Tag Archives: tech

Protecting investors against earthquake risk in Silicon Valley

I’ve often wondered what would be the impact on companies in Silicon Valley when the inevitable earthquake hits. Turns out I’m not the only one.

Earthquakes in the Bay Area: a “ticking time bomb”

The Bay Area is subject to major earthquakes roughly every 145 ± 60 years at the current rate. Given that it is 150 years since the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1868, the next “big one” could happen any day now.

Apparently, about 2 million people live on the Hayward Fault and 7 million are in the surrounding area. A magnitude 7 quake would cause damage in the range of $95 to $190 billion, which would be a disaster for the citizens of the area.

Impact on the tech giants

However, my curiosity centers on what would be the impact on the giant tech corporations that are based in Silicon Valley and the wider Bay Area? Companies like Google, Facebook, Oracle, and Salesforce have their HQs and major footprints in the region, so they will be adversely affected by a natural disaster.

It doesn’t seem like they are particularly well-prepared for such an event, according to this report. Although most of the companies have data centers and operations distributed around the world, an earthquake could still cause potential disruption to the main office and therefore the leadership of the business.

As listed entities, this marks a real risk for their shareholders. Could their share prices or even the whole NASDAQ take a tumble if a major earthquake hits the Bay Area? After the 9/11 terror attacks, the Dow dropped by 14%, so this is not unthinkable.

However, I think the impact goes beyond just their own businesses. The services provided by these tech titans represent critical infrastructure for many European and American businesses, so any disruption could have a huge wider impact.

Early warning: a vital tool to prevent damage

Scientists are getting better at detecting earthquakes early. In Silicon Valley, there will soon be an app called QuakeAlert that can give up to 2-20 seconds of warning of an impending earthquake.

This might not sound like much, but even 2 seconds can be long enough for Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled devices to perform vital preparations such as: opening the doors of fire stations to prevent fire engines getting stuck; isolating certain parts of the electricity, water, and gas networks; slow down trains; and tell elevators to open their doors at the closest floor.

Solution: seismic sensor network to short the NASDAQ

Could it be possible to set up a network of seismic sensors to warn when an earthquake was just about to hit the Bay Area and then send an order to a trading algorithm that could short the NASDAQ?

A similar system could be used to create an early warning for tsunamis. One candidate is the mega-tsunami that geologists once predicted could be created by a volcanic eruption in the Canary Islands which would devastate the northeastern US coast (although further review of the original study showed that this is a worst-case scenario and probably will not happen for another 10,000 years at the earliest).

Hyperloop Alpha project concept

In 2012, Elon Musk and SpaceX published this project concept document for Hyperloop Alpha, a radical new method of intercity transportation.

The document is a 58-page proposed solution with rigorous calculations on all socio-techno-commercial aspects of the idea.

Hyperloop Alpha concept sketch (Source: original Hyperloop Alpha concept document)

How does it work?

Hyperloop Alpha is a public transport system that sends people in pods at high speeds through a tube kept at low pressure to reduce air resistance.

By using an electric fan at the front, you can mitigate the Kantrowitz Limit (think of the maximum speed limit of a liquid pushing through a tube such as a syringe). It also has the unique benefit of creating a low-pressure air cushion for the pod to ride on – known as an air bearing.

The design envisages using linear accelerators on the bottom of each pod to achieve a target speed of 760mph (1,2220 kph or Mach 0.99 at 20°C), albeit lower at points where there is a curve in the journey so that the g-forces experienced by passengers are lower.

On the topic of renewable energy, Elon mentions that the installation could be self-powered using solar panels installed on top of the tube. He also mentions that LightSail could provide energy storage, but this shows the age of the document as in late 2017 they all but went bankrupt. Perhaps Elon could consider Highview Power’s Liquid Air Energy Storage technology now!

Future of Hyperloop

SpaceX hosted a 1-mile long test track to help incubate Hyperloop technologies around the world. Now there are several organisations developing Hyperloop solutions, including Virgin’s Hyperloop One and a team from MIT.

Inspiration for me

The Hyperloop Alpha project concept was actually one of the main inspirations for me to create and write this blog, along with a previous thought of mine about Leonardo Da Vinci.

By publishing open source project concepts like this one, Elon found a neat solution to one thing that has always bothered me about Da Vinci’s notebooks.

The ever-creative Da Vinci noted down his abundance of ideas in personal sketchbooks that were way ahead of his time. However, as he didn’t always have the time or resources to follow them up and connect them with the right people that needed them, many of them represent lost opportunities for technology to advance.

Publishing an idea in an open source format, allowing access for others that are better placed to work on it, ensures that technology moves forward in a way that benefits humanity (even though the ideator as an individual may not benefit directly).

I am not assuming that anything I put on this modest site will be anywhere near the same league as those guys, but given that good ideas can come from anywhere it is a possibility that something I put up in my Ideas section may be useful to somebody, somewhere.

The Hyperloop Alpha concept document is more detailed than any of mine, but Elon Musk does have a big team of world-class engineers to draw from as needed!

The UK’s most important 21st century infrastructure project? Cybersecurity

I believe that the most important 21st century infrastructure project for the UK will be the development of world-class cyber-security.

So much of our national infrastructure is being digitalised that it is easy to lose track.

My sector, the energy industry, is in a massive state of change. The emerging “smart grid” scenario comprises connected renewable generation, storage, metering, and demand response. This deep level of decentralised control will yield enormous benefits for cost and sustainability. However, these will come at the price of potential vulnerability to cyber-criminals and attack from state/non-state actors. A hijack of our energy infrastructure would have catastrophic consequences for our economy, security, and general way of life.

This is not just a problem for the energy sector. Digitisation is sweeping through our industries at breakneck pace. The automation of vehicles, the proliferation of digitally connected appliances in the home and industry (the “Internet of Things”), digitisation of medical records, and even the cultivation of food in “vertical farms” means every aspect of life will be affected.

Improving the resilience of these assets must be of paramount importance. However, the rise of high-profile hacks of data and growing incidences of “ransomware” attacks show this is not translating into action.

Increasing cybersecurity literacy for all ages must be a priority for the government. Many people still use easily-hackable passwords and can be fooled by a simple phishing attack. Education must start at school and continue in the workplace, even at board level.

The 2017 ransomware attack on the NHS shows how crippling cybercrime can be for our institutions. The attack exploited a vulnerability which would not have been an issue if the IT infrastructure had been the latest available. Budget cuts at the NHS Trusts meant that they had de-prioritised IT upgrades and exposed themselves to cyber-risk.

The UK Government must make it clear to leadership at all critical organisations that IT security has to be priority #1 for all spending, with ring-fenced budgets. HM Government should set up a unit of “white hat” hackers that is responsible for penetration testing the Police, NHS, and other assets of national importance on a constant basis.

Our economic advantage as a nation arguably rests on our ability to innovate. Therefore it is also critical to help the private sector to protect itself against industrial espionage, which is often sponsored by nations with low respect for Intellectual Property rights.

The physical communications network underpinning the internet also needs to be protected. The vulnerability of our undersea cable connections to other countries to attack by hostile actors needs to be addressed, and the UK needs to have a strong presence in the Space sector to remain at the leading edge of innovations.

Developing the world’s best cybersecurity infrastructure will put the UK in pole position to capitalise on the opportunities of digitalisation while protecting itself against future threats. All other infrastructure will need to build on this platform, which is why I regard it as the most important.

Tom Hulme’s Business Model Canvas

I’ve stumbled upon an intriguing version of the Business Model Canvas, courtesy of Tom Hulme (link here).

Below is a 15-minute video as he explains it visually:

HackFwd: Visualize Your Business Model in 15 Minutes Flat from IDEO on Vimeo.

You can download a clean version here:

Tom Hulme’s Business Model Framework (clean)

New business idea: SecondChance – reducing retailer waste

The inspiration: Dumpster diving

I recently read this excellent WIRED article on a professional “dumpster diver” in the US.

Matt Malone makes $65,000 dollars a year as a part-time scavenger from dumpsters behind retail stores in Austin, Texas.

Diving has yielded many interesting and lucrative finds for Morgan, such as printers, laptops, and gifts,  with office supplies being (somewhat counter-intuitively) one of the most profitable sources.

It’s a great way to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill, but this is a niche hobby so the impact on landfill volumes will be minimal. This got me thinking.

What if there was a way to monetise this? Instead of having dumpster divers, could there not be a profitable business or social enterprise that would systematically give retailers the ability to reduce the amount of potentially-valuable waste from going to landfill?

Existing enterprise: FoodCloud

There is an existing version of this in the food retail industry: FoodCloud.

FoodCloud connects supermarkets and food retailers to local charities that can make good use of the food before it becomes unfit for human consumption.

This a win for the charity beneficiaries, environment and retailers alike.

If this could be done with other resource-intensive goods such as computers and printers, it would be like having an army of Matt Malone-style dumpster divers all over the country!

SecondChance: reducing retailer waste

The idea of SecondChance would be a for-profit version of FoodCloud for non-food products.

It would need better branding as that’s just a shorthand, but here’s how it could work:

  1. Retailers would upload any unsold goods that would otherwise be thrown away to the site.
  2. SecondChance would collect the goods for free and warehouse them.
  3. Local organisations or maybe even individuals could browse the site to look for bargains.
  4. They would buy them from SecondChance’s site.
  5. SecondChance would facilitate delivery to the end user after taking payment.

Risks and challenges

  1. It would probably be too tricky for individuals to be allowed to use the site, as it would be too expensive to have proper consumer rights for the goods sold.
  2. SecondChance would presumably have to have some smart buyers (or a very smart algorithm) to weed out the unprofitable goods as each collection would have a cost associated.
  3. The business model would be highly dependent on having no procurement costs at stage 1. As SecondChance takes off though, would the retailers want to charge for this?
  4. The business model is highly linked to the fees charged to retailers for discarding high-value items. If there are no fees or other penalties mandated by government in the area of the retailer, then the business case for participation in the SecondChance ecosystem would be diminished.

Potential entrants

1. Amazon

This is essentially a version of the Amazon business model but plugged into the back end of the retailer business process rather than manufacturers. Could it be something that Amazon would be interested in pursuing?

Without modeling the business directly, I suspect the margins would be too low to justify it for Amazon unless the cost of all goods were to remain at (or very near) to zero.

However, it is a good fit for their existing business model, with warehouses, delivery, and online retailing being the key infrastructure. It also marries well with their mission to bring goods to consumers as cheaply as possible.

2. eBay

Could an eBay business model work better? Would it make more sense to have the retailers simply auction all goods to consumers directly?

I personally think this would be too much of a challenge, as it would require a totally new shop area to handle the turnaround for the unwanted goods.

Arguably, why would the retailers even bother with listing the items online and then handling the traffic, when they could just resort to the low-cost alternative of having a very-steeply discounted bargain bin?

N.B. The name for this idea was changed from TrashNet to SecondChance on 11/02/2018 as I thought it better reflects the mission. Nobody wants to buy trash, so it shouldn’t be reflected in the company name!

Farewill: a great business idea!

I recently came across this amazing idea for a business: Farewill.

What is Farewill?

Farewill is an online service that helps you to make a last will and testament for £50.

Farewill claims that the wills are legally binding, takes 15 minutes, and will be reviewed by experts. For an additional £10 a year, you can also get coverage for updates to the law and unlimited revisions.

This is a really important idea as dying without a will (“intestate”) can cause major problems for your family and can cause major confusion over who inherits your estate. I know this from first-hand experience, as my father passed away suddenly without a will when I was 16.

Why write a will?

Leaving your loved ones with the burden of complicated legal procedures at a time when they are least able to carry them out causes a lot of anguish. Anything that gets more people to write a will gets my approval.

Providing this service makes fantastic business sense for Farewill, as around 60% of British adults do not have a will written up. That is an extremely attractive market size.

WillAid – cheap wills from a solicitor

Previously I had referred people to WillAid, a partnership between the legal profession and 9 UK charities. The participating solicitors draft your will for free in exchange for a donation to the targetted charities. £95 is the suggested donation but it is voluntary. It’s a great way to get a will at a cheaper rate than normal from a solicitor (usually around £200) and it runs every November.

However, this Farewill service has got my attention.

It’s one of those rare occasions where I see a new business and I am genuinely annoyed I didn’t think of it!

Elon Musk: Making Life Multiplanetary 2017

Below is the keynote speech at the 2017 International Astronautical Congress (IAC) from none other than Elon Musk of SpaceX.

Elon outlines his plan to build the “BFR” rocket which can be used to launch over 150 tonnes of payload into orbit at the lowest marginal cost per launch of any rocket in history. Key to that is the vertical propulsive landing approach, which is becoming so precise that the future versions of their rockets won’t even have legs to stabilise the landing. It is a beast of a rocket at 160m tall and 9m in diameter.

The BFR project has already commenced, with the tooling ordered and construction of the facilities underway.

Elon’s targets are:

  • Landing so precise that risk tends to zero and compares to commercial airlines
  • Establishing a Moon base (no propellant plant needed as they can be refuelled in upper Earth orbit and have enough to launch and land on Earth)
  • BFR able to dock with the International Space Station (ISS)
  • BFR able to refuel in space by docking with another BFR upper module and “sloshing” the fuel over using control thrusters to apply milli-g acceleration
  • 2022 for the first cargo mission to Mars (to scout for resources like H²0)
  • 2024 for the first cargo and crew mission to Mars (to build the propellant plant among other things)
  • BFR upper module able to fly from surface of Mars back to Earth as Martian gravity is weak enough to allow for a booster-free launch
  • Use of BFR between cities on Planet Earth could massively reduce journey times (e.g. 25 mins from LA to NYC)

Oh and here is my favourite little nugget of wisdom from Elon’s talk:

“On Mars, sunrise and sunset are blue and the day is red. It’s the opposite of Earth.”

YouTube’s bad UX design for music streaming

Problem

YouTube is one of the leading music streaming platforms on the web, with around 25% market share according to some sources. As a sharing platform, it’s inherently got access to a huge variety of content.

However, one thing that always bugs me about using YouTube to stream music is the inability to manage a spontaneous playlist from within one window.

In order to queue up the exact songs I want, I’m forced to open them as tabs and manually close each video and open the next when I want to hear a song. This creates a big drain on the resources of whatever device you are using.

Solution

While the obvious solution is simply to switch to Spotify, in some situations (such as not wanting to log in to Spotify on a public computer), using YouTube would be preferable.

Below I’ve listed three little tweaks that would give me exactly what I want.

FYI I’m not a developer so I have no idea of the technical feasibility of these suggestions within the current framework. If they haven’t been implemented, it’s possibly just

My proposed updates to YouTube UX

1. Sidebar search tool

A sidebar search tool would be ideal to search for your next song within the right-hand column while the video is still playing.

Results would be shown in the box immediately below and then added to the playlist by drag and drop or clicking an “Add to Queue” button.

2. Order change

There would be the ability to change the song order in the playlist with either drag and drop or arrows.

3. Remove song

It would be useful to have a button to remove a video from the Play Queue, perhaps one as simple as a small X in the top right corner of each video thumbnail.

Nesta Inventor Prize

Nesta, a UK-based innovation foundation, has just launched the Inventor Prize.

It’s a new challenge prize aiming to support and inspire inventors to come up with physical and digital solutions to 4 major challenges in UK society:

  1. Financial Inclusion
  2. Mental Health
  3. Ageing
  4. Air Quality

The finalists get a £5,000 grant and mentoring support to help develop and test their invention. At the end of the competition, the top prize is £50,000.

The inventor must have a working model of their idea and it must have a clear market to improve lives in the UK. The final version will be developed through the prize with extensive user testing.

The deadline for submission of ideas is 11 pm on 22nd October 2017.

If their previous Dynamic Demand Challenge is anything to go by, this new Inventor’s Prize will be a great little initiative to support upcoming inventors.