Companies That Know You

Who knows more information about you – Google or your Wireless Phone Company?

Google
Google knows your search history, but doesn’t know your address or name.  Google knows what ads you clicked on and what search results you clicked on.  Google may know what city you are in if it can geo-locate based on your IP address, but it might be wrong too (if you are using a proxy).  Google might have your email if you use GMail.  But Google doesn’t know your name, email, or anything personal if you don’t login to any Google services.  Google purges all records in less than one year.

Cell Phone Carrier
Your cell phone carrier knows where you are all the time within 5-10 miles.  Your phone company knows who you talked to, and when, and for how long.  They know who you texted.  They have the content of your voicemail.  If you use a data plan on your phone, your phone company knows what websites you visit, what web searches you did, and what links you clicked.  And unlike Google’s information, which is all anonymous (unless you logged in), the phone company can tie it all back to your name, address, and phone number…  And these records are never purged.  In 2025, the phone company will still know where you were at 3pm on Saturday, July 11, 2009.

NOTE: These opinions do not reflect those of my employer.

Search Result Censorship

One of the most valued freedoms in America is the freedom of speech.  It’s part of the first amendment to the US Constitution in the Bill of Rights.  We defend it rigorously in everything we do.

When we read, listen or watch the news, we individually can choose media that reflects our own political views.  For instance, those that watch FOX news or listen to KSFO560 may be looking for a conservative view.  For a more liberal viewpoint, we might chose ABC News or Bloomberg.  Regardless of your political slant – America gives you the freedom to choose.

Recently Google’s search engine has been criticized for being overly algorithmic and perhaps too inhuman.  Certainly we all prefer to interact with people than we do to interact with purely the machine. But if search results were not algorithmic, then they would be editorialized.  And if they were editorialized, who should do the editing?  Certainly some governments would like to be involved in that process!  But generally, how do we avoid biases? How do we avoid censorship?

Of course, even if search results are algorithmic, humans created that algorithm, so it is not impervious to biases either.  So far, none of the big search engines have been accused of massive political censorship within their search results.  But maybe we just haven’t noticed yet?

By the way, I’m not talking about Google News, Yahoo News, or Bing News.  When using these sites, I’m well aware that biases are introduced simply by the choice of which news content is included in the site’s news index.   Web search is different.  Web search is like going to the library – I expect that there is no implicit content filter and I further expect all results will be at my disposal.  If there is editorial going on at this library,  I need to know so that I can either use a different library or modify my expectations.

Let’s take an example.  Search for “Martin Luther King” on Google, Yahoo, and Bing.  On Google, the top result is from Wikipedia.  Wikipedia is an independent, collaborative encyclopedia on the web.  It is also the #4 result on Yahoo and the #2 result on Bing.  I find this to be a fairly credible source. Yahoo’s top result is from NobelPrize.org, the official site of the Nobel Prize organization.  This site ranks as the #2 result on Google and the #5 result on Bing and also seems like a reputable and credible source. Finally, on Bing, the top result is from MSN Encarta, an online encyclopedia owned and operated by Microsoft.  This web page does not rank in the top 10 on either Yahoo or Google.  Wait a minute – MSN Encarta is owned and operated by Microsoft?

Since neither Yahoo nor Google rank the Encarta page very high, it is unclear what editorial process Microsoft uses to decide that Encarta deserves the #1 search result spot on Bing.  If Microsoft succeeds in its mission to become the top search provider, does this mean that Microsoft hand picks the content we see?  Sometimes editorial is good, but sometimes it is not.  And how can the user know which is which?

My example may seem trivial, because in reality, the Encarta page seems pretty fair.  But, what if Bing had editorialized it’s #4 result (www.martinlutherking.org) (also #3 on Google) to be the top search result?  This page looks like an official Martin Luther King history page, but it is actually written by white supremacists.  Interestingly, while this page shows up on both Google and Bing, it does not appear in the top-100 results on Yahoo at all.  Yahoo appears to have editorialized this result out of their index.  While most of us disagree with the Stormfront.org, should our search engines be using their own political beliefs to sensor your search results?

Of course, the advertising displayed on each of the search engines is also editorialized – or at least it is displayed at the discretion of the search engine in question.   This can confuse the issue, but at least the 3 search engines all label advertisements distinctly from search results.

To wrap up, we should all be aware that search engines today are biased in some way.  As long as those biases are based on algorithms designed to return content most people want and avoid content most people don’t want (spam, malware, etc) without outright censorship, that is okay.  But when biases start reflecting political opinions via exclusion or preference of self-created content, search engines have a real problem.  Because I don’t believe humans are capable of editorializing a world-wide-web index without introducing accidental or intentional biases, I’ll stick to search engines which use cold, calculating algorithms.

NOTE:  These opinions are my own and do not reflect opinions of my employer.

Short Sighted E-commerce Taxes

taxes Amazon lost one battle in New York this week and may be required to collect taxes on goods sold in that state despite the fact that Amazon is not physically present in New York.

We all know where this is going, right?  As soon as a country outside the US is willing to host companies at significantly lower-than-US tax rates (eh –Dubai!), US companies will move out of the country.  At that point, not only will we not collect state taxes for goods sold, we won’t collect federal taxes either.  In the retail space, where shipping is significant, Amazon probably can’t afford to take up shop in Dubai.  But if Mexico significantly changed it’s tax code, Amazon in Mexico might work better for everyone.

We need to learn that we can’t legislate everything.  Gambling has already moved off shore because of overly restrictive US gaming laws.  On-line gambling is still booming, of course, but the US just doesn’t get to partake in the profits.

Outside of retailing, US taxes effect other companies as well.  Halliburton Corp relocated to Dubai last year.  Dubai currently has no corporate business taxes, the US has 35%.  If I were running Exxon (the single largest US revenue source) I’d be considering a Dubai move.  Could you move your headquarters to save more than $10B per year?

The great thing about the internet and the commoditization of international communications is that companies can chose to move like never before.  Current US federal and state policy to tax everything will cause the smart businesses to move.

Auto Bailout Predictions

cash Over a year ago, I wrote a blog post about how the UAW was killing Detroit and how the government would ultimately bail them out.  The topic I addressed was UAW retirement money, not the big-three’s solvency, so it was a little different. But what is interesting to me is that back in Oct 2007, there were only 3 comments to my blog on the subject, one of which was my own!  However, since the bailout news struck this year, there have been 9 comments to this blog post.  Commentators so far have all agreed with the post; despite my dramatic writing style.  Since there is such interest in the subject, I did a little research on how that post relates to the latest bailout package for Detroit.

It turns out that my predictions were correct, but not for the right reasons.  The retirement trust fund (called a VEBA – Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association) started its establishment early this year.  By August, it was unclear if GM would have the financial capital to fund its portion of the fund.  And by December, of course, the VEBA is part of the reason GM is seeking handouts from Washington.  My prediction of a bailout was right, although the cause was wrong.  I blamed the UAW for mismanagement of funds, whereas it turned out that GM just didn’t have the cash to even get started.  I still stand by my claim that the UAW will mismanage the money.  I’m not the only one who didn’t understand how the UAW would agree to take on a $51B liability with only $30B in funding from GM.  Unless you’re anxious to skim off the top, it doesn’t make sense.

$700,000,000,000

President Bush asked for a little money today.  Here are some ways to put that into perspective.  I use the very handy data from the census bureau for these calculations.

  • He recommends spending ~$2300 for every person in the United States.
  • According to the census, there are about 33 million Americans earning less than $50K per year with mortgages.  Assuming a 10% default rate (this is huge) and an average $92,000 mortgage, we could cover all defaulted loans for $303Billion.
  • There are 6,450,000 Americans living below the poverty and holding mortgages.  Their median mortgage (sorry, I don’t have the average) is $21,390.  We could roughly pay off all of these people’s homes for only $137Billion.

We Aren’t Always Best

Here in America, when we have a problem, our politicians really can’t do anything to fix it.  Even if we all agree we need a problem fixed, we go through endless spiral debates that take years.

In Beijing, they have a lot of traffic.  They didn’t want traffic to be a problem during the Olympics – so they simply passed an odd/even driving rule for the month.  If your license plate is odd, don’t drive on even days.  Overnight, traffic dropped by 50%.  No problem!  Try accomplishing that in the United States.

We righteous in America always think we know best.  And in some cases, maybe we do.  But when it comes to just getting stuff done, you’ve got to admit, the Chinese are way ahead of us.

Forever Stamp

foreverIf you are like me, you aren’t pleased when the price of stamps goes up.  Here in my desk drawer, I still have about ten 34cent stamps, twenty 37cent stamps, and fifty 41cent stamps!  None of those will be usable starting next week.  I’ve been gradually using those 34cent stamps since 2001!

Fortunately, the Post Office has finally created the Forever Stamp – a stamp which will always be good for a first class stamp, regardless of rate increases.  Needless to say, I marched myself over to usps.com and bought myself a 10year supply of stamps!

I estimate that I use about 50 stamps per year.  I then looked up the historical prices of stamps, and projected postage through 2018.  I then calculated the amount of money I’m going to save with these wonderful Forever stamps – (not to mention that I won’t have a drawer full of useless stamps).   My savings – $28.80.  Woo hoo!  To those who don’t stock up – suckers!  OK – I’m actually aware that if I put the $205 I just spent on postage into the bank at 3% interest in the end, I’d actually spend less money.  But – that’s not the point!  Think of the bragging rights when I bring out my 41cent stamp in 2018 to mail a letter! 

postage

History Repeats Itself – Yahoo Style

I read this article today about how Yahoo lost its way by “coddling” Google.

You could take the article, roll the clock back by 10 years, change the quotes, and replace Yahoo/Google with Netscape/Yahoo.

Yahoo, like Google, was founded by a couple of Stanford computer science geeks.  They got their start not only via a business deal with the then-giant Netscape, but by having Netscape actually host Yahoo’s servers… 

Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.

Yellow Journalism

What some writers will do to make a headline!  Well, it works, which is all too sad.  Today, InformationWeek’s Thomas Claburn writes yet another piece of trash.  His article, Thieving Third-Party Gmail App Highlights Google Security Worries, speaks for itself.

Claburn’s ridiculous argument is that some guy wrote the combination to his MasterLock on the lock itself, and Claburn think’s it’s MasterLock’s fault!

Ok – well now I remember why InformationWeek is free.