Real Time Payments Network

Bank Note Money Usd Funds Bills Us-dollar DollarThe clearing house has released business principles that outline the operation of the real time payments (RTP) Network. A full set of guidelines is here.

These are important inasmuch as they set out key points, among them most importantly:

TCH runs the RTP network as a utility for the benefit of the industry and RTP fees shall continue to be flat for all participants regardless of size, and shall not include volume discounts or minimum volume requirements.

It does though, contains a super-clause, which is typical of the monopolistic “free market” here in America. In an effort to restrain competition, and limit the ability of smaller financial institutions, the clause reads:

These principles apply so long as the RTP network is the only provider of faster real-time clearing and interbank settlement.

So here we are again, with another great example of limited competition. Who would provide an alternative, well, as listed in a prior post, the big tech companies are not likely to sign-up and get locked into RTP charging. Also, the Federal Reserve is considering a Faster Payments Network.

Sigh, here we go again, more glacial progress and lack of choice. Don’t stop ordering checkbooks anytime soon.

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Stock buybacks rule – Tax breaks enable

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Photo: Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images
As predicted, not by the tweeter in chief, but by almost anyone who understands big companies and executive, stock buybacks hit an all time high in 2018 and are likely to be higher again in 2019.

This is a big deal, companies that buyback their stock, are reducing the number of shares available on the market. That generally means the share price goes up. Share prices are often one of the main ways executives are measured, their bonuses are usually dependant on the share price. Also, because the price of each share goes up, it makes it harder for lower and middle class people to get in on the action.

buying your own shares is like eating your own young, a glorified share manipulation gamble

The other reason share buybacks are import to watch, is they effectively use the companies cash to “eat themselves”. That cash is then no longer available for Capital investment, new building, equipment and other necessary expansion expenditure. Citigroup reports that companies buying back their own stock, spent more money doing that, than at any time since 2008.

Home Depot announced a $15-billion buyback in February, as a way to artificially hedge their share price, after they announced they’d miss expectation on revenue. Cynical share price manipulation. I have no idea if they used repatriated tax money, but if they miss earnings again this year, the share price will drop. Of course the executives and board will be ok, they’ll have sold their shares at the newly inflated share price, which is down on it’s 2018 high(212.39), but not nearly as low as it would have been if they’d not bought their own shares.

Next time a big business closes an office near you, and jobs are lost, don’t take their reason at face value. When did they last do a stock buyback, and how much cash was repatriated under the Trump/GOP tax break for 2018?

What’s a #blockchain?

I posted the above to twitter, but its not really a joke. #blockchain has become the emperor’s new clothes and to some degree, @AARP is right.  The original article may be a little more aimed at humour than technical depth, but it’s not wrong.

A few of my friends have already been cold called and offering blockchain backed securities and similar. We know that’s mostly just marketing BS, but they don’t know. So this is, whatever you think, a good way to get them thinking about it.

For 90+ percent of the AARP readers these are good enough descriptions. The people who are AARP members who need to know about Bitcoin and Blockchain, already do and won’t be influenced by @brucehorovitz full article.

1535400878477-lost_and_foundIf you are really interested in the concept, and a non-tech example of #blockchain, Vice has one of the best examples I know of. It explains how, since 1995, how the theory of a blockchain and public ledger have been used in a non-technical solution. It covers and explains the use of a digital document store. The key to their store, was in fact to publish the unique hash for every document, and rather than use a technology solution as the public ledger, simply to publish the unique hash in the New York Times.

A more technical explanation is by Steve Wilson, on Constellation Research, called Blockchain Plain and Simple, covers the subject, and keeps on topic.

Look & See – Rural America

I’ve written a number of harsh posts about those living in rural America, mostly based off the perception that is pushed by the Republican party, that is, rural Americans don’t understand, and resent urban Americans. That rural Americans are the god-fearing, backbone of America and urban and city dwellers are welfare dependents, and worse still, socialists. Certainly, the Republican party continue to push this agenda today, dividing sub-urban and rural communities from the cities.

As shown here, rural Americans claiming benefits has sky rocketed between ’96 and 2015; increasingly, the programs getting cut, adversely hit rural America harder, as rural Americans are smaller in total number; medical coverage may not “be a right” according to the Republican party, it should be a “choice”, try maintaining a community without easy access to modern healthcare; schools are also a right, without them, not only are local taxes higher, more subsidy is needed to get kids to schools outside the city. School Choice won’t save rural schools without a massive rethink.

However, rural Americans, and farmers especially, deserve another perspective. They’ve largely been screwed by the “agricultural industrial machine”. Sure, many farmers have sold out and reaped substantial profits, more though are barely getting by. There is a lot to be said about a community completely upended over the last 30-years.

Laura Dunn, Two Birds Film (Austin TX) has produced a beautifully filmed, subtle, but brilliantly edited, and panoramic, poignant portrait of the changing landscapes and shifting values of rural America in the era of industrial agriculture, as seen through the eye of American novelist, poet, and activist, Wendell Berry.

Berry represents, if not the best known defender of rural, natural America, then certainly the most eloquent. His contributions to Lauras’ other major work, The Unforseen, were the first I’d heard of him. Certainly, this profile certainly made me think again. You can watch the trailer on youtube(below) or the complete film on Netflix.

Google and Voice

You’d think given the proliferation of voice activated home technology like Alexa, Siri, Google Voice Assistant, Cortana etc. we’d be on the home stretch for voice activation in cars, where distraction is a real life threatening problem.

I don’t travel much now, I don’t drive more than 6k miles per year, which is a good thing based on today’s experience with Google. I’ll admit, I didn’t do any scientific research, I’ve no idea what other brands do, but I got stuck in traffic today heading into Boulder. I asked Google Assistant to read a web article from Vox.

My Google Pixel 2 phone is running android pie 9, I’m a Google ProjectFi cellphone network subscriber, and the phone is paired via Bluetooth to my 2013 Mercedes Benz. I switched the car audio via a car hardware button to Bluetooth. And asked Google Assistant to read what was on my screen.

It soon started to read out loud over bluetooth, HTML and CCS. This got pretty pointless, pretty quick. I switched back to FM Radio.

I called my wife using nothing but voice activation on the Mercedes with the paired bluetooth phone. While we were talking another call came in. I ignored it, it went to voicemail. When I’d finished talk to my wife, I pressed a button on the car to end the call.

I asked the Mercedes to “call voicemail” it did. The first thing the Project Fi voicemail system asked was for my voicemail PIN. There is no way around this, I sat there trying to get Fi to recognize the PIN by saying
nine, seven, nine, six, nine, five(*1)
It was pointless… it wasn’t enabled for voice prompts. I pulled over, pressed the phone buttons for the PIN followed by the # key. I went straight to the options key-4, and there was no voice activation option.

Next-up, I tried the Google Assistant to try.

OK Google, call my voicemail

I said in my best English accent, with my best annunciation and trying not to sound “mockney“.

Google Assistant: calling

Project Fi: to access your voicemail, please enter your PIN. followed by the # key

ME: nine, seven, nine, six, nine, five

Suffice to say, it didn’t work.

Even if it had, worryingly, even when you use the keypad to logon and navigate your voicemail, after hearing individual voicemails, the only options are:

mark this message as read press 7
keep this message as new press 9

There is a more options, it’s just message details, and play message again.

If you press 7, you go back to the main menu, where the only option is 4, change your settings. No ability to re-hear messages marked as read.

All in all a pretty disappointing experience. Especially true given it’s a 100% Google experience, add in the heightened requirement to reduce distracted driving and the fact that touching your phone while driving is illegal in my cities, States and Countries.

I know for sure that 10-15 years ago, voicemail could be voice driven.
To listen to your voicemail, press or say 1.

To delete the voicemail, press or say 3

etc.
Android phone app voicemail screenYes, I do know that I can press the voicemail button on the phone app in Android, and that would bring up a screen like this with a voice to text translation of the voicemail, the ability to play the voicemail, and the ability to delete it… but that all requires physical interaction with the phone.

*1 PIN isn’t really this…

The Popularity Of ‘Westworld’ Points To Our Anxiety About AI

“If things play out with AI the way that they have done with Facebook, we’re in a lot of trouble.” Jonathan Nolan

Source: The Popularity Of ‘Westworld’ Points To Our Anxiety About AI, The Show’s Creators Say | Here & Now

Fear of Automation

ZDNet has a good summary of a few recent reports on automation, a subject I’ve covered here more than once.

The more interesting survey report is from a Harris Poll for ZipRecruiter, an online employment marketplace.

ZipRecruiter’s nationwide data shows 60% of job seekers believe fears around robots taking away jobs are overhyped while 2 in 5 employed job seekers (41%) believe their current job will be automated within their lifetime.

This is more than likely because workers asked, don’t see the big picture. They don’t get involved with decisions and discussions about how to cut cost and risk from their workflow.

I’m not saying that we’ll wake up one day and everything will be taken over by robots, that’s not the case at all. It’s worse than that, automation is insidious and for the most part, invisible.

The ZDNet article by  for Robotics also links to recent reports from MckInsey and Redwood Software. Greg points out that:

  • 4 in 5 job seekers agree that the current technology boom has left certain people (84%) and cities (78%) behind.
  • Half of job seekers (50%) say the introduction of the Internet has generally done more harm than good. Employed job seekers are more likely to agree with this sentiment than unemployed job seekers (53% employed vs. 40% unemployed).
  • 2 in 5 job seekers (44%) believe there is no such thing as a bad technological advancement.

What this ignores, for the 50% that thinks the Internet is good, is that without it, and the automation and communication it has enabled, the workplace would be very different today. And that is one way the creep of insidious automation has been taking over.

Bringing Jobs Back to the USA

As the GOP push through their tax bill, without any transparency, one of the big ticket items is corporate tax breaks.

My opinion is the government are really wasting their time, and our money giving tax breaks, especially to companies to repatriate their overseas earnings, in some kind of swap for jobs. No such thing will happen, sure there will be a few winners here and there, but nothing substantial and certainly nothing overtime.

If the government wanted to do this, they’d have been better creating an incentive program, which gave them tax deductions for each net new job they created, the longer their total employment numbers were up, net new, the lower the tax rate on repatriation would go.

I posted the following on twitter… but in a debate about it today, realized I’d left the link off for the NPR article. Here it is.

The machines are coming – 2049?

It is notoriously difficult to predict the future. I lived my life at IBM, following Alan Kays 1982 aphorism

The best way to predict the future is to invent it

In my career I got many things right, and many things wrong. While Amazon was still a small time bookseller, and Youtube for the most part didn’t exist, it was obvious both business models would thrive. While I couldn’t convince IBM to pursue either of these opportunities with ny success, we demonstrated the technology perfectly. My “Wired for Life
Presentation contains some of my wins, and many of my losses.

It was much easier to build on these, especially the societal impact in my 2003 “Trends and Directions” presentation.  Societal impact is much easier to predict as you can demographic data, current trends and it’s pretty easy to extrapolate. Technology adoption is much harder.

Many of these predictions are not useful, after all who needs  a robot to write high school essays? Many though will continue to fundementally change work and life as we know it.

What they are though is a signal in the way the World Economic Forum predicts the technology will develop, and to some degree it’s a self fulfilling prophecy. Watching this and reading many of the “machines are coming” articles that have been published over the past 5-years, it’s easy to become depressed about the rise of automation, AI, and robots. In a year when the sequel for Blade Runner will finally appear on our screens, there are some key things to remember.

  1. There is no magic, no silver bullet – If they can’t explain it, or worse don’t understand it, they have not invented it. Machine learning is great, but the machines can only learn with the machine learning constraints they have.
  2. Listen to the doubters – Doubt is very different to dismissal. People who dismiss possibility out-of-hand either don’t understand the opportunity and the potential, or are afraid of the change. It’s the doubters who have thought things through and understand the problems and the weaknesses.
  3. Don’t fear automation – If you do, you will be left behind. Learn, adapt, change; if possible work to invent the future By all means be a doubter, don’t be a dismisser.
  4. Find a problem, don’t start with a solution – AI, Robotics, Big Data, Machine Learning, Algorithms, Neural Networks are all speciality fields, grabbing onto them and asking how can we use them isn’t useful. The more specific you can be about a problem that needs solving, the easier it will be to identify the correct technology.
  5. Be Human – the more we automate, the more important human interaction becomes. The more empathy you have for someone who has a problem, the more likely you are to be able to understand how to solve it. Empathy, the arts, sports and human interaction are all fields where robotics and automation are least likely to take over.

More Human than Human – Dr Eldon Tyrell, The Tyrell Corporation

Giant fleet of small scheduling nightmares

In tenuous link between my recent posts on automation, here and especially here, where back in November I discussed autonomous vehicles and their impact on employment. I also said:

While many cities are salivating over the ability of self-driving, autonomous vehicles to fix their broken road and transport infrastructure, that’s missing the point.

Sometime between then and last weekend I became a weekend subscriber to the (Boulder) Daily Camera, a great local paper for the Boulder/Denver metro area. Right on queue, my first Sunday paper was laying in the snow on the drive this weekend and I opened it up and parsed it during the day. One item that particularly caught my eye was Dave Kriegers main editorial entitled “Imagine a giant fleet of tiny buses“.

serveimageI grabbed a pen, marked the editorial up, scribbled in the margins and sat down on Monday morning and wrote an open forum letter. It didn’t get published, I have no idea if it’s policy not to publish corrections on staff written op-ed pieces, or they just didn’t think it interesting enough to include?

Since a big fuss has blown up about an Uber self driving car today, running a red light yesterday(in full transparency, Uber self driving development has a big office here in Louisville that is a build-up from the Uber acquisition of Microsofts Bing mapping service.) I thought I’d turn Mondays open forum letter into a blog post.

This also lets me correct one misstatement. Self-driving cars will help with congestion theoretically. In heavy traffic, they will drive at a regulation speed, a safe distance from the vehicle in front, thus avoid the hard braking and the impact that can have on several miles of traffic.

It is hard to respond to Dave Kriegers editorial imaging “a giant fleet of tiny buses” in 300-words, but I’d like to have a try.

First, I completely agree with his sentiment that if you keep trying the same old thing, you’ll keep failing. However, when it comes to his “giant fleet of small buses” he falls into the same trap most transport ‘imagineers’ do when the come to self-driving vehicles. For the sake of brevity, let’s assume they’ll be electric; let’s assume they can dock themselves; let’s assume they have a slightly better range than current electric cars.

Dave jumps to the conclusion that less space will be needed for parking. Sort of, except the cars have to be charged somewhere. But yes, they could be charged in either fields or reclaimed parking garages outfitted with self-docking chargers. Dave then makes the confusing jump to the conclusion that “[they] could reduce congestion because fewer cars would serve more people”.

Anyone that’s given any serious thought to scheduling and transportation would understand implicitly that that isn’t true. It’s implied because it fits the paradigm of autonomous vehicles. If 20,000 people want to get into Boulder today between 7:15am and 9:00am in their own unshared transportation, and the demand is the same in the era of self-driving cars, then, you’ll have the same number of journeys. Add in the recharging trips, the fact that using Daves logic, there will be less self-driving cars, then some of those cars will have to drive in and out and back into Boulder, actually increasing the number of journeys and therefore contributing to the congestion.

If we take Daves “less parking space” claim at face value, then what will the space formerly used by parking garages be used for? Green space… err no, more offices/accommodation, with the potential to further increase the number of journeys and congestion.

Don’t get me wrong, self-driving cars are great, but until we have flying cars they will only help indirectly with congestion won’t help with congestion. The only way is shared transport. Bus Rapid Transport isn’t it either. Trams, street cars, metro-rail are the only real fix.