Tag Archives: commerce

A mild case of identity theft

Last week someone used a fake credit card with my number and my name to charge a few hundred dollars worth of products at a store near my house.

I discovered the theft by chance when I was looking at my account online. I was lucky, actually. We’ve started buying holiday gifts and I’m not always diligent about checking every statement, so the charge might have slipped through. I called the bank and a few minutes later, that card was cancelled and a replacement was on the way to me.

I’ve been shopping online for close to 20 years and I’ve always expected I’d have to deal with a stolen number someday. Large retailers whose physical stores I’ve used have been hacked; another opportunity for my number to be taken and used. I would have chalked that up to bad luck. However, the fact that the card was used a few miles from my home suggests that it was a local theft, and to me that’s far creepier. I’m careful with my card. So, where did someone copy my number? A store? Restaurant? Doctor’s office? I don’t have any idea and it’s disconcerting.

Identity theft in the swamps of big data, where I am just a number in a list of millions, isn’t personal. The idea that my number might have been stolen by someone that I physically interacted with is intensely personal. Doing the rest of my holiday shopping online is even more appealing this year.

On a lighter note, I’ll leave you with this video in which local boy Eminem mentions the city where my card was used. (Video is NSFW both for lyrics and nudity from the movie Project X).

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Posted by on November 18, 2014 in Side Topics


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My wishlist of wearables yet to be invented

The world doesn’t need more expensive pedometers. I have a growing list of wearables I wish existed, though:

The Face Whisperer

Perfect for people with face blindness, short attention spans, or stressed memory, this device would use discrete audio and video inputs to recognize people nearby. With a subtle gesture, I could trigger the device to whisper the person’s name into my ear (or onto a Heads Up Display if a Google Glass-like product ever went mainstream). Perhaps another gesture could supply additional information, like the last time that person was encountered, or her employer, or whatever would be relevant to the user. Another version of the software might analyze facial expressions and whisper emotional cues to someone on the autistic spectrum. Cheaper and less annoying, I would think, than a sycophantic assistant.

The Automatic Pain Diary

Anyone with chronic pain is familiar with questions about frequency and type of pain experienced. Recording that is easier said than done. First there’s the problem that one way of coping with frequent pain is to push it out of our conscious minds. Also, having frequent pain means that it occurs at inconvenient times: in the middle of work, while driving, in bed, while grocery shopping, etc. Doctors who want pain diaries have probably never tried to keep one themselves. This wearable diary could be a wristband that the user presses to activate, then presses a number of times corresponding to pain level. Perhaps a second button could record a short audio clip, giving a description, location, and/or possible trigger for the pain. Have that synch into a database that can be printed or transmitted electronically. Ta-da!  Far more accurate and less stress for the patient.

Gait Trainer

This one is awfully personal, but I can see it being useful for a wider range of people (Parkinson’s Disease patients, training athletes, people in accident rehab). Wearable sensors on ankles or attached to footwear would track various items about a person’s gait: length and speed of stride, consistency, alignment, etc. This could be synced and compared to a range considered “acceptable”, with a report on what variations occurred and whether the trend is improving.  Even better, if the measured gait is outside the desired range an alert would be delivered to a smartphone or wrist wearable. I’m currently learning to walk correctly and it’s awfully difficult: I can’t see myself walk and once I pay conscious attention to my gait, it changes.

Biofeedback Anywhere

Biofeedback training can help with stress, PTSD, headaches, and more. It’s a natural for gamification; in fact, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry has a game called Mindball, which is essentially competitive relaxation. The biofeedback devices I find online right now are pretty lame. Give me discrete wearables that tie into an app with various programs. For example, let me float a happy bunny around a beautiful landscape in a bubble, guided by calmed brainwaves, lower pulse, and deep slow respiration. Give me a Bob Ross-style landscape that paints itself slowly over a 10-20 minute biofeedback session. Slowly erase the scene or bring the bubble down to earth if my zen is harshed. It’s not quite guided meditation but it could be a way to integrate and calm mind and body for a little break.

Anybody out there who can make these happen? Fabulous. Send me some when you’re done!

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Posted by on July 21, 2014 in Health - Mental & Physical, Side Topics


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Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

The title of this post is a quote from Arthur C. Clarke. I’m reminded of it frequently during a visit from my parents, who have an average age of 73. Despite the fact that I worked for Internet companies for more than a dozen years, they often view connected technology as some sort of sorcery. They are awed of it, with frequent anecdotes about other people that end with, “…and she looked it up on her phone thingy and there it was!” Yet they are also frightened. My father won’t touch the Internet and my mother stays on the periphery of recipes and coupon sites, though she’s getting better at researching travel. She’s had computers for a long time — I started giving her my slightly-outdated tech about 15 years ago and she bought her first laptop this year — but my husband and I expect to spend hours of any visit providing tech support.


Yesterday they told me a long story about driving from store to store trying to find “those floating balloon-type things that you set fire to and then let go.” The story involved frustration, triumph as they found a few lanterns, then humor as they discovered a huge pile of them at the only store in their small town, which they hadn’t checked. If I were looking for the same thing, I would have searched for a likely name, probably “flying lanterns”, discovered millions of results and that the more common name is “sky lantern”. Then I would have searched for the best price and shipping for a lantern style I liked. Five minutes later, I would be done.

My way is faster, easier, and less expensive. However, it doesn’t give me the story — which will surely grow into an extended quest with future tellings — or the feeling of triumph at the end.  I don’t have the funny postscript. While I won’t equate shopping for lanterns with the Hero’s Journey, I wonder if we are losing something important as we gain convenience and efficiency.

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Posted by on July 13, 2014 in Culture, Usage Patterns


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Looking at the human side of autonomous vehicles

Today I’m focused on the impact of autonomous vehicles on professional drivers rather than consumers. This was spurred by the latest entrant in the autonomous vehicle field: Mercedes, who released a video and information on their prototype Future Truck 2025.

My first reaction was skepticism, not at the technological issues but at the idea that a company would pay a driver to sit there doing his paperwork and ordering his next meal. I’m not alone. When this topic came up on Slashdot, many of the comments — including some from working truck drivers — focused on the potential human cost. One comment cited data from that estimates there are 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the US: if accurate, that’s more than 1% of the population or about 2.5% of all employed Americans (from data I can glean from the Bureau of Labor Statistics). Another comment says,

Yes, autonomous drivers are a wonderful invention but no one is focusing on the social changes that must take place. We are eliminating employment at an ever increasing pace. If we fail to make provisions for keeping people above water without regard to whether they work or not we are going to bring down our society into the worst collapse of all times. If we generate poverty we will generate rebellion and chaos. Meanwhile we have people chained to dogmas who are in denial about what is occurring.

That connects closely to my recent post on the human cost of thinking of robots as replacement rather than augmentation. Mercedes doesn’t see the driver as expendable, but after the capital costs of switching to autonomous trucks, will companies be willing to pay a living wage for ride-along “transport managers”? The technology would have to advance to the point where a human would never be called upon for reflex responses — impossible if he is taking care of other tasks or simply not watching the road with the attention of a driver — yet would be a valuable partner with the machine. Google’s tests with autonomous cars have shown that once people grow accustomed to the car doing the driving, they aren’t ready to take control in case of an equipment failure; transport managers would need to be cut from different cloth. Could this increase efficiency? Would late night trucking with emptier roads and cooler asphalt be easier? How could the “transport manager” make productive use of his time when his intervention isn’t required for most of a long haul trip?

People are thinking more about autonomous vehicles, whether as creators, consumers, or competitors. One of the applications for which driverless cars could be brilliant is as a taxi service, an industry that is already in upheaval because of app-based services like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar. (The Washington Post has a fascinating article about the economics of taxi medallions in Chicago, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.) Taxi drivers in the US are not like London cabbies with the Knowledge; I rarely use cabs but more often than not in recent years, I’ve had to provide detailed directions to my destination and then my driver talked loudly with friends or family on his Bluetooth headset, usually in a language other than English. Less frequently, I’ve had nice conversations with drivers. Most of the time I would be thrilled to simply get into a vehicle and have it quietly take me to my destination. Perhaps during the current controversy, taxi operators might want to consider the value a professional driver can add and require it from their employees and licensees — not only as a way of differentiating their services from the app-based ones, but also as future-proofing for a time when the competition has no steering wheel at all. It could be an opportunity to take an active role in shaping the future and showing the importance of professional drivers rather than reacting defensively after the change has already happened.

We’ve come a long way from the autonomous car of my childhood, but even then it was seen as a partner, not a replacement.


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Posted by on July 7, 2014 in Culture, In the News, Our Robot Overlords


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Shopping in a virtual world

Back in a previous life when I worked at a large Internet company, I was the design project manager on a couple of ecommerce projects.  We worked very carefully on the interface design and user experience, trying to organize the sites to appeal to shoppers whether they preferred to browse or search, to look for bargains and specials or rely on user ratings.  We ran focus groups and did beta testing.

In Second Life, anyone can open a store. Any resident can sell things he makes in the SL Marketplace, a rudimentary database-style site, and it’s no more difficult to open an inworld store. The most basic is a yard sale: a plot of land with cheap items for sale or resale arrayed on the ground. There are malls and shopping centers, cart sales and auctions, large stores with multiple floors or buildings and tiny boutiques.  However, there is no standard layout.  Each proprietor organizes his store according to his own aesthetic, technical ability, and thoughts about the best way to feature his products.

I’m going to share some examples of stores where female clothing is sold. There are a lot of photos, so be sure to click “Read the rest of this entry” below to open the full post. I included my avatar in most images for scale.

This store below was the first that got me thinking about inworld store layout.  The owner chose to create a store that looks like it could exist in the offline world, perhaps as the bargain basement of a department store or an overstock outlet.



This style of store is easiest to shop by walking through it.  You could stand in one spot and move your camera to browse the racks, but the clothing displays are at different angles that make camming around more difficult.  Take a look at the rack of jackets in the image above as they appear from the side:


Also, there are no models or photographs of the clothing being worn, so unless you try a demo version of each product (if available), it can be hard imagine how it might fit: how long a skirt is, if a neckline is revealingly low, etc.  I thought the store was nice to look at but not good for shopping, so I went to a few other stores to think more about their methods.

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Posted by on April 4, 2014 in Embodied Experience, Side Topics


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