What does the fox say? You won’t find out here

I heard an interesting piece on Radio 4 a while back when an interviewer was talking to Nate Silver, the author of The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction, who used the familiar fox and hedgehog framing when discussing the way people deal with information. Foxes (ie, people who scrounge for tidbits of information) make better predictions than hedgehogs (ie, people who have one big idea). As a corollary he also said that we should be suspicious of overly precise or accurate predictions as they are very likely to be wrong. I was discussing this with someone recently and he said, quite accurately, something along the lines of “yes but the last time I heard you on the radio, you sounded like a hedgehog”. A fair point.

The thing is, when you are called by the TV or radio or newspaper folk, they’re not looking for foxes. Foxes are dead air. They’re looking for hedgehogs.

Many years ago, when I was not long in the consulting business, I went on a media training course. It was run by a couple of ex-journalists (one of whom, if I remember correctly, worked for the FT and one for radio) and although I don’t remember too much about it, I do remember their advice on press comment. We did an exercise where we pretended to work for a big company (it may have been a bank) and in response to a couple of different kinds of press enquiry we had to compose a comment for journalists. I can remember agonising over my response to the imaginary press enquiry and getting told off by the course leader who pointed out to me that my goal was to get the company name into the paper in a non-negative context — I wasn’t being judged on my spelling and grammar — and he said something to the effect of “in six months time, no-one will remember what the story was or what you said, but when one of your guys walks into a client’s office, the client will think ‘oh right, Consult Hyperion, I read something about them in the FT / saw something about them on Sky News / heard something about them on Radio 4′ and that’s your job”. Or something similar. But I got the message.

I took the message to heart. So if a journalist calls and says, for example, “why is UK card fraud up 17% in the first six months of this year”, I don’t respond with a very detailed (and very accurate) account of trends in card usage, technology roadmaps, chargeback management and such like”. You get one sentence, one soundbite. So, in this case, you might say something like “well it is largely due to the rise in online fraud” or whatever. And that will get the company name on screen.

Screenshot 2013-12-16 19.23.55

When you are working for a client, though, you are a fox. You have to be careful to assemble all of the relevant information and try and make sense of it, to glean a plan from the pickings. Is Bitcoin the currency going to succeed? Who knows, but here are the factors we think are relevant and on balance we think unlikely. However, there may be some opportunities to use Bitcoin or Bitcoin-like technology in your business to create a new product. And so on. Is our mobile wallet secure? Well, here are the results of our detailed risk analysis and the key countermeasures that will reduce exposure to management levels. This sort of thing won’t get you on the telly, but it’s what we do and it’s why we have been successful.

At a charity event I attended earlier in the month, a friend came me up to me and asked if had been on BBC radio in the last couple of weeks. I told them that I had and asked them what show they had been listening to and what the topic of discussion was. “I don’t remember”, she said, “probably Radio 4. It was something to do with the internet. I thought you sounded very knowledgeable. Does your company do a lot of that sort of thing?”. In actual fact I’d been on the BBC World Service talking about Bitcoin. But it doesn’t matter what the programme was or what I was talking about, exactly as predicted by the hacks that trained me all those years ago. What matters is that I sounded like I knew what I was talking about!

There’s a similar dynamic around blogging. This blog is, I hope, a good example. We try to make it interesting and relevant to clients and potential clients, but we also try to make it entertaining. This is more difficult than it seems, because we want to post fun stuff about exciting applications or new technology in the secure electronic transaction space but on the other hand we don’t want to give away anything we are actually working on for clients until they decide to go public with it. This can be quite a conundrum: looking at the recent example if HCE, we’re we’d been working on projects for a couple of years before any of clients said anything about it in public.

Foxes and hedgehogs. Case closed.

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

24. December 2013 by davebirch
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The best thing since… oh, that’s not on the list

The Atlantic magazine published one of those articles based on the latest that I really should ignore and not take too seriously but can’t help reading — Fallows, J., “The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since The Wheel” in “The Atlantic” p.56(9) (Nov. 2013). This time it was the 50 greatest breakthroughs since the wheel. They asked various scientists, historians and technologists to rank a list of innovations for the article, and then put them together into a nice feature.

I’ll spoil the ending for you by telling you that number one on this list was the printing press! I was surprised that the telegraph only made it as far as position 26 because as an acolyte of the Economist writer Tom Standage (“The Victorian Internet”), I do think that the step change between being unable to communicate faster than physical matter could be propelled and being able to communicate at the speed of light represented some fundamental cusp in human history rather than any kind of marginal improvement, so think I would have pushed it further up the list. Damn. There I am getting caught up in thinking about the list again.

Oh and one more thing. The most amazing fact that I think I saw in the article concerns the sequencing of human DNA. The article notes that in the past 12 years the cost of sequencing human DNA has fallen to a millionth of its previous level. That’s an astonishing six orders of magnitude cost reduction in a decade. Now I can’t decide whether DNA sequencing or 3-D printing will feature in some future list as the most important technological breakthrough of our current era.

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

29. November 2013 by davebirch
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Smart watches and dumb watchers

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, the technology world is excited about the prospect of smart watches.

Now that rumors suggest Google and LG are both planning on jumping into the smart watch war to compete with Samsung and Apple it’s time to stop thinking of this thing as a time-telling piece. Yes, these gadgets will go around people’s wrists and probably display the time.

[From The Smartwatch Is Not a Watch - Rebecca Greenfield - The Atlantic Wire]

I have to tell you this story. Some years ago, I was at a dinner at IBM in Zurich. A chap from their research labs was showing off a Linux-powered watch. The chap was Swiss, and I imagine unfamiliar with the British sense of humour. When he’d finished demoing the watch’s ability to show some news and contacts, or whatever, he asked if we had any questions. “Yes”, I said, straightfaced, “does it tell the time?”. I’d said it as a joke, of course, and expected a laugh. But… ”No,” he told me, entirely seriously, they couldn’t load the “clock” programme because they’d run out of memory!

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

31. October 2013 by davebirch
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Networks and the male brain

The Great She Elephant’s mention of City AM reminded me that I made a note on this organ in my little black book, but I couldn’t remember what it was, so I went and looked it up and I realised that it was a thing I was writing about the “laws” of networks and of male brains! Writing in his “The Long View” column in City AM, managing editor Marc Sidwell pointed to Metcalfe’s Law and Reed’s Law in a discussion on network economics and mentions that Reed’s Law may be more important — see “Bitcoin is a lesson in now networks can supercharge innovation economies”, City AM. p.16 (12th Apr. 2013). Now, I wrote a couple of articles about this a few years ago. As I said back in 2007…

I’m a Reed’s Law man, myself

[From Digital Money: More on Moore's Law]

I tried really hard not to comment on Marc’s column but I wrote down those notes and because of GSE I just found them so I thought I would blog them for fun. They reveal a fundamental character flaw but I can’t help sharing it!

At a recent event, a telecommunications supplier invited me along to a reception they were having in a club downtown somewhere so I went over with the guys for a half of shandy and a packet of pork scratchings. While we were there, a magician was moving through the crowd doing tricks. The magician, who was absolutely brilliant (the card tricks he did with the group of us were jaw-dropping) was Indian. I mean he was English but of Indian descent. I introduce his ethnicity only because it is relevant to the story. He began one of the tricks by saying something along the lines “My great grandfather learned this trick from an old man back in New Delhi when Queen Victoria was still the Empress of India”. For what reason I don’t know, but a deep-seated and fundamentally male character flaw was exposed at that moment, because I couldn’t help myself from saying “But New Delhi wasn’t founded until Edwardian times”, thus ruining the atmosphere. I apologised unreservedly (I then googled and discovered it was founded in 1911.)

Sometimes, you see, I just can’t help myself. I know it doesn’t matter to the point being made but I’m driven to trip over factual errors. I can’t think round them. So back to communications laws. I read this in a magazine and made a note to post a comment (which I never did).

In 1980, Bob Metcalfe, an inventor trying to persuade people to buy his $5,000 Ethernet cards, which connected computers in a local area network, came up with a formula that expressed the value of a network as the number of connections squared. The specifics of “Metcalfe’s Law” have frequently been challenged, but the basic idea that networks add value exponentially as they grow has not.

[From The Web’s New Monopolists - Atlantic Mobile]

What was my comment? Well, for one thing, “squared” isn’t “exponential” – they mean completely different things – and for another thing Metcalfe’s Law has been measured to be something more like NlogN rather than N*N anyway. There is an exponential law to networking, but this is the Reed’s Law mentioned by Marc. It is named after the AT&T researcher David Reed, which says that the power of a networks grow according to the number of subgroups that can be formed with the network, and this is a 2^N curve. I agree with Marc about its importance. In fact I wrote an article for Financial World magazine back in November 2006 explaining these laws for financial services professionals and saying that I thought that over time Reed’s Law dominates (we place it centrally in the technology roadmaps that we develop for clients at Consult Hyperion). Metcalfe’s Law doesn’t shape financial services much anymore (everything is already connected to everything else) and Reed’s 2^N zooms off into the stratosphere leaving both Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law behind.

What does this mean in strategy terms? I think it means that the shape financial services in any future that we can see is going to be shaped by the technologies that define, control and manage subgroups: in other words, the “disconnection technologies” of encryption, identification and authentication. 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

27. October 2013 by davebirch
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Let’s use Parliament to crack down on porn

Internet porn and surveillance is all the rage in the newspapers today. The general sense of middle England, as far as I can see, is that they want to police to snoop on their children (to stop them seeing stuff like The Daily Mail) and their neighbours (in case they are terrorists or child pornographers) but not on themselves. Hhmmm. No good will come of this. The bad news is that government ministers have decided to do something about.

Minister explains why we MUST force Google to crack down on web filth

[From Why I, as a mother, am determined to protect my children from the depravity of internet porn: Minister explains why we MUST force Google to crack down on web filth | Mail Online]

The woman quoted here is Maria Miller, the MP for Basingstoke. Her background is in advertising and marketing, which is why I suppose she sees Google as the gateway to world. But my point is that if MPs do decide to go ahead with some “dangerous dogs”-style legislation, whereby internet companies are forced to block certain websites and charge their customers for the privilege of being censored, I suggest they use Parliament as a test case for a few months. The news that parliamentary PCs are used to access foot fetish, adultery, gay cruising resources and, most intriguingly, a website for women who posed naked next to cats, suggests that the Parliamentary firewall might be a hard case to test bad law.

Harry Potter, a barrister specialising in obscenity cases, said: ‘Having viewed the material, it does not in my opinion fall foul of the law as constituting extreme pornography. It is, however, undoubtedly hardcore pornography.’

[From MPs¿ computers used to access porn sites, including foot and fat fetishism, more than 2,500 times | Mail Online]

Seriously? “Harry Potter”? The man’s life must be a misery. Anyway, it won’t work, of course. Even if the internet titans that Maria refers to were able to come up with software that could distinguish between an MP viewing legal foot fetishism and an MP viewing illegal “extreme” foot perversions, the firewall will be trivially circumvented. I was using a customer’s network the other day when I clicked on a link to a story about credit card fraud. The story turned out to be in the Sun newspaper, and the customer had sensibly blocked access to Britain’s favourite newspaper’s website on the grounds that it contained “nudity and/or content of an adult nature “. So I logged in via a VPN and carried on. I did the same at a friends house when I was checking something on the Pirate Bay. Virgin had blocked it, so I went to by VPN. The last time I was in the US and wanted to listen to the football on BBC Radio Five, iPlayer told me that I couldn’t, so I logged on via a VPN that made me appear to be in the UK and listened to the match. And if I was a pervert MP looking for porn when I should be voting on an Internet censorship bill, I would do the same thing.

In fact, I saw an article about people snooping on Wi-Fi in cafes and hotels so I decided to go via VPN whenever out and about. I’m sure I can’t be the only person who has gone down this route and I’m sure that the use of VPNs will continue to grow significantly over the coming years. Every time someone gets a letter from their ISP complaining on behalf of record companies that that person has been visiting filesharing sites, the VPN vendor’s share prices will go up accordingly.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, you have to imagine that the “declines” reported in file sharing and cyberlockers severely undercounts those things too, as using some rather basic tools can let people hide that sort of information from being collected — and the efforts by Hadopi to “educate” the public likely educated them about how to use VPNs

[From Three Strikes May Decrease File Sharing, But If Sales Keep Dropping, Who Cares? | Techdirt]

Now, you have to wonder if this is a good thing. After all, if the copyright mentalists and MPs drive us all to use VPNs for everything, life will actually get harder for the forces of law enforcement who have legitimate reasons to want to monitor Internet traffic. If everything is encrypted, PRISM will need more computing power than the planet has to offer in order to track to down international ne’er-do-wells. Hollywood’s stupid deep packet inspection (DPI) nonsense won’t work, but nor will anyone else’s. So my challenge to MPs is this: tell us what you want. Do you want the Internet set up so that Sony, the Daily Mail and the Bulgarian Mafia can see what websites you are visiting, or not?

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

16. June 2013 by davebirch
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Teutonic order. I’m a fan.

Since I am flying around Europe in economy class a lot at the moment, one of my pet hates is the abuse of the carry-on rules, particularly (I’ve observed) by women. The rule is ONE carry-on. Like all sensible travellers, I have a sturdy piece of Samsonite that was specifically purchased to fit exactly the airline carry-on dimensions. Here it is. ONE carry-on with my laptop etc inside.

Untitled

I took a Lufthansa flight recently. I was behind a woman who was clearly taking the piss. As well as a carry-on the same size as mine she had a laptop briefcase and a gigantic purse. Here is the photographic evidence of same.

Untitled

Imagine the magnitude of my schadenfreude then when, as we started to board, she was pulled out of line and told she had to check the largest bag. I couldn’t understand the conversation, but from the gesturing and facial expressions, I think she was trying to pull a gender-specific exemption on the grounds that her gigantic purse didn’t count in the grand airline reckoning. But good old Lufthansa. Rules are rules, and she was politely but firmly made to check it. As, I noticed, were a number Chinese travellers in a tour group and an American family who were pulling a similar stunt.

The result of this firm but fair application of the widely-displayed policy was that embarkation and disembarkation of a full 737-300 was smooth, with none of the BA-style to-ing and fro-ing trying find space in lockers or negotiating with grumpy travellers as to whether they can put the gigantic purse under the seat in front instead of in the overhead lockers. The plane still wasn’t on time though.

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes.

07. June 2013 by davebirch
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I was on the sofa with a visionary

There was an article in The Daily Telegraph that I read on the plane yesterday. It’s titled “The happiest marriages start on the internet” and it’s about a large-scale survey that appears to show that couples who met on the web have a substantially lower rate of divorce and report higher levels of satisfaction. The article says that survey did not investigate why online marriages are more successful. But I know why.

A great many years ago, I took part in a programme about internet dating on a Sky channel. It was so long ago that I can’t remember when it was (late 1990s I would guess) or what the programme was called or even what channel it was on. Anyway, the idea of the show was they that would have a relationship expert and a technical expert on the sofa with a number of couples who had met through the then-new channel of internet dating. Since they couldn’t find a technical expert, they called me and, since I will do literally anything to get the company name on screen, I went along.

It was really fun. They asked me a few questions about internet security and how you could be sure whether the person you were talking to was who they say they are. I told them, essentially, you can’t. On the internet, no-one knows you’re a dogbot, and so on. But what I do remember is that the female relationship expert, who I think was a psychologist, said unequivocally that in the long run it would be internet dating that is the norm and that the idea that you would choose a mate while drunk in a bar would be considered ridiculous. I may be remembering incorrectly, but I think she made two main points about this.

The first was that internet dating enabled people to get to know each other a lot better before they met, so they could make much more accurate long-term selections.

The second was that women would benefit from this mode of dating because it enabled them to evaluate multiple men simultaneously and thus greatly improve their odds of selecting an appropriate mate. Women are pickier than men, so the online mode is very helpful to them.

The expert also absolutely predicted that in a few years time, internet couples would have a better success rate than non-internet couples, a prediction that appears borne out by the statistics I saw in yesterday’s paper.

I’m embarrassed I can’t remember her name, because she was spot on.

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes.

05. June 2013 by davebirch
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Jackie No

The “The Law of the Telephone” by Herbert Kellogg in The Yale Law Journal 4(6) (June 1895) is a fantastic read. It begins by establishing that the basis of the law of the telephone is the law of the telegraph:

Like all common carriers the telephone company may establish reasonable conditions which applicants must comply with; and the use of profane or obscene language over a telephone may justify a company in refusing further service, on the same ground that a telegraph is not liable for a failure to send immoral or gambling messages.

Thus the new medium inherits from the old one. But is this true in social terms? Whole books were written to set out an etiquette for the telephone and to explain to the person in the street how to use the new technology in a civilised manner. I predict we are weeks, perhaps hours, away from a similar book for new Google Glasses users. I can see that there has already been plenty of thinking about the ethics of wearable computing, so we should probably start there rather than wait for new regulation evolve to govern us.

He also said that in deference to social expectations, he puts his wearable glasses around his neck, rather than on his head, when he enters private places like a restroom.

[From Privacy Challenges of Wearable Computing - NYTimes.com]

I remember reading something about memes once. I can’t remember where it was ever couldn’t find it through superficial googling, but I remember the example that was given, which was the way that women started to wear sunglasses pushed up on the top of their heads apparently in emulation of Jackie Kennedy, wife of the noted philanderer Jack Kennedy. I’ve no idea whether this is true or not and I’m sure someone will be else send me a picture of a woman wearing sunglasses on the top of her head before Jackie Kennedy was born, but the example stuck with me and returns whenever I think about the spread of means within a population, evolving social norms and the role of media. So it is with great pleasure that I announce the first new meme for Google Glasses. I call it the “Jackie No” rule. It is this: when you go into a public restroom, you should push your Google Glasses to the top of your head, Jackie Kennedy style, to signal to anyone you might meet that you are not a pervert. I imagine that there are many circumstances where merely wearing Google classes will arouse suspicion you are not entirely normal, but here is one case where the inherent boundaries that make a civilised society possible must be made explicit for the safe functioning of civil society.

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes.

27. May 2013 by davebirch
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It was all fields round here

It is 1975, and at the Park Senior High School (as bog standard a comprehensive as they came) a group of curious schoolboys led by a farsighted maths teacher take the bus into Swindon town centre and enter the headquarters of the Nationwide Building Society. There, we potter down to the computer room where we are allowed access to their mainframe (a UNIVAC 1109 with drum storage, if my memory serves) because they didn’t use it in the evening. I will never forget that kindness from Nationwide and they still have place in my heart for it today. It was there we worked on our first serious programming project, a system to schedule appointments for the parent’s evenings! Can you imagine ringing up, say, Barclays Bank today and asking them if some school kids could use their mainframe in the evening if they’re not too busy? Astonishing.

Having a whole computer to yourself was then a novelty. When Brian Dyer, the then-deputy headmaster of Park asked me and a few friends if we’d be interested in sitting a Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) in Computer Studies (the school had no lessons in the subject, so we had to just read up in our spare time) my first contact with a general-purpose stored-value computer system came via punched cards sent to the University of Bristol once each week. You punched your cards, they were sent off and a week later you got back your print out. I think it was an ICL 1902A, the first IC-based range they produced (the A meant it had a floating point unit for scientific calculations), and we wrote in FORTRAN. The school got a teletype, and we had access to a GEISCO time-sharing system using Dartmouth BASIC. I think we were allowed an hour per week, or something like that. I got Grade 1, and was set for life…

Other weeks we took the bus up to the now-demolished Swindon College, where we used their Elliott 803B with a then-amazing 8Kb of core memory (you tell the kids of today that…) to write Algol programmes on 5-track paper tape. You loaded the compiler, the loaded your program and the machine produced a machine code tape (for their strange 39-bit word instruction set) and then loaded your machine code and executed. Here’s a video of someone using one of these beasts! I don’t remember much about what software we wrote, although I do remember spending an inordinate amount of time working on my football simulation that used random numbers to work out where the ball went after each kick.

Park PiratesPark School 1976: Me, Clive Debenham (Rest in Peace), Simon Turpin and Bob Kirby (Rest in Peace).

In the hot summer of 1976, we were also allowed, and I have no memory of how this came about, to cycle out to the Royal Military College of Science in Shrivenham and use their more advanced computer system — although I can’t remember what this was — to write in Algol 68-R. In those pre-Al Qaeda days, we were allowed to amble around the campus and wander in and out of the computer room essentially unfettered. This all stood me in good stead. When I got my first vacation job at college it was for the Southern Water Authority in Eastleigh. One day my boss asked me if I could help him with a problem. The IT department (in Brighton) were sending him the wrong statistics. Did I know anything about computers? We opened the cupboard at the end of the corridor and found a teletype connected to a 1900-series (a 1906?) running Fortran under GEORGE III, which fortunately I knew how to use. I was instantly appointed departmental IT supremo, and never looked back!

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

31. January 2013 by davebirch
Categories: Technology | Tags: , , | 1 comment

Book review: Demystifying communications risk

Demystifying Communications Risk: A guide to revenue risk management in the communications sector.
Mark Johnson (Gower: 2012).

In telecommunications, just as in banking and retailing and most other businesses as far as I can tell, fraud is an ever present cost of staying in business and managing that fraud down to acceptable levels is one of the most important roles of operational management. That’s easy to say, but hard to execute. I picked up Mark Johnson’s “Demystifying Communications Risk” (recently published by our friends at Gower) by Mark Johnson from The Risk Management Group hoping for a few ideas on this front and I wasn’t disappointed. I’m not an expert on the operational management side of telecommuncations, but I think for someone entering the field Mark’s layout, examples and checklists combine to make the book a very useful starting point.

The overall message of the book, for me, was (as always) isn’t hackers who are the problem, but the staff. Here I found Chapter Four the most relevant. It is fascinating discussion on managing insider fraud, written by Nick Mann of Nick Mann Associates, which shows just how hard this is, partly because of the variety of the frauds and partly because of the statistics. Basically, most employees are potential fraudsters! He gives a case study of an internal fraud that was uncovered after $6 million in losses, yet not a penny was recovered., highlight the point that prevention is better than cure. Actually, I thought Michael’s use of specific case studies was very helpful throughout the book and in some cases very surprising (for example, the clock drift on a switch leading to incorrect rating). I found his discussion of prepaid frauds especially interesting, partly because they are so simple and partly because I think the growth in prepaid will continue over the coming years.

I rather liked Michael suggestion of a risk management “dashboard” of relevant key performance indicators. We do a lot of risk management work in the digital money and digital identity fields, and help clients to devise and implement appropriate countermeasures, and I will be certainly using the dashboard idea in the future.

Mark covers many of the areas that will be familiar to risk management practitioners including computer and communications security, countermeasure return on investment and revenue assurance control points but he also introduces management techniques that strike me as being pretty helpful to newcomers (looking at risk strategy as the interconnection between risk management cycles, for example). I think he will open many people’s eyes to some wholly new categories of risk that will need managing in the modern communications service provider. He gives over a whole chapter to the specific headache of dealing with anti-money-laundering and anti corruption controls that are unfortunately part of the customer billing and management world now: a very valuable summary.

All in all, this book distills a great many years of practical experience in a presentable and practical form and is sure to be useful to those entering the realm of revenue management.

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

02. January 2013 by davebirch
Categories: Business | Tags: , | Comments Off

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