How do you do?

April 16th, 2014 [link]

How do you do2

Strange creature encountered on a Norfolk beach.

Department of Unintended Consequences

April 14th, 2014 [link]

Well, what do you know? This from the New York Times

The end of the war in Iraq and the winding down of the war in Afghanistan mean that the graduates of the West Point class of 2014 will have a more difficult time advancing in a military in which combat experience, particularly since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has been crucial to promotion. They are also very likely to find themselves in the awkward position of leading men and women who have been to war — more than two million American men and women have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan — when they themselves have not.

That reality is causing anxiety and unease at West Point.

Bleeding hearts

April 13th, 2014 [link]

This morning’s Observer column:

Were you a thriller writer seeking a name for an apocalyptic software security flaw that threatened the future of civilisation as we know it, then “Heartbleed” would be hard to beat. Last week saw the discovery of such a flaw, and Heartbleed was the name assigned to it.

Most security flaws are of interest only to specialists, but this one was different. Why? Because it’s been around for something like three years, during which time it could have exposed the passwords and credit card numbers that countless millions of people had provided to online stores and other services. Heartbleed would enable attackers to eavesdrop on online communications, steal data directly from services and users, and impersonate both services and users. It could have affected up to two-thirds of the world’s internet servers. And unlike some earlier such problems, the solution isn’t as simple as immediately changing one’s password. It was, said Bruce Schneier, a security expert not much given to hyperbole, a “catastrophic” flaw. “On the scale of one to 10,” he wrote, “this is an 11.”

Triumph of the Nerds

April 7th, 2014 [link]

My Observer piece on Michael Lewis’s new book.

Light travels at 186,000 miles a second in a vacuum, which is another way of saying that it covers 186 miles in a milli-second – a thousandth of a second. Given that much of our contemporary electronic communications are conveyed by pulses of light travelling along fibreoptic cables, we are given to extravagant hyperbole about the “death of distance”. After all, if a message – or a file – can traverse the globe in the blink of an eye, it doesn’t matter whether your hard drive is on your desktop or in a server farm in Nebraska or Sweden.

But it turns out that the speed of light is of great practical interest to some people. One group of them have shelled out $300m to lay a fibreoptic cable in a straight line from Chicago to New York. This involves, among other things, drilling through mountains and under urban areas. And for what? So that the time taken to send a signal between New York and Chicago could be reduced from 17 milliseconds to 13. For that apparently infinitesimal improvement, stock market traders were willing to pay $14m a year, plus a substantial upfront payment, to use the cable.

Therein lies the tale of Michael Lewis’s enthralling new book, Flash Boys, which joins an elite but growing list of volumes that set out to explain how computing is reshaping our world…

How to do new things

April 7th, 2014 [link]

The best way to learn something is to start doing it. Don’t wait for full knowledge to come to you. Often it won’t. Just pretend you know what you’re doing, and hit the walls. Make the problem small enough that you can start solving it right now, without waiting. Each part of the problem is smaller than the whole thing. And tell yourself you can do it, because you can.

Yep. Characteristic wisdom from Dave Winer, the guy who got me blogging all those years ago, and who continues to amaze and inspire people everywhere.

Big Data and the Hype Cycle

April 6th, 2014 [link]

This morning’s Observer column.

As the “big data” bandwagon gathers steam, it’s appropriate to ask where it currently sits on the hype cycle. The answer depends on which domain of application we’re talking about. If it’s the application of large-scale data analytics for commercial purposes, then many of the big corporations, especially the internet giants, are already into phase four. The same holds if the domain consists of the data-intensive sciences such as genomics, astrophysics and particle physics: the torrents of data being generated in these fields lie far beyond the processing capabilities of mere humans.

But the big data evangelists have wider horizons than science and business: they see the technology as a tool for increasing our understanding of society and human behaviour and for improving public policy-making. After all, if your shtick is “evidence-based policy-making”, then the more evidence you have, the better. And since big data can provide tons of evidence, what’s not to like?

So where on the hype cycle do societal applications of big data technology currently sit? The answer is phase one, the rapid ascent to the peak of inflated expectations, that period when people believe every positive rumour they hear and are deaf to sceptics and critics…

Read on

Facebook’s “freakishly accurate” face recognition technology

April 5th, 2014 [link]

Facial recognition software is almost as good at identifying people as humans are, thanks to Facebook. The Facebook AI team published a paper last week highlighting their achievements with DeepFace, the company’s unsettlingly precise facial recognition program.

DeepFace can identify faces at a 97.25 percent accuracy level, just slightly worse than the average human score of 97.53 percent, as Technology Review noted. The DeepFace system reduced facial recognition software errors by 25 percent compared to earlier versions of the software, which is a vast improvement.

‘Freakishly’ is one way of putting it.


Freshman Bill

April 5th, 2014 [link]


Billg in his first year at Harvard.


Fact or comment?

April 4th, 2014 [link]


Hmmm… There are two ways of reading this headline. Is the last word comment or fact?

Partition blues

April 3rd, 2014 [link]

From J.K. Appleseed, writing in McSweeney’s:

How awesome would it be if you could partition your brain in the manner of a computer’s hard drive?

You could devote 7% of your brain to operate in foreign languages, 5% to cooking Italian food, 5% to knowing kung fu, and let’s say 23% to seduction techniques, just for starters. The sky’s the limit! Especially after you devote 5% of your brain to learning how to pilot a helicopter.

A modular brain would be so much easier to manage. You could selectively delete all unnecessary pop lyrics, reality TV show trivia, and the films of Zack Snyder. I would, however, suggest retaining the meta-memory of hating his movies, even though you no longer remember what they were, so as not to repeat your mistake. With the cleared up space, you could now set aside 5% for learning to play blues piano!

We’re only up to 50% at this point. The world of your brain is your oyster!


Meanwhile, your actual noggin is an undisciplined soup of useless details. You don’t remember where your car keys are, but you can’t get that stupid lick of Katy Perry’s “Roar” out of your head. You know the one. It goes, “Whoa, whoa! Oh, oh, oh, ohhh!”