26 March 2015 by Paul Dempsey
In fact, if Corden wants to cement a place amid the US broadcasting Pantheon in the shortest order, getting Jeremy Clarkson on his sofa of chat for the first in a now-inevitable and necessary round of mea culpas would do the job nicely.
It would also set Clarkson and the boys up for that big move to US network TV. In just about any country you care to name, Clarkson-May-Hammond is ready-made ratings gold, and America is the biggest market of all.
Cynical. But true.
(And still true even as you have to acknowledge that the BBC was right to drop Clarkson: Lamping a subordinate is both bloody serious and bloody stupid, whoever you are and whether or not you're in some Last Chance Saloon.)
So where am I going with all this? Let's amplify what I said at the start. Whether at home, in the pub or in the office, most British expats will have faced the Clarkson question at least once this week.
Top Gear is the world's most popular factual TV programme. Not only are its British presenters global celebs, but the original now coexists with a plethora of local versions reaching countries as geographically and culturally diverse as China, France and the US.
As we've heard umpteen times since Sunday, Top Gear is the BBC's biggest cash cow. But how did that happen?
Revamping the format, assembling an on-screen lineup with great chemistry, a genuine sense of its inherent outrageousness and marque-standard production values were all critical.
But as much as we've come to obsess over the misbehaviour (and mishaps) of the team, there's also the misbehaviour of the audience to account for here. Because Top Gear is still reckoned in some quarters to be the world's most downloaded programme (albeit against stiff competition from Game of Thrones).
Sure, it is the house that Clarkson and Chums built, but Bit Torrent did come in to cowboy build the roof. And so we have the splendid irony that much of the Beeb's efforts in selling the show and brand internationally basically leverage illegal piracy. Can any other show be said to have benefitted so much from Internet naughtiness, even though obviously it was never part of the plan?
I'm not saying this to mitigate Jezza's haymaker. I'm a fan but this fracas did cross the line between 'silly bugger' and, to quote James May himself, 'knob'. Apologies necessary and some blowback for Clarkson to take on his own chin.
However, I'm also a big believer in redemption in all walks of life. The outgoing Top Gear trio - although I'm aware that is an unconfirmed but apparently likely assumption - are brilliant broadcasters and many more of us would miss them than otherwise.
So here (at last!) is a pitch. Get together, get those cranial cogs moving, make your own pilot and slap it online free for anyone to download. In effect, that's what happened last time, planned or not, and you harnessed the Interweb as well as any zit beleaguered MIT dropout in San Jose.
My guess is that you could then name your own price. You actually are the Poster Blokes for an important branch of the Internet economy.
Probably best though if Jeremy blocks James Corden on Twitter for now. Funny lad. Gonna do well in LA. Bit needy, though... since you ask
Edited: 26 March 2015 at 07:04 AM by Paul Dempsey
Apple launches peripheral
10 March 2015 by Paul Dempsey
CEO Tim Cook was clad in a black sweater with sleeves long enough to overwhelm his palms, while Technology VP Kevin Lynch opted to demo a Watch fixed to a stand. The latter was arguably the practical approach given Lynch was working with a tiny product on a huge stage but nevertheless summoned the image of someone trying to poke a small, defenceless animal into life as each app was shown off.
Let's say it again - it's a chuffing wearable.
Similarly, the far too sprightly shift from images of Christy Turlington running the Kilimanjaro marathon, visiting African mothers and promoting her charity to some googly-eyed pimping of the Watch's ridiculous $10,000+ editions threatened to turn everything Zoolander. In that regard, events were hardly improved by two Sir Jony Ive-narrated materials science videos that appeared to have been animated by the conditioner-BS division of Laboratoire Garnier.
Even Apple's understandable and necessary outreach to the Asian - and particularly Chinese - market felt off-key and patronising. Oh, look here's our new store in Hangzhou and we're opening about 20 more in the Middle Kingdom this year... here's the new MacBook in gold... here's the Watch in utterly blingtastic gold... and China will get the Watch day-and-date with other established markets like the US and the UK.
OK, we get it. However, if you were sitting in China, you also got that Apple was running its song-and-dance show at 1am CST when most of the people its strategy now aims to reach were sound asleep. Word to the wise - and a lesson some of your rivals have already learned - if you want to woo China, best do it in China.
I'm even going to take issue with ResearchKit. This is the open source software framework through which Apple wants to encourage the collection of potentially valuable data to aid in the analysis and treatment of conditions such as asthma, breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Parkinson's disease. It will be, the company says, platform-neutral and freely available.
This is a potentially great idea. I just wish it had been launched separately or at least in a more appropriate environment.
There are some serious issues surrounding the link between big data, disease research and diagnostic attempts to alter and improve behaviour. A HealthKit and ResearchKit-specific blog at Vox highlights many of these very well.
Beyond that I worry that some of the chronic conditions such projects seek to address are seen more frequently among populations with lower standards of living: people who typically cannot afford a $200 phone and its $350 watch peripheral.
In short, when you go down the specific research route you raise a lot of questions about sample, demographics, and so on - questions that you should be ready to answer as soon as you set out your stall.
But that's not and never has been the Apple way. Rather the company prefers big stage-managed, Q&A-free events like this week's follies in San Francisco. Problem is some of us tend to recoil quite sharply when we see any company or institution start soliciting applause for a healthcare initiative that it is sketching out very lightly. Best not to do this kind of thing at the The Derek Zoolander Center For Happyclappers Who Can't Resist Gormlessly Buying Gadgets And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too.
As for the products.
Nope. Not sold on that monoport MacBook (How do I back up to an external drive and charge at the same time, anyone? Seriously, I asked Twitter this very question and no-one had the answer).
And when it comes to the Watch, the BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones nailed it
: "I'd be keener on Apple Watch if I hadn't tried Android watches that do much the same - and which I found useless."
Of course, all of this no doubt guarantees Apple a record-breaking year... well they do seem to have secured exclusive streaming access to Game of Thrones. But tonally, this was an egregious mess.
50 Grey Shades of Technology
6 March 2015 by Paul Dempsey
Here's mainstream porn's problem. Content is heavily pirated. High profile credit card hacks and Snowden revelations (particularly that the NSA monitors porn consumption) are making users reluctant to sign-up. Worse for them, there's now so much free porn online that getting people to pay for it gets tougher by the day.
Surprisingly familiar. So why should we care?
Because whatever your moral position, there has been a link between aspects of the high technology and sex industries for roughly five decades. It dates back to the advent of the VCR. Yet even now we talk about the massive demand for bandwidth and communications infrastructure that porn drives.
Throughout this time, porn has been a surprisingly reliable bellwether. Let's take a couple of trips down memory lane.
In the 1970s and 80s, Sony's refusal to license Betamax for the mass duplication of pornographic cassettes did not, contrary to what many believe, entirely cause its technology to lose to JVC's VHS in the VCR format war.
Rather, the sex industry adopted VHS because JVC not only had an open tape licensing model, but also a more liberal and cheaper one for the hardware. The hardware licences meant VHS recorders cost far less than rival Betamax kit. They were first to reach prices that drove mass market adoption and never surrendered that advantage.
More recently, the sex industry was the canary when it came to the decline of packaged media and the rise of paid-for streaming video. It shifted away from DVD (and Blu-Ray) as its income drivers long before Hollywood. As it did, it created the business models and enabling technologies for online pay-per-view and subscription services.
Much of the software needed to manage bandwidth bottlenecks, secure access to distributed video and analyse the comparative performance of content owe a great deal of their development and refinement to smut.
Porn paved the way for YouTube and Netflix. But we still find that hard to acknowledge. Even as a certain Internet-driven film sets box office records worldwide in multiplexes.
So what is shading the future?
The Internet erotica market is reckoned to be worth around $10bn a year but, according to insiders, is 'flat-to-slowing' for the reasons mentioned earlier.
There are some growth segments. Erotic literature has been boosted by the success of Fifty Shades of Grey. The fact that you can't really tell what someone else has on their e-reader app or dedicated device means it's easy to spice up the tedium of the daily commute.
Then, at the extremes, there has been a rise in more explicit, often violent and repugnant, sometimes demonstrably illegal material that goes beyond what many in the business - never mind society - see as acceptable (but which often claims dubious 'protection' under free-speech legislation). There is a dark, exploitative, non-consensual and nasty side to all this that must be acknowledged.
Nevertheless, mainstream porn's concerns echo those in many online industries. For example, big established players keep teams of lawyers on call to crack down on sites that steal content. However, unlike their counterparts in Hollywood, sex industry players know that Washington's politicians are unlikely to welcome their lobbying (though you wonder how many still ask for discounts).
Against this backdrop, there is a quiet but important technological bet going on 3D, and particularly the immersive 3D environments offered by headsets such as the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift. Given that Mark Zuckerberg started down his road to glory very questionably with a site intended to rate good looks at Harvard, there's an irony there alright.
Let's see this through.
Virtual 3D porn is hardly a new idea. It's been with us since a gurning Woody Allen exited the Orgasmatron in his sci-fi comedy Sleeper. Forty-odd years later, it is still generally seen as a joke (and if you can get beyond that, as something that then makes most of us a bit queasy... as indeed do most of the current headsets even if used only for 'innocent' gaming).
Nevertheless the models (business) and rationale behind the sex industry's interest in VR3D are interesting. That economic link just won't go away.
Shooting suitable material for the 360-degree augmented reality Rift environment (or indeed rival VR3D platforms being developed by Sony, HTC and others) will raise the bar to entry - it will create a market where equipment and production costs shut out the free-porn providers. Such new and enclosed environments could then impose better DRM requirements at the device level, reducing piracy. Meanwhile, all the advantages of digital delivery are retained.
They sound like Sony.
Now consider that this vision doesn't even include the supposed 'immersive' attractions of these headsets. It's largely about the economics but also, curiously enough, about allowing your business to survive in a technologically disruptive environment. These people are savvy and they look very closely at what we are doing.
And they so frequently seem to be one step ahead.
Like it or not, we live in market economies. The Internet of Thongs has called these things pretty well in the past.
Edited: 06 March 2015 at 01:29 PM by Paul Dempsey
FAA acts but does US drone market still face a slow ascent?
17 February 2015 by Paul Dempsey
As those of you who read my column in E&T's print edition will know, the US aviation industry has criticized the FAA for dragging its feet on rules covering unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and thereby holding back US drone innovation while rivals in Europe and Asia have pushed onwards. Some progress then.
But even now, the draft does not go as far as the industry would like. The 25kg-weight limit constrains the market to the kind of drones that will typically be used by estate agents, farmers and professional photographers. Amazon's and Google's plans for sturdier UAS capable of delivering parcels in remote areas will have to wait - in the US, at least.
Other major requirements in the proposed regulations include:
- A maximum speed of 100mph (161kmph)
A maximum altitude of 500ft (152m)
Flights during daylight hours only
UAS to remain in the operator's line-of-sight at all times
Operators must be 17 years of age or older
Operators must pass an FAA 'aeronautical knowledge test', obtain an FAA certificate and undergo further re-examination every two years
Only UAS operators and others directly connected to the flight may be under the flightpath at any time
UAS operators will be responsible for pre-assessing weather conditions, airspace status and other factors that may influence a proposed flight
No UAS flights within FAA restricted airspace
That last rule will still curtail UAS flights and testing within some key avionics technology clusters, especially the airspace around Washington DC. However, the FAA has said that it will consult further with industry on how to build a more practical R&D framework.
Overall, the consultation is likely to be lengthy. A 60-day online period for public comment has opened on the Federal Register (www.regulations.gov). There will also be a series of FAA-organised public meetings as well as further political review of the proposal. The FAA itself expects the final rules to come into force during 2017.
"We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules," said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. "We want to maintain today's outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry."
Huerta's comments are all well and good. But given that the draft regulations are mostly both practical and reasonable, there are those still wondering why it has taken so long for the FAA to deliver some relatively uncontroversial conclusions.
For example, renewable licences and an explicit outlawing of peeping tom flights were expected. They go a long way to addressing public concerns that have been raised about everything from privacy to the potential use of UAS by terrorists.
In similar vein, as the FAA published the draft regulations, the White House issued an Executive Memorandum covering data collection by drones used in the US by federal agencies. There will be restrictions and a requirement for transparency on the part of those agencies as to what they observe.
The draft regulations' inherent conservatism has been coupled to the fact that the FAA was effectively bounced into issuing them (the press release went out on a Sunday afternoon because of a leak to the media). This is said to show an FAA that remains somewhat unconvinced about the drone market, even though the Obama administration has been looking to seed its growth.
Importantly, there is one part of the draft where some officials within the FAA are thought to have caved in to pressure. This generation of 'small' drones will not be required to satisfy the same design regime as traditional civil aircraft. So, tough standards such as DO-254 for hardware and DO-178B for software will not formally apply.
However, this may be one that the FAA mandarins are passing on for battle during the consultation phase. Will the public be satisfied with setting a lower bar? More to the point, will insurers be satisfied? Even where there's nobody under a flight, a catastrophic failure that sees a UAS clatter into someone's roof is a scenario against which operators will want legal and financial protection.
So will the US commercial drone market now take flight and innovation wing its way to new heights? Probably, but the US still has as much to do to resolve key issues as it does to catch up with global rivals.
Obama to Valley: 'I'm from the government and I'm here for help'
16 February 2015 by Paul Dempsey
Obama was putting some political capital on the table but whether that bet proves successful will depend on a number of things. First, did his comments represent a 'hard' position statement or is the US government prepared to trade? Second, even if the President wants to open a real dialogue are the Valley's most powerful players willing to engage with him?
On that last point, the initial signs were mixed. CEOs from three of technology's biggest players - Google, Facebook and Yahoo - were invited to the Summit but sent regrets. They are still irritated about how their companies were drawn into the Snowden surveillance scandal and the damage it did to their reputations and businesses. Meanwhile, Apple's Tim Cook did agree to speak but his message on user data was blunt.
"People have entrusted us with their most personal and precious information. We owe them nothing less than the best protection that we can possibly provide," Cook said.
Obama's offer to Silicon Valley was, for now, mostly encapsulated in a new Executive Order. It will allow government agencies - particularly the National Security Agency - to share information that highlights planned or undetected attacks on major corporations
In the light of recent assaults on Sony, retailers Target and The Home Depot, and most recently health insurer Anthem, that's hardly a bad idea. It's probably overdue. But as technologists digested last week's offer, they did what technologists always do: they started to look at the detail. And the feeling was that there wasn't anywhere near enough.
What criteria would be used to judge the issuing of an alert? Who would decide them? Even the form the President's suggested 'Information Sharing and Analysis Organisations' (ISAOs) will take is up for grabs - they could be private companies, they could be not-for-profits, and so on.
At the same time, though not absolutely explicit, Obama's call for greater collaboration between government and technology to combat cybersecurity still raises concerns about the impact of disclosures of personal information by the private sector (and indeed the extent to which the government may itself be infiltrating US companies' networks without their knowledge).
The main issue remains trust. And it goes beyond Snowden and Prism. There is also technology's longer standing cultural position: many of its leading CEOs might like Obama's mantra - "Yes, we can" - but still see it as a distant second to Ronald Reagan's 'Nine most terrifying words in the English language' - "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."
There's a persistent irony here. On one level there are some major Valley players that see cybersecurity as a huge business opportunity - notably the likes of Symantec and Intel (through its ownership of McAfee) - and therefore welcome the President banging the drum. But on another there remains a deep distrust of any major IT implementations that civil servants might involve themselves with and, to Valley eyes, introduce all manner of buggeration.
And it's not just the security specialists who think like that.
The problem, of course, is that cybersecurity does mingle the national interest and corporate/personal confidentiality issues in a way that is probably impossible to unravel. The two sides will ultimately have to play nice - well, nice-ish - and preferably sooner rather than later.
In that regard, it's worth bearing in mind that while Obama may have endured a few snubs last week, he is willing to play a longer game than most US politicians. He has waited out a belligerent Republican opposition in Washington on such issues as healthcare reform and climate change (and those politicians are way more miffed at the President than any Zuckerbergs or Schmidts).
Chances are he will therefore take last week's knocks in his stride and keep plugging away at this until, if necessary, the end of his term.
You do wish they'd all get more of a bloomin' move on though.
Jon Stewart: Science Guy
12 February 2015 by Paul Dempsey
TDS' stock-in-trade is political satire, and it does a brilliant job. Given the often baffling stupidity of the Washington dialogue around such issues as climate change, healthcare/medicine and telecoms regulation, the show has inevitably been drawn to science issues. But there's more to it than reflecting the DC agenda.
The Pew Research Centre analysed TDS' content across 2007. Pew found that the programme featured science/technology in the 'news hole' (its opening segment) more than twice as frequently as its real-news rivals (most notably, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC). In addition, Stewart has often booked scientists as guests in the main interview slot, many to comment on issues of the day but others simply because they have done something that has caught the team's attention.
In climate change, Stewart's burning irritation with bad science has been placed before not only the show's nightly two-million audience, but also often gone viral via YouTube. A good recent example was a signature monstering of the House of Representatives' Committee on Science, Space and Technology. That clip has attracted more than 1.5m views to date.
None of this is surprising when you look at Stewart's background. He isn't simply 'into science' (blundering into the stereotype that comedians all come from arts backgrounds). It's in both his blood and his training. His dad was a university physics professor and Stewart himself began undergraduate life as a chemistry major (though he switched to psychology).
So, here's a guy who, yes, is incredibly funny but who also wants STEM issues treated properly and explained clearly to those without a scientific background. He also has the tools of, for example, knowing what the scientific method is, what 'theory' actually means in a research context, and the ability to sense obvious distortions of either. Exactly what's needed to skewer the overabundance of lobbyist and politician BS polluting debate in the US and elsewhere.
Perhaps more pointedly, Stewart has generally avoided the trap that has snared much of the US mainstream media (and sadly, an increasing amount in the UK): 'reporting the controversy'. That's where journalists give equal time and weight to two sides of a scientific controversy even where the consensus of reviewed research overwhelmingly favours one of them. It's about as unhelpful a dodge as you can get.
To fill Stewart's shoes, Comedy Central must give priority to finding someone who can be cuttingly observant and funny across the news agenda, four nights a week. Maintaining that pace is one of the toughest jobs on television. But you have to hope that Stewart has made science such an important component in TDS' - dare one say it - DNA that related issues will continue to be covered as frequently and as well.
It's sad to see Stewart step down. But given he's held the fake-anchorman seat since 1999, you can understand the decision and must acknowledge the standards he's maintained throughout. This is definitely a case of going out on a high. And should Stewart look towards science as the basis for a post-TDS project, only fools and hucksters would have cause to complain.
Obama pushes education and climate change, soft pedals cyber
21 January 2015 by Paul Dempsey
Let's start with education because it is an area where Obama wants to set a progressive agenda at odds with many of his international counterparts. Specifically, he wants to make tertiary education at the 'community college' level completely free for two years to those who reached required high school standards.
The President explicitly linked his proposal to two things, one from the past and one from his vision of the future.
First, he cited the original G.I. Bill which gave veterans guaranteed access to higher education and led to - according to an online PowerPoint that accompanied the speech - 8 million upskilling to enter, among other professions, science and engineering. It was the creation of "the largest middle class in history" and one of the perceived drivers of US economic dominance in the latter half of the 20th century.
Second, he took on the changing face of the labour market. "By the end of this decade, two in three job openings will require some higher education. Two in three. And yet, we still live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need. It's not fair to them, and it's not smart for our future," Obama said.
Making community college free may not in itself be the answer. Some 40% of Americans who go into higher education attend one of these colleges but, as pointed out by The Guardian, unemployment among those who only take the associate degrees available from most two-year courses is much the same as that for workers with only high school diplomas. The keystone, though, may be the number that having achieved a community college foundation can be encouraged and enabled to go on to bachelor's and higher degrees.
Either way, the proposal puts Obama on one side of a dilemma facing politicians throughout the western world. He sees government funding as a necessity that will shoulder almost the entire burden of creating a post-digital workforce; elsewhere (including the UK) the trend has been instead to pass tuition costs to students because of other increasing financial burdens on the state, notably healthcare and welfare.
Beyond that, while there is no guarantee that a Republican-dominated Congress will pass the legislation (indeed, the initial response was at best cool), this should still put US rivals on notice that the country is grappling assiduously with the consequences of an increasingly knowledge-based global economy. Given the US' own consumption-driven economy, does it have a choice?
"To make sure folks keep earning higher wages down the road, we have to do more to help Americans upgrade their skills," Obama said, going on to also encourage the more widespread use of privately funded apprenticeships that would appear to draw on Germany's well-respected education system.
The President's comments on climate change, by contrast, offered nothing new. Rather they sought to foreground what has been seen until now as a 'toxic' issue in American politics and also underline Obama's personal impatience with predominantly Republican naysayers - particularly those who have used the 'I'm not a scientist' argument to dodge the subject.
This is a lengthy quotation, but worth looking at in full because there is an iciness to it not commonly seen in States of the Union.
"I've heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they're not scientists; that we don't have enough information to act. Well, I'm not a scientist, either. But you know what - I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we'll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it," the President said.
"That's why, over the past six years, we've done more than ever before to combat climate change, from the way we produce energy, to the way we use it. That's why we've set aside more public lands and waters than any administration in history. And that's why I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts. I am determined to make sure American leadership drives international action."
Again, returning to the PowerPoint, the accompanying slide said that Obama's executive action addressing power plant emissions would lead children to suffer 3,700 fewer cases of bronchitis, 150,000 fewer asthma attacks and 180,000 fewer missed days of school.
Emotive stuff, underlining how Obama's Democratic Party now sees climate change moving up the wider political agenda. Indeed, Obama has effectively double-downed on his challenge to the Republicans to block his proposals so far and scupper last year's accord with China on cutting emissions.
In one other important area, the President did 'kick the can down the road', although his spin team will probably argue, 'But not that far' in response. Sony, Snowden and the whole cybersecurity challenge was addressed with platitudes albeit ones gently fleshed out with a promise that, "Next month, we'll issue a report on how we're keeping our promise to keep our country safe while strengthening privacy."
With two years of his term still to go, Obama will know that the issue isn't going anywhere soon. Indeed within Washington's political community, it remains a far hotter potato than the two other critical technology concerns he did address more directly - and one that will probably need to be addressed sooner than either as well.
Edited: 21 January 2015 at 05:24 AM by Paul Dempsey
Charlie Hebdo and The Human Factor
15 January 2015 by Paul Dempsey
Today's Guardian reports that Cameron will seek, as a priority, a concerted UK-US effort to once more increase the cooperation of Internet companies in tracking the secret online communications between suspected terrorists.
But is this the most immediate problem?
Leave aside the fact that Silicon Valley is still nursing the bruises it suffered over Edward Snowden's revelations, and would likely kick back hard. The sad truth is that events in France mostly exposed weaknesses at the human level.
The perpetrators were known to the French security services, but after periods of inactivity full surveillance was withdrawn. Tragic echoes of Lee Rigby's murder are unavoidable. Nor is that the only example.
The security services draw the distinction between SIGINT and HUMINT. For those unfamiliar with the terms, SIGINT is signals intelligence, that drawn from monitoring all forms of communication by organisations such as GCHQ and the NSA; and HUMINT is human intelligence uncovered by the officers and contacts of everything from the police to covert agencies.
To truly defend the realm, both components must work in harmony. More to the point today, both require considerable human resources. Somebody has to make sense of all that SIGINT chatter and HUMINT's requirements are in many ways an extension of the more mundane debate about "Bobbies on the beat".
Cameron's Internet priorities are worrying here, notwithstanding that a more effective (and generally acceptable) relationship needs to be built between cybergiants and the security services.
Many security experts - including those who channel the thinking of senior figures within the covert agencies - are expressing concern that we are promoting technological solutions too aggressively.
This is not really about some Bondian fetish for gadgets. Rather, it is about the perceived cost-effectiveness of automation. That has been going on for a while, but the argument has grown still more persuasive among governments faced by the current demands of 'austerity'.
Well, whether they call themselves Al Qaeda or Islamic State, it is clear that our enemies understand the concept of the 'sleeper cell', groups that can remain long dormant before committing atrocities waiting out those watching them.
Moreover, in the Charlie Hebdo case, we are also now aware of a significant failure in SIGINT analysis. It was initially believed that the girlfriend of one of the terrorists was involved on the day. Records were eventually found showing she had left Europe before they began.
When terrorist attacks succeed, there is a blame game today, or at least a more politically poisonous one than that seen when groups such as the IRA or ETA were most active. This process seriously hampers our ability to address some real challenges.
As technologists, we understandably want to give those who protect us the best appropriate tools. But while we all know GIGO, we also acknowledge that it's still 'garbage out', if there are not enough people to act on what the tools produce.
Prime Minister, Mr President, please take note.
Meet the new year. Same as the old year?
31 December 2014 by Paul Dempsey
Although they began in 2013, the ongoing revelations from Edward Snowden suggested that the West - specifically, the US and its main English-speaking allies - were prying into our affairs with perhaps more zeal than was justified. And that they were doing so with the cooperation (whether forced or not) of some of the Internet's biggest players.
The year-end hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment showed, by contrast, that there are some very bad people out there. They could be nation states. They could be independent mischief-makers. Either way, they can wreak terrible damage.
Climate change - some would say ironically - saw the US and China become two of the most aggressive actors, unveiling their own pact and targets before the important US-sponsored Conference of the Parties in Lima, Peru. It was a move designed 'pour encourager les autres', though many thought that some other big players - notably India, Russia and Brazil - failed to take the hint.
The general consensus is that the value of the Peru meeting itself is not yet clear. It did, for the first time, lead to an accord under which all nations agreed to cut their carbon emissions. But the deal is not legally binding and includes hedges, such as a vague acknowledgement of "common but differentiated responsibilities".
More important, it gives nations until March 2015 to detail some numbers on what they actually will do, and even then there are ways in which this deadline could be pushed out further. Right now, there are only so many cards on the table.
So, neither of these key issues could yet be described as close to any resolution. The big change to both though has been one of public awareness, particularly in the USA.
The US public certainly seems to have turned out to support Sony - whatever the more gossipy leaks contained - and spent an astonishing $15m officially streaming and downloading The Interview over the Christmas weekend.
The plot of the film's release is almost as outlandish as that of film itself. First, the hack purported to be in response to the makers' mockery of North Korea. Then, a badly damaged Sony Pictures appeared to cave in to the hackers' demands and cancelled the cinematic release (though officially it has said its initial decision was forced upon it by exhibitors). Finally, after a wagged finger from President Obama himself, Sony elected to release the film through independent theatres and the Internet.
A little context here is needed. The $15m online take (and a further $4m in those smaller cinemas) is said to be roughly as much as Sony could have expected had a 'traditional' release gone ahead. That might be true, but there are two important wrinkles.
First, Sony's net receipts will almost certainly be higher from the online release than those they would have otherwise shared with cinema owners. Second, each download of The Interview was not necessarily a 'single ticket': there were reports of parties and other gatherings where many supporters of free speech gathered to watch the film together and spite the Guardians of Peace. In short, Sony will make more from the film and many more people have seen it than would otherwise have been the case. That is just one illustration of how hacking has now become a general political issue.
Climate change, meanwhile, had already been bubbling up the political agenda, as we've noted earlier in the blog, with more Americans than you might think believing it needs to be addressed. However, the consequences of the US-China deal and Lima have pushed it up still further.
President Obama's Republican opponents are fuming about the White House's use of executive powers to overcome their ability to block any climate change legislation in the Senate and House of Representatives. This is significant because it almost certainly means the party will commit to overturning Obama's plan if it regains the presidency in 2016. This could potentially make climate change a first-order issue in the next big US political campaign.
And as we look at the implications for both cybersecurity and carbon emissions, that campaign will begin in just a few weeks time. Obama cannot stand for re-election, so both major US parties will soon begin the arduous, sometimes tedious, sometimes fascinating process of selecting candidates.
Add also the president's proposed immigration reforms - albeit of arguably less global impact than the two other themes mentioned here - and it becomes clear that what we've seen on these topics in 2014 is only the beginning of the story.
Happy New Year... and stay tuned.
Sony. Dog. Bone... Still heed the teachable moment
19 December 2014 by Paul Dempsey
Because class action suits always start small, but can they snowball.
As a friend in the IT security business put it, Sony's legal vulnerability could come down to "rooks and knights". It's a popular analogy in his circles: no matter how high the castle walls, any lord of old knew that he needed something behind them.
A highly sophisticated hack got inside. But what then?
In IT terms, leaked documents and emails have already shown that some Sony staff took a cavalier attitude to highly sensitive information. But this is not just about a plethora of Social Security Numbers, medical data, and personal email and home addresses.
There is the case of a hack into Sony Pictures' Brazilian operations that the company chose not to report but was aware of (and which is speculated to have been a precursor to the main attack). There is Sony's apparent sloth in reporting the main hack to ex-staffers where their information had been compromised (and, indeed, offering them the same identity theft services as have been offered to current employees).
That last issue is one of the main planks of the lawsuits moving forward.
Meanwhile, Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton delayed an internal town hall meeting about the hack though apologies to celebs were delivered with more urgency. Was the reason really to do with the weather in LA? That wouldn't say much for the videoconferencing power of a Vaio, would it?
I don't mean to feast on Sony. This was an appalling attack that degenerated from cyber to real terrorist threats. We should all be disgusted by this assault on freedom of speech. The greater villain is clearly these self-styled Guardians of Peace.
Sony makes some fantastic products. The PS4 is great. So, for that matter is Fury: see it on the biggest screen you can not on some crapulous leak. And I could go on - really, I could because I grew up with an old man who saw Sony as defining mainstream quality.
So, heres a company that has given us so many great teachable moments over the decades. Sadly though, this isn't one of those.
The grunts matter. Hopefully, if you are a CIO or CEO, you can see that now. If you can't, may the Spagmon - oh you know.
Footnote: Scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin has written some excellent movies, including two that for me really get technology: The Social Network and Moneyball. You may also have heard he's involved with some Steve Jobs project.
Well, Aaron just called out those of us reporting on the Sony hack as "morally treasonable and spectacularly dishonourable".
It's a pity he didn't help write The Interview because he's got that Pyongyang rhetoric better than the locals - well, in better English.
Joking aside, if you want to have at this Aaron, we have a debate thing on the site, and if you're game, let me know... Twitter: @dempseypaul.
Edited: 19 December 2014 at 12:26 PM by Paul Dempsey
Sony's 'Better call Saul' move backfires
15 December 2014 by Paul Dempsey
Over the weekend, Sony Pictures Entertainment engaged a high profile US lawyer, David Boies, to write to a number of the country's leading newspapers and some major publications dedicated to the film and TV industries. All have reported various revelations from the hack.
The letter is basically a 'cease, desist and destroy' demand. Boies writes, "We have reason to believe that you may possess or may directly or indirectly be given illegally obtained documents or other information stolen from SPE.... SPE does not consent to your possession, review, copying, dissemination, publication, uploading, downloading, or making any use of the Stolen Information and [request] your cooperation in destroying the Stolen Information."
Fail to take heed and, the lawyer continues, "SPE will have no choice but to hold you responsible for any damage or loss arising from such dissemination by you, including any damages or loss to SPE or others, and including, but not limited to, any loss of value of intellectual property and trade secrets resulting from your action."
Editors get a lot of strongly worded legal missives, particularly those on the world's biggest publications, and where there is a reasonable chance that the threats they contain could be carried out, they sometimes step back. However, that isn't the conclusion an outlet can be said to have reached when - as is the case here - most of the letter's recipients decided to publish some (and in a few cases, all) of its content.
Indeed, there's more. US news coverage of the SPE/Boies letter has typically gone on to cite a couple of well-known US Supreme Court judgements that support the media's right to publish stolen information where the outlet itself was not involved in committing the actual theft itself and can demonstrate that the content is newsworthy.
The response to SPE's move has been the journalistic equivalent of "Get stuffed" - you could even call it a US spin on Arkell v Pressdram.
It may well be that Sony's letter was not written in much hope that the media would comply (certainly not those with access to decent lawyers themselves). Rather, for example, the company may be attempting to show partners that have also been caught up in this clusterhack that it is doing all it can to stop further revelations - and thereby avoid any equally nasty lawyerly correspondence from those partners.
But it is still technologically tone deaf, and represents yet another example of digital clumsiness on the part of what is supposed to be a cutting edge conglomerate. Hasn't Sony seen how the world has changed?
Consider how impotent the UK's egregious superinjunction system turned out to be. Yes, papers at home might have been muzzled, but that process only encouraged naming on social media and reporting of who had been granted these legal tools by websites beyond the reach of the UK courts.
Wikileaks and Edward Snowden have further and still more pointedly illustrated how even arguments of suppressing information on the grounds of national security can be circumvented in the digital age.
Cybersecurity and data protection matter because once it's out there, it's out there. Attempting to enforce some kind of blanket ban merely draws more attention to what's been leaked.
In Sony's case, the Boies letter is also quickly being seen alongside its CD root kits, too-weak PlayStation Network, and now too-weak internal security as a further example that the company somehow just doesn't get it. Remind me again how Sony makes most of its money.
The letter is similarly surprising in that the media has shown restraint with regard to the most sensitive content in these leaks, the personal information of SPE employees that breaches their privacy and could be used for identity theft.
That such data forms part of the leaks has been rightly reported - specifically because Sony appears to have paid insufficient care in protecting it - but no self-respecting outlet has or would release any of the details.
That is unlikely to change even in the light of Sony's blunderbuss of clown's confetti. Instead, the focus shifts to how this is becoming a textbook case of how not to manage a hack.
Another Sony? Yes, it could be you... or me... or anyone
7 December 2014 by Paul Dempsey
The hack has fed the obsession of both the media and the public with Hollywood's numbers (box office, star salaries, etc) and gossip (ever think you'd feel so sympathetic towards Adam Sandler?). But beyond that, there is the extremely corrosive nature of much of the information that has been distributed, information that would do any company serious damage.
Three Sony examples worth considering.
1. The exposure of salary details that are said to suggest a notable gender gap between what Sony Pictures pays male and female employees in identical or similar positions.
2. The distribution of charts suggesting that while Sony Pictures pays senior executives of all genders above the average industry rate, those further down the ranking are paid significantly below it.
3. The receipt by Sony Pictures employees of personally threatening emails sent to their private email accounts.
The first of these may point to illegalities under US law and lead to class action lawsuits by current and former women employees. The second and third hardly paint Sony as a good place to work, a company that under-rewards staff and pays insufficient regard to their personal data (the leak also includes Social Security Numbers for much of the workforce).
As the hack unfolds - and the hackers say there is more to come - Sony Pictures' staff have every right to be as angry with their top management as they undoubtedly are with those who undertook the cyberattack.
CIOs and CEOs elsewhere will acknowledge that were they to find themselves in a similar position, it could fundamentally undermine the viability of their businesses.
Beyond that, there is the simple fact that while the hackers only got inside its film and TV operations, Sony is one of the world's premier technology companies. When it comes to its own products, Sony has also been one of the toughest players in terms of DRM, piracy and other aspects of IT security. The worry therefore arises that if someone can do this to Sony, who really is 'safe'.
Initial post mortem findings suggest that this was an extremely sophisticated attack. The invaders were apparently able to get into Sony Pictures' systems and spend quite some time in them undetected. This was not the kind of smash-and-grab hack seen in, ironically enough, the movies.
The FBI is on the case. It may well prove to have the forensic IT tools that can trace the attack back to its source. But when information is stolen, after-the-fact investigations go only a little way to repairing the damage even if they serve 'justice'.
Identifying the culprits here will not repair damage to Sony's relationship with its workforce and many business partners. It will not repair damage to Sony's technological reputation and brand (and remember this hack follows a high-profile attack on the PlayStation Network). It will not restore the secrecy of the information that has been leaked.
So what is to be done? Pen-and-paper, suspension files, and double-deadbolted filing cabinets? Sony employees did find their working practices tumbling half-a-century backwards in the immediate aftermath of the hack, but that is hardly a viable long-term solution.
Here, however, is somewhere that we could make a start: by looking at how the state works to promote awareness of the need for strong cybersecurity, and ensures its availability. The leap from Sony to the role of government isn't as great as it may first appear.
As this column has noted, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron have placed the issue before local business in the US and UK respectively. But at the same time, the state itself is also demanding more access to data everywhere under the umbrella of national security.
There is a tension between these demands that no-one seems capable of resolving, largely because it simply isn't discussed. The security services want one thing. The commercial world (and, let's not forget, the private individual) want another. The fact is that the Internet has yoked together these positions more tightly than ever. Yet everything still comes down to a messy land-grab in cyberpolicy that leaves no-one satisfied. There are few best practices and plenty of loopholes for hackers to exploit.
That the Sony hack should have occurred at a time when data privacy is so high up the political agenda may not help the company but it might help us finally understand the need for a serious debate as to what protections states (and their populations as a whole), companies and individuals should have and how they should be implemented.
Such a debate in itself will not provide sufficient security but without it we will muddle through to many more 'Sonys' in the none-too-distant future. Because, yes, any of us could be next.
Edited: 07 December 2014 at 08:47 AM by Paul Dempsey
Google's rope-a-dope ain't working.
28 November 2014 by Paul Dempsey
For example, two key supporters of FairSearch, a particularly vocal anti-Google lobbying group, are Microsoft and Oracle. Microsoft had a bruising battle with Brussels a few years ago and Oracle more recently had to convince the EU to sign-off on its acquisition of Sun Microsystems. At a personal level meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch has fired several broadsides at Google attacking its claimed impact on businesses from his newspapers to his film and TV studios attributed to everything from aggregation to piracy.
It was Murdoch who famously once quipped, "Monopoly is a terrible thing, till you have it."
These and many other US players (as well as quite a few important European ones) now find themselves on the same side as a political institution they loathe. Of course, the Parliament's vote is unenforceable, as my colleague Pelle Neroth has already noted. The final executive decision must be taken by the European Commission, specifically Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager. But, as Pelle also pointed out, she has been encouraged to throw if not the entire book, then as many pages as she can at Google.
To add to that scenario, Vestager will know that while there have been rumblings from Washington, it is unlikely that the US federal government will take a severe final judgement by her as the opening shot in a trade war precisely because such a large chunk of US high technololgy wants robust action: a large chunk that makes fair-sized campaign contributions at home. So, Google should think again about the cavalry on Capitol Hill.
Rather, one of Vestager's bigger concerns is the likely very damaging disruption to users that would follow any enforced break-up of Google.
Particularly curious amid all this, then, is Google's own 'playbook'.
Right now, the company faces serious issues in two of the world's three main economic blocs. In addition to its EU travails, it remains largely absent in China. It quit the Middle Kingdom four years ago over a well-documented controversy about its unwillingness to censor search results and following attacks on the Gmail network.
It is said to be looking to return, initially by offering a version of the Play apps store, but this could be tricky. Beijing recently added to its existing antipathy towards Google on search by noting concerns about the dominance of the company's Android operating system in the local smartphone market.
Virtually anywhere you care to look, the belief that Google has gotten way too big for its boots seems to be getting ever more widespread.
Yet Google's default response seems to be building a brick wall of passive aggression. It rarely responds to most journalists on any questions of a substantial nature (the European Parliament vote drew another blanket, 'No comment') nor, more importantly, to the majority of comments from users of all stripes. Instead, the best typically to hope for is to be directed to a post on the company's stage-managed blog. That's yer lot.
True, when it comes to an EU anti-trust probe (or negotiating with the Chinese government) there are legal and political niceties to be observed which will restrict how much a company can say openly. However, Google's silence speaks more of arrogance than prudence. Particularly since Google seems to be relying on Vestager's assessment of the public interest (or rather 'public disruption'), its users get a sense of being held hostage to its fortunes and that leaves a sour taste.
So, this strategy is unwise. Google has launched many brilliant products (and some not-so-brilliant ones). Still, it has largely reached its powerful market position on merit, both in terms of its technologies and the business models it has pursued. Regardless of that, the company may be too big in its sectors for comfort. Some kind of anti-trust analysis seems justified. And also deserving of some kind of public response (particularly if the public is part of the argument in your favour).
Given the breadth of forces ranged against it, you would think that Google would articulate the good (or if you prefer, 'not evil') it has done, rather than simply letting it be assumed. Because we've seen coalitions as broad as this emerge before, and if left to run their course, wings inevitably get clipped and sometimes sheared off entirely.
The European Parliament vote might well be virtually meaningless in the legal sense. But it's still a warning, and a very clear one.
Freeing H-1B holders from indentured servitude
24 November 2014 by Paul Dempsey
Silicon Valley's main complaint is that the White House has not addressed a perceived shortage of H-1B visas, those that US companies seek to initially employ most immigrant technology staff. These visas remain capped at 65,000, though for the 2014 fiscal year there were 124,000 petitions.
However, Obama has tackled a fundamental flaw in the H-1B system from engineers' points of view, both immigrant and native-born American.
Until now, H-1Bs have been often criticised by holders as a form of indentured servitude, and by Americans as a tool for employing foreigners on far lower wages than they would - or could - accept. Obama's proposal for a "portable work authorisation" addresses these views directly.
First, here's how things stand before Obama's plan actually comes into force.
Under an H-1B, the holder can work in the US only for the company that sponsors the original visa application and for up to six years. Employers can (and typically do) sponsor H-1B staff in subsequent applications for permanent immigrant status (i.e. a 'green card') that allows those employees to move jobs. Sounds fair enough? However, there's a bureaucracy at work here and some companies have exploited that.
During the green-card application process, the H-1B holder must remain with the sponsor employer. He or she cannot in any practical sense change jobs. Securing another H-1B from another company offering a more attractive package entails such inconveniences as the need to go and live outside the US for a year before returning. More important, securing that second H-1B means a new green card application with a new sponsor - back to the end of the queue.
And it can be a very long queue, particularly in regions like Silicon Valley where the immigration services are knee-deep in applications for obvious reason.
Hence, the visa holders' claims of indentured servitude. The worker is tied to an employer who can - though not all do - pay him less, restrict his benefits, withhold promotions and more. The more unscrupulous companies know that these staff members are, for a good few years, trapped.
Those are the main reasons for immigrants' frustration. US citizens are even more critical. They see this system not merely as enabling companies to bring in cheaper workers from overseas but actively encouraging them to do so. This is not ugly 'taking away our jobs' rhetoric. The wage differential between H-1B and other employees has been documented, as has more extreme abuse of the system.
So what's changed?
Obama's portable work authorisation will allow those H-1B holders who submit applications for permanent residence to move to other companies while they are being processed. Moreover, the legal partners of H-1B holders will themselves be allowed to seek employment where previously they were not.
So, employers will have to be more honest. Assuming they bring staff to the US on merit, they will find it harder to deny or delay sponsoring their green card requests and to treat them as second class relative to US citizens. Meanwhile, as the H-1B stops looking like a cheap option, local engineers will hope their employment opportunities also improve.
And this move has potential implications for Silicon Valley's claims of skill shortages because it expands the labour recruitment market. Companies can look across a broader swathe of the Valley's working population. Just how far this might go in addressing the visa cap issue is hard to say, but it is a start.
The reforms will be introduced by 'executive action', the power that allows the president to enact measures without first getting approval from Congress. So, Obama has bypassed Republican intransigence on immigration reform (which the party blocked even when it held the presidency, despite George W. Bush's genuine efforts).
There remains much in the US immigration system and how it applies to high technology specifically that could do with further work. But, as I said at the outset, the risk/reward calculation for a British engineer who wants to try his luck in the Valley has shifted significantly in the right direction.
Edited: 24 November 2014 at 09:53 AM by Paul Dempsey
Celluloid rages against the dying of the light
20 November 2014 by Paul Dempsey
Nolan is an unashamed film guy. He shot Interstellar on a combination of 35mm standard and 65mm IMAX stock, the 35mm material in the anamorphic 2.4:1 aspect ratio and the IMAX material in a the near-golden 1.43:1 ratio. He wants as many of you as possible to see his work that way, with the projected images swapping between the two formats. However, only a few IMAX cinemas worldwide can screen the movie native (just four are doing so in the UK, a few dozen out of thousands in the US).
Even most IMAX-branded cinemas screen movies digitally at 4k resolution (and they show Interstellar in another slightly different version mixing 2.4:1 and 1.9:1 ratios). Then there are other 4k-digital cinemas and 2k-digital cinemas as well as a handful that still have 'traditional' 35mm and 70mm film projectors. And there's more ratio soup to sup at each of those.
Confusing, isn't it? But from Nolan's point of view, accepting this jumble is a necessary evil. He believes that film offers qualities that digital cannot yet match and may never match. He's no luddite. The content of his film makes that clear enough. Rather, Nolan is a talented moviemaker who wants to make his medium's equivalent to a painter's choice from oils, watercolours, and various other materials. And Nolan feels his audience should be able to see the result in as close a version as possible to his intentions.
Nolan is not alone in this battle. This July, he joined up with fellow directors such as J.J. Abrams and Quentin Tarantino to convince Hollywood to keep funding Kodak's film processing operation. Kodak's film revenues have fallen 96% in the last decade as cinemas have moved to digital projection and it is the last remaining movie stock maker (Fujifilm closed its division in 2013).
But though the drive to preserve what we'll perhaps now have to call 'film moviemaking' is supported by other A-list directors - most notably Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese - Kodak's lifeline is said to be finite. So, Interstellar being a huge hit with the public and critics matters a lot.
Even seen digitally - for me in IMAX digital - enough of what Nolan has captured and crafted on film translates into the images on the big screen. Interstellar is a beautiful movie. So, you might reply, is James Cameron's all-digital Avatar. And you'd be right. But what these two master directors offer is distinctively different visually. Because this isn't about digital being a second-rate format, rather a different one.
Economics have driven digital projector adoption for cinemas: it's massively cheaper to produce and ship bits of data than cans of celluloid. But, for many moviemaking projects, digital is the better way. Avatar cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but then consider another of the great action movies of recent years, Welsh director Gareth Evans' The Raid. It is a low-budget Indonesian work with kinetic visuals that would have been near-impossible to realise without advances in lightweight digital cameras.
Many classics of the past continue to speak to us about the visual qualities of film: Sir David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus, to name but three. But as a contemporary 'event' movie, Interstellar gives us the chance to compare what remains possible with film today. It shows us something worth preserving... as well as the human race.
That Interstellar is a terrific science-fiction movie on many other levels obviously helps. Some parts recall, though it doesn't quite match, Andrei Tarkovsky's sublime Solaris. Others, for all its well-documented flaws, show far greater respect for science than usual Hollywood blockbusters. But Interstellar also reminds us that as digital technologies develop we should sometimes see them as alternatives not harbingers of technological Darwinism.
Climate change as gigascale quantitative easing
12 November 2014 by Paul Dempsey
'Something on climate change' was long expected to form part of President Obama's state visit to Beijing. To some degree, the deal's announcement was held back from the UN's September environmental summit in New York because President Xi did not attend - it would have put him in the diplomatic quandary of visiting the US twice before Obama had been to China.
The real key to the deal is much as outlined in more detail in my last blog. But to briefly recap.
The US has long been working to preemptively determine the framework for what can be negotiated during December's Conference of the Parties on climate change in Peru and then signed off a year later at the Paris COP.
It cannot be a treaty - there aren't the votes to get one ratified by the US Senate. It has to be a series of interlocking agreements and commitments that bypass the need for Capitol Hill's assent. With China joining the US to promote this strategy, the COP outcome may well fall short of what activists want but it's about as good as we're going to get. Either way, other countries are now more likely to fall in line with the US approach - again, getting China on side first pour encourager les autres has always been part of the plan.
If there is a further interesting aspect of the deal to explore though, it is what China has put on the table.
The US' main commitment is to get its carbon emissions to 26-28% below their 2005 level by 2025. China's is for its emissions to peak by no later than 2030 by which time it will meet "around 20%" of its energy needs from non-fossil fuels.
The big news here is summed up in the White House's own analysis of the Chinese plan: "It will require China to deploy an additional 800-1,000GW of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero-emission generation capacity by 2030 - more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to total current electricity generation capacity in the United States."
Setting aside the climate change issue, another way of looking at this is to note that President Xi has just unveiled a truly massive capital spending programme, and invited the US to call him out if it fails to progress. Its value is probably incalculable - though over the coming hours, some will no doubt try - but it could dwarf the billions China has already poured into infrastructure and general construction as part of its dash for growth.
Moreover, China feels up to the task based on its own resources - not just materials but also technological know-how. We have already reached the point where the prospect of the UK buying nuclear power plants from the Middle Kingdom can be seriously discussed. In terms of everything from 'green' energy R&D through to precision tooling and manufacturing, China has come a long way.
So, at a time when the world's markets have been getting increasingly twitchy about China's ability to maintain economic growth, this is quantitative easing on the grandest scale.
It is also, surely, the largest co-ordinated engineering programme the world has ever seen.
The deal also gives us an insight into Xi Jinping's political objectives - or at least one that this time expresses itself in terms of engineering. Specifically, it is his drive to reassert the position of the Communist Party at the unquestioned summit of Chinese society.
This has expressed itself most explicitly and controversially to the West in terms of rigid authoritarianism, most recently the impasse between Hong Kong's democracy protesters and both Beijing and the regional government. However, Xi is also aware of the need to satisfy the old maxim that, "The Party will provide."
China today is reckoned to have more than 160 cities with populations of more than one million people. It is not just Beijing and Shanghai that are choking on pollution - smog is a national and unavoidable issue. Even those who accept environmental blight as a byproduct of industrialization - and one they note, with some justification, that many 'clean' western nations needed to suffer in the past - believe that something must now be done. That belief extends into Beijing's top echelons.
Even at the most cynically political level, there is an apparent acknowledgement that pollution is a powerful argument that can be wielded by dissidents (Remember artist Ai Weiwei on Twitter in his gas mask). The one way to take that from the regime's opponents is to do something about it... and do it big.
These factors on the Chinese side need to be seen alongside US pragmatism as we set our expectations. There is always a good chance that plans of this scale will not meet their targets. Some scepticism is also still fair enough. However, these objectives represent a great deal more than simply fine words.
Obama and the breeze of climate change
10 November 2014 by Paul Dempsey
When it comes to climate change, the fact that President Obama will see out his term facing simple Republican majorities in both Houses on Capitol Hill is moot. For the US to formally ratify any binding treaty requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate. This 'supermajority' requirement did for the Kyoto Protocol and would have done the same for any successor, even had the parties remained unchanged after last week's election.
Obama has never had the votes. So he has tackled climate change side-on. At home, his administration has sought to introduce regulation by 'executive action'. This concept gives the President power to direct federal agencies to enact certain measures without new law being passed. It is a controversial way of bypassing the Senate and the House of Representatives, though both Democrat and Republican White Houses have used it.
One of Obama's executive actions addresses carbon emissions from coal-fired power stations with cuts to be imposed through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 2015. Not surprisingly, groups within the energy industry and a number of Republican state attorneys general have filed suit claiming the president has exceeded his constitutional authority. However, the White House is confident the judgements will come down in its favour.
Absent the realistic prospect of a formal climate change treaty, this is strategically significant. Obama's administration has been developing another legal workaround here for some time.
The UN's ideal is for a globally-effective follow-on treaty to Kyoto to be agreed at a 'conference of the parties' (COP) in Paris next year. Much of the hard bargaining is due to take place this December at a COP in Lima, Peru.
Many countries - and UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon - say publicly that they are driving towards this goal. Privately, they acknowledge that political deadlock in the US makes it nigh-on impossible. Without the US in any deal, adherence by other major carbon emitters would be impossible to enforce.
Obama's negotiators have therefore touted an alternative. Instead of a full treaty, they propose a set of 'accords'. Again, legal niceties envelop the proposal. It's surely fair for any layperson to ask what is the difference between a treaty and an accord. But the White House lawyers reckon they know the answer to that.
These accords could set targets and international aid commitments to the most badly affected countries. They could incorporate both monitoring and reporting. However, their power would likely reside more in an ability to 'name and shame' offenders than one that required them to act.
At first, that tastes like small beer. Particularly since the immediate run-up to Lima was prefaced last week by a gloomy update from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It wants an end to all fossil-fuel generated power by 2100 - or else.
However, the White House is arguing that accords today could be a platform for explicitly binding terms on the US and others sooner rather than later. Even at home, it reckons that voter anger could soon keep all politicians on the right side of voluntary commitments.
Polling of Republican voters is said to indicate that only a third actively support their party's position on climate change. This is in line with wider research. A YouGov poll for the Huffington Post, taken shortly before the midterm vote, found that 53% of the US electorate wanted its politicians to pass related legislation within the next year - 29% said it was "very important", 24% "somewhat important". In addition, 44% of respondents said that human action was the cause, while only 12% said no change was occurring at all.
Going further, this election saw the emergence of a Political Action Committee (PAC) funding candidates supporting legislation. The millions spent by NextGen Climate Action (backed primarily by hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer) did not stem the Republican tide. But what they did do was force a number of Republicans to either embrace 'green' energy or hold their tongues on climate change.
In other words, the argument that regulation here equals bad science, higher taxes and lost jobs is becoming less persuasive.
None of this will be enough for climate change activists. But, the thinking goes, such supporters can only ever seed a movement. The EPA itself was set up because the arguments of people such as Silent Spring author Rachel Carson finally entered the zeitgeist.
More pertinently, the UK's clean air legislation came about because the public of the 1950s could actually see what was going wrong - a trend today visible in China which is gradually abandoning its "We will if you will" attitude to curbing carbon as cities like Beijing and Shanghai literally choke.
Indeed, don't be surprised to see China align itself with the US strategy this very week, as the Middle Kingdom's premier Xi Jinping and Obama meet at APEC and after that during a formal American state visit to Beijing.
The winds of political change, then, may be blowing more slowly than those in accumulating environmental research. Is that good enough? Perhaps we should start by asking if it is as good as we can get? Either way, rumours of Lima's and Paris' demise are overstated. Rather, it's our old friend 'the management of expectations'.
Edited: 10 November 2014 at 07:46 AM by Paul Dempsey
The 'For all mankind' question again faces Virgin Galactic
3 November 2014 by Paul Dempsey
There were important adult answers to the question. We hear many of them again in the current race between China and India. Excluding an ideological confrontation between capitalism and communism, we in the West view their efforts through the prisms of Apollo and Soyuz, Sputnik and Telstar.
It is a competition between two nations aimed at boosting their global stature and energizing their own peoples. We also understand the Chinese and Indian programmes in terms of attempts to develop technological know-how and military strength.
The underlying message: "If we can conquer space, nothing is beyond our reach."
Now, there is also commercial competition in launchers. They aim to reduce the cost of putting vehicles into space. For example, SpaceX has flown four cargo missions to the International Space Station and has various other contracts. Its longer term goal is a permanent manned-presence on Mars.
We see these private players in the context of communications, science and exploration.
But what about Virgin Galactic?
The loss last week of SpaceShipTwo and test pilot Michael Alsbury is a tragedy for his family, colleagues and those who knew him personally.
For those of us in technology, it is a timely reminder. We have been too eager, in our Apprentice-style way, to make heroes out of desk-bound executives as brave risk-takers. A good number of cutting-edge technologies - though particularly aviation and marine exploration - require people who are prepared to put their lives rather than just their livelihoods on the line. They demand the greatest respect.
That disaster should strike Virgin Galactic has however once more raised concerns about the venture itself.
Many of these are about economic disparity - some would say inverted snobbery. Either way, Virgin Galactic is not, unlike other space programmes, one whose reason-to-exist is the extension of human knowledge. It is space tourism, a chance for the very wealthy ($250,000 a ticket) to experience a few weightless moments outside our atmosphere.
OK, pause button. That goal does not mean that Virgin Galactic has not and could not yet innovate in ways that have broader benefits. Advanced avionics, airframe and other engineering disciplines are necessary, and could well have applications elsewhere.
Moreover, the cost of space travel has always been an issue. In the US, the space race was contemporary with great social upheaval and the emergence of the civil rights movement. Many commentators then saw NASA as an expensive luxury when there were bigger earthbound problems. A similar debate rumbles on in India today.
But there's another side to the problem. Our relationship with space exploration has until now been decidedly vicarious. NASA famously brands its efforts as being 'For all mankind'. The astronauts are our most immediate representatives, the scientists and other workers are the enablers but, by broadening our knowledge, we are all the beneficiaries. Or that's how the bargain is supposed to work.
Virgin Galactic feels quite the opposite. Placing those who can afford a ticket in orbit does have unavoidable connotations of bragging rights which do not chime well. But perhaps more importantly, it breaks that philosophical bargain.
We expect work in space to have general and clear benefits for humanity even now, be they as mundane as global communications networks or as potentially existential as furthering our understanding of climate change. Do projects that undermine that criterion undermine space exploration as a whole?
You may think it is 'too soon' to raise that question after a test pilot's death - but 'test' is an important word here. This is a chance to ask ourselves if it is still 'too soon' for scientific (and yes, military) research to translate into any type of consumer day-tripping. Because the answer probably is not just about the safety of the vehicles that are used.
Elon Musk kicks Ultron's butt... with ironclad rules
27 October 2014 by Paul Dempsey
"So we need to be very careful with artificial intelligence. I'm increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don't do something very foolish.
"With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon. You know all those stories where there's the guy with the pentagram and the holy water and he's, like yeah, he's sure he can control the demon. Didn't work out."
The quote itself sounds like it's from a movie. Latter-day Cassandra describes dire threat from behind lectern. Nobody listens. Uh-oh.
But these are the thoughts of Elon Musk from last week's Centennial Symposium at MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The man behind SpaceX, Tesla and PayPal is hardly one of the tinfoil hat brigade. Rather, a prescient and successful visionary - Tony Stark without the penchant for blowing things up.
Hollywood has given us many AI villains. From Hal 9000 to Skynet to the battling cyber intelligences of current TV hit Person of Interest. This Spring, Marvel's Avengers will battle the genocidal robot Ultron, with last week's leaked trailer coldly referencing Pinocchio: "There are no strings on me," intones our not-at-all-a-real-boy.
As for Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, those date back to 1942 - clearly he had the original Hydra in mind.
Joking aside, with a few notable exceptions like Asimov, we have used dramatic conflict between man and machine to define our own humanity - and its superiority. We give HAL a nervous breakdown; the machine couldn't cope with our garbage inputs. In Terminator 2, the story pivots around teaching Schwarzenegger's 800-series human morality.
This was hardly stuff that many technologists would debate publicly. AI was then still a remote prospect - great for sci-fi authors to exploit and philosophers to debate, but engineering had more immediate problems.
What's changed - and what makes Musk's comments important - is that AI is finally here. It may not be 'fully formed' or 'conscious', but consider this example.
The human sales process involves an understanding of emotional responses, body language and desires. It's very much about telling the client what he or she wants to hear. Something you might look for from a Turing Test perhaps.
Now consider how good Amazon's personal product recommendations or Facebook's ad placement are getting. They are also about reading you.
Obviously, this is just one component of a fully-fledged AI, but we are seeing more of them enter real-life use all the time.
And when someone like Musk raises the topic, we listen. Because here's a savvy guy who gets bombarded with investment opportunities in Silicon Valley. In that context, AI is hot.
But it's also a secretive sector, even by Valley standards. Some start-ups are wooing the military and others are after similarly protective e-commerce companies. And more.
Musk will be seeing a lot of these pitches cross his desk. He has insider knowledge. Whatever, his teeth are itching.
Given all this, the more immediately important thing in what he says isn't the existential Hollywood trope. That's to get your attention. What matters is the call for regulation.
Today, we can identify AI components and how to create them - and it is inevitable that they will play an increasing and ubiquitous role in our lives. If Musk is talking about them like this, we need some rules - detailed post-1942 rules.
We can no longer use AI as a straw man to define how 'good' we are; we have to define AI to make ourselves and our world better.
Or maybe Ultron (and Douglas Adams) are right: "Virus with legs. P'ah. See ya."
Edited: 27 October 2014 at 09:57 AM by Paul Dempsey
Nokia - so much more than what's in a name
23 October 2014 by Paul Dempsey
Nokia's phone division had been stumbling for a while. Widely acknowledged as having missed the boat on smartphones, it pushed Psion's Symbian mobile OS spin-out to the point of acquiring it, then jumped for Windows Mobile with a few Android products, and was finally acquired by the Redmond behemoth. Just six months later, in comes the towel.
Then, add the facts that younger rivals can now pump out smartphones at ever cheaper cost - shoppers can pick up unlocked models for well under £100 - and that Apple stole Nokia's reputation for having the best UI.
Yet it is still only a little over 20 years since Nokia got the mobile revolution going with the first mass-produced GSM handset. The 1011 arrived in 1992 and was followed, even into the early WAP days of the mobile Internet, by a sequence of hands-down winners. We even forgave them that diddle-ee-dee, diddle-ee-dee, diddle-ee-dee-dee ringtone.
In Europe particularly (though less so in the US where GSM was a late arrival), Nokia was intensely fashionable. It pioneered garish fasciae long before the iPhone 5C. It had all of us peering at that blasted Snake game for far longer than was healthy. And, among the young, its cheaper, easy-to-use phones kickstarted our continuing fondness for instant messaging, then with SMS.
You would think that, even some obvious missteps aside, there would still be a residual brand value in the Nokia name. And maybe there would have been had it not been Microsoft that bought its handset business - I'm not saying that for any malicious reasons, but more because Microsoft has been juggling so many mobile brands, some rationalization was inevitable.
It's unlikely though that the continuing and separate Nokia Oyj conglomerate - still a major player in comms infrastructure and IT in its own right - will quickly seek to re-enter the handset business, assuming that use of the brand now reverts back to it. Questionable margins, too many players.
Moreover, it's arguable that as the handset market grew, it did progressively shift away from where Nokia as a company has historically and culturally been strongest.
Some years ago, Nokia was jokingly introduced to me by one of its own executives thus, "You've heard of 3M. Well, we're the 3W company: wood, wire and wellies." We were talking about the company's then early emergence as a mobile technology giant. But while Nokia had also moved on from those industries by then, there was a character truth to the quip that carried over to its new incarnation.
Nokia was built by harnessing Finland's natural resources and turning them into practical products for use at home and, more important, export - particularly in the 20th century to Russia. Paper and other finished timber products. Cable for telegraph and telephony. Rubber boots for workers and consumers battling some of the world's more inclement weather. And so on.
The move into mobile communications was itself seeded in practicality and the company's own experience. Supplying infrastructure for wired networks in often inhospitable conditions taught Nokia how difficult it could be to construct and maintain. Reliable, ubiquitous and affordable wireless communications had attractions you could readily grasp in Scandinavia.
As Microsoft winds down the brand's use, it's ironic perhaps that wellies will soon represent the most likely way in which consumers will encounter the Nokia name on the High Street. Albeit also sold off by the main conglomerate, the brand is battling Hunter for gumboot glory amid one of the more unlikely fashion trends in recent memory.
The Nokia conglomerate carries on. Its ability to innovate from necessity and then also deliver solid, well-designed and reliable products has been baked in for more than a century. It has reinvented itself more often - and generally more successfully - than HP. Don't let a mere brand retirement mislead you.
On hearing the news, though, I still had to pause and miss my own old 3210. It looked good. It did everything I thought I could want of a phone at the time. And it took the kind of physical beating none of today's kit could withstand. Nowadays, I carry a fragile toy by comparison.
Edited: 23 October 2014 at 07:21 AM by Paul Dempsey
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