Bob Taylor RIP

Bob Taylor, the man who funded the Arpanet (the military precursor of the Internet), has died at the age of 85. He also funded much of Doug Engelbart’s ‘augmentation’ research at SRI. After Arpanet was up and running, Bob left to found the Computer Science Lab at Xerox PARC. His ambition for CSL, he said, was to hire the 50 best computer scientists and engineers in the US and let them do their stuff. He didn’t get 50, but he did get some real stars — including Bob Metcalfe, Chuck Thacker, David Boggs, Butler Lampson, Alan Kay and Charles Simonyi who — in three magical years — invented much of the technology we use today: bitmapped windowing interfaces, Ethernet and the laser printer, networked workstations, collaborative working, to name just a few. They were, in the words of one chronicler “dealers of lightning”. Bob’s management style was inspired. His philosophy was to hire the best and give them their heads. His job, he told his geeks, was to protect them from The Management. And he was as good as his word.

Xerox, needless to say, fumbled the future the company could have owned. Steve Jobs saw what Bob’s team were doing and realised its significance. He went back to Apple and started the Macintosh project to bring it to the masses.

Bob and I had a friend in common — Roger Needham, the great computer scientist, who worked with Bob after he had left PARC to run the DEC Systems Research Center in California. When Roger was diagnosed with terminal cancer his Cambridge colleagues organised a symposium and a festschrift in his honour. Bob and I co-wrote one of the essays in that collection. Its title — “Zen and the Art of Research Management” — captured both Bob’s and Roger’s management style.

The NYT obit is properly respectful of Bob’s great contribution to our world. One of the comments below it comes from Alan Kay who was one of the CSL stars. He writes:

Bob fully embraced the deeply romantic “ARPA Dream” of personal computing and pervasive networking. His true genius was in being able to “lead by getting others to lead and cooperate” via total commitment, enormous confidence in his highly selected researchers expressed in all directions, impish humor, and tenacious protection of the research. He was certainly the greatest “research manager” in his field, and because of this had the largest influence in a time of the greatest funding for computing research. It is impossible to overpraise his impact and to describe just how he used his considerable personality to catalyze actions.

The key idea was to have a great vision yet not try to drive it from the funders on down, but instead “fund people not projects” by getting the best scientists in the world to “find the problems to solve” that they thought would help realize the vision. An important part of how this funding was carried out was not just to find the best scientists, but to create them. Many of the most important researchers at Xerox PARC were young researchers in ARPA funded projects. Bob was one of the creators of this process and carried it out at ARPA, Xerox PARC, and DEC. He was one of those unique people who was a central factor in a deep revolution of ideas.

Yep: unique is the word. May he rest in peace.

Image courtesy of Palo Alto Research Center

Donald Rodham Clinton

Nice Politico column by Jack Shafer:

Observers have been waiting for more than a year for Donald Trump to stop acting like a beer hall bouncer and start acting more presidential. On Wednesday, that wish came true, as Baby Donald completed his transformation into a standard chief executive of the United States by espousing many of the hallmark policies one would have associated with President Hillary Clinton.

My Politico Playbook colleagues discerned Trump’s recent policy shift in their Thursday tipsheet. Previously, Trump said NATO was obsolete. Now, he salutes it, Clinton-style, as a “great alliance.” Previously, he lavished kisses on Vladimir Putin and Russia. Now Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have taken a Clintonesque stand against Russia, admitting to low levels of trust between the two nations. Then: No war in Syria. Now, Trump is bombing Syria with the sort of glee Clinton would have brought to the mission. And on and on it goes, with Trump adopting Clintonian stances on Chinese currency manipulation (doesn’t exist!) and the Export-Import Bank (for it).

Hillary Clinton’s presidency would have been a family affair, with Bill and Chelsea mobbing the White House with their advice; Trump has seated daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner at on his roundtable and acts on their guidance. Hillary Clinton would have recruited pros from Goldman Sachs; Trump has brushed the rafters of his administration a beaming gold with guys from Goldman. Hillary Clinton would have gone to war with the Republican Congress, vowing to campaign against them once they refused to pass her legislation; Trump has come close to realizing that goal, telling the leader of the troublesome House Freedom Caucus, “Mark, I’m coming after you.”

Lots more in that vein. Almost enough to make one relax. Almost.

Lessons of (German) history

From Christopher Browning’s NYRB review of Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Ascent 1889–1939:

Hitler and National Socialism should not be seen as the normal historical template for authoritarian rule, risky foreign policy, and persecution of minorities, for they constitute an extreme case of totalitarian dictatorship, limitless aggression, and genocide. They should not be lightly invoked or trivialized through facile comparison. Nonetheless, even if there are many significant differences between Hitler and Trump and their respective historical circumstances, what conclusions can the reader of Volker Ullrich’s new biography reach that offer insight into our current situation?

First, there is a high price to pay for consistently underestimating a charismatic political outsider just because one finds by one’s own standards and assumptions (in my case those of a liberal academic) his character flawed, his ideas repulsive, and his appeal incomprehensible. And that is important not only for the period of his improbable rise to power but even more so once he has attained it. Second, putting economically desperate people back to work by any means will purchase a leader considerable forgiveness for whatever other shortcomings emerge and at least passive support for any other goals he pursues. As James Carville advised the 1992 Clinton campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Third, the assumption that conservative, traditionalist allies—however indispensable initially—will hold such upstart leaders in check is dangerously wishful thinking. If conservatives cannot gain power on their own without the partnership and popular support of such upstarts, their subsequent capacity to control these upstarts is dubious at best.

Fourth, the best line of defense of a democracy must be at the first point of attack. Weimar parliamentary government had been supplanted by presidentially appointed chancellors ruling through the emergency decree powers of an antidemocratic president since 1930. In 1933 Hitler simply used this post-democratic stopgap system to install a totalitarian dictatorship with incredible speed and without serious opposition. If we can still effectively protect American democracy from dictatorship, then certainly one lesson from the study of the demise of Weimar and the ascent of Hitler is how important it is to do it early.

The search for the ultimate ‘man-cave’

My eye was caught by an extraordinary piece in the FT last weekend which, in a strange way, relates to my Observer column about the Silicon Valley crowd’s obsession with dodging mortality. The FT article is about the new market in apocalypse bunkers.

The location that has become something of an unlikely media sensation is the Survival Condo Project in the usually rather less than super-prime plains north of Wichita, Kansas. Situated on a 1960s Atlas F missile launch site, the 15 condos in the first site are all sold and orders are being taken for places in the second silo. The reason there has been so much interest, from media and buyers, is the spec.

We might think of bunkers as places of desperate last resort, bleak, damp concrete cellars with industrial shelving stacked with cans of beans and musty-smelling gas masks. These, however, are something altogether different. The “Penthouse” units, comprising 3,600 sq ft of living space spread over two storeys, start from $4.5m. LED screens offer a window onto a fantasy outside world of trees and waterfalls (not the actual, frazzled and burnt-out landscape). The communal facilities include a climbing wall, dog park, pool, cinema and shooting range (of course). They also provide hydroponic and aquaponic agriculture and aquaculture, and the machinery to filter air and water indefinitely. These are bunkers for the long haul: five years or more completely off-grid.

The FT piece claims that “the latest real estate trend among internet billionaires and hedge fund tycoons is, apparently, buying bunkers”. If this is indeed true then one wonders what it means. These, after all, are people who made their fortunes from correctly guessing the short- and medium-term future. Does their appetite for these hideous, inhuman residences suggest that they have real fears for the future? Or are they so rich that blowing $4.5m on a holiday house they might never need is a bit like the rest of us buying a ticket in the lottery? The cost is relatively trivial, and you never know… you might get lucky.

Making death optional

This morning’s Observer column:

In this world,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” This proposition doesn’t cut much ice in Silicon Valley, where they take a poor view of paying taxes. What’s interesting is that they are also coming to the view that perhaps death is optional too, at least for the very rich.

You think I jest? Well, meet Bill Maris, the founder and former CEO of Google Ventures, the investment arm of Alphabet, Google’s owners. Three years ago, Maris decided to create a company that will “solve” death…

Read on

Dreaming in Zero Gravity

From Frank Pasquale’s review of Peter Frase’s Four Futures: Life after Capitalism.

The assumption of abundance that drives half of Four Futures reminds me of a critical discussion of dance under conditions of zero gravity. It’s fun to imagine what might happen if choreographers could devise movements unbounded by the risk of hard falls, broken bones, and twisted knees. But whatever art of human movement was devised in space would quickly diverge in its standards of excellence from the standards governing dance here on earth. Weightless artistic movement relates to present dance as Frase’s political economy of abundance relates to ordinary political economy. Given that the primary economic problem is scarcity, it may not be a form of political economy at all, but rather, pure politics.

Unmasking sock puppets

So called ‘sock puppets’ are multiple social media accounts which are actually controlled by a single person. They’re a pain and the pain is getting worse — as we discovered in 2016 — because they can have a distorting impact on online discourse.

But now comes some good news. New Scientist reports that researchers have developed some tools that can detect these pests with reasonable accuracy.

[Srijan] Kumar and his colleagues at the University of Maryland and Stanford University in California analysed commenter accounts on news websites including CNN, NPR, Breitbart and Fox News. They identified the sock puppets by finding accounts that posted from the same IP address in the same discussion at similar times. This approach isn’t always possible, so they wanted to develop a tool that automatically detects sock puppets based only on publicly accessible posting data.

They found that sock puppets contribute poorer quality content, writing shorter posts that are often downvoted or reported by other users. They post on more controversial topics, spend more time replying to other users and are more abusive. Worryingly, their posts are also more likely to be read and they are often central to their communities, generating a lot of activity.

Based on their findings, the researchers created a machine learning tool that can detect if two accounts belong to the same person 91 per cent of the time. Another tool can distinguish between a regular account and a sock puppet with 68 per cent accuracy. The research will be presented this week at the World Wide Web Conference in Perth, Australia.