Quartz’s new app has come half way in reinventing news

You probably have heard about Quartz’s new innovative iPhone app. Over the past days, the news about it was all over the Internet. It’s too early to conclude whether this app will turn out to be a hit among users. The texting-styled user experience is definitely innovative and fits very well to this year’s hype topic, conversational interfaces. However, in the end, the possibilities to interact with the news items are pretty limited, which can quickly lead to boredom.

But that does not need to remain like this. In fact, Quartz has come half way in changing the distribution and presentation of digital news for good. What’s missing? The text field in which readers can write their questions, comments and requests and through which they can access all the information and knowledge they desire about a specific piece of news. Such a field would require what’s usually labeled “artificial intelligence”, but the absence of that does not surprise. Creating a personal news bot that is capable of interacting with users around news and that understands their remarks and inquiries was, until recently, pretty close to rocket science. And it’s still hard.

Thanks the recent advancements in regards to deep learning and artificial intelligence as well as to initiatives that plan to open source the underlying algorithms, maybe very soon the creation of conversational smart bots which natively “understand” the information they serve will become much easier. But we are not there yet, which means that from Quartz’s perspective it made sense to start with something simple. Continue Reading

My first time: What happened after I joined a programming course on Codecademy

Influenced by the general public debate surrounding the digital revolution, I have been curious about learning to code for a long time. You know, because “software is eating the world”. More specifically, I want to avoid a future scenario in which I might regret having ignored the opportunity while it was there. Also I expect to get a deeper understanding of the rules and limitations of software as well as of the challenges that come with the connected age.

After a long time of mental back and forth I finally decided to go for it. At the beginning of January I joined Codecademy and enrolled in the Python beginner course. I chose Python because it is quite a popular language and allegedly comparatively easy to learn.

So far, I have completed 42 % of the course, and I spent about 7 hours in total, distributed over 14 sessions of mostly somewhere between 20 and 40 minutes each. I try to do at least 4 sessions a week. Codecademy lets you choose the pace freely. However, I figured the lower the frequency, the less of what I learn will stick. That of course applies to any new skill one learns. Continue Reading

The urge to predict the future – and how to do it right

The best specialist books are those that immediately impact the reader’s behaviour. I just finished Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip E. Telock and Dan Gardner – and experienced this very effect.

As the title suggests, the book investigates and explains what qualities and skills are needed to make accurate predictions. The insights are based on a large-scale forecasting experiment conducted by one of the two authors and involving hundreds of forecasters.

Being able to excel in forecasting can be extremely valuable. In the field of digital technology, forecasting is a preferred activity by many. Pundits, analysts, entrepreneurs and everyone only slightly affiliated with the industry is constantly trying to predict the future. For financial gains through wise strategic decisions involving foresight, in order to build a professional reputation as visionary, or – unfortunately – in order to advance personal interests or the interests of “the forecaster’s tribe” (as the authors of the book put it). Continue Reading

Food hacking and my experiences with Joylent

One of the cornerstones of my productive life is flow. According to Wikipedia, flow is “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus”. Something that frequently interrupts my flow is the urge to eat. However, especially for lunch, I rarely focus on enjoyment when eating. I only eat because I am aware that the nutrients will benefit my body and mind. Meanwhile, my mind usually is absent, thinking about the stuff I did before I interrupted my flow.

Thus, for a while, I have been interested in Soylent, a geeky meal replacement beverage from the Silicon Valley which enables people like me to skip the interruptions and effort related to food intake. Soylent does not ship to Europe. But last December, I learned that there are multiple European Soylent clones. Since the U.S. company has published the list of Soylent ingredients, everyone can come up with their own derivate. There also is an official community of people who create and share their own recipes based on Soylent.

Eventually I decided to try Joylent, an Amsterdam-based producer of a meal replacement powder akin to Soylent (thanks Anna-Lena for the recommendation). I ordered 15 meals worth 2 Euro each, delivered in 5 differently flavoured bags including 3 meals each. For the past weeks (with the exception of a vacation-related break over the holidays), I have been replacing most of my weekday lunches with Joylent. Here are my impressions so far: Continue Reading

Sapiens

I just finished one of the best books I have ever read: “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”, written by Yuval Harari in 2011. It was recommended to me by a friend and I also read about it on Albert Wenger’s blog. As the title suggests, the book gives readers a very compact and coherent overview about how humanity and civilization came to be, and why it ended up where it is today.

Most importantly, the book helps to better get the big picture. To understand how and why certain movements, ideologies, religions and memes have evolved; why individuals, groups and societies act in their sometimes strange and even destructive ways.

Sapiens is not a history book, even though it follows a chronological order, from the first life on earth until the present, eventually offering an outlook of what might come in the future. Rather, it is a book about humanity and life itself. Continue Reading

Apple TV: In 2 years from perfectly working game changer to source of frustration

A bit more than 2 years ago I bought an Apple TV. Shortly after I hardly could imagine living without the black little box. I expressed my enthusiasm both in a tweet and blog post (German only). What amazed me the most was the frictionless and smooth streaming of content from the iPhone and iPad through AirPlay and Apple TV to my TV set. It always worked perfectly and reminded me of why Apple’s legendary promise “It just works” was more than just a marketing slogan. Continue Reading

Let’s hope that Number26 can stir up Europe’s complacent banking sector

Number26

Most traditional banks have failed to create exciting e-banking and mobile banking solutions. Because of that I was very interested when Number26, a new “mobile first” banking startup from Berlin, announced its upcoming launch last year. I covered the news in German and made sure to sign up for early access. Very recently, the company opened its closed beta period for customers in Germany and Austria – and I received my invite code by mail.

So what’s my first impression? Well, Number26 for sure presents itself as a full-flegded banking account including all the major features which are needed for that purpose. The service claims to offer “Europe’s most modern bank account”. Especially thanks to the intuitive and easy to use mobile app, this could be the truth already in this early stage. Of course the traditional banks’ failure to delight customers means the bar is not very high.

Feature's that should be common in every banking app - but aren't.

Feature’s that should be common in every banking app – but aren’t.

What makes Number26 stand out is a combination of the state-of-the-art look & feel and usability optimized for smartphone usage, analytics features to help customers manage their finances, as well as the cost structure. Currently neither the banking account nor the MasterCard debit card come with any fees. ATM withdrawals are free (except ATM-imposed fees), and there is no foreign transaction fee. These conditions make the service especially attractive for travelers. I actually opened my account while in the U.S., which felt kinda cool. It’s the first bank account I ever opened while not being physically present in the bank’s country.

The process of opening a banking account can be completed online. Number26 uses the services of another quite young startup, IDnow, which allows for identity verification via Webcam. I had to show my national ID or passport and answer some questions. After that my registration was completed. The overall procedure took about 10 minutes.

I expect Number26 to have an impact on the banking landscape in Germany and Europe – the latter assuming that the Berlin-based startup will expand to the rest of the continent. In Germany, the only serious competitor I am aware of is DKB, which has similar customer-friendly terms, but comes across as more conservative. So there is lots of room for Number26 to grow and to capture the hearts of tech-savvy mobile users.

One challenge that Number26 will face is the European Union’s plan to cap interchange fees for card payments. The startup’s current revenue model is based on a commission it receives from MasterCard each time a Number26 customer pays somewhere with the card. If the E.U. forces banks and MasterCard to dramatically cut the fees that retailers pay to them for card transactions, then MasterCard will have to cut or completely cancel the commission it offers card resellers such as Number26. The actual implementation of the fee cap could still be many months away. But when it happens, the company will have to come up with new revenue streams. Apart from that there of course is no guarantee yet that the commission alone is sufficient to create a profitable banking endeavor anyway.

Nevertheless, right now Number26 is a very welcome addition to the rusty European banking sector. Let’s see if the company can stir up this industry.