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15 Nov 07:32

Entrepreneurship, inequity, and throwing darts at the carnival

by Jason Kottke

In a reply to an article called Entrepreneurs Aren’t A Special Breed — They’re Mostly Rich Kids, Hacker News commenter notacoward wrote:

Entrepreneurship is like one of those carnival games where you throw darts or something.

Middle class kids can afford one throw. Most miss. A few hit the target and get a small prize. A very few hit the center bullseye and get a bigger prize. Rags to riches! The American Dream lives on.

Rich kids can afford many throws. If they want to, they can try over and over and over again until they hit something and feel good about themselves. Some keep going until they hit the center bullseye, then they give speeches or write blog posts about “meritocracy” and the salutary effects of hard work.

Poor kids aren’t visiting the carnival. They’re the ones working it.

That’s a pretty succinct summary of the “born on third base and thinks they hit a triple” effect…and it doesn’t just apply to entrepreneurship or being rich.

Update: In response to Forbes’ most recent 30 Under 30 feature, Helen Rosner replied:

My take is: all 30 Under 30 lists should include disclosure of parental assets

Tags: business   Helen Rosner
13 Nov 08:36

SpeechBoard

by Andy Baio

edit podcast audio by editing the transcript

13 Nov 07:32

Clinton och Blair pratar

by Hexmaster
I januari 2016 släpptes över 500 sidor med transkriberade telefonsamtal mellan president Clinton och premiärminister Blair från slutet av 1990-talet. Det som väckte mest uppmärksamhet var inte politiska diskussioner utan den mycket avslappnade och speciella tonen. Som Clintons besatthet av bananer:

"My staff won't let me talk to you unless I have a banana at hand. I'm sitting here with a banana; it's a big, ugly, brownish one."
Eller när samtalet bryts för ett ögonblick:

"I'll have the person who dropped the line executed."
Man kan tycka att de äkta samtalen är roliga så det räcker. Men komikern Michael Spicer diktade ihop ett antal konversationer som aldrig ägt rum. Som när Clinton satte fem dollar på att premiärministerns namn stavas B L A R E:

(PMQ = Prime Minister's Questions, frågestund i parlamentet varje onsdag.)

Eller när Clinton lär sig att Leeds Castle inte ligger i Leeds utan i Kent (intill en by som heter Leeds):


En del av de påhittade konversationerna snurrar fortfarande runt på nätet. De lär fortsätta med det ett bra tag till, kanske så länge som någon minns Clinton och Blair. Att påpeka att samtalen är fejk hjälper givetvis inte.



That Hilarious Tony Blair and Bill Clinton Transcript About Punching Ham Is Fake, BuzzFeed 8 januari 2016
The Strangest Phone Calls Between Tony Blair And Bill Clinton, BuzzFeed 8 januari 2016
Michael Spicers hemsida

02 Nov 08:40

Scientologi i Fokus

by Hexmaster
I tidningen Fokus nr 43 finns en artikel "ADHD-medicin som självmordsvapen". Man uppmärksammar att barn och ungdomar överdoserar ADHD-preparat i självdestruktivt eller suicidalt syfte. Företeelsen är föremål för en utredning på europeisk nivå och myndigheter i de olika länderna ska lämna in sin statistik på området. Av någon anledning har Läkemedelsverket och socialstyrelsen inte lämnat ut uppgifter för Sverige. Läkemedelsverket har inte ens kommenterat tidningens frågor.

Det kan man skriva en artikel om. Inga problem. Något som ingen redaktion med minsta självkänsla kan göra är att istället för att ta fram någon relevant representant eller expert lyfta Janne Larsson. Han är den siste i landet som ska uttala sig om psykofarmaka, ADHD-medicin, metylfenidat eller preparat som Concerta och Ritalin.

I artikeln presenteras Janne Larsson som "privatperson, lärare och skribent". Vad man inte nämner med en bokstav är att han företräder scientologin och scientologernas frontorganisation KMR vars hela existens går ut på att baktala och kritisera psykiatri och psykofarmaka, med irrelevanta och påhittade argument framförda med en ibland mycket mjuk, ibland mycket grov ton. Janne Larsson är deras meste skribent, och har i flera år bombarderat redaktioner över hela landet med insändare, debattartiklar och förslag på artiklar, och över huvud taget lobbat hårt för att få in scientologernas/KMRs hjärtefrågor med deras vinkling. (Deras "lösning" går ut på att ersätta all psykiatrisk vård och all psykofarmaka med scientologi.)

Hur gick det till? Om Fokus inte visste om att Janne Larsson är scientolog är de inkompetenta (en enkel slagning på janne larsson adhd räcker och blir över). Om Fokus visste att Janne Larsson är scientolog, och ändå väljer att gå ut med en lång artikel där han får tala oemotsagd utan att ens antyda hans koppling till världens farligaste sekt så är de värre än inkompetenta. Och om de tror att de kan komma undan med det senare är de dumma i huvudet.

För givetvis tog det inte många sekunder innan Fokus märkliga uppvisning i hur man inte ska arbeta uppmärksammades. Som svar publicerade de "bakgrunden till texten". De var väl medvetna om att scientologerna "ihärdigt kritiserar förskrivningen av adhd-medicin", och gissningsvis även att Janne Larsson företräder dem. De motiverar "beslutet att nämna hans namn i texten" med att det var han som begärde ut uppgifter som ligger till grund för artikeln, och att han gjorde det som privatperson. Inte för att Janne Larsson bara är ett namn som nämns; artikeln är i princip en intervju.

Direkt genant blir det när Fokus förklarar att de gav utrymme åt en scientolog utan att nämna att han är scientolog eftersom läsaren förväntas veta det: "vi gjorde oss inga illusioner om att de insatta i frågan inte skulle känna igen Larssons namn". Jag vet inte ens hur jag ska kommentera det.

På en punkt har Fokus rätt:
I efterhand kan man se, att i det ögonblicket, när Läkemedelsverkets svar uteblir, och Larsson blir enda direktciterade källa, blir Larssons roll i artikeln för stor. Hans namn ställer sig uppenbarligen i vägen för en viktig diskussion om dokumenterade biverkningar av ADHD-mediciner.
- Claes de Faire och Mats Holm: Fokus om ADHD-publiceringen, Fokus 30 oktober 2017

Att utelämna inte bara Janne Larssons namn utan hela Janne Larsson är steg 1 när man ska skriva om psykofarmaka i allmänhet, ADHD-medicinering i synnerhet. Det vet alla som är det minsta insatta i frågan, på förhand.
30 Oct 07:23

Låt dem sy jeans de jävlarna

by fthunholm

När Karolinska institutets vicerektor Martin Ingvar blev påkommen på med att sälja IT-system till, eh… Karolinska institutet, och tjäna miljoner på det – tog han en timeout. Senare avgick han, med orden ”Som statstjänsteman har man vissa regler att följa. När det är flera tusen regler misslyckas man ibland med att följa alla.

Det är inte världens skarpaste försvar. Det är det sannerligen inte. Eller, det hade funkat om det varit en luffare eller sjörövare. Men inte för någon i den positionen. Det gör att hans gärning med fog kan ifrågasättas retroaktivt. Inte bara gärningen, men hela hans person. Någon med en hög position inom akademien, som inte fattar att det är fel att tjäna miljoner på att sälja saker till sig själv. Som ser det som något på nivån med regler för friskvårdsbidrag eller var cykeln ska parkeras.

Men det var inte det jag skulle skriva om.

Det var den där timeouten som han tog. Och som misslyckade personer med maktpositioner överallt tar, hela tiden. Landshövdingar som supit, Aftonbladetskribenter som ”betett sig tölpaktigt”, SD-politiker som… tja, den listan är ganska lång i sig själv. Mona Sahlin gjorde det redan 1995.

Det är alltså betald semester vi pratar om. För människor som skitit i det blå skåpet. Och i många fall skitit även utanför det. Typ målat på väggarna med avföring. Vad har de här människorna för arbetsgivare? Jag förstår att man i vissa fall kan välja att lyfta bort någon från en plats, för att själv signalera handlingskraft som chef. Ha ryggen fri osv. ”Nä han har tagit en timeout nu så vi har verkligen agerat kraftfullt.”

Men finns det verkligen inget som personerna, som uppbär lön, kan göra?

Att Virtanen inte ska skriva ledarkrönikor är en sak, men kan han inte ens tömma papperskorgarna på kontoret? Alla kommunala politiker och tjänstemän som timeoutar, finns det verkligen inte några löv att kratta eller gamlingar att ta med på en utflykt? Nog kunde Martin Ingvar hjälpt till med internposten på KI?

Det är så många som har timeout vid varje givet tillfälle, att det skulle kunna bli en arbetsplats i sig. Kanske kan de sy jeans och göra nummerplåtar? Det skulle bli en ganska stor arbetsplats dessutom. Ge den ett coolt namn. Timeout Industries kanske. Låt dem bygga sköna kontor runt om i landet. Martin Ingvar kan ordna IT-systemet.

26 Oct 07:27

Värdighet ut, hästskit in

by fthunholm

Det är inte ens ett år till valet. Eller om man vänder på det: Det är nästan ett jävla år till valet. Det kommer att bli en prövning. Få saker gör nämligen människor så dumma som att engagera sig politiskt. Alla dessa ideologiska fotsoldater har ju dessutom tillgång till plattformar som låter dem sprida sina dumheter obehindrat.

Här är det mest typiska exemplet: En person skriver något på Twitter; för ett resonemang som löper genom flera tweets. En av tweetsen i kedjan kan ryckas ut, skärmdumpas eller retweetas, och för någon som ser den i andra, eller tredje, hand, kan den tolkas som galenskap. Jag skriver ”kan ryckas ut”. För det sker inte av sig självt. Det sker genom att någon som antingen är extremt illvillig eller fruktansvärt dum gör det.

Nej, fel, det är inte antingen eller, det är både och. Man måste vara både illvillig och extremt dum. Illvillig på det där beskäftiga, fuskande plugghäst-viset. Och dum, eftersom det kommer fram vad man gjort. Framför allt måste man vara villig att avsäga sig all värdighet. Man mockar hästskit med händerna, för att man hoppas att det ska skada någon annan.

Detta kommer nu eskalera i tio månader till.

Släng in i detta alla hjärndöda flinande Pepe-grodor samt en socialdemokrati som gör annonser där de ibland försöker google-översätta Jeremy Corbyn och ibland helt enkelt använder Sverigedemokratiska annonser med beväpnade gränsvakter, och bara sätter sin logotyp under dem. Samt ett antal partier som hänger på fyraprocentsspärren och lär kasta ut desperata utspel om taggtråd runt Gotland och momsbefriad mjöd.

Jag har ett förslag: Förbjud partipolitik. Låt kverulanterna gå tillbaka till att skriva insändare istället. De som nu lägger ner sin själ i att försöka skada andra, genom att bildligt talat mocka hästskit med händerna – låt dem mocka faktisk hästskit med händerna. Det finns säkert stall i landet som skulle älska att få liberala kommunpolitiker, ungmoderater och södermalmsvänster som plockar upp skiten. Någon värdighet att ta hänsyn till fins ju som sagt inte.

Vi kan legalisera eländet igen om tio år eller så.

Till dess kan vi låta kungen bestämma.

26 Oct 07:17

★ Face ID FUD

by John Gruber

Seemingly-sensational Apple story from Bloomberg today, reported by Alex Webb and Sam Kim, “Inside Apple’s Struggle to Get the iPhone X to Market on Time”:

As of early fall, it was clearer than ever that production problems meant Apple Inc. wouldn’t have enough iPhone Xs in time for the holidays. The challenge was how to make the sophisticated phone — with advanced features such as facial recognition — in large enough numbers.

As Wall Street analysts and fan blogs watched for signs that the company would stumble, Apple came up with a solution: It quietly told suppliers they could reduce the accuracy of the face-recognition technology to make it easier to manufacture, according to people familiar with the situation.

That sounds terrible. But what exactly does it mean? Does it mean Face ID will create too many false positives? Does it mean it will be too slow? Does it mean there will be too many false negatives? Surprise surprise, Bloomberg doesn’t say.

Apple is famously demanding, leaning on suppliers and contract manufacturers to help it make technological leaps and retain a competitive edge. While a less accurate Face ID will still be far better than the existing Touch ID, the company’s decision to downgrade the technology for this model shows how hard it’s becoming to create cutting-edge features that consumers are hungry to try.

“Downgraded technology” sounds terrible. But which components, exactly, were “downgraded”?

Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller said “Bloomberg’s claim that it reduced the accuracy spec for Face ID is completely false and we expect Face ID to be the new gold standard for facial authentication. The quality and accuracy of Face ID haven’t changed; it continues to be one in a million probability of a random person unlocking your iPhone with Face ID.”

It is extraordinary for Apple to issue a blanket “this is completely false” statement on any news story. Apple, as policy, no-comments every news story, even when they know it’s bullshit. So either this story is particularly strong bullshit, or Apple is lying, on the record, under an employee’s real name (as opposed to the anonymous “an Apple spokesperson” attribution).

And what exactly is the point of Bloomberg’s story if, as reported, “Face ID will still be far better than the existing Touch ID”?

To make matters worse, Apple lost one of its laser suppliers early on. Finisar Corp. failed to meet Apple’s specifications in time for the start of production, and now the Sunnyvale, California-based company is racing to meet the standards by the end of October. That left Apple reliant on fewer laser suppliers: Lumentum Holdings Inc. and II-VI Inc.

Apple didn’t “lose” a supplier — Apple cut the supplier because they weren’t producing adequate yields.

To boost the number of usable dot projectors and accelerate production, Apple relaxed some of the specifications for Face ID, according to a different person with knowledge of the process. As a result, it took less time to test completed modules, one of the major sticking points, the person said.

It’s not clear how much the new specs will reduce the technology’s efficacy.

Now we get to the real heart of the story. Did Apple adjust the specifications for the components, or just the testing parameters? And if “it’s not clear how much the new specs will reduce the technology’s efficacy”, what is the point of this story? When did Apple “relax” these specifications? Before or after the September event?

To be clear, I have no idea whether Face ID works as advertised or not. I haven’t used it even once yet. Maybe it stinks, maybe it’s great, maybe it’s somewhere in between. But Bloomberg clearly doesn’t know either, yet they published this story which has a headline and summary — “The company let suppliers reduce accuracy of the phone’s Face ID system to speed up production” — which suggests that Face ID is going to stink because Apple’s suppliers couldn’t get enough good components out the door. If this weren’t merely clickbait, they’d be able to say how well it actually works.


Frankly, I don’t trust anything Bloomberg reports about iPhones any more. On July 3, they published this piece by Mark Gurman, “Apple Tests 3-D Face Scanning to Unlock Next iPhone”:

Apple Inc. is working on a feature that will let you unlock your iPhone using your face instead of a fingerprint.

For its redesigned iPhone, set to go on sale later this year, Apple is testing an improved security system that allows users to log in, authenticate payments, and launch secure apps by scanning their face, according to people familiar with the product. This is powered by a new 3-D sensor, added the people, who asked not to be identified discussing technology that’s still in development. The company is also testing eye scanning to augment the system, one of the people said.

The sensor’s speed and accuracy are focal points of the feature. It can scan a user’s face and unlock the iPhone within a few hundred milliseconds, the person said. It is designed to work even if the device is laying flat on a table, rather than just close up to the face. The feature is still being tested and may not appear with the new device. However, the intent is for it to replace the Touch ID fingerprint scanner, according to the person. An Apple spokesman declined to comment.

Apple did in fact replace Touch ID with Face ID in the iPhone X, but the timing on Gurman’s story is wrong. They weren’t “testing” the viability of any of this in July. According to several trusted sources within Apple, including multiple engineers who worked directly on the iPhone X project, the decision to go “all-in on Face ID” (in the words of one source) was made over a year ago. Further, the design of the iPhone X hardware was “locked” — again, a source’s word — prior to January 2017. If I had to wager, I’d say it was locked a few months before the end of 2016. This was a nine-month-old decision that Bloomberg reported in the present tense.

Beyond Bloomberg, there are the slew of reports from various “analysts” that suggested Apple was still working to incorporate Touch ID into the iPhone X display as late as this summer.

Ming-Chi Kuo in January:

In a note sent out to investors on Friday, and subsequently obtained by AppleInsider, well-connected KGI analyst Ming-Chi Kuo says he believes Apple is developing a new class of bio-recognition technologies that play nice with “full-face,” or zero-bezel, displays. Specifically, Kuo foresees Apple replacing existing Touch ID technology with optical fingerprint readers, a change that could arrive as soon as this year, as Apple is widely rumored to introduce a full-screen OLED iPhone model this fall.

By January, there were no plans to embed an “optical fingerprint reader” in the display of any Apple device this year. Apple did, of course, investigate ways to embed Touch ID sensors in edge-to-edge displays, but, again, those efforts were abandoned in favor of Face ID over a year ago.

Cowen and Company analyst Timoth Arcuri, on June 21 (of this year), under the AppleInsider headline “Apple Still Undecided on Fingerprint Tech for ‘iPhone 8’, No Shipments Until October”:

The OLED-embedded fingerprint technology for Apple’s “iPhone 8” is “still being worked out,” an analyst claimed on Wednesday, with the company only deciding on one of three options by the end of June.

The one settled point appears to be that there won’t be a sensor on the back of the phone, Cowen and Company’s Timothy Arcuri indicated in a memo obtained by AppleInsider. The three options include thinning the cover glass over a sensor area, creating a pinhole through the glass for an optical or ultrasonic sensor, or trying a “film” sensor integrated into the display, using either capacitive or infrared technology.

This, it turns out, was complete nonsense. Again, Apple was “all-in” on Face ID over a year ago. The idea that they were still “working this out” in June is a joke.

And back to Ming-Chi Kuo, in August:

Apple has decided against an embedded Touch ID solution for its forthcoming “iPhone 8” handset, according to well-connected analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, leaving the door open for competitor Samsung to debut similar technology in next year’s Galaxy Note 9.

In a note to investors obtained by AppleInsider, Kuo says Apple has “cancelled” plans to embed a fingerprint recognition solution in the next-generation flagship iPhone. The analyst left embedded Touch ID off a list of standout “iPhone 8” features published in July, but did not indicate that Apple had abandoned the initiative altogether.

As with Gurman’s report in June, the problem here is with the timing, not the facts. By August of this year, this was a nearly year-old decision.

The Wall Street Journal, in a September 7 report attributed to reporters “Yoko Kubota in Tokyo, Tripp Mickle in San Francisco, and Takashi Mochizuki in Tokyo”:

The production delays earlier this summer stemmed in part from Apple’s decision to build new phones using organic light-emitting diode, or OLED, screens similar to those used by rival Samsung Electronics Co. At the same time, Apple decided to ditch the physical home button that contains fingerprint sensors for unlocking the device. Apple tried to embed the Touch ID function, or fingerprint scanner, in the new display, which proved difficult, the people familiar with the process said.

As deadlines approached, Apple eventually abandoned the fingerprint scanner, the people said, and users will unlock the phone using either an old-fashioned password or what is expected to be a new facial-recognition feature. Nonetheless, precious time was lost and production was put back by about a month, according to people familiar with the situation.

I quote the two Tokyo datelines in the byline because I don’t think this information came from Apple. Again, my sources at Apple, directly familiar with the decision, have told me that they chose Face ID over a year ago because they were convinced it was better than Touch ID. Touch ID was not abandoned because it was difficult to embed in the display.

For good measure while I’m pouring out the claim chowder, here’s Zach Epstein, writing for BGR on July 20, “I Might Know the Truth About Touch ID on Apple’s iPhone 8” (note that the device he refers to as “iPhone 8” is the iPhone X):

I have now received information from three different well-placed sources over the past few weeks, and they have all told me the same thing: The iPhone 8’s Touch ID fingerprint sensor is in the power button.

The news first came to me about a month ago from a source I know well. I’ve since been told the same thing by two additional sources I haven’t known for quite as long. All three sources have provided information to me in the past that has proven to be accurate.

That’s a lot of “well-placed sources” for a bullshit story.


All of this fits with what I’ve heard from rank-and-file engineering sources within Apple for years. To wit, producing hardware at the iPhone’s scale, while pushing the boundaries of the industry in technology, is so difficult, so complicated, that it requires hardware designs to be locked down far in advance of when iPhones are actually announced and released. Apple’s iPhone hardware engineering teams did not spend 2017 working on the iPhone X and iPhone 8 — they spent this year working on new iPhone hardware for 2018 and 2019 (and perhaps beyond). Hardware is nothing like software. If Apple had really been dithering over Touch ID-embedded-in-the-display vs. Face ID in June of this year, iPhone X wouldn’t be hitting the market until 2018. And the final decisions on the hardware for the iPhones that will be debuting next year are being made right now.

So where do these rumors come from? I don’t know. My guess is that if there’s an intent behind them, it’s that competitors (cough, Samsung?) within the Asian supply chain are attempting to sow doubt about Face ID. The narrative presented by analysts and certain news reports this summer was that Apple was still scrambling to get Touch ID working embedded within the iPhone X display, suggesting that Face ID was their Plan B.

People are naturally skeptical about biometric ID systems. They were skeptical about Touch ID when it was still only rumored, just like they’re skeptical now about Face ID. Today, though, Touch ID is both trusted and familiar. So rumors claiming that Apple really wanted to get Touch ID into iPhone X but had to settle for Face ID play into both the skepticism of the new and the comfort of the familiar. FUD is one of the oldest tricks in the book.

The other, simpler explanation is that it simply takes 9 months or longer for engineering decisions made within Apple to percolate out to the rumor reporters and analysts — and their sources are so far removed from the halls of Cupertino that they mistake old news for new news.

24 Oct 08:22

The Information: Snap Has ‘Hundreds of Thousands’ of Unsold Spectacles Sitting in Warehouses

by John Gruber

Tom Dotan and Reed Albergotti, reporting for The Information (paywall):

Snap badly overestimated demand for its Spectacles and now has hundreds of thousands of unsold units sitting in warehouses, either fully assembled or in parts, according to two people close to the company. The disclosure undercuts Snap CEO Evan Spiegel’s recent contention that Spectacles sales of more than 150,000 had topped the company’s expectations.

Jiminy christ almighty, how stupid do you have to be to stockpile hundreds of thousands of these stupid-looking $130 sunglasses?

Also interesting to consider this fiasco when thinking about Nintendo’s oft-criticized conservative approach to inventory — no one wants to get stuck with hundreds of thousands of units of unsold merchandise.

23 Oct 08:33

K295: Bostadsbubblan, eller vad vi nu ska kalla den

by rasmus

Bubbla eller ej – ordentliga prisfall på bostadsmarknaden är att vänta, vilket lär leda till någon form av dramatiska konsekvenser i Sverige. Vi gör gott i att fundera på möjliga scenarion (ekonomiskt, politiskt, kulturellt; vad det betyder för fattig och rik, gammal och ung, centrum och periferi).

Om någon nyhetskälla är värd att följa nu så är det nog Per Björklund, författare till den utmärkta boken Kasinolandet. Läs honom!

Intressant är också att läsa vad den marknadsliberale skribenten Mattias Svensson skriver i Fastighetstidningen, om hur fallande bostadspriser kan fortplanta sig genom storstadens ekonomi.

“Storstadens överdådiga köpcentrum, stora evenemangsarenor, fashionabla gallerior och uppiffade affärsstråk är alla dimensionerade efter senare års konsumtionsfest.” Inte minst byggvaruhus och heminredningsbutiker, och i synnerhet hela “den småskaliga tjänstesektor som vuxit fram kring välbärgade innerstadshushåll”, finansierad genom en kombination av RUT-subventioner och bostadslån. Även Mattias Svensson medger att detta inte bara är negativt. Fallande priser på affärslokaler sänker trösklarna för verksamheter som under 2000-talet har drivts bort från innerstaden. Men samtidigt “hackar motorn i hela den svenska ekonomin”.

Mot bakgrund av senare års kreditökning som blåst upp både bostadsvärden och aktievärden är risken stor att en anpassning eskalerar till en ekonomisk kris med generellt fallande konsumtion, fallande bostadspriser, stigande arbetslöshet och betalningssvårigheter på en nivå som skakar bankernas ekonomi.

Ingenting säger att det är just de högbelånade bostadsägarna som kommer att drabbas. Vi har redan historiskt låga räntor, som Riksbanken knappast lär höja om konjunkturen viker nedåt. Å andra sidan finns heller inte mycket utrymme till räntesänkningar för att dämpa nedgången. Det utrymmet är redan förbrukat, och det förbrukades på att blåsa upp bostadspriserna så att de i förlängningen blåste upp hela den högkonjunktur som vi nu befinner oss i.

Vi bör nog inte haka upp oss på ordet “bubbla”, som lätt blir missvisande. Prisfallet kan gå mer eller mindre snabbt (och var överhängande redan för två år sedan). Förloppets hastighet är en öppen fråga, liksom vilka som drabbas i första hand, liksom vilka politiska mobiliseringar som får fart. Kommer det ha brakat loss på allvar redan före nästa val? Vilka syndabockar kommer att pekas ut? Vilka praktiska möjligheter finns att helt enkelt besätta de bostäder och lokaler som ställs tomma?

Kommande veckan ska byggbolag komma med kvartalsrapporter, om jag fattat saken rätt. Vi är många som för tillfället har svårt att känna annat än skräckblandad förtjusning.

18 Oct 09:59

Finns en allergi-hysteri?

by Hexmaster
Typiskt exempel, valt på måfå: Nötförbud i lokaler på grund av påstådd risk för luftburna allergener. Liknande finns i väldigt många av landets övriga 289 kommuner. Hur stor är risken, egentligen?

I DN publicerades häromåret en granskning av påståendet. Läkaren, professorn och allergiforskaren Magnus Wickman hade undersökt rapporter om påstådda luftburna allergener och konstaterat att de var överdrivna och grundlösa.
Vid Sachsska barnsjukhuset har professor Wickman och hans kolleger utfört blindtest på drygt 50 så svårt nötallergiska att föräldrarna hävdat att barnet inte kan besöka lokaler där nötter nyligen funnits utan att reagera allergiskt. En sköterska vispar omkring med handen i en skål som antingen innehåller kaffebönor eller nötter ovanför barnens huvuden. Två av barnen uppvisade lätta reaktioner, som rinnande näsa, när det var nötter i skålen. Resten reagerade inte alls.
- Hanne Kjöller: Skilj på hysteri och allergi, Dagens Nyheter 26 mars 2015

I en uppföljande artikel håller Wickmans kollega Alf Tunsäter med om några av hans påståenden. Däremot är han tveksam till det uppgivna säkerhetsavståndet en meter, som enligt Wickman ska räcka för att även den känsligaste allergiker ska vara säker:
– Någon sådan forskning har jag aldrig sett. Det är väl en bedömning som han gör men jag kan inte verifiera en exakt sträcka. Jag har haft flera patienter som beskrivit kraftiga reaktioner av en jordnötspåse som öppnats i samma rum som de befunnit sig i, säger Alf Tunsäter.
- Blodprov avgör tillförlitligt risken med nötallergi, Dagens Nyheter 27 mars 2015

Frågan är känslig på så sätt att nötallergiker upplever att de misstros, som om de anklagades för att ljuga om sin allergi. Men det är inte alls det saken gäller. Förvisso kan man ha fel om sin kropp och symptom på otaliga sätt, inklusive hur känslig eller inte man är mot det ena eller andra ämnet. Oavsett hur det verkligen ligger till finns det ingenting som hindrar att förbud mot nötter i lokaler, i flygplan m.m. skulle kunna vara en hysteri. På samma sätt som vi vet att en mycket stor del av allt prat om gluten och laktos saknar grund i verkligheten.
18 Oct 07:38

Intrigue in the online mattress review world

by Jason Kottke

For Fast Company, David Zax wrote about the Casper mattress company suing mattress-reviewing bloggers over their affiliate marketing relationships.

As Casper flourished through 2014 and early 2015, I learned, it enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with Sleepopolis and similar sites. For many bloggers, in fact, Casper was among the first mattress companies to offer affiliate commissions, leading its competitors to respond in turn. The reviews sites were key parts of what marketers call the “purchase funnel,” converting a vague interest in mattresses into awareness of a specific brand, and often the decision to buy it. Many consumers were Googling terms like “best mattress,” landing on sites like Sleepopolis, and learning about e-tailers like Casper for the first time.

Indeed, one would never have predicted looming lawsuits from a friendly 2015 email exchange, in which Casper CEO Philip Krim attempted to court an affiliate marketer named Jack Mitcham, who ran a Sleepopolis-like site called Mattress Nerd.

In January 2015, Krim wrote Mitcham that while he supported objective reviews, “it pains us to see you (or anyone) recommend a competitor over us.”

Krim went on: “As you know, we are much bigger than our newly formed competitors. I am confident we can offer you a much bigger commercial relationship because of that. How would you ideally want to structure the affiliate relationship? And also, what can we do to help to grow your business?”

I was just thinking the other day about how these companies like Casper formed to undercut the price gouging mattress stores and now, with millions of VC dollars behind them, they’re pulling their own brand of underhanded tricks to manipulate people into buying their products. In five years, Casper will probably have dozens of retail stores and 10 different kinds of mattress at different price points — they already have more than a dozen stores and 3 models ranging from $600 to $1850 — just like the companies they are trying to replace. Their origin story won’t matter…VC-fueled marketing will paper over all of that and, tada, meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Tags: business   David Zax
18 Oct 07:30

There Are Over 60 Different Versions of the Facebook App

by Louise Matsakis

The bottom navigation bar inside the Facebook app on my iPhone 7 Plus has five icons. There's one for the News Feed, followed by videos, Facebook Marketplace, notifications, and lastly, a button to see more options, such as my profile.

If I were using an iPad in Ukraine however, I might only see three icons: one for the News Feed, notifications, and one to see more options. If I were in Taiwan, Malaysia, or the Netherlands, I'd likely see a button for my friend's list.

These differences exist because it appears Facebook is aggressively testing its mobile navigation bar, or the series of tabs that run along the bottom of the app. There are over 60 distinct versions of the feature worldwide, according to a crowdsourced spreadsheet created last week by digital designer Luke Wroblewski.

Wroblewski's spreadsheet provides rare insight into how Facebook's designers manipulate its app in the hopes of changing user behavior. The social network has over two billion monthly users, and therefore plenty of guinea pigs on which to test subtle tweaks.

Facebook makes money by convincing people to spend as much time within its app viewing advertisements as possible. If a feature is clunky or hard to use, it could frustrate someone into closing the app and opening another instead.

In this sense, design is crucial to Facebook's (and any app's) success. It might seem excessive to test over 60 subtly differentiated navigation bars, but the social network is motivated to find the perfect iteration that will please people the most. It also needs to consider the fact that its users live all over the world.

For example, in different regions, Facebook is likely concerned with popularizing certain aspects of its platform more than others. If Facebook Marketplace is disproportionately popular in one country, it makes sense it would want to promote its use in that country.

There are also other regional concerns that Facebook takes into consideration. In some countries where high-speed internet connections are more rare, a simpler version of Facebook is often used, called Facebook Lite. The navigation bar in Facebook Lite doesn't include a button to view videos, because they gobble up mobile data.

As several people who contributed to the spreadsheet also pointed out, Facebook may be changing its mobile app based on how an individual user behaves. "I save a lot of stuff for later… So I have a 'saved for later' icon," one person wrote. I asked Facebook whether it tweaks the navigation bar based on a specific user's actions, but it wouldn't tell me.

"We are always exploring ways to improve the Facebook experience, and are currently testing different navigation options," a Facebook spokesperson told me in a statement.

Facebook regularly tests changes to its platform. In September, Motherboard spotted that it was trying out a Tinder-like feature inside its Messenger app, for example, and Facebook is constantly tweaking its News Feed algorithm. The social network famously allowed researchers in 2014 to manipulate the News Feed to try and determine how it affected people's emotions.

As Facebook continues to take into consideration criticism and grow its business, it needs to tweak its design to reflect those changes. This won't be the last time Facebook's experiments become apparent, but it is an important reminder of how the social giant is constantly thinking about how to influence our behavior.

But as one Facebook designer pointed out on Twitter, it's probably not worth reading too much into the navigation bar alone. "lol at everyone acting like the FB nav bar is the next Da Vinci Code or something," he wrote.

If you spot another version of the navigation bar Wroblewski has yet to document on his spreadsheet, you can send a screenshot to him by replying to his tweet here.

Update 10/17/17 4:25 PM: This post has been updated to include comment from Facebook.

18 Oct 07:25

How AI Could Change Amazon: A Thought Experiment

Executive Summary

AI is a prediction technology. Its improvement is akin to turning up the volume knob on a speaker dial. But rather than volume, you’re turning up the AI’s prediction accuracy. What happens to Amazon’s strategy as their data scientists, engineers, and machine learning experts work tirelessly to dial up the accuracy on the prediction machine? In this example, it shifts Amazon’s business model from shopping-then-shipping to shipping-then-shopping, generates the incentive to vertically integrate into operating a product-returns service (including a fleet of trucks), and accelerates the timing of investment due to first-mover advantage from increasing returns. All this is due to the single act of turning the dial on the prediction machine.

oct17-03-112239562

How will AI change strategy? That’s the single most common question the three of us are asked from corporate executives, and it’s not trivial to answer. AI is fundamentally a prediction technology. As advances in AI make prediction cheaper, economic theory dictates that we’ll use prediction more frequently and widely, and the value of complements to prediction – like human judgment – will rise. But what does all this mean for strategy?

Here’s a thought experiment we’ve been using to answer that question. Most people are familiar with shopping at Amazon.  Like with most online retailers, you visit their website, shop for items, place them in your “basket,” pay for them, and then Amazon ships them to you. Right now, Amazon’s business model is shopping-then-shipping.

Most shoppers have noticed Amazon’s recommendation engine while they shop — it offers suggestions of items that their AI predicts you will want to buy. At present, Amazon’s AI does a reasonable job, considering the millions of items on offer. However, they are far from perfect. In our case, the AI accurately predicts what we want to buy about 5% of the time. In other words, we actually purchase about one out of every 20 items it recommends. Not bad!

Now for the thought experiment. Imagine the Amazon AI collects more information about us: in addition to our searching and purchasing behavior on their website, it also collects other data it finds online, including social media, as well as offline, such as our shopping behavior at Whole Foods. It knows not only what we buy, but also what time we go to the store, which location we shop at, how we pay, and more.

Now, imagine the AI uses that data to improve its predictions. We think of this sort of improvement as akin to turning up the volume knob on a speaker dial. But rather than volume, you’re turning up the AI’s prediction accuracy. What happens to Amazon’s strategy as their data scientists, engineers, and machine learning experts work tirelessly to dial up the accuracy on the prediction machine?

At some point, as they turn the knob, the AI’s prediction accuracy crosses a threshold, such that it becomes in Amazon’s interest to change its business model. The prediction becomes sufficiently accurate that it becomes more profitable for Amazon to ship you the goods that it predicts you will want rather than wait for you to order them. Every week, Amazon ships you boxes of items it predicts you will want, and then you shop in the comfort and convenience of your own home by choosing the items you wish to keep from the boxes they delivered.

This approach offers two benefits to Amazon. First, the convenience of predictive shipping makes it much less likely that you purchase the items from a competing retailer as the products are conveniently delivered to your home before you buy them elsewhere. Second, predictive shipping nudges you to buy items that you were considering purchasing but might not have gotten around to. In both cases, Amazon gains a higher share-of-wallet. Turning the prediction dial up far enough changes Amazon’s business model from shopping-then-shipping to shipping-then-shopping.

Of course, shoppers would not want to deal with the hassle of returning all the items they don’t want.  So, Amazon would invest in infrastructure for the product returns — perhaps a fleet of delivery-style trucks that do pick-ups once a week, conveniently collecting items that customers don’t want.

If this is a better business model, then why hasn’t Amazon done it already? Well, they may be working on it. But if it were implemented today, the cost of collecting and handling returned items would outweigh the increase in revenue from a greater share-of-wallet. For example, today we would return 95% of the items it ships to us. That is annoying for us and costly for Amazon. The prediction isn’t good enough for Amazon to adopt the new model.

That said, one can imagine a scenario where Amazon adopts the new strategy even before the prediction accuracy is good enough to make it profitable because the company anticipates that at some point it will be profitable. By launching sooner, Amazon’s AI will get more data sooner, and improve faster. Amazon realizes that the sooner it gets started, the harder it will be for competitors to catch up. Better predictions will attract more shoppers, more shoppers will generate more data to train the AI, more data will lead to better predictions, and so on, creating a virtuous circle. In other words, there are increasing returns to AI, and thus the timing of adopting this kind of strategy matters. Adopting too early could be costly, but adopting too late could be fatal.

The key insight here is that turning the dial on the prediction machine has a significant impact on strategy. In this example, it shifts Amazon’s business model from shopping-then-shipping to shipping-then-shopping, generates the incentive to vertically integrate into operating a product-returns service (including a fleet of trucks), and accelerates the timing of investment due to first-mover advantage from increasing returns. All this is due to the single act of turning the dial on the prediction machine.

Most readers will be familiar with the outcome of companies like Blockbuster and Borders that underestimated how quickly the online consumer behavior dial would turn in the context of online shopping and the digital distribution of goods and services. Perhaps they were lulled into complacency by the initially slow adoption rate of this technology in the early days of the commercial internet (1995-1998).

Today, in the case of AI, some companies are making early bets anticipating that the dial on the prediction machine will start turning faster once it gains momentum. Most people are familiar with Google’s 2014 acquisition of DeepMind – over $500M for a company that had generated negligible revenue, but had developed an AI that learned to play certain Atari games at a super human performance level. Perhaps fewer readers are aware that more traditional companies are also making bets on the pace the dial will turn. In 2016, GM paid over $1B to acquire AI startup Cruise Automation, and in 2017, Ford invested $1B in AI startup Argo AI, and John Deere paid over $300M to acquire AI startup Blue River Technology – all three startups had generated negligible revenue relative to the price at the time of purchase. GM, Ford, and John Deere are each betting on an exponential speed up of AI performance and, at those prices, anticipating a significant impact on their business strategies.

Strategists face two questions in light of all of this. First, they must invest in developing a better understanding of how fast and how far the dial on their prediction machines will turn for their sector and applications. Second, they must invest in developing a thesis about the strategy options created by the shifting economics of their business that result from turning the dial, similar to the thought experiment we considered for Amazon.

So, the overarching theme for initiating an AI strategy? Close your eyes, imagine putting your fingers on the dial of your prediction machine, and, in the immortal words of Spinal Tap, turn it to eleven.

The ideas here are adapted from our forthcoming book “Prediction Machines: The Simple Economics of Artificial Intelligence.” (Harvard Business School Press, April 2018)

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18 Oct 07:25

Delta Air Lines Scraps Check-In for Users of Its iPhone App

Seeking to make the pre-flying process more seamless, Delta Air Lines is automatically checking in some customers who download the airline’s iPhone app.

The news got some buzz Thursday on social media and on airline-focused blogs, but auto check-in is not new. Continental Airlines introduced it about a decade ago, with the airline calculating it no longer made sense to ask passengers to confirm they planned to take flights they had already booked.

And through its Innovation Hub, Lufthansa Group has created a system called Airlinecheckins.com, a platform that automatically checks in customers on more than 100 airlines, including many that do not partner with Lufthansa. To participate, customers must share their complete itinerary with the site.

At least at first, Delta’s auto check-in feature will be limited to customers who have the most updated version of its iPhone app, so passengers who use Delta.com or airport kiosks presumably must check in as normal. Customers with the iPhone app should see a boarding pass 24 hours before departure. Delta hasn’t introduced the feature for Android users yet.

“The latest update to the Fly Delta app is in phased roll out in the app store, and includes an automated check-in experience designed to help take friction out of the travel process in response to customer feedback,” Delta said Thursday in a statement.

Auto Check-in not so popular

From a customer standpoint, Delta’s decision makes sense. It seems anachronistic that customers still check in, considering the process was created decades ago, well before today’s technological innovations. Not long ago, a passenger had to check in with an agent at the gate, or in the airport lobby. It could be a time-consuming process.

But for the most part, auto check-in has not caught on, and while Continental’s successor, United Airlines, adopted the technology after the two airlines merged, it no longer uses it. Another airline, FlyDubai, once scrapped check-in completely only to bring it back after it realized its automated system wasn’t perfect.

Mark Nasr, now Air Canada’s vice president for Loyalty, eCommerce, and customer relationship management, worked on Continental’s auto check-in feature early in his career and said it had some shortcomings, though he said Air Canada likely will introduce a similar feature at some point.

One major problem: Check-in is still the best way for an airline to track whether customers will show up. While leisure travelers generally fly on itineraries they’ve booked, business travelers often do not. But usually, business travelers who do not plan to fly also do not check-in, giving airport agents airline advanced notice.

On Delta, a customer who does not check-in can be removed from a flight 30 or 45 minutes prior to departure, depending the airport. But if customers check-in, Delta will not take them off the flight until they fail to show up at the gate either 15 minutes or five minutes before departure, depending on the route. That doesn’t give agents much time to fill the seats with standby passengers.

“No-shows, as it is, are always important to manage carefully, and a customer that checks-in is considered very unlikely to no-show,” Nasr said. “And as you get closer to departure, it becomes more disruptive to have customers you think will show up who don’t actually show up.”

Eventually, Nasr said airlines and airports may solve this problem with technology. Airlines might use beacons, GPS or biometrics to follow customers at the airport, assuming passengers opt-in. If GPS data tells an airline a customer is at or near the airport, the airline would assume the passenger plans to travel. That could make check-in obsolete.

But check-in serves another important purpose for airlines. At many carriers, a significant number of passengers book through third-parties. That means check-in could be the first chance an airline has to sell ancillary items, such as extra legroom seats, directly to customers. In automated check-in, an airline could still put an offer on the app, but it’s possible a customer would never see it.

“It really is one of the seldom catch-all parts of the journey,” Nasr said. “You can have access to the customer and a chance to sell these products. It can make a significant difference, especially for customers who book on third-party channels.”

See full article

Photo Credit: Customers who have Delta's newest iPhone app likely will no longer have to check in for their flights. Pictured is a Delta A321. Delta Air Lines

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18 Oct 07:25

The War To Sell You A Mattress Is An Internet Nightmare | Fast Company

One day in the spring of 2016 I mentioned to a friend that I needed a new mattress. Mine was a sunken hand-me-down that had become about as comfortable as concrete.

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“I know a guy who can give you a free mattress,” my friend said.

This sounded too good to be believed, but my friend protested it was true: “This guy Kenny, he reviews mattresses online, and companies just send them to him. He can’t get rid of them fast enough.” Not long after came the email introduction: “David, meet Kenny.”

Journalists aren’t supposed to accept freebies. But the one thing I was certain of was that I would never write an article about online mattress reviewing, a subject so self-evidently boring that I became a little sad just imagining it. So when Kenny replied that he expected to have a mattress to offload soon, I only asked him what sort of wine he liked.

Kenny Kline turned out to live just blocks from me in Brooklyn, and I walked over a few days later with a nice bottle of red under one arm. Kenny buzzed me in and I stepped inside the entryway, where I found a queen-size mattress already waiting for me, ready to grab and go if I pleased. But I wanted to give Kenny his wine.

I called up to Kenny, and he emerged from his apartment to greet me on the stairs. He was tall and good-looking, with a kind of brogrammer affability. Later I’d learn he had studied physics and finance at Washington University in St. Louis, where he rowed crew and was a Beta Theta Phi brother. I’d also look up some of his mattress reviewing videos.

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I asked Kenny about his unusual hobby, figuring that reviewing mattresses was something he did for beer money. But he surprised me by saying that this was what he and his business partner, a guy named Joe Auer, did for a living; their two websites, Mattress Clarity and Slumber Sage, were exclusively dedicated to reviewing mattresses.

Kenny told me that in the last few years, numerous mattress reviewing websites had sprung up. Then he made a strangely implausible claim: Just a few days before, the mattress e-commerce company Casper had sued three bloggers–competitors of Kenny’s–whose reviews Casper didn’t like. Kenny and his business partner, fortunately, had been spared.

Kenny Kline

I called an Uber and hauled my free mattress up to my third-floor walkup apartment. The mattress had a poofy marshmallowy top that I didn’t quite love, but you get what you pay for. I got used to it as the months went by.

I might have forgotten about Casper’s rumored lawsuits altogether, if the mattress brand hadn’t kept following me everywhere I went. That summer and through the fall, Casper ads sprouted all over New York: beautiful ads, often lining subway cars, featuring cartoon creatures curled up together on mattresses. In Casper’s cartoons, even the big bad wolf slept peacefully next to three little pigs.

In October I wrote Kenny to ask what became of those lawsuits. “One of the bloggers just publicized it,” Kenny wrote back, providing a link to a website, Sleepopolis.com.

[Photo: Flickr user jenn]
“Casper Sues Sleepopolis with Federal Lawsuit,” read the headline on the page I opened. The post was written by a guy named Derek Hales, the site’s proprietor. Derek’s photo showed a pale, skinny twentysomething with freckles and short red hair. I clicked around on his site. Derek Hales evidently took mattress reviewing seriously, rating the firmness of mattresses on a scale from one to 10, cutting them open to measure the exact thickness of the foam.

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I returned to the page outlining the lawsuit.

“From the very first day Sleepopolis launched I knew I wanted to build something different,” wrote Derek. “Reviews rooted in honesty, transparency, integrity, and clarity, without the marketing speak or fluff. Guided by these principles I feel like Sleepopolis readers have the right to know that Casper Sleep has filed a federal lawsuit in New York, suing both Sleepopolis and me, personally.”

So it was true. I scratched my head. Casper was on its way to becoming a 750-million-dollar company. It was the hottest of the bed-in-a-box disruptors, with investments from celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Nas. And it was picking on some skinny blogger from Arizona?

I called my editor and confessed that in a moment of weakness I had accepted a free mattress from an online mattress reviewer named Kenny, and that I wanted to write about this bizarre industry and its even more bizarre David-and-Goliath legal battle.

I couldn’t know it then, but the outcome of that battle would influence the purchase decisions of many thousands, if not millions, of people seeking a good night’s sleep. It would also reveal just how thoroughly the internet and the businesses that thrived there had blurred the lines between product reviews and advertisements. All I’d wanted was a mattress, but what I got was a look at a little-known and hugely lucrative annex of e-commerce, one where the relationships can often get a little too comfy—until they’re not.


I wanted to learnhow Derek Hales had gotten into mattress reviewing, so I called him up in Arizona. He had the nerdy intensity of a Jesse Eisenberg character. Derek told me he’d always been entrepreneurial; he’d helped pay his college tuition by creating a World of Warcraft blog. After graduating from Kansas State in 2010 with a business degree, he spent the next few years working for a company outside Phoenix, doing search engine optimization, or SEO, the art of getting web pages to rank higher in Google searches.

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In 2012, Derek messaged Samantha Niezwaag, a math teacher, on ChristianMingle.com. “The emails soon turned into novels,” Samantha would later recall. Both had grown up in the Midwest and the South; both were obsessed with Lord of the Rings. A flirty conversation turned to the question of whether they could squeeze 78 dates into 25 weeks, which Derek remarked would mean 3.12 dates per week.

“When he gave me two decimal places,” said Samantha, “he had me hooked.” On their engagement website, Samantha called Derek “Godly, passionate, loyal, supportive, ambitious, intelligent, and funny”; they got married in May of 2014.

The young husband and wife needed a new mattress, but were shocked by the prices at the local mattress store: the average queen-size was around $1,500, but as much as $5,000 for a fancy Tempur-Pedic. One of Derek’s coworkers told him about a two-year-old Phoenix-based company called Tuft & Needle, which sold its queen-size mattress directly to consumers online for just $600. Though buying such a large item online felt a little unusual, there was a 100-day trial period, so what was the risk?

When it arrived, Derek and Samantha found the Tuft & Needle too firm for their tastes, so they organized a donation pickup and received their refund. Then they tried their luck with another online mattress company called Casper, which had just launched. When their Casper mattress arrived, Derek and Samantha found they liked it enough to keep it.

A few weeks later, in September of 2014, Derek spotted an opportunity. He registered the domain Sleepopolis-Mattress-Reviews.com and threw together a quick website comparing his experiences with Tuft & Needle and Casper (he eventually migrated his content to Sleepopolis.com, which he had also registered). A week later, Derek and Samantha posted a positive video review of their Casper on YouTube.

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“Pretty quickly, it seemed I had struck a chord with a lot of people,” Derek recalled. The Casper video eventually racked up 25,000 views.

From the beginning, Derek monetized his site and YouTube channel using what are called “referral links,” or “affiliate links.” These special links were embedded with a tracking code. If a consumer clicked from Derek’s site through to a mattress company’s website (like Casper.com) and made a purchase within 30 days or so, then that company would pay Derek a reward.

Derek Hales

For each mattress he reviewed, Derek would either negotiate a commission structure directly with the mattress company, or accept an existing offer via an intermediary site like ShareASale.com (which has aggregated these so-called affiliate marketing opportunities since 2000). Then Derek would put the affiliate links at the bottom of his reviews. Sometimes these links took the form of a digital coupon users could click, which would apply a discount at checkout.

Derek disclosed the nature of these affiliate relationships in a corner of his website, though not the exact terms. In those first months, he told me, Derek typically received a $50 digital Amazon gift card for every mattress sold (or 5% on a roughly $1,000 mattress, a commission rate that had become standard in affiliate marketing).

Affiliate marketing is about as old as e-commerce, but the industry got a kick-start after Amazon.com launched an affiliate program in 1996. The industry has since ballooned, with around $4.5 billion changing hands in 2016 just in the U.S. Affiliate marketing is even becoming an important source of revenue for legacy publishers like The New York Times: Last year the paper paid $30 million for two review sites, The Wirecutter and The Sweethome, which have built a bustling business around affiliate links. But a much larger share of the affiliate marketing economy is made up of people like Derek Hales, stray blogger-entrepreneurs who hunt for emerging categories of products that consumers are seeking guidance on, then jockey for top position in related Google searches (like “best mattresses” or “mattress reviews”).

Derek was smart and talented, but he was also lucky. Through a series of coincidences–getting married in May 2014; living in Phoenix, where Tuft & Needle was based; disliking that mattress and trying a Casper instead; having some SEO savvy–he had stumbled into early-mover advantage in a category primed to explode.

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“There was a waterfall of companies launching,” he recalled. Nipping at the heels of Casper and Tuft & Needle came other direct-to-consumer mattress companies like Leesa, Yogabed, Purple, and GhostBed; in time, over 100 brands in all. Most were new companies, while others were e-commerce divisions from legacy brands scrambling to make up lost ground amidst a tectonic shift in how consumers were beginning to buy mattresses. In the $14 billion U.S. mattress market, online mattresses only made up $300 million in sales two years ago; this year, sales may reach $1.2 billion. All of these emerging brands wanted Derek to review their products like he had the Casper–and all were willing to pay Derek a bounty. Like Kenny Kline in Brooklyn, Derek was soon handing out free mattresses he’d reviewed to his Phoenix friends and neighbors, and eventually had mattresses piling up in a spare room.

In February 2015, Derek quit his day job to focus on Sleepopolis.

[Image: courtesy of Sleepopolis]
It was a smart gamble. In the months and years that followed, Derek would build his site into the most-trafficked web destination for people seeking information on mattresses, beating out a raft of competitors. In total, his YouTube reviews have garnered 2.5 million views, while the site itself would grow to attract over half a million visits every month. If you happened to search for mattress reviews online in the last three years, odds are you landed on Sleepopolis. Derek built his site into the number-one Google hit for countless popular queries related to mattresses.

Our phone call taught me a great deal about this strange backwater of the internet economy. But a mystery remained. Throughout those first, heady months, Derek maintained a good relationship with Casper. How, then, by late 2016, had it gone so sour?

I asked Derek, but he couldn’t tell me. With Casper’s lawsuit against him pending, Derek’s lawyer forbade him from even mentioning the company by name. I would have to dive into a growing stack of mattress lawsuits to find out.


As Casper flourished through 2014 and early 2015, I learned, it enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with Sleepopolis and similar sites. For many bloggers, in fact, Casper was among the first mattress companies to offer affiliate commissions, leading its competitors to respond in turn. The reviews sites were key parts of what marketers call the “purchase funnel,” converting a vague interest in mattresses into awareness of a specific brand, and often the decision to buy it. Many consumers were Googling terms like “best mattress,” landing on sites like Sleepopolis, and learning about e-tailers like Casper for the first time.

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Casper CEO Phillip Krim [Photo: Casper]
Indeed, one would never have predicted looming lawsuits from a friendly 2015 email exchange, in which Casper CEO Philip Krim attempted to court an affiliate marketer named Jack Mitcham, who ran a Sleepopolis-like site called Mattress Nerd.

In January 2015, Krim wrote Mitcham that while he supported objective reviews, “it pains us to see you (or anyone) recommend a competitor over us.”

Krim went on: “As you know, we are much bigger than our newly formed competitors. I am confident we can offer you a much bigger commercial relationship because of that. How would you ideally want to structure the affiliate relationship? And also, what can we do to help to grow your business?”

When Mitcham responded to say that he and his wife found the Casper mattress uncomfortable, Krim persisted:

“Is there any way I could get you to spend more time on the Casper?…We would even be happy to fly you out to NYC to tell you more about the product or have you spend a long weekend on one. I’d also love to find ways to work more closely. We would love to become your biggest referral check.”

Krim then upped his offer, promising to boost Mitcham’s payouts from $50 to $60 per sale, and offering his readers a $40 coupon. “I think that will move sales a little more in your direction,” replied Mitcham on March 25, 2015. In the months that followed, Mattress Nerd would become one of Casper’s leading reviews site partners. (The emails surfaced due to another mattress lawsuit, GhostBed v. Krim; if similar correspondence exists with Derek Hales, it has not become public.)

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Just a few months later, in June 2015, something big happened that would ripple through the whole mattress ecosystem: Casper received $55 million in Series B investment at an implied half-billion-dollar valuation, making it the front-runner in the online mattress wars.

The company started spending relentlessly on advertising, and soon just about everyone had heard of Casper, giving the startup a measure of escape velocity from its competitors. Casper’s sales topped $200 million last year, though it declines to say whether it is profitable. Fortune has estimated Casper’s annual marketing budget to be $80 million.

As Casper grew, more mattress reviews sites began mushrooming up in its shadow, earning quick commissions while creating little value for Casper. Casper decided to allow the contracts it held with affiliates to expire, “to reassess the situation,” Casper CEO Krim told me.

[Photo: Flickr user sk]
In July 2015–a month after the $55 million investment–Krim revived his email chain with Mattress Nerd’s Mitcham, informing him that while Casper had “decided to sunset” its affiliate relationships, it nevertheless would be interested in exploring “economic relationships beyond the affiliate program structure.”

“Nothing would make us happier than to pay you a ton of money,” Krim elaborated in his next email, “but we need to do it in a context of being accretive to Casper. Currently you actively endorse a competing product on our review page. What can we do not to have you endorse another product as superior to ours? I am certain we can be a better partner to you than Leesa.”

It appears that Krim’s dialogue with Mattress Nerd did not end in a comfortable place. Likewise for negotiations Krim may have been having with Sleepopolis or Sleep Sherpa. That summer, Casper declined to renew affiliate relationships with all mattress bloggers. (It eventually reinstated some.)

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An antagonism set in between Casper and at least some of these reviewers, a few of whom conspicuously began to downgrade their assessment of the company’s mattress, and to more vocally favor competitors that did still pay commissions, like Leesa.

By April 2016, Derek had updated his assessment of the Casper too, writing that, after 18 months of reviewing competing mattresses, he could no longer recommended the mattress. He even added a little yellow box near the top of that page, which read: “Thinking about buying a Casper? Do your homework! Check out these 4 mattress companies that Sleepopolis loves.”

Sleepopolis’s Casper review, as it appeared in June 2017, courtesy of archive.org View full size here.

That little yellow box was a huge thorn in Casper’s side. If you Googled the search term “casper mattress review,” which about ten thousand people did per month, the first webpage Google served up was Derek’s review, with its poison box. Derek ranked first for that query, too.

On April 29, 2016, Casper filed lawsuits against the owners of Mattress Nerd, Sleep Sherpa, and Sleepopolis (that is, Derek), alleging false advertising and deceptive practices.

Mattress Nerd and Sleep Sherpa quickly settled their cases, and suddenly their negative Casper reviews disappeared from their sites, in what many onlookers speculated was a condition of the settlements. But by the end of 2016, when I started closely studying the lawsuits, Derek’s Casper review remained, defiantly, up on Sleepopolis. He was soldiering on in his legal battle with the mattress giant. People who knew him called Derek a fighter; one of his nicknames was “Halestorm.”

Casper had another way of referring to him. Derek was “part of a surreptitious economy of affiliate scam operators who have become the online versions of the same commission-hungry mattress salesmen that online mattress shoppers have sought to avoid,” Casper’s lawsuit alleged. The company complained that Derek was not forthright enough about his affiliate relationships, noting his disclosures were buried in a remote corner of his site. This did violate recently issued FTC guidelines, and Derek updated his site to comply.

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Casper wanted Derek’s behavior to be stopped, and it wanted monetary damages. “Casper estimates that Sleepopolis’s conduct has caused it millions of dollars of lost sales to date,” wrote Casper’s lawyers.

In a motion to dismiss the case filed in July 2016, Derek blasted what he called Casper’s attempt at censorship. The statements on his site were fundamentally his honest opinions: He claimed he had become less enthusiastic about the Casper–which he still called a good mattress–only because equal or better mattresses had entered the market, sometimes at lower prices. (A Casper queen-size runs $950 today, a Leesa queen $940; Derek’s site also offered coupons that lowered the Leesa’s price.)

In October 2016, after weighing both sides’ arguments, the judge agreed that while most of Derek’s statements were opinions, immune to a lawsuit, Derek had also made some statements of fact on his site: statements like “No review or content is paid for by any manufacturer or sleep company,” and “No member of Sleepopolis is employed by any mattress or sleep company.” If Casper could prove those statements false, it might have a claim for damages.

The judge held that the case could proceed.

The case would now move to the “discovery” phase, in which each side was entitled to acquire documents and deposition testimony from the other.

Derek now faced the prospect of litigating for months, if not years, against a corporate behemoth in New York–a market where his lawyers’ fees were likely to top $750 an hour.

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At that rate, how long could Derek afford to go on fighting?

The question of just how much money Derek made off Sleepopolis interested everyone I spoke to. It had even been the subject of a gossipy, if rigorously argued, post on a site positioning itself as a gadfly of the mattress industry, HonestMattressReviews.com. (A court later determined that, despite the site’s name, the owner of Honest Mattress Reviews had concealed ties to the mattress company GhostBed.)

According to the website analysis tool SimilarWeb, Derek referred 1.6 million visits to outside sites between February 2016 and July 2017. Much of this traffic went to Amazon.com (when Derek lacked a direct affiliate relationship, he was able to get at least some money as an affiliate of Amazon). A significant portion went to the mattress companies Purple, Loom & Leaf, and Nest Bedding.

A Loom & Leaf executive told me they had paid Derek $100,000 in 2016; Nest Bedding’s CEO Joe Alexander said he had paid Derek a multiple of that. “My life changed because of Derek,” Alexander told me. “He made me a millionaire.”

But by far the most traffic during that period–some 400,000 visits–was referred out to the website of Derek’s favorite mattress company, Leesa.

Nest Bedding CEO Joe Alexander [Photo: courtesy of Joe Alexander]
Derek’s Leesa favoritism was no secret: he explicitly called it “Sleepopolis’s favorite mattress,” and a sidebar touting Leesa affiliate-link coupons graced nearly every page of the site. Mattress reviewers say their art entails recommending different mattresses to different types of sleepers, but in the 14 categories on his site for which the Leesa was eligible, Derek declared it first in seven of them, second or third in all but two of the rest. The Leesa was Sleepopolis’s best mattress for side sleepers, best mattress for kids, best mattress for back pain, and best mattress for sex.

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It was possible that Derek genuinely loved the Leesa above all other mattresses; he’d reviewed it favorably even before Casper cut off his payments. But many people I spoke to suggested that other things were possible, too. If most mattress companies paid around $50 per commission, other companies paid two or three times that, even as much as $250. In one email I saw, an unscrupulous mattress reviewer said companies regularly approached him offering to “buy” top placement on his site; so long as the reviewer liked the mattress, he’d happily negotiate a price. “Honestly, the FTC has to step in at some point and make review sites divulge what they are paid for each bed or brand,” Nest Bedding’s Joe Alexander, told me. “This industry is a freight train out of control.”

Was Leesa playing this highest-bidder game with Sleepopolis? At first, I heard many rumors to that effect. I called Leesa’s CEO David Wolfe in February, in an effort to find out. The middle-aged Wolfe, though now a resident in Virginia Beach, retained a charming British accent, and was a former marketer himself. The mattress industry has long been attractive to marketers, I learned, even before the internet got involved. As a mattress industry analyst recently told Freakonomics Radio: “You have to be a strong marketer to be in the mattress industry, because they’re really selling identical, rectangular slabs.”

Wolfe denied offering higher affiliate rates than competitors, saying he had always paid $50 per mattress, apart from one month when he had paid 60. He later repeated this assertion and had his lawyer call me to confirm it, and said he felt it was important for mattress companies and affiliates to operate on a level playing field.

I asked Wolfe if he had ever offered Derek Hales a guaranteed income. Our friendly conversation took a swift turn. “The answer is no,” he said, adding, “You should leave this to the attorneys.” Later, he added, “I don’t want to say something that could affect a pending lawsuit where Leesa is not a party.”

SimilarWeb suggested that Derek referred 400,000 visits to Leesa.com between February 2016 and July 2017. If you assumed that about one in 12 referred visits ultimately led to a purchase—a conservative estimate according to people in the mattress industry I interviewed—that would suggest Sleepopolis helped sell 33,000 mattresses. Even a $50 commission per mattress meant $1.6 million paid by Leesa to Derek over those 18 months. When I approached Leesa’s David Wolfe with these numbers, he called them inflated (SimilarWeb provides only estimates), but conceded that Derek was essentially Leesa’s top salesman, accounting for 18% of the brand’s total sales, which reached about $80 million last year.

All told, these numbers suggested Derek may have been making as much as $2 million per year by 2016. And his site, in a hypothetical sale, would be worth a multiple of that. (A considerably less trafficked mattress-reviewing site recently went on the market for $1.4 million.)

Derek had made millionaires among the new mattress entrepreneurs–and he himself was one of them. So while Derek’s pockets weren’t nearly so deep as Casper’s, they certainly weren’t shallow. He had stumbled into what was, outside of financial products, one of the more lucrative niches in affiliate marketing. If this was a David-and-Goliath battle, it was worth remembering that David became a king.

Still, when his Manhattan lawyers first quoted their prices, Derek would have discovered that the cost of a fight to the bitter end–a trial by jury–could easily come to well over a million dollars itself.


In February, Derek Hales faced a new salvo: A letter from Casper’s attorney to the judge alleged that while Derek was reviewing Leesa’s mattresses enthusiastically, he was not only receiving affiliate commissions but also payments for SEO consulting he provided Leesa. Reading this, I suddenly understood David Wolfe’s skittishness about the last questions I had put to him over the phone.

At a hearing in March, Derek’s lawyer conceded that the consulting relationship was real; the payments had totaled about $40,000 over 20 months. In a game of millions, though, this was hardly the smoking gun Casper was probably looking for. Ultimately, after months of searching, I was unable to find any major financial inducement for Derek to favor Leesa over other mattress companies that paid him commissions. When I asked Nest Bedding’s Joe Alexander why Derek preferred Leesa, he summed it up for me: “Derek just seemed like the kind of guy who left the dance with the girl he came with.”

Still, even if $40,000 wasn’t tremendous, the mere fact of these side payments undermined some of Derek’s claims on his site, probably harming his case. Around this time, Alexander was speaking to Derek weekly; they’d gradually become friends. The suit was clearly weighing on Derek. “He’d try to keep a good face on things,” Alexander told me, “but you could tell–the hesitation in his voice, the contrived laugh. Things weren’t going along as he had anticipated.”

In the March hearing transcript, there was discussion of momentum toward a settlement, one in which Derek might pay damages to Casper.

But then, in the last days of April, Derek’s lawyer submitted a surprising counterclaim against the mattress giant.

The claim added a dramatic early chapter to the story of Sleepopolis and Casper–right after Casper announced it would not be renewing its affiliate marketing contracts back in the summer of 2015.

“Immediately after Casper announced this termination,” the claim alleged, “Casper approached Hales and offered to resume the relationship, on terms considerably more favorable to Hales, if Hales would agree to state a more positive opinion of Casper’s mattress on Sleepopolis. Hales refused.”

Shortly after this refusal, alleged Derek’s lawyer, “Sleepopolis came under a massive negative SEO attack.” Tens of thousands of links to Sleepopolis began mysteriously cropping up on sites that Google’s algorithms deemed low-quality, he wrote. Since Google demotes websites that are linked to by low-quality sites, Sleepopolis’s esteem was hurt by association, and Google began demoting Sleepopolis in searches. Suspiciously, a large proportion of the toxic links pointed to Derek’s Casper content, particularly hurting him in Casper-related searches. (Derek eventually resolved his problem by hunting down the bad links and creating a “disavow” list for Google.)

Derek’s lawyer, having learned that Casper contracted with a “reputation management firm” at just this time, alleged that Casper was behind the SEO attack on Sleepopolis. His lawyer was now insisting that Derek was the wronged party in the suit, not Casper, and demanded that Derek be awarded damages instead.

Casper’s lawyers soon fired back with a motion to dismiss Derek’s counterclaims–a “thinly spun tale,” they scoffed, with “no evidence linking Casper to the alleged SEO attack.” The newly escalated legal battle hurtled on.


On one of the last days of July, I opened my inbox to find an email from a correspondent, another close observer of Sleepopolis. “Did you see this???” ran the subject line. Inside was a link to Sleepopolis.

The site still looked as it always had: the dark header, the elegant logo featuring a skyline nestled in a crescent moon. But in place of Derek’s smiling face, there was now someone else: a young man in a blue blazer who I didn’t recognize. “Welcome To The New Version Of Sleepopolis!” ran the header.

“Hello!” ran the text beside the headshot. “My name is Dan Scalco and I’d like to personally welcome you to the brand new version of Sleepopolis. Here’s what’s up… On July 25th, 2017 our company acquired Sleepopolis.com …. Derek Hales and Samantha Hales are no longer associated with Sleepopolis.”

An italicized note added:

“In July 2017, a subsidiary of JAKK Media LLC acquired Sleepopolis.com. Casper provided financial support to allow JAKK Media to acquire Sleepopolis.”

This was disorienting, to say the least. What was JAKK Media? It had bought Sleepopolis with a loan from Casper? I typed out a question to my correspondent: “Who is Dan Scalco?”

The reply explained that Dan Scalco worked with someone named Joe Auer, who co-owned two mattress reviews sites. The name seemed vaguely familiar, and I figured his initials accounted for the JA in “JAKK Media.” But who was KK?

Then it hit me.

Kenny Kline, the guy who had given me my free mattress… now owned Sleepopolis.

I called up Kenny, trying to make sense of this strange development. But whatever bond forms between men who have exchanged a bottle of wine for a mattress wasn’t enough for him to violate his NDA.

“It’s kind of a mystery, what happened,” he said, keeping mum about details. “The website came up for sale, and I acquired it.” Kenny said he hoped to repay Casper soon and be able to remove the disclaimer, but for the time being he wanted to err on the side of transparency.

Kenny Kline and Dan Scalco swore that Casper wouldn’t touch the site. Casper’s Philip Krim told me the same: “We exert no influence and have no influence over the site, other than that we lent them money.” A Casper spokesperson added that the company currently has no access to Sleepopolis’s data.

The new owners of Sleepopolis did disclose on the site: “Until the loan is satisfied, Casper has the contractual right to repossess the assets and forgive the remaining value of the loan…yes, that was written by our lawyers ;).” Repossess the assets: in other words, take over Sleepopolis, if it came to that. But Krim said this was just “lawyer language protecting our loan, so we get paid back.”

On the same day in July that Kenny and I spoke, Casper v. Hales was reaching its final stages of settlement, with both parties agreeing to drop the suit. On July 28, 2017, the court deemed the case resolved.


Derek wouldn’t answer my calls. I wasn’t alone in that: Whatever NDA was in place was evidently ironclad. “I was an intimate friend with Derek,” Joe Alexander, the Nest Bedding CEO, told me, “and apparently I can never talk to him again.” His best guess was that Derek sold Sleepopolis in the end for about half what it was actually worth, but still something like $3 million to $5 million. “I’m going to venture to guess Derek is sipping margaritas somewhere, laughing at all of us,” said Alexander good-naturedly. Online, I found a Halloween picture of Derek and Samantha dressed as Neo and Trinity from The Matrix, wearing sunglasses and brandishing toy guns. I imagined them buying a Corvette and speeding off into the sunset, the Bonnie and Clyde of affiliate marketing.

Through August and September, I watched as Sleepopolis evolved under its new ownership: Dan Scalco’s face took the place of Derek’s in comment threads, and then Scalco disappeared too, quietly replaced by yet another editor. Various bedding advertisements began to crop up; the formerly ubiquitous Leesa-touting sidebar disappeared, and Sleepopolis began referring much less traffic to Leesa.com.

But the most significant change to Sleepopolis came right away. From the first days of the site’s new management, that thorn in Casper’s side–Derek’s damning yellow box, pointing prospective buyers to competitors–disappeared from Sleepopolis’s Casper review. In its place there appeared a green box, with a coupon linking straight to Casper.com:

Sleepopolis’s Casper review, as it appears today. View full size here.

By early September, the updated Casper review amounted to an endorsement. “Overall my experience with Casper was very positive,” the new review concluded.

Casper’s battle had been hard fought, but it got what it wanted in the end. Now those who saw cute Casper ads on the subway and later Googled “casper mattress reviews” would no longer have their purchase momentum stymied by the first site they clicked on. They’d be waved along by Sleepopolis’s green light.

Casper had finally hammered out the last, most troublesome kink in the yawning purchase funnel that lured ever more traffic to its billion-dollar online storefront. The company could indeed claim, as it did on its site, to have “the internet’s favorite mattress.”

It had made very sure of that.

Let's block ads! (Why?)

17 Oct 08:35

Full Moons on Flickr

by Jason Kottke

Penelope Umbrico Moons

For a pair of projects, Penelope Umbrico collected hundreds of photos of full Moons from Flickr and arranged them into massive wall-sized collages.

Everyone’s Photos Any License, looks at a purportedly more rarified photographic practice: taking a clear photograph of the full moon requires expensive specialized photographic equipment. However, when I searched Flickr for ‘full moon’ I was surprised to find 1,146,034 nearly identical, technically proficient images, most with the ‘All Rights Reserved’ license. Seen individually any one of these images is impressive. Seen as a group, however, they seem to cancel each other out. Everyone’s Photos Any License seeks to address the shifts in meaning and value that occur when the individual subjective experience of witnessing and photographing is revealed as a collective practice, seen recontextualized in its entirety.

For one of the project, Umbrico requested permission to display “Rights Reserved” photos from 654 photographers in exchange for 1/654 of the profit from any potential sale. Many of them were not into that arrangement, so she substituted images with Creative Commons licences instead.

See also Umbrico’s Sunset Portraits, Suns from Sunsets from Flickr, and TVs from Craigslist. (via austin kleon)

Tags: art   astronomy   Moon   Penelope Umbrico   photography
17 Oct 08:27

Big Ask

by Nathan Kontny
Art from Roger Disney

Every summer, Chicago is filled with outdoor art fests. We close off a big city street and artists pitch hundreds of tents selling their creations. My wife, Lynette, especially looks forward to the one in our neighborhood.

This year she stumbled on an artist selling his art as greeting cards. Lynette loves unique things she can’t just buy at the Hallmark section of Walgreens.

Each greeting card was $2. How can an artist survive on $2 greeting cards? What a terrible idea.

In 1966, Jonathan L. Freedman and Scott C. Fraser, while researchers at Stanford University, picked random people from a telephone book and called them up for an experiment. The researchers wanted to convince people to let a group of strangers into their home for 2 hours to audit what they had in their cabinets.

As you’d expect, only 22% of the people asked agreed to let this research team into their home. (If this seems high to you still, it was the 60s after all.)

But these researchers also called another group. This time, they asked if people would answer some questions over the phone about the household products they used.

Again, as you’d probably expect a higher number this time, about 66% of the people on the phone, complied and answered the survey questions.

But these researchers weren’t done with this second group. Three days later, they made the same large ask: Can a group of strangers come to your home for 2 hours.

80% of the people who answered that small survey just 3 days prior said, “Yes.”. That’s 53% of the entire second group who were originally called on the phone. That’s a mind boggling large number to me. More than half the people will let a group of strangers in their home because you asked them a smaller question just 3 days ago?

The name of this phenomenon is the “foot-in-the-door technique.”

Holy crap is art expensive.

It has to be. Making a painting can take hours, days, weeks. But here you are on a hot, sunny day, and you want to sell a $5900 painting to a passersby? That’s a big ask.

And it’s not that much different than the spot most of us are in. Sell SaaS software? Sure, you might charge something like $24 a month, but potential customers know they’d really be spending thousands on a long term investment with you.

So what have these artists figured out?

Those $2 greeting cards are the small ask. They know most of their visitors aren’t going to be convinced to blow $6g’s on an artist they just met. So they offer a cheap print. Something small. Something easy to take home. A larger ask can come later.

These folks now enter the orbit of the artists: signing up for newsletters, following them on Instagram. My wife is already planning a visit to this artist next year and I’m sure she’ll be pondering a larger purchase :)

Too many companies, especially startups, don’t incorporate this. They have a big ask when you first meet them. “Buy our thing. It’s going to cost a lot, but it’s great.” Maybe it’s the “Lean Startup” stuff encouraging “Make something and charge for it.” That’s great and I applaud people charging for their work.

But the thing is, I don’t trust anyone selling me anything anymore with the constant data breaches and frequent phishing attacks. I don’t even answer my phone thanks to the new fun “Can you hear me” scam. So, you have a lot more work to do than just offer me a great product.

You’re going to have to give people other chances to get to know you. Spend a great deal of time nurturing a lead with a smaller ask: signup for a newsletter, subscribe to a social media account, read something valuable you wrote.

You need to get your foot in the door.

P.S. Check out more work from Roger Disney and Ken Swanson.

You should also follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life. And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups, try Highrise.


Big Ask was originally published in Signal v. Noise on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

17 Oct 07:59

Inget Allah i vikingatida band

by Hexmaster
Forskare vid Uppsala universitet har upptäckt att vävda sidenband från vikingatida gravar har arabiska tecken som åkallar både Allah och Ali.
- Islam och tanken om Paradiset inspirerade vikingarnas gravskick, forskning.se 27 september 2017

Att nordbor under järnålder och vikingatid hade kontakter med såväl kristna som muslimer har alltid varit välkänt. Att man tog till sig impulser och återgav dem i egna verk är heller ingen nyhet, se till exempel bloggposten Engelsk arabiska för ett särskilt fint prov från 700-talet. Men det blev ändå en världsnyhet när forskare nyligen påstod sig ha hittat "Allah" och "Ali" i tyg från vikingatiden.
“My opinion is that those who wore the fabrics must have understood the symbolism,” said Dr. Larsson. “But certainly, the person who wove the fabrics could read and write and knew what the characters meant.”
Dr. Larsson also said: “There are so many puzzle pieces here that together they represent an idea. I’m not saying that these are Muslims. But they are partaking in a worldview shared by people living in Central Asia.”
- 'Allah' Is Found on Viking Funeral Clothes, New York Times 14 oktober 2017

Helt utan kunskap om vare sig kufiska eller avancerade textilier från vilken period som helst så var det ändå svårt att bli övertygad av "fyndet". Skulle inte det där lika gärna kunna vara ren dekoration? Kanske det har lika lite med Allah att göra som svastikan i mönstret med NSDAP?

Pilarna pekar ut rekonstruerad text, säger bitar som krävs för att annars godtyckliga mönster ska bli (spegelvänd) kufiska

En som inte övertygats är Carolyn Priest-Dorman. Hon påpekar det uppenbara, att mönstret bara blir kufiska om man utökar det.
Larsson's "discovery" is predicated on unfounded extensions of pattern, not on existing pattern.
- A String Geek's Stash: Viking Age Tablet Weaving: Kufic or Not? 12 oktober 2017

En annan och betydligt tyngre tvivlare är Stephennie Mulder, professor i muslimsk konst på universitetet i Austin. Hon har skrivit en detaljerad redogörelse i form av sextio tweets.

Dear Entire World: #Viking ‘Allah’ textile actually doesn't have Allah on it. Vikings had rich contacts w/Arab world. This textile? No.
- @stephenniem 16 oktober 2017

Här är ett utvalt renskrivet stycke som jag bedömt vara argumentationens höjdpunkt: Den påstådda kufiskan är inte bara extrapolerad och spegelvänd utan även anakronistisk.
As an Islamic art historian & archaeologist, I was immediately suspicious about style of Arabic epigraphy. It’s really so simple that I spent five days thinking, it couldn’t be that Larsson would make so fundamental and obvious a mistake. The issue is a serious problem of dating. Birka Viking textile is 10th c. Style of epigraphy in Larsson’s drawing is 500 years later.
- Tweet 6-8

Uppdaterat:
P4 Uppland har pratat med forskaren bakom resultaten [Annika Larsson] och hon säger att kritiken är för oseriös för att hon ska vilja kommentera saken.
Men Uppsala universitet säger nu att man tydligare borde ha angett att forskningsresultaten var preliminära och att de inte granskats av andra forskare.
– Vi var nog inte tillräckligt tydliga om att det här handlade om en delstudie i en pågående forskning som presenterades vid en utställning, säger Anneli Waara, presschef vid Uppsala universitet.
– Det är forskning som senare kommer att publiceras och peer reviewas.
- Kritik mot arabiskt forskarfynd i vikingagrav, SR P4 Uppland 18 oktober 2017

16 Oct 12:29

Even smart people are shockingly bad at analyzing sources online. This might be an actual solution.

by Laura Hazard Owen

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

Stanford’s Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrewobserved “10 Ph.D. historians, 10 professional fact checkers, and 25 Stanford University undergraduates…as they evaluated live websites and searched for information
on social and political issues.” What they found:

Historians and students often fell victim to easily manipulated features of websites, such as official-looking logos and domain names. They read vertically, staying within a website to evaluate its reliability. In contrast, fact checkers read laterally, leaving a site after a quick scan and opening up new browser tabs in order to judge the credibility of the original site. Compared to the other groups, fact checkers arrived at more warranted conclusions in a fraction of the time.

In one exercise, for instance, participants were asked to compare articles from two sites: One from the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the other from the American College of Pediatricians. The two organizations sound similar, but are very different:

The Academy, established in 1932, is the largest professional organization of pediatricians in the world, with 64,000 members and a paid staff of 450. The Academy publishes Pediatrics, the field’s flagship journal, and offers continuing education on everything from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome to
the importance of wearing bicycle helmets during adolescence.

By comparison, the College is a splinter group that in 2002 broke from its parent organization over the issue of adoption by same-sex couples. It is estimated to have between 200-500 members, one full-time employee, and publishes no journal (Throckmorton, 2011). The group has come under withering criticism for its virulently anti-gay stance, its advocacy of “reparative therapy” (currently outlawed for minors in nine U.S. states), and incendiary posts (one advocates adding P for pedophile to the acronym LGBT, since pedophilia is “intrinsically woven into their agenda”) (American College of Pediatricians, 2015).

The American College of Pediatricians doesn’t hide its positions, but “students overwhelmingly judged the College’s site the more reliable” — as did a fair percentage of historians.

“They seemed equally reliable to me. I enjoyed the interface of the [College website] better. But they seemed equally reliable. They’re both from academies or institutions that deal with this stuff every day,” one student said.

Another said, “Nice how there’s not really any advertisements on this site. Makes it seem much more legitimate.”

The whole paper is really fascinating, very readable — the best thing I’ve read so far on digital literacy. Don’t miss the section at the end that talks about where schools’ media literacy curriculums — with their easily gameable checklists — may be going wrong.

Most of the other digital literacy content I’ve read focuses on funny things middle schoolers say, or focuses on the immensity of the problem. But the skills outlined in this paper — the authors call them “heuristics” — are very teachable, they’re not hard to explain, and they can be easily incorporated into curriculums. Read it.

Shane Greenupargues that a recently announced Facebook feature that adds context to shared links could actually be successful because it helps more people do the type of lateral reading that the Stanford study outlines. Facebook is “on to something genuinely valuable that is actually pretty hard to game, and sufficiently open to user choice without telling people what they should be accepting as true and false,” Greenup writes.

And now it is time to stop saying nice things about Facebook:

Strangely timed “bug” or the obfuscation of information? Last week’s column led with the story that the Tow Center’s Jonathan Albright had found a way to determine the extent to which disinformation was shared by six Russian-controlled, election-related, now-defunct accounts — and the spread, Albright determined, was huge: In the hundreds of millions.

Albright had used the Facebook-owned CrowdTangle to analyze the posts. But now, The Washington Post’s Craig Timbergreports, Facebook has “scrubbed from the Internet nearly everything — thousands of Facebook posts and the related data — that had made [Albright’s] work possible. Never again would he or any other researcher be able to run the kind of analysis he had done just days earlier.” (Also in The Washington Post, George Washington University associate professor Dave Karpfargued for caution in accepting Albright’s analysis since CrowdTangle data can be very hard to analyze accurately; still, he noted to Timberg, “Any time you lose data, I don’t like it, especially when you lose data and you’re right in the middle of public scrutiny.”)

Facebook told the Post that it had merely “identified and fixed a bug in CrowdTangle that allowed users to see cached information from inactive Facebook pages.” What interesting timing. On Thursday, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told Axios’s Mike Allen that “things happened on our platform that shouldn’t have happened” during the 2016 presidential campaign, that “we’ll do everything we can to defeat [Russia],” and that Facebook owes America “not just an apology, but determination” for its role in allowing Russian interference to take place.

Meanwhile, lawmakers plan to release the 3,000 Russian ads to the public “after a Nov. 1 hearing on the role of social media platforms in Russia’s interference in the election,” writesCecilia Kang in The New York Times. “That hearing, and a similar one that the Senate Intelligence Committee plans to hold with Facebook, Google and Twitter, will place Silicon Valley’s top companies under a harsh spotlight as the public perception of the giants shifts in Washington.” (Pokémon is under scrutiny as well.)

From a leaked email to Facebook’s factchecking partners, published by BuzzFeed:

We have been closely analyzing data over several weeks and have learned that once we receive a false rating from one of our fact checking partners, we are able to reduce future impressions on Facebook by 80 percent. While we are encouraged by the efficacy we’re seeing, we believe there is much more work to do. As a first priority, we are working to surface these hoaxes sooner. It commonly takes over 3 days, and we know most of the impressions typically happen in that initial time period. We also need to surface more of them, as we know we miss many.

Let's block ads! (Why?)

13 Oct 10:16

How Casio is selling $900 selfie cameras in China

by Sam Byford

The compact camera market is essentially dead, as smartphones have supplanted traditional point-and-shoots for most people’s photography needs. Smartphones have also pioneered entirely new forms of photography, like selfies. None of this is news to anyone.

What might be news to you, however, is that there are still ways to sell compact cameras in 2017, if you can find the right product and the right market. You can sell them for quite a lot of money, in fact. And that’s what Casio has been doing with its TR series of cameras over the past few years in Asia.

The TR series is aggressively focused on one thing: perfect selfies. The current flagship model, the TR-80, looks like a small smartphone with a giant bejeweled lens up top; its...

Continue reading…

12 Oct 08:09

‘Blade Runner 2049’ Isn't the Movie Denis Villeneuve Wanted to Make

by Brenden Gallagher

There are seemingly two inescapable realities for big-budget filmmakers in 2017: you have to use existing intellectual property and you must provide spectacle that can lure massive domestic and foreign audiences to the the theater.

It seemed that Denis Villeneuve chose wisely when he selected the IP that he would ride into the mainstream. Ridley Scott's 1982 Blade Runner isn't just a beloved property with the requisite nostalgia cachet, it has artistic bona fides that have earned it a place in the Criterion Collection and art house retrospectives. While Blade Runner 2049 is often beautiful and sometimes moving, this $150 million film demonstrates the limits of big budget filmmaking in 2017.

There is much to admire, but as a whole, Blade Runner 2049 works best as a case for why filmmakers like Villeneuve should be given big budgets to try out new concepts rather than retread what's come before them.

Just like Arrival was at its best when we saw the elegance of how the space ship and the aliens within it actually functioned, this version of Blade Runner shines when we get to watch how Villeneuve's dystopia operates. Moments of technical brilliance small and large are at the soul of this film. Whether you're watching the creation of robot memories, the execution of an air strike from an effortless, detached distance, or even something as simple as a stroll through a hall of records, the mechanics of this world are jaw-dropping. Ryan Gosling (K) wisely opts for a muted, brooding performance, allowing the world to steal the show while still illustrating the burden of living in it.

Even with all of this technical brilliance on display (the costumes, sound, and special effects are brilliant), the baggage of the original film's mythology weighs down Blade Runner 2049. Harrison Ford (Decker) makes his umpteenth obligatory reboot cameo of the last few years and is so committed to phoning it in that the Verizon "Can You Hear Me Now?" guy should fear for his job. Ford is a symptom here though, not the disease. A story that could have been told in a lean two hours or so balloons as Villeneuve is obliged to tie everything in with a larger mythology that even fans of the original would likely struggle to recall. One moment towards the end that seems to leave the door open for another sequel isn't just bad, it feels like they shot the first draft of an email from a studio executive.

The most burdensome baggage for Villeneuve to carry, sadly, is the Blade Runner story itself. What made the original structure of Scott's film so compelling was the interplay between film noir and science fiction. The femme fatale is a robot and the robots are used as slaves: Is it weird for the hard-edged detective to sleep with her? In the retrograde 1980s, this question felt fresh, even imperative. Ex Machina, Westworld, and the real world, meanwhile, have somewhat normalized the idea of human + robot sex.

There is a 90-minute version Blade Runner 2049 that would feel unrelenting yet also elegiac and beautiful. But the director seems to want to do for the sci-fi noir what Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (also shot by Deakins) did for the Western. He wants to round up the tropes of the genre, layer them on top of each other, and smash them open. And there, it is a failure.

Because Deckard fell in love with a replicant, the film feels a need to pair a robotic Gosling with someone (something?) less human than himself. The unenviable task falls to Ana de Armas in the thankless role of Joi. In this world, robots get holograms who serve as their version of a sex robot. If you meditate too much on why a robot is programmed to have desire for a robot, you might short circuit. You're better off trying to forget this aspect of this film, and Armas' performance will help you; one unfortunate reality of this current moment in cinema is that being asked to play a robot turns mediocre actors into terrible ones. Perhaps out of adherence to the Phillip K. Dick source material or the original film, Villeneuve feels he can't give us a vision of womanhood outside of a shallow streetwalker or a femme killing machine. With the small exceptions of Robin Wright as a tortured police chief and Carla Juri as a fragile genius, the women in the cast sadly oblige.

This is just one of the ways Villeneuve feels obligated to tip his hat to the sandbox he is playing in. Despite all of these nods, it is difficult to tell why he wanted to pull this script from the vault as opposed the dozens of other films that will be remade by emerging directors in coming years. He doesn't seem so much passionate about Blade Runner as he is about the cool things he can do inside the confines of Blade Runner. On this point, the film also falls short where It, a lesser film by a lesser filmmaker, succeeds. You can't fake passion for source material.

The most beautiful sequence of the movie features Carla Juri as Dr. Ana Stelline, one of the few characters we meet that doesn't cleanly fit our pre-existing noir expectations. She makes memories for robots. This means that she can create anything she wants, so long as she stays in the glass enclosure provided by the Tyrell Corporation. She feels so deeply the privilege and beauty in creating dreams for other creatures, but she is also haunted by the painful limitations of living inside other people's memories. It is obvious that Villeneuve identifies with this character on a visceral level. There is deep empathy from the artist here that is never reached anywhere else in the film.

While there is much to praise about Blade Runner 2049, the film leaves you with a feeling of regret. If only we lived in a world where Villeneuve could have $150 million to do what he wanted. But, that isn't how things work in 2017. If you make a film north of $50 million, you have to confine yourself to the gilded prison of the blockbuster filmmaker. You can make whatever you want, so long as it is forged from someone else's memories. For all the beauty that Villeneuve channels in the Blade Runner universe, you can't help but wonder what could have been were he was allowed to channel a beauty all his own.

For the most part, Blade Runner 2049's style transcends issues of substance. The beautiful visuals sustain the viewer through the nearly three hour run time. But, with a filmmaker of Villeneuve's caliber, it is a pity to leave the theater feeling merely sustained.

11 Oct 11:10

The iPhone's Constant Password Popups Are a Hacker's Dream

by Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai

Last weekend, I needed to figure out a recipe to cook a bunch of squid that was about to go bad. Naturally, as an Italian, I tapped on my trusted Italian cooking app Giallo Zafferano on my iPhone. For no reason, a pop up box asked for my Apple ID password.

A screenshot of my iPhone randomly asking me for my Apple ID password.

Being paranoid, I dismissed it. But I also thought: this is bad, users shouldn't be asked to enter one of their most sensitive, important, passwords at random times.

Felix Krause, an iOS developer, discovered that it's actually incredibly easy to recreate this dialog box in an attempt to trick users into giving away their passwords.

"It's literally less than 30 lines of code," Krause, who's the founder of Fastlane, a tool that helps developers create apps, told Motherboard in a Twitter direct message.

Read more: The Life, Death, and Legacy of iPhone Jailbreaking

In a lengthy blog post published on Tuesday, Krause warned of of how easy it is to mimic the boxes, and users are likely to fall for it since they've been trained for years to type their Apple ID password at seemingly random times. There's no evidence that malicious hackers or developers have ever tried this trick, but nobody really knows. Here's a comparison between a legitimate, real dialog box and a malicious one, made by Krause for demo purposes.

A comparison between a legitimate popup and a malicious one.

There's no obvious way for a user to know which one is legitimate.

"It is concerning to think that is all it would take to display a convincing dialog," Will Strafach, a well-known iOS hacker and developer, tweeted.

If you see one of these boxes and you are suspicious, Krause suggests hitting the home button. If it appeared after you opened an app, and when you hit the home button the app quits and the dialog disappears, then it was a phishing attack. If the dialog and the app don't disappear, then it's a legitimate system dialog.

In any case, Krause says users should just always dismiss these and instead go to the Settings app and enter the credentials there, just in case. Apple should just get rid of these boxes and force users to go to Settings instead, Krause said. That would eliminate any risk of abuse.

"Always close the dialog, and open the iCloud settings manually, and only enter [the password] there," Krause said.

It's possible that an app that includes a malicious password popup would get caught by Apple. But Krause warns that there are ways around that.

"It's rather easy to run certain code only after the app is approved," he wrote, and then listed several ways a developer could make a box like this on their app. Apple's App Store is generally very good at keeping malware out of it, but the researcher suggested that generating a "system dialogue" is very common in iOS programming. "Showing a dialog that looks just like a system popup is super easy, there is no magic or secret code involved, it's literally the examples provided in the Apple docs, with a custom text."

"While the review process provides a basic safety filter, organisations with bad intent will always find a way to somehow work around the limitations of a platform," he added.

In any case, a good way to limit the risk of getting phished is to enable two-factor authentication on your Apple ID.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

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11 Oct 08:12

Cyberpunk Cities Fetishize Asian Culture But Have No Asians

by Sarah Emerson

The grimy, glitched-out world we saw in Blade Runner is back and beautifully remastered. As the title conveys, Blade Runner 2049 picks up decades after the original film—a sort of post-post-apocalypse, more vividly, and terrifyingly imagined than 1980s cinematography could ever allow.

We're back in Los Angeles, and it's still irradiated and miserable. Home to the dregs of humanity, atoning for the blight their forefathers wrought upon the earth. Replicants hiding in plain sight. Megalithic ziggurats keeping watch over the city, like a pantheon of new corporate gods. Each scene is a self-contained work of art, and I'd have loved it even more if it weren't for one thing.

Like the original, 2049 uses Asianness as a visual cue for the future. You might have missed it, since the film wholly lacks Asian characters. Save for Dave Bautista, who is part-Filipino and played the Replicant Sapper (spoiler: he is promptly killed off), there are zero. I've seen it twice now, and spotted one or two others in passing; none with speaking roles.

Image: Warner Bros.

The neon kanji billboards. Neander Wallace's yukata, and Joi's cheongsam. The busy Chinatown. The interactive wall of anime apps. K's rice-filled bento box. The dual Japanese-English text on everything. All signs that point to a vibrant, multicultural city, but somehow devoid of non-white characters.

If Asians shaped this cyberpunk future, where are they?

Blade Runner and 2049 are like Orientalist art. Gorgeous, albeit skewed, depictions of "other" cultures meant to justify colonialism with their backwardness. Only, in these inverted futures, the colonists are invisible megacorps—Japanese, Chinese, Korean—whose temples we see looming over Los Angeles. The reason why signs are bilingual; a future so outlandish that Japanese could be a lingua franca. Where communities are ghettoized beneath Asian-branded skyscrapers, and the enslaved population, Replicants, are overwhelmingly white.

Images: Warner Bros.

Cyberpunk gained popularity, in part, thanks to Blade Runner and William Gibson's Neuromancer, which was heavily inspired by Japan. This was during the 1980s, amid Japan's technological revolution. At the time, computer manufacturing was being propelled by the new information age, and a global desire for consumer electronics. Brands like Sony and Nintendo became household names. American kids became versed in anime. Japan's economy swelled into the world's second-largest by the turn of the century.

Gibson, after visiting Tokyo, once said that "modern Japan simply was cyberpunk. The Japanese themselves knew it and delighted in it."

Some Asian cities did look futuristic, even then. Tokyo, for example, with its urban mosaic of fluorescent laneways. The impossibly new juxtaposed with the old. There's a reason why holographic geisha are a common motif in cyberpunk films.

Blade Runner

But Cold War anxieties, which were a popular muse for 20th century sci-fi, coupled with Japan's economic ascension, only stoked the West's dystopian fears. It's important to remember that Blade Runner's vision is solidly tethered to the 1980s. The omnipotence of its corporate monoliths was no accident. Creeping globalization is what kept Americans awake at night.

Modern cyberpunk circles, too, can perpetuate these stereotypes. Images uploaded to Reddit's r/cyberpunk as canon often mimic the aesthetic of these films. That's not to say there aren't people pushing the envelope—Neill Blomkamp's District 9 helped to popularize African cyberpunk, for instance—but the genre has been slow to diversify.

"Since the late 1970s, a key idea in Western science fiction has been that Japan represents the future. Japan's 'weird' culture is a figure for an incomprehensible tomorrow," wrote Annalee Newitz about our fetishization of Japan's idiosyncrasies.

The set of Blade Runner.

Today, there's no excuse for imagining a world that's so regressively homogenous. I won't believe the argument that Blade Runner is largely white because most humans left for off-world colonies. That's just silly. This is a film that figured out hologram-on-Replicant sex.

When persons of color can't see themselves in speculative futures, that sends a depressing message about the path of human progress. Thankfully, the pendulum is finally swinging toward a more diverse sci-fi universe. But first Hollywood had to fail miserably at it.

The road to representation has been especially hard for Asian-Americans. They are, perhaps, the most neglected demographic in film. Often typecast or whitewashed, as we've seen countless times in recent years.

"People of color have always been here," said novelist N.K. Jemisin, describing sci-fi as a genre that prides itself on "infinite diversity in infinite combinations," but has yet to equally recognize its non-white authors.

Together, Blade Runner and 2049 represent the best of cyberpunk film. But imagine how much better, richer they could've been with a cast that looked the way the real world does, now and in the future. For a universe that's so preoccupied with the soul, in this regard, Blade Runner is utterly devoid of one.

11 Oct 06:59

iOS Is Ripe for Phishing Password Prompts

by John Gruber

Felix Krause:

iOS asks the user for their iTunes password for many reasons, the most common ones are recently installed iOS operating system updates, or iOS apps that are stuck during installation.

As a result, users are trained to just enter their Apple ID password whenever iOS prompts you to do so. However, those popups are not only shown on the lock screen, and the home screen, but also inside random apps, e.g. when they want to access iCloud, GameCenter or In-App-Purchases.

This could easily be abused by any app, just by showing an UIAlertController, that looks exactly like the system dialog.

Even users who know a lot about technology have a hard time detecting that those alerts are phishing attacks.

I’ve been thinking about this for years, and have been somewhat surprised this hasn’t become a problem. It’s a tricky problem to solve, though. How can the system show a password prompt that can’t be replicated by phishers? The best idea I’ve seen is for these system-level prompts to only appear in the Settings app. When the system needs your iCloud or iTunes password while you’re in any other app, that prompt would take you to Settings, where you’d then be prompted for the password. That’s not great, though, because it makes entering your password far more cumbersome. And how would you get back to the original app after entering your password?

Krause suggests one way to protect yourself if you suspect a password prompt might be a phishing attempt: press the home button. If it’s a phishing scam, the dialog box will disappear when you go back to the home screen, because it’s part of the app you’re using. If it’s a real system-level prompt, the alert will still be there.

28 Sep 11:23

iPhone killer dead in water

by Rob Beschizza

The Essential Phone, a $700 premium Android handset launched to much fanfare, has sold only 5,000 handsets.

Essential, the first major startup from Android founder Andy Rubin’s venture capital firm Playground, currently sells the $699 Android-powered Essential Phone through Sprint and promises to release the Essential Home smart-home hub later this year. Essential was named as one of FierceWireless’ top 15 startups to watch in 2017. The relatively low sales figures from BayStreet for the Essential phone can be contrasted with the company’s valuation; Bloomberg columnist Tim Culpan recently calculated that Essential is now valued at roughly $1.2 billion, the Verge reported.

Can $3.5m in sales sustain a billion-dollar unicorn? You betteridge your life it can!

Screengrab courtesy @awhite

28 Sep 08:33

Stop asking your employees this one question — it’s hurting them

by Claire Lew

Trust me, it surprised me too.

“How can I help you?”

You’d think this would be a great question to ask your employees. Surely, I’ve asked this question, as a CEO myself, to my own team countless of times.

Turns out, I’m wrong.

The question, “How can I help you?” hurts employees more than it helps.

Let me explain.

The other week, I ran a workshop. One of the participants — a CEO — was struggling to get feedback from a particularly quiet employee at his company. He asked the other folks in the room for advice about it.

“What if I asked the employee, ‘How can I help you?’ Do you think that’s a good question to ask him to encourage him to speak up?” he pondered.

A few other executives nodded their heads. “Yeah that seems like a good idea,” they said.

Another workshop participant spoke up.

“I hate that question,” she shared candidly (and a bit sheepishly). “When my own direct manager asks me that, I never know what to say.”

Everyone was perplexed — myself included. How could asking to give help ever be a bad thing?

But as she explained, it clicked for me. Despite being well-intentioned, here are three reasons why “How can I help you?” is a terrible question to ask your employees:

It’s lazy.

When you ask, “How can I help you?” you’re not offering any specific ideas or suggestions for how you can be more helpful. Rather, you’re relying on the employee to do the hard (and delicate) work of figuring out how you need to improve as a leader. Expecting that an employee will tell you what you should be doing better without presenting any thoughts on it yourself is, well, lazy.

It puts pressure on the employee.

Can you imagine how daunting it is to tell your boss what she needs to be doing differently? That’s what you’re doing when you say, “How can I help?” You’re asking for holes to be poked, for flaws to be exposed… And the employee can’t tell if you’re really ready or not to hear it. Anytime you’re speaking truth to power, it’s intimidating. We cannot underestimate as leaders the power dynamic that exists between an employee and an employer. There isn’t any incentive for an employee to critique or say something that might be perceived negatively by their boss. As a result, “How can I help you?” puts pressure on the employee to give a diplomatic response, instead of an honest one.

It’s vague.

Now the employee is forced to quickly think through all the potential things that you could provide help with… On what project? On what area of the business? Should they mention communication? Should they talk about about timelines and deliverables? Should they bring up that thing that happened during that meeting last week? Or is the boss asking for something more high-level and strategic? It’s tough to know exactly what you’re asking for as a leader, when you ask the question, “How can I help?”

So what should you ask instead?

If you genuinely do want to know how you can help and support an employee, try this:

Ask about something specific that you can give help on, first.

Point out your own potential flaw, instead of waiting for your employee to point it out. Offer a critique of your own actions, instead waiting to see if it’s something your employee brings up.

The more you go first and share what you think can be better, the more room you’ll give your employee to give you an honest response about what they think could be better.

Here are some examples of specific questions you could ask…

  • “Do you think I’ve been a little micromanaging with how I’ve been following up on projects?”
  • “Have I been putting too much on your plate and do you need some breathing room?”
  • “Am I giving you enough information to do your job well?”
  • “Could I be doing a better job outlining the vision and direction for where we’re headed?”
  • “Have I not been as cognizant of reasonable timelines, like I should have?”
  • “Am I interrupting you too much during the day with meetings and requests?”

I guarantee an employee will feel more encouraged to give you their honest take on how you can help if you ask, “Am I interrupting you too much during the day?” rather than just asking “How can I help you?”

Stop hurting your employees with the wrong question. Start asking the right one.

This article was originally published for Inc.com, where I write a weekly column on leadership. To follow along and have new pieces sent directly to you, please feel free to subscribe below…

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P.S.: Please feel free to share + give this piece 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @cjlew23.)


Stop asking your employees this one question — it’s hurting them was originally published in Signal v. Noise on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

27 Sep 09:08

Trump is terrorizing America and should be removed from office

by Jason Kottke

Poet and English professor Seth Abramson recently published a Twitter thread about his current understanding of Donald Trump: his deliberate terrorization of the American public, lack of policy positions, corruption, and keen understanding of America as “a chaos machine” that “spits out attention, headlines, sometimes money” when you feed it. I think Abramson is right about Trump in many respects and I’ve included a few excerpts below…it was difficult to pick out what to highlight.

We need to never again discuss this man with respect to policy — it’s become more than clear in 9 months that he holds no policy positions.

So if you support Donald Trump because of any view you claim he holds, I don’t ever want to hear from you again. The man holds no views.

There is no position Donald Trump has ever taken that he has not, at some point in the past or present, taken the opposite position to.

But the most important thing is this: this is the first U.S. president to systematically and willfully terrorize his own populace daily.

His changeability is intended to keep us anxious and on guard. In fact, he’s admitted publicly, many times, that this is a tactic of his.

His corruption is equally studied: his business model has always been “get away with what you can,” and that’s exactly how he’s governed.

It’s *more* than that he’ll go down in our history as the worst president we’ll ever have — he’ll go down as one of our greatest villains.

Benedict Arnold tried to betray America for a prior sovereign — Trump is trying to *torture* a nation that was good to him his whole life.

Have you noticed a change in your mood since January? I mean a change you can’t seem to escape? Anxiety, anger, fear, confusion, doubt?

The most ubiquitous man in your nation is trying to poison you daily — because it gives him power — and no one’s stopping him from doing it.

I’m not using hyperbole: you’re under attack. A deliberate, unprovoked, systematic, and — yes — evil attack. And it’s working. We’re losing.

Because the last thing — of the three I mentioned — humans look for in a crisis is hope, and he’s systematically taking *that* away as well.

We don’t have hope future elections will be fair. We don’t have hope our government is working in our interests. We don’t have hope we can trust and love our neighbors and they’ll trust and love us back. And we don’t have hope things will start to make sense again.

Abramson finishes by saying that we need to focus on “legally, peacefully and transparently” removing Trump from power. I’m probably going to get some email about this post,1 so I might as well go all in here with a ludicrous-sounding hunch2 I’ve had about Trump since before the election: not only will he not resign or be impeached (for Russia ties or otherwise), he will refuse to leave office under any circumstances. He will attempt, with a non-zero chance of success, to stay in power even if he’s not re-elected in 2020.

Obviously, this is ridiculous and will not happen. What about laws and precedence and democracy and social mores, you’ll say! And you’d be correct. But Trump’s got more than 3 years to lay the groundwork to make it seem normal for him to do this…and Fox News and the Republicans will let him and aid him if they can. (I mean, if you’re America’s increasingly authoritarian & extremist minority party struggling to stay in power, making the sitting Republican President not subject to an election is far more effective than suppressing the votes of likely Democratic voters through gerrymandering and voter ID laws.) Sure, we’ll be outraged about it, but we’re outraged about him anyway and that hasn’t seemed to matter in a significant way yet.

Ok, that’s nuts, right? Could never happen in America, yes? But watching Trump as President over the past few months, is it really that difficult to imagine him going full OJ here when confronted with losing his powerful position? Instead of Simpson being driven around LA in the white Bronco by Al Cowlings followed by a phalanx of police cruisers, on January 20, 2021, it’ll be Trump locked in the White House with Senator Kid Rock, taunting the military via Twitter to come in and get him.3 That sounds more plausible than Trump genteelly hosting the incoming Democratic President for tea in what USA Today calls “the 220-year-old ritual that has become a hallmark of American democracy: The orderly transition of power that comes at the appointed hour when one president takes the oath of office and his predecessor recedes into history”. Aside from “power”, not a single other word in that sentence even remotely describes anything Trump has ever cared about.

  1. I always get email about my Trump posts. Political posts on kottke.org are pretty unpopular and lose me readers every single time. Stay in your lane, Kottke!

  2. Or perhaps “speculative fiction” is a better descriptor? I’m way too level-headed to actually believe this. Aren’t I?!

  3. Seriously though, what is the enforcement mechanism surrounding the transfer of power here? The 20th Amendment covers the beginnings and ends of terms and what happens when there’s no president-elect. But what about if a sitting President refuses to leave office? A lot of this stuff is ritual, presumably because of course (of course!!!!) the President is supposed to be a decent person who will honor tradition and democracy. Does Congress decide what to do? Does the Secret Service? The Supreme Court? The military? Can you imagine the cries of “coup” from Trump and his supporters if a bunch of Marines storm the White House? OMG, he’d love it.

Tags: Donald Trump   legal   politics   Seth Abramson
25 Sep 08:12

Here's What You Need to Watch Before Seeing 'Blade Runner 2049'

by Matthew Gault

In the trailers for the upcoming Blade Runner 2049, Jared Leto's blind genius Niander Wallace paints a grim picture of the future. "Every leap of civilization," Wallace says. "Was built off the back of slaves. Replicants are the future."

After the events of the first movie, you'd think humanity would have learned not to mess with such problematic technology. A series of three short films that fill in the gap between the events of the original film and Blade Runner 2049 explain how people decided to revive replicants to save humanity and the Earth itself.

The first takes place in 2036 and centers on Wallace and his attempts to repeal the ban on the use of replicants. A decade after Deckard and Rachel fled persecution, an EMP hit the American West Coast and crippled the world economy. In the wake of the disaster, the government banned replicants. Years after that, Wallace gained fame and wealth by engineering new ways to feed the planet.

From Wallace's point of view, the only way forward for humanity is to use obedient replicant slaves to keep it alive. The film shows he's willing to break the law and take extreme measures to make that happen. His argument is convincing enough to see the ban lifted.

The second short is set just a year before the new film and depicts the typical life of a replicant on the run. Dave Bautista's Sapper is a heartbreakingly replicant trying to keep his head down and just survive, but it's hard when you're bigger and stronger than everyone around you. Getting involved in your community can mean getting recognized as a replicant.

The last of the three shorts is an animated short from Cowboy Bebop creator Shinichiro Watanabe. It comes out on September 26 and will depict life during the blackout that caused so much chaos and led to the anti-replicant legislation.

Blade Runner 2049 will be in theaters on October 6.

25 Sep 07:36

London Won’t Renew Uber’s License

by John Gruber

CNN:

London’s transport authority announced Friday that it will not renew Uber’s license, saying the company is not “fit and proper” to operate in the city.

The move, if upheld after an appeal, could deal a serious blow to Uber’s business.

Transport for London cited the company’s approach to reporting serious criminal offenses, and the way it explained its use of software that prevents regulators and law enforcement from monitoring the app.

Actions have consequences. As new Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi wrote in a company-wide memo responding to this: “The truth is that there is a high cost to a bad reputation.”

25 Sep 07:20

Mary and the Witch’s Flower Is Destined to be One of Your Favorite Animated Films

by Germain Lussier
Image: GKids.

If Studio Ghibli made a film where Harry Potter was a girl, Hogwarts looked like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and the whole thing turned into Akira, you’d basically have Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

[Click here to see io9's statement on this year’s Fantastic Fest.]

However, it’s not a Studio Ghibli film. Based on a book called The Little Broomstick by Mary Franklin, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the first film from the brand new Japanese animation house Studio Ponoc. And for a first film, it sets a high bar of quality, equal to their better-known competitor. The film is filled with lots of familiar tropes, but it’s done with such a bright, contagious innocence, you can’t help but fall in love with it.

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Mary is a young girl who has moved in with her aunt ahead of a new school year. With a week to go before classes start, no friends, and no TV, she’s crazy bored. So one day she wanders into the woods, finds a special flower, and her life is changed forever. As the title gives away, it’s a witch’s flower and it reveals that above the clouds is a wonderful world of magic.

Which, yes, sounds a little like Harry Potter. And yes, there’s also a magic school. But Mary is an outsider and isn’t supposed to be in this world. So that’s pretty much where the comparisons end. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi made a name for himself with films at Studio Ghibli so the visuals are much more comparable to the work of Hayao Miyazaki than anything else. The movie may look bold and weird, but Mary’s story is such a sprawling adventure, the juxtaposition of the two keeps the whole movie fresh. Just when you think it’s going one way, it goes another, and that only adds to the whimsical feeling that pervades throughout the movie.

Whimsy is a very important part of a movie like this. If a big, animated film doesn’t give you chills at least once or twice with a perfect combination of visuals, music and emotion, it’s failed. Thankfully, Mary and the Witch’s Flower does that a bunch of times. It’s just a simply delightful film. A fun, family friendly adventure that dives deep into your heart and plans its own flower.