Start Up: game theory in customer service, evaluate that tweet!, Google’s Russian deal, and more

Now you can see what sort of prescriptions your local GPs hands out – and how that fits into the national picture in the UK. Photo by gregwake on Flickr.

You can now sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Pack up the golf clubs, back to work. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

United: broken culture • Monday Note

Jean-Louis Gassée recalls his time running Apple France, and dealing with angry customers:


After a few combative customer service encounters, I experienced an epiphany: No matter how “wrong” they may be, we’re a prosperous business, we can afford to take care of these situations, but we can’t afford to let unhappy, affronted customers damage our reputation.

Whenever a call was escalated to my office, I would immediately offer to buy back the customer’s machine. The offer was always emphatically declined, so we moved on to arrangements for shipment or perhaps a personal appointment at our service shop. Our business concluded, I would ask if the happy caller had children: “Yes…but why?” “For the t-shirts, of course, a small thank-you for bringing your problem to our attention…what sizes would you like?”

A stray behaviorist in our ranks protested that I shouldn’t condition customers to complain, that it would result in more and more jeremiads. I disagreed, claiming that people don’t actually like to complain, and, indeed, we never had any scheming or deranged kvetchers.

Over time, a customer service theorem emerged. When a customer brings a complaint, there are two tokens on the table: It’s Nothing and It’s Awful. Both tokens are always played, so whoever chooses first forces the other to grab the token that’s left. For example: Customer claims something’s wrong. I try to play down the damage: It’s Probably Nothing…are you sure you know what you’re doing? Customer, enraged at my lack of judgment and empathy, ups the ante: How are you boors still in business??


“Both tokens are always played”. This is the essence of game theory in this situation. And it goes on to show why United Airlines got it so wrong – and why Amazon gets it right.
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The new Mac Pro: the audacity to say “Yes” in a design culture of “No” •

Marco Arment:


The requirements are all over the map, but most pro users seem to agree on the core principles of an ideal Mac Pro, none of which include size or minimalism:

• More internal capacity is better.
• Each component should have a reasonably priced base option, but offer the ability to configure up to the best technology on the market.
• It needs to accommodate a wide variety of needs, some of which Apple won’t offer, and some of which may require future upgrades.

Or, to distill the requirements down to a single word:

• Versatility.


As Arment explains, the requirements that the real pros have are all over the map. So designing yourself into an unexpandable corner – as (in my opinion) Apple has done twice now, first with the Cube in 2000 and then with the Mac Pro – leads to calamity.

Things are getting fixed, but one wonders a little about instutional memory.
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How to know if you’ve sent a horrible tweet • Esquire

Luke O’Neil:


by and large, the way Twitter works is that to reply means to disagree. When a tweet is good, there are simple, elegant tools for expressing your appreciation via the like and retweet buttons. There are junkier workarounds like quote-tweeting and manual retweeting. A perfect tweet is a pure thing, and ideally, is shared off into the world without commentary, letting its engagement numbers bloom unmolested. In fact, there’s nothing worse than replying to an expertly executed tweet, particularly when it comes to trying to riff off of a joke, or even worse, improve on it. On the other hand, when a tweet has pissed someone off, the user is more inclined to let the author know directly how much they suck. “Delete your account” and “Retire bitch” being two of the better known refrains.

“I would say any time you have more replies than favs, you fucked up in some capacity,” says Twitter investigative reporter Ashley Feinberg of Gizmodo. “People on this site are extremely lazy and also idiots, like myself. If you’ve pissed off enough people that they’re a) too embarrassed to engage and b) feel compelled to actually write words, you did a bad tweet.”

This, from CNN’s Chris Cillizza, whose Twitter bio quotes the president as calling him “One of the dumber and least respected of the political pundits,” is a nice solid example of The Ratio at work, Feinberg says. Not astronomical numbers, but solidly in the sweet spot of just over 2:1.

“What impresses me most about it is how reliable it is,” says David Roth, of Vice Sports. Roth is also the author of one of the finest Trump-related Twitter gags ever. “For all the examples of how markets don’t work, and Twitter’s particularly ridiculous scrambling hustle for attention, it really does seem like a bad enough tweet by a high-profile enough person is going to wind up with that like 500-to-75 ratio that Matt Lewis had going. They get discovered.”


I look forward to a data scientist doing this analysis on Trump’s tweets.
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Is American retail at a historic tipping point? • The New York Times

Michael Corkery:


Between 2010 and 2014, e-commerce grew by an average of $30 billion annually. Over the past three years, average annual growth has increased to $40 billion.

“That is the tipping point, right there,” said Barbara Denham, a senior economist at Reis, a real estate data and analytics firm. “It’s like the Doppler effect. The change is coming at you so fast, it feels like it is accelerating.”

This transformation is hollowing out suburban shopping malls, bankrupting longtime brands and leading to staggering job losses.

More workers in general merchandise stores have been laid off since October, about 89,000 Americans. That is more than all of the people employed in the United States coal industry, which President Trump championed during the campaign as a prime example of the workers who have been left behind in the economic recovery.

The job losses in retail could have unexpected social and political consequences, as huge numbers of low-wage retail employees become economically unhinged, just as manufacturing workers did in recent decades. About one out of every 10 Americans works in retail.

“There is a sea change happening in the retail industry,” said Mark Cohen, a former executive at Sears, who now runs the retail studies program at Columbia Business School. “And that is bringing a sea change in employment.”…

…“This is creative destruction at its best,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “We are downsizing a part of the economy that is uncompetitive. While painful for those in the middle of it, this is how we grow and wealth is created.”

But Mr. Cohen, of Columbia University, said the upending of an entire industry will not be so tidy. Warehouses like the one in Red Hook typically employ a few hundred people, according to Sitex Group, a private equity firm that is expected to close on the property in a few weeks.

While these distribution centers could replace some of the work lost in stores, they likely won’t make up the entire difference. That is because much of the operations are automated and require different skills and sensibilities than selling jeans.


A followup to the data from Monday. This is going to be the employment shift that faces the next sets of political candidates in 2018 and 2020.
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Fairytale prisoner by choice: the photographic eye of Melania Trump • Medium

Kate Imbach:


Why won’t the first lady show up for her job? Why? I became obsessed with this question and eventually looked to Melania’s Twitter history for answers. I noticed that in the three-year period between June 3, 2012 and June 11, 2015 she tweeted 470 photos which she appeared to have taken herself. I examined these photographs as though they were a body of work.

Everyone has an eye, whether or not we see ourselves as photographers. What we choose to photograph and how we frame subjects always reveals a little about how we perceive the world. For someone like Melania, media-trained, controlled and cloistered, her collection of Twitter photography provides an otherwise unavailable view into the reality of her existence. Nowhere else — certainly not in interviews or public appearances — is her guard so far down.

What is that reality? She is Rapunzel with no prince and no hair, locked in a tower of her own volition, and delighted with the predictability and repetition of her own captivity.


This does feel a little cod-psychological when one considers it; what would someone glean about you from the personal pictures that *you* post to social media? And yet it does seem consistent with her actions. And her unwillingness to leave New York and set up in Washington. No views, you see.
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Google to open up Android to rivals in out-of-court deal with Russia • Reuters


Alphabet Inc’s Google will open up its popular Android mobile operating system to rival search engines in Russia as part of a deal to settle a two-year dispute with Russian competition authorities.

The deal sets a new precedent for the tech giant, which faces multiple complaints worldwide that it is abusing its dominant position by imposing restrictions on manufacturers of Android-based devices in order to protect its share of the online search market.

Russia’s competition watchdog, FAS, ruled in 2015 that Google was breaking the law by requiring the pre-installation of applications, including its own search tool, on mobile devices using Android, following a complaint by Russia’s Yandex.

Google will no longer demand exclusivity of its applications on Android-based devices in Russia and will not restrict the pre-installation of rival search engines and other applications, as part of a deal with FAS, the regulator said on Monday.

It will also develop a tool allowing users to choose a default search engine on their Android devices.


Fines of $7.8m – not much for Google. Applies for the next six years. How’s the EC’s case against Google, filed in October 2010, coming along?
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Lawyers, malware, and money: the antivirus market’s nasty fight over Cylance • Ars Technica

Sean Gallagher:


Last November, a systems engineer at a large company was evaluating security software products when he discovered something suspicious.

One of the vendors had provided a set of malware samples to test—48 files in an archive stored in the vendor’s Box cloud storage account. The vendor providing those samples was Cylance, the information security company behind Protect, a “next generation” endpoint protection system built on machine learning. In testing, Protect identified all 48 of the samples as malicious, while competing products flagged most but not all of them. Curious, the engineer took a closer look at the files in question—and found that seven weren’t malware at all.

That led the engineer to believe Cylance was using the test to close the sale by providing files that other products wouldn’t detect—that is, bogus malware only Protect would catch.

Protect has been highly ranked by a number of industry analysts for its innovative approach to “advanced endpoint security,” the broad term used to describe products designed to stop modern malware and other threats to personal computers. Protect bases its detection and blocking of malware on machine learning technology. Rather than use heuristics that look for behaviors matching specific rules, Protect has been “trained” using “the DNA markers of 1 billion known bad and 1 billion known good files,” said Cylance’s vice president of product testing and industry relations, Chad Skipper. The company’s idea has drawn investors; in fact, the stakes in Cylance taken by venture capital firms thus far value the company at $1 billion.

One reason Cylance and other new malware protection contenders have drawn so much investment—over $1.8bn in venture capital since 2014—is that the malware protection industry is ripe for disruption.


Ah, the D-word. Though they are a bit like airlines – you use them because you have to, not because you necessarily love them.
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Analyse • OpenPrescribing


Search 700 million rows of prescribing data, and get prescribing information by CCG or practice. You can search for any numerator over any denominator. For example, prescriptions by CCG for branded Rosuvastatin as a proportion of all lipid-regulating drugs ; or for Rosuvastatin vs generic Atorvastatin ; or for Enalapril as a proportion of its drug class . Add the name of a CCG or practice to check how an organisation compares with its peers. Don’t forget to look at time trends, and maps!


This is work which Ben Goldacre (of Bad Science fame) has played a large part in. You should read the cautionary notes about interpreting the data. But it’s a wonderful example of what open data can produce.
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With Trump appointees, a raft of potential conflicts and ‘no transparency’ • The New York Times

Eric Lipton, Ben Protess and Andrew Lehren:


The potential conflicts are arising across the executive branch, according to an analysis of recently released financial disclosures, lobbying records and interviews with current and former ethics officials by The New York Times in collaboration with ProPublica.

In at least two cases, the appointments may have already led to violations of the administration’s own ethics rules. But evaluating if and when such violations have occurred has become almost impossible because the Trump administration is secretly issuing waivers to the rules.

One such case involves Michael Catanzaro, who serves as the top White House energy adviser. Until late last year, he was working as a lobbyist for major industry clients such as Devon Energy of Oklahoma, an oil and gas company, and Talen Energy of Pennsylvania, a coal-burning electric utility, as they fought Obama-era environmental regulations, including the landmark Clean Power Plan. Now, he is handling some of the same matters on behalf of the federal government.

Another case involves Chad Wolf, who spent the past several years lobbying to secure funding for the Transportation Security Administration to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new carry-on luggage screening device. He is now chief of staff at that agency — at the same time as the device is being tested and evaluated for possible purchase by agency staff…

…Mr. Trump’s appointees are also far wealthier and have more complex financial holdings and private-sector ties than officials hired at the start of the Obama administration, according to an Office of Government Ethics analysis that the White House has made public. This creates a greater chance that they might have conflicts related to investments or former clients, which could force them to sell off assets, recuse themselves or seek a waiver.

A White House spokeswoman, Sarah H. Sanders, declined repeated requests by The Times to speak with Stefan C. Passantino, the White House lawyer in charge of the ethics policy. Instead, the White House provided a written statement that did not address any of the specific questions about potential violations The Times had identified.


Once again: this is a venal administration; if there isn’t corruption, it’s only by the most remarkable of chances, because the rich don’t tend to get rich by closely observing ethical rules. The US is turning into a banana republic.

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Face it: smartwatches are totally doomed • Mashable

Karissa Bell:


I’ve never regularly worn a watch in my life. I’m not alone. Fewer and fewer people, especially young people, are wearing watches, according to analysts. In fact, chances are good that if you’re a millennial, your smartphone is your main timepiece — a trend that seems unlikely to reverse.

Now, I’m not saying that all watches are going to die any time soon. Watches will no doubt continue to be a mainstay in offices, courtrooms, schools, hospitals, and anywhere else smartphones aren’t readily accessible for the foreseeable future. (Or at least until we get the augmented reality contact lenses we keep being promised.) 

But even that doesn’t bode well for smartwatches. If you’d rather use your phone over a watch then what good is a smaller, buggier, version on your wrist? And if you’d rather have a real, old school retro analog watch, why would you ever choose a more expensive smartwatch that will become obsolete months after you buy it?

Face it: Huawei’s [CEO Eric Xu] Zhijun [who said he was confused what smartwatches are for when we have smartphones] was spot on. Smartwatches just don’t add up. 


I don’t agree: if you don’t have a smartwatch, you don’t know what you’re missing, which is the ability not to be tied to holding your phone. Also: these things go in cycles. Watches are cool, they’re not cool, they’re cool again.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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