View from Washington - General

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When we become the Yahoos

24 November 2015 by Paul Dempsey

The late comedian Bill Hicks had a jaundiced view of salesmanship. "If you work in marketing, just kill yourself," he declared. There was no punchline, no qualification, no mercy. Marketing ruins everything. His apparently uncompromising stance is often cited by those who want an Internet free of pop-ups, profiling and anything but altruistic proselytising.

Yet the statement was utter drivel, and Hicks knew as much. He was a consummate ironist. He threw down the gauntlet in an act of canny self-promotion. "Here I am, the most uncompromising comic commentator of my time. LOOK AT ME."

What has this to do with Yahoo? Well, this week, the company found itself on the wrong side of those who troll before they think when they invoke Hicks' spirit.

Predictable online outrage spread when Yahoo started blocking online email access to users whose browsers ran adblockers.

On one side, the argument was claimed to touch on civil liberties. What rights should a large corporation have to control access to private, personal communication? Unfortunately, this is a poor test case for a good question.

The real issue revolves around that most misused of words, often indeed by marketeers ... But not them alone. "Free."

Here, all the big Internet players are indeed "Guilty". When they offer "free" email, online tools and content - just three of the most obvious examples - what they really mean is that they will not take any money from you in return.

That doesn't preclude them taking other things instead. Only a child could believe otherwise. If you can't see what the product is, chances are it's you.

Nor is this a new game. Well aware of the real contract, we've all been trying to dodge electronically-delivered advertising since we got our paws on the first remote controls half a century ago. It's the oldest game of Whack-a-Mole known.

As technology has evolved towards ever more sophisticated marketing platforms, so have other engineers developed equally ingenious ways to circumvent it. That's human nature, so long may the game continue.

But let's be mature enough to admit that when a corporate player moves to enforce its side of the bargain, that's also fair game.

In truth, the objections to Yahoo smack of hypocrisy. Worse, they smack of hypocrisy garbed in ideals such as freedom-of-speech, privacy and open communication. Given other ongoing online concerns, we should be more careful about when we cite such precious ideals.

When we abuse them by invoking them too cheaply, we devalue our ability to expect them from others, corporations and - pointedly - governments.

The current Yahoo wibblers know what they signed up for. Among other things, their eyeballs on ads are what really pay for the email service. And yes, Google mines data on a postindustrial scale. I even think there's still gambling in Casablanca.

So, maybe some Yahoo user does live under a rock - I sympathise over his WiFi speeds. For the rest, suck it up. And grow up.

If you are that taxed by Yahoo's move, you could also dig deep and spend a few bucks on a 'clean' email experience. While you're at it, you could also drop a few dollars on some Bill Hicks albums or DVDs. There's more to him too than sales slogans.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 24 November 2015 12:22 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Climate change treaty again makes early exit

13 November 2015 by Paul Dempsey

Well, Hillary will be happy. The White House - specifically Vice President John Kerry - acknowledged this week that the US almost certainly won't be signing up for a formal treaty on climate change at the upcoming Paris Conference of the Parties. Nor will anyone else. For Barack Obama's prospective successor that means no nasty document to steer through a largely sceptical Congress. But what about the real issues?

To be fair to President Obama, he and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, have been trying to drag through other nations to some kind of binding agreement by pre-announcing a series of significant bilateral deals. Similarly, Obama's use of Executive Orders has already allowed him to get tougher on US carbon emissions without having to secure political agreement from either of the two other US branches of government.

However where there is no treaty, there are inevitably going to be questions about 'good faith'. Whatever Obama offers in Paris, the issue will inevitably arise about what will happen if his Democratic Party loses next year's Presidential vote. In that case - and regardless of the ultimate Republican nominee - the smart money would not only be on a refusal to sign any treaty but also the rescinding of all those Executive Orders.

And even as China ups the rhetoric on climate change, there was disturbing news in a survey published last week by the respected and independent Pew Research Centre that the issue is falling down the Middle Kingdom's national agenda. Only 18% of Chinese citizens see climate change as a serious concern, a fall of 23 points in the last five years.

That last measure might change as China now moves into winter, its coal-fired power stations move to capacity and major cities tumble into apparently endless smog. But, being frank, Xi well knows that difficulties in maintaining economic growth, and by extension, the authority of the ruling Communist Party will have to come first. And China is going through a difficult patch.

Then there is India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government is being cited as the main refusnik blocking a Paris Treaty. Whatever you make of the swirling racial issues on the subcontinent today, Modi again is looking to stimulate an Indian 'Economic Miracle', huddling with digital titans and holding stadium-bound rallies where he urges expat entrepreneurs to come home and reinvigorate the economy.

All that, despite the fact that - much like China - India arguably has much to fear from rising sea levels and more extreme weather.

Five years ago in Copenhagen, the likelihood of a binding treaty was also publicly taken off the table before the COP began, three months before when a senior UN official addressed a thinly-attended breakfast meeting at the New York Bar Association. Some of those involved attribute that early retreat as one of the causes of Copenhagen's relative failure. Momentum and pressure were both surrendered.

Following John Kerry's comments to the FT many of those same voices will be feeling the same this week. Diplomacy is so often a game of, 'You want..., You'll settle for..., You get.' It's a bit like the eight year-old who puts an iPad Pro at the top of her Christmas list, knowing she's going to end up with something from VTech, if she's lucky - but, hey, that's how it works. Aim high.

The realpolitik answer to this is that dropping the treaty requirement is merely a case of bowing to the inevitable. "Let's get what we can." Normally, you could go with that. But the problem is that we have been bowing to something that is becoming increasingly inevitable and unavoidable for several decades now. If you ignore her, Mother Nature can and always will trump politicians.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 13 November 2015 09:57 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Star Cow: The Next Milking

3 November 2015 by Paul Dempsey

They're making a new Star Trek series, and it's only a little more than a year away. Trekkers assemble (actually, can I say that?) Anyway, how times have changed since fans bemoaned the 'franchise's' cancellation. At length. Still, there are interesting dynamics to explore in CBS' decision, particularly in how they reflect today's technological determinism.

By my count, this will bring the official film and TV variations on Gene Roddenberry's saga to 10. There have been six TV outings (The Original Series, animated, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise) and three movie spin-offs (TOS, TNG and the current reboot). For a concept that ardent supporters still think received short-shrift from Hollywood that ain't bad going.

As recently happened with another seemingly indestructible sci-fi warhorse, the new entry is pinned to a 50th anniversary. Star Trek's falls in 2017. I'll let proper Trekkers debate whether William Shatner should get his 'Tom Baker moment' ("They. Havebeenknown. To. Call. Me. Thecurator," anyone?). What's caught my eye as a more casual devotee is how CBS plans to market this latest franchise milking.

In the US, the first episode of Star Trek: Decalogue (there's no official title yet, but you can see what I've done there) will premiere free-to-watch on the CBS network in January 2017. But if you want more, you'll have to subscribe to CBS All Access, the broadcaster's on-demand/streaming service. After years of worrying about the impact of Netflix, Amazon Prime and other non-traditional media players, CBS has decided to embrace their model and use its main channel to promote it, exploiting a major brand to do so.

It isn't just in TV that this merging of release platforms is becoming more prevalent. Right now, two of the main Halloween-themed movies in the US - Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension and Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse - are on 'experimental releases'. These will see the films released to video-on-demand after just 90 days and when their cinema screen-counts fall below 300.

Theatrical exhibitors expect to have a film exclusively for about five-six months, but the films' producer, Paramount Pictures, has secured the shorter window by offering cinema chains that run the films a cut of the VOD takings as well (thought to be around 2-4%).

Neither the final Paranormal Activity film nor Scouts Guide has done well at the traditional box office. The latter failed to break into the US Top 10 on its first weekend despite having 1,500 screens. Some cinema chains also angrily declined the VOD share offer.

But Paramount is, for the moment, phlegmatic. There has always been a big home audience for horror and the company feels that while theatre attendances have been low, it will recoup its production costs down the line.

Perhaps more significantly though, eliding the theatrical and digital download/streaming windows helps Paramount get more impact from its initial marketing spend on a mid-to-low budget release. Or so the studio hopes.

The rule-of-thumb is that a film costs as much to market on its theatrical release as it does to produce. In fact, for a widely released but cheap 'exploitation' movie such as a Paranormal Activity, initial marketing costs can far exceed the production budget.

The problem then has been that for films likely to do better in the home entertainment market there is only so much left in the marketing kitty when they go to download and beyond - you just hope that audiences remember titles six months after the initial brouhaha. Being able to leverage and amortize promotional costs for two release windows across the bigger initial launch makes good sense.

Coming back to the new Star Trek, pay-TV and streaming platforms face a similar challenge. HBO - and, in the UK, Sky - have had to spend small fortunes bringing audiences to the likes of Game of Thrones. Their efforts have paid off but it's worth stating the problem they face.

On any pay-TV platform, you have historically had to try to get the audience first to subscribe before demonstrating the quality of the programmes, notwithstanding free month-long offers and weekends. The most significant recent shift there came from Netflix and Amazon which have used their on-demand platforms to offer everyone the chance to see the pilot episodes of exclusive shows - most notably Amazon has done this to generate buzz for its adaptation of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle.

CBS is upping the ante by planning to leverage the still formidable power of network TV to promote its streaming service. If you take the $160,000 average cost of a 30-second commercial during NCIS, CBS top-rated network drama, and assume the Star Trek preview receives an equivalent slot, that works out as a $13.4m (£8.7m) promo (network dramas typically run for 42 minutes in an hour with the rest allocated to traditional commercials and internal previews).

That's arguably a very cost-effective way of reaching millions of eyeballs, if you can convert a good chunk of them into $6 a month subscribers.

Interestingly, Paramount and CBS share a lead shareholder, US media mogul Sumner Redstone, also the former owner of the Blockbuster video stores. But the ideas at work here go back further.

It was arguably British producer David Puttnam (now Lord Puttnam) who first floated the idea of shortened or near simultaneous release windows in the late 1980s.

His argument was that for mid-budget and 'quality' releases (e.g., his own 'Chariots of Fire'), it might make sense for the film still to be shown first in a cinema but by buying a ticket you got the right to buy a VHS copy immediately afterwards at the popcorn stand.

Again, the advantages to the producer were a more concentrated marketing spend to support a film that was not that likely to deliver blockbuster takings. But Puttnam was also addressing how the 80s home video revolution was already changing how audiences consumed media, a trend that has only accelerated since even as we have left VHS behind.

Puttnam's vision was nevertheless skeptically received back in the day. There were fewer release windows and more powerful vested interests - effectively just cinemas, home video and traditional TV. Pay-TV was still establishing itself in the US and had yet to reach Europe.

But more importantly, digital innovation had not yet begun either to expand greatly the number of release windows or create home viewing experiences to rival 'the big screen'. And piracy wasn't that much of a threat since car-boot sale tapes were extremely shonky.

Today, technological determinism has unquestionably undermined traditional media distribution models, much as Puttnam foresaw and now deserves kudos for doing so.

All this doesn't mean that CBS and Paramount aren't boldly going into new territory with their release plans. Both the Star Trek and the Halloween projects are experiments and that suggests that there is plenty more disruption to come.

Funnily enough, it's all our fault. After all, who'd now bet against Star Trek's eleventh incarnation being beamed direct to your Oculus 3D headset after an IMAX preview?

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 03 November 2015 02:49 AM     General     Comments (0)  

The Socialist Republic of San Jose - er, not quite

30 October 2015 by Paul Dempsey

Because Silicon Valley now makes so many cool products, because Bill Gates really has been such a genuinely positive philanthropist, and because so much marketing speak talks about technology democratizing society, we have begun to assume that the US high technology industry naturally leans to the left. I'm not so sure.

It's an interesting question to ask as the US gears up for another apparently endless presidential campaign. Particularly since there is a sense that this time technology leaders may take a more active role than ever before

Just recently, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google parent Alphabet, has been outed as the main backer of a political start-up The Groundwork. Go on, click the link - isn't that one stealthy beast? (I also can't help but think the logo looks a tad too much like the one for the nefarious Colossus supercomputer.)

What we know is that The Groundwork aims to give Hillary Clinton a core of engineering expertise that builds on the e-campaigning revolution started by Barack Obama. It's even hired Obama 2008's CTO, Michael Slaby.

Schmidt's activism is not that out of step with many of his counterparts. While perhaps not declaring their party politics so openly, it is noticeable that people like Apple's Tim Cook have very publicly expressed views clearly at odds with today's Republican orthodoxy.

But what about the grunts in the cubicles? What value also is there to the notion that if the Republican Party is thought to have deserted many of its traditional followers, it has done that nowhere quite as ruinously as in Silicon Valley: how can the supposed party of business reconcile so many positions that are today, well, anti-science?

A couple of things are worth remembering here.

The libertarian individualism - or 'objectivism' - promoted by Ayn Rand still finds many of its stronger adherents in Northern California. Many of these people remain extremely active Republicans, pinning their hopes on Kentucky Senator Rand Paul for their party's eventual nomination (and, yes, the clue is in the name).

The idea that innovation is most exciting and productive when unfettered by government or any traditional social constraints is a powerful one. It may well have some value. At any rate, that is not an idea one would even vaguely associate with either the left or - taking a realistic view of mainstream US politics - the centre-left.

But perhaps more powerful a historical draw for Republicanism in technology has been its association with funding military research. By the time Eisenhower coined the term 'military industrial complex' in 1961, HP, Shockley and Fairchild were already beavering away around Palo Alto.

Sure, they were fledglings in comparison with the early 60s industrial conglomerates Eisenhower had in his sights. But Uncle Sam and the Pentagon unquestionably provided many of the millions that produced technologies which have evolved into today's cool gadgets. It also remains true that the DARPA defence research agency is often a fundamental seed partner for real 'blue skies' research.

That 'history' marked the growing-up, the blooding of many of today's US high technology CEOs. They remember a time when, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help' were not frightening words. And the money always flowed best during a Republican administration - it probably would today as well.

And, of course, there never will be, nor should there be any branch of life within which one political philosophy is overwhelmingly prevalent. Not in a free society, at any rate.

So, as the 2016 Presidential Race lumbers on, don't get too easily led about who is likely to land where. It's probably true that even if, though it looks increasingly unlikely, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina were to win the Republican nomination, her party has 'deserted' far more of its Northern California base to get any rousing support.

But a 'liberal' Silicon Valley? Only in the Adam Smith sense, methinks.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 30 October 2015 01:00 PM     General     Comments (0)  

IBM's Watson is no Ramblin' Bob

26 October 2015 by Paul Dempsey

Have you seen IBM's cheeky, Apple-baiting new commercial for the Watson AI? If not, click here for a creepy sign of how the times are a-changin'.

So, you're back then.

The gag ain't subtle. Big Blue has hired Bob Dylan, Steve Jobs' hero, and the punchline is a pun on Apple's 'Think Different' slogan. Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen, 'tis instead the time to 'out-think'.

It is, at face value, a fine chuckle. After all, didn't Jobs once cast IBM as computing's Great Satan, only for his own company to come to fill the same role? Closed ecosystems and strong-armed margins - which Valley behemoth would you most immediately associate with those today?

But as much as IBM is having a wry dig at its late nemesis, what's equally interesting is how the campaign gleefully steals from Jobs' marketing playbook.

"It has to say, 'Hello,'" Jobs bellowed at the team, before the original Mac launch. Ridley Scott's famous TV commercial promoted a PC that would break totalitarian tech shackles and set mankind free. Back with Steve, he repeated quoted Dylan to explain his ambitions.

But perhaps even more significant than all that was the idea that the front of the Macintosh looked like a person with a slightly goofy grin: a design that specifically aimed to give the computer a human face.

IBM has much the same goal here for Watson. But it diverges in that the Macintosh was about making it easier for the masses to do computing, whereas Watson now wants to convince you and me to let it do the computing for us. And it's fine and dandy because that big box has a 'human' side. It can chew the fat with Bob.

Are your teeth itching too?

I woke up this morning to read two pieces by writers I greatly enjoy, both looking at how very far we are from effective regulatory and consultative frameworks for the kind of AI-based complex systems that boast Watson as the poster child.

My E&T colleague Chris Edwards digs into the lack of appropriate legal redress when large companies neglect the use and protection of personal data. Meanwhile, Paul Mason, Channel 4's Economic Editor and Guardian columnist, sounds the alarm over progress towards smart cities (and highlights a smart response from Madrid City Hall).

As slick and witty as it is, humanizing campaigns like that under way for Watson seek to convince the public that debate and legislation around the growing encroachment of complex IT systems are unnecessary. Trust the friendly machine.

Yet hardly a week goes by without revelations of hacks like TalkTalk or the abuse of personal data. The AIs are not to blame - even Watson lacks such nefarious autonomy - but if you want to make sure their owners and attackers are properly controlled, society has only one usable tool: effectively discussed and enacted regulation. To borrow a phrase: trust but verify.

Plenty of commentators are saying this, more with each passing day. And the likes of Bill Gates and Elon Musk have gone further, seeking to raise the AI debate to an existential level. It is almost inevitable that industry should be pushing the 'cute and cuddly' button in response. But don't buy it.

The Watson ads are an example of spin, expertly crafted and even entertaining spin. But they should still have your Jon Stewart-installed BS detector bonging like the Intel chimes.

One final thought. Wouldn't it be cool if we could get a really famous protest singer to join the bandwagon for digital awareness? My first choice troubadour is however otherwise engaged. Pity. We can't leave the answers here blowin' in the wind.

Edited: 26 October 2015 at 05:50 AM by Paul Dempsey

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 26 October 2015 04:51 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Steve Jobs enters Aaron Sorkin's reality distortion field

19 October 2015 by Paul Dempsey

British director Danny Boyle has made some great movies. Steve Jobs will likely join the likes of Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire. But it ain't perfect.

As a biopic of a transformative figure, it rightly oozes class. Yes, Michael Fassbender looks nothing like Jobs but, yes, his performance is so nuanced, so physically and vocally precise that you totally suspend your disbelief. It helps that Kate Winslet (marketing guru and Jobs confidant Joanna Hoffman), Seth Rogen (Steve Wozniak), and Jeff Daniels (John Sculley) are also superb.

Best of the lot is Michael Stuhlbarg as Andy Hertzfeld, a key player on the original Macintosh and frequent target of Jobs' barbs and bullying (though, one could ask, who wasn't?) It's a smaller role, but also the one that gives the best sense of what it must have been like to try and function within the reality distortion field.

Boyle meanwhile gets plenty of chance to show that he is both a fine actors' director and visual stylist, even within a narrowly confined set-up.

But then we come to the inevitable dramatic licence, and with that Aaron Sorkin's script. Basically, the film's success as a real portrait of Jobs comes down to whether you feel the writing 'style' is wrongly battling to dominate a considerable and mostly laudable amount of 'substance'.

Sorkin's best-known work is The West Wing, though he also did an excellent job telling the story of another controversial but transformative innovation, Facebook, in The Social Network. Still let's get back to The West Wing.

Fans and even casual viewers of the show will know that its signature moments were the 'walk and talks': White House staffers pounding the corridors and propounding exposition, fomenting or resolving conflict and genuinely looking very, very, very attractively stressed. Everyone is incredibly articulate and witty in a way that is thoroughly entertaining but at many removes from real life. Steve Jobs amps that to 11.

The set-up makes this inevitable. The film conflates its portrayal of Jobs into three product launches - the Macintosh (1984), the NeXT educational computer (1988) and the iMac (1998) - at their various venues. During each, Jobs becomes Scrooge, effectively haunted by Woz, Hertzfeld, Sculley, his former partner Chrisann Brennan (an also excellent Katherine Waterston) and/or his daughter Lisa (played over different ages by three excellent young actors).

So from a Wing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to the multiple wings, dressing rooms, backstage and fronts-of-house of various theatres. This now becomes something of a straitjacket. There's a moment towards the end when Fassbender has a line that almost acknowledges as much (I won't ruin what it is, but you'll spot it easily).

As a means of constructing a piece of popular but insightful entertainment, the formula mostly works. But when it doesn't, you are taken right out of the film to a place one might call iSorkin.

Meanwhile, the conflations the model requires mean that the film sometimes plays too loosely with the record - a greater danger when so many of the participants are still alive. Events that didn't occur at launches have to be brought into them. Fair enough, perhaps. But more controversially, Woz, while supportive of the film, has said at least one critical scene never happened - indeed, that the tension which drives it did not really involve Jobs but a favour asked of someone else.

In the film, Jobs and Woz have a row in the main auditorium before the iMac's launch in front of most of Apple's marketing staff. What Woz wants - and it's a theme threaded through the film - is for the team behind Apple II to get on-stage recognition for their work. In truth, he asked for that during a phone call with John Sculley.

Throughout the film, Rogen's Woz is more confrontational than the real man. Given just how approachable and positive a Silicon Valley genius Woz is, anyone with the most glancing knowledge of him sits there thinking, "But he isn't built like that."

We should note that Woz has accepted the film needed to be more about personalities than getting the facts strictly correct. But it's still one hell of a licence taken.

So, should you see Steve Jobs or will it drive you nuts? Chances are that if you know something about the man from an industry point of view, you will have reservations - ditto if you have that West Wing box-set. But it is still a hugely entertaining 'movie'.

It is perhaps best enjoyed based for once on its sales slogan: "Can a great man be a good man?" As an avatar for those who think different, Fassbender's Jobs gives us someone full of incredible insights but also personality flaws and betrayals that seem to have marked many other historical titans. It asks and answers its generic question well.

However, for a definitive portrayal - or as definitive as we're likely to get - you need to read Walter Isaacson's exhuastive biography.

Steve Jobs is now playing in selected cities in the US, and goes on general release there next Friday (October 23). The film goes on general release in the UK and Ireland on Friday, November 13.

You might also want to check out my review of Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney's documentary: Steve Jobs - The Man in the Machine.

Edited: 19 October 2015 at 01:48 AM by Paul Dempsey

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 19 October 2015 12:15 AM     General     Comments (0)  

We need to talk about snoopin'

14 October 2015 by Paul Dempsey

I usually can't stand reality TV but Channel 4's Hunted has piqued my interest. As an expat, I haven't seen it though the premise sounds fascinating: can members of the general public evade a team of surveillance experts for 28 days? It plugs into a debate we should be having, but aren't.

The ideas behind Hunted already fuel a number of TV dramas. In the US, ratings hits Scorpion and The Blacklist, as well as newcomers Blindspot and The Player, feature IT gurus in the way that physical forensic scientists were once mainstays of police procedurals. CSI has gone but the brand lives on in CSI: Cyber.

And there is Person of Interest where ubiquitous surveillance is the main theme and raison d'etre for two leading 'characters', the autonomous intelligences that are Samaritan and The Machine.

From bite marks to bytes marked, then.

But for all these earlier series' contemporary trappings, viewers tend to see their cyber-elements as science-fiction. Even in the case of Scorpion, where inspiration comes from the exploits of real technological crimefighters.

'Reality' is what could make Hunted more influential in terms of how digital surveillance fits into UK society. The blurb says its trackers cannot just draw upon location data (ATMs, credit/debit cards, phone GPS and GSM triangulation, etc) but also social media profiles to analyze behaviour.

We've often been told that the UK has the densest CCTV coverage in the world, but a programme like Hunted illustrates what that means in practice. Add in the capabilities of other digital tools and only the wilfully ignorant could fail to spot an important point the show makes. 'They' really can do this stuff.

(Meanwhile up also pops Edward Snowden - a man who provokes tremendous ambivalence - to tell Panorama about GCHQ's mobile phone 'Smurfs' that he claims can track movements and listen in on conversations.)

Disturbing. But before we get worked up about assaults on civil liberties, there is another side to consider. It's still a time more for jaw-jaw than war-war.

Bombs used in the 11-M terrorist attacks on Madrid were activated by anonymous 'burner' cellphones. Since then, Spain has required anyone buying a SIM card to provide identification and extended its surveillance capabilities. Unwarranted intrusions?

At home, one of Fusilier Lee Rigby's murderers discussed his intentions months before the heinous act on Facebook. That remains an understandable source of tension between the security services and the social media company.

And it's not just terrorism. Only yesterday, The Guardian reported that GBP20m of the estimated GBP65m stolen by cybercriminals using the Dridex malware hijack left British bank accounts. Meanwhile, a new format for UK crime reporting is expected to feature 'Cyber' near the top of the list.

The problem is not surveillance or tracking. It is making these technologies fit into a societally-acceptable acceptable risk/reward equation.

We want to preserve our freedoms even as we accomplish more everyday activities and personal interactions online. But we also want to be 'safe'. One of the great deterrents to criminality has always been a policing framework that tries to make potential perpetrators conclude there is an massive likelihood they will be caught - preferably before they carry out their plans but equally if they do.

A truism? Certainly. But it raises a question few of us are trying to address. Where does the balance between privacy and security lie in a liberal but ever more digital democracy?

We cannot leave this to politicians and the security services. It isn't just some digital land-grab that we have to fear. The politicians are not sure what's best themselves. More bad law emerges from ignorance than conspiracy.

Prime Minister David Cameron has called for greater discussion and implementation of cybersecurity at every level. I don't think he's done that disingenuously. The White House has acknowledged an inherent tension between national security and the need for personal and corporate security. Are you happy for that to be resolved by the men in the shadows, even though they will indeed talk a lot of sense?

Should a programme like Hunted get more people demanding and engaged in a national debate, surely that's for the better. And if only because, to add another log, any digital security framework can only survive in a democracy if there is informed consent - 'informed' being the critical word.

Sorry to tug your coat for a while but bear with one final infodump from the latest headlines.

Last week, US Federal Judge James Orenstein pushed the pause button on a government request to oblige Apple to unlock a customer's iPhone. Apple and Washington's watchers have recently come to loggerheads over Cupertino's move to offer greater phone-based security on its products (although the one that features in the case runs an earlier version of iOS that does not include all these features).

Judge Orenstein's position is, officially, that Apple must demonstrate why compliance would be "unduly burdensome". However, as explained in this article from The Washington Post, his actions have been interpreted as another attempt to broaden the security debate within the legal community and US civil society.

Yes, we need to talk about snoopin'. More of us are saying that but the majority needs to start listening. Back in Blighty, you can begin by simply turning on the telly. I hear Hunted is a lot of fun too.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 14 October 2015 12:59 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Apple cuts to core of privacy issues

30 September 2015 by Paul Dempsey

Apple's revamp of its security policy is as welcome as it is overdue - and not just on Apple's part but across the consumer market. Tim Cook and team have enhanced their company's standing while raising needling contrasts with rivals, and not just in terms of data protection but also business models.

Before going further, let's remember that any technology supplier's attitude to privacy requires continuous scrutiny, even those of companies like Apple that appear to be striving for transparency.

Nevertheless Apple has set benchmarks this week that others will rightly be pressed to match. They fall in three categories.

1. Apple has stated its privacy policy in plain English, rather than a***-covering legalese. The main portal can be found here. Whether you own any Apple stuff or not, you should take the time to read it. It's very clear and won't take long.

2. The company has taken steps with regard to the architecture of its hardware and apps to encrypt and/or obfuscate personal data. For example, HealthKit data is stored on devices, secured by a user-set encryption key; map searches are obfuscated by splitting full directions into multiple anonymized slices of a journey.

3. Apple has given a commitment not to sell on personal data. This potentially opens a pallet of cans of worms for Internet economics.

On the first two points, Apple is in part building on its reputation, one it has nurtured over three decades. Since the Macintosh said, "Hello", the company has sought to become the technological byword for reliability, ease-of-use and, by extension, trustworthiness.

Then in another respect, Apple is just moving with the times. 'Snowden' is cited as having alerted the public to privacy issues, after years of willful ignorance. But beyond that, most technology suppliers have long known that some event would eventually wake up the public. Either way, a clear agenda has been set and Apple has been first to deliver a clear response.

But the sharp end to all this is that third commitment: Apple will not monetize your data.

It is, at first glance, a laudable commitment. But it also happens to be one that fits Apple's business model. The company makes money by selling hardware and by controlling the portals that sell software and services into that hardware.

That's not how Google makes money.

Indeed, that's not how huge tracts of the Internet make money. The individual targeting, aggregated analysis and global trafficking of user data is a massive global business.

The old adage says that if you can't see what the product is, chances are the product is you. That's a simplification in this case. Instead, so much of the Internet is 'free' because in fact the data you provide by visiting sites and using online services is what pays for them. What most people don't realise (or perhaps, one should say, acknowledge) is that even though no money changes hands, a transaction still takes place.

Again, Apple can stand largely apart from that business model while, as noted, poking its biggest and other competitors in the eye with its pointy privacy stick.

But so what. It is hard to unpick the whole monetization issue from broader concerns about privacy anyway, and a serious public debate about the monetization of user data is long overdue.

After all, it's one in which all sides face important issues. Yes, you too as a user. For example, would you consider paying real money for non-Apple Internet services you currently get for free, if a similar 'no-data-sale' commitment was offered in return? That's a justifiable question consumers must answer before more fingers get wagged at Internet companies.

You suspect that before we even get that far, Apple's rivals will wiggle and squirm over mimicking even the first two parts of its program. Plenty of lawyers won't like this one bit either. Tough - it is an important step forward and with Apple throwing its weight behind these issues, they won't be fading away.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 30 September 2015 06:43 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Xi and Modi face more sceptical tech reception

24 September 2015 by Paul Dempsey

As so often with major political events, the theatre disguises the truth. So it is with the high-profile visits of Chinese president Xi Jinping and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi to the US West Coast.

Xi appears to have kicked off his state visit to the US by snapping the ultimate tech titan photo. Assembled for a Seattle summit, the CEOs/founders of AirBnB, AMD, Apple, Cisco Systems, Facebook, IBM, Intel, Linkedin, Microsoft, Qualcomm and Yahoo mingle with both the Chinese premier and their sino-counterparts at companies as Alibaba, Tencent and Lenovo.

Modi, meanwhile, will get the rock star treatment when he addresses 17,000 Indian expatriates at San Jose's SAP Center this weekend (40,000 applied for tickets). He also has meetings set with the CEOs of Google, Microsoft and Tesla Motors, among others.

At first glance, it seems hi-tech's wooing of the two world leaders continues much as before. Well, the ambitions remain. China is the world's second largest economy; India is its second largest democracy; and both have fast-growing middle classes as well as substantial bases of engineering talent.

But the last year has taken much of the sheen off their attractions.

The US and China are openly at loggerheads over hacking. Setting aside attacks on the Federal Government, many technology companies believe that have been victims of digital industrial espionage originating in the Middle Kingdom.

But one issue - the ease of doing business - links often enduringly sceptical attitudes to both China and India.

On this visit, Xi's public comments specifically supported US-China trade treaties that would make cross-investments easier and create more transparent working arrangements for both countries' subsidiaries in the other.

A large part of Modi's visit aims to send the same message. Moreover, he aims to imply that the business climate in India is now so good that it is time some of its expats came home and that some of the Valley's venture capital funds piled in.

Problem: not just the US but much of the world's inward investment community generally has heard this before. And right now, the evidence that the two leaders can come through on their commitments is a bit shaky.

Xi has unquestionably sought to stamp out corruption, reassert the authority of the Communist Party and portray a confident and fast growing China. His US visit comes shortly after the massive 70th anniversary Beijing celebration of Japan's defeat. Modi is an incredibly popular leader at home and beyond that, a man once barred from entering the US is now seen as a key ally, placing massive defence orders with Boeing.

But by some of the broader benchmarks that business likes, neither Xi nor Modi has achieved much of late. All the data points to a slowing Chinese economy but perhaps more to the point, there was the recent turmoil on local stock markets. Very little western money was at stake - investment restrictions again - but the chaotic see-sawing suggested to some that Beijing does not have as much mastery of the economy as it likes to suggest.

Modi's earlier commitments have largely been about stamping out corruption (arguably as endemic, if not more prevalent in India) and cutting through red tape. Yet his progress on both fronts seems to have got bogged down in, well, bureaucracy. Ironically, just as Modi landed in the US, India's competition authority revealed that it was still a good while off ruling on an anti-trust complaint against Google.

For most leaders, the foreign trip aimed at drumming up business is no big deal. Indeed, Chancellor George Osborne is enthusiastically shilling for Blighty right now in China. The question is one of balance - the pitch always lands truer if you have something to offer as well. Right now, Xi and Modi find themselves in the unusual position of being seen as much as salesman as customers, whether or not they realise as much.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 24 September 2015 10:50 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Steve Jobs - The Man in the Machine

9 September 2015 by Paul Dempsey

Steve Jobs is the subject of two high-profile films this autumn. The hype has so far surrounded Danny Boyle's eponymous biopic starring Michael Fassbender. But before that arrives, Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney is offering his take in Steve Jobs - The Man in the Machine.

News that Jobs and Apple had fallen under Gibney's gaze was apparently the source of more concern in Cupertino than the prospect of the company's founder headlining a second dramatic feature in as many years (the first Jobs biopic, starring Ashton Kutcher, came and quickly went in 2013).

Gibney is not just America's most prolific filmmaker - the Jobs documentary is his third major work this year - but also the country's iconoclast-in-chief. His recent subjects have included Scientology (Going Clear), Lance Armstrong (The Armstrong Lie), Wikileaks (We Steal Secrets) and the Catholic Church (Mea Maxima Culpa). All have taken a fair - and many would say deserved - bruising from the director.

Like his great predecessor Jessica Mitford, Gibney sees muckraking as a gentle art. His films avoid hysteria and excessive commentary. Instead, they allow facts and interviews to accumulate into often devastating portraits. This approach has usually served Gibney well so it's no surprise that he applies it to Jobs.

The financial cheating of Steve Wozniak and Daniel Kottke as well as Jobs' attempts to deny paternity of his first child comprise early layers. We revisit the bullying of staff and partners, and Gibney progressively adds to the charge-sheet through to the controversies that dogged Jobs' final years: share option backdating; suicides at contract manufacturer Foxconn; offshore tax avoidance schemes; and the moronically poisonous threat to criminalise Gizmodo journalists over a leaked iPhone.

It's all there. But this time, that becomes part of the problem.

Factually, the film offers virtually nothing new or at least not widely known. Even if you don't account for Walter Isaacson's comprehensive biography, Jobs and the company he founded have probably been subject to more journalistic scrutiny than any other individual or enterprise this century. And that process began well before Jobs' death.

To be fair, Gibney frames his documentary as not so much an attempt to understand and read Jobs personally as our responses to him and his products. Why did his death affect so many people? Why are so many of us huge, almost slavish fans of Apple hardware? These are valid questions that you could address by approaching the existing canon in a new way. If you can't add facts, add insights.

Yet while one of the few big-name Apple insiders who did agree to go before Gibney's cameras is a man who could deepen our understanding of this 'genius', it forms virtually no part of the interview. Gibney talks to Silicon Valley marketing titan and long-time Jobs mentor Regis McKenna but the mechanics and strategy that the man applied to selling himself, his company and its products hardly feature. Surely that subject goes to the heart of the public's attitudes toward Jobs and Apple, and how they were nurtured?

This shortcoming is emblematic of what becomes an increasingly unsatisfying film. There are other missed opportunities along the way in favour of digressions to simply follow the record.

For someone coming to Apple and Jobs cold - and the documentary has been made for the generalist audience of CNN - The Man in the Machine tells a brisk and accurate tale but fails to achieve the depth and insight of Gibney's best work. Meanwhile, those who have followed Apple even but relatively closely will recognise the song but find the performance proficient and empty.

Steve Jobs - The Man in the Machine is currently on a limited US release in theatres and via digital download. CNN, its main producer, is expected to add the film to its global broadcast schedules later this year.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 09 September 2015 07:59 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Jeff didn't recognise that Amazon. Sadly, I kinda did.

18 August 2015 by Paul Dempsey

The New York Times' dissection of Amazon's corporate innards shouldn't have come across as that much of a surprise. The article depicts the logical result of a business culture we have even celebrated while ignoring its likely consequences. Seen this way, Amazon is just the company that's gotten fingered (though, given no-one's really disputing the Times' findings, it still deserves as much).

But let's get back to the bigger picture.

Don't we all chuckle at sackings on The Apprentice and salivate at takedowns on Dragon's Den? Vaudeville lives.

Then, what happy memories we have ourselves. Those multi-day code-slinging sessions. Those determined trawls through darkest Peru in search of decent WiFi while on holiday. 'Vacation is for losers,' we chortled, at the time.

And yes Steve Jobs was a bit of a *****, but without his drive, the products wouldn't be half as good, would they? I mean, would they?

I genuinely believe that extremes and aggression have an important role to play in most working environments. But their role should be exceptional. It should be a one-off anecdote about the need for a crazy, apparently non-stop brainstorming session. Or a rare-but-productive 'difference of opinion'.

The Times' story on Amazon - and also other recent exposes about high technology's culture, particularly its treatment of women - doesn't show anything like that. It shows extremes that have become systemic.

For me, the most damning part of the article was not found in the various examples of highly suspect behaviour. It was the revelation that Amazon has a human resources app - the Anytime Feedback Tool - that encourages staff to anonymously criticise their colleagues.

Yup, Amazon's performance review process is heavily and systemically informed by an in-house version of Secret, perhaps the most spectacularly misguided social media launch of recent times. Although at least Secret CEO David Byttow concluded that his app was vulnerable to malicious usage and shut the damn thing down.

So far, the best Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has to offer is that he doesn't recognise the general nastiness depicted by the Times. OK, I can probably understand that with regard to the article's multiple anecdotes - no boss can know every worker's story in a company as big as Amazon. But again, we have to come back to the HR system that is in place.

Because if we then take the statement at face value, we have Bezos, unquestionably an exceptionally bright and innovative guy, who either (a) was unaware that his HR department was running a programme that even a kid could see was open to serious abuse or (b) knew about the programme but lacked the nous to see what even a kid could. Either of those options suggests a blind spot in otherwise considerable CEO skills about the size of, well, Australia.

But let's not simply hammer Amazon. It is not the only company with a culture that appears to have been dictated by bumptious no-marks who repeatedly cite Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, Ayn Rand and Trump: The Art of the Deal - though who have usually read only the wrong two.

Macho posturing, creative conflict and all those other hallmarks of 'BS Bingo - The MBA Edition' are not new. I've heard managers from a lot of companies other than Amazon celebrate their value - and, as I said, I can see that where they are the exception rather than the rule. But I'm aware of too many tales from the other side - the employees on whom such 'values' have been imposed - to know that isn't always the case.

Similarly, continuous but properly informed staff assessments show a management fully engaged with its responsibilities. Untreated metrics topped up with gossip and effluent from some inevitable and predictable gaming of the system constitute - you guessed it - sewage.

So, before we launch boycotts and such in response to this display of Amazon's soiled linen, it's worth remembering that the flaws we often have ourselves are best illustrated when we see and recoil from them in others.

Let's be honest, high technology workers often like to think of themselves as tough, committed and always willing to go that extra mile. But shouldn't we also be careful not to go that step too far.

Edited: 18 August 2015 at 09:54 AM by Paul Dempsey

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 18 August 2015 07:40 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Social media's turn to sweat

16 July 2015 by Paul Dempsey

I've just spent six weeks or so deprived of social media. Not by choice. Recovering from a traffic accident and nasty eye injury enforced my cyberlayoff. But there was nevertheless something strangely pleasant about it all. The world became a much simpler and far less vicious place when my main information conduits were the radio and a side order of TV. And more important, much easier to understand.

Who really needed Twitter or LinkedIn or Facebook to conclude that much of the EU is both mathematically and economically illiterate, that the Republican Party's attempt to find a Presidential candidate is verging on farce, or that China's stock markets had become accidents waiting to happen?

But then there was one other trend that traditional media covered with some relish. Social media itself seems to be going through its own potentially existential paroxysms.

Both Twitter and Reddit have just been forced to bring back founders as CEOs. The transgender issues raised by Caitlyn Jenner have left Facebook's 'real names only' policy looking inadequate and discriminatory. Secret is dead and buried (though Yik Yak lumbers on). Uber is getting a reputation for price gouging after serious rates hikes during a recent Australian hostage crisis and the London Tube strike.

At both Twitter and Reddit specifically, there are now suggestions that the businesses are struggling to deliver on some fundamental promises. In Twitter's case, founder Jack Dorsey was recalled and CEO Dick Costolo ousted because the platform is not felt to be monetizing itself quickly enough. However, the case of Reddit is even more bizarre.

In the last month, the company has lost three executives, all of them women. First, Victoria Taylor, organizer of the site's popular 'AMA' Q&A sessions, was fired. Outrage among the largely user-managed Reddit base built with CEO Ellen Pao as its target - and when an egregious Reddit dedicated to mocking the obese was shut down, the abuse toward Pao intensified. Now she's also gone. But before you put that all down to pitchforks and torches, there's a twist.

Because Pao was quickly followed by chief engineer Bethanye Blount, who had only been in place for about two months. And here's the catch. Both Blount and Pao basically pointed to Reddit's business plan and said, "N'ah. Not happening."

Pao to Re/code on Reddit's growth potential and the board's objectives: "They had a more aggressive view than I did."

Blount to Re/code on Reddit's relationship with its 'community': "Along the way, there are some very aggressive implied promises being made to the community - in comments to mods, quotes from board members - and they're going to have some pretty big challenges in meeting those implied promises."

Elsewhere, Reddit insiders - including another former CEO, Yishan Wong - have been suggesting that Pao had nothing to do with Taylor's dismissal or the company's moves to close down some of its more offensive backwaters.

This is dynamite stuff, and Reddit specifically has been wounded in ways that some commentators believe put it beyond help. The twin struggles that it faces though are common to most social media.

How are these companies to maintain the 'freewheeling' and 'community' qualities that have made them popular, when they also seem to encourage genuinely appalling behaviour (and Reddit's back streets and alleyways ain't nice, believe me)? And how, having opened the user Pandora's box, are they then also to make money from those users?

This tension has been with the social media sector for more than a decade. MySpace arrived in 2003 and Facebook in 2004. But until now, it has been brushed aside. There was always a new market to attack - most notably, the shift from the PC to mobile - or a new feature to add. There may still be a few more, but they're not big enough to hide the unspoken secret anymore.

Right now Reddit and to a significant degree Twitter are undergoing tribulations that suggest the game is well and truly up.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 16 July 2015 12:08 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Why the FIFA indictments matter for all globalised industries

28 May 2015 by Paul Dempsey

A clean-out of football's rancid stable is overdue. FIFA, the sport's governing body, has been dogged by well-researched accusations of corruption for years, yet no legal authority seemed willing or able to act upon them until now. But the notion that this week's US and Swiss criminal indictments and investigations are solely about cleaning up an ugly game should be dispelled. From Washington, a message is also being sent to every major international industry, including ours.

FIFA's official motto is, 'For the Game. For the World'. In the light of events, it should maybe change that to 'Pour encourager les autres'. Because it is certainly being made an example in terms of US federal law's ability to indict corruption anywhere on the planet. A company or entity need touch upon just one aspect of American commercial infrastructure in any dodgy dealings to find itself in the purview of the Department of Justice.

US companies and citizens operating overseas have known as much for a while. A story here will illustrate that (No names, no pack drill though for what will become obvious reasons).

An American friend was recently working in a certain subcontinental nation where his company - also from the US - was building a new site. Things were going well but as basic construction work neared completion, the facility had still to be connected to any utilities in the capacity necessary for full operation. "Ah well," he was basically told, "you'll have to sort that out with these chaps at the local power and water offices." No prizes for guessing what 'sort that out' really meant (indeed this is a sadly still-common example of graft in that country).

Once upon a time, companies and their executives would mutter, "Well, I suppose that's how they do business here" and stuff a suitcase. The need to bribe local officials was something you left behind when you finished your posting. The legality of it all was a concern for local authorities, and they seemed to turn a blind eye to such practices anyway.

Today, American executives are more circumspect and most simply won't go there. Now, US law on corruption means that they can be charged at home over corruption offences committed overseas.

So, how did my friend get out of a bind? Simple, he referenced up to head office. Shortly after, the appropriate utility connections were made. And he likes to think that strong words were exchanged at high level between HQ and various government bodies.

He likes to think that... but he was also careful not to ask too many questions. 'Wise monkeys', 'plausible deniability', 'watching your back' - take your pick.

Still, things have changed, most would say for the better. US citizens know the risk-reward balance for global corruption has swung significantly back in favour of plain dealing. But what about the rest of us?

That question brings us back to the DoJ's FIFA indictments. Again, the cited corruption largely involved events that took place beyond US borders, including tournaments in South America and the voting process for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. US citizens are among those charged, most notably former FIFA Executive Committee member Chuck Blazer. So far, so akin to my friend's concerns.

But the scope of the DoJ's actions against FIFA executives reaches much further.

Of the 14 defendants indicted this week (a further four accused have already entered guilty pleas), most are not American. Other nationalities include Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, Venezuela and the UK. Meanwhile, FIFA is based in Switzerland.

These charges additionally illustrate the US' ability to act not only against its own citizens and corporations but also in the context of an often-mocked - but very real - guise as a kind of 'World Police'. "Cross the line," the DoJ seems to be saying, "and we can get to just about anyone, anywhere."

There are many reasons why the US has gone after FIFA hard. Ambitious prosecutors love high profile cases that will further their legislative and political careers (much of the early running on FIFA was done by the newly installed Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, in the run-up to her appointment by President Obama). Also whatever might be being said officially, the US did not take well its defeat in the 2022 World Cup bidding to Qatar.

But issues of cross-border malfeasance and the global reach of US law are also hugely important. In just the last few months, the DoJ has been increasingly flexing its muscles in this context against non-US companies and individuals (just ask UBS or Schlumberger). By now going after FIFA, it has popped it pecs in a way that clearly demonstrates the extent of its powers to the vast majority of the world's population - those millions of souls who don't give a stuff about exchange rates or sanctions (a good definition of 'engineer', wouldn't you say?).

Still, there's a clear trend here.

Corruption will never go away. Corruption law is often described as a game of Whack-A-Mole, an endless battle to introduce new legislation as quickly as the naughty find ways around that which exists. And we should all be somewhat wary of holding up Washington DC as a bastion of honest dealing - it's very much a city of both angels and devils.

But look at it this way. The DoJ has nevertheless gone after a high-profile multi-billion dollar enterprise operating in 209 countries and delivering a product used by most of the world's population. Do you seriously think it isn't putting every globalised industry on notice?

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 28 May 2015 05:20 AM     General     Comments (0)  

US legislation seeds space mining

26 May 2015 by Paul Dempsey

When Alien attempted to give us a 'realistic' version of man's future in space in the late 1970s, it put the crew on the Nostromo mining tug rather than having them boldly go proselytizing liberal altruism. Last week, the US House of Representatives passed legislation that plumped for Ridley Scott's free-market vision, hopefully minus any xenomorphs.

The more immediately eye-catching measures in the House's 2015 SPACE Act address space tourism and other earth-orbit commercial launches. But looking beyond the next decade, the act also sets a 'first-dibs' provision on minerals and other substances mined from asteroids.

Long-standing international agreements - most notably, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty - forbid any particular country claiming ownership of a heavenly body. Those Stars & Stripes on the Moon really were just about bragging rights. But the new US legislation states that what a private company takes away from one of those bodies, it can keep.

"Any asteroid resources obtained in outer space are the property of the entity that obtained such resources, which shall be entitled to all property rights thereto, consistent with applicable provisions of Federal law," the Act states.

We are still a way off such mining taking place. We can make educated guesses that some asteroids will contain precious metals on a, well, galactic scale compared to down here. But as well as developing technologies for extracting and transporting these materials, today's putative space-mining players only have comparatively rudimentary surveys of the asteroids themselves. Detailed commercial surveys could take years to conduct.

In that context, the SPACE acronym points to what the legislation really aims to do: Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (our italics).

For space tourism, the Act extends the requirement that the US Federal Aviation Administration extends an existing light-touch approach to regulation to 2025. The likes of SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are still ascending the learning curve for all their achievements... and disappointments. In the light of last year's loss of Virgin's SpaceShipTwo, the Act also clarifies insurance liabilities. The message to companies here is, 'Keep on investing.'

By contrast for space mining, the first-dibs philosophy really is about seeding a much more fledgling market. There are two aspects to that.

First, space-mining companies had already been looking to Washington for legislation that would encourage them to push their research to the next stage and help them attract more investment.

For example, the highest profile space mining company is Planetary Resources, which includes Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt and film director James Cameron among its angel investors. With an eye to the surveying challenge, its focus to date has been orbital telescopes. Its Arkyd-100 satellite is scheduled to launch into Earth orbit later this year.

However, Arkyd-100 was largely crowdfunded by $1.5m (£866,000) raised on Kickstarter. The sums needed for actual mining will dwarf that, and their sources will need to be more traditional.

Second, there is China.

The Middle Kingdom's expanding space programme has consistently cited mining as one of the more important end-goals. To that end, it is well advanced in preparations for the 2017 launch of its Chang'e 5 sample return mission to the Moon.

One declared Chinese objective for Chang'e 5 is to examine the probe's lunar samples for helium-3, touted as the Holy Grail for fusion reactors and a potentially formidable power source even if can only be transported back in small quantities. Earth's upper atmosphere prevents significant helium-3 accumulations on our own planet, but China is betting that major deposits are available close to the Moon's surface.

The SPACE Act's 'first come, first served' aspects do not specifically crimp its rival's ambitions, but they do play to a feeling in Washington that the US was wrong-footed when China went on its drive to acquire vast quantities of earthbound resources in Africa and South America during the last decade. In space, the US aims to be more competitive.

There is a long way to go in every sense. Just in terms of legislation, the US Senate has its own SPACE Bill under review, and this would currently give the tourism industry only a five-year window before FAA regulation is tightened - a major bone of contention for companies like SpaceX.

But even if we are well over a decade away from seeing the first mining flights, Washington may have provided the impetus for a broad-based influx of engineering R&D funds in fields such as robotics, analytics, avionics and more. Even where such areas can leverage existing technology, significant extra innovation will be essential to make space-mining commercially achievable.

Another small step perhaps, but this time it may be what's needed for a giant leap afterwards.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 26 May 2015 05:39 AM     General     Comments (0)  

General Election 2015: The pollsters' turn to go back to basics

13 May 2015 by Paul Dempsey

There is a saying in politics, 'Elections are not won, they are lost.' This view might help explain why another of today's vaunted e-politics technologies, opinion polls, just got the UK general election result so badly wrong.

The theory is actually based on Britain's political track record. If enough voters are basically satisfied with their lot, chances are they will stick with the incumbent governing party even though they may have concerns about parts of its platform. Overcoming the power of such incumbency is a tough task for any party, never mind one that runs as narrow a campaign as Labour.

What any opposition really needs behind it is a prevailing wind saying, 'It's time to throw these so-and-sos out.' The overall public mood toward the Coalition in 2015 certainly did not match the antipathy obvious towards either Labour in 2010 or the Conservatives in 1997.

Funnily enough, signs that the Conservative Party could achieve victory based on the benefits of incumbency were there in the polling data, all along - just not in the raw voting preferences.

First, polls consistently showed that voters had more confidence in David Cameron as the country's leader and in the Conservatives as the best party for the economy (a huge plus given the ongoing recovery). It's a very rare election where the winning party does not score highest on at least one of those metrics, particularly the economy.

Second, there was clear evidence - but especially from the numbers out of ComRes - that voting preferences were still very fluid as late as the week before the election itself, with up to 40% of those intending to vote either undecided or acknowledging that they could change preference.

When that applies there is a strong chance that much of the electorate will swing back to the incumbent in the voting booth. If the opposition has not made a convincing case by that late stage, time has basically run out.

Moreover, during an economic recovery or any other major crisis, there is the powerful and well-documented non-partisan/swing-voter fear of "changing horses in mid-stream" (significantly, a campaign mantra repeated by George W. Bush when he also defied the polls and increased his party's vote in his successful 2004 US Presidential campaign).

How then did the pollsters so badly underestimate the power of incumbency because they have all long known about it and tended to weight their analysis accordingly?

One cause appears to have been the pollsters' assumption that Britain had decisively shifted away from traditional two-party politics. The government was coming out of a coalition that had held together remarkably well for five years and voters were thought to still favour the idea of some power broker mediating the 'excesses' of either Labour or the Conservatives. So, incumbency's value to the Conservatives was weighted down.

There are two problems with that.

First, the 2010 election was very much an exception rather than the norm. Notwithstanding the SNP's astonishing result in Scotland (albeit largely a case of a Labour-plus-Nationalism party displacing Labour itself with a broadly similar ideology), Britons this May voted for the 'certainty' and 'stability' of single-party majority government as they have for most of their recent history.

Second, the junior parties in many a coalition tend to take a hit at any subsequent election even where it has stayed the course and is not part of a demonstrably toxic administration. And it's the larger partner that is often the greatest beneficiary. Here too, the Liberal Democtras' result conformed to the historical model, particularly given where its votes came from five years ago.

The 2010 LibDem vote was made up of arguably four overlapping components. The party's core supporters. Labour supporters disenchanted with their own party but not willing to switch to the Conservatives. Swing/centre-right voters who were not yet convinced that the Conservatives had "improved" sufficiently since their last time in government. And a significant number swayed by the Lib-Dem pledge on tuition fees.

Repudiating the tuition fee pledge did serious damage across at least three of those groups, but it's also almost certainly the case that many of those wavering LibDem/Tory voters also then went back to the Conservatives on the grounds that their concerns in 2010 had been resolved. That the Conservatives would eat into at least as much if not more of the LibDem vote as Labour was entirely predictable. Voters didn't change horse, but they did chuck away a couple of saddlebags.

Now add in the fact that polling and market research in general are becoming more difficult. It bears repeating that we live in times where the public is less willing than it arguably ever has been to offer any kind of personal information to a man or woman with a clipboard or on the telephone.

The pollsters will come forward with some nifty new trends - and hello again all you 'shy Tories' - to explain away their mistakes. A traditional reading of the data suggests however that their errors were fundamental, and that they perhaps were far more addicted to giving the election a tense narrative than was ever justified. This time it's the pollsters who need to go back to basics.

The shock in 2015 is that there weren't really any shocks at all once the polling stations opened. Britain did what it has usually done.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 13 May 2015 03:22 AM     General     Comments (0)  

UK General Election highlights e-campaigning weaknesses

3 May 2015 by Paul Dempsey

Do you remember how the Internet, profiling and other IT tools were going to revolutionise political campaigning? The evidence from the 2015 UK General Election suggests the current suite of technologies needs a major upgrade.

The last decade has seen a number of analytical software tools deployed by political parties worldwide both upfront on social media and in the background to support their strategies. Notable e-campaigning successes include both of Barack Obama's runs for the White House.

These tools have been claimed to deliver major increases in voter engagement and motivation. They can even dragoon the elusive youth vote for you.

But with less than a week to go until Britain votes and all the major parties deeply engaged with expensive cyberstrategies, here are some uncomfortable numbers.

1. The opinion polls consistently and stubbornly show the two main parties in a statistical dead-heat, as they pretty much have been since the campaign officially began.

2. Last week, a ComRes/Daily Mail poll found that seven days before polling day, 10 million people who intend to vote either hadn't made a choice or could still change their preference. That's 41% of the likely turnout.

3. Less than 50% of eligible UK voters under 35 plan to vote, according to March's edition of the University of Essex's Continuous Monitoring Survey.

Engagement, motivation, youth - you're having a laugh.

These numbers suggest an even more disengaged electorate than that of five years ago. Even given mostly lackluster campaigns from the parties, you might have expected all that burgeoning e-campaigning expertise to quietly influence some general trends. Instead, there's nothing.

What's gone wrong? In one respect, politicians and their handlers are being schooled on some fundamentals about innovation. For those of us in engineering, this might even prove a useful 'teachable moment'.

Two major problems appear to have arisen.

1. The tools are not as easily transferred from one election market to another as some users seem to believe.

2. The innovation cycle for e-campaigning is currently driven by one four-year market, US Presidential Elections. In-between times, the software simply goes stale.

It's hard to pull the two issues apart, so let's rather review the development of e-campaigning as a narrative.

Its roots lie in US Presidential races because those are the most expensive election campaigns on earth and therefore have the greatest R&D resources. When Obama was re-elected in 2012, campaigns for the Presidency and Congress combined spent a staggering $7bn (2012: £4.3bn), according to the US Federal Election Commission. Official numbers for the 2010 UK General Election put comparable spending then at just £74m.

That spending gulf doesn't just affect how much can be spent on tools. It also has a major impact on what the tools are designed to do, the fundamental architectural priorities. In the US, these start with fundraising from core supporters to meet the ginormous price tags. In the UK, the structure of and laws governing party funding for elections are very different, and spending is legally constrained. So, no real overlap there.

However, while both US and UK politics do give priority to turning out core supporters on polling day itself, differences between the systems highlight challenges in how you go further and tap into the swing voters who actually decide elections.

According to the Pew Research Center, the US swing vote is roughly 24% of the electorate. Remember that in the UK today, it's 41%.

A huge amount of effort goes into winning as much of that swing vote as possible wherever the election. Moreover, the IT programmes address that as their next priority. But as UK parties have sought to exploit off-the-shelf US e-campaigning tools they appear to have hit two roadblocks: scale and data collection.

Motivating a Conservative or Labour core voter using the software can work well. After all they are your supporters. You have information on them. They are more open to persuasion and cajoling.

But if you are going to reach out to swing voters, you need to know who they are and that is no easy task, particularly if you want to layer on advanced IT-based profiling.

For example, one myth about the Obama campaign is that it attracted younger supporters almost entirely through the Internet. In fact, the campaign had a ubiquitous presence in colleges. Its door-to-door canvassers were also told to gather names and issues-based data for feeding into the IT system. Youth voters were a priority as part of the 'ground game', but they wanted as many undecideds as they could get. It was a massive combined-real-world/online conversion effort, and that was to target roughly a quarter of voters.

In the UK, the target proportion is much higher. Gathering good data takes time and costs a lot of money, otherwise GIGO. Even across a much smaller voting population, it is hard to see how any of the UK parties could match the expenditure and thereby depth of their US counterparts' work. Remember, any system is only as good as its inputs...

...and its age.

They have been tweaked and given some British characteristics, but the main programmes and systems being used for e-campaigning in the UK are basically four years-old. The innovation cycle is in lock step with US elections, and the next generation of technology will not roll out until 2016. The R&D for those future tools is already underway, and some may be getting a trial run in Blighty. But this is the kind of stuff that US political grandees keep under the heaviest wraps.

Meanwhile, think how much attitudes to the Internet and related e-campaigning techniques like profiling have changed since 2012. The typical voter is more wary of sharing personal data. Even if he or she doesn't entirely understand what is done with that data, discomfort is prevalent - nobody wants to be that close to either their supermarket or their MP.

Strategies that had finesse and real impact for Obama in 2012 are old-hat for Cameron, Miliband or any other leader today. That's just how IT works.

So e-campaigning isn't dead. The lesson from the current British election is that COTS doesn't work with voters, and particularly not obsolete COTS. It's rather time for the UK's political parties to start going their own ways, leverage but not replicate what the US has pioneered, and create tools that more precisely match the nature of our elections and electorate.

We could do it. In the pre-Internet age, it's worth remembering that both the Conservative and Labour parties did at various times build campaigning techniques and technologies that were the envy of Americans - though back then our cousins also struggled to import them back across the Atlantic.

After all, as legendary US House Speaker Tip O'Neill said, "All politics is local." In our digital times, it looks like that goes for innovation as well as policies.

Edited: 03 May 2015 at 02:25 PM by Paul Dempsey

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 03 May 2015 02:15 PM     General     Comments (0)  

How A/C might condition our clumsy response to climate change

30 April 2015 by Paul Dempsey

The air conditioner could soon become the latest villain in the battle against climate change. If it does, it could bring a new regionalism to the debate. Because this time, many in the developed world may well take offence at the sense that their 'betters' are depriving them of a basic technology those betters already have.

First, why is A/C suddenly receiving unwelcome attention.

A report from the University of California, Berkeley has just warned that coupling 2% annual increases in household disposable income with growing consumer concern over rising temperatures could lead global A/C households to rise from 13% today to 70% by the end of this century.

"These are large charges, implying $3bn (£1.95bn) plus in increased annual electricity expenditures and a 23m plus tonne increase in carbon dioxide emissions," the Berkeley study says.

As is so often the case, the forecast for such growth is largely based on growing consumer demand from emerging economies, led by China. The Chinese bought 64m A/C units in 2013 alone.

But one can already sense brows tightening across the Middle Kingdom and its neighbours, particularly India, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Many of us in the West continue to underestimate the extent to which Asian economies - and, more important, their populations - resent what they see as hypocritical lectures about their rates of industrialisation and its consequences. If the goal is to combat climate change, we're going about it the wrong way.

Even as those populations acknowledge the severe environmental challenges they face (and now often blast their own rulers for mismanaging pollution), they compare those challenges to, for example, the murk of various London fogs, the pall that long hung around Los Angeles, and the irony that the Japanese created an enemy for Godzilla actually called the Smog Monster.

Similarly, many in these countries ask why they shouldn't aspire to rates of car ownership that match the US, UK or any other fully built-out modern economy. Or in this case, far more livable living temperatures in often volatile climates.

So far, so familiar. Why should A/C be different?

In the US, installations are as ubiquitous. It's hard to think of a state (Alaska, perhaps) where some kind of cooling system would not feature in a typical new-build house or indeed an existing one. But after that, Asia is already the next 'as standard' market. At the very least, most apartment blocks built in the last three decades feature the external shelving or brackets needed to mount the intake.

Yes, Asia's still rapidly growing middle class will mean that more of those brackets get used and more standard installations are expected. But now let's turn our gaze to Europe.

Think back to when you bought your first house? The vast majority of you never thought of A/C as a deal breaker, I'll wager. A couple of decades ago, the only EU country where I remember a significant number of friends having A/C was Germany... and most of them fitted it because they got a sweet discount off their conglomerate employer.

That's changing. Maybe it's our ongoing consumerism. Maybe it's because the climate is, well, changing and we all want to feel comfortable during more intense summers.

OK. I'm being mischievous again. I thought the data is, in its own right, worth noting. But it does still raise the intriguing prospect of Europe - which through the EU has son an awful lot of lecturing on the environment, suddenly finding itself warning off patronising neighbours.

And that could be useful. Because it might give us all a sense of why that type of environmental finger-wagging doesn't work, and never will. Perhaps a dose of our own mithering will finally help us understand that

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 30 April 2015 04:18 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Can 'The HP Thing' kill Carly Fiorina's presidential bid

23 April 2015 by Paul Dempsey

Carly Fiorina, CEO of Hewlett-Packard from 1999-2005, is expected to go public on May 4 with her bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. She could emerge as a fascinating and serious candidate with a rare background in management, politics and technology. However many observers believe fall-out from her controversial reign at HP will prove politically toxic. I'm not so sure.

Never mind her remarkable achievement in becoming the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company, Fiorina has been dogged for a decade with a post-HP reputation as "one of the worst tech CEOs of all time".

She publicly clashed with the son of founder Bill Hewlett, Walter, over a $19bn (then £13.4bn) merger with rival PC vendor Compaq in 2002. That merger is still seen in some quarters as one of the Noughties most over-the-top M&A deals, usually alongside AOL-Time Warner.

Going further, many HP engineers accuse Fiorina of dismantling 'The HP Way', the venerated innovation framework established by Hewlett and David Packard. Fiorina dumbed down one of technology's best companies and made it an unpleasant place to work, they claim.

And it's true that the gulf between Fiorina and her other HP directors eventually became too great, with her forced resignation eschewing the usual niceties and directly citing "differences about how to execute HP's strategy".

It is a charge sheet, alright. But in political terms, how much of it is likely to stick? And remember I said 'politics'. This isn't a search for the absolute truth.

The Phoney War

Right now, Fiorina is officially on a book tour but with her candidacy an open secret, several journalists have already raised The HP Thing, notably MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski and Carl Leubsdorf of the Dallas Morning News.

Fiorina hit back both times in the rhythm of a prizefighter, telling Leubsdorf specifically:

"The facts of my record are: We doubled the size of the company to almost $90bn. We took it from two-percent growth to nine-percent growth. We tripled the rate of innovation to 11 patents a day. We quadrupled cash flow. We went from market laggard to market leader in every product category and every market segment. And that all happened within the six years that I was there.

"So there's nothing that can be disputed about those numbers. That's the interesting thing about business. The track record and the numbers are clear."

Here's the thing: Fiorina has a point.


The truth is that her signature action, the HP-Compaq merger, did not unravel like that between AOL and Time Warner. Rather, it worked. Eventually. Still, the synergies Fiorina claimed to see across the two companies were there. Walter Hewlett got that wrong.

This is the legacy Fiorina can - and does - claim. According to research group Gartner, HP was the second-largest PC vendor in 2014 but only a little more than one per cent behind China's Lenovo, 17.5% vs 18.8%. Fiorina's old company did go on to weather the globalization storm.

And there's more. Fiorina's 'big is beautiful' approach was unfavourably compared back in that day to the strategy of her local PC rival Michael Dell. He remains at the head of his eponymous company but in 2014, it was a distant third at 12.8%. Dell also recently had to take his company private in a $25bn deal to fend off Wall Street predator Carl Icahn, loading $20bn of debt on Dell Computer in the process. Yup, he ended up needing $25bn to stand still.

HP - master of its own misfortune?

'Culture' and 'management style' feature highly in criticisms of Fiorina's HP tenure. These are not political slam dunks either. For some time after she left, HP suffered increasingly serious problems that at their worst raised suspicions as to whether anyone could run the company.

It's true that Fiorina's immediate successor, Mark Hurd (2005-10), did a better job of combining the HP and Compaq operations. However, his tenure was marked by aggressive layoffs, salary cuts and general cost-cutting today seen as having gone too far and demoralised much of the workforce. Many experienced managers walked, as did a good number from companies that HP acquired under Hurd, particularly from EDS.

After Hurd, came briefly Léo Apotheker (2010-11) from SAP, who convinced the board to pay $11.7bn for UK software group Autonomy - a deal which HP would infamously write down by almost $9bn and which remains the subject of litigation today. Apotheker also wanted to get out of PCs, a decision reversed on his ouster.

Today's HP CEO is Meg Whitman (2011-date) who has put the company on a five-year turnaround programme, one which did see HP record its first quarterly income rise in three years during Q3 of 2014.

However, and notwithstanding Whitman's progress, should Fiorina (or, more likely, her spin doctors) raise a question as to whether the problem was truly her or actually something inherent in HP itself, it won't be that easy to dismiss.

Nasty Carly

Nor is blame on the question of Fiorina's troubled relationship with the HP 'family' easy to set. Many current staff and alumni openly and vehemently dislike her, but the main ground on which they battled was arguably not entirely The HP Way, but Fiorina's stance on the labour market.

She was one of the strongest proponents for raising the cap on foreign technology workers under the H-1B, and getting the US to rethink how it did business as new Asian titans rose. She wrote a still often-quoted editorial in The Wall Street Journal on globalization and its impact in 2004.

"I tried to provoke debate last month when I said, 'There is no job that is America's God-given right anymore.' Now, more than ever, other nations are developing the skills to compete for jobs that would have historically been done by Americans. We shouldn't assume that they won't make an effort to win them."

Few would question those sentiments today, but a little over a decade ago they still provoked the image of Fiorina as someone who wanted to cull American jobs and replace them, at home and aboard, with 'cheaper' immigrants. Nasty Carly.

Well, what actually has happened since? 2004's Cassandra might well cast herself as 2016's visionary.

Raw politics

An important point here is that I don't offer any of these 'alternative' views of Fiorina as the definitive truth, or overwhelming evidence that criticism of her time at HP is unjustified. Plenty of factors and people played some role in what happened at the company then and after. Fiorina is definitely one of them.

Political campaigning, though, doesn't do complexity.

It's certainly true of US politics that you can take a feeble charge, even a completely made-up one, keep slinging it and do major damage to a candidate. The 'swift-boating' of John Kerry's record during the Vietnam War is a case in point.

But the charges that stick tend to be simple and get people angry. The attack on Kerry painted him as having lied about his military record (he didn't) and as unpatriotic for his opposition to the war on returning home (remind me what Kerry does today). Graft works too. And of course so does sex.

But when it comes to the man-in-the-street voter - very different from those of us who enjoy sifting the minutiae of Silicon Valley lore - a charge that demands engagement with boardroom disputes in corporate America is difficult to understand, unlikely to raise any bile and, frankly, boring.

So in terms of Fiorina's political ambitions, will that HP dog hunt?

Chances are that if it does, it's an ankle-biter at best. And its teeth ain't that sharp. It certainly isn't a killer.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 23 April 2015 08:59 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Will HBO Now make cable operators yesterday's men?

14 April 2015 by Paul Dempsey

If you follow the comms business, the big numbers this week are all about Game of Thrones. But not, as you might think, the impact of the four-episode leak to or the enormous ratings the show is bound to harvest from its official global launch. HBO, the programme's producer and for so long a mainstay of US cable TV, is leveraging GoT for a US move into standalone streaming, and the implications of that could be huge.

First announced alongside the iWatch, HBO Now is a US $14.99-a-month subscription service that gives subscribers access to all HBO's own content and its current film library. Simply connect an Apple TV or Sling TV box to your big display, or fire up your smartphone or tablet.

Subscribers have long watched Netflix and Amazon Prime content like this. But HBO previously required cable TV (although it does then already offer a streaming service, HBO Go). In addition to the HBO subscription, a viewer also had to pay for - or through - the cable operator's basic tier, some kind of set-top-box rental fee, a few other arcane sundries and taxes. Even if you only wanted HBO, it could cost close to $100 a month; HBO Now and a high speed Internet connection can be half that... leaving plenty of headroom for Netflix as well.

As a key differentiator for traditional pay-TV, HBO has had to very carefully finesse HBO Now's launch with its cable and satellite partners. It unquestionably drives a wedge into what has long been a very profitable partnership for both sides. However, times change.

HBO Now is the latest but also one of the most significant responses to 'cord cutting', a phenomenon mostly been seen in the US since the beginning of the decade. It is a trend that has seen increasing households, typically younger 'millennials', abandon landline phones and use Internet-only connections (wireless and wired) to watch any TV content not already free-to-air.

MoffettNathanson, one of Wall Street's leading comms research houses, recently estimated that traditional US pay-TV operators had either lost or failed to acquire ('cord-nevers') 3.8m households as subscribers between 2010 and 2015. The company had until lately been a cord-cutting sceptic, but now expects the drain to continue and accelerate.

The US had been seen as a special case. However, researchers at IHS said last Summer they also saw cord-cutting beginning to take root in regions such as Benelux and Scandinavia. Meanwhile in the UK, Netflix - the original 'over-the-top' direct-to-subscriber service - already has more than 3 million subscribers while the BBC's iPlayer remains far ahead of any rival online offering. At the same time, Blighty has seen traditional networks defend their turf aggressively (e.g. BT's acquisition of Premier League and Champions League football rights).

Certainly, HBO Now won't be coming to the UK any time soon - the company has an exclusive content deal with Sky until 2020. But you can be sure that as the first standalone adoption of the over-the-top model by a traditional high-profile player, its progress will be closely observed - less as a disruption of the old normal and more as potentially the first big departure from it.

Edited: 14 April 2015 at 09:16 AM by Paul Dempsey

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 14 April 2015 09:08 AM     General     Comments (0)  

John Oliver, Edward Snowden and John Thomas

9 April 2015 by Paul Dempsey

Can a dirty joke help explain complicated surveillance technologies and their legal background to the man or woman in the street? Yes, when it's done as deftly as it just has been by John Oliver (Those of a nervous disposition may want to choose another blog now, BTW).

Oliver's Last Week Tonight (HBO in the US, Sky Atlantic in the UK) went to Russia for its latest episode. The purpose was to interview former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about his decision to leak masses of information about the US (and UK) cyberspying infrastructure.

As you may have guessed, things did not go as either Ed or his Russian handlers probably expected beforehand. Light-hearted, liberal and unquestioningly pro-Snowden satire. Er, not quite.

Oliver's questioning was tough. For example, the host was happy to acknowledge the importance of the revelations but less convinced about how oversight of the data in Snowden's hands has been handled. The boyish charmer of the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour was often made to look uncomfortable and evasive.

However, the clever part came when Oliver faked sleep when Snowden embarked on a traditional description of programmes like Prism and Mystic. Oliver followed that up by showing Snowden laptop footage of New Yorkers who either haven't a clue who he is or what his actions sought to achieve.

Yes, this stuff is important, but generally people just don't get it. It turns them off. How do we get them to engage.

Oliver's remarkably productive solution - and one that Snowden gamely played along with - was to reframe the capabilities of the controversial programmes and the government's surveillance powers in the context of a dick joke.

Yup, ask people to place themselves in the shoes of a cyberhedonist who likes emailing photos of his John Thomas, though obviously only to other consenting adults, and see how they react when they find that the government can look at the same pictures.

Suddenly vulnerabilities that have so far been discussed largely by means of technological abstractions and theories of what should constitute civil liberties become a lot more real. If you don't believe me, first I'd suggest you watch the programme itself, but failing that there is now a website that actually recaps Snowden's explanations... though its URL may be NSFW,

It was both a dirty and a smart joke and, yes, it worked. Explaining how government snooping functions in the context of dick pics even added to my understanding, and I like to think I've been paying attention.

Of course, you can't explain every complex idea or system by means of a filthy laugh. It also helps if you are as funny as John Oliver. In broader terms, though, Oliver has again shown the value of simple analogies or real-world examples to illustrate apparently opaque technologies.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 09 April 2015 08:45 AM     General     Comments (0)  

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