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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Digital disruption and its effect on Canada and profitable business

There has been a lot of coverage of the trouble that retail in the Western world is in, and Amazon is largely on the pointy end of the wagging finger. Generally, though, it's an intervention of highly digital, Internet- and data-driven companies against more traditional companies that have a higher dependency on widely distributed physical assets.

Canadian revenue diversion to US

From a Canadian perspective, I think we should be worried about these things in relation to the replacement of things that keep funds within the Canadian economy with things that send funds down to US-based companies instead:
  • Newspapers: it's understood that newspapers are suffering, and this is largely due to a collapse in readership and therefore print advertising. Readership is generally older and naturally in decline, and this is not the demographic that many marketers want to target.
  • Advertising: what's not so apparent is that much of this Canadian-made print advertising is largely being replaced by US-based digital companies such as Google and Facebook, which despite all appearances are really advertising companies. Google makes money from intercepting searches for things that you are looking for an steering you toward companies that pay to feature prominently in the search results, and again from anonymized data that can be used to sell things to your market/demographic. Facebook can target advertising to you directly based on the massive amount of detail it knows about you from the interactions you have on its platform, and every "like" advertises a product between friends, which is a far more trusted relationship than is the relationship you have with an anonymous corporation.
  • Streaming: the collapse of Canadian-operated retailers like HMV and video rental outlets is largely being replaced by US-based streaming services like Netflix, iTunes, Amazon/Google services, or other foreign companies like Spotify. Worse, few of these services seem to collect Canadian sales tax.
It all seems like a significant diversion of revenue and value-added employment outside of the country, and Canada was already over-weighted on non-value-added commodities.

Unprofitable companies killing off profitable companies

It used to be that disruptive companies would enter an existing market, change the way that things were done, and become massively profitable as a result. And this has been the case with companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple. Apple's case is especially interesting, as they are the only smartphone manufacturer making windfalls despite having less than 20% of the market share.

However, what about companies like Amazon and Uber? As far as I can tell, these companies have largely been operating at a loss and threatening or killing off traditional retail and taxi companies and the jobs they sustained in the process.

In international trade, this is frowned upon and is known as "dumping". From Investopedia:
Dumping, in reference to international trade, is the export by a country or company of a product at a price that is lower in the foreign market than the price charged in the domestic market. As dumping usually involves substantial export volumes of the product, it often has the effect of endangering the financial viability of manufacturers or producers of the product in the importing nation.
But I'm not clear why this is desirable domestically. Sure, it's private money and I assume these investors can do what they want with it. But where is the wisdom in not intervening in cases where sustainable businesses are being killed off in favour of businesses that despite considerable disruption and employment shrinkage haven't proven that they can be profitable? With the way that tech funding works, the goal will be to blow out the incumbents and take as much of the market as possible so that a strong position is demonstrated and the early investors can cash out their winnings in an IPO.

The shoe that hasn't dropped yet is the one that drops when the incumbents are largely gone or incapacitated and an effective monopoly is in place for the new digital companies. That's the missing piece in the story of how these new companies become profitable and we don't know what that will look like.

What happens next is anyone's guess, but perhaps it'll be come to known as Gig Economy 2.0 - living in a rented car that you also use to operate your ride-sharing business, with the car's rightful owner working an entirely separate job to pay off the 84-month loan he took out to buy the car. The "gig economy" meets "financial engineering".

Friday, June 16, 2017

Algonquin - Highlands Backpacking Trail - May 2017

Following last year's mosey around Algonquin Western Upland Backpacking Trail, in May 2017 I did the Highlands Backpacking Trail. This trail is shorter than the Western Upland trail and so this trip was only 3 days instead of 5 days for the former trail.

My write-up of the previous trail contains a lot more detail and I did most of the same things this time through, as well as followed all of the things I said I'd want to change on my next backpacking trip.

Trail closure
Both of the large backpacking trails opened much later than normal this season due to the late thaw and prolonged periods of rain that Ontario experienced in early 2017 (also linked to record-setting levels in Lake Ontario). The trails were flooded as a result and the trip was delayed until May 17th, which was the first day of the trail being open.

There were quite a few fallen trees blocking the trail along the way, and some muddy sections, but none of these were a problem.

Insects
Because of the late start, this increased the risk of running into the region's notoriously annoying insect season (blackfly and then mosquitoes). Ultimately, there were a lot of blackfly and a smaller number of mosquitoes, but the blackfly were not biting in large numbers and were more of a swarming nuisance (near the lakes only) than a literal pain.

Spring backpacking
This was my first time backpacking in Spring. Combined with the late onset of spring, there were a couple of interesting features:
  • Cold overnight temperatures: very cold and damp following a major thunderstorm passing through ahead of a cold air mass and then down to near-freezing the following night.
  • Leaves not fully out on the deciduous trees: in the deciduous parts of the forest, this meant that the trails were exposed to the sun where they would normally have been in near full shade.

Gear
After last year's trip and the resulting knee and foot injuries, I made the following changes:
  • Regular daily knee exercises
  • Being more conscious of how I am using my knee while hiking: it wasn't even on my mind on the previous hike. I used it however was most expedient.
  • Larger, proper backpacking boots: Scarpa Zanskar GTX. Nothing bad to say about these. They did well in the wet sections and after breaking them in for weeks ahead of the trip, they fit and wore well. I got a slightly larger boot (EU size 46 where I would normally wear US 11.5) and found that while these were a bit loose at the beginning of the day, when my feet were at "hiking size" after some activity they fit very well. They were heavier than my light trail boots and didn't vent as well, but that seems like an unavoidable tradeoff.
  • Better socks: last time, I wore cotton sports socks which was a mistake as they are both abrasive and take a long time to dry out. This time, I had a pair of very thin synthetic nylon liner socks as well as a Darn Tough light blended merino wool hiking sock. I didn't find that the liner socks made a big difference and stopped wearing them after day 1. The wool socks were more comfortable overall. Combined with the larger boot, I didn't have any sole or toe blisters. I did nearly get heel blisters but I'm starting to thing that is a physiological thing that I'll have to deal with with moleskin or something similar.
Overall, for one reason or another these were all of benefit. I didn't feel any oncoming knee issues after Day 3 and my feet were still in good condition. However, though it's wasn't what's normally classified as an "easy" or "moderate" trail in Ontario Provincial Park nomenclature, I'm not sure the trail was as challenging as Western Upland.

Itinerary
  • Day 1: trail head to east end of Provoking Lake
  • Day 2: Provoking Lake to Head Lake
  • Day 3: Head Lake to trail head
Day 1 thunderstorm
A significant thunderstorm rolled through at the end of Day 1 which gave quite a lashing of rain. This revealed known problems with my MSR Hubba tent, where the inner fly coating has deteroriated and lets water through. However, this sort of thing is only a serious problem during incessant rain rather than large volumes in a short time, and there were opportunities to dry things out on Day 2.

So, a new tent may be in order for the next trip. If I can confirm that the fly is better-made in the newer MSR Hubba models then I may get the same again - it is a very good backpacking tent that is easy to setup, fits into small spaces, and is relatively light.



Compared to Western Upland in September
As with the Western Upland trail, the visible wildlife was quite minimal, though there was plenty of audible wildlife. No bears; no moose; lots of birds, and some close-up loons.

The terrain did not seem to be quite as challenging as Western Upland, though there were definitely constant elevation changes that turn the 14km you'd in 2-3 hours in the flat land of the GTA into something significantly longer.

The days are longer in May - about 1 hour extra on each end. However, the nights were significantly colder. Last year's WU trip ran into an unusually warm September - low-mid 20C in the day and low teens at night. This trip was cooler during the day and much cooler at night - getting to near-freezing overnight after Day 2.

Next time
I can't think of much else I'd do differently next time through, which is a pretty good result. I would use something to guard against heel blisters, but that is about all.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Ableton Live - 20170507

More messing around with Ableton Live. This is mainly using the core instruments and plugins, with some help from NI Massive.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Uber autonomous vehicle accident and self-driving cars in general

An Uber autonomous vehicle accident on Fri Mar 24th has caused a suspension of their autonomous vehicle program for the time being.

I've always been a skeptic of the promise of autonomous vehicles. But not because of things like this - there have been relatively few autonomous vehicle accidents, all things considered.

I think that the promise of fully automated door-to-door transportation will be realized as something much more diluted. And then we'll probably collectively pretend that what we got is what we wanted all along (similar to how GPS delivered a watered-down version of the self-piloting flying car - we're not talking about the flying car part anymore).

I think we'll get some interesting and beneficial crash avoidance and safety-enhancing features as well as some new takes on cruise control coming out of the technologies involved in autonomous driving; and I think we'll get some closed-circuit autonomous vehicles that work within a defined and well-mapped/instrumented areas or road lanes in the public realm. These types of vehicles already exist in industrial settings, and existing semi-autonomous vehicles like planes work in a controlled airspace where they will only encounter other trained professionals driving ridigly-maintained vehicles.

But I also think that we'll quickly realize that automated driving only really works when you can fully rely on it to take full control, rather than requiring tentative ongoing attention from a human driver to take over at any given time. Some car companies are always working on this assumption (others are not).

One big problem with fully automated driving is that you need to be perfect and there's no room for the 80/20 type of approach that so much other automation depends on to add value, where the automation does 80% of the work and leaves 20% of the automation failures and/or work that can't be done by the automation to be highlighted and shuffled off to human workers for completion. This speaks to the vast majority of automation. It's why existing semi-automated vehicles (i.e. planes) are manned by redundant (pilot and co-pilot), highly-trained professionals.

Automated vehicles need to be consistently and overwhelmingly better than human drivers, because what you need to convince people of is that the car is a better driver than them and not just better than the average. People don't see themselves as average, and there are truly good drivers that never get themselves into "accidents" and awful drivers who leave a trail of destruction behind them.

To have any chance of success, assuming we get near to the fully-autonomous capability regardless of climate, terrain, or road condition (again, I remain a skeptic), I don't see this happening without:
  • Mandatory maintenance schedules to ensure mechanical soundness of the vehicle and operation of the autonomous equipment (again, as with existing semi-autonomous vehicles)
  • Refusal of the vehicle to operate in certain conditions (i.e. poor weather)
  • Clear rules on liability when accidents occur, not involving the human driver.
It's starting to look more and more like this autonomous vehicles need to become a fleet-based service that you use on a pay-as-you-go basis rather than something that anyone owns. Hence Uber's involvement, I suppose.

Aside, I don't know what type of successful, advanced automation people look in their day-to-day lives to as a sunny reference point when they expect autonomous vehicles to become a rapid and unqualified success. My microwave still can't cook my food to perfection. I still need to cut my own lawn. Above-grade rail is still mostly run by humans yet operates in a restrictive, controlled environment. Shouldn't those be easier nuts to crack?

And we haven't even talked about the unions yet.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Let's just call it... 20170319

I continue to be impressed by the complexity and potential of tools like Ableton Live (and I am quite late to the game in appreciating this - having grown up with Cakewalk). I'm still quite early on the learning curve, but here's something I put together using Ableton Live and Komplete 11.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

If 20% of Ontario car owners drove electric cars to work every day...

If only 20% of Ontario cars owners drove electric cars to work every day, it would make such a difference in reducing our oil consumption and carbon footprint.

Great idea - I agree!

So, what would that look like?
Unfortunately, Ontario only produced about 17,000,000,000 watts at its peak for the overnight period 8:00pm last night to match consumption.

So, to maintain current consumption and add the load of 20% of Ontario vehicles charging overnight, we'll need to bump overnight generation by 62% to support our goal. Ontario has that capacity, but would likely not generate it at current overnight rates as more expensive generation would need to be activated to get there, so it potentially turns the overnight period into "peak consumption" period.

Unless you think the world will never run out of affordable oil or gasoline (I don't know what you'd reference to support this), shouldn't this be enough to convince most people that we need to deal with this problem, and that it might be better to look at our living/working arrangements to remove the car from the equation as much as possible?

Sunday, January 29, 2017

HMV Canada bankruptcy and thinking about digital music and Spotify streaming

HMV Canada's bankruptcy

Even if you regularly visited their stores, I think you knew it was only a matter of time until they weren't there anymore. It's now been confirmed as HMV Canada prepares to shut down its remaining stores in the first half of 2017.

I'm quite disappointed about this, but I don't think that anyone could call it sudden. It's has been like awaiting the closing chapter of a terminal illness.

I visited the HMV at 333 Yonge in Toronto quite regularly until they recently removed its "find in store" feature that let you know if something was in stock before going there, which made a 40-min roundtrip walk a bit riskier than it would have been otherwise. I'd often use this feature in the past to see if what I was looking for was in stock at that store or at the nearby Eaton Centre store (which already closed its doors in December 2016). And if it was in stock, I'd pay a bit more than it cost to be delivered to my door from Amazon to walk over there and buy it.

It's nice to have memories of physical acquisition associated with some of your favourite music, and gifts somehow seemed a bit more personal if you took the time to go and hand-pick the album you thought they'd really like. It's been a long time, however, that I've used a music store for discovery. The few times over the past few years that I've taken a chance and bought music based on browsing in HMV without hearing it first, I have been disappointed.

And, more recently, it felt like HMV didn't really want to sell you music quite as much as they used to. They wanted to sell you pop culture references and fee-based loyalty programs - similar to how you get the sense that Best Buy doesn't much value you buying a TV from them because they don't make money these days until you buy the extended warranty.

Digital music

I listen to a lot of music - whether at home, in transit, or in the car, I often have something playing. And I've always bought the music I like. So much goes into the production of music that I can't imagine doing it any other way and feeling good about it.

And, I like looking at a wall of CDs, but they long ago exceeded my carrying capacity. And mainly for this reason, I started buying digital music a couple of years ago and saved the CD purchase for the times when it was a particularly special album.

More recently, I've also added Spotify to the mix as a discovery tool. It's an incredible platform but I'm not fully comfortable with what it represents.

Spotify

There's a lot to like about Spotify:
  • Great for discovering new music through dynamic personalized playlists
  • Nice selection of curated playlists organized around genres or moods
  • Recommendations get better the more you use it
  • Very good for finding "that song you heard 15 years ago that you just remembered and want to listen to again".
  • Reasonable compromises for unconnected (offline) listening.
But also some significant downsides:
  • It seems to encourage and emphasize the new. There's only so much music I can listen to - especially if it's really good music that encourages repeat listening.
  • It's hard to argue that using Spotify compensates lesser-known artists well, though I'm sure record companies and some big names are quite well-compensated.
  • It seems that you get the best use of Spotify in terms of recommendations and discovery if you use the Spotify platform to listen to all of your music (rather than mixing it with music you've purchased off the platform).
And some disappointments:
  • If you believe the Spotify charts, the whole world is now listening to pretty much the same music. Which makes the multitude of international charts a bit redundant.
  • So much of the new is new only in name and not in sound, melody, production, or concept. Listening to the "new pop music" playlists is almost like listening to different remixes of a archetypal song that came out 2 years ago. It has always been this way to some extent, but these new remixes of 2-year-old music now happen weekly, and in large volumes!
  • It seems to more recently be encouraging the release of singles over albums. I'm a fan of the thoughtfully-constructed album. But this is somewhat compensated for by the return of vinyl, which has led to many albums being edited down to a 30-45 min length back from the 60-70 min that came in with the original migration from vinyl to CD. For one reason or another, I like the focus of many of these shorter albums.
Because of this cornucopia of "issues", I've developed the pattern of trying out new music on Spotify. If I really like the album, I buy it digitally or on CD depending on how great it is. Doing it this way, the artists gets compensated more fully, and I can still use the platform for its very valuable discovery angle.

The downside of doing this is that I don't listen to the music I like the most on Spotify in volumes  that lets Spotify know that I really like the music. All of those repeated listens after buying the elsewhere don't help the service understand what I like and thereby improve its recommendations.

And because of this mixed-use, it does make me wonder if I'm wasting my money. On the other hand, I've avoided buying albums that I might have bought and only listened to once or twice, so it's probably of net-benefit.

With all of that said, I've largely relegated Spotify to the role of "discovery platform". I can only listen to so much music. And the artist getting compensated fairly is more important than me being able to find even more music than I have time to listen to.

I will miss HMV, but as with many deceased musicians, I really lament the passing of the HMV that existed 15 years ago in the ecosystem that existed 15 years ago than the one whose elegy I am writing today.