Sunday, November 27, 2011

Online shopping at work

The holiday season began with the best Black Friday online sales ever, $816 million up by 26 percent compared to last year. Going by the trend sales on Cyber Monday, the big day in online shopping, look promising as well. According to comScore, last year Cyber Monday sales were the biggest and raked in over $1 billion.

Unfortunately as the name suggests it happens to be on a Monday when people are at work. That means in order to grab one of those online deals you have the difficult task of maintaining the "work-shop" balance.

According to Careerbuilder survey, 50 percent of American workers plan to spend time holiday shopping online at work this season – on par with 52 percent last year. Of these workers, 34 percent will spend one hour or more shopping (up from 27 percent in 2010) and 16 percent will spend two or more hours (up from 13 percent in 2010). Employers do notice this and 7 percent of human resource managers surveyed have fired an employee for holiday shopping.

In another survey organized by Robert Half Technology, 60 percent of the 1400 CIOs interviewed from companies across US having more than 100 employees said their companies block access to online shopping sites. This percentage is up from 48 percent in 2010. 23 percent plan to monitor employee activity for excessive non-work related use. The CIOs whose firms allow online shopping said they expect employees to spend four hours per week, on average, surfing for deals this holiday season. For the ones who think otherwise here is an interesting study by National University of Singapore researchers that claims browsing the Internet serves an important restorative function and enhances workers productivity.

Interesting consequence of this at work limitation would be more sales using mobile devices. According to IBM, this year Black Friday mobile deal seeker traffic increased to 14.3 percent compared to 5.6 percent the previous year. Apple devices accounted for 10.2 percent of this traffic (iPhone 5.4 percent and iPad 4.8 percent), Android came in third at 4.1 percent.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Return Fraud in the Retail Industry

Analysts are predicting a good year for retail sales, already we saw a good kick off to the Black Friday with retailers opening stores early thereby increasing sales.

We all know after a big sales day we immediately see a lot of people in the returns line. According to National Retail Federation (NRF) annual return fraud survey of 103 retailers, this year customer returns in the retail industry will see $217 billions in return, a jump of 15% compared to last year. Out of this $46.28 billion of it will be the holiday merchandise returns. This amounts to 8.92% average sales return and 9.94% average holiday sales return.

So how much of its fraud? NRF estimates retailers will lose an estimated $3.48 billion to return fraud this holiday season, down from $3.73 billion last year. Annual return fraud will cost retailers an estimated $14.37 billion in 2011, up slightly from $13.66 billion in 2010.

What constitutes a fraud and what's the impact on retailers? Return of stolen merchandise and employee return fraud or collusion with external sources affect 89.1% of the retailers. Return of merchandise purchased on fraudulent or stolen tender comes next with 81.2%. Wardrobing, that is, the return of used, non-defective merchandise like special occasion apparel and certain electronics affects 61.2% of retailers while 38.6% retailers have found criminals using counterfeit receipts to return merchandise.

So how are retailers countering return fraud? Most retailers as you may have experienced when making returns require identification. The survey found significantly less fraudulent returns when a receipt is present 2.89% as compared to 14.02% without a receipt. Therefore 62.1% of retailers now require customers returning items without a receipt to show identification while only 10.7% of retailers require customers making returns with a receipt to show identification.

Retailers have to walk a fine line when preventing return fraud as this could be perceived by customers as a hassle in their overall shopping experience. Companies have often used "hassle-free" returns as a competitive differentiator so ability to have more flexible and lenient return policy while reducing fraud is critical.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Apple's Black Friday Sales Event

Apple announced their one day shopping event on Black Friday. Definitely anything that Apple does draws a lot of attention so wanted to see how good these deals were compared to other stores.

First up is one of the most desired products of the holiday season - iPad 2. The discounts ranged from $41 on 16 GB model to $61 on 64 GB model. Local Micro Center store was selling them for a $50 discount on all models before the Black Friday and the sale goes on until Dec 4th. Best Buy is selling at a $45 discount and the prices are valid until at least Nov 26th. So unless you are planning to buy a 64 GB model Apple deal is no deal.

Another popular device is the iPod Touch which had discounts ranging from $21 on the 8 GB model to $41 on the 64 GB model. Best Buy is also selling at $21 discount. So again unless you plan to buy the higher end model there is no saving.

The Apple iPod Nano had a $11 discount. Best Buy is selling at $5 discount, in addition they are offering a free $15 Best Buy gift card.

As for the the MacBooks Apple had a discount of $101. Again a quick check with Best Buy online showed a discount of $150 for the MacBook Air 11in 64GB model. Similarly the MacBook Pro had a $150 discount at Best Buy. Best Buy would be the choice compared to Apple.

Apple is offering discounts for accessories as well but I didn't research those. From the little I researched I think the Apple event fell short of its hype. The deals are very similar to what Apple offered a year before.

Here's a deal that seemed really exciting, the Sifteo Cubes Thanksgiving offer. The Sifteo pack containing 3 cubes sells for $149 and additional cubes sell for $45 each. As part of the Thanksgiving offer which is valid until November 28th buying a Sifteo Pack will get you a Sifteo Cube for free. The product was recently named the winner of the 2011 Best of What's New award by Popular Science Magazine.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tracing our roots

Tracing our roots is a topic that interests almost everyone. Who were our earliest ancestors? Where did they come from? All these are fascinating questions that most of us would definitely be interested in knowing answers to.

A step in this direction is the Genographic Project, combined work of National Geographic and IBM. The project started in 2005 as a five-year project however research work will continue through 2011. The project aims to collect and analyze DNA samples voluntarily contributed by hundreds of thousands of people including indigenous and traditional populations and the general public making it unique in terms of scale. The project aims to answer the age old question - Who are we and where did we come from? The research will be based on DNA as it contains key genetic markers that have remained relatively unaltered over hundreds of generations, thus making genetic histories reliable indicators of ancient migratory patterns.

The project is different from other related projects like Human Genome Diversity Project especially in terms of objectives, approach, and methodology. This is non-profit, non-medical research and non-political. All the information learned from the project will be released in the global public domain and no patents will be filed.

Even though complete analysis of the data collected during the study will take atleast a few years after its completion this year some interesting facts are already emerging. One such report was released earlier this month confirmed that African populations are the most diverse on Earth and the diversity of lineage outside Africa is part of the subcontinent. The study finds early humans migrated from Africa via the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait in Arabia into India and then heading north and into Eurasia, see the adjoining map.

One research studied the human remains found at one of the earliest farming sites in Germany inhabited 5500-5000 BC. The study revealed that the earliest farmers were populations from the Near East that migrated, rather than the early Stone Age hunters-gatherers who preexisted in that area.

Another research found that the Phoenicians who gave the world the alphabet and a love of the color purple left some people their genes as well, contrary to the belief that they completely vanished around 2nd century BC. The study found that as many as one in 17 men in the Mediterranean basin may have a Phoenician as a direct male-line ancestor.

More research findings can be tracked at the Genographics Project Updates page including the lineage of Charles Darwin, the man who wrote "Origin of Species".

Since the project has been using voluntarily obtained DNA samples from various people there is a Public Participation Kits that one can buy to participate. The identity will remain anonymous and one will be able to see the results online. The kit that is mailed includes two cheek scrapers and two vials as well as a self-addressed envelope to return your sample. The results of the genetic sample will be available in approximately 6 to 8 weeks upon the availability of your sample.

Black Friday - What's new?

Black Friday has been historically one of the most popular shopping days with people lining in numbers in front of the local stores hours before they open.

So what's different about the Black Friday this year? Here are a few things that have made news recently:
  • Stores are planning to open early, even as early as Thursday evening. Toys R Us store opens at 9:00 pm Thurday night followed by Walmart at 10:00 pm. Other retailers like Target, Macys, Kohl's and Best Buy all open at midnight. Close to 200,000 signatures were collected at to protest the early opening of Target store.
  • Occupy movement made famous by Occupy Wall Street is targeting a similar operation Occupy Black Friday to keep shoppers away from big box stores and other national retailers to help the local mom and pop stores. The tea party is organizing an anti-occupy movement.
  • Malls for the first time will be tracking cell phones to do some market research on customer behaviors. The tracking will be at the Promenade Temecula in southern California and Short Pump Town Center in Richmond, Va. and will last from Black Friday through New Year's day and will be done anonymously.
Also over the past 5 years more and more people are turning to online stores like Amazon and eBay. comScore in its holiday online spending report has forecasted an annual growth of 15% with online retail spending for the November – December period to reach $37.6 billion. Keeping this in mind here is a nice Infographic noting a few things that web users can do to better protect themselves from online scams.

Black Friday Cyber Monday Hacks and Scams
 Infographic by Veracode Application Security

Happy Thanksgiving and an enjoyable shopping!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

7 Billion and Counting

October 31st was an important milestone for our planet and our race, the human population crossed the 7 billion mark. National Geographic Magazine published a year long series of interesting articles covering the various aspects of world population. Here is the introductory video:

One of the most critical question that comes to the mind is whether our planet can sustain this population growth. Following article questions this obsession saying the real issue is how best we utilize the resources available on the planet.

Here is another interesting video from National Geographic Magazine showing that the world's most typical person is a 28 year old han chinese man. By 2030 this would be someone in India as it overtakes China in population.

Not surprisingly there were atleast a few babies from different countries that claimed the title of the 7 billionth baby - Danica May Camacho of the Philippines, Nargis Yadav of India and Muthumali of Sri Lanka to name a few.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Siri - The Witty Personal Assistant

Apple announced iPhone 4S recently. The highlight of the product is a new voice activated feature - Siri, the virtual personal assistant. I got my iPhone 4S yesterday in mail and spent sometime trying this new feature. Here are some screenshots from those witty conversations:

An interesting thing you may have observed is that Siri gives different answers for the same question. Only time will tell how game changing this feature will turn out for Apple but for me sure it was entertaining.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Stock market lately has been very volatile and the news around worsening unemployment numbers and consumer sentiment along with declining house prices have been hard to ignore. In the 3rd quarter of 2011 U.S. stocks markets experienced the worst quarterly loss of 14% for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index since the end of December 2008. Not all of these are US problems, bulk were the concerns surrounding the sovereign debt crisis in Europe and fears of a global slowdown.

Earlier this year, Mary Meeker, partner at KPCB and former financial analyst at Morgan Stanley, compiled the report "USA Inc" discussing USA's financial situation and outlook. The report analyzes United States Government as a public enterprise and analyzes its financial position by looking at the cash flow and net worth, its profits and liabilities.

The report presents a pretty grim picture of the current financial liabilities with the debt of 1.3 trillion dollars just in FY2010 and the net worth of negative 44 trillion. 76% of entitlement spending is directed towards medicare, medicaid and social security payments leaving very little for other essential programs. Between 1965 and 2010, entitlement spending went up by 11x whereas the GDP grew by 3x leading to higher debt levels. At current levels, the Congressional Budget Office estimates, entitlement spending and net interest payments combined will equal all of federal revenue by 2025.

The report not only highlights the key issues affecting the USA Inc. but also suggests some solutions. As the biggest concerns revolves around medicare and medicaid, reform is needed. Cut the benefits drastically, emphasize more on disease prevention by subsidizing healthy foods and introduce additional taxes on cigarettes, non-diet sodas. As for Social Security raise the retirement age maybe from 67 to 73, reduce the benefits by 12% or increase the Social Security tax rate by 2%. As far as the operating efficiency of government is concerned ideas laid out include reviewing of pension plans to match it to private corporations and reducing federal headcount by atleast 4%. Investments should be made in key sectors - technology, infrastructure and education to increase labor productivity. Reforms in taxes should be done including higher tax rates, carbon tax, worldwide corporate tax to discourage companies from keeping incomes offshore.

The report warns that doing nothing may no longer be viable for long term sustenance. Rising entitlement spending could eventually lead to higher borrowing costs for USA Inc as less investors will be inclined to lend money. This could also lead to USA Inc.’s currency to weaken significantly. USA Inc could learn lessons from other troubled organizations like GM which has now turned profitable to architect its turnaround.

Here is the complete video:

Friday, October 7, 2011

Apple iPhone 4S website down

At 8:20 am I was unable to complete the buy for Apple iPhone 4S at as I got the following error message:
On a related note I also observed that went down yesterday evening. Check out the interesting error page.

Update at 8:50 am I was able to buy the phone.

Apple shipped the device on October 11th. Tracking the order, it looks like the order originates in Shenzhen, China, see below

Finally got the device on October 14th as promised.

The setup was simple and only took 10 minutes, the phone worked very well. Impressive!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Twitter over capacity at 9:25 PM PST wasn't responding and was showing this rather interesting page instead:

The popular open source code hosting site shows the following error page:

The technology focused new publication site shows the following error page:

Let me know if you have any interesting ones from other popular sites.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Remembering Steve Jobs

The world today lost a visionary and innovator with the passing of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. "Steve’s brilliance, passion and energy were the source of countless innovations that enrich and improve all of our lives. The world is immeasurably better because of Steve," Apple board of directors said in a statement and I have to agree.

Steve was a very private person who rarely talked to media except during product launches. He had been facing health problems including pancreatic cancer and had to take several medical leave of absence. In his letter of resignation in August 2011 he wrote "I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple's CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come."

Here are some of the most memorable moments from his life.

Steve Jobs introduces the Macintosh in 1984.

Steve Jobs delivers the Stanford Commencement Speech in 2005.

Steve, you will be missed forever.

Apple iPhone 4S announcement

Apple iPhone 4S was released today finally after generating months of media buzz. While Apple and its new CEO Tim Cook touts it as one of the biggest iPhone release yet, its interesting to see what harm it has caused.
  • Saddened people's hearts by not releasing iPhone 5.
  • Tech news sites like CNET news, Mashable and Engadget were faltering with the heavy user traffic tuning for the live coverage.
  • Sprint tumbled after reports of its commitment to buy $20 billion worth of iPhone, stock reacted with a 10% decline.
  • Unhappy Apple shareholders, the stock was down by more than 4% after the announcement.
  • Embarrassed so many tech reporters on various news sites including WSJ, New York Times who got it completely wrong. Boy Genius Report even had leaked pictures of iPhone 5 cases.
  • Apple has made a joke of itself as the name of its new virtual assistant app Siri in Japanese sounds almost identical to 尻 (pronounced Shiri), a colloquial term for "buttocks".
Stacking the iPhone 4S to the rumors leading to the announcement:

RumoriPhone 4S
AppearanceWider, thinner, new home buttonNo
ProcessorDual core A5 chipDual core A5 chip
Maximum Storage64 GB model64 GB model
Network4G LTEHSPA+
Screen4-inch display3.5-inch display
Camera8 megapixel, 1080p video8 megapixel, 1080p video
CellularBoth GSM & CDMAWorld phone
Data SharingNear Field CommunicationNo
CarriersSprint in addition to AT&T, VerizonSprint in addition to AT&T, Verizon
ApplicationsPersonal assistantSiri - Personal Assistant

So looking at the table above it is clear that except the form factor, screen and the version, Apple seems to have gotten it closer to the rumors. Also iPhone 4S is more energy efficient than its predecessor while providing a faster dual core A5 processor as discussed here. Is it then because of the strong iPhone 5 rumor leading to the event that disappointed observers? Where will it leave Apple in its fight with Android? Only time will tell.

Please comment on how you feel about the announcement.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

War and peace

Watch as iPhone and Android fight and make peace produced by Swiss Broadcasting Corporation.

Don't worry, the video is rated PG and enacts scenes from famous movies like Braveheart, Dirty Dancing and Titanic.

Who can forget the famous YouTube video of iPhone 4 vs HTC Evo that came out right after the iPhone 4 release last year, this one uses some explicit language.

In couple of days the mobile war heats up with the release of iPhone 5. Read here for some of the rumors flying around.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Oops in the skies

Each one of us can remember a moment when we pressed the wrong button but how about when this person is a pilot and caused a mid air scare. On September 6 a Japanese co-pilot flying ANA airlines en route from Naha to Tokyo carrying 117 passengers pressed the wrong button while trying to let captain back in from the restroom. Instead of pressing the unlock button for the cockpit door he mistakenly pushed the rudder trim knob. This caused the plane to roll 131.7 degrees to the left leaving it almost belly up. The plane also plunged about 1900 meters from a height of about 12500 meters in a mere 30 seconds as its nose pointed down 35 degrees. Luckily no one was seriously injured as the plane later landed in Tokyo safely. You can read about it more here.

Mid air scare by pilots is nothing new. In 2009 an Air India flight en route from Sharjah to New Delhi had the cockpit unmanned as the captain and co-pilot had a fist fight with two members of the cabin crew. The mid air scuffle happened in clear view of the passengers as the plane flew over Pakistan air. The crew settled after a while as if nothing happened and the plane landed safely with 117 passengers. You can read the whole story here.

Then there was the 2009 case of the two Northwest pilots who overshot the intended destination by more than 150 miles. The plane was flying from San Diego to Minneapolis carrying 144 passengers. The pilots told the investigators later that they were busy with their personal laptops in addition to distractions in the form of bathroom break and chat with flight attendant, all this while the air traffic controllers were frantically trying to reach them for more than an hour and the plane flying on autopilot at 37000 feet. You can read more about it here.

Don't worry as these incidents happen rarely. Remember there are also the brave pilots like Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who successfully landed US Airways plane carrying 155 people in the Hudson River after its engines failed.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Bay Area Traffic

Commuting for work in bay area is tough during peak office hours, freeways like 101, 880 can test anybody's patience. I commute to work everyday driving for about 25 miles each way, drive times can range anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour depending on the time of day.

I know by personal experience that it did feel a little easy driving in 2008 and 2009 during the peak of subprime mortgage crisis. This would suggest unemployment rate inversely affects the traffic congestion, higher unemployment and less people have a workplace to commute to.

To validate this lets look at the traffic congestion trend for the last 20 years (1990-2009) and the unemployment trend during the same period.

Using the traffic congestion data available at the Urban Mobility Information at Texas Transportation Institute, I plotted two measures - Travel Time Index and Annual Delay per Auto Commuter. Travel Time Index is the ratio of travel time in the peak period to travel time in free-flow. A value of 1.30 indicates a 20-minute free-flow trip takes 26 minutes in the peak. Annual Delay per Auto Commuter is the yearly sum of all the per-trip delays for those persons who travel in the peak period (6 to 10 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m.). See charts below:

Below is a chart that shows the unemployment rate in the counties of Santa Clara and San Francisco using the data available at California Employee Development Department:

The traffic congestion trend almost inversely followed the unemployment trend. This raises curiosity as to what economic events caused these sharp surges and drops. Saving and loan crisis and the housing bust led to recession of 1990-1991. Coupled with high gas prices due to gulf war the unemployment rose sharply. From 1995 to 2000 we see a drop in unemployment during the dot com bubble. March 2000 marked the dot com bubble burst with a sharp decline in the stock market and high unemployment particularly in technology sector thus impacting bay area. By 2004 economy started to turn around until we saw the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Google Maps - Quite Funny

Recently I was shown something really funny about how the "Get Directions" of Google Maps work. Performing a driving direction search from "Shanghai, China" to "Taipei, Taiwan" showed the following:
Observe the step 33, it says "Swim across the Pacific Ocean". Wow! Really?

So I was curious to find what other interesting transit strategies does Google Maps suggest. So I did a driving direction search from "Honolulu, HI" to "Taipei, Taiwan" which showed the following:
Observe step 6, it says "Kayak across the Pacific Ocean" and the distance is just 3879mi compared to 165km of swimming before. Awesome!

Performing the same searches on Yahoo or Bing will disappoint some as it does not provide any such adventurous routes or strategies.

This reminds of the following quote from Bertrand Russell:
"A life without adventure is likely to be unsatisfying, but a life in which adventure is allowed to take whatever form it will is sure to be short."

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

TV Screen Protection

As parents of two young kids me and my wife are constantly on the look out for their safety as well as the safety of the things around them. My worst nightmare would be to find my big screen TV's LCD screen damaged. There have been plenty of close calls already which have made me very nervous. My kids make it a point to constantly keep us on the edge by bouncing things very close to it. So it almost feels a disaster waiting to happen.

It will be unjust to claim that only younger kids pose a problem. I remembered the news a few years back where Wii controllers slipped out of players hands and damaged the TV screen. Nintendo I believe has released numerous versions of the straps used to attach the controller to gamer's wrist to avoid this.

Fearing the safety of my prized TV (no kidding, I spent a small fortune to get the top of the line Sony 52XBR four years back) I started looking around for the various solutions that are available out there. Here are some of them that came up in Google Search:
For the 52 inch LCD they would cost around $150 and they are all being sold online, could not find a local store that carried them.

Then there was this website that provided instructions on how to build your own. Immediate question that comes to the mind is the saving over the commercial ones. After doing some costing of the parts at a few home improvement/hardware stores the cost is about $80 for a decent clear shield. This does not account for any tools and expertise required to complete the task. This wasn't encouraging, I was hoping to spend no more than $40 if I have to build on my own.

So, now the question becomes which is the best value for money out there? I would like to know if anyone else had any experiences good/bad that will help in making a decision. I am a little worried about the whole picture quality with the shield in front of the TV screen.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Ideal tenure - IT Industry

As a professional in the computer industry I often ask myself the question every few years in the job - is it long enough at the present job? Should I start looking for another opportunity? I am quite surprised that it is not just me and often talking to others sense the same confusion.

Looking at the IT industry I can see three types based on tenure lengths - long, short and medium.

Long timers are those people who stay at their job for decade and longer. They either really love what they do and/or really love the company, its benefits and compensation. There are some that just hate to be interviewed and would not like to totally avoid that situation until they are pushed into it. Another species here are the ones who have been waiting endlessly for the company to lay them off, in which case they get a handsome severance package.

Short timers are the ones that do not stay in one job for more than 2-3 years. They are the ones who either get bored with the job and want to take on a new challenge or sense an atmosphere that's not to their liking.

The ones in the middle generally have tenure of around 4 years. Oh no I am not thinking about the President here. The 4 years period has been primarily driven by the general 4 year vesting of the stock options. These include people who believe in the company they work for but tend to find themselves doing more of the same and would like to take up a new challenge. These people are generally in non-executive roles.

So coming back to our original question of what is the ideal tenure for IT industry?

For non-executives where I fall I do get a general sense that it is somewhere between 4 - 6 years. This is backed up by some factual data from Bureau of Labor Statistics. BLS survey finds that as of Jan 2010 the median years of tenure at the current employer for ages 25 and over is 5.2 years. Also this has gradually risen since 1998 from 4.7 years to the current 5.2 years. Other interesting pieces of data in this regard is the median years of tenure for ages 16 and over for Computer and Mathematical occupations is 4.8 years and median tenure for college graduates is 5.2 years.

Having been on both sides of the interview process my general experience has been that people who fall out of bounds in terms of tenure lengths are simply asked more questions about it during the interview process. You end up explaining how you had a good reason for staying either that long or that short. The harder question is why you want to leave now?

I am sure there are other dimensions that play a role, a key one like geography (US compared to India or China) but that itself can be a bigger discussion.

What do you think about this? I would love to see your comments...