Category: Business and Free Enterprise

The Future According to Bill Gates

Bill_Gates_June_2015You’d be hard-pressed to pick a well-known figure who is more involved in either the tech world or the world of philanthropy than Bill Gates. But what do tech and philanthropy have to do with each other? At the start of this year, Bill and Melinda celebrated fifteen years of running their foundation. Bill laid out some thoughts on the next fifteen years in a great video interview and also explained how his role in technology has informed his approach to philanthropy. As this year draws to a close, it’s a good time to look back on Gates’ thoughts. From health and agriculture to education and money, Gates seems passionate about the idea that advances in technology will provide the keys to unlocking a better future for the world.

A thread that runs throughout Gates’ entire vision is that of helping poorer countries to become self-sufficient rather than trying to apply bandages to their problems. At every turn, he seems committed to building lasting changes rather than just

FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestRedditShare

Weathering Retail Sales

IMG_4712

Here in Denver, we were recently socked in by a winter storm for about 24 hours. It made for messy conditions for the morning and evening commutes. Meanwhile, the Colorado mountain communities were full of glee, reveling in snow powder that attracts ski and snowboard business.

As with ski resorts, it’s no secret among retailers that weather can have a profound effect on sales. Seasonal changes – as well as daily and weekly fluctuations – must be accounted for when making consumer sales projections. These ebbs and flows not only impact the type of items being sold, but also the manner in which consumers shop. For brick and mortar retailers, the good weather generally fuels business, generating an increase in foot traffic which leads to an uptick in sales. But inclement weather? Well, the results can be mixed.

 ‘Tis The Season To Be Jolly (for Retailers)

The first phase of the holiday season is now behind us, and it appears that shoppers were out in big numbers, according to the latest retail data from the National Retail Federation.

But warmer-than-normal weather patterns wreaked havoc for some stores who were hoping to capitalize on this the busiest shopping season of the year. A report from data analytics firm Planalytics shows that U.S. stores lost $185 million in November sales. This slide is largely attributed to an unusually warm weather pattern in the Midwest and along the East Coast. So far, this trend has continued into December, with outerwear sales plummeting over 30% in cities like Boston, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia.

Foibles of a Free Internet

adblock logoThe latest round in the battle for a free internet came last week when Yahoo opted to ban adblockers from Yahoo Mail. Users of the mail service who were running adblockers were barred from accessing their email and presented with a message telling them to disable the plugins in order to continue. Needless to say, this move wasn’t very well received, but this type of heavy-handed tactic didn’t come completely out of the blue. Companies like Yahoo are increasingly bemoaning the negative impact of adblockers on the viability of ad-supported free content models. Yahoo’s action even led tech news site Cio.com to declare the web as ‘broken’.

The internet is most certainly at an important crossroads. The free and open nature – that allowed it to blossom and become the vast network that forms the backbone of modern society – may be poised to undo itself. 

The greatest threat to the very principles that made the internet so revolutionary and disruptive are not external but internal.

Small Business Saturday – Good Intentions, Bad Economics

small-business-saturday-2015First there was Black Friday, then Cyber Monday, and now there is Small Business Saturday, a day intended to promote shopping at small local businesses for the holiday season as a way to support their livelihood, enhance the local community and even help the environment. While certainly well-intentioned, the movement is misguided and can actually end up hurting more than it helps.

Ironically, the term Small Business Saturday was conceived and promoted by the financial services giant American Express, which also holds a trademark on the term. Nevertheless, the idea – to encourage consumers to shop at small local brick-and-mortar retail shops – has been around for awhile.

The claimed benefits are numerous, but they mostly center around the supposed idea of ‘keeping the money in the local community,’ which in turn supports those businesses, creates local jobs and even has a multiplier effect as the money spent locally circulates around the community more than money that is sent off to say, Amazon.com.

Like many economic fallacies, there is always a grain of truth that makes it potent and appealing to the logic of its believers. It is somewhat true that if you buy a television set online, that money is sent to the online retailer, who is probably not based in your local community. Whereas if you buy the same set from Bob’s Great TVs down the street, Bob has the money in hand which he may very well spend at the local car repair shop that you own. A much better situation, right?

Encryption and Terrorism in the Post-Snowden Era

9609572241_d02bd5cbf2_oIn the wake of the horrific terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris last weekend, the question hanging in the air is whether or not there is anything that can be done to prevent such tragedies. Foreign policy and attitudes towards refugees have taken center stage, eclipsing what could become a very serious issue: encryption.

Ever since the Snowden revelations, it seems that regulators are desperately grasping for justifications for snooping into data, even as companies have sought to demonstrate their commitment to providing security for consumers. I wrote an article last month which tackled Apple’s policy on encrypting data. The recent attacks look like fertile ground in which to sow the seeds of such a justification. But even the truly awful nature of the terrorism occurring overseas does not convince me to relax my stance on what I see as one of the most important policy issues of our day.

Policy makers have sought to blame the effectiveness of the terrorist attacks on the use of encrypted communication, causing Russia to push for a ban on encrypted services like Telegram. In the U.S., Silicon Valley is beset by politicians from all sides. Pavel Durov of Telegram skillfully set forth his opposition with an incisive and sarcastic quip for the Moscow Times ‘I propose banning words. There’s evidence [to suggest] that they’re being used by terrorists to communicate.’

I would hope that government officials’ arguments in support of creating backdoors are due to ignorance. The worst thing that could come of tragedies like the Paris attacks would be that they be used manipulatively. In the words of Chris Riley of Mozilla to International Business Times, ‘creating policy from a reactive posture is inherently problematic.’ I couldn’t agree more. The same IBT article mentions a letter signed by several leaders in the tech industry, including Mozilla, asking Obama to reject any proposals requiring backdoors to encrypted data. Such a proposal could set dangerous precedents, not only in the U.S., but worldwide. This includes countries with governments that have a history of gross violations of the trust and rights of their citizens. Once a backdoor exists, there is no way of controlling how or when it is used or by whom.

The idea that Durov so insightfully set forth in the above quote is an essential part of the debate that is obscured by the reactionary sensationalism prone to set in after such events as these attacks. If encryption is banned or companies are forced to provide backdoor keys to the government, terrorists and criminals will find other means of executing their goals.

Encryption is a technique, and it is not something that can be fully legislated against. It’s impossible for any government to prevent everyone from using encryption. It can be banned and made illegal, but that does not stop people from using it or putting it in place. After all, bombing cities and killing innocent people is also illegal, but terrorists continue to perform such acts. Only those already willing to cooperate with regulation would comply with providing backdoors to encrypted data. The government would be no closer to hamstringing terrorists.

Even if the government was somehow able to successfully breach all encryption, terrorists would only find other means of communicating, just like they did before encryption was accessible. By making encryption essentially useless – and just as easy for hackers, criminals, and oppressive regimes to break as it is for whoever it is that’s supposed to be protecting us from terrorism – policies that require backdoors wouldn’t hurt anybody as much as they would hurt average citizens.

We can only hope that the tech companies defending data encryption, and those aware of the dangers inherent in allowing for backdoors, can convince politicians to reconsider the matter. We should not let more corruption and injustice come of the evil that we currently mourn.

Tipping the Scales

14876811184_e694b850bb_oJoe’s Crab Shack has just decided to experiment with forgoing tips at a few of its locations. Tipping is a longstanding American practice that has recently been called into question. It has been largely done away with in other parts of the world, but has been standard practice at sit-down restaurants in America for a very long time. But some people are now starting to question the practice, with many taking to social media and posting opinions and anecdotes about their tipping experiences. As you can imagine, the debate has been lively and passionate.

A criticism raised against tipping is that it usually correlates with employees being paid very low wages, leaving them to fend for themselves to make much needed extra money. The meritocratic logic in support of tipping says that good employees will be rewarded for their work and earn a lot from tips, and that bad employees will be incentivized to work harder to earn more in tips.

Those in favor of tipping would argue that it encourages good service because employees are forced to earn tips. It also teaches customers to evaluate their service and reward good service when they get it. Common sense suggests this should promote good service. The counter-argument is that employees are completely at the mercy of unpredictable customers and their varied moods. A customer who might have had a particularly glum day, and is in a bad mood (or who is just a jerk), might decide not to give a tip, whether or not they were actually provided good service.