Untangling

Ambling back towards Waterloo, through the frozen streets of a wintry London, I noticed (via the Twitterverse) that old Guardian chum Aleks Krotoski was lecturing at the London School of Economics (LSE) on Tuesday night. What happy chance! Informed by serendipity, I executed a smartish turn into Portugal Street and then into the LSE East Building. I was a few minutes early, so I caught an impenetrable end session of a lecture about calculus (game theory calculus, if I wasn’t mistaken) and then settled down to a terrific talk from Alex. She was talking about her new book — based on some Guardian and Observer columns — on “Untangling the Web”.

Untitled

Alex kicked off by saying that there is a culture of fear about the Internet because people (and especially, in my opinion, politicians) don’t really understand it. I thought this was an interesting observation to make during the week where world governments are squabbling about the control of the Internet at some UN beanfeast in Dubai! I’m sure she’s right, by the way. Everything seems a little scary: Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Google and Apple are all scary to someone, which crystallised set of thoughts for me and I think I will write something about that in the future. Her central point, at least to me, is that insofar as we understand how power will work in the virtual world (which is not very much at the moment) it is something to do with the role of the inter-mediate in technologies and those technologies have context. Right now, it’s essentially a Northern Californian context.

Aleks talked about the Google search algorithms as an example of how technology isn’t neutral in shaping our views of the world, but it occurred to me that there is an even more fundamental angle on this which links to the Dubai wrangling. When it came to question time I asked her about this and she said that she was neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the direction that we might take. I think I might be mildly pessimistic, in that I think it likely that the Internet will fracture into a number of different blocs in the future, but that may be an age related disorder!

Aleks asked (these aren’t her exact words, this is a paraphrase) if we are stuck in a quicksand of me, me, me narcissistic exhibitionism. I certainly am.

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

Slide rule precision

I’ve written before about my interest in paleofutures. I think it’s important not just to look at what people used to think about the future but why they thought it. Not to make fun of them, but to try and understand why they were wrong, so that we can use that knowledge to help to construct our own narratives about the future. I need these for work, because narratives are the way to create shared visions for organisations try to develop realistic strategies (and therefore make the right tactical investments right now).

Technology’s Martyrs: The Slide Rule” by Kirk Johnson in the New York Times (3rd January 1987) covers the story of Keuffel & Esser. This company, founded in 1867, was America’s pre-eminent manufacturer of slide rules. In 1965, they sold one million of them. In 1967, their centenary, they were commissioned to prepare a report about the future called “Life in the year 2067”, looking a century on. They interviewed scientists to come up with a vision that predicted electric cars and 3D TV. What it didn’t predict was that they would be out of business within a few years because of the electronic calculator. The end came quickly. On this day in 1976

K&E produced its last slide rule, which it presented to the Smithsonian Institution.

[From Computer History Museum | Exhibits | This Day in History: July 11]

In less than a decade they were gone because of technological change. But note the “Gibson” take on this: the invention that destroyed them, the electronic calculator, already existed when they wrote their report. In fact the first all electronic calculator desktop calculator went on sale in 1961

At the end of 1961 the Bell Punch Company put the Anita Mk VII on the market in continental Europe and the Anita Mk 8 in the rest of the world as the world’s first electronic desktop calculators. These were the only commercial electronic desktop calculators for more than 2 years

[From Anita: the world’s first electronic desktop calculator]

What’s more, the first electronic all-transistor calculator (from Sharp) went on sale in 1964. So by the time the slide rule guys did their study, the technology that would destroy them had been on open sale for several years. They made the mistake, I guess, of thinking that because slide rules cost $10 and calculators cost $1,000 they would never compete, forgetting that the inevitable curve of technology price/performance would do for them in time. And, I suspect, the scientists that wrote the report all used slide rules and were perfectly happy with them.

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

War stories

The science-fiction action adventure movie Aliens is one of my all-time favourite films. I’ve watched it countless times, in the cinema, on video, on DVD and now on Blu-ray in the directors cut and the original theatrical release. I know the whole film off by heart yet I never get tired of watching it. Just like the original movie alien I think the visualisation is superb: it pretty much all looks real (except for one single effect, which is the drop ship entering the atmosphere).

James Cameron had several designers come up with ideas for the drop ship that took the Marines from the Sulaco to the planet. Design after design, he finally gave up on them to come up with on he liked and constructed his own drop ship out of a model of an apache helicopter and other spare model pieces.

[From Aliens (1986) – Trivia – IMDb]

I love the “Colonial Space Marines” and their equipment. I love the way they storm in and then have to survive as it all goes wrong. I love their vehicle and their assault cannons, their auto-sentries and their flamethrowers. Fantastic. And what exciting future it would be!

We all know, of course, that they won’t really be like that. The most advanced military machine that we have today, the US Armed Forces, already employs more drone pilots than actual pilots. They’re building robots that can climb stairs and sensors that fit in tiny mechanised bees. We would really fight the aliens on the distant planet LV-426 by sending in men and women? I don’t think so. By the time we’re mining asteroids in the year 3000, the standard intergalactic assault will be to send in nano bots to get a DNA sample of the enemy and then use it to engineer a virus that will wipe them out in a week. A couple of days after I wrote the first draft of this post, I read

From state-sponsored cyber attacks to autonomous robotic weapons, twenty-first century war is increasingly disembodied. Our wars are being fought in the ether and by machines. And yet our ethics of war are stuck in the pre-digital age.

[From Cyber and Drone Attacks May Change Warfare More Than the Machine Gun – Ross Andersen – Technology – The Atlantic]

As is often said, science fiction isn’t really about the future. It’s about now. The Colonial Space Marines fighting the aliens represent US Marines fighting asymmetric wars around the globe right now. (And just as in the movie, they won’t be held to win unless they take off and “Nuke it from orbit, it’s the only way to be sure”.)

The role of technology in the future of conflict will be critical but it won’t be romantic. I don’t see my great-grandchildren reading the equivalent of the Commando picture library that gripped me when I was a kid, or watching movies like Apocalypse Now or Saving Private Ryan.

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

App empire

When the App Store first came along for the Macintosh using OS X, I wonder whether I would ever use it because they seem to be plenty of ways to buy software already. But I’ve already reached the point where I will only buy software through the App Store, for the simple reason that it means I never have to remember the serial numbers, where the discs are or what stupid usernames and passwords I created at the vendor sites.

This is worth so much from me the love already purchased more than one piece of software from the App Store when I’ve already got home on a CD or DVD somewhere. In fact I just did it with DragonDictate! I was copying software across to a new machine and when I ran Dragon it asked me to insert some data disc that I had no clue about. A cursory search of the bomb site/office where I keep things didn’t reveal anything but said Dragon Dictate when I searched through my e-mail I couldn’t find where I downloaded it from. So I just went and bought Dragon Express from the App Store and that’s what I’m using to dictate this message. (In fact, I’m using this message is a bit of a test since I’m going to post it unedited just to see whether the quality of dictation is sufficient for blog posts and the like.)

As far as I can see, it is not perfect, but not bad!

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

Adult story

I have an unusual story to relate. I obtained it first hand, from a contact I believe to be reliable, and I couldn’t resist posting it. Please don’t bother asking who I got it from, I will not tell even if waterboarded (well, maybe if London Pride-boarded) and I have changed a single fact in the tale (which doesn’t affect the narrative or the point) that makes it, I’m think, untraceable. It concerns the adult entertainment industry: if that bothers you, please turn away now (although I should say that I don’t think any of this is not suitable for work). It’s a tale of entrepreneurship, technology and, of course, money.

Apparently, years ago, the adult entertainment business in New York was controlled by the Irish. When adult video stores, peep shows and strip joints were roaring in the 1970s, much of the proceeds went to Irish gangs and was used to fund various kinds of organised crime. Although the Irish gangs controlled the business, they hired Jews to run the shops because they thought the Jews were good businessmen. This provided employment, often for young Israelis coming to the US for college or to look for more respectable jobs.

In time, the business began to clean up and become legitimate, and the Jews bought the businesses from the Irish and ran them as “proper” retail and entertainment enterprises. Legitimacy and efficiency saw incomes soar. My source tells me that he personally worked in one of these outlets in New York and it took $40,000 per night, running an adult store and peep show on one level and strippers on another level. For some reason that wasn’t explained to me, the Jews often employed Sri Lankans to work in these outlets.

Today, there are fewer outlets and they make only $5,000 per night. They get the occasional big spender (my friend tells me he saw an American Express Black Card used to purchase several thousand dollars’ worth of “new releases” recently) but generally speaking the basket size is falling and the margins are low. The Jews sold to the Sri Lankans. My contact told me that his former Jewish boss had taken the money and invested it in a shopping mall and some apartment buildings. (In fact, and I paraphrase, he told me that Jews were good at retail and property businesses — I report this faithfully, and I apologise if anyone is offended by the ethnic content, but I thought it was interesting to pass on what I told.)

So now the Sri Lankans are in charge. Young guys, with new ideas. And this is how the story reached me: one of these young Sri Lankan guys raised some capital and bought an outlet in Detroit. An adult store, with a peep show, and an adjoining strip club. He invested $4,000 in 42 CCTV cameras throughout the complex and connected them to the internet (my contact was part of the team that did the installation – that’s how I know the story). Then he hired people back in Sri Lanka (for only $300 per month, much less than employing physical security personnel in the US) to monitor the cameras. He first hired his sister (!) and then some other extended family.

His revenues are up, and he is making good money again.

Why? Because the adult business is a cash business. When my contact was telling me about this, I thought he was going to say that the CCTV was to watch for shoplifters, robbers, extortionists. But it was to watch the staff. Apparently some of the staff in the business (the cashiers, the strippers, the bouncers, the bar staff) are less than completely honest. Although the business takes cards, very few people pay with anything other than cash, and keeping track of that cash is a major expense for the business. From strippers doing private shows to cashiers giving special deals, everyone in the business is doing what they can to get hold of the cash floating around the premises.

By installing CCTV throughout the enterprise, and then offshoring the monitoring, this particular adult enterprise has seen revenues rise and the increase in profits has meant an excellent return on investment. You can have half a dozen people in Sri Lanka monitoring the cameras 24/7 at a fraction of the cost of a couple of physical security staff in the USA: the combination of money saved on staff plus money saved from dishonest staff adds up to a significant sum.

I thought this was a lovely parable of cards and cash, new technology and investment, globalisation and security so I hope none of you minded me posting it.

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

Room for improvement

E-Books are, to me, an emotional topic because I’m so viscerally connected to the book as a physical artefact and the bookshop as a physical place. Yet e-books are undeniably eating away at paper and shelves.

Europe has lagged behind the U.S. in widespread adoption of e-books, but a new report suggests that they are finally taking off. The e-book market in Western Europe grew by 400 percent in 2010, a new report finds. By 2015, e-books should make up 15 percent of total book sales in the region. (By contrast, in the U.S., they were already at 6.4 percent in 2010.)

[From Western Europe Sees Huge Shift Toward E-Books | paidContent]

I find myself using e-books more and more and I think I have developed a reasonable strategy. The thing is, I love books. I can’t stop buying them. I love browsing around bookshops, I love buying books and reading them on the train home, I love ordering off of my Amazon wish list ready for an upcoming business trip. I’m writing this in California. On the plane on the way over I finished the excellent “Forgotten Fatherland” by Ben Macintyre (I enjoyed it so much I’ve added his “Agent Zigzag” to my wish list for my next trip) that had been recommended to me by my brother-in-law and started a new Christopher Priest novel “Inverted World” that I’d picked up in Forbidden Planet the other day (I decided I fancied some Sci-Fi but wasn’t sure what, so I went for a potter about their shelves). Books, all of them.

On the train from San Francisco down to San Jose, though, I was reading Henry Fielding’s “Tom Jones“. I’ve discovered that there are hundreds of classics that I can download to my iPad’s Kindle app for nothing. Free. I read Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol for the first time a couple of weeks ago, using the iPad on the train when I can’t get a seat (which is actually making me think of buying a Kindle because the iPad is a little heavy when you are standing up on South West Trains). Downloading the free classic novels and reading them on my iPad in addition to buying physical books of one form or another is really working for me! I feel as if I’ve discovered an useful balance between the real and physical that is actually “improving” (in the Victorian sense)..

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

Mundane indeed

One of the fellow members of my writers’ circle wrote an excellent short story (that really should have been a novella) about the future, in which people met in cyberspace, for reasons that I will not spoil by divulging. In her story, her characters refer to their physical bodies as “mundane”. The use of “mundane” as the opposite to “virtual” struck me as a wonderful and appropriate use of language. Just a reminder: mundane means…

  1. Lacking interest or excitement; dull
  2. Of this earthly world rather than a heavenly or spiritual one
  3. Of, relating to, or denoting the branch of astrology that deals with political, social, economic, and geophysical events and processes

The use of the word is perfect across all of these meanings. I read a review of the movie Inception — a quick google fails to find it — that mentioned that the shared dream state in the movie is remarkably similar to the virtual world experience. Seeing my teenagers “jack in” to World of Warcraft does indeed seem rather similar to seeing the characters in the movie connect to a shared dream.

As I write this post, my younger son is playing World of Warcraft with a number of his friends. He is wearing a headset and talking to them via Skype while they work co-operatively in the “game”. In the virtual world, his primary loyalty is to the guild, as is his friends’, and they are working together, immersed in the physics, but particularly the economics, of their shared hallucination. When they switch off, they will be back in a world where they are just kids, it’s raining and there’s nothing on telly. Mundane indeed.

Following my friend’s brilliant insight, I shall stop using the word “real” and from now on will only refer to the mundane world as the “opposite” of the virtual world. They’re both “real”.

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes… [posted with ecto]

Not neutral

Emily Nagel, the CEO of Yankee Group, has a book called “Anywhere“. I happened to be reading this last week, and I came across the section on “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” in Chapter 11, “Anywhere Unknowns”. In it, she makes a good point about net neutrality and she says

…at Yankee Group our perspective is that legislating the ways in which the network capacity can or cannot be monetised by the networks’ owners is likely to stifle their efforts to find ways to monetise the constantly increasing traffic loading their networks.

This is absolutely spot on. It is perfectly reasonable for Virgin Media to charge me for QoS and GoS (Quality of Service and Grade of Service, as us old telecommunications hands still think of them). But it is not reasonable for them to charge me depending on what, or who, I am connected to. What’s more, it will never work. If Virgin (my ISP) wanted to charge me extra for looking at the BBC website or accessing BBC iPlayer rather than Virgin’s web site, then I would simply log on through an SSL VPN all the time, instead of only when I am overseas and want to telly, as I do now. I also use a US VPN when I want to watch “The Daily Show” sometimes. Once everyone has switched to encrypted VPNs, then none of the ISPs will know what anyone is connected to. Anyway, who would be against net neutrality?

In a speech entitled “The Open Internet” Communications Minister Ed Vaizey was said to have opened the floodgates for, say, Sky to provide a broadband service that prioritised its TV catch-up services and made those of the BBC practically unwatchable.

[From Ed Vaizey: ‘My overriding priority is an open internet’ – Telegraph]

I went along to the Houses of Parliament a few days ago at the invitation of Stephen McPartland MP and Alun Michael MP to hear Britain’s Communications supremo, Ed Vaizey, talk about this. The Hon. Edward Vaizey went to one of the most expensive private schools in the country (the same one as Nick Clegg) and is a barrister, and is therefore ideally suited to job of Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries. Hansard says that one of his specialist subjects is “light bulbs”. That was why I was looking forward to his speech. He said that:

  • The Government’s communications policy is going to attract high-tech industries to the UK. He never said how, and I was left puzzled as to how his views on net neutrality might support this contention.
  • There will be a digital single market… Broadband… inclusion… Consumer confidence…
  • We should develop “rights management system fit for a digital age” but he didn’t even allude to what this might be or what its requirements might be. I strongly suspect that he is not thinking of maximising the net welfare, but that’s a personal opinion.
  • Competition in telecoms is a good thing and national regulators should stand up to incumbents, something that I’m sure we’d all agree with, especially when those incumbents campaign against net neutrality (this is what BT mean by traffic management based on “types of expected usage“).

He mentioned something about IPv6 in passing, but I didn’t quite catch it. I may be wrong, but I shouldn’t think he knows what IPv6 actually is, so it probably doesn’t matter. He didn’t take questions and left immediately after his talk, but I’m sure we was able to ascertain many of the opinions of the assembled experts by some sort of osmosis as he brushed through the crowd to the exit. Incidentally, he also said “Britain is no longer an island”, which made me laugh out loud because it reminded of the old Not the Nine O’Clock News sketch where “Lord Carrington” says “Britain is not an island” and “Robin Day” cut him off with “Well I’m afraid it still is Peter”.

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes… [posted with ecto]

Fight them on the breaches

Naturally, we are all worried about the potential for cyberattack by agents of foreign powers bent on destroying our way of life. Or Skynet, whichever comes first.

Kroes called on Europe’s 27 member states to develop the region’s first contingency plan for cyber attacks and form emergency response teams by end-2012. Regional and local attack exercises should become a matter of routine, and individual countries should help develop agreed global security principals for the Web and cloud computing.

[From Kroes calls for coordinated cyber security | Telecoms Europe]

When I read this, I the word “local” tripped me up, because I’m not sure what it means in this context, but then I thought of a kind of 21-st century home guard standing by to repel them on the e-beaches and wondered if this makes more sense given Europe’s demographics. Neelie Kroes specifically mentions Belgium in the article. In Belgium only half of the adult population work: the rest are unemployed or have retired on generous pensions, so the idea of a group of retired bank managers, policemen, local government officials and unemployed persons coming together to form the new Dad’s Cyber-Army (“who do you think you are kidding, Mr. Assange… tra la la”) made me start laughing. I’ve already got some ideas for the first few episodes, and have a classic punchline ready for action: “What’s your password?” / “Don’t tell him it’s ‘Pike'”.

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes… [posted with ecto]

New NFC rumours about the “internet of things”

[Dave Birch]

The rumours that Google and a number of other organisations have formed a study group to look at the idea of offering people free injectable NFC chips in return for special offers, coupons, additional loyalty points an a variety of value-added services around Android NFC phones are quite interesting. I imagine that the idea is to make Android more attractive than iPhone/iPad by making the owners part of the much-talked about “Internet of things”. This is hardly a new idea, but what is interesting is that the deployment is being proposed so soon.

Katrina Michael, associate professor of the University of Wollongong’s school of information systems and technology, and author of scientific paper Towards a State of Uberveillance, said subdermal chip implants in humans could be commonplace within two to three generations.

[From The Next Generation May be ‘Chipped’ – PCWorld]

Why would I want one of these? Well, for example, suppose that I take my URL “www.dgwbirch.com” and encode it in some way (you can see an example here) and add that to my chip, then anyone who taps me with a Google Nexus S loaded with the right software could read it and have it added to their bookmarks immediately. Some people might want to have their Facebook “Real Name” coded into the chip, but I think that for rather dull middle-aged businesspersons (such as myself) the LinkedIn profile would be better. Who knows – the point is that surveys have shown that whatever the Privacy International’s of the world might think, people like the idea:

“We just carried out a survey and one out of four people are happy to have a chip planted under their skin for very trivial uses for example to pass gates more quickly at a discotheque for example and to be able to pay for things more quickly in the supermarket,”

[From CeBIT: Quarter Of Germans Happy To Have Chip Implants | eWEEK Europe UK]

The advantages are obvious. You would never have to remember a wallet, an ID card, a bus pass, whatever, because it would be permanently embedded in you. It is not difficult to see why Google might want to implant chips in people, and it’s interesting to note that the rumours coincide with more stories about the imminent demise of QR codes.

But last December, Google started sending out window decals with NFC chips to participating businesses in Portland, Oregon. Earlier this week, Google officially dropped support for QR codes from the product.

[From Google: NFC Is Replacing QR Codes.]

Not everyone is as enthusiastic about the chipping as I am. I’m not an expert on the Book of Revelations, so I don’t understand the theological objection to tracking at 13.56GHz as opposed to optical wavelengths, but it should be noted that there are people who are against this idea.

One group believes that the chips are a mark of the beast and are against implants. In biblical prophecy, this is a number written on the forehead, to mark those controlled by an evil power.

[From RFID Gazette: 16 Barriers to RFID Ubiquity]

Well there will always be luddites like these around, but let’s be sensible about this. None of the rumours* have suggested that Goggle will insist on having the chips implanted in the forehead: when I was looking at this issue a while back, I was imagining that fleshier areas would be more appropriate. Anyway, I’m curious why people would be so upset about this very practical use of NFC to solve a wide range of social problems.

Yes, use these chips to track dogs and animals but not human beings. This method has not only been suggested for use against white slavery and child theft, but also for many other uses.

[From Should chip-implant tracking be used to stop white slavery and child theft? – by Esther Stafford – Helium]

All in all, I think that this is a really interesting use of NFC and I fully expect to see it supported in the iPhone 5 [how wrong can you be!! — Ed.].

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes