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Technology and the Economic Divide

Yelp Eat24 customer-support representative Talia Jane recently wrote a heart-wrenching blog about the difficulties she faced in living on her meager salary. “So here I am, 25 years old, balancing all sorts of debt and trying to pave a life for myself that doesn’t involve crying in the bathtub every week,” she wrote. Her situation was so dire that, on one occasion, she could not even come up with the train fare to work.  She lived on the junk food that they provide at work.

Her message was addressed to Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman.

What did the company do? It fired her on the spot. Yes, Jane made a mistake in posting this message on Medium rather than sending an email to Stoppleman. But her situation isn’t unique. She outlined the contours of a life that are familiar to many of the people working on the lowermost rungs of technology’s corporate ladder.

After a social media backlash, Stoppleman acknowledged that the cost of living in San Francisco is too high and tweeted that there needs to be lower-cost housing.

But the problem is more complex than San Francisco’s housing costs. The problem is the growing inequality and unfair treatment of workers. And technology is about to make this much worse and create a cauldron of unrest.

Silicon Valley is a microcosm of the problems that lie ahead. Sadly, some of its residents would rather brush away the poverty than face up to its ugly consequences. This was exemplified in a letter that Justin Keller, founder of Commando.io, wrote to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Police Chief Greg Suhr.  He complained that the “homeless and riff-raff” who live in the city are wrecking his ability to have a good time.

The Valley’s moguls do not overtly treat as inconveniences to themselves the bitter life trajectories that lead to experiences such as Keller complained of; but they have largely been in denial about the effects of technology. Other than a recent essay by Paul Graham on income inequality, there is little discussion about its negative impacts.

The fact is that automation is already decimating the global manufacturing sector, transforming a reliable mass employer providing middle-class income into a much smaller employer of people possessing higher-level educations and skills.

The growth of the “Gig Economy”—ad hoc work—is shifting businesses toward the goal of part-time, on-demand employment, with aggressive avoidance of obligations for health insurance and longer-term benefits. And the tech industry has a winner-takes-all nature, which is why only a few giant digital companies compete with each other to dominate the global economy.

A substantial part of the value they capture is concentrated at the center and mostly benefits a few shareholders, executives and employees. With technology advances and convergence, we are in the middle of a gold rush that is widening inequality.

Already, in Silicon Valley, the Google bus has become a symbol of this inequity. These ultra-luxurious, Wi-Fi–connected buses take workers from the Mission district to the GooglePlex, in Mountain View. The Google Bus is not atypical; most major tech companies offer such transport now. But so divisive are they that in usually liberal San Francisco, activists scream angrily about the buses using city streets and bus stops, completely ignoring the fact that they also take dozens of cars off the roads.

Teslas, too, have become symbols of the obnoxious techno-elite—rather than being celebrated for being environmentally game-changing electric vehicles. In short, there’s very little logic to the emotionally charged discussions—which is the same as what we are seeing at the national level with the presidential primaries.

Intellectuals are trying to build frameworks to understand why the divide, which first opened up in the 1990s, continues to worsen.

Thomas Piketty explained in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century that the economic inequality gap widens if the rate of return on invested capital is superior to the rate at which the whole economy grows. His proposed response is to redistribute income via progressive taxation.

A competing theory, by an MIT graduate student, holds that much of the wealth inequality can be attributed to real estate and scarcity. Silicon Valley has both: an explosion in wealth for investors and company founders, and a real-estate market constrained by limits on development.

We need to immediately address San Francisco’s housing crisis and raise wages for lower-skilled workers.

Both are possible; the region has enough land, and the industry has enough wealth. In the longer term, we will also need to develop safety nets, retrain workers and look into the concept of a universal basic income for everyone.

It is time to start a nationwide dialogue on how we can distribute the new prosperity that we are creating with advancing technologies.

Selling to Millennials Is Easy!

Recently, I’ve read more and more articles asserting that millennials are one of the most difficult consumer segments to nail down and serve. It’s a complicated equation with moving and changing variables, and every company is scrambling to find out which social media platform, which YouTube video and which new mobile app will give it the sustainable competitive advantage it needs to corner the market for millennials.

I’d actually argue it’s a simple equation. The classic formula is well understood:

Sales = Speed + Price + Service

But, just as Leonhard Euler’s clarification of Descartes formula will forever be known as “Euler’s Formula For Polyhedra” (F-E+V=2) and James Clerk Maxwell’s improvements on Michael Faraday’s pioneering work is still known as “Maxwell’s Equations” 170 years henceforth, I submit for your critique “McMyler’s Equations of Millennial Mathematics.”

First Postulate: 

Technology = (Greater Speed + Better Pricing + Superior Service)

or 

Technology = Sales^x

The emergence of technology in our everyday lives has changed the way this generation perceives the world and, in turn, its expectations from it. Technology has enabled us to do everything we used to do … faster, cheaper and, arguably, with better service. Millennials know this and prefer companies that embrace it.

But, at the end of the day, it’s the same basic calculus: It’s not because you have a hip YouTube video or a Facebook page, and it’s not because you have cool apps or tens of thousands of “likes.” It’s because you are able to do the basics … faster, cheaper and with better service.

Since even Einstein acknowledged that his famed E=MC^2 would be met with skepticism and therefore immediately set out to defend it, I feel I should do no less. And, so, for your consideration:

This past February I moved to a new apartment. As a skilled professional procrastinator, I waited eight weeks until the end of March to remember to purchase renter’s insurance.  I remembered this because it was Friday night. And it wasn’t just any Friday night, it was the Friday night before my Tuesday 4 a.m. sojourn to the airport for a restful vacation far from home. 

This unfortunate, yet real, situation demonstrated the morbid time limitations of the classic model or, essentially, the equation for getting quotes and purchasing insurance coverage. 

I hopped online to try and get some quotes. I called a mutual insurer who, in addition to having a solid insurance product, possessed the advanced technology platform that would allow me to get coverage in a timely manner … er, I mean …  test my mathematical hypothesis.

If the classic calculation describes time as measured by the activity of purchasing insurance, The McMyler’s Equations of Millennial Mathematics demonstrated how the time element of purchasing insurance in all its components could be shifted, bent and even stopped. 

I called the customer service number and was connected to the sales department. I asked a ton of coverage questions, all of which the woman was able to answer. When we were done, she emailed me my quote. Like a good little insurance geek, I thoroughly read through the entire policy (no lie, policy review is actually my favorite part of getting insurance) and emailed my supplemental list of questions. Within the hour, her electronic response almost magically appeared in my inbox. Along with the quote, I received a link to an eSign service to initial and sign the documents. Great, we were moving along! 

While that should be sufficient proof of the integrity of the McMyler’s Equations of Millennial Mathematics, I am willing to provide further proof.

As the Princess of Procrastination, it wasn’t until 6 a.m. at the airport – well, to be more specific, on the tarmac waiting to take off  that I remembered I forgot to sign those documents. So, I confidently pulled out my smartphone, accessed the email that would link me to the eSign URL, signed the documents, reviewed the confirmation and went on to have a (fabulous) vacation free of any worries about my apartment or insurance coverage.  (I did, however, continue to wonder if I locked the door and shut off the lights.)

The insurers definitively proved the McMyler’s Equations of Millennial Mathematics: it was faster than expected, at the right price, with flawless customer service provided through effective use of technology.

But, more than just my business, the insurers earned my loyalty. The mathematical probability of my leaving them approaches zero. Of course, because of the mathematician Zeno’s 2,500-year-old work, known as Zeno’s Paradox of the Tortoise and Achilles, it can approach but never achieve absolute zero. But I digress just long enough to complete my second postulate (also known as McMyler’s Constant):

Sales Mass = Circle of Influence  where Technology  ≥ the Customer’s Expectations.

In the great tradition of mathematicians, I seek thoughtful peer review.

Insurance Jobs of the (Near) Future

As the insurance industry continues its slow but steady journey into a digital future, the skills required by the insurance workforce of tomorrow will also change. Here is my take on some of the insurance jobs we can expect to see in (I hope) the near future.

Digital Forensic Investigator

It’s happening more and more – fraudsters submit an insurance claim only to have it thrown out because someone’s discovered footage showing the whole thing was staged. My two favorite examples of recent times are the pregnant woman case and the Bugatti Veyron case. With more of our lives shared online, it’s easy for insurers to check our digital alibis, and digital forensic investigators (basically people who get paid for trawling social media) are the mechanism to do this.

Cyber Actuary

Cyber insurance is becoming a must have for corporations, but it won’t be long until it becomes a must have for individuals, as well. To effectively price this insurance, a new breed of digital natives with actuarial skills will be required to work out the risk and loss associated with a personal hack of your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and email accounts.

Drone Pilot

If you’re currently working as an insurance assessor, I recommend you start learning how to fly a drone. On any given day in the future, you could have five drones at your command, each one automatically programmed with a flight path of claim sites to visit. As each drone arrives on site, you take manual control to get a good look with the on-board camera. Same job, but no more climbing roofs or visiting wreckers.

Telemedicine Nurse

Panel doctors beware! Five years from now, most medical examinations will be done at your local “telemedicine booth,” where you’ll self-assess using the same tools a doctor would use. A live telemedicine nurse, located anywhere in the world, will be on a video conference screen located in the booth to guide you through any tricky parts and to verify that it’s actually you taking the tests.

Internet of Things Solution Architect

It’s already possible to control many Internet-connected things in your home – televisions, fridges, air-conditioners, door locks, lamps and pet food dispensers – using smart phone apps. So, in theory, it should also be possible for these devices to notify you when they’ve been stolen (televisions), had food spoil because of a power failure (fridges) or been broken into (door locks), or when a pet stops eating and falls ill (pet food dispensers) – all of which are also insurable events. The challenge for IOT solution architects is to take the data and use it to trigger automated claim applications and approvals. It’s an exciting (though less private) future.

Have we missed anything?

These are just a few of the jobs that insurers can expect to start recruiting for shortly, if they haven’t already. Do you agree? Have we missed anything? Please comment below!

Why Women Are Smarter Than Men

Trying to compare intelligence and gender doesn’t typically yield much in the way of productive discussion, but sometimes research comes along that makes it worth opening this particular can of worms.

Decades of research show unequivocally that men and women are equal in general intelligence (IQ), but that isn’t the case when it comes to emotional intelligence (EQ). There are subtle, and not so subtle, differences in men’s and women’s expression and understanding of emotions that must be explored and understood.

Gender is a common place for people to assign labels around emotion. Such generalizations have pegged women as everything from the “fairer sex” to overly emotional, and men from emotionally aloof to explosive. You’ll find that none of these platitudes are true.

There’s an enormous amount of research suggesting that emotional intelligence (EQ) is critical to men’s and women’s performance at work. Emotional intelligence is responsible for 58% of performance in all types of jobs, and 90% of top performers are high in EQ.

“Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition.” -Timothy Leary

TalentSmart has tested the emotional intelligence of more than a million people, and it’s clear that women have the upper hand. While women’s overall EQ score is just a couple of points higher than men’s, this is a statistically significant difference that shows that women have greater skill in using emotions to their benefit.

It just doesn’t answer the pressing question: Why?

To understand why women outscore men, we have to look at scores for each of the four emotional intelligence skills by gender. There’s a reliable pattern in the data that points to some interesting explanations for the gap.

Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is how well you understand your own emotions in the moment, as well as how well you understand your tendencies-the people and situations you handle well and those that push your buttons. This is the one place where men and women have perfectly equal scores. It’s also a place where men have been given a bad rap. People often assume that men aren’t tuned in to their emotions or don’t understand them. Clearly, that isn’t the case. Of course, men also have a tendency to hop on this bandwagon-by feigning to have no awareness or understanding of their emotions-in the hope of avoiding any accountability for their actions. Now we know better.

Self-Management

Self-management is what you do with your emotions once you’re aware of them. Because you can’t make emotions disappear, effective self-management requires channeling your emotions into producing the behavior that you want. This is the one area where men outscored women. I believe that the best explanation for gender differences in emotional intelligence is how we are socialized growing up (reinforced by societal gender pressures we experience as adults). In the case of self-management, men are often expected to be emotionally “strong” and in control of their emotions, which may explain why they outscore women slightly.

Social Awareness

Social awareness is how well you understand the emotions and experience of other people. This requires the ability to tune in to body language and other unspoken signals, because people don’t usually come out and say what’s going on with them. This is an area where women outscore men by a fairly large margin (statistically speaking). This is also a skill that women are socialized to practice and possess from childhood in ways that men aren’t. Right or wrong, women are expected to take care of other people (and are rewarded for doing so). This gives them an upper hand when it comes to social awareness. Men, to their detriment, aren’t rewarded for social awareness in the same way that women are, and this carries over into adulthood.

Relationship Management

Relationship management is the pinnacle of emotional intelligence. It requires that you use self-awareness, self-management and social awareness in concert to better your relationships as you interact with other people. You cannot hope to get the most out of your interactions with other people until you understand your emotions, cue in to their emotions and use this knowledge to adjust your approach on the fly. Women have a slight edge in relationship management for reasons described in the social awareness section.

The Advantage

Emotional intelligence presents a significant advantage for women in the workplace. Whether you’re a man or a woman, don’t just sit back hoping that you’re one of the high-EQ types. EQ is a flexible skill that you can improve with effort. To that end, here are a few things that you can do to improve your EQ today:

Limit Your Caffeine Intake

Drinking excessive amounts of caffeine triggers the release of adrenaline, and adrenaline is the source of the fight-or-flight response. The fight-or-flight mechanism sidesteps rational thinking in favor of a faster response to ensure survival. This is great when a bear is chasing you but not so great when you’re responding to a curt e-mail. When caffeine puts your brain and body into this hyper-aroused state of stress, your emotions overrun your behavior. Caffeine’s long half-life ensures you stay this way as it takes its sweet time working its way out of your body. High-EQ individuals know that caffeine is trouble, and they don’t let it get the better of them.

Get Enough Sleep

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of sleep to increasing your emotional intelligence. When you sleep, your brain removes toxic proteins from its neurons that are by-products of neural activity when you’re awake. Unfortunately, your brain can remove them adequately only while you’re asleep. So when you don’t get enough sleep, the toxic proteins remain in your brain cells, wreaking havoc by impairing your ability to think. Skipping sleep impairs your brain function across the board. It slows your ability to process information and solve problems, kills your creativity and catapults your stress levels and emotional sensitivity. High-EQ individuals know that their self-control, attention and memory are all reduced when they don’t get enough sleep. So they make sleep a top priority.

Stop Negative Self-Talk in Its Tracks

The more you ruminate on negative thoughts, the more power you give them. Most of our negative thoughts are just that-thoughts, not facts. When it feels like something always or never happens, this is just your brain’s natural tendency to perceive threats (inflating the frequency or severity of an event). Emotionally intelligent people separate their thoughts from the facts to escape the cycle of negativity and move toward a positive, new outlook.

Appreciate What You Have

Taking time to contemplate what you’re grateful for isn’t merely the right thing to do; it also improves your mood because it reduces the stress hormone cortisol by 23%. Research conducted at the University of California, Davis, found that people who worked daily to cultivate an attitude of gratitude experienced improved mood, energy and physical well-being. It’s likely that lower levels of cortisol played a major role in this.

Why do you think women outscore men in emotional intelligence? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Financial Malware Uses Macros to Infect

A new breed of financially focused malware has cropped up, using new tactics to evade detection and infect harder-to-compromise systems.

The Dyre botnet has successfully compromised tens of thousands of victims in North America. Another banking trojan, Dridex, has successfully compromised thousands of systems in Europe and is increasingly targeting companies and users in the U.S. by sending Word documents carrying malicious macro scripts capable of installing the malware.

Security & Privacy News Roundup: Stay informed of key patterns and trends

Cloud-based security provider Proofpoint has focused on Dridex since it appeared late last year, tracking efforts by the groups to target companies with Dridex-laden spam. The attackers send out waves of spam every two or three days, using anywhere from two different e-mail templates to more than 1,000, depending on the group behind the attack.

The attacks usually last no longer than five hours, and few, if any, antivirus scanners detect the malware in time, says Wayne Huang, vice president of engineering at Proofpoint.

“I would say that they are persistent, but they are not APT (an advanced persistent threat) in that they are not focusing on certain organizations,” he says. “They spread malware primarily to monetize.”

The rapidly changing templates and the use of macros within Word documents are just two of the techniques that Dridex uses to be an efficient infector. More recent versions of the banking malware have used images to track the number of downloads, and the developers also have added features to foil detection and analysis by automated systems.

A number of anti-malware systems open suspicious files or run potentially questionable code in a virtual environment to check for malicious behavior. Yet, attackers have found ways to detect whether their code is running in such a “sandbox.” Initial attempts, for example, would just sleep for an hour or a day, because automated systems typically only executed the code for a few minutes.

Most current efforts, however, focus on the anomalies in the system in which the program is running. The developers behind the Dyre malware, for example, used a simple command to count the number of cores being used. Many virtual environments only use a single core for efficency, while multi-core systems are now ubiquitous.

Dridex, however, took a simpler tack: Because analysis systems tend to open the suspicious file and wait for any anomalous activity, Dridex is programmed to only execute when the malicious Word document is closed.

The evolution of Dridex has made it an effective vehicle for attacks, says Matt Huang, vice president of product management at Proofpoint.

“They have been really mutating their techniques, especially to avoid sandbox detection,” he says. “From very early on, they would change e-mail subjects and file titles. Now, we see a greater variety of techniques.”

A single attack often will result in hundreds of thousands of e-mails being sent out. The attackers have at least 1.3 billion e-mail addresses from which to choose, Huang says.

The attackers also are beginning to zero in on other financial targets, such as cryptocurrencies. In some cases, Dridex has downloaded a trojan known as Pony that can steal more than 30 different cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, from a dozen different types of digital wallets.

“Recently, they have been using Pony to steal wallets, because the use of virtual currency has picked up,” Huang says. “They have been quite successful.”