Oscar Pistorious, Olympic cheating, mobile phone processors and the PC upgrade problem

When I first read that an athlete was using “blades” I thought they meant servers.  Blade servers are rack mountable computers.   For anyone involved in computing infrastructure part it is part of the everyday lingo.   You try to find the best combination of CPU power, SSD storage if you can and other nerdy things that will end up making a difference when you crunch or serve data.   So maybe this guy was analyzing his technique with the help of multiple servers like I have seen them do in swimming or other competitive sports at the highest levels.

Turns out he is using prosthetic limbs.   Which possibly give him an unfair advantage.   His lower leg is more than 2kg lighter than his competitors.  Others focus on aspects where he is slower due to these blades.   My question is really quite simple:

What if the company making Oscar Pistorious’ blades give him a new model which shaves a second of his time?

Suddenly he would be scoring olympic gold and possibly breaking records.   The same body, with just a small tweak in the prosthetics, would be able to produce much different results.   What if he and others decided to start at the high jump?   Suddenly we would all be discussing the technology in their blades rather than the athletes.   What if he started to run 1500m instead of 400 and he always started really slow but then steamed ahead in the second part of the race as his competitors (without blades) got tired in the lower part of their legs but his blades continued as always?

Progress in sports results follows a pretty linear path.   (With the exception of certain sports in Mexico due to the altitude.)  As the human body reaches its limits this tails off.   In technology we have Moore’s law but in fact, the perceived benefit to the user of a PC is tailing off.   For more than a decade Intel has been worrying about this, Microsoft has been trying to think of CPU intensive tasks we would really find useful enough to justify constant upgrades.   Mobile phones is where the action is, where you see adverts for “dual core” or “quad core” processors and actually care.   These pocket wonders playback HD video with ease, do voice recognition (with not so much ease) and multitask pretty effectively.   Some of us rely on them to actually get work done, so speed is crucial.   We are willing to pay for it.   When netbooks appeared, people groaned about the puny Atom processors.   Zoom forward, repackage the same thing as a tablet and nobody cares!  It is the job of the user interface to hide the technology.

It is clearly not a good long term strategy for the Olympics to allow athletes like Pistorious in the Olympic Games.   Unlike mobile devices which cross over boundaries, competitive sport is a show, a spectacle, an idea.   If my next mobile phone opens up documents twice as fast I will be happy.  If it responds as fast as a real secretary to my voice commands I will be ecstatic.   But if Pistorious’ next blades get him halving some Olympic record the whole planet will be annoyed.


Note:  Just a few weeks after I wrote this post, Oscar Pistorius affirmed my conclusions in the worse possible way.   After losing the 200m race in the Paralympics he complained that his opponent “cheated” by using different blades than he did!  If you see the race, the way the Brazilian caught up with him was indeed rather ridiculous;  which simply highlights the problem I was writing about.


Business Technology

Facebook ads don’t add up: how I proved they are cheating

“So why don’t you cheat?”  It took me a while to recover.   My father has always been my moral compass.   He has stood through many decades of doing business with absolute integrity refusing to bribe anyone in a country where this is unheard of.   He didn’t fall for the trap of taking funding from the European Union or going to the stock market when all other tech companies where making a quick buck.   He is almost a saint in the way he helps everyone and anyone he meets, often without them even knowing about it.

We were discussing a recent client of mine, a difficult case.   It is still in the early phases and I haven’t quite figured out how to work my social engineering magic in order to bring them clients. What my father was really asking is “how will they know that it is real customers clicking on their website and not some click farm?”   The man is a born business person and goes straight to the heart of a problem even though he has never used Facebook or any social media.

The answer is simple.   Anyone with a slight knowledge of how to use web site analytics will see right through it.   And – more importantly – it just won’t make any business sense medium term as they will not be getting new customers and new business.   Which is what I promise them.   But this is not what Mark Zuckerberg promises my customer when he entices them with Facebook advertising.   He is simply selling clicks to ignorant business people.

Most of my customers have already used Facebook ads before I start with them.   They are all perplexed. “I saw a big spike in traffic but then…nothing.” It isn’t just that the traffic disappears the day you stop paying for FB ads, it is that all that traffic seems to amount to …nothing.    Are you paying $50 a day?   Funny how you get a completely stable amount of hits during those days.

This bothered me on a methodological level initially.   “What if my customers’ budgets are all spent on ‘early morning’ type people?” I worried.   So I begun to set up experiments. I split the day into particular time segments that seemed to make sense to me based on experience with status updates, Likes and such.   I am the Greek Dan Zarella after all.     Women checking Facebook between 6.30 and 8.30 are quite a specific bunch.   Organized!   Men online between 11 and 12.30 another.   Lazy!   I have even discovered a niche of females that do a “facebook lunch break”.   So all I had to do was set up the same advertisement and shoot it out to different demographics.   And then monitor it every hour to see what is happening.   (Yes, you need big monitors to handle the big spreadsheets without getting dizzy!)

It was amazing.   “Boy, these guys at Facebook must have some really clever algorithms” I mused.   They somehow seemed to be spreading the clicks around the day.   It made no sense.   Humans are highly unlikely to be so consistent.   As the day closed the clicks trickled and everytime by midnight Facebook had managed to get the campaign to the exact daily target.   “Wow, hiring all those geeks from Google must have paid off” I thought.    “They have build something that even Google AdWords can’t do.”

And then, somewhere near midnight, in between stats, being more online on Facebook than I think is healthy because of this project, it appeared.   Right there, in front of me, on top of the other adverts was one of my test ads.   I left the tab open and scrambled to the summary to triple check.   Yes, this one was clearly targeted to men aged 45-64.   I double check my profile.   Yes, Facebook knows very well that I am male but only 41.  So what is it doing?

It is bending the rules! If “The social network” showed the whole world something is that someone who cheats and lies once, will probably do it again, given the chance.    The people at Facebook know that it is extremely unlikely that anyone would discover this trick.   After all most people only have one profile.   Unless you specifically set out to prove them wrong, your website analytics will be hard to monitor for such small variance in age of visitors.   And all too many advertisers on Facebook are only using it to funnel people into their Facebook page where the analytics are even worse.

I have criticized Facebook advertising on many levels, ranging from the pathetic demographic information they provide (outside the US it is much worse) to the kind of clicking you usually get from it.   But this is different.   They are wasting what can soon become a powerful tool by rushing to capitalize on it by cheating.   Judging from their rate of improvement in search they have the brainpower to do a proper job.   They have the network to make something more powerful than GoogleAds.   They should just focus on what is unique about this new advertising medium rather than trying to bolster up the numbers to impress investors.

10/3/2011 Just discovered an even worse thing Facebook is doing.   There are charging above the set limit!  (Article and screen grabs in Greek here.)