Credit or Debit?

Credit or Debit? (reprinted from the Metro Spirit, 6-26-14)

Every four or five days, my car requires a fill-up.  No big deal, right?  I pass two or three different Circle K’s on the way to the office (depending on which way I go), so it’s pretty convenient to fill up the tank.  While they’ve been around for years, those of you born last century can still relate to the convenience of pay-at-the-pump.  (As an aside, can you believe that kids born THIS century will start driving next year?!?)  At first pay-at-the-pump was awesome.  Pull in the car.  Swipe the card.  Fill the tank.  Get back to life.  It was great.  And then the up-sales and marketing began.

It all started with the automated car wash.  Do you remember at first they were free?  Or at least the base option was free.  When you were done filling the tank, the question popped on the screen, “Would you like a car wash?”  Well, of course.  Who wouldn’t want a free car wash?  So you press the Yes button.  A four-digit code is printed on the receipt, and you drive around to let water jets and spiny cloths purge the dirt away from your car.

After a little bit of time, the free car wash option disappeared.  An interesting thing happened at that point.  People actually started buying the car wash.  “Ah ha,” said the convenience store owners, and now we get to spend 10 minutes punching through a list of options before the first drop of gasoline gets delivered to the tank.

“Would you like Credit or Debit?” For the life of me, I don’t know why anyone would ever select Debit.  Yes, technically the credit option can cause a hold on bank funds until the transaction clears.  But if you’re that tight on money, you should be using cash anyway.  Press Credit.

“Enter your zip code” OK, I understand the need for security, but be advised that just a name and zip code is all that is needed to uniquely identify an individual in a marketing database.  If you don’t want your gas purchases to be tracked, use cash.  Otherwise, enter the zip code.  Or at least do the best you can on the non-touch sensitive keypad.

“Which reward program would you like?”  Please don’t get me started on these reward programs.  As the forerunner of online tracking, these programs monitor our shopping habits and scheme ways to persuade us to buy more stuff.  I don’t want to be targeted with advertising, and I don’t need cash back or discounts.  Also, if I choose this option and steal the discount from my wife…well, let’s just say it’s not in my interest take this option.

“Which gasoline additive would you like?”  Fortunately, these options don’t seem to be around much anymore.  I guess the vision of gook building up around your engine’s rings and cylinders don’t really provide enough motivation to spend an extra five bucks.

“Would you like a car wash?”  Yes, back to the mother of all gas pump inquiries.  This question presents a little bit of irony since the car wash at the gas station where I typically fill up hasn’t worked since it opened.  True story – at one point, they put signs on all the pumps to please not buy a car wash.

“Would you like a receipt?”  Sometimes, this question will be asked prior to filling the tank.  Sometimes, the question will be asked at the end.  If you’re lucky, you’ll just be told to see the attendant.  Unless, of course, you need the receipt to complete an expense report.  In which case, bummer.

“Please Select Grade and Start Filling”  Finally.  Hopefully, you won’t be at a station that plays audio or video during the fill-up.  The A/V was fine when the stations played Fox News or something.  Now it’s just five minutes of screaming commercials letting you know that you can get a suitcase of Natty Lite for $10.

At the end of the day, all this targeted marketing hasn’t changed my behavior at all.  I still drive up, swipe the card, fill the tank and get back to life.  Instead of constantly badgering us to buy, why can’t retailers design a system that provides what we want and responds with gratitude for our patronage.  For example, when I drive up and swipe my credit card, why can’t I hear something like,

“Hi, Dr. Baker.  Welcome back.  It’s great to see you again.  I’m sure that you just want to fill up your car.  If you need anything else, please press a button or see the attendant.  I hope you have a wonderful day, and thank you for shopping at Circle K.”

Well, thank you.  That was nice.  Now that you mention it, I’m a little thirsty.  I think I’ll walk inside and get a Coke.  No, wait.  I think I heard there was a special on Natty Lite.

Until next time, I’m off the gird@gregory_a_baker



An Evolving Internet

An Evolving Internet (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 6-19-14)

When I was in graduate school, I briefly played around in a branch of computational optimization theory known as genetic algorithms.  From a conceptual standpoint, it was some pretty cool stuff.  Starting with a mathematical model, genetic algorithms insert random changes into an array of inputs.  If the model performs better than the original, you’re headed in the right direction.  If not, there’s no need to continue down that path.  Over a number of repetitions, the optimal solution will eventually emerge.

One of the interesting features of genetic algorithms is that you can conduct your analysis against the real world.  All that is necessary is the ability to construct an experiment and measure the results.  The experiment can be repeated multiple times, each time randomizing the inputs slightly.  Assuming one has the patience to conduct a hundreds of runs, it’s possible to arrive at a “best” answer.

Granted, it’s not the most elegant method, but if some cases, this might be the only game in town.

Of course, instead of one person running multiple solutions, this whole process works if multiple people each run a single solution.  Right now, the Internet works this ways.  Each new technology or product that is introduced is a variation of other existing products.  Which product is better?  Well, that’s up to the market to decide.

The evolution of gaming consoles is a great place to see this process in action.  Over the years, a number of consoles have been introduced, each one possessing its own unique randomizations.  During this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3 2014), the gaming population seems to have selected two consoles over the others:  the PS4 and Xbox1.  While there are differences between the two, these two systems are very similar in form and function: price, footprint, controller function, online gaming, controller layout, etc.  (Some gaming connoisseurs may argue the PS4 and Xbox are completely different, but I would ask them to compare and contrast with the Wii U.  That will make my point.)

Another interesting item to point out – When the differences between the leading solutions become small, new out-of-the-box solutions start to emerge.  Let’s say you don’t like the proprietary nature of either the PS4 or Xbox, where can you go?  Turns out that Valve Corporations’ Steam Machine running on a Linux kernel may be the solution.  Will it turn out to be the next “best” answer for gaming consoles?  Only time will tell.

Ramblin’ Reck Over Augusta – I want to extend a big thank you to Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson and his wife Val for hosting a reception in the Augusta community last week.  All of the Augusta Yellow Jackets in attendance had a wonderful time, and a big thank you to Josh, Kristi, Sam and the other volunteers that helped make the event happen.  Personally, a huge shout out goes to the Ramblin’ Reck Club making the trip.  It’s not often you see such a classy vehicle driving the streets of downtown Augusta.

Until next time, I’m off the Grid@gregory_a_baker

Google in the Sky

Google in the Sky (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 6-5-14)

“Ah, the peace and quiet of outer space,” sighs Biff as he floats along in Low Earth Orbit.  These cleanup missions are probably the favorite part of his job, almost like a vacation.  No doubt when others think about getting away, their first thoughts are usually about the ocean or maybe a mountain retreat.  But let’s be honest.  When you are looking to leave it all behind, can you really do better than a private cabin 250 miles above the Earth?

Biff shakes off his bliss as he notices that the first target is coming within range.  Space junk.  Ugh, what a disaster!  By the end of the first fifty years of space flight, the near-Earth surveillance were tracking more than 13,000 man-made objects greater than a softball.  Nobody knows how many pieces were smaller than that.  The present target is larger, but nothing that Biff can’t handle.

Before the 2020’s, the space junk issue was a problem, but it was manageable.  Most of the satellites were either focused on single missions or members of small constellations.  The largest constellations were the Global Positioning System satellites and Iridium.  Most people don’t remember the Iridium constellation, created by Motorola in the 1990’s in order to expand cell phone coverage world-wide.  With sixty-six satellites in orbit (plus spares), the constellation was one of the largest operational systems at the time.  However, like everything else in the first half of the 21st century, the Internet changed everything.

By the year 2014, Google and Facebook reached approximately one out of every six people on the planet, or roughly half of the total Internet population.  To continue growing, Google, Facebook, and surely others determined that they must bring the Internet to the two-thirds of the world that remained unconnected.  Google initiated Project Loon to broadcast services from high-altitude balloons.  Facebook and also explored using long-endurance aircrafts and laser communications.  Both teams were interested in satellites.  Hundreds and hundreds of satellites.

Google’s first constellation was launched in 2018 (or somewhere thereabouts) and utilized 180 satellites to create a worldwide Internet hotspot.  To keep the power requirements feasible and the weight down, Google put these first generation satellites in an orbit lower than typical.  While this design proved very effective in providing coverage, the satellites had a bad habit of falling out of orbit.  (Thank goodness the air drag models have improved in the last century!)  By the third generation of satellites, the electronics and launch capabilities had improved to the point that higher orbits became desirable.  Then on the day of Google’s 2000th satellite launch, it happened.

The collision wasn’t the first between satellites in Low Earth Orbit.  For example, in 2009, one of the Iridium satellites collided into a defunct Russian communications satellite.  But this was the first collision between a satellite and a manned-spacecraft.  The SpaceX Dragon X was ferrying Microsoft personnel between its in-orbit data centers when the Google satellite hit.  Fortunately, the impact wasn’t catastrophic. The crew and passengers were able to evacuate using their extravehicular protocols.  The wake up call to the world was heard loud and clear.

 Biff is part of the team that now floats around the world, scavenging space for the remnants of the past.  More often than not, a simple nano-sat deployment is all that is needed to impart sufficient delta V to deorbit the artifact.  Sometimes, like today, Biff is presented with an opportunity to touch history.  As Biff drifts closer and recognizes the profile, a smile forms.  “There can’t be many of these left,” thinks Biff as he moves forward to capture a fully-intact, first-generation Google original.

Until next time, I’m off the grid@gregory_a_baker