Not bad for a 20-year-old
Happy birthday, Google

Google CandlesHard to believe: Google launched 20 years ago this month. By accident or design, its name is a misspelling of the number googol. If it was by accident, you have to wonder why founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin didn’t bother googling the correct spelling.

Playing trademark roulette

Not long after the Google’s appearance in 1998, google became a verb, as in, “I’m going to google that,” eventually earning itself an entry in the 2006 Merriam-Webster dictionary. Per MW, to google is “to use the Google search engine to obtain information about (someone or something) on the World Wide Web.” Yet I suspect these days googling could refer to searching by use of any search engine. If that’s so, Google’s parent company Alphabet should take heed. Product names that enter the lexicon as verbs or common nouns have a habit of losing their protected status. Google could join the ranks of no-longer protected trademarks the likes of aspirin, elevator, cellophane, and, most recently, monopoly. It’s not hard to imagine a day when you may hear something along the line of, “I googled it on Yahoo.”

As it is, Google plays a bit of Russian Roulette with its trademark. A cardinal rule of trademark protection is to keep the mark consistent, but there’s no telling what treatment of the Google mark will greet you.

Yet maybe Google has no need for concern. While google, lower-case g, is arguably a generic term, there is no ambiguity when it comes to Google, upper-case g, referring to the corporate giant. In terms of company valuation, Google is second only to Apple. As of this writing, Fortune says Google “… has a market capitalization of more than $850 billion, says it has indexed hundreds of billions of pages and is aware of over 100 trillion.”

The ubiquity of Google products after just two decades is staggering. We have Android, ChromeGoogle Maps, Gmail, Google News, Google Analytics, Google Ads, Google Images, Google Translate, Google Docs, and a list of many more that seems to go on all but ad infinitum. 

About you, me, and our neighbors

Google statistics tell us a good deal about ourselves. As I write, the three most googled people of 2018 are Donald Trump, Stephen Hawking, and Stormy Daniels. Most-googled animals are dogcat, and chicken. Most-googled athletes are LeBron James, Tiger Woods, and O.J. Simpson. (I found nothing on most-googled football teams, but I’m confident that each of the top three is the Denver Broncos.)

Google was nearly pre-empted by the United States Air Force. Back in the punch card days of 1963, research engineer Charles Borne and computer programmer Leonard Chatlin were at work on what could rightly be called a Google precursor. The current issue of Smithsonian reports:

The duo’s program was designed to work the way Google does: A user could search for any word in the files. Their database consisted of just seven memos that Bourne typed onto punched paper tapes and then converted to magnetic tape … The data lurched over telephone lines—your smartphone is more than 10,000 times faster—but after a long moment, the right answer popped up. Bourne and Chaitin had proven, for the first time, that online search was possible.

Lucky for Google and for reasons unknown, the Air Force discontinued Borne’s and Chatlin’s work. 

Curiously, notes the article, googling “inventor of search” turns up little to nothing about Borne or Chatlin. You’ll find numerous links to one Alan Emtage, who also wrote a pre-Google search engine. But Emtage was born in 1964, making it unlikely that his search engine pre-dated Borne’s and Chatlin’s 1963 creation.

Genesis and adult supervision

The seeds of Google were sown when Page and Brin met as fellow participants at Stanford University’s computer science graduate program. They began work on an idea for a search engine in 2006. At first they called their project Backrub, a reference to “its initial heavy reliance on back-links to validate the popularity of a website it was indexing,” according to OrangeWebsite. Next came the search algorithm’s moniker, PageRank, which, still in use, is a play on Larry Page’s name. 

Page and Brin were unusually capable mathematician-programmers with a killer idea that took off, but they had the savvy and humility not to mistake initial success for all the business acumen they’d need. In 2001, they recruited technologist and business leader Eric Schmidt to run the company. According to Brin, Google had grown to the point of needing “adult supervision.” 

Today, Google “… processes over 40,000 search queries every second on average … which translates to over 3.5 billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion searches per year worldwide.” That’s according to Internet Live Stats, whose Google Search Statistics page posts informative charts and a running tally and is well worth a visit. 

Two-edged sword

A meteoric rise can be a two-edged sword. Americans tend to celebrate Davids only to turn on them should they become Goliaths. Witness, for instance, Walmart’s journey from being the underdog that took on Sears to today, when many view it as an economic pariah. Predictably, Global News raised the fearful side of success with an article whose headline screams, Google’s “20th anniversary raises questions over whether the company is too powerful”:

That resounding success now has regulators and lawmakers around the world questioning whether the company has become too powerful as its ubiquitous services vacuum up sensitive information about billions of people hooked on its products.

Google’s search engine remains entrenched as the internet’s main gateway, and its digital advertising business is on pace to generate about $110 billion in revenue this year. Much of that revenue now flows through Google’s Android operating system, which powers 80 percent of the world’s smartphones. Google also runs the biggest video site in YouTube, the most popular web browser in Chrome, the top email service in Gmail and the maps that most people use to get around.

Still, a company could do a lot worse than grow to a size that makes people uneasy. Global News goes on to concede: 

Not bad for a company that started 20 years ago … with an initial investment of $100,000. Google and its sibling companies operating under the umbrella of Alphabet Inc. are now worth $800 billion.

Overall, I’d have to agree. Google has done pretty well for a 20-year-old.

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Tips from professional
fact checkers

magnifying-glass-1607160_960_720IT’S NO LONGER NEWS that fake news is constantly in the news. Nor is it news that fake news purveyors have turned the term on its head, applying it to verified facts when they happen to prove inconvenient, or to attract larger audiences in order to increase advertising revenues. 

If the fake news phenomenon was ever a mere curiosity, it is no longer. Fake news had the power to send a man from Salisbury, NC, to a Washington DC pizzeria where he discharged three shots from a rifle. The good news is that no one was killed or wounded. The bad is that there’s no telling the next incident—or tragedy—that fake news may catalyze. 

Fake news isn’t limited to politics or, for that matter, restaurants. Last year the Financial Times reported that the financial-oriented unwittingly published an embellished if not false report that boosted ImmunoCellular Therapeutics’s stock prices. It was later revealed that ImmunoCellular had “indirectly” paid for the article. Not only that:

The article was one of at least 200 that appeared without appropriate disclosure of payment on the Seeking Alpha website between August 2011 and March 2014, according to the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

Fake news and banks

About the same time, this appeared in American Banker:

… When an Associated Press Twitter account announced to the world that the White House was under attack … [the] Dow declined by 150 points and several billion dollars of market value was wiped out in a few seconds. It turns out the AP’s Twitter account had been hacked, but the damage was done. This was not a scenario that was predicted but now it [is] one [that] firms cannot choose to ignore.

Not all fake news is deliberate or malicious. It can arise from misunderstandings. This summer reported an incident in which timing and misreporting created a false impression with regard to the stability of DFCU Bank in Uganda:

As the DFCU episode shows, this is a genuine concern; DFCU is the second largest Ugandan bank, but many people were doubting its stability at the height of the stories.

Whether by design or misunderstanding, fake news has the potential to inflict serious harm on any organization, including financial institutions. Plummeting stock values or even a run may be only as far away as the next disgruntled client or employee, or misinformed or uninformed reporter whose tweet or Facebook comment goes viral.

The problem might be lesser were the general public not so … well, human.

We humans, it seems, tend to believe what we hear. We grow up taking advice from elders and other authority figures, and it usually works to our good. Any child who has once burned a finger takes at face value “Don’t touch—hot!” and is better off for it. Moreover, if you happen to be a good person who tells the truth (except, perhaps, when asked questions like “What would you say is your greatest weakness?”), you’re prone to imagine others will be equally truthful. 

That which we hear repeatedly tends to sink in as fact. Ever heard that crime increases under a full moon? That’s easy to believe; we hear it often enough; but it isn’t so. Police officers who believe it have succumbed to hindsight bias. Likewise, someone who has heard often enough that a certain bank has problems is more likely to believe rumors about an alleged forthcoming run.

Another reason we readily believe what we hear or read is that we’re smart enough to find shortcuts. If we researched every claim, we’d never get anything done; so when something sounds reasonable or fits our worldview, we tend to accept it. 

How fact-checkers check facts

A recent issue of TIME magazine devoted four pages to fake news and what to do about it. One study, it reported, found … 

… that 6 in 10 links get retweeted without users’ reading anything besides someone else’s summation of it …

Another [study] found that false stories travel six times as fast as true ones on Twitter, apparently because lies do a better job of stimulating feelings of surprise and disgust.

The article gave considerable ink to Stanford University psychologist Stan Wineburg’s research into precautions that professional fact-checkers take to avoid being duped. I’d say the good news is that their techniques are things that any of us can do. The bad news? Most people don’t or won’t bother. 

For instance, one simple technique that professional fact checkers rely on before forwarding an article or commenting on it is that they actually read it. Yet incredibly,

… One study found that 6 in 10 links get retweeted without users’ reading anything besides someone else’s summation of it.

Other fact-checker techniques within easy reach

Again quoting TIME:

Fact-checkers … almost immediately left the site and started opening new tabs to see what the wider web had to say about the organization  …

… Fact-checkers not only zipped to additional sources, but also laid their references side by side, to better keep their bearings.

… They would scan a whole page of search results—maybe even two—before choosing a path forward … This is important, because people or organizations with an agenda can game search results by packing their sites with keywords, so that those sites rise to the top and more objective assessments get buried.

The lessons they’ve developed include such techniques and teach kids to always start with the same question: Who is behind the information?

So far, artificial intelligence hasn’t proved itself terribly useful when it comes to identifying fake news. If it ever will, which is in question, we humans in the meantime must shoulder the responsibility. Else, we increasingly face a world in which no one will know what to believe.

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The pros at cons

Deal of a lifetimePopular movies like American HustleDirty Rotten ScoundrelsThe Sting, and Catch Me If You Can show that audiences like a good con artist story. The films even manipulate—con?—us into rooting for the bad guy, our consciences somehow assuaged by marks who deserve or at least can afford the loss.

The deserving-mark trope entertains, but in real life cons hurt people. Moreover, many of the classic cons of history have not gone, but simply changed clothes and reappeared.

Convention demands beginning with a look at the infamous Brooklyn Bridge. “I have a bridge to sell you” is no mere cliché. Many people have “purchased” the Brooklyn and other bridges, bumping up against hard reality only when forced to take down their newly constructed tollbooths. The most famous of the Brooklyn Bridge sellers was George C. Parker, who in the late 19th century targeted immigrants filled with the hopes and promises of the American dream—and took them for their life savings. 

Capone, counts, and grateful millionaires

Perhaps more audacious was “Count” Victor Lustig, whom Smithsonian magazine dubbed “America’s greatest con man.” He twice got away with alleging the Eiffel Tower was due for demolition and selling it as scrap metal to the highest bidder. In the U.S., he sold machines purported to turn paper into currency. He even conned $5,000 from none other than Al Capone.

In 1881, French peasant Thérèse Dauignac Humbert was in the right time and the right place to revive American millionaire Robert Henry Crawford from a heart attack. Two years later, Crawford thanked her by willing her a safe containing $20 million. Crawford’s nephews lost no time in contesting the will, persuading a judge to seal the safe pending litigation. With a sealed safe for evidence and its contents for collateral, high society welcomed Humbert and favored her with numerous, hefty loans. The safe was finally opened in 1902. According to Jay Robert Nash in his book Hustlers and Con Men, inside were negotiable bonds worth $1,000, an empty jewel box, and some brass buttons. There never was a Robert Henry Crawford. His “nephews” were in reality Humbert’s brothers. “A dozen Humbert creditors committed suicide the next day,” Nash wrote. As for Humbert and her brothers, they received only “short jail terms.” Echoes of the sealed safe ruse can be found today in loans made by trusting individuals reassured by promises of repayment “as soon as my next deal goes through.”

Three-Card Monte, a centuries-old and illegal scam, still goes on. You need only walk the streets of New York or other major cities to find clandestine games suckering marks.

Nigerian money scams: ridiculous for a reason 

A modern iteration of the Spanish prisoner game is found in Nigerian money scams, which NPR reported are “ridiculous for a reason”:

“It’s actually a brilliant strategy designed to save time and maximize profit by immediately identifying only the most gullible marks, according to an analysis by Cormac Herley of Microsoft Research.”

Indeed, in Herley’s abstract we find:

… tales of fabulous amounts of money and West African corruption will strike all but the most gullible as bizarre … It won’t be pursued by anyone who consults sensible family or friends, or who reads any of the advice banks and money transfer agencies make available. Those who remain are the scammers’ ideal targets.

Had you been around in 1890, you might have received a letter out-and-out offering to sell you counterfeit money, sometimes called the Green Goods game. To assure readers of quality fakes, one sender wrote …

“… it would be perfectly foolish to send out poor work, and it would not only get my customers into trouble, but would break up my business and ruin me.”

I knew someone whose family fell for a modern version of the Green Goods game—despite his experience in financial services. For cents on the dollar, they purchased allegedly stolen, dye-bombed currency. Included “at no extra charge” was a dye-removal solution. Of course neither was delivered. It hadn’t occurred to the marks to ask why the seller didn’t keep and clean the currency for himself.

Readers have doubtless heard of the Ponzi scheme, which generally uses later investors’ funds to pay high rates of return to earlier investors. Charles Ponzi didn’t invent it but made it famous. He died in 1949, but his scheme still pops up. More famous that Ponzi himself is Bernie Madoff … 

… the former non-executive chairman of the NASDAQ stock market, and the confessed operator of the largest Ponzi scheme in world history, and the largest financial fraud in U.S. history. Prosecutors estimated the size of the fraud to be $64.8 billion, based on the amounts in the accounts of Madoff’s 4,800 clients as of November 30, 2008.

Legal cons

Sadly, not all scams are illegal. Most drug stores carry preparations claiming to cure a host of maladies despite bearing the government-required disclaimer, “This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” The disclaimer is there for a reason, namely, that the preparations have not been demonstrated to do what purveyors claim. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to hamper sales.

Pyramid schemes—which pay enrollees for duping people into enrolling after them—are strictly illegal, yet they persist legally under innocuous-sounding names like “multi-level” or “network” marketing. They are legal because tangible products are involved. The problem is the open secret that the real money to be made is not in selling products but in enrolling more members, essentially a legal pyramid scheme. Science writer Brian Dunning has pointed out that the hope is unattainable:

Of all the thousands of network marketing plans available now or in the past, if only one of them had ever had even a single line active to only 14 levels deep, that alone would have required the participation of more human beings than exist. 

Moreover, Dunning writes,

On average, 99.95% of network marketers lose money. However, only 97.14% of Las Vegas gamblers lose money by placing everything on a single number at roulette. 

The old adage “… if it seems too good to be true …” will always apply. Sadly, whether due to being over-trusting or to an avarice-based willingness to push the boundaries of ethics and law, there will always be people who ignore the adage.

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A lesson from the
man in the moon
How people buy

I challenge you not to see the face.

I challenge you not to see the face.

THIS MUCH won’t surprise you: Younger generations continue hopping aboard person-to-person payment (P2P) apps faster than older ones. 

But maybe this will surprise you: Better than half of Boomers are onboard with P2P. Considering P2P’s relative newness and Boomers’ measured approach to sticking toes in new technological waters, I think it’s fair to call that record time.

The news comes from a study by Early Warning Services, the folks behind Zelle, the fast-growing P2P app looking to overtake Venmo this year. As reported by PR Newswire

Of those surveyed, more than seventy-five percent of Millennials have used online or mobile P2P payments. Generation X is a close second at sixty-nine percent, and Baby Boomers are closing in at fifty-one percent … Forty-nine percent of Millennials use P2P payment services at least once a week, followed by forty-two percent of Generation X and thirty-two percent of Boomers.

I take particular interest in the factor that most strongly influences each age group’s app choice. For Millennials and Gen Xers, it’s friends and family. For Boomers, it’s their bank. In other words, all age groups seem to follow the lead of a trusted individual or a trusted institution. Though not a shocking revelation on its face, underlying it is an important point about human nature that marketers overlook at their peril. 

Age-old human tendency

Technological evolution keeps accelerating at breakneck speed. Moore’s Law—that the number of transistors you can fit into an integrated circuit doubles about every two years—still holds largely true. With it comes exponential growth and increased speed in computational power. (To be fair, some argue that Moore’s Law must inevitably slow, and some believe it already has.)

Human psychology, by contrast, evolves at not quite a glacial pace. That’s why one part of our brain cannot unsee the face on the moon even though another part of our brain knows it’s not really a face. (Apologies to readers who didn’t know.) Another human tendency we hang on to despite a part of us that knows better is that of settling for a friend’s recommendation instead of doing sound homework. This is true even when the stakes are high, for instance, when we’re choosing a surgeon.

Likewise, we humans could take an in-depth look at an array of P2P apps and choose the one that best meets our requirements. But we don’t. We ask friends or an authority figure—like, say, a bank—for a recommendation. It’s an age-old facet of human nature that technology hasn’t changed it one whit.

Implications for marketing 

Acknowledging that people rely on friends for recommendations is pretty much a paraphrase of word-of-mouth is the best advertising. But the friends part is not to be overlooked. People seek advice only from people and institutions they trust. It goes without saying, then, that people don’t seek advice from people they don’t trust. That’s why Ronald Reagan’s ironic, oft-quoted “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” draws laughs to this day. 

Most people start out trusting their financial institution. Otherwise, they’d never have set foot inside or logged on in the first place. Since the relationship starts out with trust in place, the challenge becomes to avoid losing it, and, better yet, to maintain and grow it.

Sometimes all it takes to lose trust is a rude employee. Fortunately, most clients understand that with thousands of employees a wild card is bound to come up now and then. More damning would be management’s poor handling of a complaint. Even more damning would be the exposure of a practice bringing down government censure in a public forum. 

Riding herd on apps

While riding herd on thousands of customer-contact people has its limitations, riding herd on apps need have none. In today’s market there’s no excuse for offering digital banking apps that are anything short of well-branded, cutting-edge, up-to-date, reliable, and user-friendly. 

A bank without the resources to develop its own apps can draw upon a world of quality third-party resources. In choosing one, I recommend—besides peer recommendations—actually digging deep. The best resources will welcome your scrutiny and shine under its light.

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From thumbprints
to butt scans
and morality
in biotech

eye-2771174_960_720WAY BACK—well, five years ago—when Apple introduced iPhone 5s’s thumbprint scanner, fear mongers lost no time claiming that phone thieves would now take your phone and your finger. Never mind that it wouldn’t work—irrational panic spreads faster than rational calm—and besides, what if your phone thief doesn’t know that iPhone can’t scan a dead finger?

Safe as your digits are, there are valid reasons for concern about thumbprint scanners. According to the New York Times,

… researchers at New York University and Michigan State University suggest that smartphones can easily be fooled by fake fingerprints digitally composed of many common features found in human prints. In computer simulations, the researchers from the universities were able to develop a set of artificial “MasterPrints” that could match real prints similar to those used by phones as much as 65 percent of the time.

Carry around enough masterprints, reasons one NYU professor, and you could unlock up to half the smartphones out there. 

But the NYU professor’s statement indulges a bit of hyperbole.

For one thing—one, very big thing—testing was done in a lab, not on real phones, and laboratory conditions often fail to predict what happens in the real world. For another, Apple places the odds of a rogue fingerprint’s opening your phone at one in 50,000. It’s reasonable to assume bias on Apple’s part, but then, besides making phones, Apple is also in the business of not getting sued for shoddy security. 

But just to be safe, if you know that 49,999 of your friends tried to hack your phone, beware the next one.

Other forms of biometric ID are a burgeoning business. And that leads to bigger biometrics questions having less to do with thumbprint security and more to do with privacy. Namely, who owns your biometric information? Who can share it, and with whom, and for what purposes? And what to do if your biometric identifiers are stolen or compromised? You can’t exactly change them.

No longer the stuff of movies

Readers may remember the 2002 movie Minority Report, which depicted a futuristic world where eye scanners tracked people’s location, greeted them by name in shopping malls, and served up personalized advertising. The possibility is not so far off. India has already scanned into a national database the irises and fingerprints of 1.2 billion residents. Researchers at the University of Tokyo have come up with a way to replace car keys with a butt-scanning driver’s seat. Smartphones complement fingerprint recognition with facial recognition. Biometric devices recognize your ECG, your walk, even your body odor. (That last one might not be terribly secure. I know a few people who could activate such a device from several miles away.)

A national database of biometric information can be useful for second- and third-world nations. For first-world nations, however, especially those with something akin to the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, it opens a can of worms as to where illegal search begins and ends. USA Today raised valid concerns:

The rapid rollout of biometric ID systems holds some promise [for underdeveloped nations]. Hundreds of millions of people lack formal identification, and that’s an obstacle to participating in society …

… [But in] the United States, Europe and other regions, the worry is not that the state doesn’t know who you are, but that it knows too well—like Big Brother. Critics of biometric programs argue that important questions haven’t been resolved.

Who has the right to collect your biodata? Who gets to access it? How can it be used? And what happens in case of security failures? After all, you can change your passwords after a Heartbleed bug, but you can’t change your irises.

From a technology standpoint, it’s not necessary to obtain your permission or even your cooperation to collect your biometric data. As Scientific American reported:

Since 2011, police departments across the U.S. have been scanning biometric data in the field using devices such as the Mobile Offender Recognition and Information System (MORIS), an iPhone attachment that checks fingerprints and iris scans. The FBI is currently building its Next Generation Identification database, which will contain fingerprints, palm prints, iris scans, voice data and photographs of faces.


Department of Defense–funded researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are perfecting a camera that can take rapid-fire, database-quality iris scans of every person in a crowd from a distance of 10 meters.

Such data gathering can make linking criminals to crimes easier. It can help put names to unidentified remains. But at what point does collecting—and distributing—your biometric data intrude? Clearly, what is technologically possible must be tempered by what is legally allowed and morally supportable.

The age of biotech legislation

Per the American Bar Association:

A few states have enacted legislation specifically to regulate third parties’ use and collection of individuals’ biometric information. State laws concerning biometric information fall roughly into one of three categories: (1) laws with respect to the collection and use of biometric information belonging to students; (2) laws dealing with collection by government actors; and (3) laws targeting the collection and use of biometric information by businesses.

And per the Security Privacy and the Law website:

So far, Illinois is the center of biometrics privacy litigation, thanks to its strongest-in-the-nation law regulating the use of biometrics.  The Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, passed in 2008, imposes requirements with respect to the retention, collection, disclosure, and destruction of biometric information.  Only two other states, Texas and Washington, currently have biometric-specific privacy laws in force, each of which for its own reasons has not had quite the impact of the Illinois law.  (Note that some states, through their criminal laws, already protect biometric data against identity theft.)

2018 may bring big new developments, however.  For one thing, look for courts to rule on the application of the Illinois law to parties located outside of Illinois.  For another, a fourth state has passed a law containing biometrics privacy protections, set to go into effect in April. With various pieces of biometric-related legislation pending across the country, it’s a good bet that other states–and perhaps the federal government–will follow suit in the coming year. 

In sum, your fingers and thumbs are safe, at least from informed thieves. But there remain daunting questions both philosophical and legal as to collection, distribution, and use of your biometric data. It’s no longer the stuff of science fiction. I need hardly point out how the use of biometric ID could help out—and, in some cases, compromise—the banking industry. It behooves us to keep abreast of, or even get involved in, future developments.

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