Month: October 2012

Made in China buses: Is the fearmongering necessary?

If you live in greater Victoria, you must be aware that BC Transit and CAW Local 333 are negotiating a new contract. Like a number of contracts negotiated in this time of fake austerity,  the negotiation is contentious because there are actual mandates from the government that salaries cannot increase unless “savings” are found elsewhere. I am not privy to how these negotiations are going, so no second guessing here on strategy or tactics. I hope things get settled, because I travel more than a thousand kilometres by bus every month and driving to work is not what I want to do, neither is crossing a picket line.

All that being said,  this new tack is disturbing.

Williams said B.C. Transit “wants the unrestricted right to bring in Chinese-built” community shuttle buses with lower safety standards, which could be piloted by part-time drivers “at a significantly lower wage rate than conventional bus drivers.”“B.C. Transit literally had to go to China and get these buses designed and built there to get around higher safety requirements,” Williams said in the release.

via Victoria bus drivers set for overtime work ban starting Monday, union says

Yes, China bashing is a quick way to gain sympathy. and happening quite a bit this month because the Chinese and Canadian governments are negotiating a secret trade agreement (Leadnow campaign link) that gives corporations of both countries all kinds of rights and privileges that we could only dream of getting for ourselves.

Is there any evidence that Chinese made buses are unsafe, especially when they need to conform to Canadian safety standards? Is there any evidence that these standards are being gamed? These are different questions from “are these buses suitable”? “Are the lifecycle costs for these buses being understated”? I wish CAW Local 333 would take the time to frame this issue more accurately, because this issue is not about China, it is about us.

Lost in all this China bashing and a cynical attempt to appeal to our “other” phobia is the obvious conclusion that it’s not the “made in China” aspect of manufacturing that makes a product less durable or of poorer quality, it is the insistence of markets to lower standards on the products to cut short-term costs or to increase profits. China, like many other countries, probably more than Canada, manufactures large quantities of high quality products routinely. It’s not China’s fault that your crappy London Drugs coffee grinder can’t actually grind coffee and breaks when your cat sneezes near it. It’s the fault of the companies that sell you stuff, and our own inability to balance short-term price vs. long term cost. It is also the oppressiveness of the Chinese government combined with consumers need for cheap, and market profit needs that exacts a high price on the Chinese makers of the high quality IPhone.

So, ask hard questions about the suitability of the buses, and question the market mechanisms that brought us here. Unions are a very necessary buffer against market excess and corporate control. But do we have to use “made in China” as a cudgel again? As my friend says,

Made in China has become a short form for criticisms of the market, which are credible. But the problem is that it slips in the othering too


Robot sea turtles for ocean Safety

I have only one question: Will these cute robot turtles come up to shore every year to lay eggs that will turn into cute little robot turtle hatchlings?

I have to remind myself sometimes that this blog is named after a sea turtle and that my turtle overlords demand a post or two once in a while that propitiates them.

Robotic sea turtles, on the other hand, can do all sorts of things. They can find out where a pipeline or a ship hull is damaged. Or the extent of an oil spill, or locate bodies in the wake of a disaster.

via Robot sea turtles could help keep the ocean safe and clean | Grist.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2012-10-07

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Facebook and deep customer tracking, I want my data!

To nobody’s surprise, Facebook, just like any other entity selling you stuff, or selling you to people who sell you stuff is trying to connect more and more sets of previously unconnected data. This particular case deals with brick and mortar store data that is linked with customers’ email addresses and loyalty cards.

Facebook will be using Datalogix to prepare reports for its advertisers about who, if anyone, bought more of their stuff after they ran ads on the social network. But by matching your Facebook profile with your CVS bill, this means that Facebook has the potential to know some of your most intimate details (my, that’s a lot of bunion cream you’re buying!), and the privacy concerns are enormous. When DoubleClick attempted something similar to this, user-backlash ultimately led them to cancel the project.

Can Facebook Possibly Build a Business Model That Isnt Inherently Creepy? – Derek Thompson – The Atlantic.

Corporations (more than government, open data activists!) have been deep mining our data for years. It is part of creating the information asymmetry that enables profits to be made. You may remember this story about Target (coming to Canada as soon as we can learn to say Tarjay) and how they outed a teen’s pregnancy.

 About a year after Pole created his pregnancy-prediction model, a man walked into a Target outside Minneapolis and demanded to see the manager. He was clutching coupons that had been sent to his daughter, and he was angry, according to an employee who participated in the conversation.

“My daughter got this in the mail!” he said. “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”

Companies’ ability to reduce us to a shopping probability statistic is only going to get better as they learn to connect more of our data and computing gets faster. Can regulation keep up? Can customer outrage keep up with companies offering us coupons to keep us temporarily happy as impulse centres in our brain are carefully triggered for profit? Can customer outrage even keep up with the barrage of occurrences?

Receipt 2.0

I don’t think we can keep up. So, I want my data. I want information on what I bought, when I bought it, where I bought it in a standardized open data format. No, not a paper receipt, not a paper receipt scanner, but something that can be beamed to my phone, or emailed to me. I want to know when I buy coffee. Can I correlate my shopping habits with my mood?  Do I buy more random electronics when I need a pick me up? What is the spread in the price I paid for my favourite cereal? Do some stores price it differently on Wednesdays? I want apps that can mine my data and tell me where to buy my cereal, or when not to buy. I want apps that can tap into a product database and give me a carbon footprint, or a fair trade pass/fail, or a local product breakdown.

Also, I do not want to re-enter the same bits of data multiple times and increase error. A payment made to my dentist should be sent directly to my extended health “insurance” provider for a refund. It should also go to my tax receipts virtual pile and await reimbursement. Any tax deductions can easily be tagged and directly entered into my tax preparation software at the end of the year. if I want to expense something for work, I should just be able to tag them and send them along. I can’t imagine how much time and effort this will save in error checking, manual entry, auditing, so much more.

Some of this is possible with systems like Mint, but they operate on a payment level, not on a line item level.

The new mobile payment system Square (not in Canada yet) shows some potential, so does Intuit’s GoPayment, which is available in Canada. But these payment systems emphasize ease of payment on both sides of the transaction, not the ability to mine our own data.

Can this happen via the market with no regulatory push? I don’t see how. Reducing information asymmetry is not in corporations’ interest. So it will have to be regulated. You have our data, just give it to us.

Not to mention, this is the “free market” way to go. Think of all the innovation that can be unleashed on the consumer side. Think of the apps that can provide better financial advice, the apps that can collate data at city/regional level and help consumers make better decisions.

Will companies have to spend money to make this happen? Yes. This will not be challenging for larger companies who already spend millions deep-mining our data. What about small business? This is where small tweaks to new systems like Square or GoPayment can be the game changer. Square already charges less for a swipe than a typical Visa transaction. So, I would see local business as saving money. When I buy local, I usually feel a bit more connection with the product. Imagine seeing my decision reinforced by data from Receipt 2.0. Small local business cannot data mine, but can generate enough goodwill with local consumers to get access to their data. Unlike Target, when my corner soap store does something unethical with my data, they cannot survive the bad publicity.

Are there privacy concerns? Yes. But our privacy is already compromised the minute we pay anything other than cash, or use the internet (Tor users, stop smirking). Good regulation can address most concerns.

My information is being used to make me a consume more, I want it to make me a better “consumer”. Open data efforts have focused intensely on public and government data, while privacy activists have tried unsuccessfully to stop private data gathering. I would like open data advocates to look carefully at liberating corporate mined data as well.

Featured Image courtesy the Culturally Authentic Picture Lexicon used under a creative commons licence.