Your Face is Going Places You May Not Like

Many Chinese cities, among them Ningbo, are investing heavily in AI and facial recognition technology. Uses range from border control — at Shanghai’s international airport and the border crossing with Macau — to the trivial: shaming jaywalkers.

In Ningbo, cameras oversee the intersections, and use facial-recognition to shame offenders by putting their faces up on large displays for all to see, and presumably mutter “tsk-tsk”. So it shocked Dong Mingzhu, the chairwoman of China’s largest air conditioner firm, to see her own face on the wall of shame when she’d done nothing wrong. The AIs had picked up her face off of an ad on a passing bus.

False positives in detecting jaywalkers are mostly harmless and maybe even amusing, for now. But the city of Shenzhen has a deal in the works with cellphone service providers to identify the offenders personally and send them a text message, and eventually a fine, directly to their cell phone. One can imagine this getting Orwellian pretty fast.

Facial recognition has been explored for decades, and it is now reaching a tipping point where the impacts of the technology are starting to have real consequences for people, and not just in the ways dystopian sci-fi has portrayed. Whether it’s racist, inaccurate, or easily spoofed, getting computers to pick out faces correctly has been fraught with problems from the beginning. With more and more companies and governments using it, and having increasing impact on the public, the stakes are getting higher.

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Your BOM is not your COGS

“The prototype was $12 in parts, so I’ll sell it for $15.” That is your recipe for disaster, and why so many Kickstarter projects fail. The Bill of Materials (BOM) is just a subset of the Cost of Goods Sold (COGS), and if you aren’t selling your product for more than your COGS, you will lose money and go out of business.

We’ve all been there; we throw together a project using parts we have laying around, and in our writeup we list the major components and their price. We ignore all the little bits of wire and screws and hot glue and time, and we aren’t shipping it, so there’s no packaging to consider. Someone asks how much it cost, and you throw out a ballpark number. They say “hey, that’s pretty reasonable” and now you’re imagining making it in volume and selling it for slightly higher than your BOM. Stop right there. Here’s how pricing really works, and how to avoid sinking time into an untenable business.

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Inventor Services – Maybe Right For You – Maybe

You’ve no doubt been exposed to the ads for various inventor services; you have an idea, and they want to help you commercialize it and get the money you deserve. Whether it’s helping you file legal paperwork, defending your idea, developing it into a product, or selling it, there’s a company out there that wants to help. So which ones are legit, which ones are scams, and what do you really need to make your millions?

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Planned Obsolescence Isn’t A Thing, But It Is Your Fault

The common belief is that big companies are out to get the little people by making products that break after a short period, or with substantially new features or accessories that make previous models obsolete, requiring the user to purchase a new model. This conspiracy theory isn’t true; there’s a perfectly good explanation for this phenomenon, and it was caused by the consumers, not the manufacturers.

When we buy the hottest, shiniest, smallest, and cheapest new thing we join the wave of consumer demand that is the cause of what often gets labelled as “Planned Obsolescence”. In truth, we’re all to blame for the signals our buying habits send to manufacturers. Dig in and get your flamewar fingers fired up.

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The Challenges of Shipping From China – Life of a Flailing Tube Man

Last summer was an exercise in developing a completely different kind of product from my normal wheelhouse; a costume. My Halloween costume had been so popular that I decided to have a go at commercializing it, and that took me on a path into manufacturing that I hadn’t yet taken; shipping by boat from China. The short version is it’s a ridiculously difficult mess. Continue reading “The Challenges of Shipping From China – Life of a Flailing Tube Man”

What to Expect When You’re Expecting – A Trademark

A trademark represents a brand, so it can be words like “Apple”, including made up words like “Kleenex”. It can be symbols, like the Nike swoosh. It can also be colors, like UPS brown, and even scents like the flowery musk scent in Verizon stores. Filing a trademark in the United States is surprisingly easy. With a couple hundred dollars and a couple hours, you can be well on your way to having your very own registered trademark and having the right to use the ® symbol on your mark. You don’t need a lawyer, but you should know some of the hangups you might run into. The USPTO has a fantastic primer on trademarks, but we’ll TL;DR it for you. Continue reading “What to Expect When You’re Expecting – A Trademark”

Smart Plugs Don’t Save You Energy, But Don’t Consume Much Either

Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and just about every electronic device manufacturer are jumping on the bandwagon of connected devices. They promise us the ability to turn on our toaster from another room, unlock our doors just by shouting at them from outside, and change the channel on our TV through perfectly enunciating a sentence instead of mashing the buttons on our remotes like chumps. And yet, despite all this new-fangled finger-less control, there is an unanswered question: does this technology save us energy in the long run?

For years we’ve been hearing about vampire power and all the devices in our home that sit in standby, waiting for their masters to turn them on, quietly burning power to listen for that signal to wake. Fortunately the One Watt Initiative and general awareness and design for energy savings has cut out a lot of this phantom load. So how does the smart home, which essentially adds a bunch of connected vampires to our base load, end up saving money in the long run? And is it better than other alternatives or just good habits? I put these questions to the test with today’s smart power strips and controllable outlets.

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