Car Trouble

car loans

Last week the New York Times ran an interesting article about cars fitted with the so-called starter interrupt device.

Many might know that some cars have an engine cut off switch that can be remotely operated. If someone steals your car you might be able to track it and turn the engine off if you have forward thinkingly fitted one. But they are becoming more commonly used today on cars that are sold with lease or debt payment.

And it is extremely simple, I sell you the car and as long as you repay the debt or lease charges the vehicle is yours to do what you will, and drive where you like. But if you miss a payment, I can remotely track your movement and at the moment I see fit I can block the car.

So one morning, you have not made the payment on Friday because you are on holiday, you go out to take your child to school, or the dentist, or the hospital because she is sick, and the car won’t start.

Now I would agree that if you want a car you should pay for it, and that if you don’t keep up payments you may lose it, but there are other knock on effects to using such technology in this way. Of course there is the problem that you might block a car that would be used in an emergency situation, like the one suggested above. But the effect of having such a ready resource in reclaiming the car may lead you to sell it to someone who might have difficulty repaying the loan. If you knew that you might have to first find the car, send a car transporter out to recover it and incur some time and financial interference, you might think twice about selling it to someone with a bad credit rating and precarious situation.

If you know you can just track the car, block it when it is in a good place for you to collect, and always know where it is, then who cares? Give them the car and get it back later.

These devices are currently fitted on about 2 million cars, and the article states that their use is helping to push the use of sub-prime auto loans. I am no financial guru but I have heard a lot of talk and read a lot about sub-prime mortgages, and they don’t get good press.

So even if we put aside the issue of privacy, as the lender can see your every move (I put it aside because if you carry a mobile phone you are in the same boat), there is the problem of physical security in case of malfunction, data protection and of course dragging people into high rate loans and all the associated black market dealings that go with debt. But we should not forget that this technology also means that people who would not be able to buy a car can get hold of one, and people might accept the device if the choice is that of car with device, or no car.

High rate loans are justified because they are high risk, so I might argue that if you take the risk out of the loan then the rate should drop, this does not however seem to be the case (surprisingly).

Read more on the argument through the link to the New York Times above, and let me know in the comments section if you have any experience.

Blind Date (More Unauthorized Online Experimenting)

blind-date

Following up from news a couple of weeks ago about Facebook manipulating its users, this week news abounds regarding a dating agency that has been conducting some experiments on its users.

The New York Times reports that the online dating agency OK Cupid has been manipulating the data it gives to its clients, to find out how compatibility and looks effect the dating process. The company conducted 3 different experiments, in one it hid profile pictures, in another, it hid profile text to see how it affected personality ratings, and in a third, it told some hopeful daters that they were a better or worse potential match with someone than the company’s software actually determined.

So as we might imagine they came up with a series of findings, that we could loosely interpret as the following:

1. If you are told that the person is more compatible you are more likely to contact them.

2. Users are likely to equate “looks” with “personality,” even in profiles that featured attractive photos and little if any substantive profile information

3. When the site obscured all profile photos one day, users engaged in more meaningful conversations, exchanged more contact details and responded to first messages more often. They got to know each other. But when pictures were reintroduced on the site, many of those conversations stopped cold.

Well as far as I can see number 1 is pretty self evident. If you send me a note saying that a person is not compatible then I probably won’t bother them with my personal issues., 2 is quite interesting, if I like the looks of someone I am more likely to think that they are an interesting person, may be fun and without doubt the perfect match for me. And also the third is quite obvious, if I don’t know what a person looks like I might imagine their looks and would be more likely to want to get to know them.

The OK Cupid blog will fill you in on the details.

One interesting line from the blog states that “guess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work”. Wise words, but I wonder if everybody realizes that. And what power they wield!

Now I would like to raise the issue of how someone can design an algorithm to measure my compatibility with another person. What will make us more compatible? Height? Interests? Worldview (and if so how can you put that into numbers)?

There is an interesting book by Hubert Dreyfus called “What Computers Can’t Do”, and in it he argues that there are some areas and situations that cannot fully function. A computer program is based on expertise, on experience that can be categorized. If there are subject matters that are impossible to completely formalise, then they are impossible to formalize in computer programs (such as the one they use to find my perfect partner if they exist).

As a human I think we make decisions based upon generalizations of a situation. Characteristics are judged based upon experiences, I once knew someone with those characteristics and they were great, or stubborn, or nasty, etc. Research suggests that we play games such as chess in this way. We do not think about a long series of possible moves in the way a computer plays, but we see a situation, it reminds us of another situation that we have confronted in the past, and we act according to our experience of action in similar situations.

I am sure some readers have experience in this field, and I would be very happy to get some comments and expand my understanding.

Amazon – destruction and revival

Amazon's LogoAmazon. A great big, greedy multinational company. Destroying countless companies and even eradicating whole industries in a matter of years.

France has recently taken measures to protect book shops, as it understands the devastating impact Amazon’s operations can have on a country. Jeff Bezos (Amazon’s founder) argues that “Amazon is not happening to book selling, the future is happening to book selling” suggesting that people want to buy books online now, and that virtual books would be rising in popularity without Amazon’s help.

In the UK, Amazon have come under scrutiny for not paying their fair share of tax.

BBC research suggests that the way in which Amazon treat their employees, means that their employees face a higher risk of mental illness.

There are numerous other scandals surrounding this online retail giant, but is it all bad? Believe it or not, Amazon is also proving a critical element in the survival of some industries and communities.

Royal Mail

Royal Mail and AmazonThe Royal Mail has had a turbulent decade. The internet has started to reduce the number of letters sent. Why pay to send a letter when you can send an email for free? Why fill your house with bank statements and insurance documents, when you can now access them all online? There are of course reasons why you might want to send a letter or receive a hard copy of something, however ultimately, the rise of the internet has significantly impacted the demand for postal services.

Amazon has actually played a critical role in the success of Royal Mail over the last few years. Yes if someone shops online, shops loose out on purchases, however online orders have to be delivered somehow, and the organisation with by far the biggest distribution network in the UK, is the Royal Mail. As a result, Amazon currently work closely with Royal Mail and provide the organisation with a massive amount of business.

So am I saying Amazon is actually good for Royal Mail? Well until Amazon opens up its own distribution network, and fills the skies with drones, yes, I think it is.

Rural Communities

Remote communities are often cut off from the rest of society in many ways. They often have very few local shops, which do not stock a wide range of goods, meaning local residents often have to travel miles to shop, or just go without. If you want to buy a new radio alarm clock (costing £20) do you take a 30 mile round trip to the nearest town to buy it, or do you order it on Amazon – probably for £15 – and have it delivered to your door the next day?

Without Amazon (and other online retailers) such communities would be cut off, leading to people either having to leave, or them feeling isolated and outdated.

Small Retailers

Like eBay, Amazon lets anyone buy and sell their goods through the site. Customers have the assurance that they will get good customer service, and if something goes wrong, Amazon will deal with the problem.

Many individuals now make a living from selling goods through Amazon. Some manufacturers sell directly through Amazon. Some people buy goods somewhere else and then sell them on Amazon for a profit. So Amazon is creating more jobs than just those who work for the company.

Authors

Amazing, J.K. Rowling struggled to get the first book of her Harry Potter series published. She was turned down several times, before she eventually managed to persuade Bloomsbury to publish her book. Amazon lets anyone publish a book. Nobody reviews it to see if it is any good, it just gets ran through a copyright checker, which determines whether it is original or not, and therefore how much of any profits the author is able to take home.

Our in-house expert on this is Mr Hankins, so if you want any more info, check out his article on the book he wrote and published on Amazon, and feel free to ask him question there.

Are Amazon another Google? Do they want to own everything, and destroy all their competition. Probably yes. But need everything they do be negative? No, almost everything they do will have some good related to it.

Nanofoods

This week I want to put two of my little pets together. Nanotechnology and food might sound like two very different topics, like a cat and a gerbil to use the pet metaphor, but you would be surprised. Many products in fact have manufactured nanoparticles in them, and we eat them.

Now we might ask if this is safe, and some would say of course it is. Some have great reservations about it, and some point to the fact that there has been little research done into the matter and that it might be better not to eat them anyway.

Friends of the Earth US have recently published a report entitled Tiny Ingredients, Big Risks, and it is free to download here.

To give you a flavour of what is on offer, I just take a few lines from the report:

A ten fold increase in unregulated and unlabeled nanofoods over the last 6 years

Nanomaterials are found in a broad aray of everyday food (cheese, chocolate, breakfast cereals etc)

Major food companies are investing billions in nanofood and packaging

An increasingly large body of peer reviewed evidence indicates that nanomaterials may harm human health and the environment

Nano agrochemicals are now being used on farms so entering the environment

US regulation is wholly inadequate

Public involvement in decision-making regarding these problems is necessary

The products containing unlabeled nano-ingredients range from Kraft American Singles to Hershey’s chocolate. They are made by major companies including Kraft (KRFT), General Mills (GIS), Hershey (HSY), Nestle (NSRGY), Mars, Unilever (UL), Smucker’s (SJM) and Albertsons. But due to a lack of labeling and disclosure, a far greater  number of food products with undisclosed nanomaterials are likely currently on the market.

To give you an idea we are talking about silver, titanium dioxide, zink and zink oxide, silicon and copper, as well as the traditional carbon nano tubes that are found in food packaging and freshness labelling technologies.

The report documents 85 food and beverage products on the market known to contain nanomaterials — including brand name products, and points out that the nanofood industry will soon be worth $20 billion.

This is a detailed report, it lists the products that have been found to contain these materials, the health problems associated with ingestion of such materials in animals and calls for action. It does not make for light reading, but it appears to me to be a technology that is being sneaked in through the back door, and soon like genetic modification will be difficult to avoid.

Take a look back at my food series for more tasty stuff.