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kottke.org posts about Google

Google’s AI beats the world’s top chess engine w/ only 4 hours of practice

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 07, 2017

With just four hours of practice playing against itself and no study of outside material, AlphaZero (an upgraded version of Alpha Go, the AI program that Google built for playing Go) beat the silicon pants off of the world’s strongest chess program yesterday. This is massively and scarily impressive.

AlphaZero won the closed-door, 100-game match with 28 wins, 72 draws, and zero losses.

Oh, and it took AlphaZero only four hours to “learn” chess. Sorry humans, you had a good run.

That’s right — the programmers of AlphaZero, housed within the DeepMind division of Google, had it use a type of “machine learning,” specifically reinforcement learning. Put more plainly, AlphaZero was not “taught” the game in the traditional sense. That means no opening book, no endgame tables, and apparently no complicated algorithms dissecting minute differences between center pawns and side pawns.

This would be akin to a robot being given access to thousands of metal bits and parts, but no knowledge of a combustion engine, then it experiments numerous times with every combination possible until it builds a Ferrari. That’s all in less time that it takes to watch the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The program had four hours to play itself many, many times, thereby becoming its own teacher.

Grandmaster Peter Heine Nelson likened the experience of watching AlphaZero play to aliens:

After reading the paper but especially seeing the games I thought, well, I always wondered how it would be if a superior species landed on earth and showed us how they play chess. I feel now I know.

As I said about AlphaGo last year, our machines becoming unpredictable is unnerving:

Unpredictable machines. Machines that act more like the weather than Newtonian gravity. That’s going to take some getting used to.

Albert Silver has a good overview of AlphaZero’s history and what Google has accomplished. To many chess experts, it seemed as though AlphaZero was playing more like a human than a machine:

If Karpov had been a chess engine, he might have been called AlphaZero. There is a relentless positional boa constrictor approach that is simply unheard of. Modern chess engines are focused on activity, and have special safeguards to avoid blocked positions as they have no understanding of them and often find themselves in a dead end before they realize it. AlphaZero has no such prejudices or issues, and seems to thrive on snuffing out the opponent’s play. It is singularly impressive, and what is astonishing is how it is able to also find tactics that the engines seem blind to.

So, where does Google take AlphaZero from here? In a post which includes the phrase “Skynet Goes Live”, Tyler Cowen ventures a guess:

I’ve long said that Google’s final fate will be to evolve into a hedge fund.

Why goof around with search & display advertising when directly gaming the world’s financial market could be so much more lucrative?

Google Maps in space: spinnable maps of our solar system’s planets & moons

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 30, 2017

Google Maps Io

Maaaaps! Innnnn! Spaaaaaaaace! Google Maps now features spinnable spherical maps of several planets and moons in our solar system, including Mars, the Moon, Io, Pluto, Enceladus, Titan, and Charon. Super fun. Here’s Google’s blog post about the new maps. (via emily lakdawalla)

Google’s impractical voice experiments

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 13, 2017

Google has launched a series of voice experiments that work with Google Home and also in the browser. For example, Mystery Animal is a 20 questions style game in which you attempt to guess the identity of a particular animal. Here’s how it works:

Another of the experiments, MixLab, helps you make music with simple voice commands (“add a club beat”, etc.). The experiments use AI to understand what people are asking them.

Nicole He, who worked on Mystery Animal and another experiment called Story Speaker, explains why it’s an interesting time to be goofing around with voice technology.

Talking out loud to computers has always felt more science fiction than real life. But speech recognition technology has come a long way, and developers are now making lots of useful things with voice devices. These days, you can speak out loud and have your lights turn on, or your favorite music played, or the news read to you.

That’s all nice and good, but there’s something clearly missing: the weird stuff. We should make things for voice technology that aren’t just practical. We should make things that are way more creative and bizarre. Things that are more provocative and expressive, or whimsical and delightful.

We’re in what I’m going to call The 1996 Web Design Era of voice technology. The web was created for something practical (sharing information between scientists), but it didn’t take very long for people to come up with strange and creative things to do with it.

I am terrible at 20 questions, so of course Mystery Animal stumped me. My last guess was “are you a zebra?” when the animal was actually a panda bear.

Something is wrong on the internet

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2017

Writer and artist James Bridle has noticed that something is wrong on the internet. Specifically, algorithmically chosen and produced content is taking over more and more of the internet, including what your young children are watching on YouTube.

Someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale, and it forces me to question my own beliefs about the internet, at every level.

By his own admission, there doesn’t seem to be anything egregiously wrong or upsetting about many of the examples Bridle uses. I mean, have you read Grimm’s fairy tales? Some of them are really dark and/or weird, like Black Mirror for children. But the effect in the aggregate is huge, resulting in what he asserts is a system of abuse in which Google is complicit, a technology fueled by advertising and weaponized against its users:

The architecture they have built to extract the maximum revenue from online video is being hacked by persons unknown to abuse children, perhaps not even deliberately, but at a massive scale. I believe they have an absolute responsibility to deal with this, just as they have a responsibility to deal with the radicalisation of (mostly) young (mostly) men via extremist videos — of any political persuasion. They have so far showed absolutely no inclination to do this, which is in itself despicable. However, a huge part of my troubled response to this issue is that I have no idea how they can respond without shutting down the service itself, and most systems which resemble it. We have built a world which operates at scale, where human oversight is simply impossible, and no manner of inhuman oversight will counter most of the examples I’ve used in this essay. The asides I’ve kept in parentheses throughout, if expanded upon, would allow one with minimal effort to rewrite everything I’ve said, with very little effort, to be not about child abuse, but about white nationalism, about violent religious ideologies, about fake news, about climate denialism, about 9/11 conspiracies.

Real websites for Halt and Catch Fire’s Rover and Comet

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 28, 2017

HACF Comet

This season on Halt and Catch Fire, competing teams made up of the main characters are building web apps. One team is making a hand-curated directory called Comet and the other is building a search engine with a unique algorithm called Rover. It’s Yahoo vs. Google, more or less. AMC has put up the sites as they appear on the show up on the web: Comet and Rover. They also put up the Cameron Howe fan page seen in the most recent episode, The Howe of It All (that’s a perfectly anachronistic name). See also Yahoo’s website circa 1994 when it was still hosted on a server at Stanford.

A character in the most recent episode also mentioned Justin Hall, creator of the early web’s most well-known personal site, Justin’s Links from the Underground.

Anyone know where I can get a Comet t-shirt? (I already have a Cardiff Electric shirt. (No, really.)) Oh, maybe this?

Inside Music, an interactive musical exploration & remix tool from Song Exploder and Google

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 06, 2017

Inside Music is a Web VR tool from Google and Song Exploder that lets you explore how songs from Perfume Genius, Phoenix, Ibeyi, and others are put together. Here’s a short video explanation:

You can turn different parts of each song off and on…guitars, bass, vocals, etc.; it’s cool to isolate different parts of each song. This works pretty well in the browser but I would imagine it’s a whole different deal if you have a VR rig.

Google has put the code for Inside Music on Github so if you’re a musician, you can explore your own songs in VR or put them up on the web for others to explore.

Solar eclipse searches match the path of totality

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 15, 2017

Solar Eclipse Searches

According to Google Trends, search traffic about the upcoming solar eclipse mirrors the path of totality. And according to XKCD, pre-eclipse search traffic for “eclipse” is outpacing pre-election search traffic for “election”.

Today’s Google logo is a set of playable turntables

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 11, 2017

In celebration of the 44th anniversary of the birth of hip hop, Google has replaced its logo with a pair of working turntables and a crate of records to scratch and mix.

On August 11, 1973, an 18-year-old, Jamaican-American DJ who went by the name of Kool Herc threw a back-to-school jam at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, New York. During his set, he decided to do something different. Instead of playing the songs in full, he played only their instrumental sections, or “breaks” — sections where he noticed the crowd went wild. During these “breaks” his friend Coke La Rock hyped up the crowd with a microphone. And with that, Hip Hop was born.

The introduction and tutorial is hosted by Fab 5 Freddy, host of the groundbreaking Yo! MTV Raps show. You can play with the DJ setup here:

That was super fun…I spent more time than I would like to admit playing with that. See also Tim Carmody’s Spotify playlist, Introduction to Hip-Hop.

A guide to what teens think is cool

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 04, 2017

Teens Cool Brands 2017

Google recently released a report about what US teenagers think is cool. The chart above is getting a bunch of attention on social media; teens aged 13-17 were asked to rank a bunch of brands according to how cool they think they are. Since the poll was commissioned by Google (and the results published by an internal marketing team), it’s unsurprising that three Google brands (YouTube, Google, Chrome) are in the top 10. Other interesting data points:

- Teens don’t know what Zara and Uniqlo are. Or Supreme.

- Buzzfeed is only slightly cooler than Ford and Chevrolet, which are both cooler than HBO. Perhaps because HBO can’t get you to a party and you can’t make out in a Buzzfeed?

- Kraft is cooler than Red Bull.

- Whatsapp, TMZ, Vice, and Yahoo are all super uncool.

- Twitter is cooler than Facebook, but Snapchat is much cooler than both.

- The Wall Street Journal is the least cool thing in the teen universe.

- This tweet is a good reminder not to take any of this too seriously.

There’s also this curious sentence in the introduction about Generation Z:

Unlike millennials, this group is ambitious, engaged, and feel like they can change the world.

Ouch. In what universe is that even a remotely true or fair statement?

AI Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2016

In the NY Times Magazine, Gideon Lewis-Kraus reports on Google’s improving artificial intelligence efforts. The Google Brain team (no, seriously that’s what the team is called) spent almost a year overhauling Google’s translate service, resulting in a startling improvement in the service.

The new incarnation, to the pleasant surprise of Google’s own engineers, had been completed in only nine months. The A.I. system had demonstrated overnight improvements roughly equal to the total gains the old one had accrued over its entire lifetime.

Just after the switchover, Japanese professor Jun Rekimoto noticed the improvement. He took a passage from Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro, translated it into Japanese, and fed it back into Google Translate to get English back out. Here’s how Hemingway wrote it:

Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.

And here’s the AI-powered translation:

Kilimanjaro is a mountain of 19,710 feet covered with snow and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. The summit of the west is called “Ngaje Ngai” in Masai, the house of God. Near the top of the west there is a dry and frozen dead body of leopard. No one has ever explained what leopard wanted at that altitude.

Not bad, especially when you compare it to what the old version of Translate would have produced:

Kilimanjaro is 19,710 feet of the mountain covered with snow, and it is said that the highest mountain in Africa. Top of the west, “Ngaje Ngai” in the Maasai language, has been referred to as the house of God. The top close to the west, there is a dry, frozen carcass of a leopard. Whether the leopard had what the demand at that altitude, there is no that nobody explained.

Google Earth Timelapse

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2016

Google has updated their Timelapse feature on Google Earth, allowing you to scrub satellite imagery from all over the globe back in forth in time.

This interactive experience enabled people to explore these changes like never before — to watch the sprouting of Dubai’s artificial Palm Islands, the retreat of Alaska’s Columbia Glacier, and the impressive urban expansion of Las Vegas, Nevada. Today, we’re making our largest update to Timelapse yet, with four additional years of imagery, petabytes of new data, and a sharper view of the Earth from 1984 to 2016.

A good way to experience some of the most compelling locations is through the YouTube playlist embedded above…just let it run for a few minutes. Some favorite videos are the circular farmland in Al Jowf, Saudi Arabia, the disappearing Aral Sea, the erosion of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana, the urban growth of Chongqing, China, the alarmingly quick retreat of Alaska’s Columbia Glacier, and this meandering river in Tibet.

New radar kit can recognize objects and material

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2016

Soli is a newish project by Google described as “a new sensing technology that uses miniature radar to detect touchless gesture interactions”. It’s pretty cool. A group at The University of St. Andrews has found another potentially more amazing use for the sensor: recognizing specific objects and materials.

RadarCat (Radar Categorization for Input & Interaction) is a small, versatile radar-based system for material and object classification which enables new forms of everyday proximate interaction with digital devices. In this work we demonstrate that we can train and classify different types of objects which we can then recognize in real time. Our studies include everyday objects and materials, transparent materials and different body parts. Our videos demonstrate four working examples including a physical object dictionary, painting and photo editing application, body shortcuts and automatic refill based on RadarCat.

More simply put, if you put an orange on the sensor, it knows it’s an orange…and the system can learn new objects as well. It’s a barcode scanner without barcodes. Watch the video…you’ll get the idea pretty quickly.

Walter Cronkite Spit In My Food

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 04, 2016

Today’s Google Doodle honors the 100th anniversary of the birth of legendary newsman Walter Cronkite.

Today would be the 100th birthday of the man known widely throughout the ’60s and ’70s as “the most trusted man in America.” Walter Cronkite, the legendary broadcast journalist reported, served, and comforted a nation during its most trying times, including World War II, Watergate, the Vietnam War, and the assassination of JFK, to name a few.

Walter perpetuated an objective reporting style rooted in justice and integrity: “Press freedom is essential to our democracy, but the press must not abuse this license. We must be careful with our power. The free press, after all, is the central nervous system of a democratic society.”

Since I missed most of Cronkite’s career as a TV news anchor (I was 7 when he retired), I mostly associate him with the coverage of the Apollo 11 Moon landing and the early web meme Walter Cronkite Spit In My Food.

It was an unbelievable account of a drunken Walter Cronkite raging at a honeymooning couple in a restaurant. It included an obviously faked video clip of Walter Cronkite spitting and a fuzzy photograph of a man who looked vaguely like Cronkite.

Google’s honor is a bit ironic given that Cronkite favored tougher libel and slander laws for “would-be writers and reporters on the Internet”:

I am dumbfounded that there hasn’t been a crackdown with the libel and slander laws on some of these would-be writers and reporters on the Internet. I expect that to develop in the fairly near future.

as well as legislation against anonymous expression online:

I favor legislation that requires people to stand by their words by identifying themselves on the Internet. They should not be permitted to operate anonymously.

He was clear that he was not after censorship:

I hope to make it clear that I did say that I am opposed to any form of censorship. This is identification… forced identification by those who use the Internet. Not censorship. It is simply requiring them to take the same responsibility that people in print and in broadcasting have to take.

Our creative, beautiful, unpredictable machines

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 11, 2016

I have been following with fascination the match between Google’s Go-playing AI AlphaGo and top-tier player Lee Sedol and with even more fascination the human reaction to AlphaGo’s success. Many humans seem unnerved not only by AlphaGo’s early lead in the best-of-five match but especially by how the machine is playing in those games.

Then, with its 19th move, AlphaGo made an even more surprising and forceful play, dropping a black piece into some empty space on the right-hand side of the board. Lee Sedol seemed just as surprised as anyone else. He promptly left the match table, taking an (allowed) break as his game clock continued to run. “It’s a creative move,” Redmond said of AlphaGo’s sudden change in tack. “It’s something that I don’t think I’ve seen in a top player’s game.”

When Lee Sedol returned to the match table, he took an usually long time to respond, his game clock running down to an hour and 19 minutes, a full twenty minutes less than the time left on AlphaGo’s clock. “He’s having trouble dealing with a move he has never seen before,” Redmond said. But he also suspected that the Korean grandmaster was feeling a certain “pleasure” after the machine’s big move. “It’s something new and unique he has to think about,” Redmond explained. “This is a reason people become pros.”

“A creative move.” Let’s think about that…a machine that is thinking creatively. Whaaaaaa… In fact, AlphaGo’s first strong human opponent, Fan Hui, has credited the machine for making him a better player, a more beautiful player:

As he played match after match with AlphaGo over the past five months, he watched the machine improve. But he also watched himself improve. The experience has, quite literally, changed the way he views the game. When he first played the Google machine, he was ranked 633rd in the world. Now, he is up into the 300s. In the months since October, AlphaGo has taught him, a human, to be a better player. He sees things he didn’t see before. And that makes him happy. “So beautiful,” he says. “So beautiful.”

Creative. Beautiful. Machine? What is going on here? Not even the creators of the machine know:

“Although we have programmed this machine to play, we have no idea what moves it will come up with,” Graepel said. “Its moves are an emergent phenomenon from the training. We just create the data sets and the training algorithms. But the moves it then comes up with are out of our hands — and much better than we, as Go players, could come up with.”

Generally speaking,1 until recently machines were predictable and more or less easily understood. That’s central to the definition of a machine, you might say. You build them to do X, Y, & Z and that’s what they do. A car built to do 0-60 in 4.2 seconds isn’t suddenly going to do it in 3.6 seconds under the same conditions.

Now machines are starting to be built to think for themselves, creatively and unpredictably. Some emergent, non-linear shit is going on. And humans are having a hard time figuring out not only what the machine is up to but how it’s even thinking about it, which strikes me as a relatively new development in our relationship. It is not all that hard to imagine, in time, an even smarter AlphaGo that can do more things — paint a picture, write a poem, prove a difficult mathematical conjecture, negotiate peace — and do those things creatively and better than people.

Unpredictable machines. Machines that act more like the weather than Newtonian gravity. That’s going to take some getting used to. For one thing, we might have to stop shoving them around with hockey sticks. (thx, twitter folks)

Update: AlphaGo beat Lee in the third game of the match, in perhaps the most dominant fashion yet. The human disquiet persists…this time, it’s David Ormerod:

Move after move was exchanged and it became apparent that Lee wasn’t gaining enough profit from his attack.

By move 32, it was unclear who was attacking whom, and by 48 Lee was desperately fending off White’s powerful counter-attack.

I can only speak for myself here, but as I watched the game unfold and the realization of what was happening dawned on me, I felt physically unwell.

Generally I avoid this sort of personal commentary, but this game was just so disquieting. I say this as someone who is quite interested in AI and who has been looking forward to the match since it was announced.

One of the game’s greatest virtuosos of the middle game had just been upstaged in black and white clarity.

AlphaGo’s strength was simply remarkable and it was hard not to feel Lee’s pain.

  1. Let’s get the caveats out of the way here. Machines and their outputs aren’t completely deterministic. Also, with AlphaGo, we are talking about a machine with a very limited capacity. It just plays one game. It can’t make a better omelette than Jacques Pepin or flow like Nicki. But not only beating a top human player while showing creativity in a game like Go, which was considered to be uncrackable not that long ago, seems rather remarkable.

Google has a new logo

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 01, 2015

Google Logo 2015

….and it still looks like a middlebrow kids clothing brand logo.

So why are we doing this now? Once upon a time, Google was one destination that you reached from one device: a desktop PC. These days, people interact with Google products across many different platforms, apps and devices-sometimes all in a single day. You expect Google to help you whenever and wherever you need it, whether it’s on your mobile phone, TV, watch, the dashboard in your car, and yes, even a desktop!

Today we’re introducing a new logo and identity family that reflects this reality and shows you when the Google magic is working for you, even on the tiniest screens. As you’ll see, we’ve taken the Google logo and branding, which were originally built for a single desktop browser page, and updated them for a world of seamless computing across an endless number of devices and different kinds of inputs (such as tap, type and talk).

Update: The design team shares how they came up with the new logo.

Update: When I said that Google’s new logo “still looks like a middlebrow kids clothing brand logo”, this is pretty much what I meant.

Gymboree Google

Gymboree’s identity (1993-2000) vs. Google’s new identity (Sep 01, 2015)

(via @buzz)

Project Sunroof

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 18, 2015

Google’s latest project is called Project Sunroof. Sunroof utilizes Google Earth data to estimate the solar energy potential of buildings.

Enter Project Sunroof, my recent 20% project. Project Sunroof is a new online tool we’re testing to help homeowners explore whether they should go solar. Available in the San Francisco Bay Area, Fresno (in central California), and the Boston area for now, the tool uses high-resolution aerial mapping (the same used by Google Earth) to help you calculate your roof’s solar energy potential, without having to climb up any ladders.

If you’re in one of our test regions, simply enter your address and Project Sunroof will crunch the numbers. It first figures out how much sunlight hits your rooftop throughout the year, taking into account factors like roof orientation, shade from trees and nearby buildings, and local weather patterns. You can also enter your typical electric bill amount to customize the results. The tool then combines all this information to estimate the amount you could potentially save with solar panels, and it can help connect you with local solar providers.

Google still has 20% time?

Google, Alphabet, and the Googlettes

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 13, 2015

Google announced earlier in the week that they were creating a new company, Alphabet, to house a collection of companies, including Google.

What is Alphabet? Alphabet is mostly a collection of companies. The largest of which, of course, is Google. This newer Google is a bit slimmed down, with the companies that are pretty far afield of our main Internet products contained in Alphabet instead. What do we mean by far afield? Good examples are our health efforts: Life Sciences (that works on the glucose-sensing contact lens), and Calico (focused on longevity).

Google has been focused on diversifying their business for a long time, even before their IPO. In August of 2003, they posted a job listing on Craigslist looking for a manager to run their collection of Googlettes, which were essentially startups within Google:

What is a Googlette? It’s a new business inside of Google that is just getting started — the start-up within the start-up. We’re looking for an experienced, entrepreneurial manager capable of offering direction to a team of PMs working on a wide array of Googlettes. You will define Google’s innovation engine and grow the leaders of our next generation of businesses.

Georges Harik, who is now an advisor for Google Ventures, was a former director of the Googlettes:

As director of Googlettes, his team was responsible for the product management and strategy efforts surrounding many nascent Google initiatives including Gmail, Google Talk, Google Video, Picasa, Orkut, Google Groups and Google Mobile.

At the time, I riffed on this idea a little and imagined Google spinning out these businesses as a confederation of stand-alone companies:

Instead of generating ideas and people for internal use, what if they’re incubating start-ups to spin off into companies of their own? Fast forward five years and instead of being a big huge company, Google is a big huge company at the center of a network of 10-20 large to medium-sized companies with similar goals, values, and business practices. Most of these spin-offs would be engaged in businesses similar (and probably complementary) to each other and the Google Mother Ship, some of them maybe even directly competing with each other.

In hindsight, Alphabet is a much better name than Google Mother Ship.

How Google’s self-driving car sees the road

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 09, 2015

Chris Umson is the Director of Self-Driving Cars at Google[x] and in March, he gave a talk at TED about the company’s self-driving cars. The second half of the presentation is fascinating; Umson shows more than a dozen different traffic scenarios and how the car sees and reacts to each one.

It will be interesting to see how roads, cars, and our behavior will change when self-driving cars hit the streets. Right now, street markings, signage, and automobiles are designed for how human drivers see the world. Computers see the road quite differently, and if Google’s take on the self-driving car becomes popular, it would be wise to adopt different standards to help them navigate more smoothly. Maintaining painted lines might be more important, along with eliminating superfluous signage close to the roadway. Maybe human-driven cars would be required to display a special marking alerting self-driving cars to potential hazards.1 Positioning of headlights and taillights might become more standard.

Human drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians will necessarily adapt to self-driving cars as well. Some will take advantage of the cars’ politeness. But mostly I suspect that learning to interact with self-driving cars will require a different approach, just as people talk to computers differently than they do to other humans — think of how you formulate a successful search query, speak to Siri, or, more to the point, manipulate a Wii remote so the sensor dingus on top of your TV can interpret what you’re doing.

  1. Although if the car is smart enough to parse the arm motions of a police officer directing traffic, it can probably pick out the relatively inconsistent movement of a human-driven car in a second or two.

Google Ocean View

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 30, 2015

Google Ocean View

Google Street View includes views from under the Earth’s oceans. You can tour shipwrecks, swim with humpback whales, and virtually dive down to dozens of coral reefs.

P.S. You can also climb Yosemite’s El Capitan on Google Street View, which is SO OMG TERRFIYING THAT I CANT BE BOTHERED TO CORRECTM Y TPYING. Are anyone else’s palms soaking wet right now? (via mr)

Walt Disney’s corporate strategy chart

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 26, 2015

From 1957, this is a drawing of the synergistic strategy of Walt Disney Productions, or what Todd Zenger of Harvard Business Review calls “a corporate theory of sustained growth”.

Disney Synergy Chart

The boxes on the chart have changed, but since the appointment of Bob Iger as CEO, Disney has seemingly doubled down on Walt’s old strategy with their increased focus on franchises.

Disney’s dominance can be boiled down very simply to one word: franchises. Or rather, an “incessant focus on franchises” in the words of former Disney CFO Jay Rasulo.

“Everything we do is about brands and franchises,” Rasulo told a group of financial analysts last September. “Ten years ago we were more like other media companies, more broad-based, big movie slate, 20 something pictures, some franchise, some not franchise. If you look at our slate strategy now, our television strategy, almost every aspect of the company, we are oriented around brands and franchises.”

Franchises are well suited to extend across multiple parts of a big business like Disney, particularly because it’s a repeating virtuous cycle: movies drive merchandise sales and theme park visits, which in turn drives interest for sequels and spin-offs, rinse, repeat, reboot.

I wonder if more tech companies could be using this strategy more effectively. Apple does pretty well; their various hardware (iPhone, iPad, Mac), software (iOS, OS X), and services (iCloud, App Store, iTunes Store) work together effectively. Microsoft rode Office & Windows for quite awhile. Google seems a bit more all over the place — for instance, it’s unclear how their self-driving car helps their search business and Google+ largely failed to connect various offerings. Facebook seems to be headed in the right direction. Twitter? Not so much, but we’ll see how they do with new leadership. Or old leadership…I discovered Walt’s chart via interim Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.

Google and the amazing touch-sensitive dreampants

posted by Jason Kottke   May 29, 2015

Google just announced Project Jacquard, an effort to introduce interactivity into textiles. Swipe your sofa cushion to change the channel on your TV,1 tap a special “knock” on your collar to unlock your front door, or control your party’s playlist with a few taps of your pants.

Update: Google and Levi’s are collaborating on a jacket that uses the Project Jacquard technology. They announced the collaboration last year:

With the Levi’s Commuter jacket, introduced in 2016, the technology comes to life through a conductive fabric and a Bluetooth device that attaches to the garment. The connected area consists of 15 threads on the left sleeve, just visible enough for you to know where to touch to trigger actions from a paired smartphone.

They just announced the price and availability: $350 and fall 2017.

  1. Perhaps this is what Steve Jobs meant when he said of the Apple TV, “I finally cracked it”?

Asking “who’s the customer?”

posted by Jason Kottke   May 07, 2015

If you’ve bought a ticket to an event in the past, oh, 15-20 years, chances are you got it from Ticketmaster. Chances are also pretty good that you think Ticketmaster completely sucks, mostly because of the unavoidable and exorbitant convenience fee they charge. And that probably has you wondering: if everyone who uses the service hates Ticketmaster so much, how are they still in business? Because ticket buyers are not Ticketmaster’s customers. Artists and venues are Ticketmaster’s real customers and they provide plenty of value to them.

Ticketmaster sells more tickets than anybody else and they’re the biggest company in the ticket selling game. That gives them certain financial resources that smaller companies don’t have. TM has used this to their advantage by moving the industry toward very aggressive ticketing deals between ticketing companies and their venue clients. This comes in the form of giving more of the service charge per ticket back to the venue (rebates), and in cash to the venue in the form of a signing bonus or advance against future rebates. Venues are businesses too and, thus, they like “free” money in general (signing bonuses), as well as money now (advances) versus the same money later (rebates).

Read that whole Quora answer again…there’s nothing in there about TM being helpful for ticket buyers. It turns out asking “who’s the customer?” is a great way of thinking about when certain companies or industries do things that aren’t aligned with good customer service or user experience.1

Take Apple and Google for instance. Apple sells software and hardware directly to people; that’s where the majority of their revenue comes from. Apple’s customers are the people who use Apple products. Google gets most of their revenue from putting advertising into the products & services they provide. The people who use Google’s products and services are not Google’s customers, the advertisers are Google’s customers. Google does a better job than Ticketmaster at providing a good user experience, but the dissonance that results between who’s paying and who’s using gets the company in trouble sometimes. See also Facebook and Twitter, among many others.

Newspapers, magazines, and television networks have dealt with this same issue for decades now.2 They derive large portions of their revenue from advertisers and, in the case of the TV networks, from the cable companies who pay to carry their channels. That results in all sorts of user hostile behavior, from hiding a magazine’s table of contents in 20 pages of ads to shrieking online advertising to commercials that are louder than the shows to clunky product placement to trimming scenes from syndicated shows to cram in more commercials. From ABC to Vogue to the New York Times, you’re not the customer and it shows.

This might be off-topic (or else the best example of all), but “who’s the customer?” got me thinking about who the customers of large public corporations really are: shareholders and potential shareholders. The accepted wisdom of maximizing shareholder value has become an almost moral imperative for large corporations. The needs of their customers, employees, the environment, and the communities in which they’re located often take a backseat to keeping happy the big investment banks, mutual funds, and hedge funds who buy their stock. When providing good customer service and experience is viewed by companies as opposite to maximizing shareholder value, that’s a big problem for consumers.

Update: I somehow neglected to include the pithy business saying “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product”, which originated in a slightly different phrasing on MetaFilter.

Update: One example of how maximizing shareholder value can work against good customer service comes from a paper by a trio of economists. In it, they argue that co-ownership of two or more airlines by the same investor results in higher prices.

In a new paper, Azar and co-authors Martin C. Schmalz and Isabel Tecu have uncovered a smoking gun. To test the hypothesis that institutional investors gain market power that results in higher prices, they examine airline routes. Although we think of airlines as independent companies, they are actually mostly owned by a small group of institutional investors. For example, United’s top five shareholders — all institutional investors — own 49.5 percent of the firm. Most of United’s largest shareholders also are the largest shareholders of Southwest, Delta, and other airlines. The authors show that airline prices are 3 percent to 11 percent higher than they would be if common ownership did not exist. That is money that goes from the pockets of consumers to the pockets of investors.

How exactly might this work? It may be that managers of institutional investors put pressure on the managers of the companies that they own, demanding that they don’t try to undercut the prices of their competitors. If a mutual fund owns shares of United and Delta, and United and Delta are the only competitors on certain routes, then the mutual fund benefits if United and Delta refrain from price competition. The managers of United and Delta have no reason to resist such demands, as they, too, as shareholders of their own companies, benefit from the higher profits from price-squeezed passengers. Indeed, it is possible that managers of corporations don’t need to be told explicitly to overcharge passengers because they already know that it’s in their bosses’ interest, and hence their own. Institutional investors can also get the outcomes they want by structuring the compensation of managers in subtle ways. For example, they can reward managers based on the stock price of their own firms — rather than benchmarking pay against how well they perform compared with industry rivals — which discourages managers from competing with the rivals.

(via @krylon)

  1. BTW, asking who the customer is doesn’t help in every situation where bad service and contempt for the customer rears its ugly head. See cable companies, mobile carriers, and airlines. Companies also have other conflicts of interest that interfere with good customer experience. Apple, for instance, does all kinds of things that aren’t necessarily in the best interest of the people buying their products. And as the Ticketmaster example shows, determining a company’s true customer isn’t just a matter of where the revenue comes from. It’s never simple.

  2. This is a potential problem with kottke.org as well. Almost all of my revenue comes from advertising. My high regard for the reader keeps me pretty honest (I hope!), but it’s difficult sometimes.

Desire map of the world

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 22, 2015

This map was compiled using the autocomplete results for “how much does a * cost” for every country in the world.

Desire Map World

Some notable desires: Mexican tummy tucks, Brazilian prostitutes, Albanian nose jobs, Russian MiGs, Lebanese PS3s, and Japanese watermelons.

See also the desire map of the US.

Play Pac-Man in Google Maps

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 31, 2015

Ok, April Fools’ is still idiotic, but this is pretty cool: you can play Pac-Man in any neighborhood on Google Maps.

Pac-Man Google Maps

NYC’s West Village is a fun place to play. See also Pac-Manhattan, a real-life game of Pac-Man played on the streets of Manhattan in 2004 by a group of ITP students, including Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley.

Desire map of the 50 states

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 13, 2015

What States Want

In Alaska, people search for the cost of a gallon of milk. In Alabama and Florida, people search for the cost of abortions. In other states, vasectomies, facelifts, and taxis are popular searches. The map was compiled using the autocomplete results for “how much does a * cost”… for each of the 50 states. (via mr)

Google’s new offices

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 02, 2015

The plans for Google’s new offices in Mountain View blew me away. Not so much the reconfigurable office spaces1 but the greenhouse canopies. If those canopies actually work, they could result in a workspace that combines the best parts of being outdoors (the openness, the natural light & heat, greenery) with the benefits of working indoors (lack of wind & rain, moderate temperatures).

  1. I’m skeptical. Can spaces made for any purpose be right for any single purpose? Swiss Army knives aren’t that great at slicing bread.

How YouTube changed the world

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 10, 2015

Burning a person alive is not a new act in warfare or intimidation. Far from it. So how did the gruesome burning of a Jordanian pilot become a incident that outraged the world and possibly altered a war? It was on video. Seeing a video changes everything. The existence of video footage can determine what leads the news, what drives public opinion, and what gets lodged in our memories. It can also determine who becomes a celebrity, who gets elected, which products we purchase, and confirm again and again the dominance of the once overlooked house-cat. Whoever controls the video controls the story. And since about 2005, the person who’s controlled the video has been you. You, the cat owner. You, the aspiring singer. You, the citizen journalist. And yes, you the terror group determined to intimidate and remain at the forefront of a global conversation. From The Telegraph: How YouTube Changed the World.

How to browse to google.com

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 20, 2015

This article attempts to explain, in great detail, what happens when you type ‘google.com’ into your browser and press enter.

To pick a zero point, let’s choose the enter key on the keyboard hitting the bottom of its range. At this point, an electrical circuit specific to the enter key is closed (either directly or capacitively). This allows a small amount of current to flow into the logic circuitry of the keyboard, which scans the state of each key switch, debounces the electrical noise of the rapid intermittent closure of the switch, and converts it to a keycode integer, in this case 13. The keyboard controller then encodes the keycode for transport to the computer. This is now almost universally over a Universal Serial Bus (USB) or Bluetooth connection, but historically has been over PS/2 or ADB connections.

An I, Pencil for the internet age.

Interactive visualization of the periodic table

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2014

Google Research built an interactive periodic table of the elements where you can see the relative amounts of the elements as found in the human body, in the sea, and, most interestingly, by the number of mentions in books.

Periodic table

If you’ve ever wondered why the periodic table is shaped the way it is, click on “electrons” under “Shape” and pay attention to the number of electrons in the outer shells in each column of elements. Amazingly, when Dmitri Mendeleev and German chemist Julius Meyer published the first periodic tables in 1869/1870, the elements were organized only by atomic weights and chemical properties; they didn’t know what an electron was and certainly weren’t aware of quantum shells of electrons. (via @djacobs)

Google Doodle honors Jonas Salk

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 28, 2014

Google Salk

Today’s Google Doodle honors Jonas Salk on what would have been his 100th birthday. Salk developed the first successful polio vaccine in 1955 and was hailed as a hero for it.

On April 12, 1955, Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr., of the University of Michigan, the monitor of the test results, “declared the vaccine to be safe and effective.” The announcement was made at the University of Michigan, exactly 10 years to the day after the death of President Roosevelt. Five hundred people, including 150 press, radio, and television reporters, filled the room; 16 television and newsreel cameras stood on a long platform at the back; and 54,000 physicians, sitting in movie theaters across the country, watched the broadcast on closed-circuit television. Eli Lilly and Company paid $250,000 to broadcast the event. Americans turned on their radios to hear the details, department stores set up loudspeakers, and judges suspended trials so that everyone in the courtroom could hear. Europeans listened on the Voice of America. Paul Offit writes about the event:

“The presentation was numbing, but the results were clear: the vaccine worked. Inside the auditorium Americans tearfully and joyfully embraced the results. By the time Thomas Francis stepped down from the podium, church bells were ringing across the country, factories were observing moments of silence, synagogues and churches were holding prayer meetings, and parents and teachers were weeping. One shopkeeper painted a sign on his window: Thank you, Dr. Salk. ‘It was as if a war had ended’, one observer recalled.”

Because of Salk’s vaccine and subsequent vaccines, the US has been polio-free since 1979.