Copyright schmopyright

In a move that will definitely help to make TV-watching more viewer-friendly for people who hate silly or irrelevant ads, like me, the U.S Supreme Court has declined to hear a case on digital video recorder (DVR) technology put forth by network programmers like CNN and TBS against Cablevision, the New York-area cable operator. Cablevision wanted to offer a DVR system whereby viewers could use DVR technology from a server provided by them instead of a separate set-top box. The network programmers submitted that this would mean the cable company would then be making unauthorised use of copyrighted programmes, because people could (gasp!) fast forward ads placed in copyrighted programmes that they run. 

A lower court actually ruled in favour of the CNN/TBS lot (I’m sure that judge doesn’t watch any TV), but the U.S Supreme Court reversed that decision, leading Cablevision to say that the decision may mean that DVRs could become more accessible and they’d consider, for example, allowing advertisers to insert ads into recorded content. 

To me that completely defeats the purpose of the whole case. If I’m getting a DVR to avoid seeing ads, why would I buy/get access to it from Cablevision if they’re going to take me back to square one just to make some money? I’d be getting shifted wouldn’t I?

Whether or not Cablevision is able to put their awful plan into action, the truth is that crap ads are crap ads. By taking up the cause of advertisers and not seeing that people are likely to be ready to pay to be able to get rid of ads, they are being blind to the reality. Unless some sort of eye-sensor technology is invented that can scan the viewer’s eye and automatically serve up relevant ads, people will hate most ads, period. Or alternatively if all ads cease to be ads and become less commerce and more content. TV ads, other than infomercials, are still very much based on the principle of pure commerce. Till that changes, I’d rather pay NOT to see them if I can afford it. 


The value of value

Noticed this in Soho a few weeks ago. I admit the first thing that made me look was the Woolworth’s font. Except that it said ‘Worthless’…..which is not too far from the truth, though I was mildly interested to know that they’ve relaunched as an online store following their closing down a few months ago. Anyway, this group, called the Pollocks Group is ostensibly a network of young rebels that in this instance offered to transform any old piece of junk you brought in into a piece of art, and in return only asked that you pay what you thought the finished item was worth. It was a week-long event (I saw the poster only after the event), but it got me thinking about this sentiment of pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth that seems to be going around. This particular event was also ‘inspired by the recession’ and came about because the group was ‘compelled to create something positive’. 

In the end, the financial meltdown can be summarised as having happened because of greedy banks and non-creditworthy people entering into deals they shouldn’t have. (That word ‘worth’ comes in here too). Models like pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth are like a fresh start in some ways. The key thing is to ensure that this value that we place on things doesn’t get inflated to the point that people get greedy again, and even more crucially, that banks aren’t allowed by regulatory bodies to act on that greed even if they do get greedy. 
People definitely want to create a new world, one that is positive rather than negative and gloomy. I think it’s time we all move towards that. It’s up to the financial institutions to analyse how exactly to prevent a financial meltdown of the scale we have witnessed (recommended reading: some of Umair Haque’s thoughts on this), but the rest of us should try to move on.  

Thoughts on an advertising model for Ushahidi-mBanking

When I first heard of it a few months ago, I knew instinctively that Ushahidi had the potential to create long-lasting change in the developing world. Having worked in a few underprivileged communities in India as soon as I finished university, I know how widespread the use of mobile phones is. The internet, by contrast, is still largely accessed largely via internet cafes by most of the middle and lower-middle class even today, and that too only where absolutely required. To the poor, the internet has hardly any relevance in terms of daily usage. Initiatives like ITC’s eChoupal, which aims to train farmers to use the internet to improve their livelihoods by giving them access to information such as weather and market prices, scientific farm practices and risk management are excellent but largely a rural phenomenon and restricted to areas where ITC (a company that has businesses ranging from hotels and apparel to food and IT) operates. 

The mobile phone, on the other hand, is an instrument that many poor households own. 

So when I read a blog post by Patrick Philippe Meier, a research fellow at Harvard and a doctoral candidate at Tufts University, about the potential use of Ushahidi for mobile banking (or mBanking), I immediately wanted to know more. Meier says that mBanking is used by a vast majority of the poor (from an older post of his: “of the 140 million poor people employed who receive social payments (aka G2P), less than 1/4th receive their payments via bank accounts”), but there is the danger of customer complaints being ignored or inordinately delayed in being dealt with, and of agents being untrustworthy. His solution is to use services like mPesa and Zap, which allow users to transfer money via mobile phones, to text in customer complaints with a code provided by the services. The parent mobile networks (in this case Safaricom and Zain in Kenya) can then have access to reports of agent efficiency, and complaints can be mapped as well. The whole project could be made sustainable via advertising space sold on the Ushahidi-mBanking site as well as broadcast SMS ads. 

I think of it as a mobile banking system that could use advertising in the Blyk model for developing countries. With Blyk, brands pay the company to get their messages out to their target audience (the youth), and with Ushahidi-mBanking, brands can pay the networks (Safaricom, Zain or anything else) to get their messages out to lower-income people. I imagine this kind of advertising could be applicable to insurance companies (for example, ICICI Lombard’s Mediclaim and GPA policy for the urban poor in India), the government (public service announcements), and banks like the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. Of course, companies that produce FMCG’s can advertise too, like Unilever or P&G.

The start of a new business education model?

Over the last few months, I’ve spoken to quite a few friends who are or were considering doing an MBA, that magical degree that used to enable students to start earning over twice what they previously were. But that was in the days before banks started collapsing like a house of cards all around us. Most of these people are now being very practical when they say that spending over $50,000 a year just for fees (leave alone living expenses) cannot be justified when there is no longer a guarantee of even getting a job, forget one that pays sky-high salaries. 

A couple of days ago, Seth Godin wrote about the results of his SAMBA program (Seth Godin’s Alternative MBA, if you’re wondering), a 6-month course he ran where 9 students (selected out of 350 applicants) had rigorous, in-depth, on-the-ground training in business methods and leadership. It was unaccredited, free and residential. These students worked on a range of very interesting projects, which you can read more about on their blog
Anyway, there are a few things Seth Godin, a Stanford graduate himself, said in his post that stood out for me as making particular sense:

The educational lesson that I found the most striking is that the book knowledge was easy to transmit and not particularly essential. Once you get this far, it’s sort of a given that you’re good at school. We read more than a hundred books, and the book learning happened quickly . Our culture has done an amazingly good job at teaching talented people how to learn concepts from books.

I taught for five to twenty hours a week, and very little of it was about the books. So, if concepts from books are easy, what’s hard?

Doing it.

Picking up the phone, making the plan, signing the deal. Pushing ‘publish.’ Announcing. Shipping.

We spent a lot of time on this area. Every morning, each person came in prepared to push someone in the group to overcome the next hurdle. This is what growth looks like, and it was energizing to be part of.

We didn’t do this at all at when I was at Stanford. We spent a lot of time reading irrelevant case studies and even more time building complex financial models. The thing is, you can now hire someone to build a complex financial model for you for $60 an hour. And a week’s worth of that is just about all the typical entrepreneur is going to need. The rest of the time, it’s about shipping, motivating, leading, connecting, envisioning and engaging. So that’s what we worked on.

It amazes me that MBA students around the world aren’t up in arms. How can schools justify taking $100,000 in cash and teaching exactly the wrong stuff?

So the young people – my peers that I’ve been speaking to, are almost echoing what Seth says in some ways. Whether it is Harvard or Stanford, business schools today are teaching the wrong material. Students do not feel confident, nor do they feel particularly more knowledgeable when they come out of it. Attending business schools, especially the Ivy League ones, is all about becoming part of a world-class alumni network. But if that network produces people who are struggling to stand on their feet, how valuable is the network itself? This is not a blanket rejection of all business schools or all MBA students. When I was leaving university, doing an MBA was considered the path to a great career. I never did one, and used to listen in mild jealousy as I heard about those who did do one and got exactly the kind of career they wanted. 

Those days are over now. What IS needed are training grounds like the SAMBA or W+K Platform that give people on-the-job training and recognises their inherent talent and skills. 

Maybe this is the start of a new business education model. 

Connecting the dots

This car reminds me an awful lot of Krang from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, what do you think?

Yesterday I was at the Kuniyoshi exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, and noticed that he uses human bodies as building blocks of the central subject in many paintings, such as this one. 
No point really, just that I noticed similiarities in these three images. That’s all.  

Of course!

I really like the concept of these zip earphones. Whenever I want to listen to my iPod, I spend far too many minutes trying to unravel my knotted earphones. This is something that is so simple and so useful. One of those ‘Of course!’ moments that makes me think why no one thought of it before. It even has volume controls!

Keyboard cemetery

I recently chanced upon this image. It seems eerily prescient of the future to me somehow. Most of us probably find our keyboards pretty much indispensable from our day-to-day life, but the more I think about it, the more I realise we may not even need keyboards in the future, and an advanced version of touch screens (or something) may take over.

Finance 2.0 and fictitious capital

Cross-posted on the Made By Many blog:

Not enough people in this industry talk about the economy. Charles Frith wrote an interesting post on this a while ago. On Wednesday, I spotted two more pieces that discussed the ongoing financial crisis but in completely different ways (not from the media/communications industry exactly), that got me thinking. One was Umair Haque’s piece on the Finance 2.0 manifesto. Two points in his post particularly stood out for me: how the edge fund economy should replace the hedge fund economy, and the issue of open source modeling. He elaborates on the edge fund economy by clearly defining it:

An edge fund is the opposite of a hedge fund. Where hedge funds are opaque, edge funds are transparent. Where hedge funds are closed, edge funds are open. Where hedge funds are run for near-term gains, edge funds are in it for the long run. Where hedge funds create artificial book value, edge funds create value that accrues to real people and society. Where hedge funds focus on long and short transactions, edge funds focus on relationships. Think Marketocracy on steroids.

Read these bits again: ‘edge funds create value that accrues to people and society’ and ‘edge funds focus on relationships’. If relationships took priority over corporate greed, we wouldn’t be facing this mess. The economy needs to become more human, simply put. That would automatically push its case by motivating people to invest more because they’d be happy to invest more. (More after the jump)

About open-source modeling, Haque says:

Every bank built the same models. Every bank built the same flawed models. Every bank built the same flawed models on similarly erroneous assumptions. How dumb is that? Incredibly. Unleashing the power of open source to vaporize this black hole of incompetence is going to be a tremendously powerful path to innovation. The peer review, voluntary contribution, and always-on negotiation at the heart of the open source model create powerful incentives for quality — which is exactly what the hare-brained quants at banks lacked.

I’ve been thinking along these lines off and on – not with specific reference to the economy, but with reference to services. If the public had a mechanism by which they could rate banks, wealth managers and advisors and give instant and clear feedback on why or why not they provided utility or not, they wouldn’t be able to get away with using taxpayer’s money for things they shouldn’t. This kind of a mechanism should ideally be bolstered with transparent accounting for public money held by banks (like some governments are forced to disclose courtesy a Right to Information Act). 

The other post was on Boing Boing, where Richard Metzger spoke about how he thinks Karl Marx’s principles are ‘ultra’ relevant to what is going on now, because Marx spoke of ‘fictitious capital’ way back before the Industrial Revolution was even on the horizon. I grew out of my fascination for principles like socialism and Marxism once I left university, but when I read about it, I felt like the concept of fictitious capital was indeed like a suddenly revealed nugget of gold from a knowledge point of view, and does explain the link between human nature and greed, and consequently the current condition of the economy, rather succinctly. This again, though, links back to Umair Haque’s points about the edge economy and open source modeling. If we are to control the growth of fictitious capital, we need to make sure it can’t be created. And for that, we need capital to be audited in an open source manner. 

Someone needs to create that system now.