Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Best Regulation is Information

With the recent upheavals in the world financial markets there has already been calls to regulate. Arguably these calls are not wrong. The question, rather than should we regulate, is how and what do we regulate?

The financial crisis is one of market failure due to the lack of accurate and timely information about risk. The regulation needs to focus on correcting the issue of the markets providing accurate and timely information about risk.

The regulation needs to ensure that everyone involved in the market has knowledge of the real risk that various instruments and securities have. This will require the regulation of the ratings agencies as they failed to properly provide information on the risk involved in various securities. Or the rating of securities is handled by an independent body charged only with ensuring the risk of a security is accurately measured and information provided to the market.

The second bit of information is where the risk is. Here the accounting rules need to be change to ensure that risk cannot be shifted off-balance sheet so the risk "disappears". Essentially, if there is control and/or liability those risks need to show up on the balance sheet.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Mobilty, Facebook, Twitter and Social Cohesion

The Economist has an interesting article about mobility and its effect on society. In particular one anecdote of a plumber and a sociologist had a strong resonance.

"Richard Ling, a sociologist at Telenor, the largest Norwegian telephone company, and author of “New Tech, New Ties: How Mobile Communication Is Reshaping Social Cohesion”, was standing on his porch in Oslo one day, saying farewell to a few guests, when a plumber walked around the corner, talking on his mobile phone to what appeared to be his wife. Mr Ling, who had a leak in the kitchen, was expecting him. But the plumber took Mr Ling and his guests aback by walking right past them and into the house, where he took off his shoes and headed for the kitchen, chattering into his handset all the while."

The article goes on to talk about weak and strong social interactions. In this case the plumbers weak social interaction with the sociologist was overcome by the stronger interaction between the plumber and his wife. Or it could easily be the girl at the checkout counter chatting away to someone on their mobile phone while barely paying attention to the task of paying for their shopping. The anecdotes are there and very strong.

Now that strong social interactions are rarely limited by distance, they are easily overwhelming weak social interactions. But is this a problem? I think so. The weak social interactions are often with random people in every day life - bus drivers, commuters, shop assistants, doctors, police, people on the street, customers in a cafe - rather than with people we've selected as being a part of our "tribe". They are unlikely to be similar to us and this variety of social interaction helps us be less insular. In reading the article I was strongly reminded of one of my favourite quotes from Terry Pratchett.
"Individuals aren’t naturally paid-up members of the human race, except biologically. They need to be bounced around by the Brownian motion of society, which is a mechanism by which human beings constantly remind one another that they are... well....human beings."

The dominance of the stronger ties reduces the "Brownian" motion needed to make us human. This loss is what is disturbing about the "mobility" society. We are rapidly shutting out random acts of chance, of serendipity. Nor is it simply mobile phones. Social Networks such as Facebook also produce the same effect. Anything that promotes strong social interactions at the expense of weak ones are culpable.

Services such as Twitter and FriendFeed go towards promoting weak social interactions as a tweeter will not always "know" or have a previous strong social interaction with a follower. I do wonder, however, whether these virtual weak social interactions will again come to dominate over the face-to-face weak social interactions of every day lives.

Banning mobile phones, Facebook and Twitter is not an answer. These services and devices serve a strong purpose of facilitating communication and strengthening social ties. What we need to be aware of is the here and now. To recognise that at certain points the here and now of weak social interactions out weights strong social interactions.

Tags: Social Interactions, Mobile, The Economist, Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Amazon to buy a CDN?

Amazon is beefing up its AWS offerings. In the end making the menu of services much more enticing. Amazon's has reached a point that a whole startup can be cheaply and easily hosted with robust and reliable services. But that isn't the point of the post.

With S3 video startup's can store and transmit their video. Which if you take off like YouTube quickly becomes costly (for both Amazon and the startup). So how to address this issue? One method would be to use a CDN like system to distribute content to the edge. Amazon has several options 1) build its own, 2) buy an existing CDN or 3) partner with CDNs.

The structure of Amazon's computation infrastructure (particularly with the Zoning) could already allow for CDN like behaviour. The question is whether this is enough. I expect that it would require more development to get a proper CDN like behaviour working.

The second option buy an existing CDN would allow Amazon to avoid having to complicate S3 storage to give it behaviour like a CDN. Rather Amazon would like S3 to the CDN's existing infrastructure. Here I think Akamai is probably the best target for purchase. Allthough Limelight Networks is a possibility as well.

The third option partnerting with CDNs would provide AWS customers with the most choice. They get to choose which CDN they use and AWS makes the link between the S3 and the CDN very straight forward.

Dealing with the video/rich content distribution to the masses is something that Amazon is going to have to work on. It will be interesting to see the finial solution Amazon chooses to pursue.

Tags: Amazon, Amazon Web Services, CDN, Akamai, Limelight Networks

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Google App Engine is final leg of the strategy to disrupt social networks

With the announcement of Google App Engine and the resulting symphony (or cacophony) of conversation a lot has been said about cloud computing and Amazon's Web Services. For all the conversation not much has looked at the Facebook angel in detail.

Google App Engine strikes me less as a competitor to Amazon Web Services and more as the finial piece in the puzzle for creating a web-spanning social network. Google App Engine provides a place for applications to be built and hosted external to any social network. Coupled with Google's APIs for a users social network (the contact API), an identity mechanism (Google Accounts) and the OpenSocial APIs, everything that can be done in Facebook or any other social network can now be done by any application without having to be internal to any social network.

It is an innovative way of dealing with the issues of social networks by explicitly turning the web into a giant social network without walls.

Of course this will mean the very act of surfing could see you have a sheep tossed at you!

Tags: Google, Facebook, Google App Engine, Amazon,Amazon Web Services, Social Network, OpenSocial

Friday, April 04, 2008

Web2 Finance, Mobiles and Two Factor Authentication

A friend has just had problems with fraud and it got me thinking about two factor authentication and how web2 finance sites such as and Wesabe can play a role in making online fraud harder.

The Web2 Financial sites could Email and sms the individual whenever a payment or transaction is done to confirm the transaction before it is committed. Essentially the mobile phone (or email) becomes the second factor of authentication. No need to carry around a separate dongle or bit of hardware in order to make a transaction.

Implementation of this would require the companies to partner with the banks or online payment processors to get the realtime-ness need for the second means of authentication to be effective.

Banks and the payment processors could also do this as well and probably should. I would like to be able to receive an SMS to authorise ATM transactions or when paying by card at a shop prior to being the money being handed over. Not the ultimate solution to card cloning and pin card issues but it would certainly put a crimp in that type of fraud.

Web2 financial services have an advantage over the banks, credit cards and payment processors for the following reasons:

  • Online banking sites suck - badly
  • People often have many bank accounts, credit cards and setting them all up is likely to miss something. As the financial sites already aggregate this information they can act as single point for passing transactions through to authenticate
  • Many online payment processors are merchant focused and never have a relationship with user so can't really send an SMS or email
  • The financial sites are focused on the user while banks, credit cards and payment processors lack this focus
In the end the more services that offer this type of two factor authentication the better for reducing fraud. It isn't going to make it go away (phone and wallet stolen etc) but it can be reduced without having to roll out great numbers of bits of hardware.

Tags:, Wesabe, Two Factor Authentication, Mobile, Fraud, Online Payments, Web2