United Airlines Just Gave First Class Passengers Something Truly Outlandish (Economy Passengers Won't Be Happy)

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

I want the whole world to be happy.

But we’re not all made happy by the same things, even though Silicon Valley would rather prefer it if we were.

There are times, though, when the have-littles look at the have-a-lots and want to bang their heads on the walls of the Department of Injustice.

This is certainly the case when flying.

It’s bad enough that there’s a curtain dividing the top class from the rest. 

It’s worse when the aroma of their freshly-cooked (well, freshly-warmed) food wafts toward the back, as your teeth are resisting your stale ham sandwich.

Now, though, United Airlines would like to make it a touch more painful.

It’s offering its higher rollers a very fine perk. Their own terminal.

United has announced that those passing into Los Angeles International Airport will be able to bathe in the joys of a separate terminal called the Private Suite.

It has its own security, its own customs and its own secret handshake that involves shaking with one hand, while tapping one’s left nostril with the other. 

Yes, I did make up that last element.

What isn’t invented is that, once your flight is called, you’ll be driven to your plane in a 7-Series BMW.

Because a 5-Series would be manifestly déclassé.

I asked United which specific passengers would be eligible for such luxury.

“The experience will be part of a fare that can be bought for now via select travel agents and corporate booking desks. It is not an add-on,” a spokeswoman told me.

The airline did say in its announcement: “If you’re departing LAX for Aspen, Cabo San Lucas, Hawaii, London Heathrow, Melbourne, New York/Newark, Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney or Tokyo Narita — or arriving into LAX from any of these locations — you’ll be able to take advantage of this one-of-a-kind experience.”

It adds that this is available only to several-of-a-kind “select” customers. Who presumably make their bookings at “select” travel agents

Don’t you feel like a select customer, even if you’re being forced to fly in Basic Economy?

Oh, you don’t?

This service, for which those who wish to be kept away from the riff and the raff of society usually pay $4,500 a year, has some quite tantalizing aspects.

United boasts: “A team of eight people is assigned to each booking, ensuring a seamless experience for both outbound and inbound flights.”

Wait, you’re going to have eight people bowing and scraping upon you just because you’re wealthy, while you’ll likely not even have anywhere near eight people serving the whole of your flight in Economy?

You’ll especially appreciate the United Private Suite FAQ. It has the potential to make you feel truly terrible.

Sample question: “Where will my concierge meet me to drive me to my aircraft?”

Second sample question: “Will I have lounge space at The Private Suite facility all to myself?”

Third sample question: “Do you serve gold-infused caviar on whole wheat bread, with an avocado slice on the side?”

Only one of those questions isn’t actually in the FAQ.

Of course, airlines are pandering to the exalted few.

Why, only last week United reversed its decision to take away fancy people’s free tomato juice and meals on flight under four hours after a mass First Class ululation.

A Private Suite is the least they can offer them in compensation, isn’t it?

A Classical Math Problem Gets Pulled Into Self-Driving Cars

Long before robots could run or cars could drive themselves, mathematicians contemplated a simple mathematical question. They figured it out, then laid it to rest—with no way of knowing that the object of their mathematical curiosity would feature in machines of the far-off future.

Quanta Magazine

author photo


Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.

The future is now here. As a result of new work by Amir Ali Ahmadi and Anirudha Majumdar of Princeton University, a classical problem from pure mathematics is poised to provide iron-clad proof that drone aircraft and autonomous cars won’t crash into trees or veer into oncoming traffic.

“You get a complete 100-percent-provable guarantee that your system” will be collision-avoidant, said Georgina Hall, a final-year graduate student at Princeton who has collaborated with Ahmadi on the work.

The guarantee comes from an unlikely place—a mathematical problem known as “sum of squares.” The problem was posed in 1900 by the great mathematician David Hilbert. He asked whether certain types of equations could always be expressed as a sum of two separate terms, each raised to the power of 2.

Mathematicians settled Hilbert’s question within a few decades. Then, almost 90 years later, computer scientists and engineers discovered that this mathematical property—whether an equation can be expressed as a sum of squares—helps answer many real-world problems they’d like to solve.

Amir Ali Ahmadi, a professor at Princeton University, has shown how a sum-of-squares algorithm can be applied to modern optimization problems.


“What I do uses a lot of classical math from the 19th century combined with very new computational math,” said Ahmadi.

Yet even as researchers realized that sum of squares could help answer many kinds of questions, they faced challenges to implementing the approach. The new work by Ahmadi and Majumdar clears away one of the biggest of those challenges—bringing an old math question squarely to bear on some of the most important technological questions of the day.

Positivity Guaranteed

What does it mean for something to be a sum of squares? Take the number 13. It’s the sum of two squares: 22 and 32. The number 34 is the sum of 32 plus 52.

Instead of numbers, Hilbert’s question—the 17th of 23 he posed at the opening of the 20th century—has to do with polynomial expressions like 5x2 + 16x + 13. These kinds of polynomials can sometimes be expressed as sums of squares, too. For example, 5x2 + 16x + 13 can be rewritten as (x + 2)2 + (2x + 3)2.

When an expression is a sum of squares, you know that it’s always nonnegative. (Because anything squared is positive or zero, and the sum of positive numbers is a positive number.) Hilbert wanted to know if it works the other way around: if all nonnegative polynomials can be expressed as a sum of squares of rational functions. In 1927 the mathematician Emil Artin proved that Hilbert’s conjecture is true.

This relationship turns out to be quite useful. If you’re handed a complicated polynomial—one with dozens of variables raised to high powers—it’s not easy to determine straightaway whether it’s always nonnegative. “Some polynomials are obviously nonnegative, others are not. It’s hard to test whether they’re always nonnegative,” said Ahmadi.

But once you show that the same polynomial can be expressed as a sum of squares, then you know nonnegativity follows as a consequence. “Sum of squares gives you a nice certificate of positivity,” said Pablo Parrilo, a computer scientist and engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was influential in bringing the sum of squares question into the applied realm.

Knowing whether a polynomial is always nonnegative might seem like a mathematical triviality. But a century after Hilbert asked his question, polynomial nonnegativity has turned out to answer applied problems that affect us all.

The Best Way

Sum of squares meets the real world in the field of optimization. Optimization theory is concerned with finding the best way to do something amid constraints—like finding the best route to work given the current traffic conditions and a stop you need to make along the way. Scenarios like these can often be distilled into polynomial equations. In such cases, you solve, or “optimize” the scenario, by finding the minimum value taken by the polynomial.

Finding the minimum value of a polynomial with many variables is hard: There’s no straightforward high-school-style algorithm for computing the minimum value of complicated polynomials, and these same polynomials are not easy to graph.

Georgina Hall, a final-year graduate student at Princeton, collaborated on the new work.

Kim Lupinacci/Quanta Magazine

Because the minimum value of a polynomial is hard to compute directly, researchers infer it by other means. And this is where nonnegativity, and the question of whether a polynomial is a sum of squares, comes in. “Certifying nonnegativity is really the heart of all optimization problems,” said Rekha Thomas, a mathematician at the University of Washington.

One way to find the minimum value is to ask yourself: What’s the most I can subtract from a nonnegative polynomial before it turns negative somewhere? In answering this question you might test different values—can I subtract 3 from the polynomial such that it’s still nonnegative? What about 4? Or 5? As you repeat this procedure, you’re interested in knowing at each step whether the polynomial is still nonnegative. And the way you check that is by checking whether the polynomial can still be expressed as a sum of squares.

“The thing you want to ask is, ‘Is the polynomial nonnegative?’ The problem is, answering nonnegativity is hard with more variables,” said Ahmadi. “That’s why we use sum of squares as a surrogate for nonnegativity.”

Once researchers know the minimum—which is, remember, the optimal value of the polynomial—they can use other methods to identify the inputs that lead to that value. Yet in order for nonnegativity to help solve optimization problems, you need a way of quickly computing whether a polynomial is equal to a sum of squares. And it took 100 years after Hilbert’s question for researchers to figure that out.

Breaking Up the Problem

Hilbert’s 17th question crossed from pure mathematics into real-world application around the year 2000. That’s when several different researchers figured out an algorithmic method for checking whether a polynomial is a sum of squares. They achieved this by translating the sum of squares question into a “semidefinite program,” which is a type of problem that computers know how to handle. This in turn made it possible for researchers in fields like computer science and engineering to use the power of nonnegativity to guide their search for optimal ways of solving problems.

Anirudha Majumdar leads the Intelligent Robot Motion Lab at Princeton University.

Courtesy of Anirudha Majumdar/Quanta Magazine

But semidefinite programming has a big limitation: It is slow on large problems and can’t handle many of the most complicated polynomials researchers really care about. Semidefinite programming can be used to find a sum of squares decomposition for polynomials with a handful to about a dozen variables raised to powers no higher than about 6. The polynomials that characterize complex engineering problems—like how to ensure a humanoid robot stays on its feet—can involve 50 or more variables. A semidefinite program could chew on that kind of polynomial until the end of time and still not return a sum of squares answer.

In a paper posted online last June, Ahmadi and Majumdar explain a way to get around the slowness of semidefinite programming. Instead of trying to find a sum of squares decomposition by solving a single, slow semidefinite program, they show how to do it using a sequence of simpler problems that are much faster to compute.

These types of problems are called “linear programs,” and they were developed in the 1940s to answer optimization problems related to the war effort. Linear programs are now well understood and quick to solve. In their new work, Ahmadi and Majumdar show that you can solve many linked linear programs (or, in some cases, another kind of problem known as a second-order cone program) and combine the results to get an answer that’s almost as good as the answer you could get with a semidefinite program. The upshot is that engineers have a new, practical tool that they can use to test for nonnegativity and find sum of squares decompositions quickly.

“We looked at a number of problems from robotics and control theory and demonstrated that the quality of solution we were getting was still useful in practice and much quicker to compute,” said Majumdar.

Proof of Safety

Speed of solution means everything when you’re in a self-driving car. And in that situation, a polynomial can serve as a kind of mathematical barrier around obstacles you don’t want to hit—if you can find it fast enough.

Imagine a simple example: a self-driving car in a giant parking lot. There’s nothing in the lot except for a guard booth at the far end. Your goal is to program the car so that it will never drive into the booth.

In this case, you’d start by putting a coordinate grid on the lot. Now make a polynomial that takes points on the grid as inputs. Make sure that the value of the polynomial at the location of your car is negative, and the value at the location of the guard booth is positive.

At some set of points between your car and the booth, the polynomial will cross over from negative to positive. Since your car is allowed to be on points only where the polynomial is negative, these points form something like a wall.

“If I start in a certain location, I’m not going to cross to the other side of the line where the obstacle is. This gives you a formal proof of safety for collision avoidance,” said Ahmadi.

Now, it’s no good if this wall is midway between the car and the booth. You want to craft your polynomial so that the wall hugs the obstacle as closely as possible. This fences off the guard booth while giving the car plenty of space to move around.

In practice, you want to minimize a value—the distance between the wall and the booth—and so you shift the graph of the polynomial around to see how far you can push it before it ceases to be nonnegative. And you’re probing that line by testing whether the shifted polynomial remains a sum of squares.

A near-empty parking lot is one thing. But in realistic driving scenarios, a car’s sensors continually identify new and shifting obstacles—cars, bikes, kids. Every time a new obstacle appears, or an existing one moves, the car has to come up with elaborate new polynomials to fence them off. That’s a lot of sum of squares checks to do on the fly.

Seven years ago a different pair of researchers imagined that it might be possible to use such polynomial techniques to segregate autonomous cars from places they shouldn’t go. But at the time, computational speed made the idea a pipe dream.

Ahmadi and Majumdar’s new approach provides a way for carrying out such rapid-fire calculations. So, if and when self-driving cars are able to navigate the world safely, we’ll have Google and Tesla to thank—and also David Hilbert.

Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.

EU privacy law heralds new era in online data protection

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – New European privacy regulations that go into effect on Friday will force companies to be more attentive to how they handle customer data, while bringing consumers both new ways to control their data and tougher enforcement of existing privacy rights.

The European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) replaces the bloc’s patchwork of rules dating back to 1995 and heralds an era where breaking privacy laws can fetch fines of up to 4 percent of global revenue or 20 million euros ($23.48 million), whichever is higher, as opposed to a few hundred thousand euros.

Many privacy advocates around the world have hailed the new law as a model for personal data protection in the internet era and called on other countries to follow the European model.

Critics, though, say the new rules are overly burdensome, especially for small businesses, while advertisers and publishers worry it will make it harder for them to find customers.

The GDPR clarifies and strengthens existing individual privacy rights, such as the right to have one’s data erased and the right to ask a company for a copy of one’s data.

But it also includes entirely new mandates, such as the right to transfer one’s data from one service provider to another and the right to restrict companies from using personal data.

    “If you compare the GDPR with the data protection directive you can really compare it with a piece of software upgrading from 1.0 to 2.0,” said Patrick Van Eecke, partner at law firm

DLA Piper.

“It’s a gradual and not a revolutionary kind of thing … However for many companies it was a huge wakeup call because they never did their homework. They never took the data

protection directive seriously.”

Activists are already planning to leverage the right to access one’s data to turn the tables on large internet platforms whose business model relies on processing people’s personal information.

That means companies are having to put in place processes for dealing with such requests and educating their workforce because any non-compliance could lead to stiff sanctions.

    Studies suggest that many companies are not ready for the new rules.

The International Association of Privacy Professionals found that only 40 percent of companies affected by the GDPR expected to be fully compliant by May 25.


    It is unclear how many provisions of GDPR will be interpreted and enforced. A patchwork of European regulatory authorities, many of whom say they are under-funded, will oversee the new law, with a central body to resolve conflicts.

FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of laptop and mobile device users are seen next to a screen projection of Google logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

One key provision of GDPR, the right to data portability, is causing particular confusion.

Lawyers and experts say it is not clear how far the right for individuals to move their data from one service provider to another will stretch.

“I think the data portability rights are pretty significant and are going to take a while for people to figure out what the bounds of them are and how to go about complying with them,” said David Hoffman, Director of Security Policy and Global Privacy Officer at Intel.

For example, music streaming services like Spotify create playlists for users based on their music preferences. While a user seeking to exercise the data portability right would be able to move playlists he or she created, the situation becomes fuzzy if the playlists are created by the streaming service

using algorithms.

EU data protection authorities said individuals should be able to transfer data provided by them but not “derived data” created by the service provider such as algorithmic results.

Tanguy Van Overstraeten of Linklaters said the data portability right could raise issues of intellectual property.

“It’s not obvious that you can necessarily migrate the data from your system to somebody else’s system,” he said.


    On the business side, companies are rushing to renegotiate contracts with suppliers and service providers because GDPR increases their liability if something goes wrong.

Under the current rules it is generally the company that determines the purposes of data collection that is directly liable for any breaches.

    GDPR changes that, and data processors which only process or store the data on behalf of their clients, for example cloud computing providers, will be directly liable for sanctions and could face lawsuits from individuals, and that needs to be reflected in contracts.

    Companies can have hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of agreements which need to be revisited to ensure they comply

with GDPR.

FILE PHOTO: A 3D-printed Facebook logo is seen in front of the logo of the European Union in this picture illustration made in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina on May 15, 2015. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

    “After 20 years of data protection legislation in place, it’s only now with the GDPR they (companies) start to think about ‘what’s my role in the whole story? Am I a data controller or data processor?’” Van Eecke said.

($1 = 0.8519 euros)

Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg

Programming As Art: How Blockchain Can Help Artists (And Save Art)

Can blockchain save art?

Last month I spent a week in Moscow where I spoke at the Skolkova Robotics Forum on Smart Matter: 4 Things That Are Making Every “Thing” Smart. While there, I happened to visit a very unique gallery in the heart of Russia’s top cybernetics institute, the National University of Science and Technology, or MISiS.

There, I met Anna Karganova, the director of the Russian Abstract Art Foundation, and Olga Uskova, its president. (Olga is also a scientist, CEO, and self driving car technologist.)

After viewing some of the art, our conversation surprisingly turned to blockchain.

To put it mildly, that’s not what I expected from an art historian.

But as the conversation developed, it became clear that artists and curators are looking to blockchain as a possible solution to three problems in art. Provenance, or where an artwork came from, is always a challenge. Fraud will be an issue as long as people are paying millions of dollars for famous paintings. And knowledge about the art is something that curators are always hoping to share.

Here’s a summary of our conversation:

Koetsier: How can blockchain help artists and the art world? 

Karganova: In the future, within just 5-7 years, blockchain technology will significantly increase the safety level for all participants of the art process. There are issues that blockchain can already solve now and some issues for which the technology still needs to “grow up.”

For us collectors, the most attractive and important thing this technology can give is the potential transparency of all the processes. In the open decentralized database which we can already build with the use of blockchain, we can store information and learn about the origin of the artwork … we can get info [such as] who’s the owner of it and who owns the copyrights. This technology also makes it possible to monitor all the transactions with the particular piece of art and maintain the provenance (exhibitions participation, publications in the catalogs, etc.).

If we have such a database, all the painters and their heirs will be able to track all the movements and relocations of their artworks. This will protect them from illegal sales and situations when after the exhibition the works are not returned to the owners for long time. It’s worth mentioning that the technology will be really useful and important for acceptance of artist’s resale royalties. So in long term perspective, painters and collectors will be more willing to participate and give their works for various temporary exhibitions.

The most interesting feature that can be developed with the help of blockchain technology is the possibility to purchase a piece/a share of an artwork. But for this one – the necessary legislative base is not yet available in the world. 

Uskova: In this regard, in my opinion, we can implement such an advanced thing as a special cryptocurrency that will be used to evaluate artworks. Accumulation of the art’s capital/net worth can depend exclusively on demand: for example – on the total number of views or on the number of acquisitions.

Koetsier: Where would it be the most useful? 

Karganova: First of all, blockchain technology can significantly help us increase and control circulation of the artworks. If we link all the originals to a single open database – this will ensure the number of copies of the paintings/photos/videos is fixed and guaranteed. In general, for all the new multimedia in art – blockchain is a perfect breakthrough system. And it will be especially interesting for those potential buyers who are attracted by innovations and high-tech in arts, but who are often stopped from a real purchase because of the particular insecurity of the art segment.

Koetsier: Honestly, I was really shocked to hear you talk about blockchain. Maybe I had an internal prejudice … art is creative, and blockchain is technology. How did you get interested in technology? 

Karganova: Art and Technology have been linked for a long time already and we just can’t ignore this fact. Some time ago there were doubts about online auctions, but now this method of bidding has successfully and organically merged into the art environment that is historically quite conservative.

The convergence of arts and technology is a process that comes from several directions.

Artists who work with audiovisual and VR technologies often build their works on the basis of rethinking classic art and ideas embedded in it. More and more traditional museums include media artworks in their expositions. And of course all museums are trying to make their expositions digital to store them in worldwide web. One of the important reasons for this is the necessity to attract young audience. There are steps towards art from the developers of artificial intelligence too. 

Uskova: Blockchain is a technology that is based on a new revolutionary ideology. For the artist it’s not only about the safety of the artworks’ storage and an easy access to virtual galleries, but it is an opportunity and a tool for creation of a new type of digital art. For example it may be an object that consists of many decentered, infinitely embedded worlds that are linked to and united by a single idea.

In the collection of our foundation we have works of a unique artist, Vladislav Zubarev. Back in 1977, when the world hadn’t yet suspected the existence of String Theory and before the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle, Zubarev introduced to the contemporary art world his Concept of Temporality.

He said that in a current time, with its dynamics and pace of change, it’s impossible to be a truly modern creator without putting time into a single coordinate system. He began to draw in four dimensions and his paintings got really magical dynamics, secrets of which are still not solved up to date by experts from around the Globe. Zubarev’s Theory of Temporal Art (1977) included so many correct guesses about the nature of space and time that in 2000s delegations of physicists visited him trying to understand how could an artist in the 1970s visualize what has later been discovered in 2000s.

So this is what can happen with blockchain technology too. Decentralized blockchain is a system of the different connected worlds of ever-changing information … a great basis for art objects of a new type.

Koetsier: How big an issue is fraud in the art world? Any idea of the scope of the problem?

Uskova: The problem of buying fakes is not that big at the moment as it was 10-15 years ago. There are several explanations for this.

Firstly, buyers’ interest has shifted towards the post-WWII and contemporary art, where there are a lot of options to track the origin of the artwork and its provenance. Secondly, methods of technological analysis have really improved. As for those who prefer to buy antique and classic art – these people do this for many years already and they are experts themselves. It’s more correct to call them not collectors but connoisseurs. 

For Russian art, the most frequently falsified period is Russian avant garde of the beginning of the 20th century. It may now seem to everyone that the most famous fraud cases are left in 2000s, but nearly several months ago the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent was involved in one huge scandal. Russian and international experts doubted the authenticity of some avant garde paintings from one private collection on show in the museum. This led to a large-scale investigation and early closure of the exhibition. It turned out that the provenance of paintings was unclear and consisted of different fake legends, and even the mentioned publications in exhibition catalogs were forged. 

So what should we prepare for? I think that in a short term perspective the art of the middle 20th century will be in focus of fake makers. In Russian Abstract Art Foundation we have already started creating the database of samples for our artists and completing the catalogues raisonnés for internal use. 

Koetsier: Defending against fraud is one thing blockchain can help the art world with. Anything else?

Karganova: Before buying an artwork, you should check as many details and facts as possible.  

There are two main types of expertise: technological research and the one provided by art historians. Technological expertise studies pigments & binders and defines whether the painting fits the period that is claimed. But this type of study doesn’t prove or identify the artwork’s authorship. To confirm or to disprove the authorship, during the technological expertise, experts take X-rays. This study case helps to see the structure of the painting and compare it to the museum samples. In some cases ultraviolet light may be implemented. It identifies the signatures applied over the old varnish and shows the preparatory drawings that are individual for each artist.

If we talk about the expertise by art historians, they usually do some kind of a scholarly research. If you are about to close a deal, it makes sense to ask for an opinion of several experts, and better from different countries. Usually for a certain time period or an author – there is a limited number of experts. If two or three experts say that the work is genuine, then in the case of suspicion there will be no one to make an objection. The given certificates themselves should also be checked for authenticity. Nowadays to do that, specialists from auction houses ask the organization, that provided the expertise, to confirm has it issued the submitted papers or not.

All these processes are very time-consuming. And just imagine if all the data could be uploaded to one open database! 

A clear provenance is a very strong reason to buy an artwork. The ideal and rare situation is when the whole history of the artwork can be traced from the artist’s studio to all the exhibitions and all owners. If any time periods are missing – then the provenance research is required.

Koetsier: Anything else that I’m missing?

Uskova: Nowadays we can witness just the beginning of the blockchain technology formation process; it is now still on the early stage. But the first deals begin to appear. There are still very few of them, but they set a precedent and allow us to identify all the possible downsides and limitations.

I think that the attractiveness of blockchain will grow with the generation that develops it. The great role of the current art world is played by people who are used to some certain rules and entourage. Pre-auction exhibitions, electrified atmosphere in the auction houses, discoveries of various unexpected data, positive art experts’ feedback – all of these provides emotions that are so important to the collectors of the old formation. This emotional experience, that is integral from the process of artwork purchase, is one of the most important parts of arts collecting. When people for whom speed and results are more important will get the necessary resources — then the introduction of the blockchain will no longer be an issue.

But now, when mathematicians and software developers work with AI projects, they also can no longer work without Contemporary Art. For example the Cognitive Pilot project team, that is now developing neural networks for self-driving cars, has recently moved to a new level – developers are now creating emotions for artificial intelligence.

This kind of work requires a fundamentally different approach: not mathematics, but arts … in order to understand and project emotions. So in order to understand different emotions, neural networks specialists participate in master classes about Arts that are conducted by the unique method of Ely Belyutin.

Modern programming is a form of a modern art. It has ceased to be a purely logical apparatus. With the advent of heuristic methods of programming and the creation of AI-objects, software products have a new theme of emotion that is so inherent to contemporary art.

Koetsier: Thank you for your time!

The 1 Troubling Aspect of Elon Musk Raging at the Media

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

Elon Musk is unhappy.

I know this because I follow him on Twitter and his tweets today are coursing with something that looks like rage.

Tesla’s CEO seems to believe that the media are writing unfairly about his cars, including the Model 3. 

Oh, this doesn’t bother me so much.

As it happens, friends of mine bought a Model 3 recently. They love it, save for the first five minutes of embarrassment when they realized they’d never test-driven it and had no idea how to switch it on.

Still, some members of the media are concerned, for example, that the thing Tesla calls Autopilot isn’t really an autopilot and lulls drivers into a false sense of auto-relaxation which might lead to auto-mishap.

Musk, though, thinks the media auto-overplays accidents involving his cars.

This has now led him toward threatening to create a site that examines journalists’ truthiness.

Yes, Pravda already exists, but I doubt it will sue. I fear, though, a Russian person in a bedroom somewhere might get upset and, well, you know, start messing with Teslas from afar.

But this isn’t what bothers me either.

Nor is it even his accusation that because Tesla doesn’t do paid advertising — in the conventional sense — it’s likely to get poor media coverage when compared to, say, conventional car companies that advertise seemingly all the time, everywhere, until they really do sound like the car dealers so many try to avoid.

This does seems strange. Tesla really doesn’t have to advertise because Musk and the fascinating nature of cars garner so much free publicity.

I can think of few business or tech personas who receive more favorable fawning that does Musk. And sometimes, with good reason.

He’s engaging, forward-looking, even occasionally witty.

The fact that he’s suddenly railing against his fawners still doesn’t bother me too much.

No, what bothers me is the logic in another of Musk’s Wednesday tweets, the one that represents the core of his ire.

In it, Musk bristles about being compared with a certain president who’s not fond of being subject to negative media appraisal.

My eyebrows did commit a strange shivering motion here.

You see, if no one believes the media anymore, why should Musk worry about what the media writes?

And, well, there you have it. Just a bit of auto-suggestion.

A Copycat Strategy Might Work in the Short Term–but You'll Ruin Any Chance at Long-Term Success

Many entrepreneurs have wondered if they can build sustainable companies on the back of a copycat strategy.

After all, management professor Amar Bhide claims 85 percent of businesses around the world are inspired by ideas formulated by others. Fortunately, innovation doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel. It means finding better ways to make the wheel, get the wheel to customers and improve its performance.

When my co-founders and I first began researching the mattress industry, we were alarmed by the lack of transparency sellers and stores offered shoppers. Opaque terminology often confused consumers and commission-driven salespeople were incentivized to push more expensive products.

In the past, mattress companies took advantage of uninformed shoppers to turn a profit. Rather than copy their business model, we “innovated.” By producing articles, buyer’s guides and other content, we educated our customers about what goes into different types of mattresses and how they can choose one that supports their unique sleep needs.

As a result, we’ve turned that consumer trust into customer loyalty. So, while traditional mattress brands are closing hundreds of their stores, our business has multiplied its sales year-over-year.

For more than a decade, my team and I have been innovating our brand and products. Here are a few valuable lessons we’ve learned:

Build a culture of innovation.

Great companies are built upon cultures of innovation. Their employees thrive in an environment that rewards creativity and vision.

When you craft a culture of innovation in your organization, you’ll empower your team members to achieve things that wouldn’t be possible under the umbrella of a copycat strategy. Company culture trickles down from the top.

When your directors, managers and entry-level staff members witness their leadership team commit to a strategy of innovation, they too will follow suit. That will have a lasting impact on your organization long-term.

The primacy of the value proposition.

Your business is the sum of hundreds of different actions, people and experiences. It’s a combination of branding, products, prices, customer interactions, and big-picture strategy. All of these things help shape your value proposition, which determines whether or not a customer chooses to buy from you.

Remember to establish a value proposition that’s unique and true to your product and brand. Otherwise, you risk being perceived as inauthentic. Avoid mimicking a competitor’s value proposition too. Copycat strategies lead to you trying to outsell your competition based on their value proposition, and it’s a futile effort.

Don’t play catch-up, get out in front and lead.

Your company might be able to survive for a while by adopting a copycat strategy, but it will never be able to dominate its industry. Indeed, it may seem like an effective and rational plan to copy the market leader since you can let your competitor spend resources on research and development, market testing, product refinement, and so on. Then, your business executes every step of their playbook.

However, this kind of thinking will lead to you always playing catch-up. As soon as you’re able to refine a product and process that enables you to compete, the other company might have moved on to something completely different. You’ll be stuck sitting around and waiting for them to show you where to go next.

Don’t be dependent on your competition to illuminate the path forward. Consistently engage your customers, discover how you can drive additional value for them through the relationship and free your own path.

Although it can take months or years to come up with a product or process that is truly innovative, it is a worthwhile pursuit. Rather than settle for a copycat strategy, you should strive to build something your competitors will want to imitate.

Microsoft, Google find fresh flaw in chips, but risk is low

(Reuters) – Cyber security researchers have found a new security flaw that affects a broad swath of modern computing chips and is related to the Spectre and Meltdown chip flaws that emerged in January.

Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Microsoft logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

The newest chip problem, known as Speculative Store Bypass or “Variant 4” because it’s in the same family as the original group of flaws, was disclosed by security researchers at Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O) and Alphabet Inc’s (GOOGL.O) Google on Monday. Though the flaw affects many chips from Intel Corp(INTC.O), Advanced Micro Devices Inc (AMD.O) and Softbank Group’s (9984.T) ARM Holdings, researchers described the risks as low, partly because of web browser patches already issued earlier this year to address Spectre.

The Meltdown and Spectre flaws, which emerged in January, can allow passwords and other sensitive data on chips to be read. The flaws result from the way computers try to guess what users are likely to do next, a process called speculative execution.

FILE PHOTO: The Google logo is pictured atop an office building in Irvine, California, U.S., August 7, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

When the flaws emerged in January, researchers warned that they were likely to find new variants of Spectre in the future. Earlier this month, German computer science magazine c’t reported that a “next generation” of flaws had been found in Intel’s chips and was likely to be disclosed this month. Intel declined to comment on whether Monday’s announcement was related to the German magazine’s story.

In its research findings, Microsoft said that patches issued for common web browsers earlier this year greatly increased the difficulty of carrying out an attack with the newly discovered flaw.

Chips from Intel, AMD and ARM all have patches available, either directly from the makers or through software suppliers such as Microsoft. Intel said it expects a performance slowdown of between 2 percent and 8 percent from the patches, and ARM said it expects a slowdown of between 1 percent and 2 percent.

However, Intel said that because of the low risk of a real-world attack, it would ship its patches turned off by default, giving users the choice whether to turn them on. AMD also advised leaving the patches turned off due to the difficulty of carrying out an attack.

The security problems do not appear to have impacted chipmakers’ stock prices. Intel shares are up nearly 16 percent to since the start of the year to $54.32, and AMD shares are up 18.3 percent to $12.99 since the start of the year.

Reporting by Stephen Nellis; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

Using Tinder Doesn’t Lead to More Casual Sex, a New Study Says

A new study has found that Tinder and other picture-based dating apps don’t increase users’ success in pursuing casual romantic connections. That’s not because the app doesn’t work, but because people inclined to have casual sex do so at similar rates whether they’re using an app, or more old-fashioned methods.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and highlighted by Scienceblog.com, was based on a survey of over 600 young Norwegian students—so its findings can’t necessarily be globally generalized.

But they make intuitive sense. According to the researchers, rates of casual sexual activity are determined by an individual’s level of “sociosexual orientation,” or openness to sex outside of a serious relationship. That personality trait was far more determining of their level of sexual activity than whether or not they used dating apps. In other words, those looking for flings will find them online just as easily as at the grocery store or park.

Get Data Sheet, Fortune’s technology newsletter.

Tinder got its reputation as a “hookup app” quickly after its 2012 release. That was largely thanks to its focus on user portraits in place of the detailed personal profiles used on sites like Match.com or OkCupid, and the decisive “swipe” mechanism that let users rapidly filter dozens or hundreds of prospective dates. One writer notoriously slammed the app as a sign of a “dating apocalypse” and the end of romance.

If Tinder really were about nothing but detached sex with almost-strangers, the new study would be a turnoff for the entire userbase—they might as well go outside. But it was already increasingly clear that no-strings sex isn’t what all—or even most—Tinder users are looking for.

For some—particularly women—Tinder has long been at least as much a source of entertainment as a serious way to look for romantic partners. The new study affirmed that women spent more time on dating apps, but were more discerning about swiping right. Women also used the app to boost their own self-esteem. Men were, not too surprisingly, more focused on pursuing (short-term) connections.

Which, if it doesn’t make easier, Tinder does at least make more convenient.

This Southwest Passenger Found a 21-Hour Itinerary With 5 Stops From BOS to SFO. Here's Why He Took It Anyway

Software developer Rafael Mendiola says he was doing a research project for work when he found an insane Southwest Airlines itinerary online: five stops, with an early morning departure out of Boston and a very late arrival 21 hours later in San Francisco. 

It was utterly crazy–especially considering you could do the same trip nonstop in under seven hours (and for less money).

“Wouldn’t it be funny if somebody actually took that flight?” joked Mendiola, who works for business travel management system Lola. “And I immediately ‘got volunteered’ to do it.”

From Kayak to Lola

I talked recently with Mendiola and his boss, Paul English, who started Lola and who was previously the CTO and a cofounder at Kayak (and who, last time I checked in with him, was driving an Uber in Boston).

The idea for the research and Mendiola’s crazy trip had been to study the customer experience at more established services, like Concur. English contends they can swamp business users with irrelevant options, focusing on price above all else.

“We think at Lola that important to show every possible option, but we don’t steer you toward taking the cheapest option. From Boston to San Francisco for example there are so many non-stops. … We thought it was ludicrous that Concur shows these itineraries, with no concern for comfort–just cost,” English said.

21 hours on Southwest

As for having Mendiola actually take the 21-hour trip, it sounded to me like a marketing stunt–one that worked, I acknowledge, since I’m writing this article).

Although English insisted, “it wasn’t really a marketing thing,” so let’s call it research, or a joke–or even just a way to haze a (perfectly willing) software engineer. Regardless, here’s what it was like actually to book this insane, 21-hour itinerary, and then actually take the trip on purpose last October.

  • Mendiola and his girlfriend left home at about 4 a.m. for Logan Airport, where they took Southwest flight 3219 to Denver, departing at 6:35 a.m.
  • In Denver, they had a one-hour layover before taking the exact same plane, still flight 3219, to San Antonio.
  • After a 2 hour and 15 minute layover in San Antonio, they flew to New Orleans on flight 1719.
  • Thirty minutes later, they took the same plane (still flight 1719) to Phoenix.
  • Another 40 minutes on the ground, and they took the same plane yet another time (once again, flight 1719) to Las Vegas.
  • Finally, after another 35 minutes on the ground, they boarded flight 1719 one last time, for San Francisco, arriving at 11:25 p.m. local time, 21 hours after their departure.

“We got to know the flight attendants very well. They were very nice,” Mendiola said. “We told one of them what we were doing, and she said, ‘Oh bless your heart.'”

A feature, not a bug

Upon arrival in San Francisco, Mendiola said they went straight to sleep. The next day he and his girlfriend got massages as a reward for their rough trip.

Hopefully he got an even bigger reward at Lola when he returned. The Boston-based company raised a Series B round last year and has 50 employees.

By the way, I asked Southwest Airlines about Mendiola’s itinerary. They airline didn’t seem surprised that the 21-hour trip had had shown up as an option. In fact, they appeared to view this kind of intinerary as a feature, not a bug.

“When we switched over to our new reservation system last year, we were able to institute something we refer to as ‘Dynamic Connections,'” spokesperson Dan Landson told me in an email. “This allows customers to see all travel options between the cities they are traveling between. It also gives them the ultimate flexibility to choose which routing, time, and price point that meets their travel needs.”

So if you ever choose to spend 21 hours flying when five and a half would do it, you know where to find your flight.

'Hero' United Airlines Passenger: I Almost Didn't Take That Flight

You might have seen the name Chase Irwin. He’s a Nashville restaurant manager who became a little bit Internet famous and was hailed as a hero recently, after he aggressively called out a fellow passenger on United Airlines for “body shaming” a third passenger in a text message.

The whole episode never would have happened, Irwin told me, but for a ridiculously big change fee on another airline.

He’d had been in Oklahoma City for a graduation, and his ride to the airport got him there 12 hours before his scheduled departure. Switching to an earlier flight on Delta would have cost him $900, he said. So he scrapped that and bought a ticket on United Airlines instead.

That’s what landed him in seat 15C of a United flight to Chicago, for the first leg of his trip, which had a 30 minute delay. As they sat on the tarmac, he said had a clear view of the cell phone the male passenger diagonally ahead of him, in 14B, was texting on. 

“The guy had his phone out far from his face. The font size was really big. And I saw the words, ‘sitting next to a smelly fatty,'” Irwin said. 

Then, Irwin said, he saw that the woman in 14A was crying, and looked like she was trying hard to push against the window away from the man. Irwin leaned forward and read the rest of the man’s message. 

He grew incensed. Over the next few minutes he talked with two flight attendants, and worked out a plan with them to convince the man to change seats with Irwin, so that the woman wouldn’t have to sit next to him.

Irwin, 34, who is about six feet tall and 200 pounds, told me he stood up and grabbed the shoulder of the passenger who’d been texting, who was about 5-foot-6 and “160 or 170,” and seemed to be in his 50s or 60s.

“You’re a heartless person,” Irwin remembered saying, and ordered him to switch seats. “I wasn’t quiet. I wanted people around him to see he was a jackass.”

The other passenger actually said “thank you,” perhaps not understanding the context, and Irwin said he sat next to the woman and tried to take her mind off the offensive message (which she had in fact read) for the rest of the flight. 

Based on Irwin’s account alone, it might be a bit hard to know what to make of this whole thing. The unidentified texter was impolite, but he did seem to be sending a private message. 

Meantime, Irwin used his size to act aggressively against another passenger on an airliner, with the apparent assent of the flight crew. 

However, the story only came to light because the woman passenger, Savannah Phillips, posted about it publicly afterward on Facebook—-as a way to try to find Irwin and thank him for what he’d done. That post went viral (more than 1,500 shares  so far), and commenters almost unanimously praised Irwin for his actions.

“The flight attendant kept trying to give him free drinks and told him that he was her hero,” Phillips wrote. “He wasn’t her hero–he was mine. …  I told him that he was a blessing sent to me and how thankful I was that he was there.”

By the time his connecting flight landed in Nashville, Irwin, who is general manager of a bar there called Dierks Whiskey Row, said his company’s corporate office in Arizona had seen her post and had contacted him. He and Phillips reconnected within hours.  

United Airlines told Newsweek, which reported on the whole incident: “We appreciate the efforts of the customer and would like to hear from Ms. Phillips to understand what occurred.”

Next Page »