On Sberbank and Cat Lending

In order to capitalize on the mortgage boom in the country, the Russian Bank Sberbank is offering a cat for free to those who get a mortgage. There’s a catch though: the cat is limited to two hours for new homeowners. The Moscow Times reports:

The bank is offering a choice of 10 cats to mortgage-buyers, who will get the pet brought to their door by a new delivery service. According to a special website, KotoService.ru, the felines on offer include a ginger cat called “Apricot” and a hairless cat known as “Kuzya.”

The gimmick appears to be an attempt to maximize profits from Russia’s mortgage lending boom as people watch their savings lose value amid a sliding ruble and rising interest rates.

Here’s the video from Sberbank:

The whole reason for the gimmick? Capitalizing on the superstition that maintains that it is good luck if a cat is the first to enter a new home.

(via Foreign Policy)

The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads The Menu

The Atlantic has an interesting preview of Dan Jurafsky’s The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, coming out in September: 

You needn’t be a linguist to note changes in the language of menus, but Stanford’s Dan Jurafsky has written a book doing just that. In The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, Jurafsky describes how he and some colleagues analyzed a database of 6,500 restaurant menus describing 650,000 dishes from across the U.S. Among their findings: fancy restaurants, not surprisingly, use fancier—and longer—words than cheaper restaurants do (think accompaniments and decaffeinated coffee, not sides and decaf). Jurafsky writes that “every increase of one letter in the average length of words describing a dish is associated with an increase of 69 cents in the price of that dish.” Compared with inexpensive restaurants, the expensive ones are “three times less likely to talk about the diner’s choice” (your way, etc.) and “seven times more likely to talk about the chef’s choice.”

Lower-priced restaurants, meanwhile, rely on “linguistic fillers”: subjective words like delicious, flaky, and fluffy. These are the empty calories of menus, less indicative of flavor than of low prices. Cheaper establishments also use terms like ripe and fresh, which Jurafsky calls “status anxiety” words. Thomas Keller’s Per Se, after all, would never use fresh—that much is taken for granted—but Subway would. Per Se does, however, engage in the trendy habit of adding provenance to descriptions of ingredients (Island Creek oysters, Frog Hollow’s peaches). According to Jurafsky, very expensive restaurants “mention the origins of the food more than 15 times as often as inexpensive restaurants.”

Putting this book on my to-read list.

Bill Gates on the Future of College

At the National Association of College and University Business Officers Annual Meeting on July 21, 2014, Bill Gates delivered an address on the “Future of College” in America. A transcription is on Mr. Gates’s blog.

Looking at the individual level of opportunity, do people have equal opportunity? The data we see shows that, unless you’re given the preparation and access to higher education, and unless you have a successful completion of that higher education, your economic opportunity is greatly, greatly reduced. There’s a lot of data recently talking about the premium in salaries for people with four-year college degrees. In 2013, people with four-year college degrees earned 98 percent more per hour, on average, than people without degrees. That differential has gone up a lot. A generation ago, it was only 64 percent.

If you look at the numbers more closely, you will also see that unemployment, partial employment, is primarily in people without four-year degrees. Our economy already is near full employment for people with full year degrees. And, so, the uncertainty, the difficulty, the challenges, faced, if you haven’t been able to get a higher education degree, are very difficult already today. And, with changes coming in the economy, with more automation, more globalization, that divide will become even more stark in the years ahead.

So, if we’re really serious about all lives having equal value, we need to make sure that the higher education system, both access, completion, and excellence, are getting the attention they need.

It is unfortunate that, although the US does quite well in the percentage of kids going into higher education, we’ve actually dropped, quite dramatically, in the percentage who complete higher education. We have, amongst developed countries, the highest dropout rate of kids who start. And, understanding why that happens is very, very important. For many of those kids, that experience is not only financially debilitating, being left with loans that are hard to pay off, but, also, psychologically, very debilitating, that they expected to complete, they tried to complete. And, whether it was math or getting the right courses, or the scheduling, somehow, they weren’t able to do that, which is a huge setback.

Worth the read in entirety.

Why Photography Matters: an Airbnb Case Study

This is a superb read on one of my favorite start-ups, Airbnb, and how the company was able to double its revenues after a critical decision was made: get professional-looking photos of the listings.

At the time, Airbnb was part of Y Combinator. One afternoon, the team was poring over their search results for New York City listings with Paul Graham, trying to figure out what wasn’t working, why they weren’t growing. After spending time on the site using the product, Gebbia had a realization. “We noticed a pattern. There’s some similarity between all these 40 listings. The similarity is that the photos sucked. The photos were not great photos. People were using their camera phones or using their images from classified sites.  It actually wasn’t a surprise that people weren’t booking rooms because you couldn’t even really see what it is that you were paying for.”

Graham tossed out a completely non-scalable and non-technical solution to the problem: travel to New York, rent a camera, spend some time with customers listing properties, and replace the amateur photography with beautiful high-resolution pictures. The three-man team grabbed the next flight to New York and upgraded all the amateur photos to beautiful images. There wasn’t any data to back this decision originally. They just went and did it. A week later, the results were in: improving the pictures doubled the weekly revenue to $400 per week. This was the first financial improvement that the company had seen in over eight months. They knew they were onto something.

This was the turning point for the company. Gebbia shared that the team initially believed that everything they did had to be ‘scalable.’ It was only when they gave themselves permission to experiment with non-scalable changes to the business that they climbed out of what they called the ‘trough of sorrow.’

Here’s the takeaway:

Gebbia’s experience with upgrading photographs proved that code alone can’t solve every problem that customers have. While computers are powerful, there’s only so much that software alone can achieve. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs tend to become comfortable in their roles as keyboard jockeys. However, going out to meet customers in the real world is almost always the best way to wrangle their problems and come up with clever solutions. 

Read the rest here.

 

IBM’s SyNAPSE Chip Moves Closer to Brain-Like Computing

This week, scientists at IBM research unveiled a brain-inspired computer and ecosystem. From their press release on the so-called SyNAPSE chip:

Scientists from IBM unveiled the first neurosynaptic computer chip to achieve an unprecedented scale of one million programmable neurons, 256 million programmable synapses and 46 billion synaptic operations per second per watt. At 5.4 billion transistors, this fully functional and production-scale chip is currently one of the largest CMOS chips ever built, yet, while running at biological real time, it consumes a minuscule 70mW—orders of magnitude less power than a modern microprocessor.

MIT Technology Review has a good summary as well:

IBM’s SyNapse chip processes information using a network of just over one million “neurons,” which communicate with one another using electrical spikes—as actual neurons do. The chip uses the same basic components as today’s commercial chips—silicon transistors. But its transistors are configured to mimic the behavior of both neurons and the connections—synapses—between them.

The SyNapse chip breaks with a design known as the Von Neuman architecture that has underpinned computer chips for decades. Although researchers have been experimenting with chips modeled on brains—known as neuromorphic chips—since the late 1980s, until now all have been many times less complex, and not powerful enough to be practical (see “Thinking in Silicon”). Details of the chip were published today in the journal Science.

The new chip is not yet a product, but it is powerful enough to work on real-world problems. In a demonstration at IBM’s Almaden research center, MIT Technology Review saw one recognize cars, people, and bicycles in video of a road intersection. A nearby laptop that had been programed to do the same task processed the footage 100 times slower than real time, and it consumed 100,000 times as much power as the IBM chip. IBM researchers are now experimenting with connecting multiple SyNapse chips together, and they hope to build a supercomputer using thousands.

I think this kind of experimentation is fascinating. You can read more at Science Magazine (subscription required to view full text).

 

What are B Corporations?

Something I learned today: so-called B corporations from this New Yorker piece by James Surowiecki.

B corporations are for-profit companies that pledge to achieve social goals as well as business ones. Their social and environmental performance must be regularly certified by a nonprofit called B Lab, much the way LEED buildings have to be certified by the U.S. Green Building Council. Many B corps are also committed to a specific social mission.

There are now more than a thousand B corps in the U.S., including Patagonia, Etsy, and Seventh Generation. And in the past four years twenty-seven states have passed laws allowing companies to incorporate themselves as “benefit corporations”—which are similar to B corps but not identical. The commitments that these companies are making aren’t just rhetorical. Whereas a regular business can abandon altruistic policies when times get tough, a benefit corporation can’t. Shareholders can sue its directors for not carrying out the company’s social mission, just as they can sue directors of traditional companies for violating their fiduciary duty.

Examples of B corps in America include Patagonia, Etsy, Seventh Generation, and Warby Parker.

A very nice conclusion to the piece:

The rise of B corps is a reminder that the idea that corporations should be only lean, mean, profit-maximizing machines isn’t dictated by the inherent nature of capitalism, let alone by human nature. As individuals, we try to make our work not just profitable but also meaningful. It may be time for more companies to do the same.

On Happiness and its Opposite

This is a fascinating, must-read piece in The New York Times in which the author, Arthur C. Brooks, posits that the opposite of happiness is not unhappiness, and the things we can do to elevate our levels of happiness:

So when people say, “I am an unhappy person,” they are really doing sums, whether they realize it or not. They are saying, “My unhappiness is x, my happiness is y, and x > y.” The real questions are why, and what you can do to make y > x.

If you ask an unhappy person why he is unhappy, he’ll almost always blame circumstance. In many cases, of course, this is justified. Some people are oppressed or poor or have physical ailments that make life a chore. Research unsurprisingly suggests that racism causes unhappiness in children, and many academic studies trace a clear link between unhappiness and poverty. Another common source of unhappiness is loneliness, from which about 20 percent of Americans suffer enough to make it a major source of unhappiness in their lives.

The tangible advice comes near the end:

More philosophically, the problem stems from dissatisfaction — the sense that nothing has full flavor, and we want more. We can’t quite pin down what it is that we seek. Without a great deal of reflection and spiritual hard work, the likely candidates seem to be material things, physical pleasures or favor among friends and strangers.

We look for these things to fill an inner emptiness. They may bring a brief satisfaction, but it never lasts, and it is never enough. And so we crave more. This paradox has a word in Sanskrit: upadana, which refers to the cycle of craving and grasping. As the Dhammapada (the Buddha’s path of wisdom) puts it: “The craving of one given to heedless living grows like a creeper. Like the monkey seeking fruits in the forest, he leaps from life to life… Whoever is overcome by this wretched and sticky craving, his sorrows grow like grass after the rains.”

This search for fame, the lust for material things and the objectification of others — that is, the cycle of grasping and craving — follows a formula that is elegant, simple and deadly:

Love things, use people.

This was Abd al-Rahman’s formula as he sleepwalked through life. It is the worldly snake oil peddled by the culture makers from Hollywood to Madison Avenue. But you know in your heart that it is morally disordered and a likely road to misery. You want to be free of the sticky cravings of unhappiness and find a formula for happiness instead. How? Simply invert the deadly formula and render it virtuous:

Love people, use things.