Saturday, December 22, 2012

US postal service

I guess the whole world knows at this time of the challenges that the US postal service is facing. In this article on USPS, the author looks at the problem is more detail.

The author does show how revenue is going down faster than the expenses. This results in an loss incurring enterprise which is not sustainable. Therefore, this needs to be fixed and the author proposes various measures. These measures boil down to
  • reducing costs by cutting unprofitable services. This includes closing several offices and reducing the frequency of mail delivery since it does not make sense to have the same level of service when the demand for such services has gone down.  
  • increasing revenue by increasing the cost of other existing services and introducing new services 
Nothing revolutionary but just plain old common-sense. But we need strong leadership to execute on this. An illustration of why execution is very important in the life of an enterprise. 

interesting articles

Some interesting articles that i have come across recently. 
  • A deep look into the recent Presidential election and why Romney lost. While somewhat verbose, the author has provides a detailed review with numbers. So Colorado was lost due to the immigration position, Virginia lost over women's issues, Ohio lost due to Romney's position on the auto bailout and Florida lost due to the impact on Medicare due to Paul Ryan being the vice-presidential candidate. 
  • A very interesting article focused on domestication of a raccoon. 
  • The author laments the loss of the web world as we knew it in this article. Probably the latest efforts by Twitter, Facebook etc towards closing their ecosystems could have been the catalyst for this article. These companies might have been forced by the demands of Wall Street to do this. 
  • And then the author suggests solutions to the concerns expressed above here. The proposed steps include changing the funding model, build applications that provide great user experiences, democratizing the talent pool etc. 
  • Good ideas for some DIY projects. Something to explore in the near future.
  • Will robots take over? Well humans will still have to plan what the robots will have to do. 
  • Coolest gadgets. I would be interested in some of these. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Online education

The latest craze in education seems to be online education. Several startups focused in this area. Some of these are the so-called MOOCs (massively open online courses).

A list of the ones i know currently are

  • 2U : This is not a MOOC; rather it provides live interaction with the instructors.  Just that the students do not need to be in the same geographical location as the instructor. The cost is comparable to the cost of sitting in a real classroom. 
  • Minerva Project; This is not a MOOC again. 
  • UniversityNOW: They charge a flat fee per month and in return you can take as many courses as you want. They provide the textbooks as well as access to the faculty. Could not access the list of courses offered. 
  • edX; This is a MOOC but not many courses offered at the site. 
  • MIT OpenCourseware : Many of the courses taught at MIT available at this site. Some of them also have video recordings. Did see a few courses on basic programming, SaaS etc. 
  • CodeAcademy : Focused on teaching people how to code. 
  • Coursera; They have a large number of courses.
  • Udacity : Lots of courses with video recordings and lectures available here. 
  • Udemy: The choices of courses seems quite varied at this site. 
  • Khan Academy : Different topics are addressed here. 
Update on Jan 1st: Added a few more links below

Now along with the above efforts at online education we are also seeing efforts towards keeping the students honest. This involves use of tools such as computer webcams to monitor students, browser lockdowns to prevent access to any other sites when taking tests online, keystroke pattern recognition software to detect when a different person is answering questions online, plagiarism detection software etc.  I am not optimistic about these efforts at all. I would definitely not invest in any such efforts since they do not achieve their objectives. 

In fact I believe that the efforts towards keeping students honest are missing the point. The point of online education should be to democratize education making it easier for people to understand concepts since they can do so at their own pace. These online tools should not focus on awarding certificates. 

These online tools could be used by the "brick and mortar" universities or organizations to complement the teaching/training activities. And of course these could also be used by groups of students to ensure that the students go to the next level in terms of understanding the concepts. And these MOOCs can tie up with the Prometrics of the world to deliver exams and verify the skills for those students who are willing to pay extra to be certified. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Something to learn from reddit

What happens when the web site you are operating starts getting a phenomenal increase in user traffic? Of course, the costs to operate the site increase since now you are serving out more bits resulting in increased bandwidth usage.

How do you increase the revenue to balance this rise in costs? An easier approach seems to be to load up on the ads and start showing more of these. But that is not what the folks at Reddit did.

Seems counterintuitive? Not really.  To understand check out this comment of the CEO of which i have reproduced a small portion below

See, the problem is that if your site is funded primarily with advertising, then you are beholden to your advertisers. If your users choose to post something politically or culturally controversial, you come under editorial pressure from advertisers to remove or modify it, because advertisers like bland, well-lit spaces. This eventually results in a watering down of the true, authentic content on the site (remember Sears?). It's one of the reasons Digg failed. And personally, I feel that's not the best way to serve the community. It's not the right thing to do for the users who have faithfully contributed to reddit all these years.

Of course to fix this, the CEO wants the readers to become subscribers of their service. This will enable them to preserve the user experience. Seems fair.

So this is what I call a Systems approach to solving the problem as opposed to throwing in the band aid. So in the systems approach you got to understand how the complete system behaves and then figure out a solution keeping the entire system in mind as opposed to focusing on just a few components of the system. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Interesting book

Came across this interesting book Leading at The Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition . Something that I plan to read.

The leadership lessons from this book seem very appropriate for many situations especially that of a startup. I quote the following from a review there

At the same time Endurance set off to conquer the south pole, the Karluk set off to conquer the North Pole. Both ships were stranded in ice. Both sets of explorers had to endure unbelievable hardship. But, Shackleton's group pulled together. It was a story of sacrifice, teamwork and loyalty. The Karluk explorers drifted into theft, deception, lying, and mutiny.

This book delves into the why. How did Shackleton do it? From this, they derive the following 10 leadership lessons.

1. Never lose sight of the ultimate goal, and focus energy on short-term objectives.

2. Set a personal example with visible, memorable symbols and behaviors.

3. Instill optimism and self-confidence, but stay grounded in reality.

4. Take care of yourself: Maintain your stamina and let go of guilt.

5. Reinforce the team message constantly: "We are one- we live or die together."

6. Minimize status differences and insist on courtesy and mutual respect.

7. Master conflict- deal with anger in small doses, engage dissidents, and avoid needless power struggles.

8. Find something to celebrate and something to laugh about.

9. Be willing to take big risks.

10. Never give up-there's always another move. 

It's an M2M world

In my earlier article i wrote about Internet of things. A more common name for this is machine-to-machine abbreviated as M2M.

So what is M2M?  Does this cover say the cell phones that we carry or does this imply devices that are not controlled directly by humans. Rather the devices such as electric meters or tracking equipment decide when to send data using the network. The recipients of the data might then alarm humans in some situations who might then want to control these devices.

Of course like the blind men and the elephant we have different people describing M2M differently. Therefore several definitions abound. Something to address in more detail some other time.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Internet of things

The Internet did change the world drastically. The Internet of things was supposed to change the world much more drastically than what the Internet did.  So what exactly does internet of things refers to? Internet of things refers to uniquely identifiable objects (things) and their virtual representations in an Internet-like structure.

As Ashton who coined the phrase “Internet of things” remarked “If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things—using data they gathered without any help from us—we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling, and whether they were fresh or past their best. The Internet of Things has the potential to change the world, just as the Internet did. Maybe even more so. ” What happened to this potential of changing the world?

I believe that communications is the missing piece of the puzzle. These uniquely identifiable objects will be much more useful if they are able to communicate. Being able to receive and send data to the gazillions of devices in an efficient fashion will make possible several services that will improve quality of human life and address economic inefficiencies.  This will also result in less wasteful usage of resources. 

Examples of some such services include efficient usage of resources that make up the smart grid by measuring and communicating various quantities such as temperature, current, voltage to the right places (utility offices), making human life better by measuring and communicating various quantities such as blood pressure, sugar levels, heart beat etc to the right places (physician’s offices), condition based maintenance of various machines like current transformers, capacitor bank controllers, etc etc.  The resulting operational efficiencies can result in tremendous savings for various organizations in many different sectors of human life.  In fact many more services than what we can imagine now will be made possible.

One might question as to why do we claim that communications is the missing piece of the puzzle here. To answer this, consider cellular communications. All humans were “uniquely” identifiable but then the spread of wireless communication made possible services that changed the quality of human life. Various services such as commerce, gps based directions, application stores (Appstore), micro-lending, planning for crop planting etc have become possible due to the rapid expansion of wireless communication.  Services that were not thought of before the wireless communication revolution are now commonplace.

Note that internet by itself did not make this possible since Internet did not have the aspect of personalized communication possible with cellular networks.  Cell phones are always on and are permanently carried by humans and they are personalized in the sense that typically there is a single human owner for each cell phone. Thus the cell phone seems to have provided the wireless communication link for the human carrying the cell phone.  These are the aspects of cell phones that revolutionized human life. And I believe that providing a communication link to such devices will help realize the potential associated with ‘Internet of things’.

Of course providing the communication link to the gazillions of devices seems like an easy problem to solve. All that we need to do is to enable these gazillions of devices to use the cell phone networks and we have made communication possible. Surely this should lead to the services I was referring to earlier. So then, why have we not seen this? 

The solution is not as simple.  There are several challenges all stemming from the fact that human communication is very different from device communication. We will get into details of several of these challenges in future articles. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Role of a CEO

A CEO's role is very important for any organization especially a startup. Recently, had a chance to read an article on problems that Elop is causing as the CEO of Nokia at this link

Probably I would put all these blunders in the following buckets
  1. he wanted to go after the US market (where Nokia has been weak) at the cost of the markets where Nokia was strong (Emerging markets). You got to keep your strengths while addressing your weaknesses; not try a burn your bridges strategy while fixing your weaknesses.
  2. In addition I guess he was trying to minimize the number of product lines he had. But he was trying to do this  by cutting the profitable products prematurely. 
  3.  And he destroyed the strong relationship that Nokia had with their existing customers (Carriers in this case).
  4. And finally give control of Nokia’s destiny to a partner (Microsoft) who are jerking them around. 

I am sure we can all relate to these. 

Am back after a long hiatus

Been quite busy with the same startup that I joined after I left Qualcomm. No time to blog. It's still crazily busy at work but I want to make a determined effort towards blogging.  So should have more articles going forward.