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A clear example of meme evolution: Making apps addictive

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Ian Leslie writes in the Economist:

In 1930, a psychologist at Harvard University called B.F. Skinner made a box and placed a hungry rat inside it. The box had a lever on one side. As the rat moved about it would accidentally knock the lever and, when it did so, a food pellet would drop into the box. After a rat had been put in the box a few times, it learned to go straight to the lever and press it: the reward reinforced the behaviour. Skinner proposed that the same principle applied to any “operant”, rat or man. He called his device the “operant conditioning chamber”. It became known as the Skinner box.

Skinner was the most prominent exponent of a school of psychology called behaviourism, the premise of which was that human behaviour is best understood as a function of incentives and rewards. Let’s not get distracted by the nebulous and impossible to observe stuff of thoughts and feelings, said the behaviourists, but focus simply on how the operant’s environment shapes what it does. Understand the box and you understand the behaviour. Design the right box and you can control behaviour.

Skinner turned out to be the last of the pure behaviourists. From the late 1950s onwards, a new generation of scholars redirected the field of psychology back towards internal mental processes, like memory and emotion. But behaviourism never went away completely, and in recent years it has re-emerged in a new form, as an applied discipline deployed by businesses and governments to influence the choices you make every day: what you buy, who you talk to, what you do at work. Its practitioners are particularly interested in how the digital interface – the box in which we spend most of our time today – can shape human decisions. The name of this young discipline is “behaviour design”. Its founding father is B.J. Fogg. [Note that the tools used are memes, and the memes control the humans hosting the meme. It’s like the fungus that affects ants and changes their behavior, except memes instead of fungus. – LG]

Earlier this year I travelled to Palo Alto to attend a workshop on behaviour design run by Fogg on behalf of his employer, Stanford University. Roaming charges being what they are, I spent a lot of time hooking onto Wi-Fi in coffee bars. The phrase “accept and connect” became so familiar that I started to think of it as a Californian mantra. Accept and connect, accept and connect, accept and connect.

I had never used Uber before, and since I figured there is no better place on Earth to try it out, I opened the app in Starbucks one morning and summoned a driver to take me to Stanford’s campus. Within two minutes, my car pulled up, and an engineering student from Oakland whisked me to my destination. I paid without paying. It felt magical. The workshop was attended by 20 or so executives from America, Brazil and Japan, charged with bringing the secrets of behaviour design home to their employers.

Fogg is 53. He travels everywhere with two cuddly toys, a frog and a monkey, which he introduced to the room at the start of the day. Fogg dings a toy xylophone to signal the end of a break or group exercise. Tall, energetic and tirelessly amiable, he frequently punctuates his speech with peppy exclamations such as “awesome” and “amazing”. As an Englishman, I found this full-beam enthusiasm a little disconcerting at first, but after a while, I learned to appreciate it, just as Europeans who move to California eventually cease missing the seasons and become addicted to sunshine. Besides, Fogg was likeable. His toothy grin and nasal delivery made him endearingly nerdy.

In a phone conversation prior to the workshop, Fogg told me that he read the classics in the course of a master’s degree in the humanities. He never found much in Plato, but strongly identified with Aristotle’s drive to organise and catalogue the world, to see systems and patterns behind the confusion of phenomena. He says that when he read Aristotle’s “Rhetoric”, a treatise on the art of persuasion, “It just struck me, oh my gosh, this stuff is going to be rolled out in tech one day!”

In 1997, during his final year as a doctoral student, Fogg spoke at a conference in Atlanta on the topic of how computers might be used to influence the behaviour of their users. He noted that “interactive technologies” were no longer just tools for work, but had become part of people’s everyday lives: used to manage finances, study and stay healthy. Yet technologists were still focused on the machines they were making rather than on the humans using those machines. What, asked Fogg, if we could design educational software that persuaded students to study for longer or a financial-management programme that encouraged users to save more? Answering such questions, he argued, required the application of insights from psychology.

Fogg presented the results of a simple experiment he had run at Stanford, which showed that people spent longer on a task if they were working on a computer which they felt had previously been helpful to them. In other words, their interaction with the machine followed the same “rule of reciprocity” that psychologists had identified in social life. The experiment was significant, said Fogg, not so much for its specific finding as for what it implied: that computer applications could be methodically designed to exploit the rules of psychology in order to get people to do things they might not otherwise do. In the paper itself, he added a qualification: “Exactly when and where such persuasion is beneficial and ethical should be the topic of further research and debate.”

Fogg called for a new field, sitting at the intersection of computer science and psychology, and proposed a name for it: “captology” (Computers as Persuasive Technologies). Captology later became behaviour design, which is now embedded into the invisible operating system of our everyday lives. The emails that induce you to buy right away, the apps and games that rivet your attention, the online forms that nudge you towards one decision over another: all are designed to hack the human brain and capitalise on its instincts, quirks and flaws. The techniques they use are often crude and blatantly manipulative, but they are getting steadily more refined, and, as they do so, less noticeable. . .

Continue reading.

Weaponizing memes, in effect: tailoring them to produce the desired effect.

Highly relevant earlier post.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2016 at 1:49 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life

WOW!! California attorney general investigating Wells Fargo on allegations of criminal identity theft

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James Rufus Koren reports in the LA Times:

The California Department of Justice is investigating Wells Fargo & Co. on allegations of criminal identity theft over its creation of millions of unauthorized accounts, according to a search warrant sent to the bank’s San Francisco headquarters this month.

The warrant and related documents, served Oct. 5 and obtained by The Times through a public records request, confirm that California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, in the final weeks of a run for U.S. Senate, has joined the growing list of public officials and agencies investigating the bank in connection with the accounts scandal.

Harris’ office demanded the bank turn over a trove of information, including the identities of California customers who had unauthorized accounts opened in their names, information about fees related to those accounts, the names of the Wells Fargo employees who opened the accounts, the names of those employees’ managers and emails or other communication related to those accounts.

Her office is also requesting the same information about accounts opened by Wells Fargo workers in California for customers in other states.

Kristin Ford, a spokeswoman for Harris’ office, said she could not comment on an ongoing investigation. Wells Fargo spokesman Mark Folk said the bank is “cooperating in providing the requested information,” but would not comment further. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2016 at 1:34 pm

The First Amendment is now missing the point, if it’s not irrelevant altogether

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In the Washington Post Jonathan Capeheart has a very thought-provoking audio interview, accompanied by a report that includes an interesting quotation from the interview. That reportbegins:

“We’re in a period analogous, truly analogous, to the time in Europe just after Gutenberg mechanized the Chinese invention of the printing press,”Alberto Ibargüen, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, told me. “After Gutenberg, any Tom, Dick or Martin Luthercould print whatever they want, and it took a hundred years to figure out, to sort it all out.”

The 11th episode of “Cape Up” is all about the state of journalism in the age of social media. “Confused,” is how Ibargüen describes it. The former publisher of the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald pointed out that while two Supreme Court decisions have shaped our present-day understanding of the First Amendment as it pertains to newspapers and broadcast television, “The law of First Amendment as to Internet … simply isn’t settled.”

In an effort to “help shape First Amendment law” in the digital age, the Knight Foundation and Columbia University announced in May the creation of the Knight First Amendment Institute at the Ivy League school in New York. Ibargüen told me that when such cases come before the court, “I want somebody at the table, somebody at the courthouse that is saying, ‘Let’s err on the side of transparency. Let’s err on the side of free speech.’ ” But what he said next highlighted the unanswered legal questions facing all of us: Congress, companies, courts and consumers.

That’s not to say that everything is black-and-white. We know it isn’t. The First Amendment itself isn’t. Although, the First Amendment is fairly clear. It says, “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly, a redress of grievance.” Five phenomenal rights. But they also don’t say, well, what happens if it is not Congress? What happens if it’s Google? … Think about it. Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook have more ability to control what we know or think we know than anything in history. Than anyone in history. Than any government has ever had.

We talked about the power of search-engine programmers to mold what we accept as facts. “Even algorithms have parents,” Ibargüen said, “and the parents, the programmers, imbue the algorithm, consciously or not consciously, with some kind of values.” He went on to talk about what happened when you typed “thug” into Google. The ensuing controversy forced changes, so now when you type the word in you get an array of “thug” choices to search. “Somehow that algorithm knows what it is supposed to present,” Ibargüen told me, “and that affects what we think and what we think we know.”

Continue reading.

And read this as well: how corporations are programming you—that sounds like corny science-fiction, but it’s behavioral design: it’s here now and it works. On you, and me.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2016 at 12:37 pm

Donald Trump Is Running Some Really Insecure Email Servers

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Joseph Cox writes at Motherboard:

In what might be one of the more delicious cases of irony to ever grace a presidential election, a researcher has found that a number of email servers linked to Donald Trump’s hotel and others businesses are running horribly out of date software which receive no security patches, and are lacking other precautions for keeping hackers out.

The findings come at a time when cybersecurity is a crucial topic in the presidential election, with hackers dumping documents from Hillary Clinton’s campaign online, and Trump and his supporters continuing to criticise Clinton’s use of a private email server.

“Running outdated software and operating systems for your publicly facing email infrastructure is problematic, especially when you’re a high profile organisation,” security architect Kevin Beaumont, who highlighted the issues with Trump’s servers, told Motherboard in an email. “During an election where cybersecurity is such a big issue, I was a little amazed at what I saw.”

A number of mail servers for, a domain registered to The Trump Organization, are using end-of-life software, according to Beaumont. Those include the operating system Windows Server 2003 and IIS 6.0, which comes shipped with it.

“IIS is a webserver, and it’s particularly dangerous to run unpatched,” Beaumont told Motherboard. . . .

Continue reading.

The guy can’t manage his own businesses, his own campaign. How does he think he can be president?

Written by LeisureGuy

18 October 2016 at 2:12 pm

North Dakota prosecutor Ladd Erickson is unfit for office

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Radley Balko reports in the Washington Post:

A North Dakota judge has dismissed a “riot” charge against “Democracy Now!” journalist Amy Goodman. At least one other journalist has been arrested and faces felony charges, all for covering climate change and pipeline protests in the state. There appears to be no evidence that Goodman actually participated in any rioting. She was basically charged for giving publicity to protesters, some of whom may have “rioted” as defined by state law. That seems evident in statements prosecutor Ladd Erickson has given to the Bismarck Tribune. Like this one:

“I think she put together a piece to influence the world on her agenda, basically. That’s fine, but it doesn’t immunize her from the laws of the state.”

Or this one:

“She’s a protester, basically. Everything she reported on was from the position of justifying the protest actions,” said Erickson, adding that her coverage of the Sept. 3 protest did not mention that people trespassed during the incident or the alleged assaults on guards.

“Is everybody that’s putting out a YouTube video from down there a journalist down there, too?” he asked.

Well, yes. The fact that Goodman may have been covering the protests from a point of view that’s friendly to the protesters doesn’t mean she’s culpable for the actions of those protesters who may have broken the law. There’s no “advocacy exception” to the First Amendment’s free-press protections. In fact, at the time the First Amendment was written and passed, there was no ideal of an “objective” press. All press was advocacy press.

These arrests and charges are an affront to both the free press and the right to protest. They’re also ample evidence that Erickson isn’t fit to be a prosecutor. He clearly doesn’t understand the First Amendment. Or — even worse — he understands it just fine. He just chooses to ignore it.

Whether Erickson keeps his job will be up to the voters of McLean County, N.D. But it’s important that he be sanctioned. Here’s why: It seems doubtful that Erickson ever thought these charges would stick. (If he did, all the worse.) This was a clear attempt to intimidate Goodman. It was also a warning to any other reporter, writer or journalist who may consider covering any future protests. Goodman had the benefit of a national platform, good attorneys, and a strong and vocal network of supporters. The next reporter may be a freelance journalist or blogger, or work for some small advocacy publication. The Constitution protects them, too.

If Erickson can abuse his power in this way without suffering any professional penalty, there’s no disincentive to dissuade him or some other prosecutor from doing it again. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 October 2016 at 11:30 am

Start out with half a house and build out as needed

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Jason Kotte blogs:

An architecture firm called Elemental recently completed a disaster relief project in a city in Chile which was devastated by an earthquake in 2010. Rather than build typical public housing (high-rise apartments), the firm built out neighborhoods with the necessary infrastructure and populated them with half-finished houses.

The houses are simple, two-story homes, each with wall that runs down the middle, splitting the house in two. One side of the house is ready to be moved into. The other side is just a frame around empty space, waiting to be built out by the occupant.

That’s from a recent episode of 99% Invisible that covered the trend toward incremental buildings. . . .

Continue reading. And there’s a podcast at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 October 2016 at 5:08 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life

‘There is no such thing as “free” vaccines: Why we rejected Pfizer’s donation offer of pneumonia vaccines.’

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Jason Cone, Executive Director of Doctors Without Borders in the United States explains why a contribution of a million doses of a pneumonia vaccine was declined:

I recently had the difficult task of telling Ian Read, Pfizer’s CEO, that Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is rejecting the company’s offer to donate a significant number of pneumonia vaccine (PCV) doses for the children we serve. This is not a decision that we took lightly, since our medical teams working in the field witness the impact of pneumonia every day.

Pneumonia claims the lives of nearly one million kids each year, making it the world’s deadliest disease among children. Although there’s a vaccine to prevent this disease, it’s too expensive for many developing countries and humanitarian organizations, such as ours, to afford. As the only producers of the pneumonia vaccine, Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) are able to keep the price of the vaccine artificially high; since 2009, the two companies have earned $36 billion on this vaccine alone. For years, we have been trying to negotiate with the companies to lower the price of the vaccine, but they offered us donations instead.

You might be wondering, then, why we’d rather pay for the vaccine than get it for free. Isn’t free better?

No. Free is not always better. Donations often involve numerous conditions and strings attached, including restrictions on which patient populations and what geographic areas are allowed to receive the benefits. This process can delay starting vaccination campaigns, which would be an untenable situation in emergency settings, or grossly limit who you’re able to reach with the vaccine.

Donations can also undermine long-term efforts to increase access to affordable vaccines and medicines. They remove incentives for new manufacturers to enter a market when it’s absorbed through a donation arrangement. We need competition from new companies to bring down prices overall — something we don’t have currently for the pneumonia vaccine.

Donations are often used as a way to make others ‘pay up.’ By giving the pneumonia vaccine away for free, pharmaceutical corporations can use this as justification for why prices remain high for others, including other humanitarian organizations and developing countries that also can’t afford the vaccine. Countries, which continue to voice their frustration at being unable to afford new and costly vaccines such as PCV, need lower prices as well to protect children’s health.

Critically, donation offers can disappear as quickly as they come. The donor has ultimate control over when and how they choose to give their products away, risking interruption of programs should the company decide it’s no longer to their advantage. For example, Uganda is now facing a nationwide shortage of Diflucan, an essential crytpococcal meningitis drug, in spite of Pfizer’s commitment to donate the drugs to the government. There are other similar examples of companies’ donation programs leaving governments and health organizations in a lurch without the medical tools they need to treat patients.

To avoid these risks and to limit the use of in-kind medical products donations, the World Health Organization (WHO), and other leading global health organizations such as UNICEF and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, have clear recommendations against donation offers from pharmaceutical corporations.

Donations of medical products, such as vaccines and drugs, may appear to be good ‘quick fixes,’ but they are not the answer to increasingly high vaccine prices charged by pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer and GSK.

There are times, however, when overwhelming pragmatic needs demand a short-term solution. Such was the case in 2014, when, after five years of unsuccessful price negotiations, MSF agreed to accept a one-time donation from Pfizer and GSK of their pneumonia vaccines. This was a notable exception to our prohibition on in-kind corporate donation policy that was made with great consideration, so that children would not go unvaccinated while issues of affordability and sustainability were under discussion. But in agreeing to the donation, both Pfizer and GSK assured us that they would work on a longer-term solution for children caught in crisis and developing countries.

Finally, just last month, in a significant shift — and after years of negotiations and months of public campaigning — GSK announced that it would offer its pneumonia vaccine to humanitarian organizations at the lowest global price (currently $3.05 per dose or $9.15 per child for all three doses needed for full vaccination). This is an important step towards a sustainable solution for humanitarian organizations that wish to extend the benefits of pneumonia vaccination to children caught in crisis. In contrast, Pfizer has not made any pricing concessions, and has yet to announce any meaningful solutions. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 October 2016 at 2:17 pm

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