Showing posts with label crosspost. Show all posts
Showing posts with label crosspost. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Uber Model Doesn’t Translate

 

 

So do a lot of other apps offering services across a number of industries. They are super convenient, but the convenience comes at a premium, which seems here to stay. Some of these services could make for fine businesses, but it is hard to call them groundbreaking. After all, paying extra for convenience isn’t really innovative — it is pretty much how the world has always worked.

Before we get to why many on-demand apps have struggled to achieve mass-market prices, it is important to remember why anyone ever thought they could: Because Uber did it. The ride-hailing company that is valued by investors at more than $60 billion began as a luxury service. The magic of Uber was that it used its growth to keep cutting its prices and expand its service. Uber shifted from a convenient alternative to luxury cars to an alternative to taxis to, now, a credible alternative to owning a car.

Investors saw Uber’s success as a template for Ubers for everything. “The industry went through a period where we said, let’s look at any big service industry, stick ‘on-demand’ on it, and we’ve got an Uber,” said Hunter Walk, a venture capitalist at the firm Homebrew, which has invested in at least one on-demand company, the shipping service Shyp.

But Uber’s success was in many ways unique. For one thing, it was attacking a vulnerable market. In many cities, the taxi business was a customer-unfriendly protectionist racket that artificially inflated prices and cared little about customer service. The opportunity for Uber to become a regular part of people’s lives was huge. People take cars every day, so hook them once and you have repeat customers. Finally, cars are the second-most-expensive things people buy, and the most frequent thing we do with them is park. That monumental inefficiency left Uber ample room to extract a profit even after undercutting what we now pay for cars.

But how many other markets are there like that? Not many. Some services were used frequently by consumers, but weren’t that valuable — things related to food, for instance, offered low margins. Other businesses funded in low-frequency and low-value areas “were a trap,” Mr. Walk said.

Another problem was that funding distorted on-demand businesses. So many start-ups raised so much cash in 2014 and 2015 that they were freed from the pressure of having to make money on each of their orders. Now that investor appetite for on-demand companies has cooled, companies have been forced to return sanity to their business, sometimes by raising prices.

Look at grocery shopping. Last year the grocery-delivery start-up Instacart lowered prices because it thought it could extract extra revenue from supermarket chains, which were attracted to the new business Instacart was bringing in.

That has panned out only partway. A representative told me Instacart’s revenue grew by a factor of six since the start of 2015, and it has been able to use data science to find efficiencies in its operations. But the revenue from supermarket chains wasn’t enough to offset costs, so in December, Instacart raised delivery charges to $6 from $4 for most orders. It has also reduced pay for some of its workers.

The changes are in line with a drive toward profit. The company said it had stemmed losses in its biggest cities, and aimed to become “gross-margin positive” — that is, to stop losing money on each order — across its operations by year’s end.

Or consider delivery services. Postmates, one of the most established on-demand delivery start-ups, began as a premium service that charged extraordinary markups — a 50 percent fee isn’t unusual — for the convenience of getting just about anything delivered anywhere. That premium has kept the company’s unit-economics in the black. Postmates does not lose money on the bulk of its orders.

But high prices left the company vulnerable to lower-priced competitors, including the relatively newer entrant DoorDash, which has received piles of funding from Silicon Valley venture firms (the company announced a $127 million funding round on Tuesday after struggling to raise some of the cash).

Last year, Postmates began offering a cheaper service in which restaurants kick back some of the delivery fee in return for the promise of more orders; that price is $3 or $4 for a food order, not including a tip. But so far, that service represents only a fraction of the company’s orders. DoorDash, which charges $5 or $6 an order, has a similar business model which charges restaurants a commission for each order.

Is a fee of $3 to $6 for deliveries of groceries or food a mass-market price? For many people, the savings in time is worth the price. But the median American wage is around $20 an hour, so a fee of even a few dollars is a costly premium.

Instacart, Postmates and DoorDash say they see opportunities for lowering prices as they grow. They are hoping for efficiency gains that come with volume, like bundling two or three orders in each delivery.

But it is wise to be skeptical of claims of future price cuts. Last year, Tri Tran, the founder the of food-delivery company Munchery, told me he expected prices for most dishes on the service to come in at under $10 a person. Today Munchery’s prices are pretty much unchanged. When I asked the company what happened, I got no real answer from a representative.

That brings us to Luxe. A spokesman told me that the problems I was seeing were caused by high demand. The company is growing at 40 percent every month, which has caused hiccups in service. Luxe has no further plans to raise prices and thinks its current model can generate significant profit margins, and lead to lower prices, as it scales.

As a user, I hope so. But I wonder. The lesson so far in the on-demand world is that Uber is the exception, not the norm. Uber, but for Uber — and not much else.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Digitally Weary Users Switch To ‘Dumb’ Phones

 

This is the reason why I don’t use a smartphone.

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Unplugged: Eddie Redmayne was tired of being ‘glued’ to his iPhone

In January, British actor Eddie Redmayne made headlines around the world as he became the latest in a growing band of smartphone refuseniks.

“It was a reaction against being glued permanently to my iPhone during waking hours,” he explained, turning instead to an old-fashioned “dumb phone” handset that could only make and take calls.

He is not alone. There is a small but busy market for phones that are simple and cheap at a time when smartphones are becoming ever more complex and expensive.

Feature phones — handsets with some basic functions such as playing music and accessing the internet — are gradually being replaced by low cost smartphones, according to Francisco Jeronimo, research director for European mobile devices at IDC, the research group. But there is still a significant demand for older-style phones.

Strategy Analytics, a research group, estimates that 44m basic phones were sold in 2015, accounting for 2 per cent of the global market.

Some phonemakers, such as Sony and LG, have already turned their back on the market. But others like Microsoft and Samsung are still producing devices every year aimed at the feature market.

Many smartphone users bemoan having to buy devices that are easily broken, require daily recharging and which will be superseded by a new, better version within a year. Even basic smartphones offer computing power that not many people need.

Some users buy phones with limited or no internet connections in a conscious attempt to decouple from the modern digital world. Light Phone founder Joe Hollier falls into this camp. The 25-year-old former skater has developed a credit card-sized phone without a data connection and no extra functions other than to make calls. He describes a feeling of huge relief when the ability to check emails or status updates is removed.

Analysts say that there is a growing number of “second phoneys” who use an expensive smartphone or “phablet” during the day, but turn to cheaper, pocket-sized devices when they go out in the evening.

The Light Phone functions as a companion device to a smartphone but Mr Hollier hopes it will also encourage people to unplug from the modern internet world.

There are also practical reasons why some are turning their backs on smartphones. The short battery life of devices is a source of constant complaint and many travellers are still attracted to the reliability and long battery life of older phones.

This market is still being served by Microsoft, which now owns the Nokia brand. The US group last year launched the Nokia 215, for example, a simple, robust device that has a standby battery life of 29 days. The Nokia 515 has a massive 38 days standby time.

The phone has a simple layer of apps and basic data connectivity, but the main attraction is the $30 price tag. As Microsoft boasts: “Exceptional battery life and impressive durability are standard features. When you own a Nokia, you own a phone that’s built to last.”

Dumb phones have more specific uses, however, for example being given to children for calling home. They are simple, robust and cheap if lost.

Likewise, there are simple phones for the elderly, such as those made by Doro, which prioritise large buttons and the amplification of volume rather than how quickly they can access the internet.

Mr Jeronimo says that such products are becoming a niche opportunity for companies. Doro has grown to become the third-largest feature phonemaker in western Europe after Microsoft and Samsung, he adds.

Feature phones are also more popular in developing markets because of the combination of low prices and long battery life.

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The NoPhone

“Using a smartphone in some countries in Africa, for instance, is not an option for many users, as it would require to charge it on a daily basis,” says Mr Jeronimo.

“On the other hand using a smartphone means little for users who cannot connect to a 3G network, either because they are not available or because the connectivity is extremely expensive.”

And, for those that find even basic phones are too much, there is a solution: the $5 NoPhone Zero. It claims to be the least advanced phone ever created, has no buttons or components and is just a plastic rectangle. It is a joke, but one that says much about our modern anxiety about technology.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Kerala Elections

 

A survey by a leading television channel of the state suggests a close finish in the elections due in Kerala, with the opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) having a slight edge over its rival, the United Democratic Front (UDF). This should not come as a surprise, for the state has been rotating between these two coalitions for almost as long as one can remember. It is as if the electorate is never fully satisfied with their performance after they have been given a chance to govern.

It could also be that it intends to place political parties permanently on probation. There is seldom anything like a “wave” in Kerala. This could be for one of two reasons: That a politically aware populace is not easily swayed by persons, or that interests are deeply entrenched and loyalties fully formed. Malayalis tend not to be heroworshippers. The charisma of E.M.S. Namboodiripad, unlike Jawaharlal Nehru, had derived not from his personality but from his luminous intelligence. The people of the state also very likely have a sense of the constraints faced by its economy and don’t accept great change as a quick possibility. But a churning is perhaps still considered desirable to keep in check the arrogance of politicians, preventing them from assuming that they will always remain in power.

There is, however, some genuine cause for popular dissatisfaction with the UDF currently in power. Despite the unusually mild manner of the chief minister and the efforts he has made to cultivate an image of accessibility to the public — via 24×7 CCTV coverage of his office and adalats held at periodic intervals — two corruption scandals have blighted the image of the UDF. The first is one in which the finance minister was accused of having taken money as quid pro quo for a favourable cabinet decision affecting owners of bars. Though K.M. Mani, the concerned minister, is yet to be indicted, he had to resign, bowing to public pressure. The chief minister is relatively unaffected by the allegations but has shown himself to be unduly sympathetic to Mani’s predicament and unwilling to let him go.

The other scandal has closer links to the chief minister. It has to do with the promoters of a private company dealing 3/29/2016 webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache%3Aindianexpress.com%2Farticle%2Findia%2Findia­news­india%2Fkerala­assembly­elections­201… http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache%3Aindianexpress.com%2Farticle%2Findia%2Findia­news­india%2Fkerala­assembly­elections­2016… 2/2 in solar panels advancing its prospects by claiming proximity to the government. Links between the promoters and the chief minister’s office, including an unusually large number of telephone calls from one of them to the chief minister’s official gunman, have been detected. Even though the chief minister has stoutly denied any wrongdoing, the whole affair has left him under a cloud. The two scandals surfacing so close to the elections is likely to have dimmed the chances of the UDF returning to power. In Kerala, there is low tolerance of the misuse of office in the pursuit of personal gain.

However, for the people of Kerala, the relevant question would be whether the present opposition, the LDF, has anything substantially different to offer by way of policies that can improve their lives. As the composition of the leadership of the LDF has not undergone any change in the past decade, there is little for them to hope for in this respect. Not only are the faces that matter the same, the announcement that they are both — V.S. Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan — to receive tickets means that we have not seen the last of the longstanding rivalry between the two. The public would be naive to overlook the impact of this on governance. But the issue is not so much of dissonance within the LDF but whether it has anything new to bring to the table after its lacklustre performance over 2006­11. Kerala’s fundamental constraint is that it is an economy dependent on the rest of the world, notably the Gulf region. Not only has the government, therefore, had little control over it for some decades, but this model is also unlikely to be sustained. The Gulf is reeling under the impact of declining oil prices and the construction boom, confined mainly to Dubai, cannot last indefinitely. Unbounded outmigration is not a reasonable prospect. Therefore, if unemployment — estimated to be three times the national average in Kerala — is an issue, the way out would have to be through domestic production. But for domestic production to be feasible, it must be competitive. Three factors determine a region’s competitiveness: The educational profile of its workforce, the industrial climate, and the availability of producer services. Historically, the CPM’s contribution to a negative industrial climate characterised by labour militancy is substantial. Labour militancy may have declined, but its shadow has apparently not paled.

Beyond trade unionism, which has been the opiate of the Left, both fronts share an approach to governance defined by welfarism. Even before establishing health and education on a strong footing, successive governments have championed the proliferation of welfare schemes. This has meant that little is left for investment in infrastructure for production, which only the state, as opposed to the market, can provide. Producer services, ranging from water supply to waste management, set limits to productive activity.

The said survey also indicated that the BJP may open its account with seats in the legislature for the first time. It is difficult to say right now which of the two fronts this will impact. But one thing is certain: Unless the manifestos of the two extant fronts contain something radically new, we are unlikely to see a change in the profile of the state. It will have to continue to live by exporting labour, with the attendant consequence for its autonomy.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Hi-Tech Begging

 

Today I read about Abe Hagenston, a homeless man in America, who has taken begging to new heights. He is happy to receive money via credit cards, and offers up his machined so donators can swipe their cards on them. Guess this was bound to happen.

Hagenston, who calls himself “Honest Abe,” was panhandling near the 8 Mile overpass on I-75 when the TV news folks caught up with him.

Abe proudly noted that he has helped organize some of the panhandlers in his area into a union of sorts. He says they’ve worked out a schedule to panhandle in shifts to avoid stepping on each other’s territory.

Disappointed that Detroit hasn’t seen much snow to shovel for extra cash, “Honest Abe” said his intake hasn’t been as good as it could be. But the new credit card swiper is helping.

“I take VISA, MasterCard, American Express,” Abe said. “I’m the only homeless guy in America who can take a credit card. It’s all done safely and securely through square.com.”

Anyone who has been to a large city will be familiar with being asked if they can 'spare some change' by homeless men on the streets.

However, that call could become a thing of the past now that one rough sleeper in Detroit has started accepting card payments via a reader attached to his smartphone.

Abe Hagenston, who calls himself 'Honest Abe', told CBS Detroit that he began accepting the payments while trying to save up cash for a new pair of prescription glasses.

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Hagenston told reporters that he has been on the streets for seven years, and lives underneath the 8 Mile overpass where it crosses Interstate 75.

While he would usually have spent the winter shoveling snow to make extra cash, Hagenston said this year's mild weather has left him with nothing to do.

So instead of going to work, Hagenston said he and several other vagrants from around the city have organized 'like a union'.

Now they take it in turns to panhandle across certain zones of the city before splitting the money they make between themselves.

As part of the team's efforts to rake in more cash, 'Honest Abe' acquired a mobile card reader from tech company Square.

Hagenston also appears to have a Facebook page with a Myspace account linked to it that goes under the name of 'Honest Abe'.

According to information on those profiles he graduated from LaBelle High School in Idaho in 1992 and studied at Edison State College in Florida.

He also claims 'consultant' as his occupation, but gives no details on whether he is still employed or what company he works for. 

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In March last year Hagenston (pictured) founded the new-defunct Spanging.com where he offered to complete odd jobs such as window washing and yard cleaning in return for money

An image uploaded to the Facebook profile appears to show a young boy leaning on his chest, thought Hagenston's face is not visible. 

This is also not the first time that Hagenston has attempted to use technology to make money, having previously founded website Spanging.com, according to another CBS story.

The site, named after a slang word for begging, was designed to attract offers of work from concerned passersby, with services on offer including yard work, painting, and window washing.

Square is a tech firm founded by former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and provides businesses with payment methods based around smartphone and tablet technology.

The smallest credit card readers, which plug into Apple or Android smartphones, are usually free to acquire with Square making its money by charging a 2.75 per cent fee on each transaction.

The owner of the reader is then paid all their earnings the following day by direct debit into a bank account.

The readers, which can be upgraded to include a contactless sensor or a tablet attached to a swivel-stand, were designed for start-up stores or businesses with no fixed location - such as market stands or food carts.

Abe claims to be the first homeless person in America to make use of the technology.

He added: 'I take VISA, MasterCard, American Express. I’m the only homeless guy in America who can take a credit card. It’s all done safely and securely through Square.com.' 

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Hagenston now says he is accepting donations via card payment thanks to a Square reader attached to his smartphone (file image) which he says will be used to buy new prescription glasses

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Feynman's Letter to His Wife

 

 

Richard Feynman was one of the best-known and most influential physicists of his generation. In the 1940s, he played a part in the development of the atomic bomb; in 1986, as a key member of the Rogers Commission, he investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and identified its cause; in 1965, he and two colleagues were awarded the Nobel Prize “for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles.” He was also an incredibly likeable character, and made countless other advances in his field, the complexities of which I will never be able understand.

In June of 1945, his wife and high-school sweetheart, Arline, passed away after succumbing to tuberculosis. She was 25-years-old. 16 months later, in October of 1946, Richard wrote his late wife a heartbreaking love letter and sealed it in an envelope. It remained unopened until after his death in 1988.

(Source: The Letters of Note book - reproduced with permission of Richard Feynman's Estate.)

October 17, 1946

D’Arline,

I adore you, sweetheart.

I know how much you like to hear that — but I don't only write it because you like it — I write it because it makes me warm all over inside to write it to you.

It is such a terribly long time since I last wrote to you — almost two years but I know you'll excuse me because you understand how I am, stubborn and realistic; and I thought there was no sense to writing.

But now I know my darling wife that it is right to do what I have delayed in doing, and that I have done so much in the past. I want to tell you I love you. I want to love you. I always will love you.

I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead — but I still want to comfort and take care of you — and I want you to love me and care for me. I want to have problems to discuss with you — I want to do little projects with you. I never thought until just now that we can do that. What should we do. We started to learn to make clothes together — or learn Chinese — or getting a movie projector. Can't I do something now? No. I am alone without you and you were the "idea-woman" and general instigator of all our wild adventures.

When you were sick you worried because you could not give me something that you wanted to and thought I needed. You needn’t have worried. Just as I told you then there was no real need because I loved you in so many ways so much. And now it is clearly even more true — you can give me nothing now yet I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else — but I want you to stand there. You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive.

I know you will assure me that I am foolish and that you want me to have full happiness and don't want to be in my way. I'll bet you are surprised that I don't even have a girlfriend (except you, sweetheart) after two years. But you can't help it, darling, nor can I — I don't understand it, for I have met many girls and very nice ones and I don't want to remain alone — but in two or three meetings they all seem ashes. You only are left to me. You are real.

My darling wife, I do adore you.

I love my wife. My wife is dead.

Rich.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Bangalore Is Getting Inundated By Creeping Toxic Foam

 

Strange, puffy, dense clouds are descending on the streets of Bangalore, India’s technology capital. While whimsical-looking, they are actually puffs of a toxic foam inundating the city.

Documentary photographer Debasish Ghosh has captured images of the clouds floating around the city and overrunning the roads. The foam comes from Bellandur, a 1.4-square-mile lake that for years has been polluted by chemical and sewage waste. Every time it rains, the lake rises and wind lifts the froth up and carries it into the city.

The toxic foam gets in the way of pedestrians and cars, creating awful traffic jams. It carries a stench so strong that it burns the nose. And if it comes into contact with your skin, you’ll get an itchy rash.

“It causes a nuisance,” Ghosh says.

Making matters worse, the froth is flammable. In May and June, the entire lake caught fire, leaving a 56-year-old man who was standing on a bridge above the lake with a ruptured cornea.

The froth has come every summer for more more than a decade now, but Ghosh says that this year is particularly bad. He’s been documenting the pollution since May, making sure to immediately clean his arms, hands, and face any time he gets too close.

Harmful Snowy FrothWhen it rains, the froth rises up and gets carried into the city by winds. (Debasish Ghosh)Harmful Snowy FrothOfficials try to “hose” down the lake, using water to keep the foam from rising. (Debasish Ghosh)

Residents in the area have filed numerous complaints to the city, according to Ghosh, but the government has done little to remedy the situation. Ghosh says since his photos were first published by the BBC, the government has paid a bit more attention, but still not enough. For now, city officials try to keep the foam down whenever it rains by pumping water into the lake. “What happens is the water [mixes with] the foam at a high speed, and it disintegrates and doesn't rise up,” says Ghosh. “That's how they are controlling it at this point in time, so it doesn't fall on people.”

Actually cleaning up Bellandur and other polluted lakes won’t be easy. Once known for being the home of nearly a thousand lakes, Bangalore has become known as the “land of a thousand sewage tanks,” instead. Today, after years of urbanization, only about 150 lakes still exist, according to the Deccan Herald. The rest are either used as garbage dumps or, when they dry up, filled in and put up for grabs.

“There’s so much pollution that it will take lots of time and lots of investment to bring this lake back to normal,” he says. “To what it was maybe two decades ago, when people say there would still be migratory birds in there.”

Harmful Snowy Froth(Debasish Ghosh)Harmful Snowy Froth(Debasish Ghosh)Harmful Snowy Froth(Debasish Ghosh)Harmful Snowy Froth(Debasish Ghosh)Harmful Snowy Froth(Debasish Ghosh)

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Martian : Novel

 

When I heard about this book I immediately wanted to read it, being a Space enthusiast and very interested in the journey to Mars, I had to know how one man stranded on the red baron planet would try to survive.

Mark Watney an astronaut on the Ares 3 mission to Mars was left stranded following a storm. His crew thought he was dead after seeing his suit lose pressure and had no choice but to evacuate the planet. Miraculously he survived the storm only to realise that he had been left behind. He is forced to ration out his food and find a way to survive until the next planned mission to Mars.
This novel is incredibly scientific and filled with calculations and accurate assumptions about Mars. As a botanist and an engineer it doesn’t take long for Mark to become the first farmer on Mars. Using the potatoes planned for Thanksgiving, Mark prepares them for planting. By cutting each potato into segments with two eyes each he carries Martian dirt into the Hab which are his living quarters. He then mixes the dirt with his own waste to encourage the growth of bacteria for his potatoes. As well as food, Mark needs to increase his water, so it’s not long before he passes hydrazine over a catalyst to help produce water for his survival.

Andy Weir has created a realistic character that has attitude and is wise cracking. Although no one can relate to being stranded on Mars, his emotions can be related to. He admits from the beginning he is screwed but doesn’t bow down to defeat for long before establishing an escape plan. Not forgetting I probably laughed at this book more than I should have. I’m sure your thinking I’m sadistic in laughing at a man stranded on Mars but Mark Watney is one hilarious character. Even during the times when it looks impossible he had some witty comeback or hilarious remark. Without a character like Mark Watney, this book would have been a scientific look at survival on Mars; instead what we have is a realistic look at an intelligent human being stranded on Mars. Apart from the few questionable scientific interpretations, this novel really does capture what it would be like to be the only person on an inhabitable planet.
This novel has come at the right time when NASA plans to reach Mars by 2030 and no doubt this will create some positive press for them and give them that nudge towards the necessary funding they need, that being $80 to $100 billion over the next 20 years. Not to mention the movie released starring Matt Damon as Mark Watney will play a big part in hitting an audience of film enthusiasts about a trip to Mars, even if they don’t read the book.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

'Recalc Or Die': 30 Years Later, Microsoft Excel 1.0 Vets Recount A Project That Defied The Odds

 

IMG_0855-1-620x381Mike Koss, Jabe Blumenthal, Doug Klunder and Jon DeVaan with Excel 1.0.

Microsoft has recently been making lots of apps for iOS and Android, despite the fact that those platforms are rivals to its own Windows operating system. But this is actually not a new phenomenon at the company.

IMG_0839-620x439Mike Koss runs Excel 1.0 on a 512K Mac this week.

Just ask Doug Klunder, the lead developer for Microsoft Excel 1.0, who quit his job after Bill Gates and other Microsoft leaders decided to shift the original Excel project from MS-DOS to the Apple Macintosh more than three decades ago.

Klunder ended up coming back to Microsoft and finishing the project, after an ill-fated stint as a farm worker in the lettuce fields of California. But even today, with Excel still going strong, he isn’t convinced Microsoft made the best choice.

“I’m still not entirely sure it was the right decision,” he said this week, laughing with his former Excel colleagues. “In some ways it worked out well, but it did put us years behind, because we shipped on the Mac and gave Lotus that much longer to consolidate on the PC platform. I still think we could have taken them on.”

Klunder was one of four members of the Excel 1.0 team who joined us to record a podcast (below) at the GeekWire offices this week, reflecting on the creation of one the most important products in Microsoft’s history.

IMG_0836-620x465Software developer Mike Koss, the unofficial historian of the original Excel team, brought an original 512K Mac running the first version of Excel on floppy disks, a “Recalc or Die” motorcycle jacket and shirt, technical documents and other memorabilia from the Excel 1.0 era — mementos of a landmark Microsoft product.

“Microsoft really bet its future on two programs at right about the same time: Excel and Windows,” Klunder said. “If both of them had failed, Microsoft wouldn’t be here today. Both of them succeeded. It really helped cement Microsoft’s role.”

This weekend, many of the original Excel team members are getting together to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the software’s release, along with others who have been involved in Excel over the years. (Members of the extended Excel family should email excelis30@outlook.com for info and to RSVP.)

klunder-620x398Doug Klunder, then and now. He’s now a lawyer who does privacy work for the ACLU.

Thirty years later, their passion for the project still runs deep — as evidenced by Klunder sticking to his guns on the company’s Mac vs. DOS decision. It’s clear that one of the main reasons Excel beat out rivals such as Lotus 1-2-3 and VisiCalc was the determination and ingenuity of the original team.

Of course, there were other factors, as well.

“It’s important to point out that largely it was a matter of ripping off really good ideas from other products,” said Jabe Blumenthal, who was Microsoft’s first program manager, working on the Excel team. But he quickly noted, “Doug will take exception to that because he did some really cool original stuff.”

Klunder said, “We certainly ripped some stuff off, but we also did some things that nobody else had done at the time and probably hasn’t done since — some of which are really insane, and some of which turn out to be pretty handy.”

screenshot_767-620x491Mike Koss, a member of the original Excel team, is now a software developer at Google. He has been an active member and organizer of Seattle’s startup community.

This is where “Recalc or Die” comes in. One of Excel’s features was “intelligent recalc,” created by Klunder, which gave Excel an advantage over Lotus 1-2-3 by being smart about the way it recalculated cells in a spreadsheet.

Rather than recalculating all the cells when one cell was changed, it selectively recalculated cells affected by the change — making the program more efficient and improving its performance on the limited hardware of early personal computers.

This feature was important enough that Bill Gates took a special interest in it. “Bill was very interested in the recalc problem,” Koss said. “I remember having meetings with him into Excel 2, Excel 3, where he was very interested in getting an optimal recalc and doing better.”

But the significance of the feature was also a risk, because Klunder was the only one who knew its secrets.

“Just imagine having this product where one of the key components of it is really only understood by this guy who will quit routinely and go be a migrant farm worker down in California,” Blumenthal said, laughing with the group. “It was not necessarily the most traditional or stable of environments.”

jabeJabe Blumenthal, Microsoft’s original program manager, is now focusing on climate and clean energy advocacy, including work with Bill Gates. He taught high school math and physics after leaving Microsoft.

Excel was a learning experience for everyone. Blumenthal, for example, recalled initially being skeptical about his colleague Steve Hazlerig’s idea to “print” a document to the screen as a way of checking the output before printing to paper. Blumenthal couldn’t understand why anyone would want to do that. But he recognized that he could be wrong, and that Hazlerig had more experience with printing than he did. And so he let the feature live.

“I’m so, so glad that I don’t go down in history as the person who killed Print Preview,” he said.

Blumenthal pioneered the position of program manager at Microsoft, and the way he handled the Print Preview situation was characteristic of the best program managers, said Jon DeVaan, another Excel 1.0 team member, who would go on to become a high-ranking Microsoft Windows and Office engineering executive before leaving the company in 2013.

“The best program managers do what you just said,” DeVaan told Blumenthal during the conversation this week. “The people that struggle more in the job are the people that want to be in charge, and that doesn’t work out so well. The reality is, everybody is really passionate about what they do, and they want to have a voice in how things turn out. The best way to handle that is to allow the expression to happen, and come up with a good decision.”

screenshot_766Jon DeVaan went on to become a key Microsoft engineering executive for Office and then Windows, before leaving the company in 2013.

Among other tidbits, they shared the fact that the product almost didn’t end up being called Excel. “Odyssey” was the code name, and product names that were considered included “Master Plan” and “Mr. Spreadsheet,” before a professional naming firm came up with the final brand.

Many of the original Excel team members still use the program today — the RSVP sheet for this weekend’s party is an Excel Online document — and take pride in the software’s impact on the world.

“It’s been so much fun,” said DeVaan. “Everywhere in the world I’ve ever been, people know what Excel is, and can tell their stories about how it empowered them, and it’s just awesomely cool.”

“It’s not like there wouldn’t have been a dominant spreadsheet in the world had it not been Excel,” said Blumenthal. “It’s always important to start these things off by saying, the brilliant invention was the invention of VisiCalc. But it’s so cool that I got to participate in this thing at such a ridiculously young age with a whole bunch of really fun and inspiring people to work with. Every day I thank my lucky stars for having had that experience.”

“The world, I don’t think, looks any different than it would if we hadn’t done it, because somebody else would have done it,” he said. “But that’s OK. We got to participate in something incredibly fun.”

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Antikythera Shipwreck Yields New Cache Of Ancient Treasures

 

Over 2,000 years ago, the churning ocean below the cliffs of the Greek island Antikythera swallowed a massive ship loaded with a trove of luxuries—fine glassware, marble statues and, famously, a complex geared device thought to be the earliest computer.

Discovered by Greek sponge divers in 1900, the shipwreck has since yielded some of the most impressive antiquities to date. And while severe weather has hampered recent dives, earlier this month a team of explorers recovered more than 50 stunning new items, including a bone or ivory flute, delicate glassware fragments, ceramics jugs, parts of the ship itself and a bronze armrest from what was possibly a throne.

“Every single dive on the wreck delivers something interesting; something beautiful,” marvels Brendan Foley, a marine archeologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and co-director of the project. “It’s like a tractor-trailer truck wrecked on the way to Christie’s auction house for fine art—it’s just amazing.”

The wreck of the Antikythera ship hides beneath a few feet of sand and scattered shards of ceramic fragments at a depth of about 180 feet. Following an initial excavation funded by the Greek government, explorer Jacques Cousteau returned to the wreck in 1976 to mine the seemingly endless bounty, recovering hundreds of items.

But with even more modern advances in diving and scientific equipment, scientists believed the Antikythera wreckage had more secrets to reveal.

In 2014, an international team of archaeologists, divers, engineers, filmmakers and technicians embarked on the first excavation of this site in 40 years, using detailed and meticulous scientific techniques to not only find new treasures but also to try and reconstruct the ship's history.

The team used autonomous robots to produce hyper-precise maps of the site in partnership with the University of Sydney Australia, says Foley. These maps—accurate down to about a tenth of an inch—were pivotal for both planning dives and mapping discoveries.

The team also carefully scanned the site with metal detectors, mapping out the extent of the wreckage and deciding where to excavate. Using waterproofed iPads, the divers could mark each new artifact on the map in real time.

For the latest round of dives, a ten-person team logged over 40 hours underwater, surfacing with the fresh haul. Analyzing the artifacts should provide the team with a wealth of information, says Foley.

The Antikythera shipwreck is spread across two different sites separated by about the length of a football field, he says. Analytic tools, like comparing the stamps on amphora handles from each site, will help scientists determine whether the wreck represents one or two ships.

If it was two ships, “that opens up a whole series of questions,” says Foley. “Were they sailing together? Did one try to help the other?”

Still, the large size of objects recovered at the primary wreckage site suggests that at least one ship was massive, akin to an ancient grain ship. One such item recently recovered as part of the latest haul was a lead salvage ring about 15.7 inches wide, used to straighten tangled anchor lines. 

image: http://thumbs.media.smithsonianmag.com//filer/07/fe/07feeb87-006f-4722-9a41-3c32a2344845/at1.jpg__600x0_q85_upscale.jpg

In their latest expedition, divers recovered over 50 artifacts, which hint at the history of the massive ship. (Brett Seymour EUA/ARGO)

 

The wreck of the Antikythera ship is buried under several feet of sand and scattered shards of ceramic fragments at a depth of about 180 feet. (Brett Seymour EUA/ARGO)

 

An autonomous underwater vehicle surveys the wreck, creating a three-dimensional map of the site. (Phillip Short ARGO)

 

During the latest round of dives, the team logged over 40 hours underwater. (Brett Seymour EUA/ARGO)

 

Divers carefully clear away sand and rubble to recover the often delicate artifacts. (Brett Seymour EUA/ARGO)

image: http://thumbs.media.smithsonianmag.com//filer/a7/3a/a73a6107-ab1f-4f85-a6a0-5b52052e46a4/at3.jpg__600x0_q85_upscale.jpg

A diver displays his find. The shipwreck has yielded some of the most impressive antiquities to date. (Brett Seymour EUA/ARGO)

 

Scientists will study each artifact recovered in great detail, with hopes to reconstruct the history of the ship and its precious cargo. (Brett Seymour EUA/ARGO)

Scientists hope to learn more about the origin of the ship—or ships—by analyzing the isotopic composition of lead artifacts similar to this ring, which will yield information about where the vessel itself was made.

For the ceramic artifacts, the team plans to look closely at any residues preserved inside the container walls. “Not only are [the ceramics] beautiful in their own right, but we can extract DNA from them,” says Foley. That could give information about ancient medicines, cosmetics and perfumes.

The team currently has plans to head back out to the site in May, but the future of the project is open-ended. With so much information to glean from the current set of artifacts, Foley says that they could let the site sit for another generation. With the rapid advance of technology, future expeditions may have even better techniques and be able to discover even more about the wreckage.

“What will be available a generation from now, we can’t even guess,” he says.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Why India Won't Get A Permanent Seat At UNSC

India has been actively pursuing its quest for permanent membership of the UN Security Council (UNSC). It has pushed for text based negotiations in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) as a step to move forward the agenda of UNSC reform and expansion stuck fruitlessly in the Open-Ended Working Group all these years. Now that the UNGA has resolved to commence such negotiations in the 70th UNGA session, there is sense of progress. Many would rightly say that the start of text based negotiations does not mean that India is anywhere near obtaining permanent membership. The text in question is not a mature document that could be finalised or significantly progressed during the current UNGA session. In reality, this is the start of a long drawn-out process with no visible closure date. No breakthrough that brings us within striking distance of our aspiration has actually been achieved.

Hard reality

Some believe that an unjustified sense of achievement is being projected officially, or, worse, that official India is being hopelessly naive in ignoring the hard reality that UNSC expansion remains a remote proposition. To think that our professionals have been hypnotised by their success in terms of better structuring the process would be unwarranted. They understand that the process now begun does not guarantee success on substance within any predictable time-frame. The negotiating text is a 25 page document that contains the views of diverse groups of countries, whether the L69, the G-4 or the African group, on five identified parameters, namely, the size of the expansion in the permanent and non-permanent categories, regional distribution, the working methods of the Security Council, its relationship with the UNGA, and veto powers. These are complex issues on which negotiations could drag on for ages. To expect concrete results from the 70th UNGA session would be to harbour illusions.

Nevertheless, to view the introduction of a negotiating text as a futile exercise would not be justified either. That China, Russia and the Uniting for Consensus (UFC) countries (comprising countries like Pakistan, Italy, Mexico, Egypt, South Korea etc) have rejected the text and strongly opposed its introduction suggests that they see this step as a breach in their strategy to continue stalling the process of reform and expansion through open-ended discussions without any working text. They have made demarches with member states to change their position, but without success. China, Russia and US have effectively boycotted the process by refusing to provide any inputs to the negotiating text. The UFC countries too have not provided any input but have asked the UNGA president to attach their letter to the text. France and UK have, on the contrary, provided inputs. Russia’s negative position has been particularly noted in India. We expect China to block our bid for permanent membership as much as possible.

Highly restrictive

We know the highly restrictive US position on expansion, including its ambivalent phraseology on our claim for permanent membership. Russia has supported our candidature for years now, which is why its heavy-duty opposition to a negotiating text has come as a surprise. This suggests that they along with China actually do not want UNSC expansion. In discussions with us the Russians apparently claim that they have no issue with India’s membership and that of Brazil, but are strongly against that of Japan and Germany. The UN Charter requires a two-third majority for amendments, but Russia wants the expansion and reform issue to be decided by a larger majority, a “near consensus” as they say.

Current challenge

Russia otherwise insists on the supremacy of the Charter, but, inconsistently, not in this case. Their other argument that the vote will be “divisive” is not convincing because the last expansion was decided not only by a two-third majority, but was divisive, as two permanent members abstained. While we are of the view that reform and expansion will improve the functioning of the UNSC, the Russians are concerned about disintegration and fragmentation of the UN as a result. We would prefer Russia to be less rejectionist on the issue.

The immediate challenge is to ensure that the next UNGA chair picks up the baton from his predecessor and sees that Inter-Governmental Negotiations (IGN) on the negotiating text begin in November. Beyond that, if no consensus is reached on a text which can be put to a vote- which one can safely assume would be the case — other choices are available. It can be a member driven or chair driven process. A broader coalition, which would include India, can take the initiative to present their own text for vote. The ING chair at some stage can present a text-a “zero draft” for further negotiations, emulating the process followed with the adoption of the Post-2015 Development Agenda by world leaders this month in New York. If ever a decision gets taken with no P-5 veto in the UNSC (politically difficult if the UNGA delivers a two-third majority on the issue), all member countries will have to ratify the agreement.

If cynics are right in doubting whether the P-5 will easily agree to share power with would-be aspirants, the more hopeful may not be wrong in believing that circumstances will force a change. The crisis we see today reflect the failure of the UNSC as presently constituted to ensure global peace and security.

Monday, August 17, 2015

LIVING THE DREAM: Meet The American Poker Exiles Who Gamble All Day And Party All Night In Playa Del Carmen

Playa Beach Poker_02

Mike Nudelman/Business Insider

PLAYA DEL CARMEN, MEXICO - When Matt Block walks into Big Al & Redneck Steve's Beer Bucket on 10th Street on a brilliant sunny Sunday afternoon with a tan and the tropics-approved outfit of light polo, simple shorts, and low tops with no socks, he looks like the thousands of people who flock to the vacation paradise 45 minutes south of Cancun.

Except unlike the tourists hemorrhaging cash on watered-down margaritas and overpriced beach chairs, the New Yorker is here to work. On this Sunday, he makes $7,100 in a few hours sitting in front of his computer, playing online poker. He arrived a month ago and has no plans to leave anytime soon. Life is too good, cheap and easy, with an endless string of women "actively looking to make bad decisions,"as he puts it.

The 28-year-old - "ancient for poker," he says - is a new addition to the informal brotherhood of about 150 mostly young men, the majority American, who have flocked to this beach resort on the so-called Riviera Maya to make their fortunes at online poker, spending their spare time partying, hitting on women, and living large. Members of the loosely connected group span more than a dozen years in age and varying degrees of card-playing talent. Some bonds are tighter than others. People come and go, but together they make up what you could call the Poker Frat of Playa del Carmen.

The life sounds like a dream. And for the most part it is.

* * *

On April 15, 2011 - "Black Friday" in the poker world - the Department of Justice shut down access to PokerStars, Absolute Poker, and Full Tilt Poker for users in the U.S., freezing players' accounts in the process. Thousands of professional players, mostly young men who knew nothing other than poker, had a choice: Find gainful employment at a real job or move abroad and continue plying their trade. Many chose the latter option, alighting to Canada, Costa Rica, Malta, and elsewhere. A few found their way to Playa.

Life is too good, cheap and easy, with an endless string of women 'actively looking to make bad decisions.'

It's a manageable, walkable place, where it's possible to pay $700 a month to live five minutes from the famous Mimitas Beach Club. Life centers around Fifth Avenue, just two blocks up from the ocean, where cars are banned on a stretch of the road, turning the avenue over to tourists. Haagen-Dazs is big, as are, for some reason, the Montreal Canadiens. Five Starbucks dot the streets around the center of town. (Block credits the chain's dominance for his mother's willingness to support his move.) A shiny new mall, a sign of the coming Cancunification, has a Forever 21, Aldo, and Victoria's Secret. On the next block, a novelty T-shirt shop sells shirts reading "I [Heart] Justin Bieber" and "I'm in Cancun, Bitch."

When Gus Voelzel arrived in 2011, he was one of the first 30 or so poker players here. A lawyer turned cash-game maestro, he was planning on staying three weeks and still hasn't left. He made a few friends, but the group wasn't tight. Shaun Deeb changed that a few months later when he won four tournaments during the 2012 PokerStars Spring Championship of Online Poker (SCOOP), totaling more than $160,000. Deeb invited everyone to a local bar, Coco Maya, to celebrate. The gang got along famously, bonding over booze, women, and cards. The Poker Frat of Playa del Carmen was born.

Each day they would wake up late, shake off a hangover, and log on. Most of the online players are in Europe, and the easiest way to make money is take it off the casual player who signs on after work. The seven-hour time difference between Mexico and Central Europe makes Playa the holy grail, says Seth Davies. So they'd play 10, 12, 16 tables at once for between four and eight hours, grab a six-pack per person, meet on the beach, and then head to a bar or club. They'd cut lines and skip cover charges, since managers and doormen soon came to understand that the group had money to spend. The boys would dance, drink, hook up with tourists, then go home and do it again the next day, reliving the highlights on a group Skype chat.

Gus grinding.JPG

Noah Davis

Gus Voelzel at work. He arrived in Playa at 2011.

Word quickly spread around the expat poker community. Playa was cheaper than Canada, safer and more convenient than Costa Rica, and more fun than Rosarito on the west coast of Mexico. There's fishing, snorkeling, scuba diving, golf, paintball, beach volleyball, soccer, and other activities within easy access. Living on $1,000 a month isn't difficult, and $2,000 is more than enough. Block rents a two-bedroom apartment with a pool and a security guard for $1,150. Voelzel's three-bedroom place, which he shares with an ever-rotating cast of roommates, sets him back $1,800. And there's no need to learn Spanish. Playa Now, a service started by two non-poker-playing expats, will deliver food for 25 pesos (about $2). The delivery charge for other items - use your imagination here - is 50 pesos.

The lifestyle is badass. We're not playboy gangster helicopter guys, but we have freedom.

Thirty players doubled, then tripled, and they now sit at more than 150. The population peaks for SCOOP, the second-biggest online poker tournament of the year with $40,000,000 in guaranteed payouts, when another 50 or so players arrive. Being an online poker player is a transient profession. All you need is an internet connection, and most players in Playa have backup service.

"The lifestyle is badass," Seth's older brother, Nick, says. "We're not playboy gangster helicopter guys, but we have freedom.There are kids who I think could run Fortune 500 companies and there are kids who I wouldn't want watching my dog." Players of all sorts are welcome in Playa.

A Big Win

Seth Davies does not look like a guy who won $243,437.17 less than three days ago. He's "grinding," a term the players use reverentially to signify how diligently they work and how fastidious they are in their approach. Davies is shirtless, wearing only University of Oregon basketball shorts, his Luke 14:11 tattoo clearly visible on the inside of his right bicep, staring intently at the Apple monitor that displays the four tournaments he's playing concurrently. He spends at least 50 hours a week here - more during SCOOP - sitting in a leather chair at the kitchen table in the large, open apartment with purple walls and hideous modern art that he shares with Voelzel and another roommate, Drew. (He and Drew are Voelzel's 11th and 12th roommates in the past two years.) His roommates' laptops with huge auxiliary monitors are also on the table, and they're grinding away, too, looking to score.

KPR plays heads up $21,000 buyin.JPG

Noah Davis

A player's screen as he plays a hand.

Davies had a big win Thursday morning. The two-day No Limit Hold 'Em tournament he dominated began at 4 p.m. on Tuesday. It ran for 12 hours, then started up again at 4 on Wednesday afternoon. Davies was also playing in other tournaments, splitting his attention and attempting to maximize the opportunities to cash. About 8 p.m. Wednesday, he decided to focus, "one-tabling" as opponents busted and he began to think he had a real shot to win. Evening became night became daybreak. "I never felt really tired," he says. "It was adrenaline-fueled. All of a sudden I looked up and the sun was up."

At 8:16 Thursday morning Davies won. Voelzel, who had been watching the live stream in his room upstairs while simultaneously catching up on "How I Met Your Mother," walked into the kitchen, high-fived his roommate, then passed out from exhaustion. Davies was too amped to sleep. "I took a shot of warm vodka," he says, laughing. "I just hung out here for awhile. No one was awake. I felt like a fucking crackhead. I was so hopped up on adrenaline. I needed to do something, so I walked to the store and bought deodorant." Then, he took a nap, woke up, went to his friend's to start drinking, partied, went to sleep, and started playing all over again.

Tales of poker marathons are common. The guys like to tell the story of a high-stakes player who had such horrible food poisoning he wound up lying on the tile floor in his bathroom while continuing a game. He was playing heads-up against a "fish" (a rich guy with cash to lose), and couldn't afford to step away. Eventually he made $220,000 while leaning on the porcelain, hurling into the toilet.

* * *

Online poker moves at a remarkable velocity. I watched Voelzel for an hour and a half. He played roughly 1,200 hands, with 15 seconds to make a move on each turn. He rarely took that long, though, glancing at his cards, processing his decision, then acting. He sat at 16 tables at once, 12 on his large Samsung monitor and another four a laptop that also ran two programs designed to help maximize winning. One kept the various games organized on his screen. The other tracked every hand Voelzel had sat in with different opponents, reporting the percentage of time that person took a specific action in a given situation.

The volume of data was astonishing. Voelzel had sat in 130,000 hands on one guy, 41,000 with another, and 15,000 with a third. At one point, he had A2 (a "bad hand") but he raised an opponent because the stats told him that the person folded to a raise 81 percent of the time. The opponent folded; Voelzel took the pot. It seems like cheating, but of course there's nothing to stop his opponents from doing it as well.

Voelzel also collects information on the players he sees frequently, taking notes on particular plays and tendencies. Sometimes they help, sometimes not. "Fuck, I have to fold because I don't have time to read all my notes," he says at one point, turning his attention to one of the other 15 hands he's playing. During 90 minutes of low stakes $1 or $2 big blinds, Voelzel made $400. Not bad, but not the $1,000 an hour he tries to earn.

It's getting harder to make money all the time. Black Friday eliminated a huge number of American recreational players, who made up 70 percent of the market. Those people, who played for fun rather than profit, were easy marks. Meanwhile, the velocity of online play allows inexperienced players to gain a decade's worth of experience in a few months, while the proliferation of poker books, TV programs, and the general popularity of the game mean the average player is better. "You'll often have five good players and one bad player at a six-max table, whereas pre-Black Friday the ratio was normally three to three or even two to four," Voelzel says.

The final factor is the Balkanization of the online sites. PokerStars.fr and PokerStars.es force players in France and Spain, respectively, to play only against players in their country; as a result, many of the pros from those nations have moved to nonsegregated places where they can play against a larger player pool. One of the biggest fears of the online poker players in Playa is that Brazil and Russia, two of the countries with the biggest poker playing populations and the most fish, will go the route of France and Spain. That would be a disaster. "It would be very difficult to make more than $50,000 or $60,000 a year," Nick Davies says. "And it's already difficult enough."

The Borrowers

Surprisingly, most tournament poker players prefer not to gamble with their own money. The majority are staked - given a bankroll to pay for buy-ins. Staking provides a hedge against the ups and downs of tournament poker, and a way for the "stable" owner to diversify his investments. These staked "horses" split any winnings 50-50 with the person who stakes them, but only after they have paid back the original money. If they haven't, 100% of the earnout goes toward getting the "makeup" back to zero. As a result, it's possible to win a tournament and see no money. One player in Playa earned $81,000 in one tournament but had had such a bad run of luck that he was still $19,000 in makeup after the victory.

Seth grinding.JPG

Noah Davis

Seth Davies playing several games at once.

Seth Davies is staked in part by Nick, who started a staking business with a friend in March 2009 with $3,000 and ran it up to $300,000 before Black Friday. Almost all their money was frozen when the feds descended on the sites, but Nick has slowly built his bankroll back. The elder Davies, who has about 20 horses, made $50,000 when his brother won his SCOOP.

When staking works, it pays off. But it's based on trust. "This morning I had to deal with a kid who stole $8,800 from me last fall," Nick Davies says, sipping a glass of water with a shot of vodka in it. (He is trying to cut a few pounds; a $5,000 bet is riding on the outcome.) "He kept giving me excuses, saying his girlfriend had a nine-month miscarriage, and then changing it to an abortion. That's the downside, Makeup can be zero or 100 cents. I used to value my makeup at about 95 cents on the dollar but Black Friday changed the moral compass of our industry. People got very shady."

For Block, getting staked helps with the emotions of the game. "Last week I lost $25,000. This week I made $25,000. The swings are a little tough sometimes," he tells me at Big Al's while C+C Music Factory's "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)" played over the speakers. "If you think of it as money, you're fucked."

The downside to being staked is that you don't win as much. Seth Davies took home roughly $90,000 of the $250,000 he won. His brother got some and another guy earned $80,000. Seth had to pay back makeup, too, the result of a year spent treading water. And even when he earned the payout, he needed to be careful. Another long dry spell could be coming. "As a tournament player, it's all about being smart with your real-life money," the younger Davies says. "It's about being able to get a $50,000 paycheck and not go spend it. It's funny as I'm telling you this while we're talking about planning a yacht party."

The Davies boys, Voelzel, and some of their closer friends made a deal that if anyone won $100,000 or more in a SCOOP event, they would pay for a yacht party. The question now was when to hold it. One faction hoped to rent the 56-foot boat the week after SCOOP but another group wanted to wait until they could recruit some girls. Negotiations on the Skype "Yacht Party" chat were tense, dozens of messages popping up every hour.

Ultimately, the decision would come down to the Davies duo, who were paying, and Voelzel, one of the few poker players who speaks Spanish, who would order the boat. (There was a 100-foot one to rent, but it was limited to 22 people instead of 30, apparently because the owners were wary of letting too many drunk 20-somethings on their vessel at one time.) If the Playa gang has a social chair, it's Voelzel.

"He's going to be governor of this place," Nick told me about his friend. Voelzel, skinny with a shaved head and a vague resemblance to Steve Nash, previously worked as an entertainment and sports lawyer in Austin, playing poker on the side. He's affable and easy-going, the type of guy who would go out until 4 a.m., pick up the backpack he left with the owners of a nearby bodega, jump in a cab to the airport, and take the redeye to Austin, where he'd tailgate before the University of Texas football game, go to the game, go out to party, and then take the redeye back to Cancun, arriving home in time to play the big Sunday Million tournament. "It was a lot," he admits with a smile as we took a shot of coconut-flavored mescal chased by a Corona at La Mezcalinna, the closest thing to a dive bar on 12th Street. A girl walked by wearing only her bra and a skirt. No one seemed phased.

Bar130

Noah Davis

After a day of nonstop play, the poker contingent the local bars.

Playa is a non-stop circus of vacationers from all around the world, beautiful women looking to party. The Norwegian University Colleges has an exchange program in Playa (offering Spanish and Personal Training among other courses), meaning there's another group of tall, blonde Norwegian exchange students arriving every few months. The general consensus of the poker players is that you could pretty much take home a girl any night you wanted.

We have a skill set that's immeasurable but kind of unadaptable to the real world.

The transient nature of life in Playa can be a blessing but also a curse. "The first lesson I learned down here is that tourists are great, but they are bad for you," says Block, who's hooked up with half a dozen girls during his first month in Playa. "The first 12 days I was here, I got absolutely nothing done. You meet people who are on vacation and you end up going on vacation with them. They are here for four days and you go out for four days with them. You know that feeling you get when your vacation is over and you're sad? You feel that."

"It sounds cliche," he adds later, "but when it comes to women here, it's pretty limitless. I've calmed down now, though. I've been living with a really amazing girl from the Netherlands for the past two weeks. In one more week she leaves, though. Fuck, that's going to be weird."

Far From Home

There's a terrible movie called "Runner Runner" starring Ben Affleck as a shady entrepreneur who runs an online poker empire from Costa Rica. At one point, he's sitting in a hot tub, lamenting about his situation. "It's not that I'm homesick. I'm not away at camp. It's an issue of freedom," he says. "I can't walk down Michigan Avenue. I can't walked down Broadway. I can't walk down Art Rooney Avenue and have Primanti's kielbasa and cheese. You know what that's like for a lifelong Steelers fan?"

Marco Johnson grinding.JPG

Noah Davis

Marco Johnson.

The players in Playa can return to the U.S. - and many of them do, some to play live events like the World Series of Poker, and others to visit family - but they can't play there legally. States such as New Jersey have legalized online poker, but the player pool is so small that there's no money to be made. For many of them, this is the only career they know. "About 80% to 90% of the people here are going to have a very difficult time post-poker," Nick Davies says. "That's the nature of the beast."

He continues: "We have a skill set that's immeasurable but kind of unadaptable to the real world.I think that if you put me in a room with the right i-banking guy, we could get on. But then you have to be a bitch for six years, and then maybe be a VP, and maybe make 300 or 400k and still be a slave. I can hustle that in my own and live in Playa. If I want to go to the beach I can. If I want to go diving in Cozumel on a Monday with Gus, we do it."

And they do. Play poker, go diving, go clubbing, go drinking. Repeat. There's a saying down in Playa that there are two days: Sundays, when the weekly PokerStars Million tournament happens, and Fridays, which is every other day.

The night I arrive, around 2 in the morning, Voelzel and I are talking at the Blue Parrot, a club just off the beach at the end of North 12th Street, when the music stops and a group of people start breakdancing. The crowd circles around them, cheering aggressively. Voelzel glances over, looks away, then takes a sip of his Tecate Light. "It's the same breakdancing show every night," he says.

"It's like 'Groundhog Day,'" he adds with a resigned sigh.

If he could he'd return to Austin. He misses the family ranch near Laredo, Texas. Marco Johnson, who owns a condo in Walnut Creek, California, would go home, too. Nick Davies might not, but more because of the profits he makes from sports betting. If that were legal, he'd probably return. Block isn't sure, but he'd like to have the option.

As the group grows, the connections between the players weaken. They used to role 30 at a time; now it's a little more fractured. "We can't go out and party then Skype each other the next morning anymore," Johnson says. The poker frat still exists, but it's never going to be the same as it was those first 12 months.

'Stay Away From The Foam'

The night SCOOP ends, Voelzel, the Davies brothers, and a few of the other poker boys stand watching a "foam party," albeit from a safe distance.

A crowd of women in miniskirts frolic in a bubbly cascade that pours from a machine strung 15 feet in the air.

"Stay away from the foam," Kevin Killeen, a 24-year-old from Dublin who earned more than $120,000 in March for winning a tournament while wearing a fuzzy ski hat bedazzled by a monster, advises with the gravitas of someone who has been there before. "I've lived in Greece and Spain and that's what I've learned." He buys another round of mojitos for himself and a few friends and the night marches onward.

The foam inches ever closer to our spot by the "Ladies Bar" where women are served sugary rum drinks for free. Block walks by and says hello. Then he bounds off toward the dance floor, looking for the pretty blonde bartender he's planned to meet.

Seth_Gus_Drew (absent) in the kitchen playing.JPG

Noah Davis

Seth and Gus 'grinding' away.

Another hour passes before Voelzel and the gang tire of the Parrot. We move to another club just down 12th Street. The bouncers at La Vaquita let our group of 10 through without charging a cover. Voelzel talks to one of the waitresses, who gives us a table overlooking the dance floor where 150 coeds dance. Someone buys a round of Tecate, then another, and another. The poker players yell back and forth to one another, voices rising and falling above the ear-splitting dance music.

The bar closed at 5:30. Three couples peel off. Voelzel and I walk up the street to a taco joint, where we sit in white plastic chairs, eating perfectly fried fish tacos topped with fresh pico de gallo, talking optimistically about our hopes and dreams in that way you do when you're a bit buzzed and the dawn is breaking over the beach. The bill comes to less than $10. We part ways at 10th and 26th. Voelzel ambles toward his house, shaved head bouncing. There's another yacht party to plan and thousands of poker hands to play.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Is There A Keyboard Shortcut That Can Be Used In Place Of The Context Menu Key?

 

 

When you get used to having access to an awesome (and often used) key on your keyboard, you are not going to be happy when a different keyboard is missing that particular key. So what do you do? Today’s SuperUser Q&A post helps a frustrated reader get satisfaction once again with a quick and easy keyboard shortcut.

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites.

Photo courtesy of Peter M (Flickr).

The Question

SuperUser reader ppittle wants to know if there is a keyboard shortcut that can be used in place of theContext Menu Key:

The Context Menu Key on Windows PCs is awesome! But on some keyboards, mainly laptops, they have stopped including a dedicated Context Menu Key. Is there a keyboard shortcut that will bring up the Context Menu?

a-keyboard-shortcut-that-can-be-used-in-place-of-the-context-menu-key-01

Is there a keyboard shortcut that can be used in place of the Context Menu Key?

The Answer

SuperUser contributors Adam Prescott, PTwr, and simbabque have the answer for us. First up, Adam Prescott:

Just hit Shift + F10! This is one of my favorite shortcuts!

Followed by the answer from PTwr:

This is awesome, but in some apps it does not work. For example, the Context Menu of web page elements in Google Chrome and Opera (a possible WebKit issue).

With our final answer from simbabque:

It also works on Ubuntu in some applications (i.e. Google Chrome).

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Microsoft Thinks The Smartphone Is Over. It's Wrong

 

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced that the company would be scaling down its mobile phone hardware business. Nadella called the company’s dramatic course change a “restructuring.” He used phrases like “effective and focused” and “long-term reinvention and mobility.” But make no mistake: Today’s announcement (7,800 layoffs and a $7.6 billion write-off, mostly related to Microsoft’s phone business and its purchase of Nokia last year) is a letter of surrender.

The battle for smartphone supremacy is over. Actually, it’s been over for a while. It should surprise no one that the smartphone market is all but set in stone. Give Nadella some credit for seeing the writing on the wall, though to be fair it was basically written in huge letters and lit by floodlights.

Microsoft is hoping the age of the smartphone is over, and it's almost certainly wrong.

And give him yet more credit for working swiftly to bring the company’s most indispensable services, like Outlook and Word, to the devices people already use—devices like the iPhone, which now stands virtually alone at the top of the smartphone heap. As Samsung, HTC, and others have found, competing with the iPhone on its own turf is pointless; even if you make a phone as good, it won’t sell. Most people who want that sort of phone just buy iPhones. You can go big like the Galaxy Note 4, or you can go different like the Galaxy S6 Edge, but the default answer to the question, “which phone should I buy?” is the iPhone. It just keeps winning.

The rest of the world—and the dramatic majority of the market—has been completely overtaken by Android phones, which have somehow managed to get both cheaper and better, simultaneously and at ridiculous speeds. The Moto E is terrific, and it’s $129 unlocked. Companies most people have never heard of, like Alcatel, OnePlus, and Blu, make excellent phones almost anyone would like. Microsoft makes a few phones that are even cheaper, like the Lumia 520, which Microsoft has said before was the best-selling Windows product on the planet, period. But all you have to do is look at the chart of price and quality of Android devices, and you can’t help but think we’re weeks or months away from a kickass, $50 Android phone that no Lumia can hang with.

The Future of Surface

To be fair, Microsoft isn’t totally out of the phone game. Microsoft will probably make a Surface Phone, or something like it. Nadella even teases the idea in his memo, mentioning giving “Windows fans the flagship devices they’ll love.” And Surface, by all accounts, is still important to Microsoft. But whatever flagship device does come out of Redmond is almost certainly going to be something like Google’s Nexus program, made not to sell in any volume but to give developers something to build with. And, hopefully, to inspire just enough envy in its hardware partners that they build something awesome. Don’t expect huge marketing campaigns or gigantic global carrier rollouts. Microsoft wants its partners to build hardware that runs its software. That’s what it’s always wanted.

It’s different now, though, than it was with PCs in the ’90s. Android is free to use, it’s a technically and aesthetically excellent operating system, and it has unstoppable momentum around the world. The same partners Microsoft would need—HTC, Sony, Samsung, and LG—have until now showed almost zero interest in the platform, and this announcement doesn’t exactly make it sound like there’s been closed-door progress.

Even with the full force of Microsoft’s resources behind making a dent in the market so thoroughly sewn up by Android and iOS, Windows managed only low-single-digit smartphone market share. Now that it has so ruthlessly and completely stripped away those resources, how can it even pretend to compete?

It can’t, and soon enough, it won’t. That’s a huge problem for Microsoft, whose whole case for Windows 10 hinges on its ability to be a single platform across many devices—including, critically, devices that fit in your pocket. If no one builds Windows phones, and it now seems safe to say no one is going to, then that whole idea collapses.

What Nadella’s memo implies is that the smartphone war may be over, but Microsoft sees many more, equally disruptive revolutions upon us. The company is also focused on the Internet of Things, augmented reality, cloud processing, and virtual assistants. Those things are the future after phones, and Microsoft is positioning itself well in all of those places.

Unless, of course, your phone isn’t about to go away, but is instead about to become the centerpiece of everything—the remote for your lights and coffeepot, the engine for your virtual reality experiences, and the microphone in your pocket you use to talk to your assistant. That looks more and more like the future that’s just around the corner. And that’s a future without much room for Microsoft.