Saturday, April 12, 2014

UK bank fined £12.4m for poor investment advice   

BBC News:

High Street bank Santander UK has been fined nearly £12.4m by the UK financial watchdog over failures in investment advice in its branches.

Among the failures identified by the FCA were:

  • Advisers failed to consider how much risk customers were willing to take with their investments
  • A failure to ensure that customers were given clear advice
  • Ongoing checks to ensure that investments were suitable were not carried out for Premium Investment customers
  • A failure to make sure new advisers were properly trained before being allowed to give investment advice
  • Poor advice was not always picked up owing to poor monitoring

With examples like this, it’s no wonder people have a distrust of the financial services industry. I wonder if similar investigations have been conducted in Canada of the United States by regulators? I’ve personally witnessed poor investment advice while attending a meeting with my mother’s bank and the CBC recently uncovered several issues of their own with a hidden camera investigation. If you are meeting with a financial advisor at a bank, I would recommend that you think of them more as a sales person than an independent professional that has your best interests in mind.

Monday, April 7, 2014

11 Board Games for Adults   

Dylan Matthews, writing for Vox, the recently launched site from Ezra Klein et al.:

More specifically, “Euro games” — the term gamers use for German-style board games that emphasize strategy over chance and generally revolve around managing scarce resources — have become increasingly mainstream. Comparing them to childhood favorites, it isn’t hard to see why. Games like Candyland or Snakes and Ladders are basically elaborately presented dice-rolling exercises, with no element of strategy or skill. Once you no longer have the brain of a seven-year-old, even games that are mostly rather than entirely chance (say, Monopoly) are boring and frustrating, and ones such as Candyland, borderline torture. The best Euro games eliminate chance almost entirely, and are way, way better for it.

A fun article for a promising new website. Of the board games that were reviewed, I’ve only heard of Settlers of Catan. I’m curious to play Ticket to Ride:

The premise is simple: You’re a railroad tycoon attempting to link cities on a board. Players randomly draw “destination tickets,” which tell them what cities to connect (say, “Los Angeles to Chicago” or “Duluth to Houston”) and then buy up train tracks between the two cities until they’re linked. Players get points both for the tracks they buy and for completing destination tickets, and they lose points if they fail to link their cities. The player with the most points at the end of the game, naturally, wins. It’s simple, and it’s compulsively playable.

Power Grid looks interesting too.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Dash   

From the recently funded Kickstarter project:

The Dash consists of a pair of discrete and completely wireless stereo earphones.They will playback music through a Bluetooth connection or use the embedded 4GB/1000 song music player. Everything about the design is focused on delivering freedom of movement, incredible sound and comfort. The Dash is awesome for sports and great for everything else.

Every six months or so I search for “wireless in-ear headphones” in hopes that some technological breakthrough has occurred. Like millions of others, I listen to music and podcasts on my way to and from work, and even use my headphones at work if I need some distraction from my surroundings. But I really don’t like having to connect a cable from my iPhone to my ears. On many occasions I’ve nearly yanked my phone off my desk when standing up too quickly. And I find that my headphones often pop out of my years because the cable snags on my shirt or jacket. But any time I’ve searched for wireless in-ear headphones, the offerings disappoint – most are bulky and the two ear pieces are almost always connected by a piece of plastic or an ugly wire.

To my surprise, today’s search presented ‘The Dash’ which looks like the answer to my wireless in-ear headphone prayers. The list of features is very lengthy and the marketing video is pretty slick. I want to believe that this product will do everything it says, and do it well. But I just don’t see it being that easy. How can something so small do all those things and still have decent battery life? I’d be willing to buy ‘The Dash’ if all it did was sync to my iPhone for music streaming, assuming it could maintain a constant connection and didn’t need to be charged every few hours. But the product being marketed seems way too ambitious, way too good to be true. I hope I’m proven wrong.

Tina Ferrone of Ottawa wins $48M in Lotto Max   

CBC News:

An Ottawa woman who won last week’s $48 million Lotto Max said she bought the ticket “on a whim” Friday while picking up groceries.

Tina Ferrone said on Tuesday she had never played Lotto Max before, and when she checked her ticket Saturday at a Shopper’s Drug Mart in the Ottawa neighbourhood of Kanata, she was in shock.

Now that’s what I call beginner’s luck!

How Gmail Happened   

Harry McCracken, writing for TIME about the development of Gmail, which launched ten years ago today:

The first true landmark service to emerge from Google since its search engine debuted in 1998, Gmail didn’t just blow away Hotmail and Yahoo Mail, the dominant free webmail services of the day. With its vast storage, zippy interface, instant search and other advanced features, it may have been the first major cloud-based app that was capable of replacing conventional PC software, not just complementing it.

It’s hard to believe that Gmail has been around for ten years. It feels like just a few years ago that we were all trying to get by with our 5 MB webmail accounts from Hotmail or Yahoo.

As a side note, in the fall of 2002, I and three other students came up with a business plan for a Business 201 group project at university. Our product was to be called GimmeMail and it was going to offer free web-based email accounts with 20 MB of storage (400% more than competitors at the time). We had a marketing plan based on a survey of web users, compelling financial estimates, a working prototype, and even a draft logo:

GimmeMail Logo

We didn’t pursue the project past getting a good grade, but looking back at our pitch presentation today it’s kind of fun to realize that at the same time a small team at Google was hard at work developing a similar ‘G’-mail product that would go on to change the web.

The Rags-To-Riches Tale Of How Jan Koum Built WhatsApp   

Speaking of WhatsApp, Parmy Olson wrote another piece for Forbes detailing the history of WhatsApp prior to the Facebook acquisition:

Koum almost immediately chose the name WhatsApp because it sounded like “what’s up,” and a week later on his birthday, Feb. 24, 2009, he incorporated WhatsApp Inc. in California. “He’s very thorough,” says Fishman. The app hadn’t even been written yet. Koum spent days creating the backend code to synch his app with any phone number in the world, poring over a Wikipedia entry that listed international dialing prefixes — he would spend many infuriating months updating it for the hundreds of regional nuances.

Early WhatsApp kept crashing or getting stuck, and when Fishman installed it on his phone, only a handful of the hundreds numbers on his address book – mostly local Russian friends – had also downloaded it. Over ribs at Tony Roma’s in San Jose, Fishman went over the problems and Koum took notes in one of the Soviet-era notebooks he’d brought over years before and saved for important projects.

The following month after a game of ultimate frisbee with Acton, Koum grudgingly admitted he should probably fold up and start looking for a job. Acton balked. “You’d be an idiot to quit now,” he said. “Give it a few more months.”

Monday, March 31, 2014

Inside The Facebook-WhatsApp Megadeal   

Parmy Olson, reporting for Forbes:

“Get together?”

The subject line of the e-mail was like every other come-on that hit Jan Koum’s in-box in the spring of 2012. He was pounded daily by investors who wanted a piece of his company, WhatsApp. Hatched on his birthday, Feb. 24, 2009, WhatsApp was emerging as a global phenomenon. Some 90 million people were using it to text and send photos for free. No social utility had ever grown as fast. Facebook had only 60 million by its third birthday. And at the time close to half of WhatsApp users were returning daily.

Koum looked at the e-mail sender: Mark Zuckerberg.

I’m guessing this isn’t how most multi-billion dollar acquisitions occur.

Bliss: the story behind the iconic Windows XP desktop photo   

Lexy Savvides, writing for CNET about the default desktop image in Windows XP:

Despite what many people might think, the original frame of Bliss was completely unaltered and unedited by Chuck when he submitted it to Corbis, the stock photo and image licensing service founded by Bill Gates in 1989.

Corbis — which means woven basket in Latin — had maybe 50 photographers on file when Chuck submitted Bliss. Today, there are over 100 million images in the database.

Bliss was purchased by Microsoft for an undisclosed sum. While Chuck can’t reveal how much he was paid due to a non-disclosure agreement, it was one of the largest amounts ever paid for a single photograph. He still doesn’t know how Microsoft found the photo, whether through keywords or by typing in phrases like “rolling green hills”.

I’ve probably seen the Bliss photo ten thousand times but never once stopped to think about its origins. I love this type of story.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Blood test identifies impending Alzheimer’s disease   

Melissa Healy, reporting for the Los Angeles Times:

For the first time, a test that detects 10 types of lipids, or fats, circulating in a person’s blood has been shown to predict accurately whether he or she will develop the memory loss and mental decline of Alzheimer’s disease over the next two to three years. A screening test based on the findings could be available in as little as two years, said the researchers who identified the blood biomarkers.

As there are currently no effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, I’m not sure that I’d want to know I was about to develop it. Hopefully this discovery leads to new treatments that are one day more effective.

London’s abandoned underground ‘Mail Rail’   

Olivia Solon, writing for Wired:

The Post Office Underground Railway — AKA the Mail Rail — was the world’s first driverless electric railway. It launched in 1927 and was used to transport tonnes of post from one side of London to another, with stops at large railway hubs such as Liverpool Street and Paddington Station, where post could be collected and offloaded for transportation around the rest of the country.

[...]

The service continued to operate until 2003, when it was closed down — it had become much cheaper to transport mail by road.

Since then, the trains and the tunnels have remained in place, but plans are afoot to turn part of the network into this public ride as part of plans to build a new National Postal Museum, which have just been approved by Islington Council.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Netflix CEO Advocates for ‘Strong Net Neutrality’   

Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, writing on the company’s blog:

The essence of net neutrality is that ISPs such as AT&T and Comcast don’t restrict, influence or otherwise meddle with the choices consumers make. The traditional form of net neutrality which was recently overturned by a Verizon lawsuit is important, but insufficient.

This weak net neutrality isn’t enough to protect an open, competitive Internet; a stronger form of net neutrality is required. Strong net neutrality additionally prevents ISPs from charging a toll for interconnection to services like Netflix, YouTube, or Skype, or intermediaries such as Cogent, Akamai or Level 3, to deliver the services and data requested by ISP residential subscribers. Instead, they must provide sufficient access to their network without charge.

It’s easy to discount Hastings’ argument because he is the CEO of Netflix – a business that benefits directly from strong net neutrality. Potential conflicts of interest aside, strong net neutrality makes sense to me.

Building large communication networks is risky and expensive, leading to natural monopolies. Without regulation – in this case, regulation preventing ISPs from charging for connectivity – network operators can exploit their monopolies to unfair advantage.

(Via The Loop)

Monday, March 24, 2014

Manufacturing Taste   

I finally got around to reading Sasha Chapman’s history of Kraft Dinner from the September 2012 issue of The Walrus:

J. L. Kraft, who had grown up on a dairy farm in Ontario, headed off to Chicago a decade after the world’s fair. Fascinated by the promise of innovation, he resolved to find a modern, more profitable way to distribute cheese. Even at the height of production, the quality of Canadian cheddar available domestically remained variable, in part because the best was reserved for export. “No matter how wholesome it was when it left the manufacturer, it often reached the market in a state of extinct virtue,” observed Kraft, who had seen the amount of spoilage and waste first-hand, while working as a clerk in a general store in Fort Erie, Ontario. He arrived in the US with $65 and a plan to launch a wholesale cheese business.

There he joined the ranks of dairy experts who were searching for ways to make cheese production more efficient. All cheese is an ancient expression of “milk’s leap towards immortality,” as Clifton Fadiman so poetically put it, and an extremely effective method for preserving a dairy surplus. You need just three main ingredients: milk, rennet (to curdle it into a solid), and microbes (to convert lactose into acid, which deepens the flavour and prevents the curds from spoiling or harbouring disease).

As someone that still eats the odd box of KD Original, this was both an intriguing and an upsetting read.

Origami Artist Creates Life-Sized Elephant Out of Paper   

Alice Yoo, writing at My Modern Metropolis:

Professional origami artist Sipho Mabona has created a huge, life-sized elephant with just one sheet of paper. His most ambitious work to date, the elephant took Mabona and a team of over a dozen people four weeks to complete. Standing just over 3 meters high (or 10 feet tall), the work is now on display in the museum KKLB in Beromünster, Switzerland.

Mabona financed the project through Internet-crowdfunding site Indiegogo where he raised over $26,000 from 631 funders. A webcam was installed that allowed people to watch the massive elephant take shape. The artist ran into some major challenges like figuring out how to spread a huge sheet of paper, measuring 15 meters by 15 meters (or 50 by 50 feet), in a hall, to transform the sheet of paper into the body of an elephant. Also, there were moments during the folding process, when he had to get the help of up to ten people to lift and fold the paper.

It’s so gratifying to see the crazy things the Internet makes possible. Watch the whole process unfold (I guess that should actually read, “fold”) via this six-video playlist on YouTube.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Why Your Car’s UI Sucks   

Speaking of terrible in-vehicle information systems, here’s an article by Neil Johnston on the subject:

The most obvious reason automotive UIs are horrible is, apart from Elon Musk’s Tesla, car companies are not technology companies – at least not in the traditional sense. Think about the time, energy and number of iterations, software startups put into user interface design and navigation. For a car company that is a major investment oblique to producing a product consisting of approximately 3,000 components.

Hands-on with Apple’s CarPlay   

Matt Brian, reporting for Engadget:

Sharing part of its name with the company’s AirPlay media-streaming protocol, CarPlay combines all of the iPhone’s most important features and mirrors them inside the car, allowing car owners to call, text, navigate and listen to music (and more) using touch- or Siri-based voice inputs. The new in-car interface is compatible with new Ferrari, Mercedes and Volvo models unveiled at the Geneva Auto Show, and it’s there that we got the chance to test Apple’s automotive assistant inside a suitably equipped Ferrari FF coupe.

Most in-vehicle information systems are terrible. Based on this brief demo, it looks like Apple’s CarPlay offers a simple, familiar, and well-designed replacement system. There’s the added benefit of having information stored on your phone seamlessly accessible in your vehicle, eliminating the need to transfer contacts or periodically update navigation system data.

Two caveats with CarPlay are the need to coordinate with vehicle manufacturers (not all of which have embraced the technology yet) and the lack of an after-market solution (only new cars support CarPlay). Given the slow upgrade cycle for vehicles, the ability to upgrade existing models to support CarPlay makes a lot of sense.

UPDATE

The no after-market CarPlay solutions caveat might not be an issue for long.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Recommended Income Tax Software for Mac

If you haven’t already filed your 2013 Canadian income tax return and you’re looking for tax preparation software, I would highly recommend taking a look at TaxFreeway. Despite having one of the ugliest websites on the Internet and an equally unimpressive application user interface, I really like TaxFreeway for the following reasons:

  • It runs on a Mac (and Windows, and iPad).
  • Your data is not stored in the cloud; your sensitive tax information remains under your control.
  • It is very affordable (cost for up to 20 returns: $14.95 for Mac; $9.95 for Windows; $19.95 for Mac, Windows, and iPad).
  • You can complete your entire return for free, paying only when you are ready to submit to CRA.
  • It walks you through an interview while simultaneously showing the relevant CRA tax forms, so you can see where your data is going and how each entry affects your taxes. This might be viewed as a detriment by others, but I very much appreciate the detail it provides.
  • The developers are responsive to support queries. After using the 2011 version of TaxFreeway, I requested a feature and they incorporated it into their 2012 release.

TaxFreeway certainly isn’t the most beautiful tax preparation software available, but it works very well for my needs, it’s available for Mac, and it’s inexpensive.

The Known Universe   

The Known Universe takes viewers from the Himalayas through our atmosphere and the inky black of space to the afterglow of the Big Bang. Every star, planet, and quasar seen in the film is possible because of the world’s most complete four-dimensional map of the universe, the Digital Universe Atlas that is maintained and updated by astrophysicists at the American Museum of Natural History.

This certainly puts things in perspective.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The New York Times Redesign

Excerpt from The New York Times’ redesign page:

We’ve streamlined our article pages and created a more responsive interface with faster load times. So navigating between stories is easier and finding more content that appeals to you is just a click, swipe or tap away.

While reading Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem, which I linked to in my previous post, I finally took some time to inspect and appreciate the refresh of The New York Times website. I’m a big fan of the new look, especially the article pages which are no longer paginated – we can now read a story from start to finish without having to endlessly click next page.

Adrian Chen, writing for Slate, had this to say about the redesign:

So this morning, as the New York Times unveiled its first real website redesign in eight years, I expected to find the Internet laid waste by rival factions of design nerds and media bloggers. In fact, scanning the few obligatory blog posts and tweets, it seems the Internet has already reached a consensus: “Yeah, looks pretty nice.”

No doubt a large reason for the collective shrug at the Times redesign is the fact that little has changed that affects our strategies of consumption. The Times’ editors still signal what they judge most important through the front page, which remains three columns of text with a big picture. Gone, finally, are the blue-hued headlines, which at this point were so outdated they’d nearly traveled past obsolete to retro-chic, a living monument to the Web of Yore, when primitive browsers would not click anything that wasn’t blue. Now, headlines look as they do in the Times’ print edition. I appreciate this symbolic gesture at the continuity between the Internet and real life, as the distinction has increasingly become meaningless, if it ever meant anything.

Despite some initial negative reactions, the redesign was generally well-received, which given the iconic nature of The New York Times, shows just how nice a change it was.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem   

Yiren Lu, a graduate student in computer science, writing for The New York Times Magazine:

Recently, an engineer at a funded-to-the-gills start-up in San Francisco texted me to grumble about his company’s software architecture. Its code base was bug-ridden and disorganized — yet the business was enjoying tremendous revenue and momentum. “Never before has the idea itself been powerful enough that one can get away with a lacking implementation,” he wrote. His remark underscores a change wrought by the new guard that the old guard will have to adapt to. Tech is no longer primarily technology driven; it is idea driven.

A lengthly but interesting perspective on Silicon Valley start-ups. Having recently spent time implementing Stripe payment processing on this site1, I found the insight provided into that start-up particularly engaging.


  1. I recently implemented a Stripe-powered “donate to download” option for my Delete2Archive plugin. In a prior life, I spent countless hours integrating PayPal payments into a membership system. Stripe’s user-friendly API is orders of magnitude less complicated to get up and running and keeps customers on my site while they complete a credit card transaction. No wonder it has a current valuation of $2 billion. 
Saturday, March 8, 2014

Wild Canada   

Explore this original interactive experience, which features stunning exclusive video footage narrated by David Suzuki and produced by Canada’s top wildlife filmmaking team. Watch ice encrusted grizzly bears fish for salmon in Canada’s far north. Stand in the middle of a herd of bison on a Canadian prairie. Fly through BC’s pristine and wild Stikine Canyon.

I’ve only explored the first chapter of this interactive book, but what I’ve seen so far is beautiful and impressive. My favourite feature is the use of sound throughout the app to give an immersive experience. Download the app from the App Store (free for a limited time) and tune in to The Nature of Things on CBC starting this Thursday to watch the mini-series.