Päivän heitto, 29.2.2012

Voiko kunnan liikeyritys olla radikaalin läpinäkyvä, vai estääkö laki sen?

Moni kilpailutus menee pieleen, kun tilaaja voi tuijottaa vain numeroita muttei totuutta niiden takana. Läpinäkyvyys ei välttämättä ole osallistuvien yhtiöiden etu, mutta väitän että se on aina asiakkaan etu.

Kunnallisessa toiminnassa (esimerkiksi jätehuollossa) kunta on joskus sekä asiakas että yksi kilpailevista toimittajista. Vaikka tässä on ongelmansa, se avaa mielenkiintoisia mahdollisuuksia. Kunnan omistama yhtiö joutuu kilpailemaan samoilla ehdoilla kuin muutkin. Kunta hankkeen tilaajana ei saa asettaa sitä erityisasemaan. Mutta entäpä kunta yrityksen omistajana?

Toisin sanoen: mitä tapahtuu jos yhtiön omistajat — eli kuntalaiset — vaativat yhtiöltä radikaalia läpinäkyvyyttä? Konkreettisesti se tarkoittaa, että yhtiö julkaisee tarjouspyynnön yhteydessä tietoja, jotka ns “terveen järjen” perusteella olisivat liikesalaisuuksia. Yritys saattaa voittaa kilpailun, tai olla voittamatta. Lopputuloksena kilpailjat joka tapauksessa tietävät yhtiöstä paljon enemmän kuin olisi tarpeen.

Samalla kuitenkin kuntalaiset saavat toimialasta tietoa, joka muutoin jäisi pimentoon.   Strategia saattaa myös hitaasti muuttaa ilmapiiriä avoimemmaksi; mitä useampi yritys tällaista linjaa noudattaa, sitä suuremmat paineet kaikille muillekin tulee. Kuntalaisten kannalta “uhraus” saattaisi siis kannattaa, vaikka se olisikin itse yritykselle liiketaloudellisesti huono.

Liikeyrityksen tehtävä vain on tuottaa omistajilleen voittoa ja lisäarvoa. Tämä strategia ei tuota kumpaakaan. Periaatteessa outojen tai huonojen päätösten tekeminen ei ole laitonta, jos omistaja ne hyväksyy. Mutta onko se käytännössä osakeyhtiölain vastaista?

En tiedä, siksi kysyn.

“Päivän heitto” on Zygomatican versio twiittauksesta. Joidenkin
kysymysten miettimiseen kannattaa kuluttaa vartti, ei enempää eikä
vähempää.

Aviation safety: We made a mistake and learned, or did we?

 

 

Before Jakke’s post on aviation safety we had a discussion on the likelihood of airlines documenting accidents on their web sites. I think it would be a good thing to actually show when mistakes are made. It would be especially good to show what has been learned and how the organization has responded to improve safety. That being said, we all thought that no info would be available.

To complement Jakke’s findings I searched for the most recent fatal and non-fatal accident for  a semi-random collection of airlines. I then made an attempt to find information (or at least some reference) to those accidents on the web pages of the respective airlines. I mainly used Wikipedia as a source of accident dates since it is easy to use, fairly trustworthy and also lists non-fatal accidents for many airlines. If nothing was found for an airline, I tried googling a bit to check if it was likely that there had actually been no accidents. Altogether I went through info on 46 airlines.

Contrary to what we thought, information is  available. Sometimes cases that took place before ARPANET was functional can be found. In the figure below, each of the accidents I found is shown with a dot at the year it happened. The count goes up each time I was able to find the accident in the web site of the airline. As can be seen, most of the references were found when the accident date was after the year 2000 (steep slope at the end). This is natural if the web site is not considered to be a repository.

In 37 cases I found a fatal accident related to an airline, and in 10 of those cases there was a reference to that accident in the web site. This may not sound like much, but it was much more that I believed it would be. But, and there is a but, this info was not meant for customers. It isn’t very in-depth info either. It is mostly a short paragraph in a financial statement or a press release. In the figure below from left the pillars are: number of airlines that were checked for a known accident, number of airlines that had a reference to the accident, number of cases where the reference was in a financial statement, number of cases where the reference was in a press release and number of cases where the reference was somewhere else on the web site.

While I’m kind of happy that there is honesty about the fact that there are accidents and incidents, I’m disappointed at the level of technical info released. For example in only one case did I find a link to the accident investigation report, here.

While I was looking for this info I also made some other notes related to this subject, and will write more about them in another post.

Some more info and less opinions is available here, and the spreadsheet I used can be seen here. This post is part of our “Is aviation safety a shameful thing?” project.

 

Examiner of Silly Patents, Part 1: Subliminal eyeglasses

Jakke Mäkelä

Every now and then I will take a silly patent and pretend it’s not silly. I will analyze and defend it in all faux-seriousness (see disclaimer at the end).  Usually I cannot defend it, but learn something in the process anyways. [Suomeksi/Finnish: Patenttimörökölli, osa 1]

One excellent resource for crazy patents is here.  Some of them would not make sense even in a parallel universe, but some of them can be explained. Up to a point.  I will start with one that I find endearing:  US 5,175,571 from 1992: “Glasses with subliminal message”. The idea, in short, is to project subliminal messages onto the glasses of the user (for more information on subliminal stimuli, see here).

The patent mentions (without citing sources) that subliminal messaging has been used successfully in the form of audio tapes and “can have significant results in producing character and behaviour improvement …. [and] are also said to produce greater success in business or in personal relationships or in sports”.

The novelty of the invention is that “similar if not better results can be obtained from subliminal-type suggestion, to which the subject is exposed more or less on a continuous basis even while he is engaged in other activities.”  The subconscious images can be either printed onto the glass, or removable disks can be used. The messages can be words, or “for persons with a personality problem such as an inferiority complex or a persecution complex, the graphics might simply be a single face, with a happy smile”.

Indeed. Nevertheless this is a credible patent! Even if subliminal messaging has not been proven to work, it is not physically impossible. (Physically impossible ideas, such as perpetual motion machines, cannot be patented even in the United States).The patent has been cited in later patents, including a design patent for pet sunglasses. There is nothing technically wrong with it.

The minor catch? Subliminal messaging  does not work.

However, I see a way to extend the idea. There are very narrow cases  where subliminal messages affect behavior. A weak effect was seen when a thirsty user had to choose between two equivalent  types of soft drink. Subliminal messages at the exact right moment can influence the choice of brand.  The effect is probably very small, but for a manufacturer even a tiny effect might be worthwhile, since in general advertising is not very effective.

What is needed to make US 5,175,571 work? The application needs to focus on advertising rather than psychological well-being. Take soft drinks. A manufacturer could purchase “space” on the glasses. The glasses need to be context-aware, to know when the user is near the soft-drinks section of a store. This is challenging but doable, for example by including a tiny camera within the glass frame and analyzing any bar codes that the camera manages to catch, or perhaps by using an RFID reader.

There are even more possibilities if the stores collaborate. Put a  Bluetooth receiver in the glasses, and Bluetooth transmitters in the store that identify the aisle. When the glasses detect that the user is at the soft-drink aisle, the subliminal ad is projected to the lenses. Thus the user gets the subliminal message at the only time when it can make a difference: at the exact moment of choice.

Even this version of the patent is silly, of course. Technically speaking, subliminal advertising is illegal in many countries. Even if the legal issues can be ignored: why on earth would anyone agree to wear such glasses?

In principle my attempt is a failure: I simply replaced one silly patent with another silly patent. But still I believe that the exercise was interesting. Things are not always what they seem to be.

Full set of Examinations of Silly Patents: click here.

Disclaimer: these analyses have very little to do with anything, and in particular have nothing to do with legal issues. Most of the patents cited are expired (or should be). I do not touch the “claims” section, which is the legally relevant part. These blogs constitute prior art, so that any new any ideas expressed here can no longer be patented.

Patenttimörökölli, Osa 1: Subliminaaliset silmälasit

Jakke Mäkelä

Maailmasta löytyy mielin määrin patentteja, joiden tekijöiden mielenterveyttä tekisi mieli epäillä. Parhaita on listattu esimerkiksi täällä.  Niille on helppo nauraa. Siksi teenkin päinvastoin, ja otan ne haudanvakavasti (ks huomautus kirjoituksen lopussa). Koitan selvittää, onko päättömissäkin patenteissa sittenkin päätä. Usein ei ole, mutta matkan varrella ainakin oppii jotakin.  [English version: click here].

Ensimmäinen löytöni on  US 5,175,571 vuodelta 1992: “Glasses with subliminal message”. Subliminaaliviestejä esittävät silmälasit. Idea: heijastetaan silmälasien linsselle viestejä, joita käyttäjä ei tietoisesti huomaa, mutta jotka vaikuttavat alitajuisesti. (Lisää aiheesta täältä sekä täältä).

Patentti kertoo (lähteitä mainitsematta) että subliminaalista viestintää on käytetty menestyksellä ainakin kasettinauhoituksissa, ja (vapaasti käännettynä) “sillä voidaan parantaa luonnetta ja käytöstä…. ja sen väitetään tuovan menestystä liike-elämässä, henkilökohtaisissa suhteissa ja urheilussa”.   

Keksinnön uutuus ääninauhaan verrattuna on, että “samanlaisia tai jopa parempia tuloksia saadaan, jos käyttäjään kohdistuu subliminaalista viestintää jatkuvasti, myös silloin kun hän ei kuuntele nauhoitusta”. Alitajuiset viestit voidaan joko painaa suoraan linsseille, tai sitten voidaan käyttää vaihdettavia levyjä. Viestit voivat olla sanallisia, mutta “jos henkilö kärsii esimerkiksi alemmuuskompleksista tai vainoharhaisuudesta, viesti voi yksinkertaisesti koostua onnellisesti hymyilevästä naamasta.”

Niinpä. Tämä on kuitenkin teknisesti täysin pätevä patentti. Vaikkei subliminaalinen viestintä toimisikaan, se ei ole fysikaalisesti mahdotonta. (Jopa USA:n patenttiviranomaiset  kieltäytyvät  nykyään myöntämästä patenttia mahdottomille asioille, kuten ikiliikkujille). Tätä nimenomaista patenttia on siteerattu myöhemminkin, esimerkiksi kun on haettu mallisuojaa  lemmikkieläinten aurinkolaseille. Se on siis patentti siinä missä muutkin.

Pieni ongelma? Subliminaalinen viestintä ei toimi.

Näen kuitenkin tavan, jolla ideaa voisi kehittää. Viime vuosina on huomattu erikoistapauksia joissa alitajuinen viestintä voi vaikuttaa hienovaraisesti käytökseen. Pieni vaikutus on huomattu silloin, jos janoinen käyttäjä laitetaan valitsemaan itselleen juoma. Subliminaalinen viesti juuri ennen valintaa voi kääntää tilanteen tietyn juomamerkin eduksi. Vaikutus on pieni. Silti se voi kannattaa, koska yleisesti ottaen mainostaminenkaan ei toimi.

Miten patenttia US 5,175,571 siis pitäisi muokata? Sovelluksen täytyisi keskittyä mainostamiseen, ei henkilökohtaiseen kehittymiseen. Virvoitusjuomat ovat erinomainen esimerkki. Valmistaja voisi ostaa “tilaa” silmälaseilta. Lasien täytyy vain tietää onko käyttäjä virvoitusjuomien lähellä. Tämä on haastavaa muttei mahdotonta. Tiedon voi saada esimerkiksi pienellä kameralla tutkimalla onko näkökentässä juomiin viittaavia viivakoodeja, tai vaikkapa RFID-lukijalla.

Mahdollisuudet moninkertaistuvat jos kauppa on järjestelmässä mukana. Bluetooth-lukija laseihin ja Bluetooth-lähetin kaupan hyllyyn. Kun lasit tajuavat että käyttäjä on virvoitusjuomahyllyjen lähellä, ne alkavat heijastaa subliminaalista viestiä linsseihin. Käyttäjää saa siis alitajuisen viestin sillä ainoalla hetkellä jolloin sillä voi olla vaikutusta: juuri kun hän tekee valintaa.

Ei tässäkään versiossa varsinaista järkeä ole. Sovellusta hankaloittaa esimerkiksi se, että subliminaaliviestintä on laitonta. Ja vaikka ei olisikaan: kuka täysjärkinen tällaisia laseja käyttäisi?

Periaatteessa siis en onnistunut ottamaan patenttia vakavasti. Muokkausehdotukseni on yhtä typerä kuin alkuperäinenkin. Mutta harjoitus oli silti mielenkiintoinen.

Kaikki Patenttimörökölliraportit: klikkaa tästä.

Huomautus: en käytä nimitystä “patenttimörökölli” sattumalta. Patenttipeikot ovat patenttimaailmassa hankala ja vakavasti otettava tekijä. Minä en ole. Näillä analyyseillä ei ole juurikaan tarkoitusta, eikä ainakaan mitään laillista merkitystä. En ota mitään kantaa varsinaisiin juridisiin väitteisiin. Näissä blogeissa mahdollisesti esiintyviä uusia ideoita ei lain mukaan enää voi patentoida, jos kohta ei kannatakaan.


Is aviation safety a shameful thing?

 

“Why do airlines stay so silent about safety issues? “

By almost any measure, flying is the safest way to move long distances. Most airlines make massive investments into safety. Yet to our surprise, we have found that it is difficult for a casual outsider to find out precisely what the airlines are doing with that invested money.  All airlines have a safety culture, yet this culture is opaque to outsiders. I found that only 35% of airlines even wish to mention safety on their web pages.

Silence certainly does not benefit the customers of an airline. Customers should be able to make informed choices, and this includes understanding the safety record. How can the average person find such information? It  doesn’t benefit the airlines either. In a culture of silence, safety only becomes visible when disaster strikes. The easiest way for an outsider to understand the airline’s safety culture is to read accident investigation reports on how it failed (from NTSBAAIBOTKESSHKBEA, and the like). This is hardly positive advertising.

I asked a simple question: just how opaque do the airlines want to be?  To answer, I went clicking through the web pages of 83 major airlines. The scanning was purposely quick, to simulate an ordinary customer who wants to know what general attitude the airline has toward safety. If a company provided concrete safety information, it was marked as “safety-positive”. Full report (pdf): Airlines are safe; why try to hide it.

I found only 35% of airlines to be safety-positive. To put it another way,  almost 65% of airlines try to downplay the role of safety, to the level of ignoring the question altogether in their communications.

I made some further analyses to determine what might lie behind this fact.  It is important to realize that the essential safety standards around the world are quite similar. All of the airlines in this sample fulfill some standards that could be legitimately used to show that there is a safety culture in place. It is very much a communications decision whether or not the airline wishes to emphasize this point.

I gave the benefit of the doubt as much as possible.  A sentence on a “safety as our priority” means nothing. However, any attempt at a more concrete desciption (even a clumsy one)  was credited. Information on engineering, maintenance, or safety-related technology was considered safety-positive even if the term “safety” was not used explicitly. Such information at least gives the impression that aviation is a technical activity requiring technical care. The analysis is not about how slick the presentation is; it is about whether a good-faith attempt is made.

This is crucial when comparing airline to airline. A poor airline may have just one page of information about the company. If that single page contains a single paragraph about the safety standards that the company follows, then the airline is safety-positive. At the other extreme, a large airline may have dozens of flashy pages on issues like corporate social responsibility, environment, and sponsorships. If such a company fails to even mention safety as a topic, it is deliberate.

The call was surprisingly easy to make. Airlines seem to either put a heavy emphasis on safety, or else avoid the topic altogether; there is not much middle ground.  The results were somewhat surprising. Only 35% of airlines even mentioned safety or technical issues. The majority essentially try to paint an image of aviation as a non-technical activity that entails no risk. Some other key findings (more extensively discussed in the report):


  • 65% of the safety-positive airlines are from developing countries with poor track records of safety. Africa and the former Soviet Union were heavily represented.  Quite clearly, concrete safety actions are clearly used to to improve trust in the airline’s safety.
  • Safety-positiveness is not just a “weapon of the weak”; large and successful airlines such as British Airways, Air Canada, Air Berlin, and All Nippon Airways all had extensive safety sections.
  • Two airlines, Garuda Indonesia and Pakistan International Airways, have briefly been on the EU blacklist of airlines banned from flying to the EU due to poor security. Interestingly, the safety sections of these airlines were among the most extensive in the sample.
  • Only 2 low-cost carriers out of 16 (12%) were safety-positive. The web page information for many low-cost carriers is extremely scanty in any case, so there may be a general attitude toward minimal communication. However, the two counterexamples (Norwegian and Pegasus) suggest that a low-cost structure does not fundamentally require such reticence; those two companies have a very strong focus on safety.
  • A striking feature is that US companies seem to be the most averse to safety-positiveness; of the 9 US companies studied, none mentioned safety at all.
  • A similar reluctance was seen in Middle Eastern companies, where only one of six companies had any safety information.

These results do not imply anything about what airlines should do; they simply point out what the airlines are currently doing. However, the scatter in the results does suggest that there is no fundamental reason to keep safety information hidden; transparency about safety is a communications and business decision.

Since the results from this initial study were so intriguing, we have launched a new Zygomatica project to find out more.

Ratkaisuihin ongelmia / Solutions in search of a problem

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