Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Tech bubble: does it matter?

[link] Sunday, September 21st, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

If one wanted to be critical, the most annoying thing about the current bubble is the way the visions and ambitions of startup founders seem to have narrowed. Many of them claim, of course, that what they want to build is a company that in the long term will transform the world or disrupt a particular market. But in actual fact their strategy is to create a product or a service that is sufficiently interesting or annoying to induce Google, Amazon, Facebook, Yahoo or Microsoft to buy the upstart venture. The poster child for this is WhatsApp, a fine company with a viable business model that did not depend on monitoring users and which was run by a chap who fervently declared his resolve to build a great, sustainable enterprise that treated its users well. And he doubtless believed that right up to the moment that Facebook offered him $19bn. And who can blame him: you only live once, after all.

At the end of the day, though, what’s much more worrying than the spectacle of venture capitalists blowing investors’ money is the fact that everywhere state funding for the kind of long-term, fundamental research that is needed to produce the technologies of tomorrow has been shrinking. The current wave of innovation and economic development enabled by the internet has only come about because 60 years ago the US government funded the project that produced first the arpanet and then the internet.

Private enterprise would undoubtedly have produced computer networks, but it would not have created the free and open platform for “permissionless innovation” that we got as a result of public investment. And we would have all been poorer as a result.

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So did they really go to the moon in 1969?

[link] Monday, September 15th, 2014

This is 13 minutes long, but worth every second. In it film-maker S.G. Collins argues that in 1969, it was easier to send people to the Moon than to fake the landing in a studio. Technologically speaking, he says, it was impossible to shoot that video anywhere other than the surface of the Moon. A lovely piece of debunkery, filmed with the assurance of an Errol Morris.

Thinking about the End

[link] Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

Great talk by Martin Rees.

Sometimes, the camera doesn’t lie

[link] Monday, August 4th, 2014

This is fascinating. It’s also rather embarrassing for the Kremlin.

Selfies taken by Russian soldier Alexander Sotkin appear to provide damming evidence that Russian forces have been operating in Ukraine. Sotkin posted a number of images on social networking site instagram, apparently without realising that they were being geotagged to reveal his location when he took them.

Disupting ‘disruption’

[link] Monday, July 14th, 2014

Yesterday’s Observer column.

The Innovator’s Dilemma and the Big Idea that it spawned – disruptive innovation – has been kind to its author. Professor Christensen is widely revered as a guru in the tech world. The idea of disruptive innovation appeals to the vanity of the start-up culture: it conjures up images of high-IQ geeks subverting the empires of men in suits, or at any rate in chinos. Christensen has extended his analysis to other, non-technological areas and industries. Education, for example, is apparently ripe for disruption. And of course companies such as Uber and Airbnb are supposedly bringing innovative disruption to the taxi and hotel industries respectively. Everybody and his dog wants to be in the disruption business.

And then, a few weeks ago, a Harvard historian had the temerity to ask if Emperor Christensen had any clothes. Writing in the New Yorker, Jill Lepore gave The Innovator’s Dilemma the kind of unsympathetic third degree to which historians regularly subject the books of their professional peers. Her conclusion was unflattering, to say the least…

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Wildcat Currency review

[link] Monday, June 23rd, 2014

My Observer review of Edward Castronova’s book, Wildcat Currency: How the Virtual Money Revolution Is Transforming the Economy.

We think of money as being a factual, straightforward thing. But actually it’s very mysterious. I have a piece of paper before me as I write. Printed on it are some images, lots of hieroglyphics and the words “Twenty Pounds”. If I wave it in front of a shopkeeper, it produces magical effects: in return for it, he gives me a newspaper and other pieces of paper and some bits of metal. But actually my £20 note is just that: a note. A piece of paper. What gives it its magical properties is, Professor Castronova explains, “a social process that enshrines a good as a unique artefact called money; once enshrined, that artefact serves money’s three functions, well or poorly”.

What are these functions? A medium of exchange, a unit of account and a store of value. As it happens, my £20 note fulfils all three functions quite well. But so did cigarettes in prisoner-of-war camps and, in days gone by, the shell of Cypraea moneta, aka the cowrie. For most of recorded history, money took almost as many forms as there were societies, or at any rate rulers, and it’s only in relatively recent times that we have converged on a relatively small number of currencies together with a very small number of super-currencies, chief among them the mighty US dollar and its enfeebled fiscal cousins, the pound sterling and the euro.

Even as this process of monetary consolidation continued, however, strange new kinds of currencies were bubbling up…

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The Internet of Things: it’s a really big deal. Oh yeah?

[link] Sunday, June 15th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column. From the headline I’m not convinced that the sub-editors spotted the irony.

Like I said, everybody who is anybody in the tech business is very turned on by the IoT. It’s going to make lots of money – oh, and it’ll change the world, too. Of course there are some boring old creeps who keep raining on the parade. Spoilsports, I call them. There are, for example, the “security” experts who think that the IoT opens up horrendous vulnerabilities for our networked society. Hackers in Azerbaijan could get control of our “smart” electricity meters and shut down the whole of East Anglia with the click of a mouse. Pshaw! As if the folks in Azerbaijan even knew there was such a place as East Anglia. Or some guy in Anonymous could remotely jam the accelerator in your car so that you drive into your garage at 130mph even when you have your foot firmly on the brake. As if!

That’s why it’s *sooo* annoying when the media publicise scare stories about security lapses involving connected gadgets. I mean to say, how could TRENDnet have known that its “secure” security webcams weren’t really secure at all? It’s not its fault that a hacker broke into the SecurView camera software and told other people how to do it. The result, according to the US Federal Trade Commission, was that “hackers posted links to the live feeds of nearly 700 of the cameras. The feeds displayed babies asleep in their cribs, young children playing and adults going about their daily lives”.

This is *so* unfair. Poor old TRENDnet makes security *cameras*. Why should it know anything about internet security?

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Can Google really keep our email private?

[link] Sunday, June 8th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

So Google has decided to provide end-to-end encryption for any of its Gmail users who wants it. One could ask “what took you so long?” but that would be churlish. (Some of us were unkind enough to suspect that the reluctance might have been due to, er, commercial considerations: after all, if Gmail messages are properly encrypted, then Google’s computers can’t read the content in order to decide what ads to display alongside them.) But let us be charitable and thankful for small mercies. The code for the service is out for testing and won’t be made freely available until it’s passed the scrutiny of the geek community, but still it’s a significant moment, for which we have Edward Snowden to thank.

The technology that Google will use is public key encryption, and it’s been around for a long time and publicly available ever since 1991, when Phil Zimmermann created PGP (which stands for pretty good privacy)…

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LATER Email from Cory Doctorow:

Wanted to say that I think it’s a misconception that Goog can’t do targeted ads alongside encrypted email. Google knows an awful lot about Gmail users: location, browsing history, clicking history, search history. It can also derive a lot of information about a given email from the metadata: sending, CC list, and subject line. All of that will give them tons of ways to target advertising to Gmail users – — they’re just subtracting one signal from the overall system through which they make their ad-customization calculations.

So the cost of not being evil is even lower than I had supposed!

This from Business Insider:

Inside the code for Google’s End-to-End email encryption extension for Chrome, there’s a message that should sound very familiar to the NSA: “SSL-added-and-removed-here-;-)”

Followers of this blog will recognise this as quote from a slide leaked by Edward Snowden.


This comes from a slide-deck about the ‘Muscular’ program (who thinks up these daft names?), which allowed Britain’s GCHQ intelligence service and the NSA to pull data directly from Google servers outside of the U.S. The cheeky tone of the slide apparently enraged some Google engineers, which I guess explains why a reference to it resides in the Gmail encryption code.

Cars as services, not possessions?

[link] Sunday, June 1st, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

We now know that the implications of the driverless cars’ safety record were not lost on Google either. Last week the company rolled out its latest variation on the autonomous vehicle theme. This is a two-seater, pod-like vehicle which scoots around on small wheels. It looks, in fact, like something out of the Enid Blyton Noddy stories. The promotional video shows a cheery group of baby-boomers summoning these mobile pods using smartphones. The pods whizz up obligingly and stop politely, waiting to be boarded. The folks get in, fasten their seatbelts and look around for steering wheel, gear shift, brake pedals etc.

And then we come to the punchline: none of these things exist on the pod! Instead there are two buttons, one marked “Start” and the other marked “Stop”. There is also a horizontal computer screen which doubtless enables these brave new motorists to conduct Google searches while on the move. The implications are starkly clear: Google has decided that the safest things to do is to eliminate the human driver altogether.

At this point it would be only, er, human to bristle at the temerity of these geeks. Who do they think they are?

Read on

Ten of the best

[link] Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

Every year MIT’s Technology Review has a feature on what its editors regard as the most interesting tech developments to have emerged during the previous year. Their current list is now out. See the article for the full details, but the headlines are:

  • Agricultural Drones (giving farmers new ways of increasing yields and reducing crop damage)
  • Ultra-private smartphones (e.g. the Blackphone)
  • Brain mapping
  • Neuromorphic chips (i.e. microprocessors configured more like human brains than conventional chips)
  • Genome editing (the ability to create primates with intentional mutations to study complex and genetically baffling brain disorders). Hmmm… some ethical issues here
  • Microscale 3D printing (i.e. using inks made from different kinds of materials)
  • Mobile collaboration (so-called ‘productivity’ software for smartphones. Example: Quip)
  • Oculus Rift (the wearable VR tech that Facebook recently acquired)
  • Agile robots
  • Smart wind and solar power (i.e. using big data and AI to produce more accurate forecasts of winds)