Advice from the Supreme Supreme

John Roberts, Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, has a kid at Cardigan Mountain School, a post boarding school in New Hampshire. Last month, Roberts have the Commencement Address at his son’s ‘graduation’ from this establishment. His speech is interesting — intriguing, even, because it’s hard to figure out if he’s being ironic or just cynical. Anyway, below is a representative sample. “Other commencement speakers”, he said,

will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.

Good advice? Maybe.

Links for today

  1. Jennifer Pahlka, who heads Code for America, was invited to the White House ‘tech summit’. Here’s her low key but interesting report.
  2. In a few years, no investors are going to be looking for AI start-ups. Guess why. (Hint: investors are always looking for the New New Thing.)
  3. Is the Internet Broken?. Good discussion from the Aspen Ideas Festival. Answer: No — the Internet isn’t broken. It’s still doing what it was designed to do, namely to connect computers to other computers. It’s those computers — and what people do with them — that’s the problem. Two guys on the panel — Howard Shrobe from MIT and Milo Medin (ex-NASA, now at Google) — really know their stuff.
  4. To tackle Google’s power, regulators have to go after its ownership of data. Excellent piece by Evgeny Morozov from yesterday’s Observer.
  5. Internet regulation: is it time to rein in the tech giants?. Long and thoughtful piece by Charles Arthur.
  6. How contemporary accounts of the Watergate years read in the Trump era.

Chuck Thacker RIP

Photograph cc-by Marcin Wichary

Charles P. (Chuck) Thacker was one of the great generation that took networking and the personal computer into the mainstream world. After studying at UC Berkeley and developing the Berkeley Timesharing System on an SDS 940 mainframe, he was one of the ‘dealers of lightning’ recruited by Bob Taylor when he set up the Computer Systems Lab at Xerox PARC. In three years, Chuck, Butler Lampson, Bob Metcalfe, David Boggs, Alan Kay and Charles Simonyi invented much of the computing kit we use today — from graphical windowing interfaces and the mouse (adapted from Douglas Engelbart’s original design) to Ethernet local-area-networking and the laser printer. I got to know him in the late 1990s when I was writing my history of the Net and he was working in Cambridge in the Microsoft Research Lab. The photograph captures him as I remember him: large, imperturbable, wise, friendly.

Deaths from terrorism in the UK: some context

From The Economist.

I guess most people in the UK have forgotten the IRA campaign in the 1970s and 1980s. Or the Lockerbie bombing in 1988. The difference between then and now (apart from the numbers killed and injured) is that the IRA had a set of ‘political’ objectives, and in the end it was possible to negotiate with them — which is how the Good Friday Agreement came about. But Islamic terrorism doesn’t have any negotiable objectives — unless you count the extermination of ‘infidels’ as one.

Hard work and compound interest

Apropos nothing in particular, I was struck by an extract from Richard Hamming’s book, The Art of Doing Science and Engineering that Tyler Cowen highlighted:

“Now to the matter of drive. Looking around you can easily observe great people have a great deal of drive to do things. I had worked with John Tukey for some years before I found he was essentially my age, so I went to our mutual boss and asked him, “How can anyone my age know as much as John Tukey does?”

He leaned back, grinned, and said, “You would be surprised how much you would know if you had worked as hard as he has for as many years”. There was nothing for me to do but slink out of his office, which I did.

I thought about the remark for some weeks and decided, while I could never work as hard as John did, I could do a lot better than I had been doing. In a sense my boss was saying intellectual investment is like compound interest, the more you do the more you learn how to do, so the more you can do, etc. I do not know what compound interest rate to assign, but it must be well over 6%—one extra hour per day over a lifetime will much more than double the total output. The steady application of a bit more effort has a great total accumulation.”

Mossberg’s valedictory message

The great tech journalist Walt Mossberg is finally retiring, This is from his final column:

If we are really going to turn over our homes, our cars, our health and more to private tech companies, on a scale never imagined, we need much, much stronger standards for security and privacy than now exist. Especially in the U.S., it’s time to stop dancing around the privacy and security issues and pass real, binding laws.

And, if ambient technology is to become as integrated into our lives as previous technological revolutions like wood joists, steel beams and engine blocks, we need to subject it to the digital equivalent of enforceable building codes and auto safety standards. Nothing less will do. And health? The current medical device standards will have to be even tougher, while still allowing for innovation.

The tech industry, which has long styled itself as a disruptor, will need to work hand in hand with government to craft these policies. And that might be a bigger challenge than developing the technology in the first place.

Yep. I’ll miss his unpretentious wisdom and sound common sense about technology.