The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

You're not wrong, voice-command assistant UIs are horrible

The Nielsen-Norman Group has released recent research on user interactions with intelligent assistants like Alexa and Google Home. The results are not great:

Usability testing finds that both voice-only and screen-based intelligent assistants work well only for very limited, simple queries that have fairly simple, short answers. Users have difficulty with anything else.

Our user research found that current intelligent assistants fail on all 6 questions (5 technologies plus integration), resulting in an overall usability level that’s close to useless for even slightly complex interactions. For simple interactions, the devices do meet the bare minimum usability requirements. Even though it goes against the basic premise of human-centered design, users have to train themselves to understand when an intelligent assistant will be useful and when it’s better to avoid using it.

Our ideology has always been that computers should adapt to humans, not the other way around. The promise of AI is exactly one of high adaptability, but we didn’t see that that when observing actual use. In contrast, observing users struggle with the AI interfaces felt like a return to the dark ages of the 1970s: the need to memorize cryptic commands, oppressive modes, confusing content, inflexible interactions — basically an unpleasant user experience.

Are we being unreasonable? Isn’t it true that AI-based user interfaces have made huge progress in recent years? Yes, current AI products are better than many of the AI research systems of past decades. But the requirements for everyday use by average people are dramatically higher than the requirements for a graduate student demo. The demos we saw at academic conferences 20 years ago were impressive and held great promise for AI-based interactions. The current products are better, and yet don’t fulfill the promise.

We're not up to HAL or Her yet, in other words, but we're making progress.

The whole article is worth a read.

Too many things in my inbox

I probably won't have time to read all of these things over lunch:

Share that last one with your non-technical friends. It's pretty clever.

Three items, implicitly related

Item the first: Bruce Schneier discusses how Russian censors have tried to shut down Telegram, an encrypted communications app:

Russia has been trying to block Telegram since April, when a Moscow court banned it after the company refused to give Russian authorities access to user messages. Telegram, which is widely used in Russia, works on both iPhone and Android, and there are Windows and Mac desktop versions available. The app offers optional end-to-end encryption, meaning that all messages are encrypted on the sender's phone and decrypted on the receiver's phone; no part of the network can eavesdrop on the messages.

Since then, Telegram has been playing cat-and-mouse with the Russian telecom regulator Roskomnadzor by varying the IP address the app uses to communicate. Because Telegram isn't a fixed website, it doesn't need a fixed IP address. Telegram bought tens of thousands of IP addresses and has been quickly rotating through them, staying a step ahead of censors. Cleverly, this tactic is invisible to users. The app never sees the change, or the entire list of IP addresses, and the censor has no clear way to block them all.

A week after the court ban, Roskomnadzor countered with an unprecedented move of its own: blocking 19 million IP addresses, many on Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud. The collateral damage was widespread: The action inadvertently broke many other web services that use those platforms, and Roskomnadzor scaled back after it became clear that its action had affected services critical for Russian business. Even so, the censor is still blocking millions of IP addresses.

Whatever its current frustrations, Russia might well win in the long term. By demonstrating its willingness to suffer the temporary collateral damage of blocking major cloud providers, it prompted cloud providers to block another and more effective anti-censorship tactic, or at least accelerated the process. In April, Google and Amazon banned—and technically blocked—the practice of “domain fronting,” a trick anti-censorship tools use to get around Internet censors by pretending to be other kinds of traffic. Developers would use popular websites as a proxy, routing traffic to their own servers through another website—in this case Google.com—to fool censors into believing the traffic was intended for Google.com. The anonymous web-browsing tool Tor has used domain fronting since 2014. Signal, since 2016. Eliminating the capability is a boon to censors worldwide.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., a Federal judge has cleared the path for AT&T to purchase Time Warner, which will create one of the largest companies the world has ever seen.

All of this is scary to a lot of people. Which is why charlatans are on the rise once again.

We live in interesting times.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results, craft beer edition

Ballast Point, a former craft brewery that sold out to Constellation Brands for $1 billion in 2015, hasn't given the buyers everything they had hoped for:

Ballast Point has plummeted back to earth after its meteoric rise, though, a sales decline that reflects early missteps after the merger and the slowing growth of craft beer in general, according to industry experts and Constellation executives. The San Diego-based brewer of Sculpin IPA faces numerous challenges in its quest to grow as national craft brand, but perhaps none more significant than this: There are almost 6,500 breweries in the U.S. today — at least 2,000 more than when Constellation bought Ballast Point.

“We have a great high-end Mexican portfolio and wanted to get into craft. We entered in a big way with Ballast Point. … This is really an example of where we’re headed right here in terms of executing our strategy,” said Marty Birkel, Ballast Point president, in an interview at the new Chicago brewpub.

Michigan-based Founders Brewing Co., best known for its lower-priced, lower-alcohol All Day IPA, was roughly the same size as Ballast Point in 2015, but could end up shipping twice as much beer to wholesalers this year. Founders CEO Mike Stevens called the Ballast Point decline a “perfect storm” of high price point — a six-pack of Sculpin regularly sold for $15 — and what he believes to be a fading trend in fruit-flavored IPAs.

“They were obviously just screaming to the top of the peak, riding that price point, riding their fruit IPAs. … Right when that (deal) went down, we kind of all knew that they were going to have to fix the price points because the consumers were going to lose interest,” Stevens said.

Given that "small" and "craft" are two of the things people who drink beers from small, craft breweries want, and that these things go away when a conglomerate buys them, none of this should surprise anyone. And yet, the culture at large companies almost compels this kind of behavior.

At least Constellation isn't trying to kill its acquisitions, as InBev and MillerCoors have been accused. And craft breweries continue to flourish, both here and abroad. So all is not lost...just Ballast Point.

Thanks for playing

Richard Florida demonstrates how Amazon's HQ2 competition was rigged:

A detailed analysis undertaken by Patrick Adler, my colleague at the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, and Adam Singer, a graduate student at the university’s Rotman and Munk schools, took a look at how all 238 HQ2 applicant cities and the 20 finalists lined up on Amazon’s RFP criteria. While it can be difficult to measure whether a given city adheres to each criterion, their analysis shows that many of the finalist cities do not even fit the most obvious ones. What’s more, several of the rejected cities seem to fit Amazon’s criteria for its HQ2 city better than some of the finalists.  

[I]t’s worth asking why these 20 cities were selected as finalists, even if others would appear to be better candidates according to Amazon’s own criteria. Our analysis suggests the finalists may have other things in common that are not listed on the company’s RFP.

For one, the finalists are more likely to be farther away from the company’s original home base in physical distance, reflecting the predominance of East Coast cities on the list. Last year, an Amazon executive was quoted as saying that Amazon would like to build HQ2 outside of the Pacific Northwest, to attract a more diverse set of employees.

Finalist cities are also likely to have a larger share of tech workers. And they are more likely to have non-stop flights to the company’s current home base in Seattle.

But one factor is even more interesting. Our analysis found that shortlisted cities had more U.S. senators with considerable seniority.

At the end of the day, none of this should surprise us. Like all corporate site selection, the HQ2 process is a rigged game, where the company knows the answer in advance and sets up a fictitious competition to wrest maximum incentives.

Besides the political advantages, there are many signs that Amazon’s HQ2 is heading to the greater Washington, D.C. region—the fact that its CEO has a multi-million dollar mansion there (currently undergoing a $12 million renovation, with large public rooms for social events) and already owns the Washington Post; the fact that three area jurisdictions made the shortlist; and the fact that the person running Amazon’s search previously ran an economic development agency in the region. Perhaps four other metros on the list are serious contenders—New York, Boston, Chicago, and Toronto—with Philadelphia, Denver, Atlanta, and Dallas having an outside chance.

Chicago, however, will be less likely to play the race-to-the-bottom game.

Eddie Lampert offers to garrote his own company

Longtime readers know how much I loathe Eddie Lampert for what he did to Sears and for how perfectly he demonstrates the dangers of slavishly following a philosophy that owes a lot to the thought processes of adolescent boys.

Well, my longtime predictions seem to be coming true. Lampert has offered to buy the best bits of Sears (i.e., its real estate and Kenmore brand), which would quickly kill the company. Crain's Joe Cahill outlines some of the offal in this awful person's proposal:

It's not clear, however, just what Lampert is willing to pay. The offer letter indicates the transaction should reflect an enterprise value of $500 million for the home improvement and parts businesses, but doesn't put a price on Kenmore or the real estate, beyond confirming Lampert would assume $1.2 billion in real estate debt. The letter further proposes that the asset sale take place in conjunction with offers by Sears to convert some of its debt into equity and buy back or exchange for equity another slug of outstanding debt. Lampert indicates a willingness to "consider participating in such exchange offer and tender offer," which might increase his equity interest in Sears.

The complex and somewhat vague proposal raises questions about Lampert's many hats at Sears—he's the controlling shareholder, CEO, a major creditor, and—if this transaction goes through—a buyer of key company assets. Let's focus on his role as CEO, where his job is to generate maximum returns on company assets, either through business operations or by selling them for the highest possible price. His offer letter implicitly confirms that he's been unable to do either with Kenmore. Yet he evidently believes he could squeeze strong returns out of the brand if he owned it separately from Sears. Otherwise, buying it would make no financial sense for Lampert and any fellow investors in the proposed asset purchase.

Understandably, this disconnect fuels a growing perception that Lampert is cherry-picking company assets ahead of a potential bankruptcy filing that likely would leave Sears shareholders with little or nothing. Already, a real estate investment trust formed by Lampert has acquired many of Sears' store locations with the intention of remarketing them to higher-paying tenants. "There's a very legitimate case to say he's screwed up the company and now he's trying to take the crown jewels," says Nell Minow, a corporate governance expert with Value Edge Advisors.

No kidding. Thanks, Eddie.

What happened to the brand?

Of 19 Trump-branded product lines available in 2015, only 2 remain on the market. One wonders why:

In recent weeks, only two said they are still selling Trump-branded goods. One is a Panamanian company selling Trump bed linens and home goods. The other is a Turkish companyselling Trump furniture.

Of the rest, some Trump partners quit in reaction to campaign-trail rhetoric on immigrants and Muslims. Others said their licensing agreements had expired. Others said nothing beyond confirming that they’d stopped working with Trump. Their last Trump goods are now being sold off, often at a discount: One cologne is marked down from $42 to $9.99 for an ounce.

“Success by Trump,” the website says. And below that: “Clearance.”

“A caricature of what wealth is — as opposed to what real wealth is,” said Milton Pedraza, chief executive of the Luxury Institute, a consultant to luxury brands. Trump sold to those, he said, “who didn’t know the difference,” he said.

However, Pedraza said, Trump began to undermine his own success by “label-slapping” — sticking his name on anything he could, even the farfetched and ridiculous. Emeril Lagasse sold pots. Greg Norman sold golf shirts. Trump sold. . . everything.

“There was no strategy,” Pedraza said.

Seems like a strategy that could work, depending on your audience. Good thing we Americans have strong antibodies against charlatans.

 

In other Chicago news...

Eddie Lampert's reign of terror against Sears continued today when the chain announced the closing of their very last store in Chicago:

Sears, founded in Chicago and facing mounting troubles, is closing its last store in the city.

Employees at the store at Six Corners in the Old Irving Park neighborhood were told of the closure Thursday morning, spokesman Howard Riefs said in an email. The store will close in mid-July after a liquidation sale set to begin April 27. The Sears Auto Center will close in mid-May.

The store was one of 265 properties sold to Seritage Growth Properties in a 2015 sale-leaseback deal.

“For more than 120 years, Sears has called Illinois home and that is not changing,” Riefs said. “Although we are disappointed by this last store closure in Chicago, by no means does this change our commitment to our customers and presence to Chicago’s residents.”

Of course it doesn't change their commitment to Chicago; they haven't had one since 2005.

Howard, Eddie: I'm thinking of a phrase that ends with "...and the horse you rode in on."

This guy again

Longtime readers know how much I loathe Eddie Lampert, who represents to me everything that is wrong with the adolescent philosophy emitted years ago by Ayn Rand.

Well, in next month's Vanity Fair, William Cohan sits down with the child king of hedge funds and hears him out:

[Lampert's] triumphs are largely obscured by his worst mistake: the 2005 merging of Sears, the iconic retailer whose doorstop mail-order catalogue was once a fixture in nearly every American home, with the downmarket Kmart chain, which he had brought out of bankruptcy in 2003. Twelve years on, this blundering into retail has made him a poster boy for what some people think is wrong with Wall Street and, in particular, hedge funds. Under his management the number of Sears and Kmart stores nationwide has shrunk to 1,207 from 5,670 at its peak, in the 2000s, and at least 200,000 Sears and Kmart employees have been thrown out of work. The pension fund, for retired Sears employees, is underfunded by around $1.6 billion, and both Lampert and Sears are being sued for investing employees’ retirement money in Sears stock, when the top brass allegedly knew it was a terrible investment.

The vultures are circling, waiting for Lampert to throw in the towel so they can try to make money by buying Sears’s discounted debt. But Lampert continues to claim that’s not going to happen if he can help it.

Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin “has been a shareholder and a member of the board of directors of Sears Holdings from the day that the combined company was formed [until becoming Treasury secretary], so he spent 11 years at Eddie’s side. . . . [With] all of Trump’s focus on jobs, job preservation, job creation, somebody ought to ask his secretary of the Treasury what his involvement has been for 11 years in the destruction of well over 100,000 jobs at Sears.” (A spokesman for Mnuchin declined to comment.)

Cohan treats Lampert fairly, I think. I didn't learn a lot, though. And Lampert still runs Sears, and still will find some way to make back most of the money he, personally, has invested in it. Too bad not enough of the right people think what he did to Sears and its employees is criminal.

Politically-motivated Spam from an island nation's PR department?

Over the past few weeks I've gotten several emails from someone purporting to be "Jess Miller" in New Zealand, mentioning she'd noticed a post I did on the Maldives in 2012. That post reported on the violent coup d'état that overthrew the democratically elected government of the island nation just southwest of the Indian subcontinent. And just a few weeks ago, the military dissolved Parliament and threw the country into more unrest. The U.S. State Department has issued a level-2 caution. Understandably, tourism has declined somewhat, which is a pity because it's unlikely the country will exist after another 50 years of climate-change-induced sea-level rise.

Anyway, "Jess" sent me an email about my "wonderful blog post" and called out "a solid blog post [she'd] read in the past," which turned out to be the U.K. Foreign Office travel warning about the place.

Then there's the punchline: "Jess" wants to cross-post with her "best things to do in the Maldives" article on her own site.

I think the best thing to do in the Maldives right now is not to go there.

So, "Jess," your article is very attractive and I think a wonderful list of things to do once the government of the Maldives returns to civilian control, their economy stops its free-fall, tourists stop getting robbed in their hotel rooms, and climate change goes into reverse so they stop suffering the existential peril that is driving all these problems.

Any takers on a bet that "Jess" has funding from a Maldives tourist agency?