Archive for the 'Technology' Category

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?

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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)

If you think the music industry is a big deal, think again

[link] Saturday, May 10th, 2014


Given all the noise the recording industry makes — and the idiotic amount of attention it gets from government ministers — you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was one of the most important industries on the planet. In fact, as this chart shows, it’s minuscle compared to the industries that drive our economies. It’s about the same size as the watch industry. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t important to those who work in it, or that its future doesn’t matter. But let’s have a sense of proportion about it.

HT to Benedict Evans for highlighting the chart.

Metcalfe’s Law Rules OK

[link] Sunday, May 4th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column:

There are two paradoxical things about Twitter. The first is how so many people apparently can’t get their heads around what seems like a blindingly simple idea – free expression, 140 characters at a time. I long ago lost count of the number of people who would come up to me on social occasions saying that they just couldn’t see the point of Twitter. Why would anyone be interested in knowing what they had for breakfast? I would patiently explain that while some twitterers might indeed be broadcasting details of their eating habits, the significance of the medium was that it enabled one to tap into the “thought-stream” of interesting individuals. The key to it, in other words, lay in choosing whom to “follow”. In that way, Twitter functions as a human-mediated RSS feed which is why, IMHO, it continues to be one of the most useful services available on the internet.

The second paradox about Twitter is how a service that has become ubiquitous – and enjoys nearly 100% name recognition, at least in industrialised countries – could become the stuff of analysts’ nightmares because they fear it lacks a business model that will one day produce the revenues to justify investors’ hopes for it.

They may be right about the business model – in which case Twitter becomes a perfect case study in the economics of information goods. The key to success in cyberspace is to harness the power of Metcalfe’s Law, which says that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of its users…

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Inflection points and advanced robotics

[link] Sunday, April 27th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

Not often do you hear a Newsnight presenter using an arcane mathematical term, but last week was an exception. The culprit was David Grossman, who made an excellent film for Newsnight about the threat to employment from advanced robotics. In the course of this, he made the standard pilgrimage to MIT to interview Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, who have made much of the running in this area with a number of books, of which the most recent is The Second Machine Age. Their argument, said Grossman, was that our society has reached an “inflection point”, a concept beloved of those who studied differential calculus in their youth, but probably unfamiliar to the average viewer.

Still, that’s what Wikipedia is for. A point of inflection, it explains, is a point on a curve at which the curvature or concavity changes sign from plus to minus (or vice versa). Since this sounds like a smaller deal than the wholesale upheaval prophesied by Brynjolfsson and McAfee, Grossman might have got more mileage out of “tipping point”, which, though different to inflection, seems to me to get closer to the nub of the question.

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