"The more I find out, the less I know."

A Dangerous Thought....

Friday - May 18, 2007 12:03 PM

So there I was yesterday evening, flush from the excitement of working through Agile Web Development with Rails, a great introduction to the Ruby on Rails web development environment. I haven't done much coding in the past decade or so, and my last major projects were in parallel FORTRAN, so all this agile programming, database framework stuff is pretty new to me.
The idea of being able to go from zero to a functional (and nearly feature complete) web application in just a few hours is pretty heady, which may have led my mind down a very dangerous path:

"Hey," I thought, "I wonder if it would be possible to do twelve dot-com startups in twelve months?"

The idea lodged in my brain and wouldn't let go, despite the fact that I already have my hands full running an existing startup, plus three boys who often need careful supervision so they don't try to build a space shuttle in the garage. Oh, and a wife who occasionally needs some attention, too.

To her credit, when I mentioned my wacky idea to She Who Puts Up With Me, she didn't even roll her eyes, though she did allow that it sounded pretty ambitious.

Of course, Twelve Dot-Com Startups in Twelve Months wouldn't really be complete startups with articles of incorporation, investors, marketing budgets, lawyers, accountants, etc. It's really more like twelve web applications.

Even so, it's terribly ambitious. Between everything else I have to do, I might be able to sink 40 hours into each one. But wouldn't it be interesting to see if it was even possible?

And it would sure be a heck of a way to learn some new stuff.

Posted at 12:03 PM | Permalink |

Naked Air

Friday - April 07, 2006 02:57 PM

I'm listening to a podcast of a presentation by the Director of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff. In response to a question about airline security, he remarked that we can't get perfect security on an airplane without doing things that customers won't accept, like making people fly naked.
Actually, it seems to me that some customers might not just accept that idea, but really go for it. And with the demise of Hooters Air, it seems that there is a gap in the market that exists at the intersection of air travel and sex.

There could be other benefits, too. For example, naked travelers without carry-on bags could be allowed to bypass security screenings on the theory that they're not concealing anything.

Given the security benefits, there's even an obvious slogan: Naked Air: For The Most Secure Travelers

Posted at 02:57 PM | Permalink |

Sneaky Mail

Tuesday - October 04, 2005 01:51 PM

Direct mail marketers (aka companies which send junk mail) have become very sneaky and sophisticated in devising clever ways to make people want to open their advertisements. Solicitations disguised as government notices, bills, and even personal mail from "friends" have become common.

These are all examples of undesirable messages being disguised as important messages to get past the defenses we've all built up to the influx of junk mail.
But it also seems to me that the opposite could become common: important messages disguised as junk mail so that most people will ignore them.

For example, credit card companies are legally required to notify customers when they change the terms and conditions of accounts. But some of these changes are fairly egregious, and sometimes it may be in the card company's best interest for customers to not know about the changes so they can collect additional money in the form of penalty fees.

It is bad enough that these announcements are usually described in tiny type using language which is utterly incomprehensible to tenured professors of contract law.

But if a credit card company really wanted to make sure nobody read the new terms, it could enclose them in a brightly-colored bulk-rate envelope with starbursts proclaiming "DON'T MISS THIS OPPORTUNITY!" thus guaranteeing that 98% of the population would simply throw it away without bothering to find out the contents might actually be something important.

Remember, if this happens, you read about it here first.

Posted at 01:51 PM | Permalink |

Techie Meals

Friday - March 11, 2005 08:29 AM

Here's a business idea which I think might actually have some legs in the right geographic location: the Techie Meal.
I have observed a few interesting facts:

1) Software production often involves consuming large quantities of pizza, garlic bread, soda, and related commodities.

2) Lots of formerly impressive high-tech gizmos are really cheap these days.

3) Everybody likes to get free stuff.

The Techie Meal is a package deal designed for about 4 hungry programmers. It includes a large pizza (1-2 toppings), four fountain sodas, garlic bread, and (here's the techie part) a free gizmo of some sort. The gizmos would be the kinds of things which geeks find useful, but cost maybe $5-$10 wholesale. For example, a USB 2.0 PCI card, or one of those retractable Cat-5 network cables, or a USB Bluetooth adapter.

You put the whole thing in a special box with high-tech decorations (maybe the pizza place is called "Geek Pizza" or something) and open outlets in major tech corridors.

Posted at 08:29 AM | Permalink |

Air Bus?

Thursday - July 01, 2004 02:49 PM

We've already got low-fare airlines dispensing with reserved seats, meals, etc. on many flights. What about the ultimate in no-frills air transport, the airborne equivalent of a city bus?
Instead of buying a ticket for a particular flight on a particular day, you buy a coupon for any flight between a given pair of cities. The coupon isn't tied to a given date or time (though it might have an expiration date): you simply arrive at the airport, and get on the next flight departing for your destination city. Coupons could be sold in ATM-style kiosks at the airport, eliminating the need to plan ahead, or in 10-packs for frequent travelers.

This would require that flights depart often enough that there's a flight departing shortly after whenever you get to the airport. Departures would have to be at least every hour for most of the day (but probably not more than every half-hour). Many pairs of cities already have flights at least hourly; for example Minneapolis and Chicago, or New York and Washington.

* No more missed flights or connections. If you get to the airport late, just get on the next flight.

* No more arriving early for security and then waiting around. If you get to the airport early, you can catch an earlier flight.

* No more overbooking or getting bumped. If there are too many people waiting and the airplane fills up, there's another flight soon.

* No pressure to be at the airport at a particular time. Arrive when it is convenient, and step onto a plane.

* The airline can dispense with the expense of tracking reservations and seat assignments.

* Everyone understands the fare structure

But wait....we can make this even simpler, by pricing all the flight coupons the same. Short flights cost one coupon, medium flights cost two coupons, and long flights (coast-to-coast) cost three or four. Now you're not only freed from having to decide your departure time, but also your itinerary. If you're a business traveler, you don't have to plan your trips in advance at all. Just go to the airport with a fistful of coupons. Jump on the plane in L.A. to go to a meeting in San Francisco. When the meeting in SF is done, your boss tells you that she's scheduled a presentation in Denver, so you jump on a flight to Denver. And so forth.

Or, let's suppose you had planned to go to Chicago, but when you get to the airport, you realize there's a big snowstorm there and no flights are getting in or out. Instead of sitting at the airport, you phone a prospect in St. Louis and ask to move your meeting up a few days. Jump on the flight to St. Louis. You can go to Chicago the next day if the weather has improved.

This also lets people change their routes on the fly in response to crowded flights, mechanical problems, or bad weather. Going from Chicago to Denver, but a flight got cancelled because of a mechanical problem? Catch a plane to St. Louis, and from there to Denver instead. With bus-style air service, any city with connections to at least two cities can become a hub (in other words, the flights form a mesh network instead of a hierarchical network). This might even make it more profitable to offer air service to smaller cities, by driving traffic through those cities to change planes.

Even More Advantages
* Passengers would route themselves around flight delays and cancellations. No more rebooking.

* Airlines could respond to congestion in one part of the country by adding flights to parallel destinations. Snowstorm in Chicago? Cancel the flights to Chicago, and fly the planes to St. Louis and Detroit instead, and let passengers change planes there. This is much more robust than the centralized hub model.

Of course, there are disadvantages, too. The biggest one is figuring out how to handle checked baggage. Since the airline wouldn't know which flights you'd be traveling on, it can't make sure your bags are in the belly of that particular plane. The easiest thing to do is have the passenger mark the bags with the ultimate destination, and let the airline handle the route--but the TSA would have fits over that. The airline can run a sort of parallel package delivery service, where you have to pay for every checked bag (maybe through bag coupons, just like flight coupons), which would encourage passengers to limit themselves to carry-on.

The other disadvantage is that not all destinations will warrant frequent flights to or from anywhere. Even flying regional jets, a metro area would probably have to have at least a million people to justify hourly air service. There are 49 metro areas in the U.S. with at least a million people (many of which are probably underserved for air service today), which is enough to build a pretty good network, but there are some states which wouldn't get served at all, like North and South Dakota.

Posted at 02:49 PM | Permalink |


Tuesday - March 02, 2004 03:37 AM

Someone has implemented my Rent-a-Babe business idea.
I think my name was better, though.

Posted at 03:37 AM | Permalink |


Thursday - January 29, 2004 03:37 AM

There's a new trend happening on eBay: Imaginary Girlfriends . As of this writing, there are about 70 of these posted. Typically, the Imaginary Girlfriend is a real (not Imaginary) young woman who offers to send the buyer E-mail, instant messages, photos, and so forth to pose as the buyer's girlfriend for a few months.
On the theory that Where There's An eBay Listing There's A Market, I would like to propose Rent-a-Babe.com.

Rent-a-Babe.com is a clearinghouse for Imaginary Girlfriends. Prospective boyfriends pay a fixed fee ($19.95/month?) which lets them peruse the available Imaginary Girlfriends and select one. The Imaginary Girlfriend gets a percentage, and can have more than one Imaginary Boyfriend at a time, if she's got the time and energy to keep up with more than one. The Imaginary Boyfriend can terminate the Imaginary Relationship at any time and select another Imaginary Girlfriend. For those guys interested in Imaginary Polygamy, two Imaginary Girlfriends would be $29.95/month, and three would be $39.95/month. Catfights and jealous rages could also be arranged through IM and E-mail.

Of course, there would have to be some ground rules:

* Imaginary Girlfriends would be encouraged (perhaps required) to use a fake name, to avoid stalking, harassment, etc.

* Contact outside of IM and E-mail is strongly discouraged. Of course, you can't rule out a real relationship developing from an Imaginary one, but we don't want to blur the boundaries any more than necessary.

* An Imaginary Girlfriend has the right to refuse any prospective Imaginary Relationship for any reason. She also has the right to terminate an Imaginary Relationship at any time.

As an aside....the sociological implications of this kind of business are fascinating. For example, if Imaginary Relationships start turning into real ones, would this morph into an odd sort of online dating service? How thin are the boundaries between role-playing and reality?

Posted at 03:37 AM | Permalink |

A better drift table

Wednesday - January 28, 2004 03:37 AM

Here's a cool product, the Drift Table (via Metafilter ). Neat idea, but a little limited, don't you think? Also, it seems a little thick for a coffee table.
Here's my idea: Start with a 60" flat-screen HDTV. That's the display, and it happens to be just about the right size for a coffee table in terms of surface area. Put a sheet of thick glass (just like the ones used for glass-topped tables) over the display to protect it.

Under the display is the computer used to drive it. Use a laptop with the screen closed to keep the profile thin. The whole thing gets a brushed-titanium skin and legs, to give it a suitably high-tech look (the current one looks like an air hockey table, and that's no good).

I like the idea of having it display drifting images of terrain, based on weight distribution over the table, but why stop there? Any number of slowly-changing screen effects could be used, and a wireless keyboard and mouse used to change the settings.

I would estimate that this could all be done for under $10 grand.

Anyone want to give it a whirl?

Posted at 03:37 AM | Permalink |

Pseudo-Money Market

Tuesday - November 11, 2003 03:37 AM

Talking about a higher-yield kind of money-market account, not an account earning interest on pseudo-money.
Here's the deal: let's say you've got a few grand in your savings account which you are saving up for a rainy day, but don't expect to need immediately.

Right now, your options are:

1: Put it into a Money Market account at a bank or brokerage. This gets you almost no interest, but you can take the money out any time you want with extremely low risk. Right now, the Money Market account is paying between a quarter and a half percent at most banks.

2: Put it into a short-term CD or saving bond. This gets you a lot more interest, but your money is locked up until the CD or savings bond matures. Right now, a six-month Treasury bond is paying around one percent, and a two-year bond is paying around two percent. A five-year bond is paying around 3.5%, but of course the money is locked up for five years. The risk of losing money, however, is extremely low.

3: Put it into a short-term bond fund. This gets you almost the same interest as the short-term bond, and you can take your money out any time. However, there is a risk that you may lose some money, as the value of the fund can vary when interest rates change (interest rates go up, value of the fund goes down). Right now, this risk is especially pronounced, since we're in an environment where short-term interest rates are more likely to go up than down.

The tradeoff is this: You can have a higher interest rate, immediate access to your money, or extremely low risk, but not all three.

I'm proposing a fourth option, one which trades a small amount of access to your money for a higher interest rate, and preserves the extremely low risk.

The reason why a Money Market account pays so little interest is that the funds have to be managed as though every investor might withdraw his or her money tomorrow. Of course that never happens, and the flow of money is usually predictable, but that limitation forces the fund manager into the most liquid possible investments. In other words, stuff which matures very quickly (three months or less) and can be sold on the open market at any time.

Can You Do Pseudo?
But let's suppose the investor is willing to live with one limitation: that there is a small chance that withdrawals may be delayed. Let's suppose there is a 1% chance that a withdrawal will be delayed, usually by a day or two. In exchange, the investor gets a significantly higher interest rate.

That means two things: First, the Pseudo-Money Market account isn't quite like cash anymore, but it is still pretty darn close for most people.

Second, the money manager is now free to invest in stuff which isn't as liquid and short-term, because he doesn't need to plan for everyone in the fund taking all their money out on the same day. This lets the manager move to investments which pay a significantly higher rate of return: maybe even more than a one-year or two-year bond (depending on the money flow of the fund).

What really makes this work is the statistics of large numbers. On any given day, for a Money Market fund, people both deposit and withdrawal money, and the fund has to be able to accept both. On some days, there may be more deposits than withdrawals, which isn't usually a problem. Other days, there may be more withdrawals than deposits, so the fund has to sell assets to meet the withdrawals. On average, over time, the withdrawals and deposits pretty much match each other.

But big banks and brokerages have a lot of knowledge about how investors behave over time. They know, for example, that on average, a certain percentage of the money deposited is likely to be taken out within two months. On average, some percentage of the money is likely to be left in the account for more than five years.

So, since the fund manager isn't limited to shorter-term investments, he can fold in the higher-yielding, longer-term investments to improve the overall return. In the unlikely event that there are more withdrawals than anticipated, the manager has the ability to delay paying some of them, to avoid having to sell longer-term securities at a loss. This guarantees the fund's value over time.

In the worst-case scenario, if people start fleeing the fund, something even more interesting happens. In this scenario, as the fund shrinks, the shorter-term (lower yielding) investments get sold/mature first. As a result, the fund's yield automatically goes up. This attracts new investors, providing the deposits to pay the existing investors, and the capital to ensure the stability of the fund. In no event is the fund itself at risk, since the manager can choose to pay the withdrawals only as investments mature.

Are You A Finance Weenie? This Is For You
Finance geeks (and I consider myself one) might argue that what I've described is nothing new. It is essentially an intermediate-term bond fund, possibly grafted onto a Money Market account.

But there is one essential difference.

The delayed-withdrawal feature allows the fund company to guarantee that the fund will never drop below par--that is, that the fund will never lose money. No traditional intermediate-term bond fund can make that claim. It might be an unimportant difference to an economics professor, but the guarantee that you won't lose money is an important marketing point.

It essentially allows a bond fund to be marketed as a higher yielding form of Money Market fund. And since a lot of cash gets placed into Money Market funds essentially by default, this could provide a lucrative way for banks and brokerages to attract new deposits through a higher yielding product.

Posted at 03:37 AM | Permalink |

Electronic check-in

Wednesday - October 15, 2003 03:37 AM

Electronic check-in is common now at airports, and saves a lot of money for the airlines. For some reason, though, one common check-in question hasn't been automated.
Right now, when I check in, it will print boarding passes and ask if I want an upgrade (I'm an elite-level frequent flier with Northwest). Today, I couldn't use the electronic check-in. Why not? Because I was able to get to the airport four hours early, and wanted to try to get onto an earlier flight.

This would seem to be a simple bit of programming in the electronic kiosk. If a passenger checks in more than, say, 90 minutes early, and there is space available on a flight which would get that person to the destination sooner, offer to automatically change to the earlier flight.

In my case, I was able to switch to an earlier flight, nonstop instead of with a layover, and got home six hours earlier than planned. It likely saved the airline some money, too, since I was taking up a seat on one flight instead of two, and they didn't have to transfer my luggage. The airline could have saved even more money if I'd been able to check in and make the change automatically instead of with the ticketing agent.

As an aside, some airlines are now charging to get a standby seat for an earlier flight on the same day. This is one of the sillier things I've seen airlines do: it serves primarily to make customers mad. If the seat is available, it is in the interest of the airline to get that passenger to the destination promptly; especially if the later flight is overbooked.

Posted at 03:37 AM | Permalink |

A stock exchange for used music and movies

Monday - September 29, 2003 03:37 AM

Used CD's and DVD's appear to be an almost-ideal market for an exchange-style market, matching multiple buyers and sellers.
Right now, there are a lot of used CD dealers, and some auctions on eBay and similar sites. Used music (and movies) has all the characteristics which would make it a good candidate for a market modeled on the stock exchanges:

* Individual CDs of the same artist and album are essentially interchangeable, given a few parameters (i.e. condition).

* There are multiple buyers and sellers in the market at any given time.

* The cost of completing a trade is low, especially if the market is smart enough to match nearby buyers and sellers (avoiding the postage to mail a CD or DVD)

Here's how a CD/DVD exchange would work:

Buyers and sellers would both log onto a web site, where they can enter orders to buy or sell music. Sellers enter the artist/title, minimum price, condition, and the minimum sale price. Buyers enter the artist/title, desired condition, and maximum purchase price. When a buy and a sell order match (i.e. there's a buyer willing to pay at least the seller's minimum price), the system splits the difference, notifies the buyer and seller of the sale, removes those two orders from the system, and charges the seller a small commission (perhaps $0.05). The buyer is responsible for paying any postage/shipping, which can be standardized in the U.S. (single CD's cost just a little over $1.00 to mail in a jewel case).

At any time, the bid and ask (i.e. cheapest sale price and most expensive purchase price) for any artist/title and condition are available on the web site, so buyers can decide if, for example, it is worth an extra $2.50 to get Billy Joel in mint condition vs. scratched with the liner notes missing.

And that's it! Buyers can find deeply discounted CD's and DVD's, probably for less than the used music shop, and with almost any title available somewhere. Sellers can get a better price than the used music shop would offer, and can choose between selling something immediately (to whatever cheapskate buyer is available), or waiting for a better price.

There are a few refinements to this simple exchange which would also make sense:

* Distance-based bids: a buyer may be willing to pay more for a CD/DVD available within driving distance, to avoid paying shipping. Buyers could enter two bids, one for nearby, and another for distant. Posted bids (to be consistent) would all be for distant buyers; but a nearby buyer (being willing to pay more) is more likely to get matched.

* Reputation scores: Just like on eBay, it helps to know if the buyer/seller has a good reputation. This could be implemented by giving both the buyer and the seller the opportunity to back out of a sale after examining the history of the other party.

* Piracy prevention: A simple mechanism for buyers to report suspected pirate copies--for example, I doubt much of Madonna's music was ever sold on CD-R. These reports would be forwarded to the appropriate authorities for investigation.

The Big Downside

I'm guessing that the effect of this kind of a market would be to put the used CD/DVD dealers out of business--not because they wouldn't be able to sell their inventory (if anything, it would make it easier to sell inventory), but because it would drive prices for used movies and music down to the point where the dealers would have a hard time making a profit.

There's probably a lot of old movies and music sitting on people's bookshelves today, and if there was an easy way to sell it, the market would quickly get flooded. It would be a good thing for consumers (both buyers and sellers), since buyers would get much better prices, and sellers would have a better way to turn their collections into cash. But the dealers would find that carrying the inventory (which is a big cost of business today) is simply too expensive.

As an aside, I would expect that most movies and music would depreciate over time, as people got tired of them and tried to purge their collections. After some years, the price for a given title would stabilize (probably around a buck or two, essentially the nuisance value of selling it). Then, for certain titles which remained popular, the older copies would begin to become rare, and appreciate as they gain some collectable value.

Posted at 03:37 AM | Permalink |

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