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Don't waste your frequent flier miles!

Fri, 2014-08-15 02:00

If you’ve flown lately, you know there aren’t many empty seats for frequent fliers. In fact, airlines don’t actually have enough seats to redeem all the frequent flier miles they’ve awarded.

So, they have to convince us to use them for other things; like school supplies, hotels, or magazines. 

“The cost of giving away a free seat is higher than ever. And so airlines would love to get us to use our miles in some other way,” says Seth Kaplan, an analyst at Airline Weekly.

But that may not be the best use of your miles.

Think about it: “Would you rather have a $70 calculator or fly first class to the Bahamas?” asks Brian Kelly, founder and editor-in-chief of thepointsguy.com. “There’s an opportunity cost to every redemption.”

Kelly says it may be easier to just redeem your points for that calculator rather than trying to negotiate a free flight. But he says the best use for miles is, well, on planes. That’s where you get the most value per mile.

Still Kelly says, if your miles are about to expire, yeah, go ahead and get that calculator.

 

 

49ers new stadium is a high-tech showcase

Fri, 2014-08-15 01:30

When the San Francisco 49ers take the field on Sunday for a pre-season game against Denver, it will be in their brand new stadium in Santa Clara, in the heart of Silicon Valley. For a football team named in honor of San Francisco’s first big economic boom, it’s only fitting that their new home is pure tech.

First of all, there’s the mobile app. It can pull up your tickets and direct you to your seat. You can use it to order food and beer, and have it delivered to your seat. And if you’re so glued to your phone that you miss a game-changing interception, the app has instant replay.

 

A screenshot of the Levi’s Stadium app. It can even direct you to your parking spot.

Molly Samuel

 

“It enables an enhanced fan experience that more closely simulates what you can get on your couch,” says Paul Kapustka, editor-in-chief of Mobile Sports Report, which tracks technology in stadiums.

The $1.3 billion venue has wi-fi, cell service and room to grow, technologically.

“This may be the sort of new standard that new stadiums are aiming for,” says Kapustka.

The team is also making a big deal about how green its new home is.    

I went to check out Levi’s Stadium when it was still under construction, at the end of last year. Jack Hill, who oversees all the construction, showed me around.

“You see the purple pipe? That’s all recycled water,” Hill said, pointing up at the ceiling on field level. The water for the field comes from a nearby water treatment plant.

And up on the roof, he pointed out the solar panels, mounted on top of a tower of suites the length of, well, of a football field. Solar panels also cover pedestrian bridges between the parking lot and the stadium. Those panels will collect enough energy to offset game-day electricity use.

 

Niners fans on one of the solar-panel covered pedestrian bridges, coming to tour the stadium before the season starts.

Molly Samuel

 

“The Niners have said this: they are absolutely using this as a showcase,” says Andy Dallin, one of the principals of ADC Partners, a sports marketing agency in the Bay Area. “It’s their goal to make sure the stadium manifests everything that Silicon Valley represents.”

Dallin says sure, the 49ers have the tech side down.

“I think the much harder thing to do is the human side of this,” he says.

On a sort of test-run, at a soccer game earlier this month, traffic was a mess. So the Niners are working out some real life kinks at this high-tech stadium.

Silicon Tally: 1 fish, 2 fish, red fish, cannon fish

Fri, 2014-08-15 01:00

It's time for Silicon Tally. How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by Mike Pesca, host of the Slate podcast "The Gist."

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Why won't small firms work with Wal-Mart?

Thu, 2014-08-14 13:56

For some companies, scoring a contract with Wal-Mart can seem like hitting the lottery — we're talking business bucket list.

Mark Goldstein is CEO of Scott’s Liquid Gold, a medium sized company which expects to make almost $30 million in revenue this year.

“They have been just the best and finest people to deal with,” he says.

Scott's Liquid Gold sells just under a third of its product line, like air fresheners, to Wal-Mart.

“They help companies like us to be more efficient in manufacturing and transportation,” says Goldstein.

Not all companies feel that kind of affection for Wal-Mart.

Victor Lund, a partner with Wav Group Consulting, used to own WOW, a small company that sold cookie cutters to Wal-Mart.

“Working with Wal-Mart can be a great experience but it’s very, very difficult,” says Lund.

No matter how small you are, he says, if you want to work with Wal-Mart, you have to follow the same requirements that Fortune 100 companies do.

“They have a vendor booklet, that talks about what their requirements are, that was eight inches thick,” Lund says.

With fewer than 20 employees, and less than five million dollars of revenue a year, Lund says WOW was really small,which made dealing with Wal-Mart challenging.

“Making sure that you’re working with a manufacturer in China that’s going to support you in being compliant with Wal-Mart’s rules and regulations is very, very important but it is also drives up costs tremendously,” he says.

And for some companies working with Wal-Mart is just too difficult. In Lund’s case WOW’s vendor agreement with Wal-Mart became more valuable than the company itself. So he sold it.

Why Ferguson's police department uses military weapons

Thu, 2014-08-14 13:43

After President Barack Obama saw images and video from Ferguson, Mo., where a police officer shot an unarmed 18-year-old over the weekend, he urged police there to be “open and transparent.” He also called for officers and protesters alike “to take a step back and think.” 

Five days after the shooting, protests have swelled, and the police have been using what looks like pretty sophisticated, military-style weapons and gear. Many police departments across the country have that kind of equipment. And thanks to federal government programs, they have been amassing more of it.

The Pentagon has what it calls a “Disposition Services” department. Its mandate, quite simply, is to dispose of stuff.  A list of what’s available includes night-vision goggles, combat uniforms, tear gas, grenades and M16s.

Robert Kane heads the department of criminology and justice studies at Drexel University, and he says the Defense Department has sold billions of dollars of equipment at bargain basement prices.

“You know, an armored personnel carrier can cost somewhere along the lines of $780,000, maybe even $800,000, and sometimes the police department can get that for $3,000,” he says.

There are also grants available, Kane says.

State and local police departments have dealt with the DOD for decades, but Congress formalized that relationship in the 1990s, during the war on drugs and after the Los Angeles riots.

“Law enforcement was in many instances outgunned and out-equipped from a technical standpoint,” says Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police.

 After Sept. 11, departments acquired new surveillance equipment, along with new vehicles and weapons. 

David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, worries some departments rely on these high-end tools more and more. “You’ve got the stuff," he says. "'Isn’t this the occasion to use it?’ goes the thinking.”

You'd use it to break up protests. Even to deliver a warrant.

“When you militarize the equipment, and you militarize the personnel, you are also militarizing the situation and that can lead to escalation,” Harris says.

Police need the best training and the most suitable weapons, he says, but departments need to consider carefully how and when they use them.

Porsche designs new model to woo women

Thu, 2014-08-14 13:28

Porsche is the most profitable company in Volkswagen’s family of brands, with a long and storied history. But it has a big problem.

Kyle Stock, Associate Editor at Bloomberg Businessweek says 85 percent of the people who buy Porsches are men.

"They do acknowledge that women are a demographic that they haven’t done great with," says Stock. "They want new buyers, new customers for this and so they’re definitely thinking about that."

After three years of research and development, Porsche rolled out a new model designed to appeal to women, called the Macan.

"Its development was a journey from the Nürburgring test track to the Whole Foods parking lot," says Stock.

Stock believes this crossover vehicle will help the car company increase their female customers, however, they probably should have jumped on the train a long time ago.

"The small SUV segment, the crossover segment, is by far the hottest segment in the market right now," says Stock. "And there is no signs of that slowing down."

Headlines that make you go, 'Wait... what?'

Thu, 2014-08-14 13:23

We may have to start a new segment on the program: Marketplace Reads Headlines That Make You Go, "Wait... What?"

And then we'll just read headlines.

Particularly, ones like this one from the Wall Street Journal:

Harvard Scientists Devise Robot Swarm That Can Work Together

Swarm of 1,024 Tiny Robots Works Together Without Guiding Central Intelligence.

I'm telling you, it's got potential.

Daimler and the disappearing emails

Thu, 2014-08-14 13:00

A lot of us go on vacation and set our email to auto-reply, but that still means we spend hours wading through hundreds of emails when we return. Well, car and truckmaker Daimler is giving its employees in Germany a new vacation option: auto delete.

About 100,000 Daimler employees can choose to have their incoming email permanently obliterated while on vacation.

Inbox Zero.

“To bring good input into the company you need also to rest and you need breaks," says Daimler spokesman Oliver Wihofszki. He says employees should return to work motivated and with a fresh spirit, so they "don’t have to think,‘Oh my God, I have to read 576 emails.'"

Instead, those 576 emails disappear. Their senders get a cheery notice with an emergency contact and the sign-off: "I appreciate your understanding!"

Here's the suggested auto-reply that Daimler employees in Germany can use:

Important Information: I’m using “Mail on Holiday”. Until DD.MM.YY your e-mails will be deleted.

In urgent cases please contact surname name, Tel. +49 XXXX-XX-XXXXX, surname.name@daimler.com

Thank you!

 “Mail on Holiday” is a Life-Balance offer at Daimler.

If you want me to read this e-mail personally, please be kind enough to send me the information after DD.MM.YY.
I appreciate your understanding!

Now, Daimler also has a plant in Tuscaloosa. But Wharton School management professor Peter Cappelli says auto-delete would be hard to pull off in America, with its always-on mentality.

“I would do it,” he says, “but that’s partly because not very many people actually need to talk to me.”

He says in the academic world, a footnote crisis does not mean imminent doom.

If you’re a company deleting email, however, you have to be sure your customers and vendors actually write to your emergency contact, so you don’t lose business.

Peter Cappelli says that means vendors might have to change the way they work.

“But it’s tricky to change the way you work for one out of your 100 clients,” he adds.

David Baggett created an app called Inky that helps manage email, not delete it. He says if you delegate email from one human to another, “then you still have a scaling issue. You still have another person that has to scale to a thousand messages a day potentially.”

Still, Daimler is forging ahead. The company piloted its “Mail on Holiday” program last year and says it doesn’t monitor which employees use it.

Ski bums priced out of resort towns

Thu, 2014-08-14 10:21

Christen Johnson moved to Jackson,Wyoming, so she could spend as much time as possible on her snowboard. She's lived in Jackson off and on for the last two years, but she had to leave town recently. When I met her, she was living in Curtis Canyon, a free campsite a few miles outside of Jackson.

Johnson works in town as a cocktail waitress, but her home is an old Econoline van. She's always looking for a place, but her housing budget is $650 a month. Around here, that doesn't buy much.

"There are options that come up, but most of the time they are too expensive," she says.

Even if she found a place she could afford, she might not be able to keep it.

"I've had a lot friends move out of their places because the landlord wants to up rent now, because there is such a high need," Johnson says.

Struggling to find a room is pretty common in Western resort towns like Jackson, Sun Valley and Aspen. But lately, a stronger economy and the popularity of house sharing sites like Airbnb make finding a place almost impossible.

For seasonal workers like Johnson, that means a summer in Jackson is a summer outdoors. For local business owners, it means a whole lot of "help wanted" ads.

"Friday is usually our busiest day of the week," says Chris Hansen, owner of Caldera's Pizza in downtown Jackson. "And right now, every day is Friday."

Hansen is sort of the old model around here — he came west as a ski bum after college in the '90s and stuck around. He says when he needed to grow his staff over the summer, he used to rely on college kids. Lately, that's been difficult.

"Anytime somebody gets in touch with me who isn't here already I always ask them, 'Do you have housing right now?' If their answer is 'No,' I always say 'Come see me when you have housing,'" Hansen says.

This search for staff at Caldera's Pizza has taken Hansen all the way across the Atlantic to the countries of the former Soviet Union.

"A little tiny small country between Romania and Ukraine," is how Nina Maico describes Moldova, her home country, over the din of Caldera's.

Maico is one of Chris Hansen's top servers this summer. To be fair, she's a college student, too — that's why she was able to qualify for the J1 Visa program, which brings international college students to the U.S. to work for a season. Crucial in a place like this, J1 students' contracts almost always include housing as part of the deal.

Maico says she loves getting to work in the States, even if waiting tables here is a little different than in her home country.

"You don't even introduce yourself. 'Hi, what do you like? OK, bye.' Done. Here, you kind of have a dialogue, because its in your interest, you know? Otherwise you are not going to make money."

Robin Lerner helps oversee the J1 Visa Exchange Program at the State Department. She says the reason you usually see Eastern Europeans when you're checking out at the grocery store or grabbing a drink is because their summer break generally aligns with ours. Lerner says big resorts in towns like Jackson love the program.

"Any place where you have one season you are going to see such a need that it goes beyond what can be fulfilled by the local population," Lerner says.

Back at her campsite, Christen Johnson is packed up and ready for work. She says that car camping is good for now, but it isn't really a choice.

"If I just decide I don't want to do it anymore: tough luck, you know?," says Johnson with a shrug. "I don't really have another option other than leaving."

Johnson says she might not come back next year. That would leave one really great summer job open — if you can find a place to stay.

California could stay dry enough to make food pricier

Thu, 2014-08-14 07:00

In an ongoing drought that’s often described as epic, California’s legislature has approved a proposal to ask voters for more than $7 billion in water-infrastructure projects.

Among those who were pleased:  The California Farm Bureau. Much of California’s water goes to growing crops, and the state produces a big chunk of the nation’s fruit, veggies, and nuts.

The drought has been extremely tough on farmers, and the bad news is:  It’s probably reasonable to expect more of the same, over the very long term. Recent research shows that the last hundred years were probably the long-term equivalent of the rainy season.

“All of our water-management decisions in the West were made based on a really, really wet period, comparatively speaking, looking at the last thousand years of record,” says Richard Heim a meteorologist for the Climatic Data Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Climate change will amplify any natural drying-out. “It’s going to be hotter and drier in the western United States,” says Heim. “Bad.”

Given that, California agriculture might need a major re-think. “It’s not clear that  we should be growing these kind of crops— vegetables, nut trees, grapes— these kinds of very thirsty crops— in a region like California,” says Yusuke Kuwayama, an economist at Resources for the Future.

He thinks the long-term alternative is probably more-expensive broccoli.

California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger says: OK, but where else are you going to grow tomatoes in December? Nebraska? 

“Our Mediterranean climates are the richest growing regions in the world,” Wenger says. “And by definition, they have good soils, they have temperate climates, and they don’t have water. We have to bring water to them.”  

California currently imports a significant amount of water from the Colorado River.

An animation depicting the past six weeks of drought conditions in the United States. (Graphic courtesy of United States Drought Monitor.)

 

Building a school with a future

Thu, 2014-08-14 05:48

If you've gone back to visit your old elementary or high school recently, you may have been surprised to find it’s still there.  And, it’s pretty much the way you left it — dark classrooms, narrow hallways.

A typical "cells and bells" school building. Hillel Academy in Tampa, FL, before renovation. (Prakash Nair)

But after a big slowdown during the recession, spending on new school construction — renovating old schools and building new ones — is slowly picking up again. It was more than $13 billion last year.

School Construction 101 | Create Infographics

Many newer schools are being designed with the latest technologies and teaching models in mind,  schools like the new Rocketship Fuerza Community Prep charter school in San Jose, California.

Bright blue, purple and orange paint cover the classroom walls. The design is clean. The spaces are open. Natural light streams into the building from skylights above. There’s open duct work. Throughout the school, there are small, private “breakout spaces” where kids can work with teachers or each other.

At the center of it all is a wide-open computer lab, about the size of four classrooms, with polished concrete floors. It’ll soon be full of 160 kids, each on their own laptop, working on their own lessons.

The computer lab at Rocketship Fuerza Community Prep in San Jose. (Adriene Hill/Marketplace)

“Individualized instruction for students is the right way to go,” said Laura Kozel, vice president of facilities at Rocketship, a network of elementary charter schools where computers are a part of every kids’ day. Kozel is in charge of making sure everything is ready in time for the hundreds of students from kindergarten through fourth grade, who’ll pour into the school next week. "You have to meet every child where they are at, and that’s really what this model is designed to do,” she said.

Kids learning on cutting edge technology raises two important questions. The first: How will a fragile computer ever survive a year with a kindergartner and a concrete floor?

And, second: How do you design a school that won’t be obsolete in 20 years, when no one has any idea what tech or teaching might look like in five?

“If we do a good job, it’s to give the teacher something that is going to be adaptable to however they want to teach,” said architect Michael Pinto, from NAC|Architecture, a firm that specializes in school design.

“The challenge is to both be specific to the things they want to do, but also preserve some generality, flexibility, that agility that adapts to new technologies, new philosophies of learning.”

In other words, the school of the future is a school that knows how to get out of the way.

Pinto shows me just such a place: Playa Vista Elementary School in Los Angeles.

Playground area at Playa Vista Elementary School. (Edmund Barr)

There are no docks to park your jetpack. Or cubbies for Google glasses.

Instead the three-year-old school is characterized by moveable partitions, open spaces and furniture that doesn’t screech across the floor when you rearrange it.

A multipurpose space, at Playa Vista Elementary, used as an event space and cafeteria, with automated roll-up doors to open up to the outside. (Edmund Barr)

Teacher Rachel Henry calls her classroom "amoebic."

“I’m a firm believer that children need change, and they can get bored easily just with their physical environment,” she said.  She changes the classroom setup about once a month.

Spaces at the school are built to transform into other spaces, in the simplest of ways. The architects made the outside walkways wider than usual so they can also be learning spaces.

There’s a bridge over the courtyard intended for dropping things over the side. In the school of the future, kids still wrap eggs in paper and cardboard and hope for the best.

All the flexibility is meant to encourage a new type of learning: Learning by doing. Learning with new technology. Learning that is collaborative, personalized. Learning that architect Prakash Nair said more traditional schools are no good at. 

Nair is the founding president of Fielding Nair International and the author of the forthcoming book “Blueprint for Tomorrow: Redesigning Schools for Student-Centered Learning.”

He calls traditional U.S. schools “cells and bells.”

“Kids are in a cell called a classroom for a certain period of time,” he said.  A bell goes off. “And then they go to another fairly identical cell.”

Nair says we currently have $2 trillion worth of “cells and bells” type school facilities around the country.

“If you look at the research about how we learn, it has nothing to do with being trapped in a room with people of the same age,” he said.

Nair imagines schools without big auditoriums, with cafes instead of large cafeterias.

He says schools with open, flexible space can cost less to build than traditional schools.

Remember those lockers at the beginning of the story? This is the same space, post-renovation. (Prakash Nair)

Old-school schools use about two-thirds of the space for learning. New-school schools, said Nair, use as much as 85 percent of the space.

The Rocketship school in San Jose cost about $10 million to build, compared to about $16 million for a traditional elementary school.

Around the country, teachers and architects are working toward the same goal: to be prepared for the stream of kids headed their way in a few days and a few decades from now.

PODCAST: Now playing in digital

Thu, 2014-08-14 03:00

Some not so great economic news out of Europe: gross domestic product is out for the second quarter, and across the board, economic growth was flat in the Eurozone. Germany, Europe's largest economy, contracted in the second quarter. But some say the future is already looking better. Plus, many companies have wellness programs that encourage workers to exercise or manage conditions such as diabetes. But the workplace has lagged in dealing with mental health issues. More on addressing employee well-being beyond physical conditions. And when you catch a new movie at the multiplex, chances are it's digital projection technology-- that means no scratched frames or dropped dialog. But digital is proving a tough sell to smaller theaters who can't afford the high cost of converting screens

 

End of the reel for old-school movie film?

Thu, 2014-08-14 02:00

Film snakes around the projection booth of the Parkway Discount Cinema in Warner Robins, Georgia. Theater manager Alicia Bowers is in the booth. She has a love/hate relationship with film these days.

“Run too fast and it will throw the film to the ground,” Bowers says, “or if they’re moving it from one platter to another – if they drop it, it’s a big pile of mess.”

By contrast, a digital blockbuster is delivered on a six-inch by four-inch hard drive. When you drop it, there’s a thud, but no mess.

The Parkway’s run is coming to an end this summer. It’s closing, rather than converting to digital.

Bill Stembler, CEO of the Georgia Theater Company, says the reason is pretty simple: “It’s questionable whether you could recover your investment. It’s something like $50,000 to $70,000 a screen to convert to digital.”

Stembler says when you do the math for a 16-screen multiplex, you get the picture.

Luckily, the movie studios have a solution. They offer theaters a subsidy called Virtual Print Fees. Every time you buy a ticket at the multiplex at what the studios call full price, the studios pay to help retire a piece of the theater’s digital debt.

“The film companies are basically paying for about 80 to 85 percent of our cost to be digital,” Stembler says.

But this equation doesn’t work for discount screens. The studios take about a 60 percent cut out of every ticket sold. At full ticket price, that adds up. It doesn’t work at the dollar theater.

“They don’t care about the discount theaters,” Stembler says.

So how do Virtual Print Fees work at your local arthouse theater? Sara Beresford is a board member at Ciné, an independent theater in Athens, GA. She says the arthouse is a different beast.

“I think for a lot of the arthouse cinema operators there were too many strings attached to that agreement,” Stembler says.

Remember, Virtual Print Fees come with studio demands about which movies will be shown. Arthouse operators like their independence.

Back at the Parkway Discount Cinema, Alicia Bowers has reset the film for the next show.

“You know, it’s rewarding to get it up on the screen and seeing it play... it’s definitely a nostalgic feeling. It moves, it bounces,” Bowers says.

But film lovers only have a little time left to indulge that nostalgia. One studio, Paramount, no longer distributes film prints at all.

Is Wal-Mart rethinking its business approach?

Thu, 2014-08-14 02:00

Thursday is a busy day for Wal-Mart. The retail giant is playing host to this year's U.S. Manufacturing Summit in Denver, and the company reports its second quarter earnings. Between slower store traffic and dwindling sales, analysts aren't optimistic. But the company has a plan.  

When you think of social responsibility in the corporate world, Wal-Mart is not the first company that comes to mind. The company is working on initiatives from cutting the amount of water in detergent to partnering with women-owned businesses.

"I think certainly PR's gotta be part of it, right? I mean, I don't think it's all altruism," says Peter Mueller, an analyst at Forrester Research. "So if they pull it off, it will look good for them, right?" 

And after years of bad press over employee relations, that could be a smart move, says Steven Brown, who teaches marketing at the University of Houston.

"It's kind of in tune with the zeitgeist in corporate America where corporations increasingly realize that their employees need to identify with a good employer who does good for them as employees and also for their community at large," Brown says.

The challenge, he says, is doing good while continuing to make a profit. And, Brown says, getting the skeptics to buy it.   

Web cookies to track apps

Thu, 2014-08-14 02:00

Google is busy rolling out a new kind of web tracking cookie to give the company an even deeper insight into individual online browsing habits. So what's so special about how this cookie crumbles?

“Google is introducing a way to track you on your mobile apps,” says Will Oremus of Slate.

The company is already adept at tracking users on the open web, but more and more web browsing is done through apps on their phone, which are not subject to Google’s web tracking cookies. This makes it harder for it to deploy targeted advertisements.

With this new technology, Google is trying to is link the cookies on the web with the anonymous trackers that already log activity through apps.

Why that backache could really be all in your head

Thu, 2014-08-14 02:00

Ever take a day off from work and tell your boss you needed a sick day, when what you really needed was a mental health day?

Deborah Jacobs, an HR professional who sits on the advisory council of the Disability Management Employer Coalition, says you're not alone.

"We had a lot of employees that have physical disabilities, but we find out as we're looking into their cases that they also have a mental behavioral health issue going on at the same time," she says.

"Behavioral health” – essentially a mash-up of mental and physical health – is getting more attention in the workplace, Jacobs says.

A report from Employers Health says that workers miss more days of work and are less productive due to mental illness than chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and even back pain.

Pamela Warren is doctor of psychology and a University of Illinois faculty member. She says depression, for instance, may cause physical ailments that can result in disability or employee absence.

"Over time and actually pretty early in my practice, what I started seeing were individuals who they focused on the reported work issues, but found they couldn't or wouldn't go to work," she says.

According to some estimates, this is costing employers upwards of $100 billion dollars.

 

 

Min Headroom: Pop artificial intelligence t 30

Thu, 2014-08-14 01:00

For some reason, the 1984-born TV icon Max Headroom came up in conversation this week, and I immediately went down a very deep YouTube rabbit hole. Headroom was the star of a British sci-fi movie and TV show, talk show host and music video jockey, a David Letterman interviewee, and one of many Coke-hawking celebrities.

He was also one 0f the earliest forms of fictionalized artificial intelligence (along with the "Flight of the Navigator" spaceship and C-3PO) that I came in contact with as a kid. I am four years older than Max, but I wasn't even really conscious of him as a kind of AI. What I could discern: his glitchy and pitch-shifted vocal delivery, as well as his backdrop, was computer generated. Or at least it was meant to look that way. I was kind of scared of him. He yelled a lot and twitched and the lined walls of his rotating digital box of a room seemed weirdly prison-like. Here's an example. 

 

Kind of scary, right? The character's origin story is scary, too. In the 1985 television show, a TV reporter named Edison Carter has a bad accident after discovering a dubious television company's experiments and then gets his brain dumped into a computer program. The whiz-kid who does the dump tells a bad-guy network executive, "I could make a memory dump of his synaptic circuits...the brain is only a binary computer. A series of on-off switches. That's the basis of my computer generated people program." An interesting line to hear the same month IBM unveiled computer chips that mimic brain functions.

As a way to understand what was happening with lots of technologies in the 1980s, Headroom is a fascinating example in pop culture. While tape decks were first giving way to CD players, while popular music was featuring more synthesizers and digital drum sounds over their acoustic forbears, Headroom was also straddling the analogue-digital world. The rotating block that served to house Max's disembodied head was apparently first created with analogue animation technique, and later replaced with computer graphics. Max himself couldn't be made by a computer yet, so instead he was portrayed by the actor Matt Frewer and a ton of makeup. Max's visage also appeared in one of the strangest and most significant US cases of broadcast signal hijacking to date. Doubly strange because the intro to the show's first episode has network engineers talking about "intermittent loss" in a network link of some kind. 

I think what's most interesting to me about Max is how people in the 1980s were imagining AI, and how the character and the production compares to our current AI projects. These days a lot of our artificial intelligence work is embedded in faceless, voiceless algorithms and machine learning, while other forms, like Google Now and Siri -- whose inventors are right now working on a more powerful kind of AI -- are not disembodied heads but disembodied voices. Like a lot of the future we imagined in the past, Max delivers an entertaining picture. Definitely a 1980s picture. But is he as weird as his AI successors? 

What's a viral cause worth?

Wed, 2014-08-13 16:14

The Ice Bucket Challenge is enjoying significant social media success and raking in donations for ALS research, but it's hardly the first viral challenge for a cause.

Do these stunts actually raise any money, or are they hollow slacktivism? Here's a look at a few social media campaigns for good and how they worked out financially:

#nomakeupselfie: $8 million

If this raises cash or awareness, cool. #nomakeupselfie @CR_UK I donated here http://t.co/5hHvAQ3vKZ boys? Your turn! pic.twitter.com/YdUQ94G1yW

— suzi perry (@suziperry) March 21, 2014

Not unlike the Ice Bucket challenge, this fundraiser leveraged an unrelated, but highly clickable hook into some real money. Cancer Research UK didn't start the #nomakeupselfie trend — that was author Laura Lippman, for reasons unrelated to cancer — but the craze evolved into an awareness campaign and the organization rode the wave to about $8 million in donations.

Sarah Palin and Planned Parenthood: $800,000

(Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

In an age of hashtags and viral videos, a political email chain still has some power. During the 2008 presidential election, an email circulated encouraging donations to Planned Parenthood in the name of anti-abortion vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The Internet loves irony, so contributions poured in.

Kony 2012: $32 million

Kony 2012 made more money than the others on this list, but it's tough to call it a success. Invisible Children's viral video and awareness campaign spread blindingly fast, gathering up tens of millions of views almost overnight.

The backlash was immediate and came from all sides. Critics went after the video's accuracy, the group's finances and the campaign's motivations. Kony 2012's director had an ugly public meltdown and the effort's big "Cover the Light" event flopped. A recent profile found Invisible Children still struggling and looking for a new direction.

#OnlyGoodThings: $?

This effort is impossible to quantify, but it's notable because it was created in reaction to another viral stunt. "NekNominate" challenges involve filming oneself chugging a drink and then challenging others to do the same.

One YouTuber flipped the script on his own nomination, encouraging others to perform good deeds instead, like giving away sandwich while inspirational music plays. The trend got some traction, but failed to catch on the way #NekNominate did.

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