January 30, 2008

Rocky’s paper eater

Filed under: consumer electronics, random — Rakesh Agrawal @ 6:00 pm

The movers came today and loaded up all my stuff for the move West. I laughed out loud when I looked at the inventory and saw “paper eater” as the description for my shredder. And I think she packed the eaten but not digested paper, too.

The other amusing moment was when she stared at the Moviebeam and tried to describe it. I had to struggle to explain it, too. Relic destined for the trashbin of technological history?

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January 28, 2008

What would you do with $600?

Filed under: marketing, personal finance — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:10 pm

That question seems to be on a lot of people’s minds these days, thanks to the newly announced $150 billion stimulus package.

“I would like my check and I think everybody else feels the same way,” said David Wyss Chief Economist for Standard & Poor’s, defending the package.

Let’s be intellectually honest. Wyss is not getting a check. I’m not getting a check. Given the demographics of my readers, chances are that you’re not getting a check either. (Sorry.) The giveaway begins to phase out at $75,000 in income for individuals and $150,000 for couples. It’s also intellectually dishonest to call the giveaway a “rebate,” given that many of the recipients don’t pay federal income taxes.

On CNN last week, anchor Tony Harris asked CNN personal finance editor Gerri Willis (neither of whom are likely to be getting checks) what he should do with his check. Her answer: use it to pay down credit card debt. And if you don’t have debt? Invest it.

That’s sound personal finance advice. If I were getting a check, that’s what I’d do. Unfortunately, if everyone did that, it wouldn’t accomplish the goals of the stimulus package. There are a lot of questions about whether the giveaways will stimulate the economy anyway, but they certainly won’t if people just put them in the bank. Good thing few Americans ever listen to personal finance experts.

Another challenge with the giveaways is that different types of spending have different impacts on the economy. $600 spent at Wal-Mart has a much lesser impact on the U.S. economy than $600 spent taking a trip to Chicago.

The marketer, economics geek and fiscal conservative in me thinks there’s a better way. Instead of mailing out paper checks at taxpayer’s expense, do a deal with VISA, MasterCard or American Express to issue the giveaways as debit cards.

The credit card companies pick up the administrative costs of the program in exchange for the interchange rate on the transactions. Because it’s a debit card, you can’t just take the money and put it in the bank or use it to offset fixed expenses like rent or a mortgage. You pretty much have to spend it. And economists and policy wonks could get hard data on where people spend money that’s dropped in their laps.

You could even code the cards so that they can only be used on purchases most likely to stimulate the economy, such as domestic travel and eating out.

January 27, 2008

Starting cars for dummies

Filed under: fun, random, usability — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:05 am

You turn the key and the engine goes vroom. That’s how you start a car. In the more than 10 years since I started driving, there have been a lot of change in cars. I’ve seen the addition of safety features like airbags and antilock brakes. Once luxury items like air conditioning and keyless entry have become standard on all but the lowest-end models. Navigation systems and speech recognition have become available. But starting the car has been the same.

That’s why I was thrown for a loop this week when Avis gave me a Nissan Altima Hybrid. There were three parts that made the usability of the Altima tricky

  • The key itself looks like the fobs that most cars have.
  • The start/stop button that takes the place of the keyhole.
  • The electric motor.

Altima Hybrid starter

You don’t put the key in and turn. In fact, you don’t have to put the key in it at all. As long as the key is in the car, you can start the car by putting your foot on the brake and hitting the start button. (I figured this out thanks to a cryptic informational display that appeared when I was simply pressing the start button.)

The fact that you don’t have to have the key in the ignition also makes stopping and parking tricky. I parked, walked out of the car, locked the doors and went into the office. When I returned at the end of the day, the car was still running. Because the car is silent when in electric mode, I didn’t realize the car was still on when I parked. (Hybrid cars also present a problem for blind pedestrians at intersections, because they can’t hear them coming.) I still don’t know whether someone could’ve driven off with the car during the day.

Keeping track of the key is also fun. Unlike other cars with the fancy keys, the Altima seems to require that you press a button to unlock the door. You can’t just keep the key in your pocket, grab the handle and have it open automatically like on the Prius. I could never remember if I put the key in my jacket pocket, jeans or in the console. There is a place to put the key in the dash, but it’s not where the ignition slot usually is.

The valets at my hotel also seemed to have a hard time with the car. We couldn’t figure out why the trunk release wouldn’t work. It turns out that the car was still on (though silent) and there is an interlock that prevents the trunk from opening when the car is on. The interlock should really be tied to whether the car is in park.

It’s probably not fair to judge these features based on my experience as a casual user for a week. If I owned the car, I’d certainly get used to these quirks and would likely come to appreciate them.

But with such a radical departure from a long held user experience, there need to be design elements to ease the transition. I certainly don’t want a repeat of “the door is ajar” from the K-Car of the 80s, but some sort of reminder that this dummy left the car on would be nice. Or an ignition cutoff if the key is removed from the car for more than 15 minutes.

Altima RFID key

January 12, 2008

Weekly Reader – Jan. 12, 2008 – Tasing to your tunes, connected car

Filed under: consumer electronics, weekly reader — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:31 am

Busy with CES and the new job this week, so I didn’t get to do a whole lot of reading. These caught my eye:

  • CES Video: Gadget of the day (Los Angeles Times) – Taser has introduced a stun gun with an integrated MP3 player. The fashion (un?)conscious can get it in leopard print. Left unanswered is whether you can play tunes while you’re tasing someone. Maybe next year they’ll add a video screen so you can watch the “Don’t tase me bro” video while you tase someone.
  • Autos becoming vibrant electronics hub (AP) – A big theme of CES, including a keynote by GM CEO Rick Wagoner, is the increasingly rapid integration of consumer electronics into the car. Audio, navigation and Internet technologies are rapidly converging in the car. Convergence seems to be happening faster on the car’s screen than the TV screen.
    This story was written by my college roommate, Brian Bergstein. I bumped into him while waiting in a cab line at The Venetian. Check out the rest of Brian’s great CES coverage.

January 7, 2008

Packaged pani puri as progress

Filed under: random — Rakesh Agrawal @ 7:48 am

A few years ago at the TV Critics Association press tour my friend Neal asked NBC head Jeff Zucker why there weren’t any South Asians on ER. Anyone who has been to a hospital knows that they’re full of South Asians. Zucker replied that Ming Na was on ER. Na is Chinese.

Fast forward to today and you have Parminder Nagra on ER. (One of these days they might even get her an Indian love interest.) Ironically, the Alec Baldwin character on 30 Rock (who is the show’s Zucker) has a South Asian assistant played by Maulik Pancholy.

South Asians have made it beyond the stereotypical TV and movie roles of brainy computer geeks. You can find South Asian drug dealers (Pancholy in Weeds) and smart slackers (Kal Penn in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle).

Comcast offers Bollywood Movies on Demand. My parents are addicted to Netflix’s giant Bollywood selection.

South Asians have made their mark on journalism, too. CNN features two South Asians in prominent roles, with Kiran Chetry anchoring its American Morning newscast and Dr. Sanjay Gupta as its chief medical correspondent. Ali Velshi has a slightly lesser role as a senior business correspondent and host of CNN’s Your Money. A research note: CNN’s official biographies of the three make no mention of their ethnicities. That in itself is great.

Fareed Zakaria is the editor of Newsweek International and a frequent panelist on This Week with George Stephanopoulos. He is one of the sharpest minds in international relations. My friend Sree Sreenivasan, among many other accomplishments, is the tech reporter for WNBC-TV in New York.

(Hmm… I’m feeling like a slacker all of a sudden.)

Indian influence has extended to the grocery. As India has industrialized and the demand for Indian food in the United States has increased, even ordinary grocery stores like Giant and Cub offer shelf-stable Indian food. My favorites are the shelf-stable vegetable dishes at Trader Joe’s. Combine those with the naan from the freezer section and you’ve got a complete Indian meal. Their pav bhaji lets you sample Indian street food without the stomach difficulties.

There is a downside to all this progress: I don’t get as much made-from-scratch home cooking when I visit the parents. Instead of mom soaking and grinding the lentils for dosas, the batter comes from a mix.

The puri for pani puri comes from half way around the world. India’s cheap labor and worldwide shipping means that you can buy a kit with 30 puris, filling, and sauce for $3.99 at the Indian grocer. That undercuts the local guy who sells his homemade puris at 20 for $5, without the extras.

But mom knows I don’t like the boondi filling for my pani puri and makes my preferred potato filling. There are limits to progress.

Pani puri kit imported from India

January 6, 2008

Fly me to the trough

Filed under: random, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:38 am

The Spirit of Pigcinnati

“The Spirit of Pigcinnati,” Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, Kentucky. Creative Commons image by flickr user richmanwisco.

USA Today reports that the government is wasting $110 million each year flying empty planes, another great example of Congressional pork. The “Essential” Air Service program provides substantial subsidies to regional airlines to fly routes that aren’t economically self sustaining. The subsidies sometimes provide $1,300 per passenger to save them a two hour drive.

Even the people paying the bills don’t like it:

The subsidy program has drawn steady criticism — namely from DOT administrators, who say it wastes money by providing what amounts to luxury travel to people within driving distance of a larger airport. But the subsidies have expanded in recent years, thanks to strong backing from Congress, airlines and airports.

“Clearly, what we’re doing now is not working because the list of cities getting the (subsidized) service is growing,” says Andrew Steinberg, the DOT’s assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs. “The goal here should be to get sustainable solutions where the marketplace provides service. Unless we change our approach, the cost will go up.”

I nearly rolled over in laughter at this line: “‘It helps the city’s image. It helps our possibilities of continuing to recruit Fortune 500 companies,’ Jackson [Tennessee] Mayor Jerry Gist says.” Um, yeah, that’s what is holding them back.

The story points out the incredible ROI on Congressional bribery lobbying: Mesa Airlines created a lobbying group for $837,000. It’s share of EAS subsidies increased from $6.3 million a year to $15.4 million. Mesa’s CEO calls it a “good investment.” I’ll say. I’d love those kind of returns.

Two other side effects of this wasteful spending are ignored: the effect on global warming and the effect on our air traffic control system.

Those empty planes have to land somewhere. That somewhere is usually a congested hub airport. It takes similar amounts of ATC resources to land a jumbo jet with 300 people as it does a regional jet with 2 people. Congress’ flying pigs unfairly hog our limited air travel resources.

via Robert Franklin

January 5, 2008

Weekly Reader – Jan. 5, 2008 – Pricing, advertising and DVRs

Filed under: advertising, marketing, television, weekly reader — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:13 pm

This week’s interesting reads:

  • Some thoughts on pricing (Redeye VC) – First Round Capital’s Josh Kopelman examines pricing strategies. He starts with pricing of soda in a hotel and found a range of $1 to $4.50. The overall range is incredible — you can get the same amount of soda for 35c to $6. Even airfares don’t vary this much on a percentage basis. How do you pick among various choices if the only thing you know is the name of the company and the price? When it involves child care, he goes with the most expensive.
  • Ad Houses Will Need to Be More Nimble (WSJ) – The Journal takes a look at the challenges facing ad agencies as clients demand more accountability and integrated campaigns. Agencies have largely been slow to adopt to the rapidly changing media environment and audience fragmentation.
  • Looking at Data Through a DVR (WSJ) – The advertising business continues its slow march from relationship-based buying to data-based buying. As DVRs and settop boxes proliferate, they increase the amount of real data advertisers have to work with. Services like Tivo’s StopWatch allow advertisers to get second-by-second response data.
    The right way to do TV advertising is to insert commercials dynamically at playback instead of a static recording at the time of transmission. Unfortunately, there are many structural barriers to this happening. This is likely to happen first in Web-based playback and will migrate to the TV.

January 4, 2008

‘Tellme about your new gig’

Filed under: personal — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:34 pm

Tellme logoI have accepted a new job doing product marketing at Tellme Networks for their automotive consumer services. If you’re saying “WTF?,” well, let’s just say that it’s an exciting opportunity to invent the future.

Tellme is located in Mountain View, Ca. I’ll be starting on Monday with a week at CES in Las Vegas. If you’re in Las Vegas next week, lemme know!

I will soon be moving from DC to California. If you know of great 1 BR apartments near CalTrain in SF, lemme know!

Whenever you hear job search advice, they always talk about the power of networking. My search was no different. I’ve been fortunate to have the support and advice of many friends and colleagues. Special thanks to Mark Schulze, Carl Wartzack, Mike Sommers, Chamath Palihapitiya, Jeff Silbert, Jeff Patton, Charles Wilson, Jonathan Gaw, Arnaud Fischer, Mona Dessouki, Dariusz Paczuski, Kim Moy, Jim Simmons, Adam Lasnik, Jim Bankoff, Sree Sreenivasan, Wanita Niehaus, Farhan Memon and Mark Canon.

If you’re visiting the Bay Area, please look me up.

The Silver is the New Black Theme. Blog at


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