Smile, your car is on candid camera

Last week I mentioned the Ford Trends conference that I attended in Dearborn. One of the sessions described an effort between Ford and Intel called Mobile Interior Imaging, or Project Mobii that I found fascinating.

As you might know, cars are coming with more cameras to keep track of their movements. There have been rear-facing cameras for years that are available to help backing into parking spaces or seeing heretofore hidden obstacles, and cameras are also on the side of vehicles and used for things like Ford’s parallel parking assist technology. I have been in several cars now that seemingly know exactly when and where to turn: all you have to do is shift from forward to reverse when the car tells you. And Ford has put a camera on the front of its pickup trucks, complete with a small washing device to keep the lens clean, to track tailgating and lane changes.

But the Intel Mobii project is all about cameras inside the vehicle. The idea is to recognize particular drivers and passengers and make the driving experience more personal, such as seat adjustment, contacts and music preferences displayed on the entertainment system. And, if an unrecognized driver sits behind the wheel, you will receive a photo of who is driving your car and could potentially disable the ignition system. Or perhaps a parent could prevent their car from being driven late at night or faster than a certain speed. Intel and Ford have developed apps for smartphones to track and monitor these functions. The mind boggles at the potential uses. Here is a short promo video that Intel developed.

Right now Mobii is just a research project, so don’t expect these interior camera systems anytime soon. But the spread of the parking assist technology has been very rapid. This time at the Trends conference I could use that technology to park in an empty spot between a row of cars in addition to the standard parallel parking situation. And the cameras on the outside of the vehicle also determine when you are drifting into another lane and warn you with either a vibrating steering wheel or gently moving your car back into the right lane position, which was amazing.

Mobii isn’t the only thing that Ford engineers are cooking up with advanced tech. At the conference, Don Butler, who runs the Connected Vehicles program, spoke about how the new Mustangs next model year will offer an advanced 911 response system. When you get into an accident, the car will call the nearest 911 PSAP and using a voice synthesizer tell the operator where you are and what is the condition of your car, whether air bags have deployed and how fast you decelerated. This is an enhancement to similar technology that is already in more than 7 million Fords on the road today, leveraging their Sync entertainment system. Speaking of Sync, they are also looking at the collection of massive system data from all of the cars in a certain geographic area. This could be useful during the next polar vortex to determine if Ford should change engine settings to better handle the colder weather, as an example.

As you might imagine, car owners have to opt-in to share all this data with Ford. Certainly, there are privacy issues to consider, but I like what they are doing and it was exciting to see some of the advances first-hand.


The many ways of car sharing

Many millennials are moving back into cities and forgoing car ownership, a combination of opportunities and cost savings. It has been interesting to watch this trend play out, given that I didn’t own a car myself until I was 30 and moved to the sprawling Los Angeles.

Back in the days when I was carless, the rental options were pretty simple: you got to the airport or a downtown hotel and rented one by the day or by the week. But unlike my own experience, today’s urban dwellers have lots of choices with car sharing, short-term rentals, expanded cars-for-hire and better mass transit options. Some cities have a bountiful collection that is almost dizzying, while others are still trying to figure out the right mix.

It is somewhat ironic that I am writing this column today, while I am visiting Ford in Detroit and participating in their annual trends conference. Certainly, they are very aware that car ownership and usage is changing.

Take car sharing. Now you have Car2Go, ZipCar, Carshare and others. You sign up and pay a small membership fee to have your driver’s license and credit card registered with them. You download an app for your smartphone that tells you the real-time location of your car. You then reserve the car and have 20 minutes or so to get to the car, swipe your magnetic entry card, put the key in the ignition and off you go. You are charged by the minute you occupy the car, which varies depending on the service. When you are done, you park the car at any parking meter or legal parking spot in the area of service and walk away. You don’t pay for gas or parking or tolls. ZipCar has required parking spots that are typically near universities or downtown areas.

When I visited my daughter last week in Denver, I got to see first hand how easy it was. We got a Car2Go to take a short trip that cost all of $4. The car she reserved was just a few blocks away, and we could park it a block from our destination.

Short-term rentals include and, divisions of both major rental firms. They work similarly to the car sharing services, except that you have to return them to specific locations. Enterprise will bring you to your car, or vice-versa. Unlike the regular daily car rentals from these companies, younger drivers are allowed, which is good since both are going after the college market.

And there are the taxi-like services such as Uber and Lyft that hire drivers and either their own cars or ones provided by the company to pick you up. My daughter is a big fan of Lyft and actually prefers their drivers to the standard hacks, telling me that the drivers and their cars are both more pleasant.

My friend Bill Frezza, writing in Forbes, says that the rise of these alternative car services will give regular taxi companies fits. He cites some interesting statistics too.

Indeed both Uber and Lyft are involved in litigation as the established taxi services try mightily to hold on to their cartels. Here in St. Louis, Lyft was blocked from even opening for business with lawsuits. It reminds me of the days when DSL providers were first trying to enter the broadband market and they were blocked by the established telcos until they could deploy their own legal armies and get the public utility commissions to open things up. Of course, now DSL is mostly provided by the telcos.

Where will all this end up? I don’t really know. But my daughter is glad about the range of options available to her, and is happy to continue using these services and being free of owning a car for now.

The ultimate last mile technology: the Kwikset Kevo lock

The cable and phone companies have all sorts of argot to talk about how they work with us, the great unwashed public that is their customers. I have written about this before, and found this from 1999:

Given the vocabulary, it isn’t any surprise why both cable and phone utilities have such disdain for you, its customer. I mean — last mile and truck rolls — shouldn’t these be called the first mile and service calls? Maybe by changing the terms we can improve attitudes and service levels.

But the ultimate last mile technology (or first mile, if you will) is becoming very personal indeed: it the distance from your pocket (or purse) to your front door. Let me explain.

A few weeks ago I got the Kwikset Kevo Bluetooth-enabled lockset. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about and put it through its paces. Now, I should state right up top that I am not one of those handy guys. My father believed that any tool besides a hammer and a screwdriver was superfluous, and I have adopted that philosophy in spades for my own lifestyle. Usually, I mess things up more than I can fix them. So I approached this Kevo project with some trepidation.

I unpacked the box and laid out all the different pieces, including several instruction manuals (see the photo above). The first thing I did was read all the manuals. Then read them again, just to make sure that I knew what I was getting myself into. One mentioned that I might need a chisel if my door wasn’t the right size. Uh oh. There were also various measurements that I needed to take to see if the lockset fit the openings in my door. This meant that I would have to take apart the existing lock to get the right measurements. Another uh oh. Did I mention that I don’t do measurements very well either?

I put everything back in the box and the box on a high-enough shelf. I wasn’t ready to tackle this project. Besides, I had other deadlines to meet, and what if I screwed things up so royally that I wouldn’t have a lock on my office door?

A week or so later, I realized that I was being ridiculous and a wimp. After all, the PR rep said it was pretty easy install, and we all know that PR reps always speak the truth. So now I was doubly challenged to get this done. I got everything out again and started the install process. I was surprised: it took less than a hour, and that was going slowly and measuring things three times just to make sure. My new lock was up and working just as it should be. I didn’t need a chisel, either. Whew.

The lock comes with three different access methods: a traditional metal key, a special key fob, and an iOS app that you can load on the more recent iPhones. Next problem: my iPhone was one generation old enough where the app wouldn’t work. Did I waste my time with the Kevo? Not really. Because now I have a lock that can open just by touching it, as long as I have the fob in my pocket.

I was surprised at how convenient this “last mile” technology is, because often I am carrying all sorts of packages and stuff into and out of my office. Not having to fumble for a key is a real nice thing. And having an app will be useful when I have guests that stay at my office (it doubles as a guest room), provided my guests have more recent iPhones than I. Not to mention the coolness factor of having such a lock.

There are lots of folks working on Internet-enabled watches as interfaces for their phones, and other Internet-of-Things devices for the home. Having not to get anything out of your pockets or purses to use them is going to be a Very Big Deal, indeed. As long as the batteries inside the lock continue to work.

Online medical diagnosis, from the doctor’s perspective










When it comes to self-diagnosis and treatment, the Internet can either be your own Dr. Frankenstein or Marcus Welby M.D. Or somewhere in between. The problem is, without professional help, you may never know whose advice you’re getting. Without knowing it, you can either Google yourself scared, or lull yourself into a state of false security. In all likelihood, you can also waste a lot of time chasing down what is supposedly wrong with you.

Back in the olden times, say 20 or so years ago, we couldn’t do much with online medicine. The best data was locked away from the public. Medical research was only available at university libraries, or through expensive portals. That has changed somewhat, but I wanted to hear from some actual practitioners. So I asked two family doctor friends of mine, Patricia Boiko and Karl Weyrauch who are digitally savvy to put some of their suggestions down about doing online medical research. Here is their report.

We use a variety of digital tools in our daily practice, and even have iPads that we can look things up when a patient brings in their own links and references. Take one of our patients for example: She is an 89-year old grandma who was trying to sort out the results of a lab test known as “Hemoglobin A1c”. It’s a test to find out how high a person’s blood sugar has been over the past three months.

In this case her search took her to results for the word “hemoglobin” rather than “A1c”. Hemoglobin, a measure of one’s red blood cells, tells if a person is anemic or not. It is not the same as “A1c”. It is usually better for the A1c number to be low, but for the hemoglobin number to be high.

So, our patient found out that her number was extremely low for hemoglobin and thought it was bad, not realizing that it was a perfectly normal number for her “A-1c”. She thought she was in dire straits when in she was sailing along just fine. Only after scaring herself silly did she come to us to figure out what was going on. What relief she felt to learn that everything was hunky-dory!

Another one of our patients, a 50-year old woman, came in with an Internet search producing a diagnosis of a rare disease called “Lynch syndrome”. She had been to a breast surgeon for treatment of breast cancer, and a gynecologist for treatment of cancer of the uterus. When she learned that she had a third cancer in a colon polyp removed by her gastroenterologist during colonoscopy, she went on-line to learn more.

She searched for the polyp diagnosis and read that all three of her cancers might be related if she really had this rare disease. When she brought in the printout with her search results, all we had to do was read it and report that she was right on. There is nothing like a light-speed review of the medical literature to pinpoint a rare association of multiple cancers in the same person.

So what’s the moral of these two cases?

You should certainly go ahead and search online to find out more about your medical condition and treatment options. But don’t leave diagnosis to a brain-dead machine, or even a billion-dollar search engine that tries to “not be evil.” What really counts is medical judgment that only comes from human experience and learning from past mistakes. And there’s still a lot of work to be done before that computer code gets debugged.

Back to Strom. I asked my doctor friends what sites they actually use, they suggested It is a bit pricey for the lay public, and probably not going to be used by someone who is just searching for something ad hoc. I use a combination of WebMD and to start off my own searches. What else should patients do when they prepare for their next doctor visit? My friends suggest you should bring all of your medications in the original bottles and all the herbs and over-the-counter remedies that you take. Their practice has a mobile app where they can do everything from lookup treatment options to re-order meds to communicate with other doctors in their practice.

If your doctor doesn’t “do Internet” then you could bring in a printout of some of the things you found online. In the end, my doctor friends say: “I don’t think the issue is whether or not physicians are tech friendly or not. I think the issue is one of frustration with a patient self-diagnosing. If the physician is not willing to listen to ideas about self-diagnosis or the patients ideas for their care then perhaps they want to get another physician who will.” Well put. I remember one doctor that I no longer see, he was always in a rush. When he finished with his diagnosis, he really didn’t want to hear my point of view. He indicated this by having his hand on the doorknob and trying to make a quick exit from the exam room. I found another doctor quickly after that.

Why Bitcoin isn’t just for criminals

bitcoinMost of us have lived and worked in a single country and don’t think anything of being paid in anything other than that country’s currency. But we now exist in a global village, and that means that we have choices for our money supply. This is the area that Bitcoin and its ilk are now operating in.

The brave new world of independent money is upon us, and this time I think it is going to take hold. We tried this before with all the digital cash variants in the mid-1990s: a combination of the Internet boom and the rise of internationally accepted credit cards nipped those efforts in the bud. One good thing to come from all of that work was Paypal, which while not new money is the default way that many online transactions happen.

But what is different about today’s money that will make it stick? For one thing, there is already a lot of it in circulation: Bitcoin alone has already topped a billion or so US$. This has motivated some criminals to follow the money: witness the high-tech bank heist of Mt. Gox not too long ago. But they aren’t just trying to steal the digital coins; criminals are also making a big effort to use these new currencies for their own transactions. This is always a great endorsement for the legitimate use of any currency. (Which is why a US$100 bill is worth a bit more than 100 George Washingtons in Russia.)

You have people asking to be paid in Bitcoin for all sorts of things now, including over-priced New York City apartments (see the photo above), vending machines, restaurants, overpriced electronics and other mundane activities. It is somewhat counter-intuitive, but the same thing happened in the early Paypal days too.

Finally, these new efforts have important payment gateway applications, and that is what I want to really focus on. While Bitcoin et al. are getting a lot of attention for their seamier side, what is really happening is that they are attacking the overpriced payment transfer business. Look at how much it costs you for an international money order, or a wire transfer? What if we could drive these costs to near zero, and make it easier for anyone to pay anyone? That is the ultimate benefit of Bitcoin.

When I get paid by Paypal, it is in US$ and the funds don’t stay in my account for very long. I look at that account as a mechanism to collect money that is ultimately destined for my ordinary business checking account, which is where I pay bills and pay my ultimate salary. In the past, when I have worked for non-US clients, there has always been a dance about the process of being paid: sometimes the client has a dollar bank account that they can draw a check on, other times I can get sent funds via Paypal. And sometimes people ask me to bill them via their credit cards. Wouldn’t it be easier if I could have a service that handled these transfers easily and cheaply and reliably?

Bitcoin might not be the ultimate place that I will do my banking. Given its wide swings in exchange rates, I am not sure that I would trust having much of my funds in Bitcoin at the moment. Ideally, I would want a system that could accept transfers from a wide collection of currencies, including dollars and Euros, just to make sure that I cover as much of my potential audience as I could. I started looking into Ripple, which has a more inclusive philosophy, but its universe is also more complex to evaluate.

Unlike many of my columns, I am still doing research here. I don’t have any definitive answers, and these new forms of money might go the way of their older virtual cousins in another year or two. But it is interesting to watch what they are doing nonetheless.

Every entrepreneur should see this movie

In my work with startups and young entrepreneurs, one thing that I have noticed is tenacity is not always a valued skill or even well understood. I got to see a screening of a new movie produced by Penn and Teller (yes, those guys again) a few weeks ago and it got me thinking about this.

300px-Jan_Vermeer_van_Delft_014The movie is “Tim’s Vermeer” and documents the many years that Tim Jenison spent trying to learn to paint Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, an oil painting that sits in Buckingham Palace. Tim is an interesting guy: he has made tons of money in the tech biz, so he can afford to take these excursions into odd places and learn new skills.

Now, why would anyone want to spend years of his life to do this? We see Tim learn how to do basic oil painting c. 2010, then learn how Vermeer mixed his pigments using materials from the 1660′s when it was painted. But wait, there is more: Tim also constructs an optical device that he uses to reproduce the painting, and by constructs I mean he also learns how to grind and polish his own glass lenses using materials available from that era. He then puts together a replica of Vermeer’s studio, getting objects that appear in the painting, including wallpaper and floor tiles, as precisely as possible.

Along the way, he teaches himself Dutch, visits Delft where Vermeer worked, and gets an audience with the actual painting itself after convincing the British monarchy. Clearly, this is a guy who is driven.

You would think that watching someone go through all this is as exciting as, well, watching paint dry, but you would be wrong. Tim is tenacious beyond belief. It takes him years to complete his version of The Music Lesson, but when he does you can see that he has done a credible job. He takes the painting to David Hockney for vetting, who gives his approval.

Apart from being a very entertaining movie, why should entrepreneurs see it? Mainly because it shows what lengths Tim goes through to get to his ultimate goal, and how he is just a dog with a bone about it. I don’t think many people would have stuck with the project as long as he did. The movie offers a message of hope here, although highlighting how insanely difficult the challenge is. Startups need to hear this message often.

Second, because it shows, probably to a fault, how entrepreneurs have to create their infrastructure from scratch sometimes because they are breaking ground so new. Many of the firms that I mentor find this out the hard way, and get into a detour (as Tim did with his pigments, mirrors, and so forth) that consumes valuable time. Tim didn’t actually start the actual painting part of his project for many years, while he worked out the other details. Many startups have trouble with putting together their servers, or setting up the right cloud configurations, or understanding their data security models, or knowing how to setup payment processing. These details aren’t things that you necessarily know going into a project until you get into the weeds and see them first-hand.

Finally, it gives another lesson to startups: how to disassemble a project into more bite-sized chunks and tackle them one at a time until you can make some small victories with each task. Sometimes a startup can try to move on several fronts all at once, rather than managing a more sequential workflow.

Go see the movie if you can.

Welcome to the brave new world of crowdsourced authorship

As many of you know, I have published two computer trade books over the course of my career. One was with Marshall Rose (who I am indebted for teaching me how to write book-length manuscripts and is one of the best collaborators that I have ever worked with) and one solo. Neither did well for different reasons that were beyond my control, including the last book coming out a week after 9/11. Oh well.

But while both books were done with traditional Big Time Publishers, I probably won’t go that route again if I had another book in me. Over the past decade or so, self-publishing has become the model of choice for many authors. The economics are compelling: rather than get a dollar royalty from sales of a $25 book as a traditional publisher generally works, you get to spend a dollar to produce your book and get the rest in profit. Or so the rough numbers go.

Then came ebooks, and prices started going down, way down: a typical ebook now sells for a couple of bucks at best. The old saying about not making much money but making it up in volume come to mind.

But the publishing market is pivoting (as they say in startup speak) yet again, and this time it is combining with the crowdfunding market and morphing into something else entirely. The idea is that you promote your book idea on one of the crowd sites and get a few hundred of your friends and potential readers to pay up front for you to finish your project and get their very own copy, complete with tote bag or some other premium prize. The money they “donate” goes towards hopefully you finishing a beautiful book, raising awareness and buzz, and setting the scene for a big author splash. Or so the idea goes.

Seth Godin has written about this topic over the past year on a site that he runs in cooperation with Amazon. And he has also penned his wish list for what Kickstarter specifically should do to make it easier for authors.

dbl2But as I haven’t had the opportunity to go this route, I did the next best thing, asking a young, first-time author of an upcoming book and a project on Kickstarter that I was one of the backers. His name is Tony Brasunas and his book, set to launch on 12/12, is Double Happiness. While he might not have another book in him right now, he found the whole process to be worthwhile. “I spent several months preparing for the launch of my Kickstarter project, including doing things such as filming the video, thinking through the rewards structure, preparing the images and writing the copy for the project page.” None of these things were actual book writing, and if you look over it you as a new author (or even an old hand such as myself) might not have the necessary skills or inclination or even time to pull this off.

Brasunas raised more than he went to the well for, which is great, and a quarter of it will end up being used to fulfill his rewards for his 175 project backers. But what I found interesting talking to him is how he thinks about the process. Realize that his book is “a chapter of my life story, something that I have been working on for a decade, and I wasn’t sure that anyone would be interested. It was a wonderful surprise that I got as many backers as I did.”

His project “involved people that could be potentially interested in it. That feels like a collective and that collaboration was appealing to me. By doing this through a social platform, it added a nice piece to the whole project for me.” Again, you may just want to sit in a garret and write, so your reaction could differ. But he also found something out about his backers and his friends: “I would have guessed that people who were closest to me would have given more, while others who I haven’t talked to in years gave unexpectedly larger contributions.” That is intriguing. You would think that donations would directly relate to the distance to your immediate social network. He found that if knew three factors he could fairly accurately predict what someone was going to donate: “First, what they feel about your project, second their access to money, and finally their belief about money and whether it is abundant in their lives.”

Brasunas is using print on demand with CreateSpace and Lightning Source. Again, you’ll have to learn about these technologies and whether or not you have the skills to pull it all together.

But maybe not. There are new crowd sites that are geared towards book authors called Pubslush and Unbound. Both are trying to enter this space and connect the dots that Godin and my young friend had to do manually. There are sure to be dozens of these crowd-book platforms before long, such is the nature of this market segment. Pubslush charges less of a commission, has different funding restrictions, and directly connect to an author’s Amazon page. So far 40 books have been published. Unbound, which is based in the UK, has been around longer and has its own system and published about 60 books.

How this will all sort out I have no idea. But at least it is nice to have choices.