Uber might be crashing back to Earth

Last Friday Uber decided to start operating in Portland. I know, it’s a little surprising that Uber or any of the other rideshare Taxi apps aren’t already in the city. Portland had told Uber they could not operate in the city, but Uber decided to thumb their nose at that similarly to what they have done in other cities. Even though Uber was recently valued at $40 Billion they have had some serious issues lately, like rape of a woman in Delhi while illegally operating in the city. Furthermore, as I mentioned in my last article, they have smeared women journalists with the data Uber collects.

Portland has decided to sue Uber over their illegal operation within the city. The city is following Nevada in suing the company rather than trying to fine their drivers. Uber has since ceased operations in the state due to an injunction against the company operating in the state. This appears to be the only route that will work effectively as Uber is still operating in Delhi despite the citywide ban of the service. Uber has also been banned in Spain, Thailand, and parts of the Netherlands. I think the biggest blow, however, is the fact that both San Francisco and LA are suing the company for false advertising related to their fees and background check.

These responses should not come as much of a surprise to anyone that has been watching the company over the past few years. The company is part of the Silicon Valley culture of going fast and trying to break things. The problem is that, incumbents are incumbents for a reason and they do have the ear of government. It’s not to say that they should be incumbents or that it makes them something worthy of respect, but you need to understand the cards are stacked against you. In cases where you want to go in and intentionally ruffle feathers, you must have strong safe guards in place to protect your customers and be public about how you protect them. Uber should welcome background check audits, privacy audits, and driver safety audits whenever they go into a new market. These should all be huge features that they brag about and let people under the hood to actually see.

I think it’s time that companies like Uber start treating our data as if it’s Personal Health Information, which is protected by Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (aka that HIPAA agreement you sign at the doctors’ office). The default is to not share personal information about a patient, that if someone is caught looking at the data without just cause, it typically results in a firing and a fine for the organization. Similar action must be taken at Uber to show they are a steward of our data. Now the government won’t be taking that money, but instead they should be donating the funds to a good cause at a similar rate to a HIPAA violation.

In some respect Uber is exhibiting the effects of a company that is growing too large too fast without designing processes to enable their business activities properly. For Uber to be a successful long term company they need to figure out how to both appease city governments through over protecting their users and breaking existing rules. If the company can be trusted then governments will be more willing to accept pushing boundaries.

The Value of Culture

A friend of mine sent me a link about the variety of dialects found in Pennsylvania, it’s a pretty cool read. The article basically argues that because of the number of dialects, 5 in total, Pennsylvania is one of the most interesting states in the US for linguists. It reminded me of whenever I first moved to the Netherlands. I made a few friends and they were always making fun of the Limburgians because Limburgese sounds really funny. It’s has a mixture of Dutch, German, Spanish, and other stuff, plus they say the Dutch words really funny. So I decided to play them a PIttsburghese song, they couldn’t understand a word in the song. They actually asked me if it was English.

Which brings me to my next point, the Netherlands, which is roughly half the size of PA, has 2 languages at least 5 dialects (Limburgese is on it’s way to being a third language). Sure the country has a lot more people 18 million vs. 12 million, but there’s a lot more diversity in their language than in PA. Which is pretty interesting – especially considering that they’ve kept this variety whenever they also know somewhere between 3-5 languages (Dutch, English, German, Spanish, French for example). One of the concerns of the Slate article about PA is that the folks that leave decide to lose their accents which isn’t the case in the Netherlands.

These are all part of the local culture and language is one of the best representations of a culture. The words that people use to describe things really influences the way they want to live. For example the Dutch word “Gezellig” (link explains how to say the word) doesn’t really have an English translation the closest being “warm and cozy” for a room, but can be used in many different contexts (most beyond my understanding of the application). This word kind of represents a goal of a gathering, house, or anything. I think it strongly influences who the Dutch are and who they want to be their friends. It’s embedded in their culture.

I’m currently reading a book called “People’s Platform” which has a huge emphasis on culture and the cultural enablers of the internet. The internet is both the best thing and worst thing that has ever happened to our culture. It’s fantastic because I can still find out about awesome bands from friends all over the world, but it’s also extremely isolating because of algorithms that shape how we find content from 3rd parties. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve heard people express the thoughts that people are the best at recommending a new band compared to Pandora.

We have the opportunity to expand our culture a little bit if we put forth the effort. However, that’s a lot of effort. It’s hard to find people you have things in common with on some platforms and it’s easier to just find the popular people and follow them. I’ve made the effort to keep Dutch connects on my twitter feed because I loved living there. I have intentionally followed many women because I want to see their opinions as well as a few minorities. However, for the most part they are fairly under represented. It’s tough, because you want things that interest you on your twitter feed and a lot of people are into very different things than I am.

Which begs the question, how do we ensure a robust culture in an environment where we and our algorithms are actively trying to homogenize the cultural goods we interact with? This isn’t an easy problem to answer especially since we like free goods on the internet. I stream Pandora for free (ads on my phone), I haven’t bought an actual song or album in years. I want to support bands, but I know so little goes to the actual band these days. For Twitch I support 2 people (kbmod and nipnops) because I know the money goes to them to help produce the content I love. However, even with all the people paying, it’s not enough to allow nipnops to live solely on this income.

I think that we should seriously consider a living wage for artists and entertainers. I believe there is a need to support content I don’t like because we need to make sure that people see it. If the Dutch don’t understand all aspects of Americans (they’d never heard of Pittsburghese) how can we ever hope to understand other cultures if we don’t help enable them to reach us?

 

What are your thoughts?

The EU goes Net Neutral

If the EU had voted against strong Net Neutrality laws there would have been a serious problem between a few national governments and the supra-government of the EU. A few years ago the Netherlands became the second country in the world to fully support Net Neutral principles. Furthermore, the EU level Telecom and internet lady is Dutch, Neelie Kroes. She’s been very vocal supporting Net Neutral and “Internet Freedom” since I started following her a few years ago.

I’m not really surprised by this law passing. The EU has been under less influence of many companies than the US government. Additionally, net neutrality inherently has more privacy built into the system. It limits the requirements of deep packet inspection – because there’s no shaping based on the content of the packets, just the amount of packets. Ideally, this will mean that there is less capability in the network for deep packet inspection.

This could lead to some difficulties in the differences between US ISPs and EU ISPs. I’m interested in the ramifications of throttling across the different continents. Clearly someone getting content from a company in the EU won’t want it to be throttled in the way that Netflix has been. It could create some legal ambiguity and issues. I’m going to be watching how all of that resolves.

Book Review: Idea Factory, the history of Bell Labs

Yea, I know I’ve just been doing book reviews.

This book was amazing. I had no idea of all the different things that Bell Labs produced from the mid 1920’s until the 1970’s and later. The book focused on the high point of Bell Labs innovation run. It followed the career of several, at the time, famous and prominent scientists that were employed at Bell Labs. Please such as Mervin Kelley (vastly improve the vacuum tube and was a long running director, VP and President of the Labs), William Shockley (inventor of the transistor) Brattian (inventor of a different kind of transistor), Claude Shannon (inventor of the field of Information Science), John Pierce (inventor of passive and active satellite). These there were many others, however, they each had significant impacts on how our modern society works.

The book does an excellent job in explaining some of the basics of how the research was conducted, what work needed to be done to make it work on an experimental level, the method of transferring the invention into innovation or a full product and the goal of each of these inventions. Mervin Kelley was famous for saying that to implement a change in AT&T’s network the new technology must be “better or cheaper or both.” This prevented a great deal of frivolous technologies from being implemented into the telephone network. Additionally, this was required to ensure that AT&T was always able to work towards reducing rates for subscribers as they were a “natural” monopoly.

This was a time when research was done to ensure that the network would be operational for 30 years without malfunction. This required huge investments in quality control and required that additional costs were built into the network for redundancies and protection. In fact Statistical Process Control was invented at Bell Labs to ensure proper quality.

How did all of this work? Well, there were two factors going on here. First, Bell Labs was able to hire the best and brightest to work on interesting problems. Second, the scientists had a continually evolving project that always needed more innovation. These two combined with a freedom to explore allowed the scientists to delve into basic and applied research. In some cases they did not know how or why something would work, but felt that it would improve the quality of the telephone network.

One of the goals of AT&T was to create a coast to coast network with universal service. This required the company to figure out how to address signal decay due to distances over several miles. To address this the company developed the vacuum tube repeater, which significantly increased the distance a voice call could travel. The manufacturing of a tube was extremely difficult and expensive. Bell Labs felt that there had to be a different way to create a repeater. Over the next 20 years they investigated off and on (with a break for WWII) how to make semiconductors work as a repeater. Bell Labs was capable of making this sort of investment because it had a guaranteed revenue stream and a mandate to continually improve the network. These two together allowed the Labs to do work that they otherwise would not have been able to investigate.

This is a very different model for innovation than we currently have in any organization. Universities come close, but they fall short in the fact that the professors are continually required to apply for more money and seek permission from someone to pursue their work. Bell Labs was much more relaxed about this.

This innovation method is also very different than some of the historic events in the US, such as the Manhattan Project or the Moon Landing. Those were single goals which allowed the focus of a great group of minds.There was never any intention of keeping those minds together for the next big project. Bell Labs had the ability to do this.

There are some organizations that should be able to do something like this. The National Labs are one, but there’s no direct business need so even this doesn’t exactly work. An organization like TNO in the Netherlands, which focuses more on practical matters could increase the amount of basic research they conduct in various different areas. TNO is structured differently than the National Labs in the US, because they are expected to work closely with both industry and universities. This gives each of the groups a strong business focus and could serve as a pipeline from basic research into business activities for the companies that work with TNO. However, at this point TNO does not perform these activities.

I give this book a 4.5/5. It was extremely well written, well organized and dealt with some amazing subject matters.

Impressions of a repatriated ex-pat

So, in my last blog post, I discussed the difficulties of saying good bye to my adopted country and all my friends. Today, I’m going to give my first impression of being back home and how things feel different than when I left.

I moved to a part of Austin, I’m not really familiar with, I’ve been on many of the major streets in the area, but not the specific neighborhood I’m in. The first time I noticed anything I was walking my dog during the morning rush hour, and there were so many cars, so many cars with one person driving them. These weren’t your small compact cars like I would see in Europe, most of them were trucks. This to me was really different, because for the past year and a half there were few if any trucks or jeeps around Eindhoven. In the Netherlands a driver pays taxes based on the weight of the vehicle. That and gas costs around $8/gallon as I’ve mentioned before. These two combined changes vehicle selection and pushes people to drive smaller fuel efficient vehicles. Of course there were less bikes on the road. Even though the neighborhood I’m has bike lanes on every street big enough to use them. There are few bikes. I did not see many. Most of them were on a single street and many of them were obviously being used for exercise rather than transportation.

There are significantly less grocery stores in the city. In Eindhoven, Ablert Heijn’s (Dutch version of HEB or Giant Eagles) were all over the place. They were about as common as Star Buck’s in the US. However, this was driven by the fact that customers either walk or cycle to the store. It would be extremely frustrating if the closest AH was over 3 km away which is much more likely in Austin.

Aside from these I have a strong feeling of saying “Dank je wel” (Thank you) whenever I get a receipt from someone. I kind of got it ingrained in my head, that and saying “Alstjebleft” (Please/Enjoy). It’s also strange to be at a coffee shop (cafe) and not have people looking at me for speaking English when they first sit down.

I probably will always look at the US in a different perspective than I had before. I think this is a good thing. There is a lot of waste and excess in the US culture. The Netherlands showed me that the US way isn’t the only way, is not the best way and adapting ideas from both cultures could improve a lot of things.