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Archive for April, 2011

The Google Acquisition Which Nearly Screwed Your Travel Plans

You’ve probably done it yourself.

You’re planning a trip or hotel stay and you’re using a travel site like Expedia, Hotwire, KAYAK, or any number of other websites.  Unknown to you, many of these sites are powered by software called “QPX” which is made by a company called ITA Software out of Massachusetts.  The software is so good, even the airlines themselves use it.

Well, last year, Google wanted to buy ITA Software. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, the problem was that since Google is “GOD of Internet Search,” it could manipulate its algorithm to favor certain travel websites, or worse, create their own travel search site (which is rumored), and slowly strangle the competition.

Obviously, such concerns made their way to the Justice Department’s Anti-Trust Division and a process was worked outGoogle liked it since they got to buy ITA, a group called “FairSearch.org” made up of a coalition of the top travel sites liked it saying the ruling was a plus for consumers.

A few days ago, a legal expert at Forbes made the ruling from earlier this month sound like English:

What are the takeaways from DOJ’s action here?  Some thoughts:

1. On exclusionary conduct. Even though this wasn’t formally a horizontal merger, some expert commentators wondered whether DOJ would embrace a new part of the government’s Horizontal Merger Guidelines which flagged future exclusion as a factor in assessing a combination.  It’s unclear whether the Guidelines had any role in DOJ’s analysis, but regulators paid attention to the concerns of online competitors and users of the QPX software that a merged entity could deny them access to updates, refuse to continue licensing, or fail to protect proprietary information contained in ITA servers.  Antitrust officials followed the approach they took in the approval of the NBC-Comcast joint venture, dealing with future concerns of exclusionary conduct by compelling cooperative marketplace behavior.

2. Compulsory licensing as a viable remedy. As noted in our February post, some experts expressed serious doubts about whether a compulsory licensing scheme could be implemented to forestall future exclusionary conduct.  DOJ didn’t share those concerns, laying out a remarkably detailed set of terms.  Under those terms, over the next five years,  Google “shall negotiate” an extension for QPX licenses for current licensees and any future licensees; may not prevent QPX licensees from using competing software products; must provide updates “without additional charge;” and shall maintain ITA’s current financial commitment to upgrading QPX, and “make commercially reasonable efforts to respond to Customers’ requests for development of QPX.”  One very important additional term requires the merged entity to negotiate agreements to utilize “InstaSearch,” a new travel search technology ITA was developing at the time of the merger.  Finally, to allay QPX users’ worries about Google having access to confidential data, the agreement compels creation of a hard firewall to protect such information.  All these conditions have multiple levels of qualifiers and requirements full of terms like “fair” and “reasonable,” which are very much open to interpretation and debate.  Those debates may play out in the detailed arbitration process the settlement lays out to be utilized if licensor and licensee can’t come to agreement.

3. “Fairness” in travel search results not a factor.  In addition to exclusion from the QPX licensing, competitors and others, including U.S. Senator Herb Kohl, argued that post-merger, Google could utilize its dominant position in Internet searches to push competitors’ offerings down the list of search results.   Quite notably, neither the Complaint nor the Proposed Final Judgment address these worries, but . . .

4.  Five years of “compliance inspections.” This is the main reason why entities like Fair Search aren’t too disappointed with the end result.  Upon written request of DOJ, Antitrust Division attorneys can access Google records, interview employees, and require Google to conduct internal audits.  Will Antitrust Division officials utilize this access to learn more about Google’s business practices, to lift the proverbial veil on their search and advertising technologies? That is the hope of some, including travel search competitor Kayak, one of whose executives stated, “There’s quite a lot more to happen on this.”

5. What “more” is going to happen?  Could allegations of travel search manipulation be examined under the rubric of the merger settlement consent decree?  Unlikely. More likely, DOJ’s intervention into the ITA merger will whet the appetites of federal antitrust regulators, whose job it is, after all, to regulate.  Perhaps now they will take the next, much larger step into investigating whether Google uses its search and search advertising dominance to undermine pro-consumer competition online.  If so, we will be treated to the spectacle of battling agencies, as some press accounts relate, with DOJ and FTC fighting over who will be the Big Google Overlord.

Normally, I’m not a fan of regulation of the Internet, especially if that regulation is “Net Neutrality,”  but something needs to be done to ensure Google isn’t using its position as the leader in search to manipulate the free market for consumers.   For all the clamoring against Microsoft for the better part of the 90s as “The Evil Empire,” I’ve long thought that Google could be a real threat when it comes to a free market on the Internet if it could sell the “Top Search” for a phrase or word or whatever to the highest bidder.

What I’ve described right there is actually how Google makes most of its revenue.

(Probably in a few years, I’ll be saying much the same things with the way Facebook is growing and expanding…)

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The Mandatory “Truth, Justice, & Huh?” Post

As the resident “Comic Book Geek” of the Cheddarsphere – a title I honestly quit caring about years ago – I guess it is my place to speak about DC Comics recent decision in “Action Comics #900” to have Superman ‘renounce’ his American citizenship.

The move is made after Supes goes to Iran, participates in a nonviolent protest by acting as a protective guard between students and the Iranian military which irks both the Iranians and the American administration — which said or did nothing about the protests (That sounds familiar…) — who either complain or worry his actions are construed as “Official American Action” and the Last Son of Krypton is read the riot act by the American President’s National Security Adviser for going there in the first place.

After that, Supes says he’s only trying to do what’s right by the code he was raised with by Ma and Pa Kent (I personally in Supes place would have taken out the Iranian leadership with one of his many powers, and tossed them in the nearest international war crimes court, not do a Ghandi impersonation.  But that’s me.) and that if the world is going to see him as an “American Puppet,” he’d rather renounce his citizenship of his adopted country on his adopted world, a move which would allow him to swoop into any country he pleases and save the day without the diplomatic headaches or public relations hits.

Plus, he’ll be doing it all by deadline at the Daily Planet or dinner with Lois.  (Don’t forget, “Faster than a speeding bullet.”)

Is the over-reaction by some warranted? Not really.  For starters, it’s “Action Comics #900,” an anniversary issue so the idea that it’s canon is unlikely.  This might have just been a short ten-page story some writer wanted to get put down on paper.  It’s up to DC Comics to make it official or not.  (Their official blog doesn’t even acknowledge this as “The Big Event” of the issue.) Secondly, it’s comics, nothing ever stays forever as the returns of both Bucky and Barry Allen in recent years has shown us.

Finally, it’s comics, WHO CARES?!?!?

That’s not to say it’s not needed.

Am I happy that political correctness has hit the pages of Superman?  No.  Superman is the archetype for what a superhero should be.  That the fight for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” are indeed ideals worth fighting for and should be protected by the writers which DC Comics has on board keeping that image intact.  The problem most Superman writers have today isn’t one of action, it’s one of making the story actually enjoyable on the dramatic level for the reader.

Jonathan Last explains this best at the Weekly Standard.

From the dramatic perspective, Superman is a problematic character because he’s just too powerful. Faster than the Flash, stronger than Wonder Woman, able to fly, x-ray vision, the heat-beam eyes, super breath—not to mention total and complete invulnerability to everything. (Except the kryptonite, of course.) If you’re writing a Superman story, it’s virtually impossible to put him in any real jeopardy, to build any dramatic tension concerning his adventures.

There are only two ways to write dramatically satisfying Superman stories. The first is to put the people around him in peril. (Though you he can only save Jimmy and Lois so many times before tedium sets in.) The second is to explore Superman’s moral limits—and their consequences.

And in the end, the only truly interesting aspect of Superman’s character is his complete devotion to America. Because it’s this devotion—of which his citizenship is the anchor—that establishes all of his moral limits. Why does this demi-god not rule the earth according to his own will? The only satisfying answer is that he declines to do so because he believes in America and has chosen to be an American citizen first and a super man second.

(Last then goes into how Dan DiDio is killing many of DC’s legendary iconic characters since he came on board in 2002.  I concur completely there.)

Superman’s love for America is best related in iconic moments in the first two Richard Donner Superman movies.  In them, we see Superman offers his services to the President in the first, and later apologizes to the President at the end of the second for abandoning the country (for some lovin’ with Lois) while General Zod and his acolytes take it over the world.  Maybe those were movies made in much more simpler times, but it was reassuring and cool knowing “The Big, Blue Boy Scout” was on our side.

What this move is, is a slap at the intelligence of Superman fans by DC Comics and writer of the story, David S. Goyer (who has also penned all of the Christopher Nolan Batman films).  Superman fans have known for decades he represents the moral compass of the DC Universe, the rallying point for superheroes everywhere, and to say he’s ever been a “government agent” is dumb and beneath the character’s core.

Superman stands for doing what’s right, and having the morals to do just that with the immense might he possesses.  That is what he was doing before the bureaucrat got in his grill, standing up for what was right.

In a final thought if you want to play politics with this, I send you to an email the Daily Caller’s Jim Treacher sent to InstaPundit’s Glenn Reynolds on the subject.

UPDATE: Jim Treacher emails: “I can’t believe they’re making Superman a racist!  It would be one thing if he renounced his U.S. citizenship under The Evil George Bush.  But he waits until a black man is in charge?  Way to join the Kryptonian Klux Klan, Kal-El.”


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Reince Priebus Hands CNN Anchor Her Lunch

Best part, when RNC Chairman Reince Priebus counters that it is the media which is pushing the “Birther” issue (they are) and CNN’s Carol Costello stammers a defense, Reince goes, “Then why did you invite me on to talk about the birth certificate issue again?”

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Keynes v. Hayek, The Second Round

Another great video from the Economics Department at George Mason University.

My favorite part is the brilliant take-down of the “Keynesism saved us during World War II” talking point. It’s impossible to say that it was a “joyous, economic time” during those days. You had reduced unemployment not because government was creating work; you had reduced unemployment because a war naturally reduced the young males in the labor force from one that was either working or out of work to one that was waging a war.

By the way, take a look at guy handing out the money in the cut scenes.  Can’t say the resemblance is only coincidental…

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It Had to Be on “May Day,” Huh?

Seriously, there is stupid, and then there is this.

The Wisconsin Grocers Association has alerted members to an anti-Walker product sticker campaign planned for May 1.

Opponents of Gov. Scott Walker for months have been boycotting companies linked to donations to Walker’s campaign.  Now there is a national effort under way to go into stores and place stickers on products.

Among products targeted for stickers are Johnsonville brats, AngelSoft toilet paper, Sargento cheese and Coors beer.

The WGA has produced a sign that stores can post alerting people that placing stickers on products in stores is illegal.

Of course it’s illegal.  It’s called product tampering and vandalism. (See Wisconsin Statute 941.327.)

The product tampering charge carries more weight since you’re likely endangering the public health if what you’re placing the sticker on is a food or other perishable item.

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State GOP Will Close PayDay Loan Loophole

I’m actually surprised this slipped through the cracks when the Democrats controlled the state legislature.

Interest rates on payday loans would be capped at 36 percent under a proposal Republicans are circulating in the Wisconsin Legislature.

New regulations on the payday lending industry took effect in December, but the previous Legislature controlled by Democrats rejected a cap on interest.

Consumer advocates who supported tighter regulations on the industry had pushed for the interest rate cap, saying it was needed to prevent borrowers from getting socked with interest as high as 500 percent or more.

The new law limits the size of the loans and bars auto title loans.

Rep. Evan Wynn of Whitewater and Sen. Glenn Grothman of West Bend are proposing the interest rate cap.  They are seeking co-sponsors of the proposal until May 12.

Then again, the Assembly Speaker at the time was dating a lobbyist from the industry.  (Ah, memories…)

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SETI Shuts Down Due to Lack of Funds

SETI was started years ago through a generous donation by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, one thinks he could probably swoop in again to get them up and running again.

Lacking the money to pay its operating expenses, Mountain View’s SETI Institute has pulled the plug on the renowned Allen Telescope Array, a field of radio dishes that scan the skies for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations.

In an April 22 letter to donors, SETI Institute CEO Tom Pierson said that last week the array was put into “hibernation,” safe but nonfunctioning, because of inadequate government support.

The timing couldn’t be worse, say SETI scientists. After millenniums of musings, this spring astronomers announced that 1,235 new possible planets had been observed by Kepler, a telescope on a space satellite. They predict that dozens of these planets will be Earth-sized — and some will be in the “habitable zone,” where the temperatures are just right for liquid water, a prerequisite of life as we know it.

“There is a huge irony,” said SETI Director Jill Tarter, “that a time when we discover so many planets to look at, we don’t have the operating funds to listen.”

SETI senior astronomer Seth Shostak compared the project’s suspension to “the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria being put into dry dock. “… This is about exploration, and we want to keep the thing operational. It’s no good to have it sit idle.

“We have the radio antennae up, but we can’t run them without operating funds,” he added. “Honestly, if everybody contributed just 3 extra cents on their 1040 tax forms, we could find out if we have cosmic company.”

After its creation, SETI became a public-private partnership.  It’s lack of funding is from the California state government cutting everything under the sun to stave off a fiscal meltdown where it could come short of declaring bankruptcy.  The SETI folks currently say they need just $5 million; which would operate them for another two years.

Frankly, instead of going to the press whining about a lack of tax dollars, they’d be more productive setting up booth at various conventions or setting up private auctions with space and technology enthusiasts .

My guess is they would raise more money that way too.

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Mike Tate Up to His Old Tricks

If a robocall’s mind-blowingly unethical (Remember this?), look no further than everyone’s favorite punk, Mike Tate, the Chair-Boy Blunder of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

This new call might just take the cake.

[Madison] – The Democrat Party of Wisconsin is using a fraudulent tactic to harass and intimidate constituents who favor recalling Democrat Senator Dave Hansen of Green Bay.

The Democratic Party has targeted for harassment people who signed recall petitions against Senator Hansen, making calls on beginning on Monday April 25th using a fake phone number and caller ID that showed up on phones as “Bay Care Aurora,” a well-known Green Bay area medical center.  Once recall supporters answered the phone, they were told they were speaking with a Democrat Party of Wisconsin operative, and were questioned about signing a petition to recall Hansen.

“It’s disgusting that the Dems would use a fake call from a hospital to trick people into answering their phones – only so they could harass and intimidate them into saying they did not sign a recall petition,” said Mark Jefferson, Executive Director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin.  “People who received that call may have feared the worst – an unexpected call from a hospital can bring terrible news about a loved one. The Democrats’ intent was obviously to confuse and upset people, hoping they would be disoriented and easily tricked into saying they had not signed a recall petition.  Dave Hansen’s political career may be coming to an end because he fled to Illinois, but that doesn’t excuse this cruel, desperate tactic.”

This tactic probably negates all of DPW’s recent talk about RPW running a “RACKET!” [Actual phrasing from their Comms guy] in their attempt to get GOP-lead recalls against three of the Democratic State Senators tossed out.  Once again, DPW continues to highlight there are no adults in the room helping to supervising the playground.

UPDATE: The Wisconsin Reporter says they’ve been unable to get comment from a spokesman at either DPW [Graeme, pick up the phone!], or Aurora Bay Care.  The latter is a bit of a surprise for me.

UPDATE II: WTAQ is reporting that Aurora BayCare is denying the calls came from their offices.  This whole thing reminds me of something I heard on a TV show last week, “Caller ID only tells you who they [the caller] want you to believe is calling.”

DPW tells WTAQ the whole thing as a screw-up on their telecomm provider.

About 100 calls were made that mistakenly came up with Aurora BayCare on the caller ID. Hospital officials say the calls didn’t originate from their building or with their knowledge.

“We regret this inconvenience to residents. This call did not originate from Aurora BayCare Medical Center. We have confirmed that no outgoing calls were placed from this number at Aurora BayCare Medical Center. We have reported this matter to the police,” said Public Relations Manager Kristine Lillie in a statement.

Those receiving the calls report callers identified themselves as members of the Democratic Party. They indicated they were going through names on petitions turned in to determine if they meant to sign the recall petition.

Democratic Party of Wisconsin Communications Director Graeme Zielinski says calls are being made to verify the signature on the recall petition following up on some irregularities.

Zielinski says the wrong phone number was typed into the system, but it was quickly corrected.

In a statement from Meyer Teleservices CEO Nick Gerten, “During the initial scope of our calling on the evening of April 25th it was brought to our attention that there were discrepancies with the caller ID information being provided from our site. We immediately took steps to rectify the situation and had the issue resolved. We take full responsibility for the error and apologize for any inconvenience or added concern this may have caused.”

Yes, but of all the places to tell you who’s calling, a hospital?

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Good Luck and Godspeed

It’s a rarity when I suppose a parent outlives the children, but I feel at least partially responsible for them, if only for the Kiel connection via Brad Vogel…who’s now a long way away from our native Kiel.

(So am I, come to think of it.)

But all things must go — and, as our sidebar bears witness, many good things have already gone. One June 1st, we too will go — again, and I think this time for good.

It’s been a fantastic ride, and I’d like to thank all of those who have contributed over the years: official blog members, guest posters, commenters, and those who have tossed links our way from time to time. You’ve all helped make Letters in Bottles the place it became. It wouldn’t have been the same without all of you.

So stick around — we aim to go out in fighting trim, and should have some good bits for you in the next month. And then, my friends, adieu, and many happy returns.

Best of luck to the Letters in Bottles gang in whatever you do.

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Last Typewriter Plant on the Planet Closes

Clearly, no government in the world was willing to subsidize their continued existence.

It’s called “Technological Progress” folks.

Godrej and Boyce – the last company left in the world that was still manufacturing typewriters – has shut down its production plant in Mumbai, India with just a few hundred machines left in stock.

Although typewriters became obsolete years ago in the west, they were still common in India  – until recently.  Demand for the machines has sunk in the last ten years as consumers switch to computers.

The company’s general manager, Milind Dukle, told India’s Business Standard newspaper: ‘We are not getting many orders now.

‘From the early 2000s onwards, computers started dominating. All the manufacturers of office typewriters stopped production, except us.

‘Till 2009, we used to produce 10,000 to 12,000 machines a year. But this might be the last chance for typewriter lovers. Now, our primary market is among the defence agencies, courts and government offices.’

The company is now down to its last  200 machines – the majority of which are Arabic language models.

I don’t think ever in my academic career did I have to use a typewriter.  The only ones I ever did use belonged to my parents for when my dad operated an insurance agency out of the house.

Even my “Typing” classes were done on computers like the Apple IIGS.  (Ah, memories…)

Next on the list for extension…Whiteout!

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