Wolfram | Alpha Personal Analytics. Quantified-self on demand

Wolfram | Alpha posted about a self-analysis tool, the Personal Analytics for Facebook. All you need to do is go to their site and register with Wolfram | Alpha and connect it to your Facebook ID (giving them permission to read your friend lists) and then they’ll run all sorts of analytics on your social graph. Just type “facebook report” on wolframalpha.com to get started.

The graph above shows your Facebook friends on hover so you can figure out all the outliers and what connects them to the others. The chart below shows you how you access Facebook. There’s another, not pictured, that will show you which apps you use and when.

All in all it’s a beautiful report and a clever way towards user acquisition. It reminds me of Nicholas Felton’s beautiful Year in Review reports. Mr. Felton, who now works at, ironically, Facebook.

Analog to Digital

There is a great interview with Thomas Peterffy on NPR’s Planet Money podcast this week. Mr. Petterffy is credited with bringing computers to Wall Street. In the clip below, he talks about how he cut the cord to his NASDAQ terminal and patched it into the back of a computer so that his trading algorithm could automatically buy & sell shares based on the the numbers it was reading off the feed. NASDAQ noticed the volume of trades coming over the wire from his company, and when they realized that all these trades were being executed by one computer, they pointed to a line in the user agreement that said that all trades needed to be entered, “using the keyboard.”

Peterffy and his engineers then devised a “rubber hand” attached to the computer that got around this absurd rule. The robot entered all trades via the keyboard in order to comply with the rulebook but, as Petterffy notes, on busy trading days the clacking of the robot hand on the keyboard got so loud that people in the office had to wear earplugs.

This story brought back memories of a similar, absurd set of rules that I witnessed at the Osaka stock exchange. The Nikkei future contracts were traded on the Osaka stock exchange and they had a strict set of rules that said that you could only trade these futures if you had a seat on the exchange and had staff in an office within a certain distance of the exchange. This was enforced by a rule similar to the NASDAQ rule that prohibited digital quote feeds from the floor. The only feed you could get was a video feed showing the prices and this feed could only go a certain distance from the Osaka Stock Exchange (OSE). This was, no doubt, a way to force high net worth financial firms to keep an office in Osaka. The problem was, the Morgan Stanleys of the world had a hard time convincing anyone to live in Osaka to work the Futures floor.

I worked for a US Securities firm based in Tokyo at the time and we got around the OSE rule in a clever way, not too unlike Peterffy’s robot hand. We rented a small office across the street from the OSE and installed one of their proprietary video terminals that they give to those with a seat on the exchange. In this office (which was essentially a closet), we put a camera trained on that terminal screen. We then had a computer parse that images from the camera and used software to read the numbers and turn them into digital bits which we then sent to our Tokyo traders via a leased line connection. With this home grown digital ticker feed of the futures contract numbers, our traders could run their trading desk remotely from Tokyo.

The only issue was earthquakes. Whenever there was a strong temblor, someone from the IT department (where I worked) would have to get on a bullet train to Osaka (about 3 hours away) and go to that small office to adjust the camera and re-calibrate the software that parsed the video signal and turned numbers into a digital feed.

The digitization of analog content transforms every business it touches. When you turn a musical performance into an .mp3, a movie into an .avi , or a newspaper into an .html file, it can be duplicated and transported at no cost. We think digitization is a recent phenomena but the interview with Thomas Peterffy reminds us that this transformation hit the financial services first. Shortly after the Peterffy robot, NASDAQ lifted its rule restricting computerized trading and today, more than 50% of all trades are entered automatically via computers running trading algorithms.

The robots are taking over. As we look at events such as the Flash Crash of 2010 and the Knightmare of 2012, we should be taking notes to see how the pursuit of efficiency may impact other industries that are turning to automation.

Loss of Innocence

Yesterday, my 10 year-old daughter, discovered that the Tooth Fairy no longer exists. I was packing to return home from our vacation and was about to stow some bandages in my toilet bag when she caught a glimpse of her note and tooth that she had left for T.F. under her pillow several days ago. It was a real shock for her.

My son, who is older, was different. He likes to figures stuff out for himself. My wife and I knew he no longer believed but weren’t sure when he stopped believing. He was a good sport about it though and kept Julia in the dark for the past few years, playing along, saying nothing. Today I finally asked him when he was clued in. He looked up from an episode of MythBusters and said he figured it out when he lost a tooth but decided not to tell us. He put the tooth under the pillow and nothing happend the next morning, the tooth was still there. Eliminating the variables, he put it together.

As fat tears rolled down Julia’s cheeks, between sniffles, I could feel her ache of losing something magical, something bigger than herself, someone with whom she could keep secrets. With the fall of the Tooth Fairy, others soon would follow. She tugged at this loose spiritual thread and asked me point blank about Santa, the Easter Bunny, and so on. Knowing it was time to come clean, I lay down the cards for her. By mid-morning, not only had the Tooth Fairy ceased to exist but all the other childhood myths lay shattered in pieces.

I wonder how this will change her over the next year. She’s about to go into 5th grade, the last grade before she goes on to Middle School. Many of her classmates have been telling her that Santa and the others do not exist but she’s been resisting them, choosing to have faith. Now, with that dream broken, she’ll be on the other side of the fence. Those who know the existentialist truth of a world without the Tooth Fairy.

A father worries, what will become of that innocent smile?

Photo by CC Marks

Serving the Customer

In Japan, attending to the needs of the customer is not only a pre-requisite, it is a minimum requirement to participate in the domestic economy. The Japanese consumer is a particularly fickle shopper. The mere whiff of attitude will drive away shoppers and with it, the business. Back when I lived in Tokyo when VCRs were the way we watched movies at home, my local video rental establishment was a place called Tsutaya. My experience with them some 15 years ago is but one illustration of Japanese service that I pull out to explain how customer service works in Japan.

One rainy Sunday, I returned a video to Tsutaya, unwatched. I explained to them that this was so because my VCR was broken. Sensing not only a potential loss of repeat business but also, I am certain, an opportunity to go above and beyond, the guy behind the counter helpfully chirped that he would be happy to take a look at my stricken machine to see if he could repair it.  I came back later that afternoon, dropping off my VCR for a look see. I really was not expecting anything. I am a bit handy myself and after popping the lid could see that a belt needed replacing and knew that the cost of these types of repairs usually outweigh picking up another machine secondhand at the local electronics store.

Much to my delight, later that evening, I had a message from the Tsutaya guy that he had replaced the belt with a new one and I could come by anytime to pick up my refurbished VCR, all at no charge. When I came by, not only did I have a working VCR, they also let me take home the original movie I wanted to watch, free of charge as well.

You see, in Japan the customer is at the center of entire ecosystem. When a single customer walks in the door, that person is not an individual sale, that person is a lifetime relationship of repeat business. That person represents a net haul of customers that include that person’s friends, relatives, and a gaggle of second cousins and classmates. Win this one person over and close them for a repeat visit and you’ve added one more stone to an unassailable pyramid of revenue. The investment of a hour of labor and a spare rubber belt was tiny compared to the business returns from not only myself but others that I know, including those who read this story again, 15 years later.

This faith in the value of word-of-mouth marketing is something that has been passed down to Japanese through the ages. It was there before Facebook Fan Pages, before the Social Media Marketer. This is the mind of the Japanese merchant. Tsutaya has successfully evolved from CD & Video rentals into a major corporation with a fancy new flagship store in Daikanyama and I wish for its continued success.

Mars Curiosity computer specs

Inside the Mars Curiosity Rover is basically an Apple G3 (PowerPC) computer with 256MB of DRAM, and 2GB of flash storage (see ExtremeTech for details). Note that this cpu is about 1/4 the speed of an iPhone half the RAM (512MB) and much less than the 64GB of storage memory. Oh, and the software? Some of it is available on the NASA GitHub.

For a comparison of the size of this most recent rover, take a look at the photo below showing it’s size next to the previous two Mars rovers.

The Customer is God

I am a bit surprised that there was not more buzz around Doc Searls’ recent article, The Customer is God, where he re-hashed his argument for a new world of merchant/customer relationship that he has been noodling on for the past several years.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the only way a company could scale up in productivity and profit was by treating customers as populations rather than as individuals—and by treating employees as positions on an organization chart rather than as unique sources of talent and ideas. Anything that stood in the way of larger scale tended to be dismissed.

The Internet has challenged that system by giving individuals the same power. Any of us can now communicate with anybody else, anywhere in the world, at costs close to zero. We can set up our own websites. We can produce, publish, syndicate and do other influential things, with global reach. Each of us can be valuable as unique individuals and not only as members of groups.

The internet has enabled intimacy at scale. It is now possible for each of us to reach out to almost anyone, anywhere in the world and have a direct conversation. Doc argued in his seminal book, The Cluetrain Manifesto, the internet is the great dis-intermediator. We have seen it route around the middleman in every industry it has touched.

Today, consumers are moving away from commercial enterprises to tell them what to buy. They are increasingly turning towards their social networks for recommendations. Instead of a visit to a cookie-cutter mall, consumers are turning to more personal forms of curation which gives rise to sites such as Yelp, Etsy, or Pinterest.

The next phase in the evolution of consumer behavior which Doc has been banging on about is the era of the Vender Relationship Management (VRM). In this world, the consumer will maintain a profile of items which they are open to purchase. In much the same way we maintain a Facebook or LinkedIn profile as our signpost of our interests and desires, the VRM profile will be a strictly commercial profile, a public wishlist outlining items we hope to purchase complete with details of price and delivery options. Like the old mailbox flag that you would flip up on the country road to signal to the mailman that you have a letter for them to pick up, you would manage your VRM profile as a way to signal what type of offers they are open to evaluating and giving your attention.

Flipping the advertisement model on its head, the VRM arrangement channels only those advertisements that are guaranteed to be relavent to you and puts the power of control back into your hands. In this world there is no need to be tracked because you explicitly tell the ad networks exactly what you want. No more wasted impressions competing for your attention. In this world, advertising evolves from marketing to a sales channel.

The move from a “stalking economy” where vendors are always following you around trying to figure out what you want to a world where we clearly state what we want is already happening. Kickstarter is an example of this new “intention economy” where people directly signal what they want by actually pledging money towards products they’d like to see built.

Keep an eye out for companies and technologies that enable this direct consumer intent. These will be the ones that are on the right side of the wave. These will be the ones that succeed.