13 June 2013 by Paul Dempsey
Security services talk about two primary streams of information: human intelligence (HUMINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT).
HUMINT is the traditional backbone of film, TV and literary espionage. It is the information agencies can acquire using, as the name suggests, traditional human sources. Agents, contacts, infilitration and so on. SIGINT is the information organizations such as the NSA deal with, acquired, as again the name suggests, by monitoring various forms of traffic. Radio signals, wiretaps and, today, what passes over the Internet.
Both are important to catching terrorists before they can act, as cases such as that of Najibullah Zazi, who planned attacks on New York's subway network, have previously shown. The old-fashioned work that identified Zazi could be followed up with surveillance that prevented him carrying out an atrocity and put him behind bars.
Worries arise when the two sources get out of balance. In the clearest example, a lack of HUMINT on Saddam Hussein's regime was one reason why those who sought to rebut claims that he was developing WMDs could not actually do so. SIGINT and bad sources dominated the case-building and set the path to what is now seen as an unnecessary war.
Whether Prism's disclosure exposes that this imbalance remains is hard to say in absolute terms. Rightly, the status of a country's spy network is highly classified information. Still, a number of ex-CIA staffers continue to claim that HUMINT operations have been long underfunded. So, the question does arise.
However, there are further risks in a proportional growth of SIGINT as a component in national security systems.
Notwithstanding the need for all covert activities to have clearly defined, constitutional and legal rules of engagement (the claimed lack of which is a key and undeniable factor in the current controversy), this kind of predictive data mining is far from proven.
We can debate how supermarkets can detect individual shopping patterns by monitoring what you order and view online and how you use a loyalty card. But an important point here is that these systems, while successful and very powerful, are essentially trying to trace predictable and repetitive behaviour.
They are really highly advanced and nuanced stocktaking. What sells? Who buys it? When do they buy? How does that mean you should promote your products? What goes on the top shelf and what on the bottom?
The data mining that security services undertake is, by definition, looking to detect acts that are NOT repetitive. A suicide bomber will, by definition, seek to act only once. Even one who does not offer up his or her own life will likely be taken out of action for some time by terrorists to obscure the detection trail.
Catching these evil-doers solely on the basis of data traffic is, to put it mildly, a tough ask. The algorithms for just consumer systems are notoriously difficult to create, horrendously expensive to develop and prone to periodic instability. So one can therefore reasonably ask whether these limitations lead to the kind of blanket surveillance allegedly being undertaken now. Grab everything and pray!
Then the problem becomes still more complicated. Without sufficient HUMINT to guide the sampling, you can end up with such a massive set of alerts that you get swamped in false positive reports and it becomes near impossible to sift them and find the true terrorist.
Meanwhile, you've still probably spent millions - actually hundreds of millions on developing these systems.
None of us in the 'normal' world can ever be entirely comfortable with the actions of covert state organizations. However, few of us would argue that they are unnecessary, or indeed anything other than essential. The question again comes back to the rules of engagement, and out of that, both the structure and funding of how those services work.
The idea that 'big data' can save the day and cut costs is a very dangerous one, though there has long been a sense that both Washington and London have bought into it. It means that some acceptable boundaries can be breached as you harvest results nowhere near as good as they need to be. Meanwhile, your own domestic civil liberty responsibilities can appear to have been jettisoned.
In the long run, none of that will help us defeat and catch those enemies who would do us harm.
Is movie science-fiction growing up again?
29 May 2013 by Paul Dempsey
And here's one more chance for those of you who arrived here via a search engine and not our front page.
OK, just one more....... Right......
Science-fiction is, at its best, a difficult and controversial genre. Despite the term's connotations, it's not that often about the future but rather its own time. Even the few works that respect science exaggerate. But the concept is based on exaggeration. It wants to highlight themes and ideas to discuss where we are or may soon be. It's satire without the jokes.
Today, that approach - assigned to the genre by H.G. Wells - is largely confined to the novel. Since Star Wars, now 36 years ago, Hollywood has mostly dealt in pure fantasy. That's where the box office is; not in the more cerebral ponderings of, say, Kubrick's 2001.
However, there are signs of change. For all its elegant 3D, spectacular action and occasional wit, J.J. Abrams' Star Trek Into Darkness is an angry, direct and sometimes confused post-9/11 allegory. Indeed, of all the mainstream films to deal with those events and the subsequent 'war on terror', it is the most explicit to date. Indeed, sometimes it's burdened with the subtlety of not so much Klingon as Vogon poetry.
There is an opening terrorist attack on London (which obviously has a 'special relationship' with the 'Federation'). There are stealth torpedoes to echo drones. The man running Starfleet is basically Dick Cheney. One villain emerges from - and is returned to - a cryogenic Guantanamo. There are clear suggestions of excessive and immoral coercion, if not actual physical torture, by the 'good guys'. And even Captain Kirk has no problem beating seven shades of revenge out of a prisoner.
Then, there is the climactic pyrotechnic destruction of much of downtown San Francisco by an unhinged fanatic piloting a starship directly into its skyscrapers.
And there is Khan.
One of the cleverest misdirections Abrams pulled off was getting the fans to obsess on whether the 'classic' villain was returning in the shape of Benedict Cumberbatch's 'John Harrison' or not. It drew attention away from where the film was actually going, and continued to do so in early reviews where critics were begged not to give away the 'secret'. Abrams thereby neutered any detailed discussion of the film's real themes - and a potential 'too soon'/'bad taste' backlash - before it had entered wide global release.
Khan isn't simply Osama bin Laden, though there is a lot of the real terrorist in the character. However, he is also very much the enemy that we ourselves create. He is 'genetically engineered'. The first time he was let loose it didn't end well. But that doesn't stop Starfleet's Admiral Marcus making the same mistake 300 years later because of his own fixations.
It's easy to see some of the levels on which that can be read, beyond simply history repeating itself. In the immediate term: "As Bush, so Obama - what's really changed?" But over time too, the extent to which US policy is historically thought to have fostered its own demons has long been discussed in DC (and, following the recent appalling events in Woolwich, the same discussion is right now sadly a British one).
The film is a Summer blockbuster. The requisite chunks of spectacle must be delivered. The laws of physics must be broken. Kirk and Spock must be given stuff to do - and stand either as cyphers for the 'right way' or at least our own confusion over it. So there isn't much depth in all of this. However, the film also shrewdly confines itself to a moral perspective rather than one based on realpolitik.
Nevertheless, ideas are suddenly back in fashion. The original Star Trek was itself famous for that (though its worldview was far more positive and optimistic than the one offered by Abrams). However, beyond their reappearance in that film series, a similarly satirical view pops up in Iron Man 3.
Its bin Laden cypher is an updating of a one-time full-on Tony Stark nemesis, The Mandarin. But he now turns out to be an actor working for a rogue part of the military-industrial complex (a recurring theme in the series). Meanwhile, Tony Stark's War Machine sidekick is clumsily renamed Iron Patriot and mocked mercilessly in the script.
Neither film has the answer. But just to see mainstream Hollywood confronting contemporary questions so directly marks a change, probably a welcome one. Because there's more to come.
Later this Summer, Matt Damon will take up arms against Jodie Foster in a futuristic haves-vs-have-nots/99%ers thriller, Elysium. Meanwhile, at the recent Cannes Film Festival, Robin Wright turned up playing - erm - Robin Wright in The Congress, a film about an actress who sells her digital self to a movie studio. Less identity theft perhaps than identity lease, but you can see where that is likely to go.
Finally, since this is the DC column, here's another interesting note. When Star Trek movies have opened in the past, there would usually be some accompanying PR from the White House on how the President had screened and thoroughly enjoyed the film. At that political level, DC liked to associate itself with the notion that Starfleet represented American ideals, idealism and technological supremacy at their best - much as creator Gene Roddenberry intended.
This time, not a peep.
Edited: 29 May 2013 at 11:39 AM by Paul Dempsey
BT gives it away, YouTube charges: Part Two
17 May 2013 by Paul Dempsey
OK, the YouTube plan is bound to make any journalist smirk a little. A service that has built itself on free content, now wants to charge for some. With a few exceptions, my business has found that harder to achieve than it would have liked.
And YouTube faces similar problems. Erecting a pay-wall between the public and something they are used to just being there never goes down too well. Particularly in the mass market.
Specialists like The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal (focused on markets that have long been willing to pay for good analysis) are getting bettter and better numbers. But it will be interesting to see how The Sun gets on, now that it is following more upmarket News International stablemates The Times and The Sunday Times in charging for access. The Currant Bun is, after all folks, relentlessly populist.
As is YouTube. While it's wonderful to have online, on-demand access to the thoughts and lectures of Richard Feynman, the service is essentially about anthropomorphic felines, mindless amateur blatherers, and people otherwise (but not quite so consciously) making planks of themselves. Oh, and a few movie trailers.
Having said that, the video market has been better prepared for YouTube's move than that for newspapers. Netflix's successful transformation from a DVD rental to streaming-based service - despite the many analysts who forecast disaster - is the best example. There are several others, both at home and abroad.
Of course, you did always have to pay something for Netflix. But beyond that, YouTube does seem to have taken note of the success of the specialists.
Its launch channels variously include episodes from Sesame Street and clips from National Geographic. This kind of video works well online. Parents are increasingly looking for educational content online, as their offspring - even pre-schoolers - seize control of iPads, Kindles and Galaxies. One's own curiosity about the wonders of the world is often sated by Wikipedia or some other specialist site, so offering visual content in the same vein doesn't look like a bad bet.
And we come back to sport - famously termed the 'battering ram' for subscription services by Rupert Murdoch himself. YouTube has a deal with the PGA golf network (and The Sun, it should be noted, has its own deal for online Premier League highlights).
Also, on the face of it, this will all cost just a few pennies a channel - YouTube is charging from around 80p to £1.50 a month. And it only needs a tiny fraction of its one billion regular viewers to jump in to makes pots of money. The scale of the Google-company's reach is another important point here.
It is - or should be - confirmation that the traditional 'packaged' pay-TV model is broken for good. And it may well be that. But a couple of notes of caution.
Whenever the online audience perceives that you have taken something away from it, its attachment to what you continue to offer is challenged. This is particularly true when you have built your brand on user-generated content - i.e. ordinary people making stuff for you for nowt. The blogger-fuelled Huffington Post was merely sold with its owners pocketing a good few million - no question of subscriptions - and the blowback there still isn't done.
However, the other question YouTube's partners may ask themselves is why they need to stay with the company in the long term. Unlike an old-school cable or satellite TV operator, it's not as though YouTube controls the delivery mechanism. Nope, Google does not own the Internet.
As such, YouTube says that the subscription channels are an experiment for now - and, of course, there's no question of it ever charging for you to upload and share your own material. Of course, there isn't.
But the company does need to be wary of who wins from this over time. Consumers may be willing to pay for specialist content, but its very nature means that it's also now pretty straightforward for its providers to use YouTube as the pathfinder, and a way of building up their subscription brands, before striking out on their own.
As Netflix showed with House of Cards - and will soon do so again by bringing back the terrific Arrested Development - you need to supplement your 'partners' offerings with material of your own. Strangely, I would have thought that with Google's resources, YouTube would be doing that from the very beginning. But it remains a promise for the future.
BT gives it away, YouTube charges: Part One
10 May 2013 by Paul Dempsey
BT's is a huge punt. The company is paying £738m alone over three years for rights to 38 EPL games a season. On top of that, it is acquiring content for a BTSport service in markets such as rugby union, Scottish and foreign football, tennis, UFC, MotoGP and more. Then add facilities costs, talent costs, marketing costs, what BT's already paid to acquire the UK ESPN channels and more operational overhead. It's fair to say this must be close to a £1bn-marketing bet.
And the pitch is all about getting BT's pipe into your home. It flips the established satellite/cable broadcasting model by giving away something traditionally considered premium (sports) to sell something increasingly seen as a commodity (bandwidth).
It sounds crazy, but there seem to be three aspects to BT's strategy.
1. Like Google, it's decided that the traditional broadcasting model is bust for good. Streaming is the way forward and whoever offers the most reliable connection will get the business as services become more sophisticated and complicated, require higher resolutions (3D, 4k), and, perhaps most important of all, more of our in-home devices require highly reliable connections - all hail The Internet of Things.
2. The chance to offer some premium material is still there, it's just changing. The second generation of smart TVs reaching the market now offers much richer apps and the user interfaces are greatly improved. But these are manufactured by big global players who will, therefore, predominantly cut deals with other big Internet players like Netflix. BT can offer the same well-known services - not everyone's going to change that new LED display tomorrow - but also more local ones. Indeed, it's local content and service providers who say they struggle most on the open Web. Beyond that, there are also local services like telemedicine, which will require the kind of 99% reliability only offered by wired networks - and which, if it saves on GP or hospital visits, the NHS could be convinced to pay for, whether the patient is on BT broadband or not.
3. For the first time I can remember BSkyB looks vulnerable. As I type that, I can't help but feel it may prove a very daft sentence. BSkyB is and has long been a brilliant company strategically. But its core business remains tied to a fairly traditional pay-TV model that is looking rather tired. I'd bet that it will adapt. But from BT's perspective, this may be the time to strike. Again, it all comes back to who owns not just the pipe or signal but also the box in the home - and what that box can do (remember, don't just think content, think about the incoming realities of the machine-to-machine based connected home).
The question then is whether £1bn - or more properly, an annual £330m or so for three years - is too high a price to pay. BT currently has an estimated 5m broadband subscribers. The 2011 Census estimated there are 21.7m UK households. If BT got all 16.7m it doesn't already have on broadband, that would represent an initial acquisition cost over three years of about £60 per household. It won't do anywhere near that many, but if that figure stays below £150 (c.7m new customers), possibly £250 (c.4m new customers), this might work.
These numbers are, very much, finger in the wind. You do have to pay for the broadband pipe to get the free channel. A BTVision set-top box is also £5 a month if you want one (a reflection of the separate hardware subsidy). In balance though, they assume acquisition costs paid off over three years and telecoms, particularly wired telecoms, often allows much longer than that. Moreover, these numbers are not that far off the subsidies mobile operators apply to handsets, and we typically buy a new one of those every 18 months.
So they do suggest that BT may not be as far off with its numbers (if not its strategy) as has been suggested since the EPL giveaway was announced.
Perhaps more importantly, the end-game here goes far beyond that traditional content and how it is consumed. This is owning the gateway to the next major shift in communications.
And if you don't think it's coming soon, think again. Last week, a senior VP at ARM, the British company that provides technology that goes into almost every mobile phone, offered a projection that suggests its shipments inside embedded processors - those that will power this Internet of Things - could exceed those for mobile in just four years. That's simply staggering.
And, more than telly, it's why BT really wants your broadband business, and is willing to play big to get it.
Come back early next week and I'll try to similarly pick apart YouTube's opposite move into pay-TV, and the challenges it faces. And how, ironically, some of those may be the same as its parent Google has dumped upon my trade, journalism.
Edited: 10 May 2013 at 04:33 PM by Paul Dempsey
Let's give BA's UnGrounded some airspace
29 April 2013 by Paul Dempsey
The results of the UnGrounded 'lab in the sky' will be presented at the DNA Summit on innovation that awaits the passengers in London, this June. Then, more importantly, they will be pushed before the G8 Summit of major world leaders a few days later in Northern Ireland. The United Nations is also supporting the project.
I like the idea. It's too easy to scoff about 'talking shops' or grasp for comic parallels with some old Airport movie. And you always have the rather hobbled notion of the 'great and the good' jetting in with wisdom. But there's enough potential in UnGrounded that means we should give it a chance.
First, as I've noted before, we need to look at what has made Silicon Valley so successful and borrow the best of those tools, not just in the UK but worldwide. Any notable initiative with that goal should be worthwhile in terms of both what it says and making sure that plenty of people hear it.
Second, UnGrounded has the sensible aim of kick starting the debate. Its participants will not fly into Heathrow with a definitive solution. Rather the objective is to get STEM issues much higher up the global macroeconomic and political agendas. What's the harm in that?
Third, UnGrounded is to go beyond the 'same old voices' in recruiting its contributors. Ten of the 100 think-tankers will be recruited openly via Mashable. It's running a How Did You Get Your Best Idea? contest offering seats on the flight.
Finally, there is that core block of Valley leaders on board.
We do need more than platitudes. Beyond that, those of us who have closely followed the emerging STEM crisis and the Valley's development may end up finding many of the high level proposals familiar. However, we don't matter that much - if UnGrounded (and the DNA Summit in general) tugs at the coats of the unaware, it will do its job.
And to do that, you need heavy-hitters, such as those UnGrounded has recruited out of Google, Stanford Business School and Andreesen Horowitz, the VC-firm co-founded by Mosaic innovator Marc Andreesen. Just like the US domestic pressure group FWD.us, you need people who will be listened to.
So, let's keep a close eye on this one.
Meanwhile, here are three modest proposals from me on how to make it work.
1. Turn off the WiFi
Too many 'planes have it. It's actually a better discipline if you board with everything you need for your work, and shut out the usual distractions (and let's face it, the calibre of people UnGrounded wants have neverending inbox dings).
2. Easing the way for smaller companies
A couple of points from this column's feedback from recent articles on immigration. For newer companies, the issue isn't just policies that make it difficult to recruit foreign talent. Too often there are bureaucracies that make the process hideously expensive, even where national policies are relatively sane.
Then, there are the issues companies all face - but again, it's much harder for emerging ones - where they decide not to bring talent to them but to go to where it is. Far too many countries have regimes that make it unnecessarily complicated and expensive to set up overseas representative offices and the like. Create environments for the job creators at all levels.
3. Kick the politicians hard on education
STEM is an education issue, though one that will take laggards a generation to fix fully wherever they are in the world. However, even based on the existing talent pool, a more sensible approach to the cost of education would be a big help.
Inflation here is running at a frightenting level in the US and many other countries. However, the US is the most extreme case. From 1986-2012, overall US inflation was 115.06%; college inflation was 498.31%. Such numbers price out potential talent. And it's hard not to conclude that tuition fees in the UK are having the same effect, even if to a lesser degree so far.
The situation is surely unsustainable in any country that would truly be part of the 21st Century knowledge economy.
All the above are pretty obvious, but still must form part of both the UnGrounded and DNA Summit programmes. It is all about that link between talent and commerce.
So, good luck and bon voyage.
Edited: 29 April 2013 at 07:52 AM by Paul Dempsey
Trust me, this won't ring a bell
25 April 2013 by Paul Dempsey
It's one thing to talk of rediscovered artifacts 'speaking to us across the years'; quite another when one literally delivers on the metaphor.
The recording dates from Spring 1885, when Bell's Volta Labs in Washington were seeking to compete with, inevitably, Thomas Edison in recording sound.
Edison developed a technique that used foil to capture speech. Bell and his colleagues tried metal and a number of alternatives.
And here's one great irony. Aware that Edison was a patent warrior (some would say the first 'troll'), Bell's Volta group carefully documented its work, later passing these papers and more than 400 resulting records and discs on to the Smithsonian. However, all those papers did not give any indication as to how the R&D recordings could be played back.
So, since at least the 1920s, the recordings have sat in Smithsonian's archives as "mute artifacts", National Museum of American History curator Carlene Stephens tells the institution's in-house magazine.
The chance to unlock them finally arrived two years ago. Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and the US Library of Congress used optical scans to extract sound from French recordings made a decade before even Bell entered the fray.
The same technology has now been used to capture the sound of Bell speaking by scanning a paper and wax disc. And he sounds every bit the erudite, deliberative chap you'd expect.
But don't take my written word for it. The Smithsonian has posted this clip from the recovered disc. You can also read more about the work involved here.
Just one final note to say that if you ever are in DC, the collection of museums managed by the Smithsonian around the National Mall truly is one of the world's greatest cultural resources. It is such a treasure that it's hard not to be massively pleased for them with this huge revoicing.
New technology titans join to yammer hard at DC
12 April 2013 by Paul Dempsey
FWD.us also lists senior executives from, among others, Google, Yahoo, Netflix, Dropbox, Yammer and Cisco Systems as founders and supporters. Several high profile tech investors are also on board. But it is Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg who is leading the charge.
An op-ed column by him for yesterday's Washington Post uses personal experiences as a volunteer teacher in entrepreneurship to reemphasize Silicon Valley's repeated reform demands: more visas for skilled foreign technology workers, and the passage of Dream Act provisions that will guarantee college opportunities and a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants.
We've gone over the background to these demands before, but FWD.us adds a few bullets of its own.
57% of engineering graduate students in the US are foreign-born
40% of the companies in the 2010 Fortune 500 stock index included immigrants or their children as founders.
OK, but what does all this mean for the UK?
Britain faces its own immigration challenges today, although the subject is becoming mired in increasingly dangerous rhetoric. One newspaper recently claimed that a plan to deprive all children of illegal immigrants access to any level of education was before the government. The story was quickly shot down, but the fact that it could even very briefly be seen as part of acceptable political discourse was disturbing.
Any society that would hold children to account for their parents' lawbreaking in such a way could hardly consider itself humane.
Beyond that though, the UK needs more smart workers and graduates, but does government understand that?
Institutions like the IET bang the drum long and hard, but a couple of aspects of FWD.us are interesting because they augment the traditional - but still vitally necessary - channels.
This is a 'dream team' exercise for the Dream Act. Apart from Zuckerberg, here are some of the others on the roll call: PayPal founder and space entrepreneur Elon Musk, Netflix's Reed Hastings, Google's Eric Schmidt, LinkedIn's Reid Hoffman, Zynga's Mark Pincus, and Dropbox's Drew Houston. Chances are even a fair few Brits will recognise plenty of those.
However, FWD.us is also a 'new economy' play. With Cisco's exception, the 'old school' Valley titans of hardware and software are noticeably absent, though all share the new organisation's goals. The point though is that the group's active members represent the latest sources of technology-driven economic growth.
The comparable economic debate in the UK remains dominated by traditional - you could even say pre-silicon - industries. Newbies might get the occasional invite to a ministerial reception, but their proactive attempts to influence things are sporadic.
The UK agenda is by no means identical to that facing technology in the US, but how FWD.us fares - and there's no guarantee of success or even no great ego-driven falling out - may provide some useful pointers as to how to best address it.
(And just to remind you, as if it were necessary... but it is: these are my personal views, not those of the IET)
The Valley sleeps rough; Washington and Sacramento doze
8 April 2013 by Paul Dempsey
To be frank, Moyers isn't first to the story. The Latino press has repeatedly addressed it - Hispanics in San Jose have seen their average incomes crumble in the last three years - and in the last month, the Associated Press highlighted the issue.
Economic hardship drove many of last year's Occupy protests on the West Coast. Visiting several, I was struck by how many former Valley workers were among those at the camps.
Still, the fact that there is a huge (and growing) tent city in the shadow of San Jose's Mineta Airport will come as a shock to many Americans. Silicon Valley has traditionally been held up as an example of what regions need to do to survive in the new economy: run lean, focus on technology and innovation, scale red tape, you know the rest.
Instead, the vaunted region is now being offered as a successor to Wall Street in illustrating the gap between the 99% and the 1% that includes many local moguls. But does the comparison really stand?
Moyers rightly identifies the general flight of manufacturing jobs from the US as part of the problem. But it is also something of a dead end. So too is the increasingly obvious trend that many of the more skilled engineering jobs that were cut in the Valley during the recession are now resulting in upturn-fuelled rehires elsewhere, generally abroad.
Both these factors can be attributed to economic determinism rather than heartlessness.
Factories are cheaper and easier to build, operate and staff overseas - the US has allowed its manufacturing infrastructure to decay to such an extent that labour costs are no longer a first-order issue.
Global rivals, meanwhile, have aggressively invested in education meaning they have not just cheaper but far greater technology talent pools - education inflation in the US is simply ridiculous.
Meanwhile, who is buying the Valley's products and services? It was recently noted that more than 90% of ARM's sales come from outside the UK. The proportions are certainly smaller for its US equivalents, for now. But almost every Valley senior executive I've spoken to recently has pointed to India, China and South East Asia as current sources of growth. And many of those markets insist that you are 'close' to them, or the shutters get slammed down.
Given the landscape, calls to 'Buy American' (or, rather here, 'Sell American') seem Canute-like.
But Silicon Valley also faces a serious systemic and technological challenge - and it's right there in its name. Until now, the semiconductor-driven hardware and software sectors have driven regional growth for more than 50 years. A good run by any standard. But things are changing. San Jose is not immediately seen as the natural cluster for emerging health sciences or nanotechnology (though it's doing its darnedest to seize those crowns).
It's way too early, clownish even, to start talking about 'the end of an era'. It is fair however to reflect on the consequences of pricing talent out of the university system, pursuing immigration policies that have put a brake on entrepreneurship and innovation, and the inherent insanity of letting the local cost of subsistence for a typical family reach nearly $100,000 a year.
This offers little comfort to those tragically thrown onto the streets, and there's probably no quick fix. However, all this was foreseen - indeed, it was many of the, yes, obscenely wealthy Valley leaders who nevertheless warned that it could happen.
Edited: 08 April 2013 at 08:23 AM by Paul Dempsey
You can't go home again? Oh get lost!
29 March 2013 by Paul Dempsey
You see, Segars has spent five years on the US West Coast, and received wisdom is that when you've tasted that technology culture, Blighty looks downright ugly.
Well, first off, Segars doesn't remotely match the character in Thomas Wolfe's novel. That's about an 'expat' who publishes a book about his home town that the folks back there hate. Segars' time in Silicon Valley, by contrast, has been marked by his performances as the US front-man bigging up ARM's vision and achievements and, more importantly, the senior exec maintaining and building key contracts.
But let's go deeper. I've spent some time recently looking at the Chinese 'sea turtle' phenomenon, the emerging superstate's nickname for those expats it is aggressively wooing home to establish entrepreneurship and create new technology companies. That's something the UK is utterly hopeless at, and, remember, even Segars is coming back to run a hugely successful company.
That said, you have to take heart from his comments in a recent interview, given jointly with outgoing CEO Warren East to The Daily Telegraph. Here's one key quotation:
"I lived in Silicon Valley for five years and it is totally accepted there that someone's going to start a company with some idea that seems completely off the wall and that they may well fail but that something good will come of it.
"Failing on the way towards success is seen there as a credible path to success. Failing once isn't something that dooms you forever.
"It's almost seen as a necessary building block in your education towards building a highly successful business."
The UK desperately needs more of this thinking. It's also to Warren East's credit that he says he wants to use his post-ARM career to promote local entrepreneurship (but also global best practices) and strengthen the belief that you can build and run a world-class technology company from the UK.
And alongside ARM, the likes of Imagination Technologies, CSR and Wolfson Microelectronics are among others that have proved much the same thing.
The problem is that these companies are largely outward-looking. The same Telegraph piece reminds us that 99% of ARM's sales are from abroad, and I'd imagine the others have much the same proportion.
Where its progenitor, Acorn, was very much a darling of British computing, ARM was always going beyond our borders. In his time as CEO, Sir Robin Saxby truly was its knight errant, racking up the air miles long before he got his official gong. And what choice did he have - it was the likes of Nokia that had products that best fit that launch ARM core?
There have been moans that the UK has experienced no 'ARM Effect', some clustered blossoming of companies around a tech titan of the kind that made Silicon Valley so powerful.
But in identifying the 'right to fail' that has so long marked Valley culture, Segars hits on one key difference between the UK and the US that goes beyond foster companies, government subsidies, dirigiste clustering and all that stuff.
I'm sure he knows of several more, but the key is to get the people on the end of any largesse - such as it may be - thinking the right way.
So, shouldn't we really argue that the more people who do 'come home again' and have the stature to push those ideas into British technology, the better?
In short, Simon, you're still going to have to give an awful lot of speeches just for engineers! But do feel free to give Messrs Osborne and Cable (and our sclerotic bankers) a poke while you're at it.
Mr Finch's home truths about security
27 March 2013 by Paul Dempsey
I'm also a fan. It's very much a mainstream format, a marrying of the Q-James Bond/boffin-spy relationship to the US superhero trope of the urban vigilante. But it is also subversive in a smart way. Oh, and the actions sequences are top notch.
That's perhaps not too surprising once you learn that its creator is Jonathan Nolan, brother of the director Christopher and one of his key collaborators on the recent invention of Batman.
Person of Interest's big idea is that an IT genius called 'Harold Finch' (Lost's Michael Emerson) created The Machine for the US government to spy on and analyse every bit of electronic traffic and then identify 'outliers' that point to terrorist attacks. He's built in some obfuscation to protect 'privacy', but now he, a former special ops hitman and a couple of cops are also using his creation to help ordinary folk at risk. It's a fun but somewhat far-fetched notion.
What grabbed my friend, whose stock-in-trade is the cybersecurity business, is how the show depicts its heroes' processes, once The Machine gives them a name (in fact, not even that - just a Social Security number).
Every week, he said, it's "built around people acting dumb". Finch and Co track their subjects by, for example, exploiting weaknesses in WiFi networks (like not changing the default password), ignorance about the now widely acknowledged trick of how your mobile phone can be turned into a bug, and how analyzing your social network profile can help hackers determine the subject for a Trojan-bearing email.
But why bring this up? Well, a senior aide to President Obama recently named China specifically as a cyberwarfare rival - the first time anyone from this administration has done so. The comments also followed on from some less specific irritation voiced by Obama himself in his State of the Union address.
The problem with the latest rhetoric is that it seems to be contributing to cybersecurity being seen as a high tech extension of the Cold War arms race - something beyond our control because of the technological muscle required. The reality is that most hacks - whether originated in the east or the west - are still undertaken by exploiting our carelessness and ignorance. There is very much a Home Front, if you will.
Which brings me to steal my friend's killer argument. As wildly implausible as it is entertaining, Person of Interest may still be doing more right now to clue up Joe Public on his personal relationship to cybersecurity than any government.
For all the noise in Washington and Whitehall about initiatives and all the global sabre-rattling, that is extremely damning.
Google eyes the risks of going upmarket
5 March 2013 by Paul Dempsey
I haven't tried Glass but did get the chance to play with a Pixel for an hour or so, while visiting a friend on the West Coast who'd got his hands on a review model.
And what has struck me about both is that they don't feel like 'traditional' Google products. Without wanting to be rude, they feel a bit upmarket.
Let's take Pixel first. It's the one more of you will get your own chance to test drive. The aluminium casing echoes the MacBook Air but with its own sense of style. This is a very good looking machine. Then there's the high definition 2,560x1,700px touchscreen - the tablet meets the retina display. It looks splendid. And there's a chunky Intel Core i5 microprocessor running the show.
So far, so good. Add that Pixel's light and you can see a potential attraction to road warriors - until, that is, you remember this is a Chromebook. The means the browser is the OS, so not only do you essentially have to use Google's versions of popular productivity software but you also need a decent web connection to do so.
It's perhaps worth noting here that this week has seen the US Telecommunications Industry Association disclose that, for the first time, 2012 saw north American mobile subscribers spend more on data traffic than they did on voice. The trend to mobility is confirmed but remember that most of those subs continue to complain about the huge variability in network quality.
Then, there's Pixel's price: £1,050. That's essentially parity with the Mac OS or Windows-based alternatives that will let you work with your desktop software offline.
As beautiful a machine as it is, Pixel's problems are obvious. Beyond Googlephiles (or Googleheads or Googlies?), it's hard to see the product finding a mass market. And remember, existing base Chromebooks retail in the £200-£300 range.
Meanwhile, Google is also charging about £1,500 to pathfinder users of its Glass product. That number will fall, as these smart specs move towards a full launch. But I don't suspect it will go that far.
Like Pixel, Glass feels like an upmarket product. Indeed, if Google can tweak it with a few of the industrial design smarts it has brought to its new 'touchtop', the company could also have a very stylish one.
But both innovations raise an interesting question. The Google Labs operation - and the company's willingness to let staff spend 20% of their time working up their own ideas - is delivering some cool stuff. But there are two sides to this.
Software and apps can largely be built into Google's existing infrastructure. They surround a primary service - that built around the search engine - that is arguably the best value on the web. The best search, free (or reasonably priced) apps, free email and so on.
The Chromebooks and Glass (and other products we can expect as the company integrates its purchase of Motorola Mobility) can leverage this infrastructure, but they exist in a world of hardware economics. Even here, Android-based handsets are increasingly seen as 'value' alternatives to the iPhone.
In short, Google has to marry its innovation to hard price tags rather than its ability to sell advertising. You can assume some subsidies given Google's wish to keep your online spending mostly in its gently-fenced garden. But the numbers will only shift so far. Amazon still matches the cost of its Kindles to the cost of the components (though not the software and marketing), even if they are essentially shop windows.
So far, Google's ability to match its offerings to the sense that they are premium is unproven. Indeed, for a company that has built itself into the most powerful web name by essentially 'giving it away', the shift it needs to make in one part of its marketing will be challenging. Right now, it appears that the company is still feeling its way.
Edited: 05 March 2013 at 12:03 PM by Paul Dempsey
Bob Godfrey's 'Great' is due a re-release
27 February 2013 by Paul Dempsey
Awarded the best animated short Oscar in 1975, Great has been out of official circulation for quite some time. Briskly pulled every time it surfaces on YouTube, your best chances of seeing it are currently knowing a fellow cartoon buff who can produce a much-played VHS.
That's a great pity. Great actively does not give Brunel the kind of mystic aura that accompanied his appearance at the Olympics opening ceremony, but it does capture and celebrate the character of the man and the objectives of the profession as a whole. It is a terrific, and hugely entertaining endorsement of what engineering does.
Bob Godfrey, who passed away last week at 91, was frequently attracted to planners. His most famous creations, Roobarb, Custard and Henry's Cat, are full of schemes - some of which do and some of which don't come off. But you could tell he loved those characters - as did so many of us as children - because they tried.
Godfrey himself was a wonderfully inventive talent, innovating so that he could craft his films on shoestring budgets while working in what was regarded as the most expensive branch of film and TV production. He'd have a go and, by all accounts, was incredibly generous in passing on his insights to those entering the field. Famous graduates of the 'Godfrey School' include Terry Gilliam.
Which brings us to his take on Brunel. Unusually, Great is as much if not more about the man's disappointments as his triumphs. But it adamantly refuses to end on a note of tiresomely British 'heroic failure'. This Brunel represents a spirit of striving to push boundaries, ambition and overcoming the received wisdom of naysayers. That, Godfrey says, is how you get stuff done.
The tone is not one of veneration, though. Great is very funny. Its songs have wit and its images are often ribald, recalling the seaside postcard. But there is far more affection than ridicule.
We often talk about how to promote the values of engineering without becoming too dry, too worthy and - yes - too technical. Yet Godfrey achieved that nearly 40 years ago in a lauded film that has nevertheless fallen out of circulation. When perhaps we should still be showing it to, at least, each prospective generation of engineering undergrads.
It is sad that Godfrey's passing should prompt the thought, but it does so nevertheless. Shouldn't some of our world's great and good lobby to get Great back before the public? You could always ping Bob's company, for example.
As the Olympics showed, Brunel remains a powerful figure to British society as a whole. Indeed, only a few years ago he was also voted into second place in a BBC poll of Great Britons, just behind Winston Churchill.
A dry view of the man might invoke his contemporary Tennyson's view of the challenge before their age in 'Ulysses': "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." Bob Godfrey did the same with jokes.
The 'house' that Netflix is building
17 February 2013 by Paul Dempsey
Today, you must be a subscriber to the Netflix streaming service to see the programme. And Netflix has certainly rolled the dice, putting $100m behind a two-season commission. At just under $4m per episode for 26 hours of television drama (the first 13 are available now), House of Cards is more expensive than almost all other shows, including those made for the big networks.
It should come as little surprise that content producers are excited, declaring the move revolutionary and disruptive. Whenever a new source of production dollars turns up, you give it a cuddle. That's made easier by the fact that House of Cards has a terrific cast on top form (led by the peerless Kevin Spacey) as well as an excellent script and directors whose background stretches from Seven to The Sopranos.
But the show is more of a natural step than the hype suggests.
First, Netflix has been forced into the production game by some of its former suppliers. Largely old school networks, they were slow to wake up to the kind of binge/box-set viewing of TV series that streaming and DVD enabled. When they did, several responded by cancelling earlier agreements with Netflix and other streamers, and are either looking for much more money or have launched rival online services. Netflix needed more 'A grade' content.
Beyond that, all subscriptions services ultimately find that they need exclusive content. Netflix's gamble today is a descendant of the sports and film rights deals Rupert Murdoch struck to get Sky (now BSkyB) established two decades ago. Before that, US pay channels such as HBO came to much the same conclusion.
Then, there is the arrival of 'smart' TVs and set-top boxes. The current first generation offers a lot of apps that act as gateways to selected services. Netflix's own app is one of the most popular. Their next generation, though, will likely aim to go out and find content for you, effectively Google-style aggregation. This makes exclusivity in video still more important - indeed, you can see an analogue in the content investments made by The Times and The Financial Times to support their paywalls.
In this context, Netflix's move is as much about defending its market as anything else. To that end, it is building a house with very expensive bricks, as opposed to timber or straw. Or so it hopes.
Either way, House of Cards could sound the death knell for packaged media, the umbrella term for content sold on disc and an already struggling market. That 'window' created the box-set viewing phenomenon: you could watch an entire series of 24 on your schedule rather than a broadcaster's. With the increasing shift towards 'running' as opposed to standalone per episode plots (itself the old 'come back next week' trick used by the earliest cliffhanger movie serials), box-sets became very attractive. Now you can do the same thing via streaming - and it's typically much cheaper.
Before we go, there is one other issue House of Cards has highlighted. It is that old chestnut about how far we still have to go in getting actual communications networks that can ensure a ubiquitously excellent streaming video experience, one comparable to HDTV from more traditional channels.
In the US, I was lucky enough to plough through the show on a fibre-optic network that carried the full HD image to a large display with little difficulty. And trust me, that is how House of Cards should be seen. It invites comparison with and exceeds the quality of - in production values as well - most TV anywhere. Netflix needs subscribers to understand that to lure them away from its old school rivals.
Elsewhere here and in the UK, however, friends report having to trade down to SD and watch the series on a computer screen. They've still enjoyed it, but their willingness to view House of Cards as fully comparable to anything an ABC, BBC, HBO or BSkyB can offer was obviously diminished.
So, room for improvement - nonetheless, let's say that the next step in TV's evolution is under way.
(Incidentally, many apologies to those of you who've tuned in hoping to hear the details on how Washington DC is aflame with gossip about the show and which character has a supposed real-life equivalent. It is. But this is also a town full of lawyers. Or putting it another way, you might want that, but I couldn't possibly comment.)
Edited: 17 February 2013 at 09:53 PM by Paul Dempsey
Plenty from Obama... possibly too much
13 February 2013 by Paul Dempsey
A few headline points. No doubt, we'll return to these issues over the next few days (and weeks and months).
On manufacturing, the US is to immediately launch three more innovation institutes, joining the pilot project launched in a vacant warehouse in Ohio last year. Ultimately, Obama wants to bring the total to 15. These centres are developing technologies such as 3D printing.
On climate change, the recent brutal storms in the US including Sandy and Nemo have put the issue properly back on the agenda with Obama now making it clear that if Congress will not pass a bill, he will use Executive Orders that do not require its approval. 'Market-based' cap & trade mechanisms remain the favoured strategy. Despite controversies such as the loan guarantees given to failed clean energy player Solyndra, Obama again namechecked an urgent need to develop this sector with federal help.
On education, schools that "create classes" in science, technology, engineering and mathematics - the so-called STEM quartet - will be rewarded for developing partnerships with further education and industry. Just how this would work will become clear over the coming days.
Finally on immigration, confirmation that the comprehensive reform package will include measures aimed at retaining and wooing entrepreneurs and smart graduates in the face of growing global competition (see more on this issue in the next print edition of E&T).
Climate change aside, these are all motherhood and apple pie proposals unlikely in themselves to stir up much Republican opposition, but welcome nonetheless.
The real problems though continue to reside at the macro scale - specifically, how will the US government cut the deficit?
The key part of Obama's address, for his opponents at any rate, was this:
The counter argument here, though, is that the real challenge is not arresting the deficit but reducing it, and from a level where the notion that the US can simply grow its way out of its difficulties can be considered. The numbers are too big.
The president has unveiled an aggressive agenda for the first year of his second term and the instapolls suggest that he captured the public mood, with a 70% positive response (albeit from a more Democratic-leaning TV audience). However, among politicians, the phrase 'laundry list' was being thrown around a lot, often suggesting that the agenda had too much on it for their liking.
So, liking the ideas is one thing; now it's all about their relative priorities.
US raises cyberwarfare stakes
28 January 2013 by Paul Dempsey
The plan has not yet been officially announced but the Post's reputation and the detail its story provides suggests this is well-sourced. At the very least, senior generals are flying a kite for some thinking that is already well advanced.
The tentpole features are:
1. The five-fold increase in human resources from about 900 today to just under 5,000.
2. A three-pronged strategy:
(a) National Mission Forces: these will seek to protect US domestic and other foreign infrastructure (e.g. power plants, hospitals, etc) deemed vital to national security.
(b) Combat Mission Forces: these will develop the US' own cyberweapons for use against 'malicious actors'.
(c) Cyber Protection Forces: in addition to protecting social infrastructure, these will specifically address the state of Department of Defense's own networks.
As a high level template this makes a lot of sense, and it reflects the thinking present in several cybersecurity reports issued since Obama took office. No-one should be terribly surprised.
While awaiting what official - though still necessarily sparse - detail may soon be added to this, two questions arise.
First, cybersecurity contines to represent an area where the interweaving of traditional military activity and covert surveillance (usually, mostly the province of security services) raise questions over civil liberties. One only has to look at how post-9/11 paranoia has fuelled one of the most successful TV series of recent times, Person of Interest, to see how this debate has jumped into the mainstream.
Second, as much as the US is seeking to extend its own defensive and offensive capabilities in this area, there is also the degree to which its public pronouncements both put potential enemies on notice and drive its allies to make similar investments.
On this last point, it is notable that one specific cyberattack cited by the Post's unnamed sources took place against a Saudi Arabian oil company.
In this regard, the UK is not a slouch - and so much is to its credit. Like it or not, these types of attack are increasing in frequency and represent an explicit threat to national security. However, both it and other US allies, through NATO and elsewhere, will undboutedly feel they have just received a friendly-but-still-hefty shove in the back.
However, one key point raised by the Post story is concern that the military Cyber Command is 'too close' to the covert surveillance organisation, the National Security Agency (jokingly called No Such Agency). There will always been some understandable - and necessary - discomfort when the operations of the secret state become entwined with those of the traditional military.
The staged leak to the Post could be seen as setting the stage for a US debate over that dilemma, one that sets the scene for radical changes in defence strategy. Could we say, though, that the same is happening in the UK, because it probably needs to?
The uneasy meeting between sport and technology
20 January 2013 by Paul Dempsey
That Armstrong's use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) secured him one, and a series of now rightly struck-off victories in the Tour de France and an Olympic medal, is beyond doubt. However, part of the explanation he offered Oprah Winfrey, that basically PEDs levelled the playing field because everyone else was taking them, is more problematic.
Whether or not you accept that as the whole story (and I don't, nor I suspect do most of you), it does play to a disturbing theme in elite sports generally.
A 2008 survey conducted across 12 states found kids willing to admit to using anabolic steroids in grades 8-12 - that's between roughly 14 and 18 years of age. Think about that for a moment: these are adolescents still way below the elite professional cadre of which Armstrong was a part.
And two of the survey's most devastating findings were:
1. Some 65 percent of steroid users (versus 6 percent of non-users) said they would take a PED that would help them reaching their athletic goals even if it there was a chance it would affect their health.
2. Some 57 percent (versus 4 percent of non-users) said they would take those drugs even if there was a likelihood that they would shorten their lives.
The pressure upon young sportsmen and women to excel is intense. In many cases, it is not solely about winning races and medals. Increasingly, and particularly for those from US blue collar families (but this also applies in a number of other countries), teenage sporting excellence is directly linked to scholarship opportunities at college. As the recession bites harder and tuition costs everywhere rise, such scholarships are now also increasingly appealing to the middle class.
Beyond that, there is the issue of how technologies beyond drugs (arguably the easiest 'trend' to vilify and ban, if not to detect) are now used to enhance performance.
Increasingly powerful IT can be used to analyse a runner's stride, a rugby player's tackles or a young golfer's swing. And more beyond that. But some coaches worry that these 'programmes' provide formulaic responses that might not be best suited to the physical make-up of the subject. Could they, it is asked (although I stress not proven), force the subject to change his or her playing style in such a way that they seed longer-term, post-career physical ailments.
Then from another perspective - and going back to the original argument about 'unfair advantages' - such analyses are typically not available to all, only an acknowledged elite at a school or club with good 'connections' or those who can afford to pay for them.
There has always been a tension between those who are truly the best at a particular sport and those who ultimately win because they have access to the best facilities. It's at the heart of why Britain suddenly rediscovered investment in both elite and grass-roots sports in the run-up to this year's Olympics.
But as technologies arguably go beyond simply human coaching or basic, common-sense dietary advice, Armstrong's deserved shaming also gives us an opportunity to ask how much we want our sports to be the result of a increasingly technology-driven, more artificially engineered infrastructure or a truer sense of human endeavour.
Simply as fans, we also have questions to ask ourselves. The Olympic motto is 'Citius, Altius, Fortius'. 'Faster, Higher, Stronger.' But does that imply 'by any means necessary - or available'?
The Olympic ideal has traditionally been built around human rather than technological excellence. This has been chipped away, for many, most notably by the admission of professional competitors. For its part, the Tour de France has long been seen as a test of a combination of all-round excellence in cycling's different disciplines and endurance. Again, a test of very human qualities.
But for supporters, the vicarious sense of victory is often all that matters. Which poses the further issue, beyond the goals that drive competitors and the short cuts they may consequently take: What do we have the right to expect from them? Is it right to turn a blind eye as young men and women to risk damaging their health or even shortening their lives for our entertainment?
Until now, the impact of all technologies on sport (from life sciences through to IT) has never really been reviewed in a comprehensive sense. Armstrong's fall, among the greatest in sporting history, may have given us that chance. We should take it.
Edited: 20 January 2013 at 12:13 PM by Paul Dempsey
15 January 2013 by Paul Dempsey
Its demise was entirely predictable. Or at least, its departure from the High Street. 'Twere downloads and online retail wot dun it. Indeed, the last big dedicated US chain, Tower Records, gave up the ghost in 2006, battered also by broad-based discount rivals like WalMart. The killer blow for HMV was a slow Christmas.
Nevertheless, when record shops (excuse my age) close, it affects you in a different way to the departures of, say, a Woolies. There are places that you buy stuff from and there are others that are part of the social fabric.
For my generation and a couple before and after, music stores were places where you sought out the rare or undiscovered, got to know the (often grouchy) staff, and just generally hung around. They weren't just in at the foundation of teenage culture, they were one of the things that defined it.
Of course, what's funny about HMV having lasted longest is that it was - in 1970s/1980s Manchester, at any rate - not that well liked. It was the corporate store that didn't stock independent labels. It stuck clumsy slabs of duct tape over offending words on Sex Pistols' album covers or concealed them in brown paper bags. Still went there, though.
The other aspect of this - and it's something that also came to mind living in the US when Tower went down - is that the emotional connection does make you stop and think about the technology-driven shift underway in retailing. Is it inevitable? (Yes) Is it for the best? (Hmmm. Get back to you on that)
Last year, I bought just half-a-dozen physical CDs and about half-a-dozen DVDs and Blu Rays. Everything else I purchased, audio and video, was downloaded or pay-per-viewed. So that hardly gives me much right to pile on the outrage over HMV.
Except that the bulk of those goodies were purchased on an expat trip home from the company's flagship Oxford Street store. They were the result of a trawl for stuff I wouldn't hear about in the US or that had slipped out otherwise unnoticed. And this is where I think the departure of an HMV (or a Tower) is a big deal.
The one thing that online retailing still doesn't do well is browsing. I've always found the 'customers like you bought this' line a bit off-putting - a desperate attempt to preserve my individuality. And the 'you might also like this' recommendations tend to be stuff I already own or have rejected.
Browsing a record store is, as I said earlier, a chance to discover something new, something beyond your worldview. Much the same applies to bookshops. It expands your horizons; online, in my experience, still constrains them.
Online profiling is becoming more sophisticated all the time, but the very term merely extends that idea of constraint. For any retailer, knowing what you like, merely encourages them to give you more of the same. Its the same 'Top 40-only' model that we did rail against in shops and on radio almost four decades ago.
Of course, it could just be that the demise of HMV sends the very clear signal, 'You're not young anymore'. Though I've got a waistline that tells me that already.
No, somehow I think that we are culturally quite a bit poorer with Nipper the Dog's retirement. Independent stores will carry on, though, so please give them your support. Discovery matters.
The inevitable verdict? D'oh-a
6 December 2012 by Paul Dempsey
Perhaps when buoyed by victory, US President Barack Obama put climate change back on his agenda. "We want our children to live in an America that... isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet," he said on election night.
So, a signal that COP 18 could expect quick action from Washington? Er, no.
One not-unexpected irony of UN politics is that the focus on money may even hinder such progress that Obama can make.
It ignores the fact that Obama is engaged in frustrating but vital negotiations with Republicans aimed at tackling the mushrooming US deficit.
Does any mildly savvy individual believe a Republican majority in the House of Representatives will drop its opposition/denial (take your pick) on climate change as well as making concessions on the budget? That majority won't change, if at all, for at least two years until the next US mid-term elections take place.
So, Obama has his 'Fiscal Cliff' and Republicans who will not ratify any treaty they don't like. Include him out.
But that is just the beginning.
The usual first-world backstop for pressure on climate change funding, the European Union, has the Euro crisis. That now seems to be reaching Germany. Skint.
In Euro-unburdened Blighty, Chancellor George Osborne just tore up his most cherished economic targets in the Autumn Statement. Cowed. And skint.
Then, Japan is so politically befuddled that it now has the kind of governmental revolving door we used to associate with Italy. In a tizzy. A skint tizzy.
Oh well, I suppose New Zealand could soon be flush off the Hobbit trilogy.
I appreciate that many developing nations see climate change and more extreme weather patterns as existential threats. I accept that developed nations built economies and belched out greenhouse gases with impunity for decades. I see the political strategy in asking for more now not in the hope of getting it, but just to get developed countries to stick to existing commitments.
I acknowledge the scientific integrity of climate change theory.
But here's something else to consider.
UN-sponsored demands for advanced countries to cough up could right now play into the hands of the theory's opponents.
It's easy to sell voters the 'absurdity' of increasing foreign development aid when austerity rules domestically. Certainly it's easier than trying to get them on-side in a scientific debate. It becomes more convenient to believe that climate change is bunk. What politician in the first world would go there - even one who doesn't need to worry about his own re-election?
What could Doha have achieved?
The UN could have done more to answer critics of climate change theory on a public level. Joe (and Joanne) Public might be taking a battering off the elements, but he and she are also getting mightily confused.
It could have promoted research into practical and cost-effective responses. After all, it's not as though we've done little technologically to improve power consumption already.
It could even have addressed a better husbanding of such resources as are available. However, since we don't want to be here until the next COP, I'll spare you my views on the UN as all too often a kleptocrat's ATM.
Practical, path-setting realities - unfortunately this is the UN we're talking about.
A new treaty by 2015, in force by 2020? Violins, matches and - erm - wetsuits all round, methinks.
How globalisation influences immigration reform
29 November 2012 by Paul Dempsey
During my time here, almost every Valley leader has visited Washington to call for a raising of the caps on skilled immigrant visas for foreign-based recruits, most notably the H-1B. If you ask them today if this is still necessary, they'll say yes in public. In private, however, those caps are becoming less of an issue.
What's changed things is globalisation. The current wave is well into its second decade (some would say, third) and it is no longer adventurous but mandatory for leading engineering companies to set up satellite design offices worldwide. Projects where the entire team has to be based in one building or one country are today largely confined to those under the 'national security' umbrella.
Beyond that, bringing staff to the US is - and always has been - an expensive business. If wage demands, employer contributions and infrastructure costs are lower overseas, better that they 'work from home', so to speak.
Finally, while there may be some people that you do ultimately want to bring to head office, the process of getting a visa for an existing employee is comparatively straightforward. The H-1B cap is really about where you get your new hires.
Yet US technology does still need some immigration reform to prosper. The good news here, for the US at any rate, is that the local engineering community and the president are roughly on the same page regarding one of the key priorities. The not-so-good is that politics remains part of the process.
Specifically, the idea is to ease the path to green cards and beyond that citizenship for highly qualified foreign graduates from US institutions. These are the young men and women who come to work on advanced research within the country's still preeminent postgraduate system. Currently, many are forced to leave on completing a masters or doctorate. Some even struggle to secure visas in the first place.
Lobbying from both industry and academia (with, not surprisingly, both Stanford and MIT among the institutions at the forefront) has begun to pay off. It's accepted (and, miracle of miracles, broadly bipartisan) wisdom that the current system drives away precisely the type of immigrant America needs and has hitherto built its economy upon: ambitious individuals whom the biggest companies will fight to employ because of their talent, or who might themselves go on to launch start-ups that become tomorrow's giants. There has been talk of a reverse brain drain.
However, we do right now have the ironic spectacle of the White House currently opposing the STEM Jobs Act of 2012 that would give 55,000 visas to just such masters and doctoral students, and which has backing from, among others, Apple, Microsoft, Qualcomm, IBM and Cisco Systems. As I said, politics. The Obama Administration wants the measure bundled with broader reforms as a way of bringing the more discrete Act's Republican supporters on board its whole package.
Nevertheless, the path is set.
We should note here that some architects of UK immigration policy are thinking along the same lines. Also when the US did previously throw some foolish obstacles in the path of high caliber graduates, UK colleges took advantage and recruited them.
That though appears to be coming to an end. And what we see is how globalisation is shifting the immigration debate and also once again intensifying the battle for, and opportunities available to the brightest and the best... oh, and the young.
HP Autonomy is bad news for UK, US tech IPO plans
22 November 2012 by Paul Dempsey
It's only two months since UK Science Minister David Willets announced a government's plan to smooth the IPO path for technology companies by easing reporting requirements and cutting red tape. The proposal was a touch 'me too' in echoing similar White House-backed ideas that are part of President Obama's startup agenda.
You can see the problem. If the biggest UK technology M&A deal in recent time involves accusations that books were cooked, it's hard to see where the political will to undertake those reforms can be maintained until the charges are legally tested.
Even in the US, the Autonomy story has broken so large that any relaxation of reporting requirements - no matter how well intentioned towards stimulating economic growth - is likely now both politically and financially toxic.
Wall Street is skittish. HP's disclosures are the surprise of the year there even given the company's ongoing difficulties. Meanwhile in Blighty, the claims are another body blow to the City of London's global credibility.
There is an argument that the real IPO problem has nothing to do with the extent of companies' financial reporting. Rather, two other dead hands have long been at work.
First, the City has consistently failed to understand new technology with the exception of a handful of savvy analysts. That has led many European companies to seek IPOs in the US, typically on Nasdaq.
Second, the increasing obesity of leading City institutions had led them to set the bar on an entry-level IPO valuation ever higher. Even companies with mid-size valuations are not worth the time to manage, they argue. Too busy making a coin from buying one another, you imagine.
Still, this creates a chasm between where technology firms can get with venture capital funding (still very limited in Europe anyway) to growing to justify the kind of nine-figure valuation the UK stock market now demands. Heck, it cramps VC investment to start with.
So, even if a mid-size company could IPO more easily thanks to regulatory reform, it is fair to ask whether investors on either side of the Atlantic would get on board regardless of any 'Autonomy Effect'.
Today, though, these more fundamental problems also look likely to be beset by a new wave of post-Autonomy risk aversity.
There is at least one further irony. Lacking an IPO route, the typical 'exit' for current European (and US) VC investors is the hope that companies they back will be acquired by existing tech titans. Of course, HP's charge is that Autonomy massaged its numbers to achieve just that. And did so under existing reporting rules. Oh dear.
It's grim stuff, and any solution would be warmly welcomed. Meanwhile, to at least leave you with a smirk (if not a smile), there is perhaps one factor that might help the Serious Fraud Office deliberate speedily.
It's listed as one of Autonomy's key clients in the now infamous 'shopping' presentations its CEO Mike Lynch gave last Spring to Oracle co-president Mark Hurd, before getting the HP deal. Presentation 1, Slide 8, to be precise.
Just below - oh look - the Securities and Exchange Commission.
So, it shouldn't be too hard for even the famously arteriosclerotic SEC and SFO to find copies of these controversial sales contracts.
Edited: 22 November 2012 at 06:33 AM by Paul Dempsey
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