This time United States really is declining



During the 70s and 80s, Vietnam War, the oil check, economic stagnation and the supposedly superior political economy system of Japan were prompting eminent scholars to write books title “Japan as Number One” and “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” prophesying the decline of American superpower. But it was not meant to be. In the early 90s, America’s biggest military rival and economic rival, respectively the Soviet Union dissolved, and Japan went into a decade of very low growth. While America rebounded to the longest continued economic growth in its history and just as its military seems invincible in the Gulf War, taking less than 150 casualties during the entire war. American preeminence, let to books title “The End of History” and articles like “The Unipolar Moment“. The declaration of American decline was premature, until now. Continue reading

The Social Network, movie of the year and reflecting on the last decade.


The Social Network is the movie of the year or the decade perhaps. For, while its direction masterful, it was the subtext of the story of Facebook so reflective of the last decade that enticed me

“They dont want you, they want your idea”
The rise of Facebook symbolise the pinnacle prominence of idea, over shadowing everything else. Dont get me wrong, ideas has always been prized since Schumpeter wrote Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy and popularise the term creative destruction. But, never before has the value of ideas so convincingly trumps all other factors of production. In the information age where Facebook inhibits, credit are plenty, labor are cheap, land are irrelevant and raw material unneeded. Karl Marx will be rolling in his grave. With the Facebook idea, Mark Zuckerberg was able to attract troves of talent and cash. Google had the same quality, but Facebook surpass it. It took about a year for google to receive their first hundred thousand dollar from an angel investor, but for Faceoobk it only took four months before it was showered with five hundred thousand cold cold cash. Facebook was worth 15 billion in 2007, two years before it could even turn a profit. Google was worth 23 billion in 2004 after it 3 years of continuous profitability. How time have changed in such short notice.

“A million dollar isn’t cool, do you know what’s cool, its a billion dollar”
Cash, and lots of it. For the majority of 2000s, Americans were swimming in pool of cash fill by the low Federal Reserve interest rate and Asian savings. Without all this cheap money, Facebook would probably never have raise finance the way it did. The decade was an bubble economy, people and banks were over-leveraging, buying houses and making financial bets that they cant afford. The mountain of wealth built on a house of cards came crushing down and drove us to near depression in 2008. We survive the crush to live with the consequence.

“Relationship status: it’s complicated”
Google Earth, Wikipedia, Second Life, Four Square, Wikileaks and a lot of last ten years was about the digitalization of our reality. Our reality because its base on our perspective. With social media like Facebook we even digitalize our social relationships. In a sense, this should not alarm us, because it bough us back to where we were for most of human existence until the the mass urbanization during the industrial age. We were people of small villages of hundreds rather than mega-cities of hundreds of millions. Everybody knows everybody in small villages, reputation were important. No as much so in mega-cities, you can hook-up with a different girl every night in New York without any of them ever knowing each other. Social media, Facebook in particular reverse that trend. Now people fear getting tagged on Facebook in places or people they dont want to be seen with, and receiving friend request from their mothers. Employer check you up before you are hired. Now, internet reputation is as important as village reputation was.

In summation
In the decade of 2001~2010, the world (Asian countries mostly) worked hard and saved while the Americans rack up mountain of debt and pool their talents to develop the idea of Facebook so that we can know each other better. It  has been fun. The party, of course had to end in the fall of 2008. Good times.

My other post on The Social Network.

Potential applications for Digital Video Analysis and a decentralised business strategy to develop it


Digitization of our society is apparently an unstoppable and speeding trend, From Hotmail, Google library, to recreating an entire university inside a computer by Microsoft’s’ WorldWide Telescope. Digitization are driven by different technology “engines”. I am using the terminology “engines” because some technology has so much potential for spin-off applications that it should be view as an engine of digitization. Personal computer was the first major engine that let us digitize our information. Internet was the second major engine that revolutionized information distribution. I believe that next engine of digitization is (for the lack of knowledge of a better term) Digital Video Analysis (DVA) and image analysis, which are also the subject and inspiration of this post. In this post i will attempt to present these following thoughts:

1. What are some of the potential application of DVA
2. What kind of innovation strategy is best able to generate vast amount of product ideas.
3. What kind of business strategy is best able to commercialize these ideas.

Why DVA

By DVA, what I am referring to is the extraction of meaningful information from videos, similar to image analysis but for video. Second to words, visual images are our largest reservoir of information, it has been largely untapped because unlike words it is very difficult to capture, sent, store and analysis large quantity of it in sufficient quality. But that’s changing with the advent of high resolution video cameras, optical Internet, massive storage and powerful computers. What than can we do with this new power? For a starter, let me offer a couple of example of what people has been doing with it:

Retail business intelligence. Retailers are using digital surveillance cameras to capture and analyze customer behavior to generate data that help businesses adjust their operation. One company call this kind of system Visual Business Intelligence (VBI). VBI can for example, figure out how many batch of purchases are being cue up at each registers and avoid the pitfall of counting people instead of groups of people making a purchase together. VBI can also identify difference in purchase pattern (item selection, route around the store) of adults when they are with children and without. I can imagine a future where a more sophisticated VBI can also identify details such as customer emotions by analyzing their facial expression, time they spend looking at product descriptions etc.

Student of Tel Aviv University has a developed a software that identifies facial features, distinguish a female face from a male face and rank attractiveness.

These are just some of the things that exist today, but there are numerous potential for DVA, i have come up with a few my self:

New video game controller. Wii was revolutionary because it allow players to play games in a way that is similar to the action players are trying to do in the game . The Wii remote controller is able to archive this by using a inferred LED sensor bar to sense acceleration along controller’s three axes and where its pointing. Now, Imaging using two high speed cameras instead of the inferred LED sensor to capture the movement of the players hand (may want to get players to put on a pair of uniquely colored gloves). This could mean that even more subtle and detail input by the player become possible, rotations, flick of a finger, a fist, open hand, a punch, a wave. a pinch etc. Of course, it does not have to be a hand, it can be a baseball bat, or a wooden sword, the whole body or whatever is appropriate to the game being played. This kind of technology will revolutionize the console industry more then Wii.

Stealth Bomber detection. Stealth bombers can evade radar detection but they are still visible. So, I guess it would be possible for a system of high speed video cameras and recognition software to scanning the sky for stealth bombers, once identify, it should not be too difficult to know its exact coordinate, speed and direct and subsequently these information to a surface to air missile to shot it down.

Identify fashion trend. What if a software is design to recognize different style of outfit people are wearing in mass numbers base on the video image gather through digital surveillance cameras around the world. That kind of software should be able to identify color coordination (main color, color variation, upper/lower body color variation), types of clothing (one/two piece, jeans, suit, T-shirt, shorts, mini-skirt), pattens (strips, borders, squares) and even material (leather, cotton, hemp, wool). This kind of technology can potentially be used to spot trends. If for example an patten emerges where the most sighted fashion in New York is always follow by major world wide sales of such fashion six months later, this kind of information would be useful to fashion labels.

Really, the potential application for DVA is enormous, its like searching for a beautiful shell on a virgin beach, there are plenty to be found. Companies whom can discover many good ideas very quickly will be positioned to make lots of profit, but how?

Decentralized product strategy

I believe for a technology that has so much potential in such diverse field, it should not be using the traditional centralized product development strategy where a designated group of people in organisation generate ideas, it should be everyone job. How can this be done? Simple, use an online forum where everyone in the organization can participate and post their idea for a product (Hat tip: Linda A. Hill). Unlike a group brainstorming session, where only one person can talk at a time, an online forum allow everyone to express them selfs whenever the idea come to them. And a forum has a kind of wisdom of crowds mechanism build into it, new ideas, popular ideas (by number of responses or views) can quickly be identified, on the first page as the result receive more exposure. This is what i mean by decentralized product strategy. A forum allow people the time to craft their words and others to discuss, refine and improve upon it. However forums can have some minor problems needs addressing: People leaking forum content to competitors, solved by having everyone with access to it sign confidential agreements. Low participation, employees may not want to post ideas or comments that they think are not going to impress co-workers, that can be fixed by enforcing a minimal post per week rule, that encourage people to post their ideas or comments online even if it does not seem clear or refined. Junk post will get filter out by being push back to back pages anyway, so there is no need to worry about forum being flooded by it. Online forums has an unsolvable disadvantage compare to face to face brainstorming session in that some thought are easier to express in person than online, but i think that’s a small drawback compare to the potential of online forum. Once we got loads of ideas generated, how should the company go about commercialising them?

Spin-off

Each of these new product ideas should be developed outside of their original organisation. Instead of building a new department around an new product or assign the new products to existing department, these new ideas should be developed by the people who came up with the idea and is willing to use their own money to develop them into a new independent spin-off business. An arrangement can be made between the original business to own a part and have a sit at the directors board of the new business. Building a new independent business can help avoid a couple of common pitfalls where new product development can be jeopardise by the interest of existing products. One infamous demonstration of such conflict of interest is Sony’s hesitation to develop digital portable music players because it did not want to hurt its music content business by making digital music mainstream for fear of piracy, as a consequence, Apple took over the portable music business. A common threat to many successful tech venture firms after initial public offering (IPO) is many of its core members makes tonnes of money and leave to develop another venture business. Google has and is still losing many of its talent, despite having the best employment environment. Some suggest it is because post-IPO firms loses talents who were attracted to the feel of a venture business. Allowing a product to be its own independent business and let the people who has came up with the idea, most passionate an willing to invest their own money to run it can avoid the two problem mentioned above and still make a health profit for the original company.

To Conclude

The theme of this post is really to promote the idea of decentralization. If there is anything that we have learn from the last century is that decentralization works and centralization don’t in most cases. Although there are rare exceptions where a centralization or a mix of both might work to a limited extent (Steven Job’s Apple, Singapore, Post-Mao China and Japan’s developmental state). This is because other than an abstract direction, how technology develop beyond the frontier is inherently unclear. It is precisely this vagueness that require decentralized agents all independently searching for a path forward. A whole book can be written on decentralized strategy, and I of course do not claim to know anyway near enough about it. I will later attempt to conjure up a post on it, but for now, this post ends here.