of OkCupid and CEO of Match.com, OkCupid’s parent company

OkCupid, as you may recall, raised a big stink about Eich's appointment as CEO.

Arrington, not one to shy away from harsh words, says this about OkCupid:

I believe that it was a PR stunt by OKCupid, that the company isn’t really committed to gay rights at all, and that OkCupid co-founder Sam Yagan was particularly hypocritical in this.

To go further, I think that a person and/or a company who deliberately destroy a man’s reputation and career under false pretenses just to get a PR bump is being explicitly evil.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Why be transparent when Mozilla - and many of your bosses - have the right to discriminate for political reasons?

This post was originally going to be very different.

When I began researching this post, I intended to compare Mozilla's refusal to back up Brendan Eich with the 1970s-era ACLU's willingness to back up the Nazis who wanted to march through Skokie.

There are some parallels between the two, after all.

Both Mozilla and the American Civil Liberties Union espouse a particular set of principles.

Both organizations became involved with entities (Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, ACLU client the American Nazi Party) who espoused different principles.

Both organizations were criticized, from outsiders and from within, about this involvement.

The difference, in my mind? The ACLU (at least at the time) stuck by its principles to defend the free spech rights of everyone, despite the fact that it lost 30,000 members as a result. Mozilla, as you may have heard, pretty much decided that inclusiveness only goes so far.

But as I thought about it more, there was a much more important difference between Eich and the proposed Nazi march through Skokie.

The city of Skokie is a governmental entity, and is therefore somewhat constrained in discriminating against people because of their political views.

Mozilla is not a governmental entity, and therefore can perform as much political discrimination as it wants.

It should be noted that Mozilla is prevented by law from discriminating against people because of their religious beliefs or their sexual preferences. But political discrimination is fair game, as I previously noted when discussing Goodwill's firing of Michael Italie because he was a socialist.

So Mozilla can fire anyone who donated to Proposition 8, and Hobby Lobby can fire anyone who opposes Obamacare.

Is there a lesson in this? Yes, but it's not the lesson that Michelle Quinn derived:

[I]n not explaining why he made a $1,000 donation to support Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage ballot initiative, or clarifying his views now, [Eich] let the bubbling controversy over his stance fester and reach a point in which his only option was to step down.

Quinn believes that Eich wasn't transparent enough.

I believe that Eich was too transparent.

The clear lesson from the experiences of Eich, Tony Hayward, and other people who have fallen afoul of public opinion?

Reveal as little as possible about yourself.

Let's face it, I've already endangered my chances of ever becoming CEO of Mozilla. And I'm sure my chances of becoming CEO of Hobby Lobby have been similarly endangered.

I happen to disagree with Nuno Maia:

The next Mozilla CEO better be a vegetarian.

I doubt it; because of the backlash to the backlash, even the selection of a prominent credentialed progressive may be considered too "edgy." Mozilla showed no backbone when everyone criticized Eich, and they're not going to grow a backbone if the American Family Association suddenly urges all families to abandon Mozilla.

No, the next CEO of Mozilla - if Mozilla finds someone willing to take the job - will be a bland individual with no dangerous opinions whatsoever.

And no, don't count on Zelig taking the position - he has troubles of his own.

On the intrinsic value of gold

This may end up launching a series of posts on intrinsic value, but I wanted to start off with gold.

People use a lot of things for currency - Federal Reserve Notes, Bitcoin, and Britxon Pounds among them - but there are those that argue that these pieces of paper or ether have no intrinsic value. What DOES have intrinsic value? Victor J. Aguilar quotes various authorities on this topic:

"Investors seek the intrinsic value of gold to protect themselves from inflation." – Ron Paul

"All political truth can be found in a coin shop." – Jeffrey Tucker

"Basic economic axiom: Money must originate from a commodity with intrinsic value." – Mark Anderson

"Gold and silver have intrinsic value." – Paul 4 Won

"Gold and silver are money made by God. He created them. Paper dollars are made by men! Whose money am I going to trust?" – Sierra HPBT

"The point of buying gold and silver is that the purchasing power of the metals don't change. So, while the dollar goes up and down, gold and silver do not." – Clark St Music

To which I say - poppycock.

While Aguilar has some excellent arguments against the claim that gold has an intrinsic value, I have some of my own.

At the end of the day, a commodity has whatever value we assign to it. If two people think that Bitcoin has a particular value, it has a particular value. If two people think that four-leaf clovers (also created by God) have a particular value, they have a particular value.

To prove this, I suggest that we conduct the following experiment:

(1) Give Ron Paul five pounds of gold.
(2) Lead him twenty miles into the desert in the middle of the summer.
(3) Place him in a locked cage.
(4) Wait two days.
(5) Send someone out to Ron with one liter of water, with an offer to sell the liter of water for three pounds of gold.

Where's that intrinsic value now, gold bugs?

P.S. I realize that I'm endangering my opportunity to ever become CEO of Mozilla, but I would like to cite one Biblical reference here. You see, the Bible does mention gold in hundreds of instances, and one mention appears to pertain to the topic of goldbugs. Revelation 9:20:

The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk,

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.

There's definitely some idolatry of gold going on in some circles.

P.P.S. A question for the gold salesperson - if gold is truly going to skyrocket in value, why are you so eager to sell it to me?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Why Akemi Gaines doesn't care for Nordstrom's customer service

When discussing whether to take a broad look at a business, or to perform a detailed examination on one particular part of the business, two terms that are often used are "forest" and "trees." Well, there are a lot of forests and trees in the Pacific Northwest, which is where Nordstrom is based. Many people, including Guy Kawasaki, have made glowing comments about Nordstrom's exceptional customer service.

Akemi Gaines is not among them.

When referring to the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Gaines referenced two examples of Nordstrom's customer service:

The Nordie who cheerfully gift wrapped products a customer bought at Macy’s

The Nordie who refunded money for a set of tire chains – although Nordstrom doesn’t sell tire chains

(In case you didn't figure it out, "Nordie" is the word that is used internally to refer to Nordstrom employees. As an ex-Motorolan, I can appreciate the internal use of silly terms.)

From the tree perspective, this is great, and perhaps these two customers would actually purchase things at Nordstrom in the future. But Gaines took a forest view, and was concerned.

Why does Nordstrom refund money for something it didn’t sell? Is it because this customer makes other lots of purchases? Or is it because he made a fuss? Do they do this to anyone who wants money for unwanted tire chains?

And where does that money come from? From other customers, of course. So Nordstrom is spending their profit made off from honest customers and making dishonest customers happy. Is this really an example of outstanding customer service?

In my opinion, this is the case of unreasonable customer demand.

How about gift wrapping Macy’s products? This is less of a problem . . . wrapping paper cost is pretty negligible. Still, Nordstrom is using their employee time to do this. And their paycheck comes from – again, from the money customers pay. I think this is a borderline demand that is very close to being unreasonable.

I previously said that Gaines was concerned. Actually, Gaines was VERY concerned.

I like Nordstrom, but after reading this story, I was baffled. And I think twice when I buy anything there.

Sometimes there can be too much of a good thing.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Who has the...um...clout in the #BaconClubhouse promotion from .@klout and .@mcdonalds ?

Business promotions are best when they are win-win situations. Back in 2008, I talked about an Izea promotion which married Izea, Kmart, and influential bloggers such as Loren Feldman and Julia Roy. Today, the online promotional model has progressed to the state where less influential bloggers such as myself can get involved. No, I'm not getting $500 gift cards, but I did receive a $5 McDonalds Arch Card from Klout.


I've earned several Klout perks, but this is the first one that I was actually able to use.

As you can see from the receipt, I applied the $5 from the Arch Card to a $7.44 meal. If I had literally chosen to just try the Bacon Clubhouse Burger, the $5 Arch Card would have covered the cost.

McDonalds' goal in the promotion was to get people to try - and ideally to talk about - its new Bacon Clubhouse Burger.

Thick-cut Applewood smoked bacon, caramelized grilled onions, white cheddar*, crisp leaf lettuce and fresh tomato, all lovingly layered on a quarter pound** of 100% pure beef, then topped with Big Mac special sauce. Served on our artisan roll.

(Note: the burger is also available in grilled and crispy chicken configurations.)

Unfortunately, much of the discussion of the Bacon Clubhouse Burger is canned. You'll see a lot of tweets like this:

Getting an unbeatable taste of the new #BaconClubhouse burger thanks to mcdonalds my klout perk!

You'll notice that I refrained from using the word "unbeatable" in my post title (which is also tweeted). I figure that if I'm going to shill something, I might as well put a bit of original effort into it. (A lesson that I learned from the aforementioned influential bloggers.)

In this case, it's fair to say that this promotion is a win-win-win situation. McDonalds gets some online discussion about its new offering from people who presumably have the ear of others. The Klout perk recipients, of course, get free food. And Klout, which was just acquired by Lithium Technologies, gets some free publicity.

Oh, and my review of the burger. I rarely get the high end burgers from fast food places (these days, I'm more likely to get the plain burger when I go to McDonalds), but this one clearly falls into the premium category - a cut above the Big Macs and Quarter Pounders which were McDonalds' mainstays until a few years ago. If you like bacon, this is definitely recommended.

One more disclosure is in order - when I went to the McDonalds to get the meal, my receipt had a "buy one get one free" offer. However, I'm not going to use it - since even one of these sandwiches is filling, I'm certainly not going to order two.

Friday, March 28, 2014

When protectionism gets too protective - a story

Diana was getting irritated at her teenage son's pronouncements at the dinner table.

"And the laws that ban Tesla sales in all those states are totally bogus!" declared Jim. "And mom, what you and the other car dealers are doing is completely unfair!"

Diana finally exploded. "I've had enough of your mouth!" she yelled back. "You think that Tesla is all cool, but what would you think if your precious Tesla broke down and there wasn't a network of independent dealers to support it? The dealer model has worked for years - if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Jim grumbled and returned to his green beans.

Diana's scowl disappeared when her husband walked in through the front door.

As Mark sat at the table, Diana asked an important question.

"Honey," she asked, "did you have a chance to order those books from Amazon today?"

Mark was not smiling. "Actually, I didn't. During lunch I went to Amazon's web site, and I was greeted with a message from Amazon."


As a result of legislation recently enacted in your state, Amazon is no longer able to sell items directly to customers with New Jersey addresses. We are working to rectify this situation as soon as possible. Rather than fighting the will of New Jersey voters, we are striving to establish a network of independent dealers to sell goods to our New Jersey customers.

"So what does this mean?" asked Diana.

"According to the New Jersey Booksellers' Association," said Mark,

Amazon's approach is not innovative, but rather, by cutting out the dealer hurts the consumer.

The independent system of retailers that operates in New Jersey promotes price competition because a manufacturer doesn't control distribution and prices. It also promotes greater access to warranty claims, which is something direct online booksellers hate.

"And the governor agreed," Mark noted.

"Since Amazon first began operating in New Jersey, it was made clear that the company would need to engage the Legislature on a bill to establish their new direct-sales operations under New Jersey law," said spokesman Kevin Roberts. "This administration does not find it appropriate to unilaterally change the way products are sold in New Jersey without legislation and Amazon has been aware of this position since the beginning."

"But we'll still get free next day delivery under Amazon Prime, right?" asked Diana.

"I doubt it," said Mark. "The delivery schedule would be up to the individual book dealer."

"Well, we'll still get Amazon's pricing, won't we?" asked Diana.

"Maybe, maybe not," said Mark. "The dealer will need to show some profit, so it's possible that the prices may actually go up, despite the competition."

Diana's son Jim was smirking, and even Diana's glare couldn't dampen the smirk on Jim's face.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Mike Michalowicz on disqualifying your client

In an American Express piece, Mike Michalowicz talked about the effective use of reverse psychology in sales - when a potential client is expecting a particular bit of sales-speak, bring something else instead.

One of his examples was classic.

Years ago, my wife and I were bed shopping; the salesperson saw us—a young couple—and walked us past the pricey Tempur-Pedic beds to the ones she thought we could afford. When I asked about the ones we’d passed by, she told me that we couldn’t afford those and she was prepared to show me ones in my price range. Of course, I had to prove her wrong, and we walked out...

Oh, and one more thing.

...only after having bought the Tempur-Pedic bed.

You know that salesperson could sleep well at night.

Read Michalowicz's other five points here.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Forget the article from .@marcwayshak - just look at this one sentence that he wrote

Recently, Marc Wayshak wrote an article entitled "5 simple ways to outsell your competition." It's an outstanding article with tips on focusing on customer needs.

But I'm not going to talk about the article.

Instead, I'm going to highlight a single sentence from the article that says more about business - and psychology - than most things that have been written today.

Here's the sentence:

We are all more comfortable selling to nondecision-makers.

Think about it.

It could have been worse. The criminal could have filed a fake tax return for Richie Incognito

The FBI emphasizes that tax return fraud can affect almost anyone.

From November 2012 through April 2013, [Yafait] Tadesse and co-defendant Eyaso Abebe carried out a scheme to obtain the names and Social Security numbers of unsuspecting victims from various websites and use this information on false tax returns that claimed fraudulent refunds. The tax returns falsely claimed that the victims earned similar wage and withholding amounts and worked at Wal-Mart. The returns all claimed fraudulent refunds that were to be loaded onto pre-paid debit cards. These pre-paid debit cards listed Tadesse’s apartment complex in Carrollton, Georgia as the mailing address.

While the IRS stopped several of the false returns from being fully processed, several fraudulent refunds were directed onto prepaid debit cards. Surveillance videos showed that Tadesse used one of these prepaid cards at stores in Carrollton, Georgia.

OK, so it's a tax fraud story, and some false tax returns were filed claiming that some people earned Walmart wages. But this is where it gets interesting.

One of the tax returns filed by Tadesse and Abebe used the name, Social Security number, and date of birth of U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr.

Yup, the Attorney General. In other words, the person that's directly responsible for sending you to prison if you're convicted of a Federal crime...like tax fraud.

There is no indication that the attorney general was specifically targeted as a result of his position.

Obviously not.

In another story, the FBI detailed ways to reduce the chance that you will become a victim of identity fraud.

While identity theft may be difficult to completely guard against, there are steps you can take to make it harder for thieves to steal your personally identifiable information:

- Check your credit report on a regular basis.

- Don’t carry around your Social Security card or any document containing your Social Security number.

- Properly dispose of documents that contain sensitive information; shred them instead of throwing in the trash.

- Only give out your personal information when absolutely necessary—especially on websites and social media sites—and keep track of who you give it to (this could be helpful in determining the source of a breach of personally identifiable information if you become a victim).

- Protect your personal computers by using firewalls and the latest anti-virus software.

- File your taxes as early as possible during tax season, since criminals using stolen identities tend to file their fraudulent returns early to obtain refunds before the legitimate filer submits a return.

- And if you’re someone who isn’t required to file a tax return, consider filing anyway to prevent someone else from filing a false return in your name and to be alerted in case someone has already filed a false return in your name.

The IRS has published its own tips, including the following:

Don’t give a business your SSN or ITIN just because they ask. Give it only when required.

Consider tenant applications:

A Social Security number is used for personal identification, and is necessary to do a credit check on a potential tenant. With the rise in identity theft, people have become reluctant to share this information with strangers, especially before they've signed a lease or entered a formal contractual agreement with a landlord. You can refuse to give out the digits, but don't be surprised if the landlord, in return, refuses to rent to you.

But be sure you know who the landlord is:

Sadly, there are scammers aplenty in the real estate world. Fake landlords will show an apartment, collect completed applications from several prospective tenants, then sell the information on the black market. In addition, free listing sites such as Craigslist are infamous for fake rental listings that request a Social Security number for a preliminary credit check.

Monday, March 17, 2014

It is now 2014. Chris Schauble is now Kent Schocknek. Safety first, kids.

This little piece of news doesn't really...um, register with most southern Californians. An earthquake occurs during the morning news, and two anchors react.

Early morning TV viewers saw anchors Megan Henderson and Chris Schauble sense something is amiss. Schauble interrupts Henderson, points up and says, "Earthquake! We're having an earthquake!"

They then hide under the news desk like two students during a Cold War nuclear missile drill while the shaky camera focuses on a suddenly abandoned studio.

Ho hum...but wait a minute. Was one of those anchors Chris Schauble, formerly of KNBC? He reacted differently a few years ago:

The earthquake begins, and the newscasters remain at their desks. Bjorklund gazes up toward the ceiling, with a complete lack of concern on her face. The newscasters note that someone off-camera (Ana Garcia) ran into the newsroom, barefoot, then ran back out again.

And here's the kicker:

Schauble then notes that "it could have been handled differently, shall we say" - a direct slap at Shocknek's well-known coverage from twenty years earlier.

Now I have been a staunch defender of Kent Shocknek and (in this particular instance) Christopher Nance for decades. When an earthquake takes place, you are SUPPOSED to duck and cover - something that Shocknek and Nance demonstrated way back when, and something that Schauble belatedly demonstrated today.

As the Yahoo writer puts it:

Looking cool is overrated. Safety first, kids.

Now I'm wondering what happened to the barefoot Ana Garcia. Did she leave KNBC like Shocknek and Schauble did?

Updating my 2012 post about .@VZWSupport and my Samsung Stratosphere OS upgrade

For those who have forgotten the details:

Back on September 18, 2012, an Android operating system upgrade was pushed out to my first-generation Samsung Stratosphere phone. After the upgrade was complete, I began having problems connecting my phone to my netbook via USB, and was receiving errors such as

Sorry…Process com.android.settings stopped unexpectedly. Try again

The "solution" for these problems was to perform a factory reset of the phone, which even Verizon Wireless (my cellular provider) acknowledged was painful:

Often times after a software update is completed a factory reset becomes necessary. I know completing this step can be a bit painful, but it resolves so many minor problems that pop up after the update.

I chose not to perform the factory reset at the time, and am still not pleased that a factory reset is recommended after an OS upgrade. (Imagine if Windows, Linux, or the MacOS required such a step.)

Eventually, my initial workaround to connect my phone and netbook ceased to work, so I developed another workaround - using a popular free cloud-based service to store files for transfer between the two devices. But I'd still get the nasty error message when I plugged my phone into my netbook to charge the phone.

And, as the months went by, other little things would crop up occasionally. Whether they were related to the OS upgrade is unclear, but they were petty little things that I could live with.

Until 11:30 pm yesterday (Sunday).

I was sent to the store to get something, but I would have to make a phone call from the store to get the right thing.

Now, even under the best of circumstances, making a voice call on my phone is a complex undertaking, because I have both Skype and Google Voice installed on my phone. So if I want to make a call, first I have to say "no" to the dialog box that asks if I want to use Skype, then I have to say "no" to the dialog box that asks if I want to use Google Voice, then I have to say "no" to the second dialog box that asked if I want to use Skype. (I don't know why I'm asked this a second time; this is one of those petty little things that's cropped up over the last few months.)

Sometimes, however, I don't encounter the best of circumstances. I'll choose the person that I want to call, then after a couple of minutes I get the first dialog box, then after a few more minutes I get the second dialog box, and then I eventually get the third.

Last night I wasn't that lucky - I never could make the voice call from the store.

So I resorted to texting - and even the text message took 10 minutes to be sent.

Oh, and I was unable to get a connection when I tried to uninstall Skype, and sometimes my settings said that my voice phone number was unknown.

Now some or all of these things may have had nothing to do with the OS upgrade. They might not have had to do with my phone; perhaps I was just in a bad coverage area. But as I sat in a chair in the store, staring at my phone, waiting for something to happen, I made a resolution - "I think I'll do that factory reset when I get home."

Eventually I got home (despite the communication issues, I did buy the correct item), and got ready to perform a post-midnight factory reset. I found these instructions at the Verizon Wireless website; they described a "preferred method" and an "alternate method." The preferred method would complete the process in 2 1/2 minutes or less, so I chose that method.

Eight minutes later, I switched to the alternate method. Luckily, that worked, and I was able to proceed with phone activation and setup, which was going fine...until my phone shut off due to lack of power (despite being connected to the charger). Luckily, the phone turned out fine - I think.

As of today, the phone is working. Due to the late night activity, I've only installed a few applications so far - Spotify, of course, was a necessity. But I haven't rushed to install Skype or Google Voice.

And I never did check to see if I was now able to transfer files between my phone and netbook.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Small companies are not big companies - on performance reviews

I have adopted a personal crusade to remind many wide-eyed startup proponents that things are a little different in the Fortune 500 world.

But I have to remind myself that the reverse of this is also true.

I was reading a print publication that summarized this study and noticed something in one of the tables (reproduced in slide 16 of the online presentation). Only 70% of the surveyed firms perform employee performance reviews.

I've gotten so used to performance reviews that they're almost a subconscious activity now, like breathing. Despite changes in corporate structure, and changes in the performance review itself, I've probably been reviewed on an annual basis for two decades now. So to me, the idea of NOT having a performance review is foreign.

But then I began thinking...

Brad's manager told him that he had to attend an important meeting on Friday. This was confusing to Brad, because the QwikShop Zippy Store was not the place to have important meetings. He entered the store, caught his manager's eye, and joined him in the small closet at the back of the store.

"Now, Brad," the manager, "I realize that you've only been here three weeks, but this is the time for performance reviews, and you need to participate also."

Brad was only seventeen years old, so he didn't know what his manager was talking about. "Performance reviews? What's that?"

"Oh, that comes down from corporate."

"You mean Manny?" Manny was the 74 year old man who, with his wife, owned the QwikShop Zippy Store and the adjacent gas station.

"Yeah, Manny. He got a hold of some business book and decided that the QwikShop Zippy Store needed to be professional."

Brad still looked a little confused, but his manager continued.

"Now, Brad," said the manager, "I've evaluated your performance based upon our corporate mission statement. If you leafed through the papers that you were given on your hire date, you remember that the corporate mission statement of the QwikShop Zippy Store is to be one of the world's leading producers and providers of entertainment and information, using its portfolio of brands to differentiate its content, services and consumer products. The company's primary financial goals are to maximize earnings and cash flow, and to allocate capital toward growth initiatives that will drive long-term shareholder value."

"What does that have to do with the QwikShop Zippy Store?" asked Brad.

"I don't know. Manny took the mission statement from Disney. He figured that if it's good enough for Walt Disney, it's good enough for him."

The manager paused for a moment. "So, Brad," he asked, "how have you driven long-term shareholder value?"

Brad mumbled incoherently.

"Let me help you with this," offered the manager. "When you walked here this morning, I saw you picking up a cigarette butt in the parking lot and throwing it away. That contributed to the intangible valuation of the firm, didn't it?"

Brad began to wonder if community college were such a good idea after all. If this was what they taught you in community college, it wasn't worth it.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Amazon Prime price increase - trust the anecdotal evidence, or the surveys?

It's happened. The rumored price increase for Amazon Prime has been announced, and a $20 increase in the standard annual price (from $79 to $99) will take effect on the customer's next renewal.

As Alexis Kleinman notes, this is the first price increase in nine years - and while a 25% increase may seem steep, if you've been a long-term member and annualize the increase, it isn't so bad. (Which raises the question of whether Amazon should have increased prices every year, rather than doing it in one fell swoop, but that's a topic for another time.)

So what will happen? First I looked at the anecdotal evidence, as seen in Alex Scoble's Facebook thread. The majority of commenters there felt that Amazon Prime was still a good deal. However, Scoble's Facebook friends are probably atypical, since we are more likely to be cord-cutters, and thus are more likely to use the streaming capabilities of Amazon Prime.

But what about a more broad-based survey? Back in February, Reuters reported the results of a survey:

In a survey of more than 6,400 current Prime customers, Prosper Insights & Analytics found that 63 percent of consumers would pay only the current $79 fee for Prime - and no more. An additional 29 percent would pay $89-$99, and only 8 percent would pay $109 or more, a $30 minimum increase.

At the time that the survey was conducted, all sorts of price increase figures were being rumored, while the actual price increase was lower than some estimates. (In fact, I wonder if Amazon intentionally leaked a high price increase value, so that consumers would be pleased when the actual price was lower. Again, a topic for another time.)

So now that Amazon will be priced above $79, will over half of Amazon's customers drop the service at the next renewal period? The Proper Insights people think so:

"It's not going to work - if Prime members get this blanket email that rates are going up $20, Amazon is going to see a push back for this," says Pam Goodfellow, Prosper's consumer insights director. "The few consumers willing to pay $109 for Prime are younger, predominantly male, have a lot more money to spend and spend heavily on the electronics category."

Yes, this could potentially be a disaster along the lines of the Netflix disaster when it initially split up its mail delivery and streaming services. (Of course, things are fine several years later.) But my personal suspicion is that this is much ado about nothing, and most Amazon Prime users will happily renew at the higher rate.

Then again, I've been wrong before.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The importance of good management - a new DMV manager uncovers $50,000 in fraudulent activity

The FBI has released the story of fraudulent activity in the El Cajon, California office of the California Division of Motor Vehicles. A driving school owner, in cooperation with a few DMV employees, was able to get anyone a California driver's license - for a price.

“One guy flew in from Dallas, took a cab to the DMV office, paid for his license, and flew back to Dallas a few hours later,” said Special Agent Mike Peters, who investigated the case with Special Agent Kim George out of our San Diego Division. “It was so blatant,” Peters said, “that our surveillance showed the driving school operator brokering multiple deals in the DMV parking lot.”

This went on for three years, resulted in the fraudulent issuance of more than 100 driver's licenses, and netted over $50,000 for the ring.

So how did it stop?

When a new manager arrived at the El Cajon DMV office, however, “she instantly realized that something wasn’t right,” Peters said. The new manager alerted the DMV’s investigative arm, who in turn called the FBI.

This raises a question - why didn't the old manager catch this? Was the old manager clueless, or was the old manager in on the scam? The FBI summary doesn't say.

According to the FBI, the case is ongoing.

The Retail Equation and its Return Rewards program - when a return becomes a sale

I've found that my three posts on The Retail Equation are among the most popular posts on the Empoprise-BI business blog. If The Retail Equation ever provided services for KitchenAid, I auspect that my blog views would eclipse those of Arianna's little website.

It turns out that the big data generated by The Retail Equation's clients' servers isn't just used to prevent fraud. It can also be used for positive things, such as generating sales from the return exchange:

Once considered a cost of doing business, many retailers today are rethinking the return counter to make the shopping experience better for customers, which can have big benefits to the bottom line....[R]etailers can drive incremental sales through our product called Return Rewards®, which uses information about a consumer’s return transaction to instantly customize an offer for that particular person at the point of return. This provides an immediate incentive for the consumer to continue shopping at the store and for a specific product.

Additional information on Return Rewards can be found here.

Monday, February 24, 2014

When Jim Bakker's website is more easily accessed via U-Verse (or, why cable/satellite services may survive after all)

If you had asked me about the broadcast industry a few short weeks ago, I would have summed it up as follows:

The cable and satellite companies continue to use a dinosaur model that requires you to subscribe to a specific cable/satellite provider to get content from companies such as HBO. In the long term, however, this model will die because it is competing with the Internet, where everyone has access to the same content.

I have strongly believed this, and I've continuously talked about it over the years. For example, in 2010 I asked the question Will the cable/satellite model have to change?, and provided the following answer:

If enough people decide that cable/satellite service isn't worth it, the industry will be forced to adopt a more economical model that better serves the customer.

And I continued to make similar statements:

[O]bviously people won't pay for these cable/satellite services any more. And at the same time, the content providers won't get all of that guaranteed revenue that has made them greedy.

Then both the cable/satellite providers and the content providers will really have to fight for my business. Instead of holding these fake crisis wars every few years, they'll have to come up with a new business model - oen that will make it worthwhile for me to watch your shows.

It's only a matter of time before this cable/satellite model keels over, right?

Perhaps not.

In the history of my Jim Bakker-ish "I was wrong" moments, this has probably been the biggest "I was wrong" moment yet - and it only took me a couple of days to figure out how wrong I was.

For those of you who missed it, two big stories emerged over the past few days. Timothy B. Lee summarized both of them - the ongoing negotiations between Cogent and Verizon, and the completed deal with Netflix and Comcast.

In brief, Netflix (a customer of Cogent) accounts for a huge percentage of Internet traffic. For various reasons that Lee explains, this means that broadband companies such as Verizon and Comcast can try to demand money from Netflix (or Cogent) to carry Netflix's traffic. As of now, Verizon has not succeeded in getting money from Cogent - but Comcast has succeeded in getting money from Netflix.

There are, of course, a number of ramifications of this. One of those, however, bears mentioning:

As this proceeds, there will be no effective difference between the current cable/satellite entertainment industry and the online broadband industry.

For example, this month's current brouhaha in the former industry is DirecTV's refusal to carry The Weather Channel. Perhaps your response is to ignore DirecTV altogether and just go directly to weather.com. But what if weather.com has paid a fee to Verizon, and hasn't paid a fee to AT&T? If that is the result, then videos on weather.com may be degraded if you try to access the website from AT&T. And, of course, Jim Bakker's own website may be affected.

Of course, it's possible that the fees would only be demanded - and paid - by companies such as Netflix with extreme broadband requirements, and that it wouldn't be economically feasible for the broadband providers to demand similar fee payments from weather.com, or jimbakkershow.com, or blogger.com, or wordpress.com...

Hmm. This is suddenly getting somewhat personal.

This waste solution is in the bag - Cass Sunstein on loss aversion #apmp

Last week, Dr. Tom Sant of Hyde Park Partners gave a presentation to the California chapter of the Association of Proposal Management Professionals. In his presentation ("The Art and Science of Compelling Value"), Dr. Sant briefly mentioned Dr. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner for economics who doesn't happen to be an economist.

One of Dr. Kahneman's concepts is that of "loss aversion." I was searching for some easy-to-understand examples of loss aversion, and I ran across three of them in a Cass Sunstein article that I found on LinkedIn.

[taberandrew, some rights reserved]

In his article, Sunstein's second example concerned efforts by the District of Columbia to reduce the use of plastic bags in grocery stores. First, the District tried an incentive:

One approach was to offer a five-cent bonus to customers who brought reusable bags.

It turns out that the incentive didn't work. So the District moved to the penalty phase:

More recently the District tried another approach, which is to impose a five-cent tax on those who ask for a grocery bag.

This was very effective. As Sunstein comments, "Five cents is not a lot of money, but many people do not want to pay it." Carol Rucker notes that the fee resulted in a 50% reduction in disposable bag use in Washington, DC grocery stores.

See Sunstein's other two examples here.

Friday, February 21, 2014

All politics is local, the homeland security education edition

If our people are not sufficiently educated to fight threats to homeland security, then the terrorists (and hurricanes) have already won. This is apparently what New York Governor Andrew Cuomo believes:

Governor Andrew Cuomo last month earmarked $15 million in his state budget proposal for what he called “the nation’s first college dedicated solely to emergency preparedness and homeland security.” Cuomo announced plan during a presentation for Vice President Joe Biden in January, saying there would be “a need” for it.

This proposal certainly has support:

A spokesman for the state’s university system, SUNY, said Chancellor Nancy Zimpher supports Cuomo’s proposal.

But at the same time, there are those who are opposed to it:

Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal, chair of the Assembly’s Commission on Science and Technology, wrote a letter to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver advising Silver to reject Cuomo’s plan. “I cannot support this initiative until I have a better understanding of the proposal, its long-term cost and impact on existing programs,” she wrote.

Rosenthal...noted in her letter that she was worried that the college would be competing with John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a school in her district. “I am concerned about how this college will be integrated with existing related programs at campuses around the State,” she wrote.

“For example, John Jay College of Criminal Justice … in my district offers a range of courses in Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security.”

So what does the John Jay College of Criminal Justice have to say about itself?

A senior college of The City University of New York, John Jay College of Criminal Justice is the preeminent national and international leader in educating for justice. Whether it is in the pages of The Lancet, across from opposing counsel, or behind a podium, John Jay students, graduates and faculty make their mark on the world.

Set in the heart of New York City, John Jay offers students a liberal arts and criminal justice curriculum that balances the sciences, humanities and the arts with professional studies. Offering both undergraduate and graduate degrees, the College is unique in its mission....

Well, it won't be unique in its mission of the Governor and the State University of New York have their way.

So we have the City University fighting with the State University - and that is how homeland security decisions are made.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

LinkedIn Publish

So anyways, I was reading my personal email and ran across this:

It seemed easy enough, but before I clicked that "Get Started" button, I figured that I'd better figure out what this Publish feature was. So I ended up reading John Hall's explanation.

The initial reaction of some members may be to compare this feature to sharing a post with only their connections, as they’d been able to do in the past. However, there’s a huge difference between a friendly post and an actual article in terms of quality.

LinkedIn is creating specific channels that will support targeted content for a variety of industries. As you build your platform, this will be a key way to stand out as an industry leader. If your features don’t get enough traction, this could prevent your platform from being as useful as it could be.

I am fairly select in what I choose to share via LinkedIn's existing capabilities, confining myself to brief discussions specific to biometrics or proposals. While my...um, broader interests are certainly available on the web, I figure that people who are reading on LinkedIn don't particularly care about my thoughts on Bob Casale.

At the appropriate time, I'll give this a spin and see what happens.

P.S. This is what LinkedIn said:

The company's press release, written by Ryan Roslansky, Director of Product Management:

We believe in giving our members access to the business knowledge they need to be great at what they do. To put that simply, we are making a commitment to our members: the time you spend on LinkedIn will make you better at your job today.

The valuable Influencer posts and the wide range of professional content from millions of publishers that we currently aggregate on LinkedIn are powerful, but only the tip of the iceberg. Combined, our members have extremely valuable and varied experiences; however, their knowledge and expertise has not yet been captured and shared.

Starting today, LinkedIn is opening up our publishing platform to our members, giving them a powerful new way to build their professional brand. When a member publishes a post on LinkedIn, their original content becomes part of their professional profile, is shared with their trusted network and has the ability to reach the largest group of professionals ever assembled. Now members have the ability to follow other members that are not in their network and build their own group of followers. Members can continue to share their expertise by posting photos, images, videos and their original presentations on SlideShare.

Every professional has valuable experience to share. Trying to grow your business by reducing customer attrition? Read the post from Monica Adractas, head of customer retention at Box, on churning out churn. Just starting a career in sales? Read the post from Brent Beshore, the founder/CEO at adventur.es, on how to sell anything. Need a science-based planning tool for river restoration? Read the post from Glen Leverich, senior geomorphologist at Stillwater Sciences, on A Science-based Planning Approach for Riparian Restoration.

LinkedIn Influencer started in fall of 2012 and features top voices in business like Richard Branson, Martha Stewart and Bill Gates. The expertise they have shared through their Influencer posts has resonated in a meaningful way with LinkedIn members and is fueling business conversations. The average Influencer post drives more than 31,000 views and receives more than 250 likes and 80 comments. By any measure, this is a remarkably high level of engagement for digital content.

We are adding new Influencers who are excited to share their insights and experiences directly with LinkedIn members. They include Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, CEO of AOL Brand Group Susan Lyne, and Financial Expert and CNBC host Suze Orman. We will regularly evaluate who we have as Influencers to include only the most engaged, prolific and thoughtful contributors and to ensure that their expertise matches up with our members’ interests.

Starting today, 25,000 members will have the ability to publish content on LinkedIn. We’ll be steadily expanding the capability to all members in multiple languages over the next few weeks and months to come. Check out our member help center for more information.

P.P.S. I would have linked to LinkedIn's original press release, rather than Yahoo's version of it, but I couldn't find press releases on LinkedIn's page. Maybe you have to be a Premium member to find them.

P.P.P.S. If you're interested in LinkedIn, be sure to read Jason Alba's blog. I've written about it before.

Foreign banks and ex-American tax cheats - additional unintended consequences from .@pattonroberta

Robert Patton is an indefatigible sharer of valuable information, and his share of a National Public Radio item caught my eye as yet another example of unintended consequences. (For my previous discussions of unintended consequences, look at what happened with Chinese birth control, friendly relations toward Afghan farmers, and James Ulvog's favorite topic of green energy.)

For my non-U.S. readers, I should point out that National Public Radio serves the people of the United States. (Although I'm sure that if Slovenia has its own "National Public Radio," it's probably a quality organization.) And this story deals with American citizens abroad - or, more accurately, FORMER American citizens abroad.

It all started with Americans hiding money in Swiss bank accounts and not telling the Internal Revenue Service about it. Needless to say, this did not make Congress happy, because both Republicans and Democrats agree that it's essential to collect government revenue from people who would never vote for you anyway - and tax cheats fall into that category. So Congress took action:

During the economic recession, lawmakers saw a chance to bring in massive sums of money and stop tax cheats at the same time.

"They just found UBS in a terrible scheme to encourage tax evasion," Barney Frank, the Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, told NPR in 2009. "I think there are clearly tens of billions that can be recovered there."

The next year, in 2010, Congress passed the Foreign Accounts Tax Compliance Act. The law affects every foreign bank that does business with the U.S. And not just banks: It also applies to retirement accounts, mutual funds, and more.

NPR's Ari Shapiro points out that the United States is unusual in this regard. If a Spanish citizen is living in Canada, he or she is not required to pay taxes in Spain. But that's not the case for Americans living in a place such as Germany.

The first signs of a problem could be seen when foreign banks learned about the U.S. law and had to figure out how to comply with it. Many foreign banks hit on a very easy-to-implement solution:

Many of them decided to wash their hands of American account-holders.

"They canceled the accounts of just about every American in Europe," says retiree John Mainwaring, "including me."

But there were some Americans that decided to implement an even better solution to the American taxation problem.

In Switzerland, so many people want to renounce their citizenship that the U.S. Embassy actually has a waiting list.

"I want to be clear: It's not about a dollar value of taxes that I don't want to pay," says Brian Dublin, a businessman who lives near Zurich. "It's about the headache associated with the regulations, filing in the U.S., and then having financial institutions in the rest of the world turn me away."

Dublin says he is ready to renounce, despite the ties he feels to the country of his birth. "I grew up in America. I love my country. But I just feel that the current regulations are onerous."

Now remember that most countries have higher tax rates than the United States. And if people feel that the American regulations are so onerous that they'd rather be a citizen of Europe, then those regulations must be onerous indeed.

Although NPR and others have been discussing this over the past few days, it's been a topic for months.

Oh, and if you decide to renounce your U.S. citizenship, your former government doesn't give you any parting gifts - it just puts your name on a list.

One reason your business should have a blog (with apologies to Amanda O'Brien)

Back in January, Amanda O'Brien wrote a piece entitled 5 reasons your business should have a blog. Unfortunately, there's the danger that some readers will conclude that all five reasons are of equal importance.

Take her second reason, "boost website traffic and search rankings." It seems that so much of the online industry is centered upon boosting website traffic and search rankings. However, devoting ALL of your efforts to boosting website traffic and search rankings will result in...increased website traffic and search rankings. And that and two bucks will get you a cup of coffee - and, as Derek Muller of Veritasium notes, may actually end up DECREASING the reach of your content.

As far as I'm concerned, the ONLY reason why your business should have a blog is the fifth and final reason that O'Brien lists.

So what is that reason? Go to her post to find out.