Google Killed the Newspaper Man

April 21st, 2009

While Congress debates how to save the newspaper business, they don’t seem to be asking the right questions. In their print form, newspapers have thrived on classified ads and local ads. However, just having classifieds doesn’t garner enough of a readership interest advertisers. By providing compelling content, a newspaper could establish a large, interested subscriber base. On the internet, sites like EBay and Craigslist grabbed the classified ad market by being first or by being free, leaving newspapers without that avenue for obtaining revenue. That is OK, because it doesn’t make sense for an online news source to have classified ads.

It is more natural for the news source to have ads related to the content they are producing. Ads may be placed prominently alongside the news. This can provide revenue, but clearly isn’t rewarding enough to keep companies afloat in tough times. To really solve the problem, one needs to only ask who is taking the profit from the content that online newspapers provide. The answer is that search engines are. Google, Yahoo, Microsoft or any other search engine is the equivalent of a delivery man. They take an order for information an deliver it to the customer. Only, unlike in the real world where the producer of the product gets paid, on the internet, they aren’t. The AP is starting to understand that the search engines need the AP more than the AP needs search engines. However, it should be a rather simple exercise for major news sites to make an exclusive agreement with Yahoo or Microsoft on licensing fees to reference their copyrighted material and subsequently tell the others to cease and desist. This should hold up legally, because all any search engine is doing is taking the content and re-packaging it to make a product that produces a profit. It certainly won’t be difficult to show that there is significant financial damage being caused, nor is it difficult to understand that the search engines rely upon content providers in order to produce revenue.

A Man With a Short Memory

March 10th, 2009

In an interview with Business Week Dirk Meyer shows that he doesn’t understand where the computing market is going.

Yet that is one PC segment that’s a little healthier right now and AMD isn’t participating in it. Why is that?
We consciously focused our R&D dollars, which obviously given our size are smaller than Intel’s, on the big mainstream markets as they exist today. Knowing that this trend toward lower power consumption and more mobility is going to happen, we just decided to load that into the R&D pipeline for later. It’s not a big volume target and not a big dollar opportunity.…One of the saddest things about the PC industry right now is, since late last year, all anyone seems to want to ask about is netbooks. Good grief! It’s a low-cost limited-function device. There’s not much excitement or money in dollar volume there.

The writing was on the wall years ago when the first notebook was available for $1000. Processing is going mobile. Sales in volume and value are higher on notebooks than on desktops. Not only did Intel see this first, but the CEO of AMD has firmly placed his head in the sand on the matter. He’s worried about winning the war in notebooks AMD’s already lost and ceded the next frontier to Intel.  The game isn’t going to remain notebooks or netbooks.  It will go smaller.  It will be cellphones and other personal communications devices that will evolve.  While AMD is worried about the “big money”, Intel is setting the stage to make a run at the king of cell phone processing, ARM. Not only do Meyer’s words speak to his short memory with regards to how AMD got into their most recent trouble, but their lack of preparedness in terms of products shows it.

Fumbling Ockham’s Razor

January 6th, 2009

I often find the conclusions made by scientists to be rather amusing.  A researcher in Australia that is doing otherwise solid work has been paraphrased as having stated that exposure to bright light counteracts myopia. While there is certainly evidence that environmental factors have a strong impact on visual development, this conclusion doesn’t seem to consider the mechanics at work in the eye.

The issues at play in myopia are the shape of the eyeball and the ability of the lens to change shape to provide a wide range of focus. How are the activities of the iris blocking light or retinal stimulation supposed to affect these characteristics? Doesn’t it make more sense that the muscle fibers of the lens will optimize themselves to match the activity that they undergo early in life. If a child stays in an enclosed environment all of the time, there is no opportunity to use long range focus. Likewise, when a child pends all of their time outdoors and never reads or uses a computer, there is little opportunity to exercise short range focus. Presuming that there is a reasonably regular distribution of behavior in any given population, this suggests that there would be a higher prevalence of hyperopia (farsightedness) in places where there is a low incidence of myopia.

I haven’t extensively read the man’s work, so I don’t fully know his position, but it is curious that more obvious features about being outdoors were not mentioned in the article. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if he really thinks this. There is a shocking lack of ability to envision systems within the scientific community.

Oil Cartels Just Aren’t Sexy Villains Anymore

October 28th, 2008

Now that commodity prices are going down as quickly as they went up, it seems to be accepted wisdom that “speculation”, specifically investment speculation on the part of investors such as hedge funds, had a substantial part in where the prices peaked.  At first blush, this seems a reasonable assessment.  However, the more I’ve thought about markets and commodity markets in particular, the less I’m inclined to agree so whole-heartedly.

Basic market economic theory is based upon the principles of supply and demand. Supply and demand curves work very well for markets where buyers and sellers are flexible to change their consumption and production. They work less well to accurately represent how basic commodity markets work. When I say basic commodities, I mean natural resources or basic goods produced directly from natural resources. Things like fuel and food. The idea that these markets are particularly inflexible is probably not a new thought, but it certainly isn’t a popular thought since everything I read on the matter treats the basic commodity market as just another market when it clearly isn’t.

There is a single underlying principle that undermines using economic principles such as supply and demand when basic commodities are concerned. Flexibility. Consumers are very flexible with regard to how much they will pay for basic commodities if they have to and will strongly resist adjusting their consumption. Likewise, production of basic commodities takes considerable time, planning and infrastructure. Producers are not very flexible when it comes to altering their production.

This difference in flexibility, specifically the issue of planning which strongly affects the basic commodity market, results in a new dimension being added to the problem. Basically, there is a high cost associated with change because of the planning, time and infrastructure involved. As a result, consumers and suppliers look to recent history when making decisions, not just the current price. Consumers will likely do little in the very short term when prices increase to reduce their consumption of food and fuel because it won’t be worth the effort to change if the price increase is short lived and prices return to normal. Suppliers are even less sensitive to change because they have long production cycles and need to develop significant infrastructure for production. A new reality must establish itself before behavior changes. In short, people make these kinds of plans based upon trends, which take time to develop.

In the most recent rise in basic commodity prices, demand was augmented by new wealth in Asia. The inflexibility of demand quantity in the rest of the world and in supply quantity drove up prices. Eventually, demand gave in a little. People began to change their lives to conform to basic commodity shortages that would clearly be in short supply indefinitely. The problem was that suppliers were not capable of reacting quickly enough to keep up with demand. Undoubtedly, they also could remember the 90s and weren’t so sure they wanted to react quickly. Then there is the problem of those that try to corner the market.

In normal times, cornering the market on a basic commodity like grain, metals or energy is rather difficult. Eventually, you will have to sell to realize a profit and selling ends up increasing supply in an environment where suppliers are more likely to be maximizing their capacity through efficiency or shortcuts and consumers are more likely to be conserving. This will likely lead to a loss on the part of the one cornering the market and consumers, and a gain for suppliers. It only makes sense to try and corner the market if you’re a supplier like OPEC for instance. If you are a speculator, market timing (short or long) is your only real ally. Buy low and sell high.

All of this relates to the recent behavior of basic commodities markets in that it characterizes the situation and motivation of the players. Inflexibility on the part of suppliers and consumers means that basic commodities markets inclined to go up very fast when supply gets tight and go back down fast when it becomes plentiful.

Compounding the price fluctuations due to inflexibility are those who might want to profit from the situation. Wall street most certainly is going to be attracted to the projected trends for commodity prices and make investments to make profit. However, they represented a total investment in the low billions for this one commodity in a market of between 80-90 million barrels per day. At $100 oil, this is $8-9Billion/day. I would think that an organization that controls roughly 35% of oil production would have much more control over the market. There are also oil companies with incentives to wait to deliver their products until prices went up. Suppliers will be inclined to make shortages worse when they occur because unlike a speculator they don’t have to play games to profit, they can collect those paper gains from prices rising through their regular sales. They have more incentive and more power to manipulate the markets, so why is all of the attention on Wall Street?

Apocalypse, Now Evolution

September 22nd, 2008

I have always found the heroic attempts to conserve endangered species to be a puzzling practice. The purported reasoning behind the practice is that we want to maintain genetic diversity in the species that inhabit our planet. I’m inclined to think that there is a substantial emotional component associated with a fear of loss. Fear of loss is particularly irrational in light of the fact that most every species that has ever existed on Earth is extinct. The ecological system can handle extreme temperature changes and killer asteroid strikes. It is the mass extinction events like these that have forced new species to emerge. The only way for a significant change to occur is to wipe out most everything and find out what makes it through the adversity. The status quo doesn’t produce new behavior.

There is no question that we are causing a major extinction event. We are consuming more of the world’s resources. We are changing the environment by digging up minerals and fuel, which leads to higher levels of these compounds in the surface environment. We transport species from one ecosystem to another because they are useful or because we are careless. All of this causes disruption, which most animal species can’t deal with. They are behaviorally hardwired to a much greater degree than we are. When they can’t find a niche, they are marginalized and face extinction.

This isn’t entirely bad. New niches open up in the ecosystem and allow new species to develop and thrive. Fortunately, there are biologists that agree with me, at least to some extent.

Instead of wasting effort trying to save failed species, we should be concentrating on studying the evolution associated with the extinctions that are occurring. We need to understand how to maintain an ecological equilibrium that is not hostile to us. We need to maintain populations of species we use as food, advantage microbes that protect us against those that are hostile and find ways to keep the populations of nuisance species down, or find a use for them.

Performing the Oldest Tricks in the Newest Ways

September 2nd, 2008

Katherine suffers from rheumatoid arthritis in her hands, and has found that wearing tight bracelets or wrapping fingers with tape often reduces the amount of pain she feels. My uncle used to wear a copper bracelet, presumably for the same reason. My mother wraps her legs with compression bandages when her varicose veins cause her legs to hurt. She would also similarly wrap our legs as kids when we had growing pains. Athletes have been known to compress injured areas with tape or support braces. In the Olympics, volleyball players were seen with taped fingers and shoulders. In the far east, acupuncture was developed to relieve pain. All of these treatments for pain have one thing in common. They involve touch stimulus of the area at or near where the pain exists.

The subject of pain relief was restimulated for me last fall when I was introduced to the gate control theory of pain in a neurobiology class. At the simplest level, the notion is that normal touch known as somatosensation can interfere with nociception, the sensation of pain. This made me rethink why Katherine found pain relief from wearing bracelets. This prompted me to think further on all of the similar methods of pain control I had encountered as well as the tendency for someone that is exerting themselves to not feel low level chronic pain. From an evolutionary perspective it seems reasonable that feeling pain is generally not good when demands are being placed on the body. People have been taking advantage of this characteristic ever since.

The original theory was developed in the 60s when it was well accepted that pain was part of the somatosensory system. Now, the there are those that think nociception is exclusively part of the interoceptive system, also known as the visceral or autonomic nervous system. This is the system that helps us to maintain the environmental balance in our bodies. It tells us to eat and what to eat, drink, sleep, breathe, warm up by shivering and finding warmth, to cool down by sweating and seeking shade, and much more. It basically maintains our bodies. It does this in part by producing input into our higher thought through emotion and is affected by emotional feedback.

This leads me to an interesting experiment published in 1997. If 1/3 of the neurons leading into a section of the somatosensory cortex(SI) of a monkey were visceroreceptive, it is clear that there is some overlap. Considering that there isn’t extensive communication between the SI and emotion centers such as the insula, it seems likely that the inhibition of nociception by somatosensory probably occurs in the spinal cord as the gate theory suggests.

The next question of importance is what is the mechanism at work with Kerri Walsh’s Kinesio tape? They, like many before them, attribute their success to a special property of their proprietary method. In this case, they think it is from improved circulation. They even have a published study. From looking at the “sham” treatment on the third (390) page, it is evident that they aren’t differentiating their treatment from the gate control theory of pain. The “sham” isn’t producing tension, thus it isn’t significant stimulus to have gate control kick in.

I would go further and say that this is a poorly performed study for two reasons. First, their “sham” treatment is likely to not produce the placebo effect. A reasonable person might be inclined to laugh at such a crude tape job. Second, if I wanted to show a more significant improvement from one treatment over another, I would assign that treatment to more seriously injured individuals. If one looks at table 1 on the fifth (392) page, the KT group is the more injured group. My opinion of JOSPT is not high to say the least.

At the end of the day, the point is that Kinesio Tape is likely just a new incarnation of a trick that is probably thousands of years old. The difference is that maybe we are approaching the day where we will understanding the underlying mechanisms.

Site Outage

August 30th, 2008

At some time before Thursday evening (Aug. 28), Entangled Continua’s database became corrupted, resulting in a very generic database error message. While all posts have been recovered, any comments or trackbacks made after August 4th have been lost. I apologize for the interruption and the inconvenience.

Unsophisticated Olympic Coverage

August 15th, 2008

I have been remiss in my work on Weordan and in posting on this blog in large part due to watching the Olympics too much and at the times that I’m usually the most productive. I have seen the technical analysis done by NBC fail in two different situations which indicate a lack of technical aptitude. To a large degree, it reinforces the notion that while experience is respected, many people get a free ride based upon experience rather than real ability.

The most recent failure that I’ve noticed occurred during the Phelps 100m butterfly win. The people at NBC just stated that Phelps must have won by a fingernail. The fact is that the sensor in the pool is touch activated and can’t be sensitive enough to be triggered by a fingernail touch. Otherwise, water sloshing up against it would set off a false positive. It has to have a significant lack of sensitivity. Cavic might have touched first, but he didn’t touch hard enough to trigger the sensor. Because the sensors are there, the definition of finishing is touching the wall hard enough to trigger it.

The far uglier failure was with the gymnastics competition, especially the men’s. The difficulty portion of the scoring isn’t well calibrated between the events, especially in the men’s competition. This means that scores in certain events are generally higher than in others. Since the competitors are distributed between different stations, their scores aren’t comparable unless they are in the same group or until the end. As I was sitting there listening to the technical commentary where this was being explained and a guess was being made, I was wondering why they didn’t normalize the scores to get an idea of who was leading. This is often done when making fiscal or financial judgements, as different seasons are more active than others. The same could be applied to gymnastics, which would have made it easier to tell what was going on and actually enjoy the race instead of just wonder who was really ahead.

I would be extremely embarrassed if I were them.

One Strike Against Consumers

August 3rd, 2008

Our current economic situation is a result of two forces: commodity demand from the developing world, primarily China and India and an unrestrained appetite for profit today. Analyses like this one in the NY Times look at economic forces in terms of the symptom rather than the cause.

The rising prices of commodities like food, fuel and building materials have been largely driven by demand in Asia where large populations are seeing their disposable income increase. They could also be driven in some part by market speculation. There have been abnormalities in grain prices and there might be an oil bubble.

The housing bubble was driven by the same forces. The price of building materials increased due to increased building in Asia, as well as here and many other countries. Speculators got into the market buying and selling real estate as well as selling risky loans predicated on the notion that prices would go up forever, eliminating the risk of loss if they were to default. The primary driver was the large appetite for profit today and very little consideration for the future.

While there is some element of coincidence to our current situation, it really boils down to one real problem. The current investment and management climate is exaggerating the impact of major economic developments. It happened with the internet in the late 90′s then moved on to housing and commodities since then.

Cloud Computing Isn’t New and Isn’t the Answer

July 29th, 2008

Over the last couple of weeks, there has been quite a bit written about cloud computing, most recently about the effort by Intel HP and Yahoo. The article I linked to makes a very important point. The notion of a dummy terminal that has services delivered to it by a server is as old as computing itself. Whenever there is an application that can only be performed in a timely manner by expensive hardware, centralized computing becomes the computing paradigm for those that want to run that application. When the PC proved up to the task of word processing and spreadsheets in the early 80′s, server sales went into a nose-dive. There were still databases that needed to be managed centrally, so the server never went away, but its role was diminished. Currently, smart phones just don’t have the processing power to do a whole lot, but that will change rather rapidly as I suggested a couple of weeks ago. We are getting to the point where many users don’t know what to do with the capabilities of a low end PC or notebook. Why do we think inflicting the poor reliability of network access on computing be better than the dominant decentralized paradigm?