Resources, resources, resources

Here’s an instructive story:

Just three months after launching Facebook Live to all users, Mark Zuckerberg decided to go big, realizing in a February meeting that the company should make Live a top priority. A BuzzFeed story on Live tells us what happens next, quoting Facebook Media’s product lead Fidjij Simo:

“The original Live team was composed of only a dozen or so people. But the vision laid out for the product at that February meeting would require more than 100 engineers to build. ‘The meeting was on a Thursday, and on Monday, [Facebook Media engineering lead Maher] Saba and I were standing in front of 150 engineers,’ said Simo.”

From 12 engineers to 150 in less than a week. That’s the new pace of the media business.

Now here’s another instructive question: how many engineers are working on the iPhone camera?

50?

150?

Nope. At the moment, there are 800 engineers working just on the camera.

Which leads me to wonder how many people work in the R&D divisions of Nikon and Canon?

See what conventional companies are up against?

flickr_stats

At present, the most popular cameras among Flickr users are all iPhone models. By a mile.

Transparency, non! (If you’re M. et Mme Piketty, that is)

Well, well. This from Frederic Filloux about the leading French public intellectual, Julia Cagé (of whom, I am ashamed to say) I had never heard.

Last year, she published a book titled Sauvez Les Medias, capitalisme, financement participatif et démocratie. The short opus collected nice reviews from journalists traumatized by the sector’s ongoing downfall and eager to cling to any glimmer of hope. Sometimes, though, the cozy entre nous review process goes awry. This was the case when star economist Thomas Piketty published a rave book review in Libération, but failed to acknowledge his marital tie to Julia Cagé. In fact, Piketty imposed the review on Libération’s editors, threatening to pull his regular column from the paper if they did not oblige, and then refused to disclose his tie to Mrs Cagé; rather troubling from intellectuals who preach ethics and transparency.

The next Brain Drain

The Economist has an interesting article on how major universities are now having trouble holding on to their machine-learning and AI academics. As the industrial frenzy about these technologies mounts, this is perfectly understandable, though it’s now getting to absurd proportions. The Economist claims, for example, that some postgraduate students are being lured away – by salaries “similar to those fetched by professional athletes” – even before they complete their doctorates. And Uber lured “40 of the 140 staff of the National Robotics Engineering Centre at Carnegie Mellon University, and set up a unit to work on self-driving cars”.

All of which is predictable: we’ve seen it happen before, for example, with researchers who have data-analytics skillsets. But it raises several questions.

The first is whether this brain brain will, in the end, turn out to be self-defeating? After all, the graduate students of today are the professors of tomorrow. And since, in the end, most of the research and development done in companies tends to be applied, who will do the ‘pure’ research on which major advances in many fields depend?

Secondly, and related to that, since most industrial R&D is done behind patent and other intellectual-property firewalls, what happens to the free exchange of ideas on which intellectual progress ultimately depends? In that context, for example, it’s interesting to see the way in which Google’s ownership of Deepmind seems to be beginning to constrain the freedom of expression of its admirable co-founder, Demis Hassabis.

Thirdly, since these technologies appear to have staggering potential for increasing algorithmic power and perhaps even changing the relationship between humanity and its machines, the brain drain from academia – with its commitment to open enquiry, sensitivity to ethical issues, and so on – to the commercial sector (which traditionally has very little interest in any of these things) is worrying.

The significance of WhatsApp encryption

This morning’s Observer column:

In some ways, the biggest news of the week was not the Panama papers but the announcement that WhatsApp was rolling out end-to-end encryption for all its 1bn users. “From now on,” it said, “when you and your contacts use the latest version of the app, every call you make, and every message, photo, video, file and voice message you send, is end-to-end encrypted by default, including group chats.”

This is a big deal because it lifts encryption out of the for-geeks-only category and into the mainstream. Most people who use WhatsApp wouldn’t know a hash function if it bit them on the leg. Although strong encryption has been available to the public ever since Phil Zimmermann wrote and released PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) in 1991, it never realised its potential because the technicalities of setting it up for personal use defeated most lay users.

So the most significant thing about WhatsApp’s innovation is the way it renders invisible all the geekery necessary to set up and maintain end-to-end encryption…

Read on

It’s back to the future for Mashable

According to Politico, Mashable is undergoing a dramatic restructuring, not to mention what is sometimes called a ‘pivot’. What’s interesting is where the site is now (apparently) headed.

As for the new direction of the company, Cashmore [Mashable’s CEO] hinted at the importance and influence of advertisers, noting that now advertisers are no longer separate from the story and want to be “telling stories with us” and no longer “buying media” for an audience.

“Branded content is the business model for media going forward” Cashmore told staff. “It’s very, very clear that branded content is the future.”

Well, well. Spool back to the early days of broadcast radio, when nobody could figure out a business model for the thing. I mean to say, you spend all that money setting up a station and creating ‘content’ and every Tom, Dick and Harry who had a radio receiver cold listen to it for free. And then along came Proctor and Gamble, a soap company, with the idea that if you sponsored compelling content — like a dramatic serial — and associated your name and brand with it, then good things would happen. Thus was born the ‘soap opera’. And this is the wheel that Mashable seems to have re-invented!

Trump: the ultimate free rider

Some extraordinary stats in the New York Review of Books about the amount of free coverage Trump has received from US media, especially television:

In mid-March, mediaQuant, a firm that tracks media coverage of candidates and assigns a dollar value to that coverage based on advertising rates, compared how much each candidate had spent on “paid” media (television ads) and how much each candidate had been given in “free” media (news coverage). Bush, for example, had spent $82 million on paid media and received $214 million in free media. For Rubio, those respective numbers were $55 million and $204 million. For Cruz, $22 million and $313 million. For Sanders, $28 million and $321 million. For Clinton, $28 million and $746 million (in her case, much of that free media was negative, relating to the State Department e-mails).

And Trump? He’d spent not more than $10 million on paid media and received $1.9 billion in free media. That’s nearly triple the other three major Republican candidates combined.7

CBS head Les Moonves, who joined what was once called the Tiffany Network as head of the entertainment division in the 1980s and who lately has been pulling down around $60 million a year in compensation, let the cat out of the bag when he spoke in late February at something called the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media, and Telecom Conference in San Francisco. This is not a meeting dedicated to a discussion of news gathering as a public trust. Rather, it is a convocation at which Morgan Stanley analysts discuss how, “from virtual and augmented reality to 5G and autonomous cars, the pulse of digital experience is speeding up” (so says the conference website). And it was here that Moonves said that the Trump phenomenon “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” adding:

“Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now?… The money’s rolling in and this is fun…. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going. Donald’s place in this election is a good thing.”