Too much brandy!

Shortly after the cake had been iced, we noticed that Tux had gently subsided onto his back. “Hmmm…”, said the lovely maker of the cake, “I must have put too much brandy in it.”

Happy Christmas to any readers who happen to be passing by.

LinkedIn nonsense

You know the old joke.

First man: I’m on LinkedIn!”
Second man: “Really? I didn’t know you were looking for a job.”

I’m on LinkedIn not because I’m looking for a job (I already have too many of those) but because I feel that if one writes about this stuff then one should experience it. For a long time, my LinkedIn membership did not have too many annoying side-effects — beyond the occasional idiotic request from complete strangers for a “connection”. But recently I’ve been getting emails from LinkedIn telling me that various friends have “endorsed” me. This is annoying and embarrassing because I haven’t asked anybody for ‘endorsement’, and so I feel I should write to them and apologise. But, it being Christmas, I have had other things to so. So this is to say to all my LinkedIn contacts: I’m sorry you’ve been troubled by this idiotic attempt by LinkedIn to drum up business.

LATER: Turns out that I’m not the only person to be annoyed by this. Here’s something from The Inquirer, for instance:

Many Linkedin users have taken to the professional network to air their complaints about Endorsements.

“As an employer, I don’t think that I’d want to hear an opinion on someone’s abilities that hadn’t been carefully thought out. What would be the point?” one noted on a Linkedin forum.

“As the feature stands, it’s really just eye-candy for Linkedin, perhaps catching the attention of an employer but quickly fading away under detailed scrutiny.”

Another complained, “I think the endorsements are silly. It’s like ‘recommendation lite’. If you want to recommend somebody, take the time to write one. I am making it a practice not to endorse any skill that I haven’t had the opportunity to see someone demonstrate.”

Some could see value if the feature was used in a certain way.
“I would say this is a great way to endorse someone you know and whom you have worked with,” said one user. “I make it a point to endorse ONLY the person whom I know and worked with closely, also ONLY on the skills I know he has contributed, in my professional association with him.”

Spot on.

STILL LATER: This from Laura James.

EVEN LATER: Nice post by Quentin.

Joe Schumpeter and the truth about technology

This morning’s Observer column.

Pondering the role of entrepreneurship and innovation in this process, Schumpeter argued that capitalism renews itself in periodic waves of traumatic upheaval. He was not the first to have this idea, but he was the first to come up with a memorable term for the process: Schumpeter called them waves of “creative destruction”.

We’re living through one such wave at the moment, but our public discourse about it is lopsided. That’s because the narrative tends to be dominated by enthusiasts and evangelists, by people who, like the “cybertheorists” Poole detests, tend to focus on the creative side of the Schumpeterian wave. At the same time, people who are sceptical or fearful about the new technology tend to be labelled – and sometimes derided – as luddites or technophobes.

The trouble is that Schumpeter meant what he said: innovation is a double-edged sword.

So who will control the Net, in the end?

My comment piece in this morning’s Observer.

It’s all about control. Of course, nobody uses that particular term. The talk is always about “governance” or “regulation”, but really it’s about control. Ever since the internet burst into public consciousness in 1993, the big question has been whether the most disruptive communications technology since print would be captured by the established power structures – nation states and giant corporations – that dominate our world and shape its development. And since then, virtually every newsworthy event in the evolution of the network has really just been another skirmish in the ongoing war to control the internet.

This year closed with two such skirmishes.

The N.R.A. Protection Racket

Good OpEd piece by Richard Painter in today’s NYTimes.

The most blatant protection racket is orchestrated by the National Rifle Association, which is ruthless against candidates who are tempted to stray from its view that all gun regulations are pure evil. Debra Maggart, a Republican leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives, was one of its most recent victims. The N.R.A. spent around $100,000 to defeat her in the primary, because she would not support a bill that would have allowed people to keep guns locked in their cars on private property without the property owner’s consent.The message to Republicans is clear: “We will help you get elected and protect your seat from Democrats. We will spend millions on ads that make your opponent look worse than the average holdup man robbing a liquor store. In return, we expect you to oppose any laws that regulate guns. These include laws requiring handgun registration, meaningful background checks on purchasers, limiting the right to carry concealed weapons, limiting access to semiautomatic weapons or anything else that would diminish the firepower available to anybody who wants it. And if you don’t comply, we will load our weapons and direct everything in our arsenal at you in the next Republican primary.”

Three more cycles — and then what?

From the NYT Bits Blog.

The coming sensor innovations, said Bernard Meyerson, an I.B.M. scientist and vice president of innovation, are vital ingredients in what is called cognitive computing. The idea is that in the future computers will be increasingly able to sense, adapt and learn, in their way.

That vision, of course, has been around for a long time — a pursuit of artificial intelligence researchers for decades. But there seem to be two reasons that cognitive computing is something I.B.M., and others, are taking seriously these days. The first is that the vision is becoming increasingly possible to achieve, though formidable obstacles remain. I wrote an article in the Science section last year on I.B.M.’s cognitive computing project.

The other reason is a looming necessity. When I asked Dr. Meyerson why the five-year prediction exercise was a worthwhile use of researchers’ time, he replied that it helped focus thinking. Actually, his initial reply was a techie epigram. “In a nutshell,” he said, “seven nanometers.”

Dr. Meyerson, who has a Ph.D. in solid-state physics, was talking about the physical limits on the width of semiconductor circuits, when they can’t be shrunk any further. (The width of a human hair is roughly 80,000 nanometers.) Today, the most advanced chips have circuits 22 nanometers in width. Next comes 14 nanometers, then 10 and then 7, Dr. Meyerson said.

“We have three more cycles, and then the biggest knobs for improving performance in silicon are gone.” he said. “You have to change the architecture, use a different approach.”

“With a cognitive computer, you train it rather than program it,” Dr. Meyerson said.


The tyranny of algorithms

This morning’s Observer column.

Keynes’s observation (in his General Theory) that “practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist” needs updating. Replace “economist” with “algorithm”. And delete “defunct”, because the algorithms that now shape much of our behaviour are anything but defunct. They have probably already influenced your Christmas shopping, for example. They have certainly determined how your pension fund is doing, and whether your application for a mortgage has been successful. And one day they may effectively determine how you vote…

Feudalism 2.0

Bruce Schneier on the state we’re in.

Some of us have pledged our allegiance to Google: We have Gmail accounts, we use Google Calendar and Google Docs, and we have Android phones. Others have pledged allegiance to Apple: We have Macintosh laptops, iPhones, and iPads; and we let iCloud automatically synchronize and back up everything. Still others of us let Microsoft do it all. Or we buy our music and e-books from Amazon, which keeps records of what we own and allows downloading to a Kindle, computer, or phone. Some of us have pretty much abandoned e-mail altogether … for Facebook.

These vendors are becoming our feudal lords, and we are becoming their vassals. We might refuse to pledge allegiance to all of them – or to a particular one we don’t like. Or we can spread our allegiance around. But either way, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to not pledge allegiance to at least one of them.

Nice essay and a useful metaphor. Worth reading in full.

How the world ends

Jeremy Bernstein’s Memoir: At Los Alamos in the LRB.

He advised me to face away from the explosion and count to ten. I was also given some very dark glass to put over my own glasses. Even the reflection from the bunker walls could damage your eyes. I don’t know how far away from the explosion we were but we were close enough to see the 700-foot tower that had the bomb on top of it. I noticed a hill behind the tower with a grove of Joshua trees. They looked as if they were praying. A loudspeaker counted out the minutes until the explosion and then counted down the last sixty seconds. I had turned my back and covered my eyes with the dark glass but the bright flash still made me shut them. I counted to ten and then turned round.

The horizon in front of me was in turmoil. In the centre was a livid red-orange cloud. The hugeness of it was what impressed me. I had had no idea of the sheer scale of a nuclear explosion. Peaslee had prepared me for the next step. I felt a sharp and slightly painful click in my ears. This was the supersonic shock wave. At Hiroshima it produced a wind stronger than any known typhoon: it knocked over the kerosene cookers the Japanese used to make breakfast and caused most of the fires at Hiroshima. Then came the sound: a sort of rolling thunder. The cloud had turned purple and black and hung in the air like a radioactive cobra about to strike. There was talk of taking cover, but it didn’t move in our direction. I stood there mute. We went back to the dormitory to get a little more sleep.