The Pebble and the Avalanche

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Current Revolutions in Business and Technology

by Dr. Moshe Yudkowsky,

author of The Pebble and The Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions


Wed, 2010-Nov-17, 08:50

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What's Wrong at Starwood Hotels?

Last weekend I stayed at a hotel in the Starwood group; I'm a Starwood Prefered Guest, and until now they've been good about respecting my email preference — namely, none. In the three days since I left the hotel I've received two pieces of email from Starwood, neither of which contained interesting or for that matter accurate information (my reward balance is really zero?). If this continues I'll simply block the email address and move on.

Whenever sort of thing happens, when a sender acts against my explicit wishes and therefore their own best interests, I can't quite make out what the sender has in mind... Is it desperation in a search for new business? (That was my theory about Land's End, years ago.) Is it utterly clueless marketing departments? ( comes to mind.)

Or is it just clumsiness? One post-stay message — hope you had a good time, please let give us feedback, etc. — would be acceptable. Not that I read that first one, of course, since it was captured by my spam filters. The second email contains three separate sections from three different corporate entities and a warning that links provided by outside entities contained in the email might violate my privacy. Makes me wonder if Starwood runs the rest of their business the same way: "We hire room cleaning from outside entities, and they might rifle through your pockets and bags to find interesting stuff."

Let's see what happens next. If they're sufficiently entertaining in their cluelessness, I might actually read some of these emails for a while before I shut them down.

Tue, 2010-Oct-12, 08:14

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SuperShuttle and Its Problems

First of all, a brief note: it's been quite a while since I've posted anything here. The reason for the hiatus: software. I need to migrate to a new system for blog entries and for my web site — the current system simply does not work correctly and I've had to disable comments — and as such I've spent my spare time trying to find a new system instead of blogging.

Which is clearly a mistake.

So, on today's topic, which is SuperShuttle. I suppose this the pot calling the kettle black, but everyone once in a while you run across a company that's in such evident disarray that you can only marvel and then swear to never use again.

What I can deduce from reading the web site and from listening to their inbound phone menus is that SuperShuttle is attempting (and failing) to consolidate separate operations across the nation into a single entity. Back-office chaos does affect customer experience.

When visiting Los Angeles I used the web site to reserve a ride. On the web site, when I entered the city name and "convention center" as my location I was offered a choice of convention centers — nationwide, not just for LA. And my convention center building (one of several in the downtown LA complex) was not on the list. Being clever, I decided that if I entered "conv" as the search term instead of "convention center" that perhaps I could pull up the building. This worked — my building was under "CONVENTION CTR- W HALL." Given the size of th building, about a city block on every direction, I would have liked to know the pickup point, but that information was not on the web site. This user-hostile site meant that (a) other people travelling on the shuttle told me that they gave up trying to reserve online and (b) I had to waste time to call the toll-free number to find out the pickup point.

So, after sending email and getting no response, I called SuperShuttle's number and was treated to the usual series of annoying announcements: the lie about "our menus have changed," the invitation to use the web site, and then (amazingly) a long spiel in Spanish. Then came a series of announcements that told me more about the internal (dis)organization of SuperShuttle, the first being "Press 8 if you're calling from Nashville." This told me immediately that the toll-free number was not location-aware, and that the rest of the system would likely have similar problems.

After speaking to human, who had no way to access the information and had to make a phone call to a dispatcher in my city, I got the answer to where I'd be picked up. Two other people waited with me, and we saw the shuttle go past and towards some other location. The driver could not find us, and one othe person who was waiting somewhere else. After some phone calls, instructions to the driver, and going out into the street and waving our hands, he finally picked us up. Each of us had gotten a different answer about where to wait (I have no idea what, if anything, the driver was told). In fact, when SuperShuttle did answer my email, they gave me a different location. By my count, four passengers got five different answers to the basic question of where to pick up the shuttle.

The driver had no familiarity with the convention center, seemed unsure about where the airport was (and managed to miss the freeway entrace by slavishly and senselessly following the directions of the GPS), and could not operate some functions of the overly complex and oddly designed computer system in his shuttle.

While it's all fine and good to disaggregate the call center and the web site from individual cities and bring them into a central location, you have to remember that the local knowlege is lost in the process. If I select Los Angeles as my location and ask for "Convention Center," don't show me convention centers in Alambama. Don't use the local shortcuts that dispatchers used ("Convention CTR"). And if you're going to "franchise" and hire "independent operators" to drive your blue shuttles, at least insist on some basic competence. Disaggregation is no time to lose basic operational knowledge.

It's one thing to have indigestion as you digest various operations; but improper cooking leads to food poisoning.

Wed, 2010-Jun-02, 10:02

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Now That's Funny

I read this blog about chemistry on a regular basis, because every once in a while it's great fun.

Today's article is about a company that offers a new miracle drug process. The blog's author is circumspect. As a physicist I personally find the web site hilariously funny, but I guess you have understand quantum electrodynamics to enjoy the incongruity.

Thu, 2010-May-27, 08:04

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Apple and Applications

I don't own an iPod, iPad, or iPhone because I object strongly to Apple's control over the devices. Apple simply won't let you put any application you like onto the device; they can even magically erase applications you've bought and paid for.

Of course this relates to disaggregation of ownership and authority. Google's Android phone — which allows anyone to not only create applications but even to manufacture the phone itself — poses a huge challenge to Apple. I've got an Android phone, and while I miss some of the applications that appear only on the iPhone, I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is and support the disaggregated, open platform.

Wed, 2010-May-12, 11:39

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Another Reason I Don't Have a Kindle

I don't have a Kindle because of Amazon's obnoxious policies about book ownership — the most famous instance being when Amazon decided to delete books that people had already purchased. In my opinion, you merely rent a book from Amazon, and Amazon is a terrible landlord.

Kindle lets you highlight books you rent. Now Amazon has begun to collect that data from you without notice and shares it with others in aggregation — so Amazon claims that there's no privacy violation.

I'm boggled at Amazon's brazen attitude. What comes next, highlighting-based marketing campaigns?

Mon, 2010-May-10, 09:24

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Facebook and Security

Security expert and author David Levine will delete his Facebook account because of Facebook's policies on information privacy.

The specific problem that pushed him over the edge was applications added to your account without your permission — something that Facebook claims was a bug, but as Levine points out, Facebook's implementation of web technology makes mistakes and outright scams possible. Then there's the controversy pointed out by TechCrunch. I believe I'll be leaving Facebook myself as well.

Sun, 2010-Apr-04, 16:06

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Motley Fool Fooled or Fools?

Today's email inbox includes spam from an outfit that calls itself "OptionAlarm," which offers some financial service or other that I of course would not touch with a ten-foot pole.

This particular piece of spam arrived on an email address that I gave only to the financial information web site Motley Fool. Two possibilites exist: either Motley Fool sold my name to spammers, or spammers hacked into Motley Fool to obtain the information. Neither alternative does Motley Fool any credit.

Tue, 2010-Mar-23, 09:11

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Nice Plastic

Hyper-disaggregation in the credit card industry — five thousand different credit card types issued by a single bank? — leads to the realization that perhaps they've gone too far.

Tue, 2010-Mar-02, 14:29

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But If It Really Is Happening, Is It Yelp?

The Wall Street Journal blogs that somone filed a lawsuit against Yelp alleging extortion. The lawsuit alleges that Yelp will take down negative reviews in return for money; others allege that Yelp will take down positive reviews if you do not purchase an advertising package.

Let's say that someone is collecting money for removing negative reviews from Yelp. Is it really Yelp?

I expect it's easy enough for a criminal ring to target business owners. They crooks put up several negative reviews; instead of waiting for the business to complain to Yelp, the crooks contact the business directly and offer their "package." The business owner, convinced that he's doing business with Yelp, pays up; the negative reviews disappear; maybe the crooks are smart even smart enough to pay some of the ill-gotten gains for promised advertising.

When I want to prove I own a web page, the person I'm doing business with will ask me to put a comment into the web page's source code, a token that only the web page editor can insert. That's a level of sophisticated identity authentication that I expect most business owners do not have.

Now I admit I'm curious... even if this lawsuit does not involve crooks, does a ring such as the one I describe exist on Yelp or elsewhere?

P.S. The most damage to Yelp would not be to their reputation, or even the proceeds from the lawsuit. I will guess that the most damage would be to their loss of Section 230 safe harbor protection — a smart lawyer could easily (and very profitably) argue that Yelp loses that protection if they manipulate positive and negative reviews to force businesses to subscribe to their services.

Thu, 2010-Feb-18, 08:13

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I Lose the Gold

I seem to have lost the Gold — my Gold frequent-flyer privileges, that is. My airline kindly sent me a letter offering to extend my privileges for only $300 or $500 per month, I forget which. I suspect that they're not going to get many takers, and in fact I think they're foolish to revoke my privileges when I have a long history of extensive travel.

Be that as it may, according to today's Wall Street Journal, I'm in good company. Many corporate travelers now fly coach instead of business class; many others (including myself) use videoconferences instead of travel whenever possible. One of my current projects has participants literally all over the world; we never meet in person and spend most of our time on Skype.

I think airlines don't quite realize that their higher prices — and especially their deliberate nickel-and-diming passengers by charging them for checked bags on the ground and cookies in the air — will result in permanent changes in traveling habits. If I can teach a course in San Francisco and New York without travel costs for me or my students, I have not only saved a chunk of money but I've also save irreplaceable time.

As technology improves, the idea of a "meeting" will continue to separate from the idea of "in person." I think business travel, as measured in meetings or miles per person, will never recover to previous levels.