The Future of Retail Outsourcing: Amazon vs. Walmart


WoW! Isn’t it amazing how quickly things change? In the early 2000’s, the very pinnacle of outsourcing was Walmart. Walmart didn’t outsource its own operations. Instead, it made history by working with offshore suppliers, introducing American consumers to low-cost Chinese goods. Consumers fell in love with the low prices, and Walmart grew to 14,000 stores, becoming the biggest corporation in America. Only later, Americans asked, “Why can’t I buy an American made hammer?” Walmart benefited individual consumers but wiped out family owned stores, family owned factories, and American jobs.  

Recently, Walmart’s brightly burning star has begun to dim as the Internet replaces brick and mortar shopping. But as Walmart declines, Amazon rises. While Walmart revolutionized the supply chain, Amazon has changed the shopping experience. Amazon has more or less inherited Walmart’s supply chain, which is filled with Chinese products. As a virtual store Amazon can carry an infinite number of products, more than even the largest Walmart. That allows Amazon to sell both Chinese manufactured goods under American brands as well as brands directly from China.

These two different models are headed on a collision course. Already Warren Buffett, considered one of the biggest and best investors in the world, has started to sell off Walmart shares. Other financial analysts are laying their bets that Amazon will win the battle between these retail giants. What will that mean for the future of retail, outsourcing, and employment? Let’s take a look.  

The Walmart megastore is huge… and cheap. Just their food section is easily the match of many local supermarkets and grocery stores. Walmart has taken over in these areas, and if they were to collapse, much of small town America would have few if any remaining stores. In America, and elsewhere in the world, people are moving into cities, where Walmart does not have a strong hold but where Amazon is rapidly expanding. Busy urban shoppers find that a trip to the store is too much effort. On-line orders with home delivery are becoming the preferred method of shopping.

Amazon has mastered how to ship products around the world and is piloting even faster drone-based delivery. Meanwhile, Walmart still struggles with their basic “free” delivery model. If Amazon’s drone service works, it could be the biggest “insourcing” project in history. Just a few years ago, no one would have bet that delivery services in America would be brought back into any major American corporation. If Amazon combines drone delivery with their increasingly robotic warehouses, they can crush Walmart (and similar competitors) while attracting more allies and partners to their merchant services.  

Amazon is also looking into brick and mortar stores, if only on a limited basis. Amazon’s model for a physical store, naturally, has a very different model for staffing these stores. There is no checkout counter and almost no staff. You find what you want, take it, and leave. A combination of artificial intelligence and image recognition tracks you and figures out what you took, and sends the bill to a payment system on your phone. Contrast this to the vast number of workers at Walmart’s 12,000 stores.

Walmart has revenues of $483 billion and employs 2.3 million workers, which yields 4.8 jobs for every million dollars in revenue. That’s our baseline. How does Amazon compare? Amazon’s revenues are just $136 billion, which means that it still has quite a way to go to dethrone Walmart. They have 341 thousand workers or 2.5 workers per million in revenue. That’s nearly half the workers per million in revenue.

As Amazon absorbs Walmart’s customers and their $483 billion in sales, 1.1 MILLION workers will lose their jobs. However, that doesn’t mean that an Amazon job will be the same, or pay the same, as a Walmart job. Walmart has “greeters”, cashiers and people who go out into the parking lot to bring back shopping carts. Amazon has a lot of programmers and marketing people. Very different jobs, but a lot fewer jobs. Consider the following:

Amazon Merchant: Amazon is more than an online department store. As Amazon builds its own services, it repackages those services and sells them to other businesses. Amazon will absorb some customers from competitors, and at the same time, they will make small and medium sized businesses part of Amazon through their Merchant services. Amazon acts as the anchor store in a mall, allowing other businesses to be part of a larger “Marketplace”, under the Amazon identity. A small business no longer needs to set up servers, develop a marketing strategy, etc. Amazon handles all of that. Score another outsourcing service for Amazon!

Amazon Delivery: As customers continue their move their shopping experience from physical stores to virtual shopping, there will be a greater need for delivery services. Between Amazon drones and autonomous cars, the entire package delivery industry will be completely disrupted in the next few years. The post office has already committed to closing nearly half of their post offices and their staff. The Amazon model, and similar models, depend on exceptional delivery services. Hopefully… for Amazon and other new services… the disrupters will build the future faster than they tear apart the past.

Amazon Web Services: AWS is a huge cloud service provider. Move your data, move your servers, move everything to AWS. Merchant services are good for a small business that wants a ready made web presence. AWS is for any company, including some very big companies. A firm of significant size could be run by just a handful of people. AWS outsourcing can make a company a lot more profitable, but it will eliminate jobs…. not because of offshoring or even automation. As technology scales up it becomes a lot more efficient. And AWS has a massive market to scale to.

AliBaba: While Amazon is America’s biggest online merchant, China’s Alibaba had sales of $485 billion in 2016. That’s on par with Walmart and three times the size of Amazon. While Alibaba is focused on China, it will soon compete with US and European merchants, creating stiff competition and driving more efficiencies.

Consolidation: The small store is disappearing, especially in small towns. In big cities, we have the “corner store”, a convenience store just a block or so away. That’s where you go stop on your way home to pick up a magazine, a candy bar, maybe a Red Bull or a packet of tissues.

Time pressured urbanites often just run from their apartment to a taxi or UBER car, go to work and then do a reverse version on the way home. Even going to the corner to pick up a few nicknacks has become too much trouble. Services like FreshDirect are replacing supermarkets and delivering food to your home. Can Amazon replace the corner store? If they can, perhaps with an advanced drone service, will we need all of the remaining drugstores, convenience stores, and Bodegas? Or will they consolidate into a few super corner stores?

Shopping IS moving from the real world to the virtual world. That move means that consumers will have more convenience, more options, more products, 24×7 shopping and lower cost. But it also means that there will be a downside, fewer physical stores, fewer merchants and fewer jobs. Nor does it matter if your virtual store is owned by Walmart, or Amazon or anyone else.

The real conflict is between the consumer and the worker, who is often the same person. As consumers, we want our shopping experiences to be better AND cheaper. Over the last century that shopping experience moved from a small local store with a limited set of products, to the department store, to Walmart’s super-store, to Amazon’s virtual shopping. Each step has improved efficiency, improved the variety of options, lowered cost, but also reduced the amount of labor needed to serve consumers. Whether this is called automation, outsourcing or just plain efficiency, the direction towards less labor is consistent and irreversible.

Will the retail world eventually be workerless? Maybe. The choice is ultimately up to the consumer. Do human workers make your shopping experience better? Do you enjoy having workers help you get what you want, or do you feel that workers are in the way and make shopping more difficult? Consumers need to decide which world they want because the next model for shopping is about to arrive!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Outsourcing’s Mickey Mouse Future!


Ever since the 2016 elections, America’s outsourced manufacturing has consistently been front-page news. Most of that news has been about manufacturing. Now news stories are shifting towards the larger world of foreign imports, rather than just outsourcing. That means new policies and taxes that will impact, well, just about everything!  That means all consumer goods, cars, electronics and a lot more. But what about… cartoons? Yeah… what about the Saturday morning ghetto, Hanna Barbaric, The Simpsons, and the Cartoon Network?

There was a time where American Cartoons were one of our recognizable products. CocaCola may be America’s most iconic export, but Mickey Mouse is a close second. When not inflicting bodily damage on themselves, Bugs Bunny spoke in official Brooklynese, while Daffy Duck and the rest of the gang at Warner Brothers spread American culture around the world. Even Elmer Fudd, Warner’s double-barreled representative for the 2nd Amendment, is known around the world!

In 1941, just before the start of WW II, Walt Disney landed in South America with a whole animation team, ready to tour South America. Walt’s cover story was that he was collecting material for a new cartoon. While he eventually did release a very successful cartoon about Brazil and South America, President Franklin Roosevelt gave Walt a secret mission. By building cultural bridges with South American, he could foil a plan by the Nazis to build harbors for submarines. Needless to say, Walt (with a little help from Donald Duck and Goofy) foiled the Nazi plans. After all, Adolf Hitler never had a chance in being more popular than Mickey Mouse!

Throughout the 1950s, cartoons continued, but their golden age was behind them. In the early 1960s, something new happened. Television! As television went mainstream, networks struggled to find ways to their empty programming hours… cheaply! Cartoons used to be a part of going to the movies and were funded by your movie ticket. TV had different economics, and couldn’t afford expensive theatrical animation. 

Luckily for Television, a less costly alternative… limited animation… was created. Limited animation is just that. Instead of animating the entire body of a character, just the arms, or legs or head moved. This style, developed by Hanna-Barbera (often nicknamed Hanna Barbaric, for its low-quality work) dominated television in the 1960’s. Soon other studios copied the style. The best of these (Rocky and Bullwinkle, Fractured Fairytales, Yogi Bear), focused on clever banter, rather than animation. Television animation and movie animation became two distinctly different products.

Animation prices continued to rise, leading to a new idea… outsourcing. The original outsourcing location for animation was Japan. Due to the devastation of the Japanese economy after WWII, Television developed a bit later in Japan than it did in the U.S., and it had to fill programming hours with even less funding. Japan also chose cartoons as a solution. However, while the U.S. primarily targeted cartoons for children, Japanese animation was also broadcast in prime-time. Soap operas, historical dramas, adventure, situation comedies, etc. … were all popular themes for animation, and received high ratings.   

In the 1960’s English dubbed Japanese animation (Gigantor, Speed Racer, Kimba The Lion Emperor) was broadcast in the U.S. By the 1970s, American cartoons were less technically sophisticated than Japanese “Anime”. A new generation of American animation studios wrote scripts, hired voice talents, and performed editing, but sent the animation work to Japan. Saturday mornings moved away from “funny animals” to adventure and science fiction themes. Hybrid American/Japanese shows were new, exciting and different!

A lot of that difference was… violence! Gone were the days of dogs and cats hitting each other with frying pans. Animation was now all about giant robots, high-tech weapons, fighter jets, and exploding missiles. Although there was the occasional My Little Pony or Care Bears, it was the Transformers that stole the headlines. Through the 1980s and 1990s Japanese Anime, and Japanese animated cartoons dominated broadcast TV and new cable-based programming, such as the Cartoon Network.

By the 2000’s, the Simpsons became a staple of American TV. Animation’s new home became South Korea. For the next two decades, animation followed two huge trends. First, animation would spread to other lower-cost Asian nations, such as China and Vietnam. Even Japan would send most of their animation to neighboring nations. The second trend was the move from manual to computer animation. The first trend moved work to ever lower-cost locations, while the second trend was neutralizing labor costs.

Not surprisingly, advances in technology eventually overtook labor advantages. Now the hot new country for animation is France. By leveraging strict cost management and the most advanced technology, they have been able to consistently beat the cost of animation from Asia.

Illumination Entertainment is one of the best examples of the new animation. The studio founder, Chris Meledandri is the founder but grew up at 20th Century Fox Animation. Japanese, and later Asian, animation is often recognizable by its depiction of women with impossibly small ankles and wrists, and characters with gigantic star-filled eyes. The look of French animation is… Minions! “Despicable Me” was one a breakthrough  French/America successes. You will see the same style in The Secret Lives of Pets, Hop!, The Lorax, and Sing.

How do these French animations compare to films? Let’s compare two 2013 movies. “Turbo” (from Dreamworks) using “traditional” Asian animation, versus “Despicable Me 2” from Illumination with French animators. Turbo made $283 million and was considered a flop. Despicable Me 2 made $970 million and was the biggest animated movie of the year. This difference may not be due to just animation. Plot, dialogue, music, etc. also matter. Still, it showed that French animation has been accepted by America. Even more importantly, though, Turbo cost $127 million vs. just $76 million for DM2.

That’s not just a fluke. Kung Fu Panda, a competing franchise, generated between $500 and $600 million for each of three movies and cost $150 million each. The original Despicable Me cost $69 million and generated over $500 million in revenue. The French animated “Secret Life Of Pets” cost $75 million and generated $875 million. The rest of the animations created by Illumination Entertainment all came in below $75 million.

There are exceptions, but French animation is consistently turning out blockbuster films at half the price. Any method that cuts the cost of production from $150 million to $75 million is getting a lot of attention. And it raises two questions.

First, is Despicable Me an outsourced American movie or an imported French film? Whichever one it is, does it mean that Trump wants to tax it? In New York, you often have a choice of a standard movie, the movie in 3D, or a 3D plus special audio. This kitchen sink version can cost $25 per ticket. Plus popcorn. With an outsourcing tax, an evening at the movies could cost well over $150 for a family of 4. 

Second, “Does animation inform us about the future of Outsourcing?” I think it does! Animation has gone through repeated moves from higher-cost to lower-cost locations, primarily based on wages. But the use of computers to draw animations may be even more important. Over the past decade or two, the big animated movies are now almost always computer animated. As automation increases, the wage element of a movie becomes less important. The cost of oversight, differences in work hours, cultural barriers, and simplifying the supply chain become more important, and work might be performed more efficiently in higher-cost geographies.

In one or two more outsourcing cycles, perhaps by 2025, we might see animation returning to America in a big way. Once you neutralize the differences in wages, talent, capabilities and other factors become much more powerful elements of a corporation’s location strategy. This same thinking led Adidas to build new athletic shoe factories in Germany and in the US, rather than in low-cost offshore nations.   

Animation is leading a parade of outsourcing away from Asia. Soon we’ll see if the parade keeps marching all the way back to America. Moving high-end trade work back to America could be an important milestone in renewing a segment of our workforce that has been in decline for decades. In the next few years, there may be bigger changes in America’s workforce, but higher wages and reshoring American animation jobs is anything but “Mickey Mouse”!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Regulating Outsourcing Creates Surprising Vendor Opportunities!


(Published in Outsourcing Magazine, 12/14/2016)

During the election, Trump said that he would stop work from leaving America, and would tax offshored products at 35%. Weeks before Donald Trump is sworn in as President of the United States, he is hard at work wheeling and dealing with American corporations. Will these deals tell us about the “Trump Plan” for outsourcing? Let’s dive right in and see!

The Carrier deal has certainly received a lot of press, yet this deal has nothing to do with the official powers of the President. Carrier was offered $7 million in tax incentives in exchange for two things. First, Carrier will scale back outsourcing to Mexico, retaining 700 to 1,000 (reports vary) of the 2,000 workers scheduled for termination. Second, Carrier will invest $16 million over 2 years to upgrade their factory. Government funding money is from the state of Indiana, rather than the Federal government. VP to be Mike Pense, governor of Indiana sealed the deal.

In the past, this type of co-investment deal would yield more jobs over time. The Trump deal is different. CEO of United Technologies (Carrier’s parent firm), stated that their investment will allow them to automate the facility. Automation? The State of Indiana is subsidizing Carrier’s elimination of Indiana jobs through automation? If Carrier does not invest in automation, Trump will tax offshoring of these jobs.

I suspect this is NOT exactly what Trump had in mind. Likewise, these details have not yet been absorbed by the Washington Bureaucracy. This model has been followed or requested in the past, but usually only by the most liberal of Democrats. Usually, this will get you labeled “socialist” by conservatives. Trump may be able to convince fellow conservatives to accept this new paradigm. Still, much like the UK Brexit, as the financial consequences become understood, Republicans may agree with the goal but resist the mechanism.

To understand those consequences, we need to look at the following five elements that the Trump plan must address. Let’s start with…

Outsourcing: “Outsourcing” is the process of a firm moving its work to another firm. This definition, however, is too broad to translate into a government policy. If a firm outsources its accounting department, to a US accounting firm, is that outsourcing? Or must jobs be moved out of the US? This, however, is called offshoring. Offshoring moves work to another country, but the offshore firm could be your firm’s foreign office, a completely different firm or a co-owned venture. Will they all be taxed?

The last 20 years of offshoring involves every conceivable business arrangement. Look at LG computers. They started off as IBM’s offshore factories for laptops. IBM sold off the factories and the IBM laptop brand name to the Korean firm that would later be called LG. Is LG still an outsourcer today, or is it a foreign company? Do you avoid outsourcing penalties if you sell your offshore facility to a foreign company?

How will corporate America negotiate the new complexities of outsourcing? Who will produce reports and negotiate penalties? Probably HR, but HR has had its resources slashed in the past decade. The outsourcing of outsourcing management and reporting may seem… ironic?… but it may also be a huge and lucrative opportunity.

Incentives: Few jobs are created equal, and each job kept onshore could yield a different government payout. Indiana will pay $7 million, or $700 per worker, per year, for 10 years. Last year, Alcoa Aluminum in New York, cut a deal to save 487 jobs. The deal is for just 3.5 years, but it pays $21 million per year for a total of $73.6 million. That’s over $43,000 annually compared to less than $1,000 for Carrier. Corporations, or a service they hire, needs to ensure that clients receive the highest benefits and the lowest penalties possible from whatever program is put in place.

How big could this program be? The Federal government’s largest job incentive program is probably the US Postal Service. With 500,000 permanent employees, they run a total deficit of $47,000,000,000 over the last 10 years. That’s $95,000 per employee. The USPS continues to lose ground against private delivery services, email and (soon) drones. While the USPS is not about to be offshored, they need to be transformed. And soon. But this does indicate the size of the incentives that may be needed for Trump’s program.

To ensure that clients can fully participate in these programs, outsourcers must “unpack” the free analytics and management that is currently bundled into their offshore pricing. Providing a sophisticated new consulting service that can bridge the knowledge gaps that will come with new outsourcing regulations, will provide outsourcers with a huge revenue opportunity. 

Automation: As stated earlier, Carrier’s $16 million investment will be used to automate. This is not some “Trojan Horse” by Carrier’s management. If you have an old factory that is no longer competitive, what can you do with a $16 investment to change that? Fix the roof?  Build a new cafeteria? No, you will invest in automation or equipment upgrades that increase productivity and reduce the need for workers.

Will US corporations be taxed if they eliminate jobs through offshoring, but given incentives if they automated away the same jobs? Because firms are constantly doing both, who will provide Washington with the documentation that proves that jobs were eliminated by automation (or other approved forms of job reduction) and therefore the firm is exempted from the 35% tax? Once again, more paperwork. A lot of paperwork!

Penalties: Will all US offshored products be taxed at 35% based on their suggested retail price. If parts made in the US but assembled offshore, do we just tax the “additional value” created offshore?  Are we just taxing goods outsourced after 2016, or from the beginning of time? How we define and monitor this could make or break Trump’s program.

Consider products that are no longer made in the US, such as men’s clothing? The vast majority of American men’s clothing … includes Donald Trump’s clothing line… moved offshore in the 1980’s. Are we trying to restart men’s clothing in the US? Or does Washington just exempt these goods from tax penalties? What about other products that the US doesn’t manufacture anymore: smartphones, computers, athletic shoes, solar power cells, light bulbs and (yes) air conditioners?  

Competition: Top of the line mobile phones cost $700. The Apple iPhone is 100% assembled offshore. Offshore assembly costs about $140, but onshore assembly would cost $780. Do we apply the 35% tax to the $700 phone, the $138 of added offshore value for assembly, or do we tax the $780 of work the US lost? If we keep it simple and tax the $700 retail price of the phone, the new cost is $925.

That will certainly send a message to Apple. But not the one you think. The higher cost of onshore assembly would drive the cost to over $1,400. That would lose most of Apple’s US market (and jobs). Or the factory could be automated, which would eliminate most of the reshored jobs. Neither option creates many new jobs.  

There is one other problem. Of the top 10 mobile phone manufacturers, only Apple is American. The rest are all Asian. If the offshore tax makes Apple’s phone go from $700 to $925, won’t it become uncompetitive against foreign phones? If Samsung and LG phones continue to cost $700, won’t that drive Apple out of the market? Taxing outsourced US products will benefit foreign competition. Does that inevitably lead to an across the board 35% tariff on all foreign imports and outright trade war? 

Conclusion: A 35% tax on offshored work and a few incentives to keep jobs in the USA seems like a simple plan, but in the real world it is far harder to implement than it appears. Defining what is and isn’t outsourcing, separating offshore American products from offshore products, and managing what could be a tidal wave of new paperwork will create a significant Federal bureaucracy, which will consume resources that few corporations have. That’s a big opportunity for outsourcers that are willing to create a new billable service.

Outsourcers who look at penalties on outsourcing and see the end of their industry aren’t looking hard enough. Automation, not regulation, is the greatest threat to the current outsourcing model.  Regulation offers a new opportunity to use and expand Intellectual Property that outsourcers already possess.  Remember, not every firm may wish to participate in a government incentive program, but if all outsourcing is penalized, every firm you work with (and more) will at a minimum need to report on their outsourcing activity. Will you be the first vendor to ask your client to manage this opportunity?


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

It’s a Circus Out There, But Not For Long


(Previously published in “AndSociety”, January 22, 2017.)

GEEZE… what happened! On Friday I hear that Ringling Brothers Circus has its first female ringmaster in its 146-year history. I’m thinking, “Well, isn’t that interesting? The news has been completely dominated by the changes that come with the Trump election, but there are a lot of other changes happening out there!” And then on Saturday, I see that the Circus will close in May.

At first, I thought that it must have been some other Circus. Sure enough, the Big Apple Circus, a 40-year-old Circus, had declared bankruptcy and was auctioning off its assets in February. The Big Apple Circus is a very big deal. Ringling is the biggest Circus in the world, but Big Apple is very important and well known. OK. Mystery solved! But then I hear it again, “Ringling Brothers to Close!”     

Look, in a hundred years when they look back on the 21st century I doubt that anyone is going to say, “Ah, that was the golden age of the Circus”,  but still. The circus is gone? Last year Ringling gave up its elephants. That was the last straw (do they still use straw?). We still have Cirque Du Soleil, from Canada. And the Blue Man Group. Both of these got started in the last couple of decades of the 20th Century, as “modern” alternatives to the traditional circus. So they still have a few productive years left.

Without the circus, where do parents bring their kids for that once in a lifetime experience with a big animal? Sea world? Not so much. Orcas or dolphins are being phased out in SeaWorld and similar entertainment parks. That just leaves Zoos and aquariums. Without a direct profit motive, and with sponsorship from conservation groups, these are generally the best-managed places to see big animals. Yet, even these organizations are under increasing pressure from animal rights groups to return big animals (and fish) to the wild.

Ringling Brothers has a pretty straightforward view about animal protection groups. Ringling says that once they announced that they were retiring their Elephants, ticket sales went through the floor and was the primary reason for the closure. At Seaworld, it’s harder to say if they will survive without Orcas and Dolphins. Zoos? They are terrified of the next time that they need to put down an animal because a guest wandered into a Gorilla enclosure or precipitated a lion attack.

Some of the world’s biggest animals are in danger of extinction. I knew that. So did you. But did either of us know that when big animals faded away that the circuses and marine parks that displayed them we go first? Sure, we still have the Discovery Channel and National Geographic, endless documentaries, Indie films and YouTube mini-films. But without the ability to see, maybe touch, definitely smell (whoa-yep, definitely smell) these wonders of the wild, do we still care if they are are still alive anywhere at all?

I could also do without creepy clowns, but what happens to the art of clowning? Trapeze, and jugglers and a multitude of other skills, some of which go back thousands of years, may fade away… when the last circus closes. It is the 21st Century, and the Circus in America is mostly a 19th Century art form that managed… just barely… to survive the 20th Century.   

It’s ironic that at the end of this week we will have the inauguration of Donald Trump as the President of the United States. Will it be the start of a new age or the end of an old one? Circuses, Elephants, and Lions may not be part of this new American age, but maybe… just maybe… the animal rights people are right and this is the best way to have the animals is to get rid of these institutions. In any case, we’re about to find out!

Posted in Best Practices, Environment, Unique Ideas | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Yahoo Users Hacked


Photo: All Rights – Javad Rajabzade

(Previously published in AndMagazine, January 14th, 2017)

Yahoo keeps hitting the jackpot, in a bad way. Earlier in December, Yahoo had a BILLION ACCOUNTS hacked. That’s the largest number of reported accounts hacked, EVER! To make it even worse, the second largest hack in history happened in September. Who is the poor fool that holds the #2 position? You guessed it, Yahoo! Now, that just can’t be good for business!

And as it turns out, it’s not. Yahoo! is in the middle of being sold to Verizon, with the price set at $5 billion. That’s an insultingly low figure for an Internet firm. Then again, it’s been a long time since Yahoo! was a technology leader. Verizon thought that for $5 billion, it was buying customers and getting a little technology. Now those customers are changing their passwords, or just changing to other providers.

Repeated breaches have undermined confidence in Yahoo!, and the Verizon deal. Verizon is making sounds that the price tag may need to be… discounted. When one corporation buys another, there is a veil of secrecy that makes any operational details fuzzy. Such as, who knew what about the hack, and when. It doesn’t appear that Verizon knew about the September hack until well after it happened, and the deal to sell was already in play.

Sadly, only part of the problem is Yahoo! If your firm has a well-known name and you are in any way connected to the Internet… you’ve been hacked! Oracle and Steam have been hacked. Citi has been hacked. There are many other firms that may have been hacked, but if it was a smaller attack or if the corporation believes that it was not an effective break in, it may never be publically reported. Of course, if the hacker is more skilled than corporate security, does the corporation they really know what happened?

When a story begins with international hacking, we expect it to end with China. China has been identified as the source of the hacking at the New York Times, the FDIC, and the US Office of Personnel Management. Now, after the 2016 elections, we hear that Russia is also hacking in the US. Is there anyone left who isn’t trying to pry into our passwords?

The worst of it, for many average users, is that even if you don’t use Yahoo!, you should still change your passwords, which you probably keep on the back of an envelope somewhere. How many of you have multiple accounts because you’ve lost your id or password, or maybe you never wrote down the answers to those annoying security questions. It’s not a coincidence that there are now so many tools to store your login info. Half of which just might be fake services trying to steal your passwords!

One thing that we can say is that, at least for now, hacking is evolving faster than security. We can all expect to see more stories on hacking, from Yahoo! and from every other big corporation. Banks and financial firms will have new rules in 2017 and will be required to report more small security hacks than in the past. They will need to issue reports to regulators faster. We will learn about hacks that failed or that perhaps weren’t even true hacks, but were instead just glitch. The more that corporate America reports hacking, the more that regulators will create even more new reporting rules. Expect to hear so many stories about security breaches that we start to go a bit numb!

So, remember to change your passwords, and change them often. In fact, I just got an offer in email for a new tool to manage my passwords. Hey, it will also manage my credit card information! For Free! Gee, I wonder how they can make any money? 

Posted in Unique Ideas | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Death By Sushi: The Eel, Nearly Extinct, And TOTALLY Delicious


(Previously published in AndSociety, January 14th, 2017)

In America, we rarely think about food deprivation. Yet we are constantly learning about foods that have become scarce or on their way to extinction. Basics like bananas and oranges are under attack by viruses that may wipe both out as commercial crops in as little as 5 years. Strawberries are having a hard time dealing with rising temperatures and are not producing as much fruit as in past years. Now we can add eels to the list of disappearing foods!

Eels? Who eats eels? Well, just about everyone when you love sushi! Have you ever ordered Unagi at a sushi bar? It’s almost always barbecued in a sweet sauce, and delicious in sushi or in a rice bowl. In Japan, eel is so popular that they have dedicated eel restaurants. While American’s are just getting to the taste (and idea) of eels, they have been a favorite food in Japan for centuries. But if you want to try eel, you’d better hurry up! It looks like the world is running out of eels!

Eels are long, thin, and fin-less, but they are fish and not some species of snake, as some first-time eel eaters assume. And there isn’t just one kind of eel. There are over 800 species of eels that live in the sea or in freshwater. Without a doubt, Japan is the #1 market for eels, consuming over 70% of the eels harvested worldwide. For decades Japan has been supplementing declining local eel populations with eels from Europe, but now that strategy no longer works.

Wild eels have a complex lifecycle, spending a good deal of their juvenile lives in the ocean, and just like salmon, returning home as adults. In nature, eel eggs mature and the tiny baby eels start moving towards the east coast of the US. They then metamorphose into glass eels. A bucket of squirming glass eels looks a lot like a bucket of earthworms, except that they are transparent (that’s the “glass” in the eels). Then they keep growing, entering a stage where it is called an “elver”, where it loses its transparency. Then the eel moves inland, in lakes and rivers across America. Finally, it returns to the ocean as an adult.     

But in the 1980’s something mysterious happened. The eel population across Europe dropped dramatically, by as much as 95%. Was it over-fishing, changes in weather or sea currents or something else? Experts are still debating the cause, but years have gone by and there hasn’t been any recovery in the eel population.

With wild eels in decline around the world, by the 1990’s eels for Japan had to come from a new source… America! As I said earlier, wild eels have a complex lifecycle. Well, it looks like the lifecycle of farmed eel is nearly as complex.  

Their artificial life cycle begins in New England. In the past, glass eels were used as bait. Not anymore. This year the cost of glass eels hit a new high, $2,500 per lb. And next year might be even higher. That’s definitely not fish bait prices! An experienced eel fisher can make $100,000 or more per night during the short glass eel season. Of course, at these prices, more and more fishermen are showing up every year to dig in the mud for aquaculture gold. It doesn’t take a lot to connect the dots between this new fishing industry and an extinction event for the American Eel.

After glass eels are caught, they are packaged and sent around the world for a year or so of feeding. Taiwan used to the top spot for eel farming, but it has been overtaken by mainland China. For the final growth period, eels are often “finished” in Japan. Until very recently, American eels were considered to be less tasty and therefore less valuable than the local varieties. Eel fisheries claim that they have figured out how to adjust eel feeding and growing conditions to match the natural environment of their wild cousins and deliver richer and more nuanced flavors.  

With European eels in sharp decline and Japanese eels being eyed very suspiciously since the rise in ocean radiation since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station disaster, America may be the last great source of eels for Japan. There are other species of eel in Africa, and Australia, but the American eel has become the eel of choice, explaining the growing demand for American glass eels and the high prices.

While $2,500 per lb. may seem like an insanely high price, it’s really just a pittance in the overall market. For every dollar worth of glass eels that are shipped from the US to China for farming, produces $8-$12 of eel. The cost in the restaurant is several times the farm price. It is estimated that the glass eel market in the US is just $40 million, but it is turned into a $1 billion aquaculture market.  

Eel fishing in New England is regulated, but the sky-high prices for baby eels have started a rising tide of poaching that is only going to get worse over time. Japan will continue to demand the majority of the year’s catch. However, China is becoming a growing customer for eels and a competitor to Japan. The price will continue to rise and the availability of eels will fall.

Eels are far from the top of America’s environmental list, but if we don’t set up more controls over the domestic eel market, the glass eel may not have much time left. Tasty as they are, Japan and the world will need to control their appetite for eels!

Posted in Environment | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Robot Saves Lives!


(Previously published in AndMagazine, January 21, 2017)

Everyday robots are getting smarter. Soon, robots will soon become so smart that they will steal your job. And do it better than you ever could! But long before robots steal your job, they will probably save your life!

Some writers have talked about robots helping in hazardous work. Putting out forest fires, working with toxic or radioactive materials and even supporting the police in a hostage or terrorist situation. However, far more lives are at risk from “normal” events. Over 35,000 Americans are killed every year in car accidents. Around a million Americans are in traffic accidents and receive lesser injuries. That’s a staggering amount of injuries. Yet, if we had the same rate of injuries today as in the 1970’s, there would have been 85,000 deaths.

Why is it that driving is so much safer today? Technology. Miniature computers and sensors made airbags possible. Anti-lock brakes, collision detection software, and other technology enhancements have made driving safer than ever before. Now that cars have begun to drive themselves, we can expect even more improvements. Over time as more robots and fewer people drive cars, we can expect traffic related deaths to continue to drop. If only robots drive vehicles, the number may drop to virtually zero.

It’s not just a matter of robots being better drivers, although that is a larger part of it. Already, robots drive better than humans, with fewer accidents. Aside from just driving skill, robots have several advantages over humans. Humans choose to drive even when they are tired, and their reflexes are impaired, or even when they are falling asleep at the wheel. Humans drive when they drink and they drive when they are drug impaired. Human drivers get into accidents when they are distracted by an argument with passengers, or even when they get a call on their cell phones. Drivers take selfies of accidents, only to get into an accident themselves. As more and more applications arrive on phones, there will be more and more distractions… and accidents.

On the other hand, robots will get better all the time. Every minute that a car is on the road, contributes to databases that help robots become better drivers. New standards are being created so that all robot drivers can communicate with each other, sharing information on road conditions in real time. Oil spills, debris on the road, and accidents that are just around a corner or over the next hill are transmitted to other robots drivers, providing more time to change lanes, slow down and compensate. And robots not only see with visible light, some of the newest self-driving cars supplement this with infra-red, ultraviolet and radar sensors that can cut through fog, rain, smoke and other visibility hazards.

But are we ready for robot cars? Are they really that good? Take a look at this YouTube video. You see once car spin out of control and another car hit the first car. We see the video from the point of view of the third car, a Tesla with self-driving features. You hear a “beep” as the Tesla’s computer signals that it detects and accident and it is taking over control of the car, which is then brought to a smooth stop well short of the first two cars. Did you hear the beep? Did you notice that the beep starts about 2 seconds BEFORE the accident? It predicted the accident. And prevented a new accident.

Technology is already saving the lives of tens of thousands of Americans every year. Will 2017 be the year when we turn over control of our cars to the robots? The sooner we do, the more lives we will save.

Posted in cars, Improvement, Robots | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment