Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Disney Gadget Magnetism

I recently walked the exhibit floor of a consumer-electronics tradeshow for retailers. The exhibitors were mostly manufacturers, showing their latest products in hope of securing holiday-season orders from retailers.

In lieu of any breakthrough new gadgets, my attention turned to stuff that might interest my daughter. At 9 months old, pretty much anything she can chew on is interesting, but projecting forward a bit in her development, I noted this Mini Mouse USB drive.

Sorry for the blurry picture, but I wanted to show how small it was in relation to my hand. You can fold the plug back into the pink case, making it yet smaller. Here is a clearer view of the device (without Mini stenciled on the front) from the manufacturer, A-DATA of Taiwan.

They weren’t giving the USB drives away at the booth, but the A-DATA reps did provide me (on behalf of my daughter) what’s pictured below.

You might think these are Disney-logo’d Secure Digital (SD) cards, ranging in capacity from 256 megabytes to 2 gigabytes. You might also think this is one of those Asian-market peculiarities, like the 22,000 unique products adorned by Hello Kitty logos. Think again.

First, these are actually refrigerator magnets of Disney-logo’d SD cards, sized exactly to SD card specifications. Second, although they are not yet available in the United States—as SD cards or magnets, apparently—you can score other Disney-logo’d SD cards (with Disney content) at Wal-Mart today.

And finally, a semi-related thought: Some analysts predict that solid-state media (like that in SD cards) will soon eclipse magnetic media (like that in hard drives). If so, we have now seen how the “magnet” in magnetic media can live on, as the tchotchke version of solid-state media devices, which themselves feature children’s cartoon characters.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Alaska’s Width

Until today I was not aware that Alaska is as wide as the lower 48 states, extending from San Francisco to Jacksonville, Florida. A colleague’s office has a map similar to this one, which illustrates the point.

It’s easy to forget the Aleutian Islands’ 1,200 miles of westward reach, as well as the eastward span of the Alaska Panhandle.

[A larger version of the map is here. Thanks to Doug L. for the inspiration.]

Sunday, September 10, 2006

CarMax Does Data Better

The September 2006 issue of Business 2.0 has an article, “The Wal-Mart of Used Cars,” about CarMax, an analytics-driven chain of superstores for used cars.

In the same way that Wal-Mart revolutionized the logistics of retailing, CarMax set out to nail the perfect mix of inventory and pricing through exhaustive analysis of sales data. Its homegrown software helps CarMax determine which models to sell and when consumer demand is shifting. Each car is fitted with an RFID tag to track how long it sits and when a test-drive occurs....

Without the data, stocking CarMax lots would be a logistical nightmare. Each store carries 300 to 500 cars at any given time, and unlike Wal-Mart, the company has no vendors to stock its “shelves.” Instead, CarMax depends on 800 car buyers, who draw on the company’s reams of data to appraise vehicles.

The article doesn’t mention it, but I suspect that CarMax’s situation is one where the analytics appear to be the competitive advantage yet the real advantage is the data feeding the analytics. That is, analyzing sales and inventory data a la CarMax involves a mature set of techniques and tools; it’s highly unlikely that CarMax has found a new analytics secret sauce. Far likelier is that CarMax collects more and better data than the competition, allowing those mature analytical techniques to yield better results.

For example, consider two big advantages CarMax has in data collection:

  • It’s a network of superstores, each of which carries many more cars than a typical dealership. This scale means CarMax can sample the marketplace better than other used-car dealers.
  • CarMax’s car buyers act as a data-normalizing force, ensuring that the details of cars in CarMax’s database are classified in a complete and consistent way. This advantage is key compared to the obvious alternative of scraping eBay and other online sources of used cars, which together would comprise a sample even better than CarMax’s. The problem is, the greater quantity of data comes at the cost of much lower quality. There  would be no common definition of key attributes like “good condition” or, for that matter, no standards for what attributes to include. That means noisy, messy data—just the thing to make otherwise good analytics look bad.

So let CarMax be a reminder: Amid all the attention Internet-based businesses get for their unprecedented data opportunities, traditional businesses like used-car lots can be networked and data-intensified to compete in new ways as well.

Sunday, September 3, 2006

Follow Up: Harvesting Power from Human Motion at Large Scale

Last year, I speculated about whether it would be possible to harvest power from human motion on a large scale. “On a large scale” was the key part, since devices already exist to harvest power on a small scale, such as combat boots that generate a small amount of power while the wearer walks. To provide a contrasting example, I asked whether one could harvest the vibrational motion of a highway overpass as vehicles passed over.

Lately, architect Claire Price has been in the news with plans to try something along these lines. Here are a few excerpts from a recent BBC article by her:

Reading this, your body at rest is emitting about 100 watts into the environment. If you’re sitting in an open plan office, count the number of surrounding colleagues and you don’t need to be a maths genius to appreciate the possibilities of tapping into all that wasted energy....

“[H]eel-strike” generators, powered through the pumping motion of a footstep, can be embedded within a boot heel. These devices currently achieve upwards of 3 - 6 watts of power output. So the 34,000 commuters who pass through Victoria underground station at rush hour, for example, could theoretically generate enough energy to power 6,500 LED light fittings - energy that today is disappearing into the ground....

Elsewhere in the world, researchers are also looking into how energy harvesting devices can be embedded within roads or how they can be used to create a self-powering heart pacemaker or even an artificial limb....

We [Price’s UK-based firm, The Facility Architects] are applying and testing our ideas practically within a building project within the next year, including a sprung floor fitted with heel-strike generations to harvest the energy from people walking across it. This power output will then be wired back to provide the lighting within that building.

We also plan an LED light fitting with its own micro generator. This unit will convert vibrations from passing trains, lorries or planes to provide continuous light without the need for wiring into the grid.

As of last year, I was unable to find anything on the large-scale version of harvesting power from human motion. So I’m glad that whatever work was/is being done is now in the spotlight.

I hope it succeeds.