Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Banksy-copter

Quadcopters are here, and they are cheap. Banksy's modus operandi is to spray up a ready-made stencil very quickly, and disappear. That is the key to his success - it has permitted him to evade prosecution, and to make the most of the magic in the appearance of an image on a previously blank wall. So, the combination of the two is obvious: use a quadcopter to stencil the wall. Untraceable, controllable via 3g link with a pre-pay SIM, and capable of painting at scales and heights that would challenge a human. With some clever software, a fleet of quadcopters could be deployed and work in parallel. Of course, the flip side is that the council can spray over the artwork with their own quadcopter, so maybe start coating the artwork in transparent vinyl.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The future of physical retail

Response to Supermarkets Without Cash Registers, Amazon In Strip Malls, the Future of Retail Is Weird, on qz.com.

The article marvels at a few things; removal of cash registers as people scan and buy by phone or NFC wherever they are, big box retailing becoming showrooms for online retailers by accident, retailers selling product lines exclusively to fend off online competition. But most of this is already here, not on its way.

I can already shop at my supermarket using a mobile scanner, although I do have to pay at a cash register. That's a pretty easy jump to make.

Big box retailers already prefer to sell items only available at that chain; laptops are sold with different model numbers and marginally different specifications to make comparison difficult, and generic items are bundled with higher-margin items to permit a profit over the whole sale.

Showrooming, however, might just change things. Suppose a consumer wants to buy a laptop and a manufacturer wants to sell it. In the old system, you went to the shop. Mail-order was possible, but both expensive and uncertain. With amazon et al, neither is the case any more. But at the limit where no-one buys from the shop, why would it still exist? It must make money from the still-present need, of shoppers to actually feel the thing they're buying. Pictures do not do physical objects justice.

So the consumers want a showroom, but they no longer consider the old pact (pay enough to cover those costs) to be worthwhile. Apple has an answer; own the whole snake from production to consumption, and be the exclusive distributor. But only a handful of multi-billion-dollar companies can afford to be both national and have stores, or have enough products to make such a store (I'm thinking of the Apple resellers, or Sony franchisees) worthwhile.

The only other party with an interest in the showroom beside the consumer is the manufacturer. We're limiting ourselves (by the non-multi-billion argument) to manufacturers without the reach or perhaps the breadth of products to have their own stores, like Asus or Logitech, or Black & Decker. I think the answer for them is to subsidize the showroom.

It's possible that dedicated showrooms could pop up, showing a wide range of products and charging the manufacturer or distributor for placement in different areas outright. They could perhaps include a kiosk for buying a product there and then at a premium, but the expected mode would be what people do secretively already; scan the code, compare prices and order online.

I suspect, however, that a less clear-cut bargain is more likely. In the same way that supermarkets charge producers for better product placement (effectively adding shelf rental to the mix), big box retailers would expect ever larger subsidies from the manufacturers, until actual sales were no-longer their primary revenue stream. At this point, if becomes viable to show online store prices right on the shelf; Amazon could do a deal with the retailer for the retailer to do just that, and a smaller chain might show the prices regardless of an affiliation incentive.

The mistake the qz article makes, for me, is to suggest that virtual and physical are comparable, that a virtual shop can replace a physical one. The reverse is true. People that want to see the physical item do not want a virtual substitute; online or off, they want to pick up the book (for now), try on the dress, try clicking the camera shutter. Creating a virtual version of a physical store, with screens instead of shelves, is a hiding to nothing. The only difference between that and shopping online at home is that the product selection is more limited, so perhaps a decision is easier. But even that is easily remedied by a new online store.

Interestingly, once the need to make money selling physical boxes is gone, many other possibilities open up. Showrooms would be competing for their ability to show off the product and assist purchasing (wherever from), not their ability to suck you in and leave via the cash register. If it were me, I would set up a smaller shop in a mall with gadgets in, sell the shelf space and learn how to use all the gadgets. I would put Which and online reviews of items right with the item, provide live updating displays of prices from various retailers, and fill the shop floor with helpful staff.

If that sounds much like an Apple store, that's because it has many of the same goals; to provide the physical aspect of the purchase experience, to show off the product more than make the sale, and it too would be paid for by the manufacturer rather than the till sales. Crucially, though, it wouldn't be Apple. The customer would get the best prices for the products, which themselves would be competing in the marketplace. This is the Apple experience, but for the mass rather than the luxury market (Apple doesn't want you if you have less money).

Some other things would inevitably be borrowed from Apple; the genius bar is the flipside of the physical sales world, the ability to point at a broken screen and ask what it will cost to fix, rather than filing some form or a call centre call. The support side is a significant cost to the manufacturer, so there is a good incentive there for the showroom to offer such services at the cost of the manufacturer rather than the customer. And all the good things follow from such alignment of need and cost; a shop could demand much lower incentives from manufacturers with easily replaced parts, and charge much more for send-off-to-this-address setups. There could be a clean room upstairs, where you can actually watch your product being fixed.

I've concentrated really on big box electronics retail, but these are all generic observations, which would be true for clothes or any other sector. Clothing is way ahead here; department stores already provide a set of concessions which are presumably rented to individual retailers. The staff are general rather than manufacturer-specific, as is the sales and return setup. So if we look in that direction, we might expect to see concessions in our showroom.

There is opportunity for the forces of evil to corrupt the vision, however. With control over their concessions the manufacturers would opt to limit the set of retailers whose prices are displayed, and remove unfriendly reviews. And with the manufacturers firmly in the seat of funding, they would call the tune. To me, this is counterproductive; if you want to make a store, make a store. If you want an arena in which the customer feels confident to make the best decision and neither ripped off nor hoodwinked, then you have to actually behave that way.

An anecdote from the world of surprising retail innovation is relevant here: on a recent holiday to a coastal town, there turned out to be a shop whose owner simply rented shelf space to local craftspeople. In much the same abstract way as the concessions, they offered a unified service to the customer but neither set the prices nor chose the goods. Inevitably, the shopkeeper is able to provide crucial feedback to the craftspeople about what kinds of goods sold well, offer critical analysis of works in progress and so on; they are the whole interface between the customer and the manufacturer but as a service to both rather than the customer of either.

Argos offers a physical version of the virtual store; you can ask to look at any item before buying it, and the choice of a vast range over a vast showroom makes it a reliable source for convenience shopping. Suppose we do the same here; make part of the shop a warehouse of a few items of each product. Sell the shelf space to the manufacturers again. But next, permit the items in stock to be sold by any retailer involved. If Amazon are a partner, you're buying that camera from Amazon, and you execute the sale and any later claim through them. In effect the product sale is a transferrable contract which is sold to whichever retailer buys it for the highest price, and the customer gets the product there and then.

The future of retailing may well be very different, and how we choose to pay or from whom we purchase are the least of the changes.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Free samples

Seth compares free sample consumers at a farmer's market to those of digital media; the first are characterised as vultures, eating into the traders' margins, while online the samples cost the provider nothing. I think he's basically right. I also think the careless consumers of free samples could be better managed with some psychology: put the samples nearer the traders and further away from the punters. It requires more boldness to pick up a sample from right in front of the vendor than to take a couple from an unobserved plate. There's some psychology to be mixed into the digital free sample as well. Every piece of digital media should have its origin printed through it like a stick of rock; in the filename, in the audio track, in the image. Never leave someone searching for the source of a file. My divergence from Seth in general is that I think content will be freely and widely distributed in the future; not because it's pirated, but because it's given away. And not just samples; free stuff won't just be a taster for the paid stuff, because there's no sensible way to make digital media into a commodity that you buy. In this future, the storefront doesn't exist. You hear a great new piece of music because a friend shares it with you, or your content aggregators suggest it. You go to the source of it to get some more, which is also free. And you add the creator of it to the list of people you thank with money. No storefront, because the product sells itself. No artificial scarcity of 'tasters', or 'free samples'. Free will be implicit, because everything is 'free' at the point of consumption. Samples could perhaps be the paid addon; the extra detail that only remixers and fans want. When the tail is so long, only a tiny minority can be 'sold' with specific marketing, salesmen, etc. The vast majority will have to sell itself.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Just wrote an auto-memoizer for single-valued functions as an answer to a StackOverflow question:
function memoize(func, max) {
    max = max || 5000;
    return (function() {
        var cache = {};
        var remaining = max;
        function fn(n) {
            return (cache[n] || (remaining-- >0 ? (cache[n]=func(n)) : func(n)));
        }
        return fn;
    }());
}

function fact(n) {
    return n<2 ? 1: n*fact(n-1);
}

var memfact = memoize(fact,170);
Based on an implementation of factorial function by user xPheRe:
var factorial = (function() {
    var cache = {},
        fn = function(n) {
            if (n === 0) {
                return 1;
            } else if (cache[n]) {
                return cache[n];
            }
            return cache[n] = n * fn(n -1);
        };
    return fn;
}());
Things I like:
  • It memoizes anything
  • The cache limit prevents stupid things like memoizing where there are floats
  • It's faster than the if/else original
I could add in a trigger which replaced the function with a straight call after too many misses, so that even wrongly-memoized functions weren't slowed down after a number of calls.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Rituals, expectations, culture

On reading Ken's post on rituals:

I've been thinking about this recently. I think a culture defines a set of public and private expectations of its members. People that do not conform to these expectations are cold-shouldered. We usually call it being rude, or antisocial. In one society, one finishes everything on the plate to show it was good. In another, we leave a little to show we the host was generous. There is probably a historic reason for each, and doing the wrong one will make us seem rude.

The key is that a culture needs to be largely predictable for it to function. I need to be able to expect to go to dinner without taking a plate, or to know to take my plate. The more uncertain the behaviour of everyone else, the more precautions and preparations I have to make.

In a village, social cohesion is important, and there are not that many people, so I can and should greet everyone I pass. But in a city, I cannot afford to greet everyone I pass, and the culture must permit this. So we have cities where no-one makes eye contact, despite inhabiting each other's personal space.

A different slant, however, is provided by the religious or moral code. Often, particularly for the believers, these are not merely rituals but ways to honour their diety; the ritual represents their own hierarchy. She chose to observe her ritual instead of socialising, which some will respect and others will see as an affront.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The future: megacity margin-dwelling artistry

Malthus saw two equations: the exponential increase in population resulting from the individual action to have more than 2 children per couple, and the sub-exponential rise in resources with which to house, clothe and feed these people. He could see that the first will continue until something limits it, either continuously (for much of human history you needed n children to have 2 survive) or in mass events (war, disease, famine).

Over the last 60 years, the West has suffered no war on its soil, no famine it couldn't buy its way out of, no disease it couldn't contain. It has assisted similar evasion of Malthus in the rest of the world, and the world population has responded by exploding.

We are faced, today, by a series of Malthusian equations, regarding the future of civilisation:

  1. Outside a few countries in the West (notably Germany, France) the population is continuing to rise. In developing countries it is continuing to rise exponentially as the traditional expectation of large families is not met by the same threat of disease and famine it had been for so long. Until people get used to choosing to have smaller families and a better quality of life, this will continue at a breathtaking pace.
  2. There has been a migration from the country to the city for a century or more. As the city offers more modern lifestyles and has lower incidence of famine and disease, the population growth of existing city dwellers is also increasing. This means that the future will be increasingly lived in cities, to the exclusion of all else. Over time, life has been less about the land and more about people; technology, education, consumption.
  3. People are living longer. Not only does this contribute to the rising population, but it also makes more demands on their ability to save for their old age. 
  4. Technology is systematically removing the human component of necessary production. Food, clothes, transport are all global goods, produced wherever is cheapest. But the competitor with no bottom line, no minimum wage, is the machine. Even Chinese and Indian labour will be more expensive than the machine eventually. This means that increasingly people's jobs depend on the unnecessary; on books and holidays and music. We have a fear of recession precisely because in a recession people stop spending and the economy depends on their spending, their consumption.
As population increases beyond our means to produce more, there will inevitably be a food crisis. It may be slow in coming, with people learning to live on less as they see the prices rise, or it may be fast, initiated by a widespread bad harvest in a particular year. If it is the former, and we are ready, we may survive the beginning of it. If it is the latter, there will be famine. There are many ways we can ease the crisis in the near-term; vegetarianism, GM crops, desert irrigation, food supplements. If the crisis is slow, we will use all of these and others, albeit only when finances dictate we must.

With technology reducing the dependence of farming and production on people, and the population rising, an ever-diminishing number of people are needed for production. Since the capacity to farm is limited by the amount of available land, rather than our ability to farm it, the exponentially-rising population cannot result in an exponentially-rising number of farmers.

This means that with a diminishing amount of food available, and an ever-decreasing proportion of the population in necessary work, the rest of us will need something to do. A population needs entertainment, society, events, and so on. This is the expanding industry of the future; art. The creation and sharing of meaningful artefacts of culture, things that bind a group together - film, music, news. All the material things that have possessed the world of the present and the past; farming, manufacture, the management of scarce resources, will be history. The scarcity may be so severe that we cease trying to manage it.

If people are doing unnecessary work which largely benefits only themselves and their group, where will they get the money to buy food? I think the only answer is that the government or some other overarching corporation will give it out. State benefits will be the norm, not the exception, and they will be meagre by today's standards. Imagine that instead of handing out money for food, the city government provided it free. It will have already become the government's job to find enough food for everyone; we already see countries like China buying up land in Africa for food - eventually this is their primary remit. Money and capitalism will still exist, but they will be largely irrelevant to the mass; after all, you don't need money for food.

So we see enormous populations in cities living on low margins; minimising their consumption, minimising their need for scarce resources. Over a few generations of any lifestyle, a group absorbs the techniques and goals of living it into their very psyche; we see it in the philosophy of martial arts, in the way people feel that there is a natural order, their order. We see free speech and democracy as right, as good. But they are constructs we created to handle threats to our existence in the past - tyrants, dictators, corruption. I think we will see a commitment to living on narrow margins enter the collective psyche. People will not be fat even though food is free in this future, because of the social stigma associated with such excessive consumption. You may think that the rational actor will win, that people will overeat anyway. But the rational actor would steal, corrupt and connive in today's world with its low policing and yet people don't because we consider it beneath ourselves to do so. Plus, the food won't be so fattening.

The final piece in the jigsaw is perhaps the most unbelievable, if you have managed to stifle your disbelief so far. In a world where art is the way of life, and money merely a choice between living in one area with its balance of comfort and food and another area, people will not pay each other for things, they will give. Once the meaningless necessities are dealt with - purchasing food, clothing and so on - what is left is the meaningful. Gifts are the ultimate currency of meaning, and one people are only too ready to employ (why else do gift vouchers exist?). In a world of scarcity, to save up your resource, your time, and produce an artefact which you give to another is a supreme sacrifice, and thus a meaningful gift.

Your great-grandchild won't buy a ring for his spouse, he will craft one, and after a special dinner at the local eatery where he called in his favours with the owner to get the tastiest morsels, they will go home to their 2 room apartment and think about when in their life they will have their one child, proud to be living the right way. What will they think of you?


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Scrobble my mood

I'm back on Last.fm after a long stint on Spotify. I have paid for the premium services of both in the past, but both are disappointing in one area: knowing what to play next. Spotify makes you choose your own tracks (the Radio functionality is useless), which is simple but very limited. I barely discover new music on Spotify, it's usually just from searching for things I've heard elsewhere. Occasionally I will discover something new by listening to compilation albums which contain tracks I've searched for, but that's about the limit of it.

Last.fm, by contrast, makes it almost impossible not to discover new stuff unless you only listen to your Library or Loved Tracks all the time. But the piece of functionality that should do exactly what I want (click-free music that I want to listen to for hours) is the Recommended Radio, and it's not great. Which is surprising, because it knows everything I have listened to for the last few years, as I've scrobbled even my Spotify listening.

So what's the problem? Inappropriate tracks. I don't mean offensive, I mean not matching my mood. Some artist radio stations are good matches for my mood and don't end up playing me rubbish; Rob Dougan is one, but mostly because it plays me lots of Rob Dougan, who is just excellent, particularly at work.

My mood is very variable, and the music has to fit it or I'll just switch it off. At the same time, I usually want the music to just play without me needing to babysit it. On Spotify, I tend to play specific playlists built up over weeks or months of selections and deletions. On Last, playlists are nearly pointless (you can't just play a playlist until it has a very large number of tracks in it, so you never actually build them up), so I end up playing tag or artist radio.

I've never worked out, however, whether playing the Uptempo tag radio will be the same for me as for someone else - does it take my tastes into account?

Idea: Do mood-matching to link my scrobbles
If I listen to a load of tracks in one go, and I skip some of them before they scrobble, then I'm probably in a particular mood, especially if some of those I skip are loved tracks; it's not that I don't like the track, I just don't want to listen to it now. Thus, we have more meta about this collection of tracks; they are probably mood-related. So instead of making me work out playlists for myself, or cast myself to the winds of tag or artist radio, Last could do mood-specific recommendation.

The power of the Web 2+ world is to do algorithmic cleverness in order to deliver some very human requirement automatically. Google goes beyond mere links now, and personalises searches, fixing spelling mistakes and suggesting maps. Social networks have to handle my social segregation between close friends, acquaintances, family and work, without telling work I'm pregnant, or the matriarchy about my relationship status before I'm ready. Thus Last has done well to facilitate self-measurement (scrobbling), but they have some way to go to give me a set-and-forget radio station that works for me.

So for now, I stick to pop artist radio... the mainstream is at least inoffensive to the ear for the most part, and fairly peppy.