Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Keen still has his edge

[link] Sunday, February 1st, 2015

My Observer review of Andrew Keen’s new book, The Internet is Not the Answer:

Andrew Keen – like many who were involved in the net in the early days – started out as an internet evangelist. In the 1990s he founded a startup in the Bay Area and drank the Kool-Aid that fuelled the first internet bubble. But he saw the light before many of us, and rapidly established himself as one of the net’s early contrarians. His first book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, was a lacerating critique of the obsession with user-generated content which characterised the early days of web 2.0, and whenever conference organisers wanted to ensure a bloody good row, Andrew Keen was the man they invited to give the keynote address.

If his new book is anything to go by, Keen has lost none of his edge, but he’s expanded the scope and depth of his critique. He wants to persuade us to transcend our childlike fascination with the baubles of cyberspace so that we can take a long hard look at the weird, dysfunctional, inegalitarian, comprehensively surveilled world that we have been building with digital tools. In that sense, The Internet Is Not the Answer joins a number of recent books by critics such as Jaron Lanier, Doc Searls, Astra Taylor, Ethan Zuckerman and Nicholas Carr, who are also trying to wake us from the nightmare into which we have been sleepwalking.

Read on

Jason’s First Rule of Start-ups

[link] Sunday, January 25th, 2015

Jason Calcanis is one of the shrewdest tech investors around. He’s just published an insightful essay on why founders of start-ups need to keep their investors informed — really informed — about what’s going on. “Jason’s Rule of Startups”  goes like this:

“If your startup isn’t sending you monthly updates it’s going out of business.”

How does he know this? Answer: Bitter experience

I know this because with two of my investments I found out that they were out of business because I emailed them over and over asking for an update. When the update finally came it was, “can we talk?”

When someone says “can we talk?” it’s over.

Today I keep a spreadsheet. The columns are the months of the year and the rows are the startups I’ve invested in. We check off the date in the month that we got the last update.

When we look at this spreadsheet — and we look weekly — we know instantly who is in trouble and who is rocking. If someone misses their second month I instantly call them on the phone — so I can help!

And that’s the big lesson for founders: if you’re not sending the report because you’re ashamed of how bad your startup is doing, you’re making a big mistake. I know, you want to clean things up a bit before sending your update — that’s reasonable.

I get it. I’ve done it. Don’t do it.

When you have problems, that’s when you should lean on your investors most. Nothing is more refreshing than getting an update from a founder that says:

  1. We lost our CTO to Google.
  2. The product is four weeks behind schedule.
  3. We have only nine months of runway left.
  4. I’m really frustrated at how slow this is going.

Awesome! Welcome to entrepreneurship … it’s really fucking hard! We know, we’ve been there and we know how to solve these problems. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work!

Great stuff. He’s right: I’ve been there, done that, got the tee-shirt.

Google: the next Microsoft?

[link] Sunday, January 18th, 2015

This morning’s Observer column:

Bill Gates once said that the only technology company that reminded him of Microsoft in its early days was… Google. Thanks to one of those delicious ironies in which capitalism excels, guess which company Google now reminds people of? Answer: Microsoft in its current dotage. Gates’s creation was once even more dominant in the industry than Google is now. It had three core products – the Windows operating system, Office and Windows Server – which were licences to print money. Microsoft had huge revenues that just rolled in every quarter, just as Google’s advertising revenues do today, and on the back of them built a huge 128,000 employee company. But, cushioned by its money-pump, it failed to innovate and, in particular, failed to address the decline of the desktop PC and the rise of mobile computing.

Despite Google’s self-image of an ultra-agile, young company, in fact it’s become a 55,000-employee monster, which is what is leading some people to see parallels with Microsoft…

Read on.

In a digital cacaphony, we need journalism more, not less

[link] Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

Great blog post by George Brock, who thinks that disintermediation is not an unalloyed good, and that sometimes intermediaries are important and necessary. Extract:

What I’m trying to catch with the term “re-intermediation” is this. The way journalism’s intermediary role works has been massively altered, but the need for that function never went away. Whether or not we define it as journalism done by people called “journalists”, people need and want selection, distilling and interpretation.

Never lose sight of the fact that perhaps the single largest change underlying the “digital era” is the simple increase in the quantity and velocity of information moving between people. That proliferation increases the need for intermediary help, not the other way round. Organising and clarifying information (something that social networks do) can create value.

To me, the story of the last few years is one of regular, gentle reminders that raw, unsorted information has few fans. It’s obviously true that in the digital era someone who wants their information uncontaminated by journalism has a much better chance of getting it. But information sifted, verified, clarified and – yes – packaged has the greater appeal.

He’s right. I’ve been a subscriber to the Economist for many years not because I share its ideological views but because it’s a pretty good sieve that often highlights stuff that I might not have spotted otherwise and to which I ought to be paying attention.

Also: on the over-reach of disintermediation. Travel agents are usually the standard case study of intermediaries swept away by the wave of creative destruction. So we — the customers — now do all the bureaucracy associated with booking our air travel. So it’s only when you have to plan a complicated, non-standard trip that you realise how useful a knowledgeable intermediary can be.

Coming to grips with where we are now

[link] Sunday, December 28th, 2014

This morning’s *Observer column:

Could we live without the net? Answer: on an individual level possibly, but on a societal level no – simply because so many of the services on which industrialised societies depend now rely on internet connectivity. In that sense, the network has become the nervous system of the planet. This is why it now makes no more sense to argue about whether the internet is good or bad than to debate whether oxygen or water are desirable. We’ve got it and we’re stuck with it.

Which means that we’re also stuck with its downsides…

Read on

How to teleport a spanner

[link] Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014


Now here is a lovely story about technology and ingenuity:

My colleagues and I just 3D-printed a ratcheting socket wrench on the International Space Station by typing some commands on our computer in California.

We had overheard ISS Commander Barry Wilmore (who goes by “Butch”) mention over the radio that he needed one, so we designed one in CAD and sent it up to him faster than a rocket ever could have. This is the first time we’ve ever “emailed” hardware to space.

Details are fascinating. Worth reading in full.

The future in your pocket

[link] Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

This morning’s Observer column:

If a year is a long time in politics (and it is), then it’s an eternity in communications technology. Fourteen years ago, about 400 million people were using the internet. Today, the number of net users is pushing the 3 billion mark. But that’s not the really big news. What’s truly startling is that 2 billion of these folks are getting their internet connections primarily via smartphones, ie, handheld computers that can access the internet as well as make voice calls, send text messages and do the other things that old-fashioned “feature phones” could do.

This is startling because smartphones are a relatively new development, and when they first appeared less than a decade ago, most of us thought that they would remain an elite consumer product for a long time to come, staples of affluent professionals in the industrialised world, perhaps, but of no relevance to poor people in the developing world who would continue to be delighted with crude feature phones that could just about do SMS.

How wrong can you be? We underestimated both the power of Moore’s law and human nature…

Read on

After Snowden, what?

[link] Sunday, October 19th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

Many moons ago, shortly after Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA first appeared, I wrote a column which began, “Repeat after me: Edward Snowden is not the story”. I was infuriated by the way the mainstream media was focusing not on the import of what he had revealed, but on the trivia: Snowden’s personality, facial hair (or absence thereof), whereabouts, family background, girlfriend, etc. The usual crap, in other words. It was like having a chap tell us that the government was poisoning the water supply and concentrating instead on whom he had friended on Facebook.

Mercifully, we have moved on a bit since then. The important thing now, it seems to me, is to consider a new question: given what we now know, what should we do about it? What could we realistically do? Will we, in fact, do anything? And if the latter, where are we heading as democracies?

I tried to put some of these questions to Snowden at the Observer Ideas festival last Sunday via a Skype link that proved comically dysfunctional. The comedy in using a technology to which the NSA has a backdoor was not lost on the (large) audience — or on Snowden, who coped gracefully with it. But it was a bit like trying to have a philosophical discussion using smoke signals. So let’s have another go.

First, what could we do to curb comprehensive surveillance of the net?

Read on…

Bruce Schneier’s next book

[link] Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

Title: Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World

Publisher: WW Norton

Publication date: March 9, 2015

Table of Contents

Part 1: The World We’re Creating
Chapter 1: Data as a By-Product of Computing
Chapter 2: Data as Surveillance
Chapter 3: Analyzing our Data
Chapter 4: The Business of Surveillance
Chapter 5: Government Surveillance and Control
Chapter 6: Consolidation of Institutional Surveillance

Part 2: What’s at Stake
Chapter 7: Political Liberty and Justice
Chapter 8: Commercial Fairness and Equality
Chapter 9: Business Competitiveness
Chapter 10: Privacy
Chapter 11: Security

Part 3: What to Do About It
Chapter 12: Principles
Chapter 13: Solutions for Government
Chapter 14: Solutions for Corporations
Chapter 15: Solutions for the Rest of Us
Chapter 16: Social Norms and the Big Data Trade-Off

Something to be pre-ordered, methinks.


[link] Friday, October 10th, 2014


Finally… a fibre-optic connection at home. Installed this morning. Upload speed is good enough to run my private cloud.