View from Washington - General

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US climate change 'doubt' isn't just about the science

14 January 2016 by Paul Dempsey

Recent polling suggests that even most Republican Party voters believe the US government should be doing more about climate change, and President Obama pushed the button hard again in his final State of the Union address this week. But just how highly does the issue rank in terms of voters' priorities?

"Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it," Obama declared. "You'll be pretty lonely, because you'll be debating our military, most of America's business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it's a problem and intend to solve it."

The President's comments were a dig at many (probably most) Republicans in the SOTU's Congressional audience. Some dispute the scientific consensus on climate change; others have close ties to and funding from oil and gas lobbyists; and yet another group represents states where traditional energy industries are major employers.

Obama had two objectives. The first - probably foremost in his mind - was to underline determination to drive through his climate change initiatives announced before and at the UN Conference of the Parties in Paris last December. Action here is a 'legacy' issue for the administration. It is an area where the President wants to leave office feeling he has enabled lasting and beneficial change.

The second goal, though, came down to raw politics. Democrats believe climate change is one of a number of topics that could help them woo swing/moderate Republican voters for both the Presidency and in various Senate and House constituencies that will also be voted on in November. Given that, Obama was seeking to define many Republican incumbents not so much as extremists, but fools.

Why are the Democrats confident that an issue that has long languished down the US electoral agenda can now become a key battleground? Well, mostly it yet again comes down to the polls.

While Republican legislators reacted to the Paris deal with open contempt, a clear majority of voters surveyed as it was signed said it supported the deal. Particularly significant within those findings was a Reuters/Ipsos snap poll where 58% of self-defining Republican voters said they were in favour of greater US efforts and international cooperation on climate change.

Further data suggests this bias was in place some time before Paris, arguably stoked at the high profile pre-COP agreements Obama had already secured during 2015 (most notably with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping). According to the Project on Climate Change Communication at Yale University, only conservative Republicans said they would be more likely to vote for a climate-change sceptic when questioned in November - and this was the same conclusion of a Pew Research Center survey back in June. That skeptical slice of the electorate is hardly one Democrats expect to win over on any issue.

But dig deeper, and climate change's broader importance to all voters becomes harder to judge. Fox News may seem an unlikely source to quote, but its polling is often solid. It found climate change cited as the most important political issue by less than 5% of the electorate in its own November survey. Much higher double-digit rankings went to terrorism, the economy, healthcare and immigration.

The Yale project has also detected some ignorance among voters in terms of the scale of the scientific consensus on climate change. They believe the number of researchers who see there being a problem is around 60%; in fact, the number is above 95%. That disparity in perception is something sceptics have leveraged to suggest that the issue is not that pressing, that there may be other non-man-made causes or that we are in a natural weather cycle.

Just how pressing US voters see climate change as an agenda issue is critical, because there is much work still to do there. A March Gallup poll found that Americans greatest environmental concern is pollution in various forms (drinking water, rivers and the air, in that order). Only a shade over 30% said climate change worried them 'a great deal'.

Similarly, public and media reaction in the US to recent bouts of extreme weather has tended - rather like UK reactions to recent flooding - to focus criticism on how well government emergency services reacted locally and nationally, and on the extent and upkeep of defences and utility resources. In the face of lives lost and property destroyed, bringing up potential macro causes seemed almost rude.

Finally, even Obama's own SOTU comments included one that left climate change activists nonplussed: "Gas under two bucks a gallon ain't bad, either." As several have pointed out, when petrol prices do plunge to such levels, it tends to encourage sales of less fuel-efficient SUVs, muscle cars and so on. Not the President's best example of joined-up thinking, but again one he might have let pass for the sake of raw politics.

The US election agenda will almost certainly be led by two issues: the state of the economy and the threats posed by war and instability in the Middle East. Climate change could form an important but lesser part of this matrix. Its influence, however, still isn't as great as some of the headline numbers might suggest today - and will require a great deal more politicking for it to achieve real significance.

And if the gloomier current global economic forecasts come to pass, you can probably forget about it entirely.

Edited: 14 January 2016 at 06:02 AM by Paul Dempsey

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 14 January 2016 05:54 AM     General     Comments (0)  

2015 in technology, film and TV - Part Two

7 January 2016 by Paul Dempsey

The top 5 trends and what-nots in a personal review of last year's notable events where engineering met the media. Remember, there are spoilers.

5. A dip year for the 'hype cycle'

Research group Gartner has a resilient model for technology adoption over typically five stages: 1. The Technology Trigger. 2. The Peak of Inflated Expectations. 3. The Trough of Disillusionment. 4. The Slope of Enlightenment. 5. The Plateau of Productivity. You can see the cycle visually represented here. For a couple of key media technologies, 4k-resolution HDTV and immersive virtual reality, 2015 saw both caught somewhere between stages Two and Three. A good example right now is the head-shaking that has greeted the initial and hefty $599 (£410) price for Facebook's Oculus Rift headset - which although formally announced this month, was pretty obvious when the company said last year that the headset and an appropriately-powered PC would have a bundle cost around $1,500. What really matters is that these early price points are and continue to be addressed in ongoing design revs. A 4k TV is now approaching mass market pricing after a few years at the five-figure level (though the real shift is expected in 2017) and Oculus-like VR retail prices will also tumble rapidly. The old 'early adopter' based model persists, but the engineering will achieve 'cost down'.

4. The Franchise Strikes Back

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, blah, blah, blah. Yes, it was beautifully shot - on film - and artfully constructed by J.J. Abrams. It restored the audience's faith in the definitive saga of our time. Perhaps it wasn't that original, more a revamp of the original and The Empire Strikes Back with a welcome feminist kick. But it did its job. However for many (myself included), a still better revival of a decades-old franchise was Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller's thunderously entertaining update of his dystopian saga - though it's still in the balance as to whether it earned enough at the box office to guarantee a further installment. One interesting and ironic technological choice united the two epics: Abrams and Miller actively sought to avoid CGI, relying more on in-camera stunts, model work and other traditional physical effects (mind you, audiences also lapped up the daffy fun offered by the CGI-obese Jurassic World).

3. Real science

Broadcasting evolves, tastes change, and all that. One thing remains. Horizon... Actually, make that two things, because while the BBC has Horizon, the US has its sister series on PBS, Nova. But while these two series have flown the flag for science on TV for decades, it's fair to say that the multichannel world means there is more excellent science programming on TV than ever before. And 2015 saw us get our first late-night talk show. The eloquent astrophysicist and science evangelist Neil deGrasse Tyson began hosting StarTalk on the National Geographic Channel with guests ranging from Brian Cox (a quiet TV year otherwise for him) to David Byrne, Penn & Teller... and Bill Clinton. Have that, Graham Norton.

(Some sad news though. 2016 will see the last season of Mythbusters, the excellent debunking show on the Discovery Channel).

2. Real(ish) science

The Martian is Sir Ridley Scott's best film. Better than Blade Runner. Better than Alien. Mind you, Andy Weir's terrific novel gave him plenty to work with. But as a combination of engaging drama, scientific fidelity (OK, that does involve a pass on the destructive power of Martian storms), and ode to human ingenuity, this was something very rare and very special. But it wasn't 2015's only example of keeping the speculation and science in harmony while creating exciting drama. Alex Garland's Ex Machina embraced some of the latest thinking about artificial intelligence without sacrificing storytelling - and both Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson got to pre-pay for crimes against physics they would later commit in The Force Awakens. Best of all though, the two films were box-office hits. Proof you can give technology due respect without boring the pants off a mainstream audience.

1. Tangerine dream

The Force Awakens was the media event of the year. But when we look back in a decade or so, an independent drama you probably haven't heard of may prove the most significant. Tangerine is the bittersweet tale of a transsexual prostitute's Christmas Eve, and one of the best reviewed films of last year. The reason it's at Number One here though is technological, something its makers deliberately didn't tell critics when it was first screened. It was shot entirely on an iPhone 5. Until director Sean Baker mentioned that afterwards, nobody twigged. Yup, that's how fast imaging technology is developing in your pocket. And what it could mean for film and TV production in the none-too-distant future is still hard to conceive. An artform once limited to those with access to sizeable resources - even at the low-budget level - is being rapidly democratized by innovation. So, Star Wars: Episode 9 on an iPhone 9 anyone?

Click here to read the first part of this blog, ranking events from 6-10.

Edited: 07 January 2016 at 02:02 AM by Paul Dempsey

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 07 January 2016 01:39 AM     General     Comments (0)  

2015 in technology, film and TV - Part One

5 January 2016 by Paul Dempsey

A spoiler-splattered look back at how film and TV treated technology over the last 12 months, starting a Top 10 with numbers 6-10.

10. All good things...


A bit of a cheat this. Shown in the US before Christmas but coming to the UK in 2016, the SyFy adaption of Childhood's End, the seminal but 'unfilmable' Arthur C. Clarke novel, is not perfect but still hits almost all the right notes. The original 'first contact' story, it defeated even Stanley Kubrick. He and Clarke cooked up a little thing called 2001: A Space Odyssey instead. The theme of where man goes after homo sapiens is properly and movingly explored in the new mini-series, unquestionably SyFy's best work since its Battlestar Galactica reboot. This little gem was overseen by two veterans of excellent recent British science-fiction, Life on Mars' Matthew Graham and Who/Sherlock director Nick Hurran. Charles Dance also continues to show there's plenty of life after being skewered on the privvy as alien overseer Karellen.

9. Steve Jobs - The Movies


Imagine if someone really bright made a biopic or documentary about the most transformative figure in contemporary technology, and nobody came. Because that's what happened. Two of filmmaking's leading talents, director Danny Boyle and documentarian Alex Gibney, tried to get under the skin of the late Apple founder, but audiences and viewers stayed away from both their efforts. While flawed, both films were well-made, intelligent and properly promoted. Maybe the fans didn't like their 'warts and all' approaches and the rest of the world didn't care. But Hollywood still can't figure out what happened... and some other Silicon Valley skeletons now get to rest a bit more peacefully. Well until Mike Judge and the Silicon Valley team get their shovels out.

8. The death of broadcasting... and more

There's been a lot of angst over the decision to make BBC3 an online-only service (and yes, that new logo is pants), but legal web delivery is seriously and successfully disrupting the broadcasting model. Moreover, 2015 saw it start working on film distribution. Some of the year's best TV came from Netflix and Amazon via shows such as The Man in the High Castle and two surprisingly sparky Marvel adaptions, Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Meanwhile, iPlayer viewing for even shows on Auntie's mainstream channels continues to grow. What you want, when you want it and - as 4G makes mobile viewing viable - where you want it: this was the year the concept hit the mainstream. And the new players haven't finished. Amazon backed Spike Lee's new film Chi-Raq, a clever contemporary Chicago-based update of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, giving it a brief release in cinemas before placing it online; Netflix, meanwhile, did the same for Beasts of No Nation, True Detective director Cary Fukunaga's superb drama about boy soldiers featuring Idris Elba.

7. Can you hack it?

Movies and TV about computing have always been tough to make, particularly those about hacking. There's something inherently anti-visual about guy-sits-at-screen. On TV, the excellent Person of Interest has defied received wisdom for four seasons, cannily mixing its take on digital surveillance with elements from James Bond and the police procedural. But its ratings took a hit last year, and the producers were given only a half-season order largely so that the team can bring the story to a close in early 2016. Still, the biggest surprise hit on US TV this year has been Mr Robot, a visually imaginative, ambitious and technically faithful story about an alienated young hacker. Things weren't so good at the cinema. Michael Mann, one of Hollywood's best directors, came a cropper with the tedious Blackhat, while Spectre's reimagining of Ernst Stavro Blofeld - even one reincarnated by Christoph Waltz - as a malicious data-miner drew one of year's larger 'M'ehs' (We all still love Daniel Craig though).

6. Piracy

Last year ended with Sony reeling from a concerted hack on its film and TV division. In late 2015, everybody got to feel some pain. Of 25 films on Variety's list of current Best Picture Oscar contenders, 23 are available to download in 'rips' from high quality digital sources. The only exceptions were Star Wars: The Force Awakens and foreign language contender Son of Saul. The devil is the film industry's use of so-called 'screeners', discs produced for film critics and, during awards season, Oscar voters. Fail to get the screeners out there and you won't get even a nomination. But it's clear that distributing them can eat into your audience long before Oscar delivers a box office boost. Especially remarkable this year, the leaks included high profile films that were still to go on wide release, including Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight and The Revenant with Leonardo di Caprio. With Tarantino's film falling short of industry estimates for its first week ($16m vs an expected $22m), piracy is back on the agenda in a big way.

And, amazingly, the piracy group responsible for the leaks did itself apologize for posting the files too early. You could not make that up.

Click here for Part Two and the Top 5 countdown.

Edited: 07 January 2016 at 01:43 AM by Paul Dempsey

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 05 January 2016 09:16 AM     General     Comments (0)  

COP 21 Paris: How full is the glass?

14 December 2015 by Paul Dempsey

Last week's UN-fostered agreement on climate change is being lauded as the greatest diplomatic achievement of all time. Let's just hope it doesn't turn into a 21st Century's equivalent to the Treaty of Versailles.

There is a basic difference between the two. Versailles failed because of what it imposed; COP21 is already being criticized because of what it does not. But the stakes are arguably the same.

Still, while climate activists see the Paris deal as a step in the right direction - and a near-200 nation agreement is a heck of a step - they rightly point out that it has limited legal force and woolly goals. That's never an entirely good thing.

The High Ambition Coalition's target of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C is an aspiration and nothing more, one noted but only grudgingly accepted by the world's most powerful growing economies, India and China.

The more broadly acknowledged 2 degrees C target is itself not legally-enforceable. The USA could not accept something so binding as there is little hope that a Republican-dominated Congress would ratify such a treaty. Yeah, well.

Meanwhile, the submitted climate plans from COP 21's various participants would still only keep the increase to, at best, 2.7 degrees C.

Then, let's be frank, nobody really knows who is going to pay for all this.

And up to the very last minute, 'shalls' in the agreement were being changed to 'shoulds', offering yet more evidence to those who see a glass half-empty even if contains vintage French diplomacy.

But.

The big message from COP21 is that being a climate change sceptic puts you, well, out in the cold. The repeated claim that there is no 'consensus' on the issue just won't hold any longer. Even some of the more isolationist political thinkers in the US will now know they have to tread carefully - though there will be some hold-outs. Still, the World has decided that it needs to address the issue with a rare semblance of unity. Something to build on.

And that begs another question? Is this, finally, the 'Apollo moment', a rallying point to attack a massive engineering challenge but this time stripped of a Cold War.

On one level, if it isn't we are all up the effluent creek, possibly sooner rather than later. By agreeing on a 2 degrees C cap that has to be achieved 'somehow' - even if we don't yet have all the answers - the world's nations have also acknowledged the scale of the threat. Even if not existential, it's not pretty.

At its most direct, it could lead to local disasters such as coastal erosion and the collapse of national agricultural infrastructures. That's bad enough. But then think what would inevitably happen next. Such horrors would fuel global migration on an unprecedented scale, one that would make current conflict- and economically-driven population shifts resemble a works seaside outing. And it's not like Europe or the US is doing a terribly good job here already.

More optimistically, the need for innovation is explicitly built into the Paris deal. The shortcomings of current technology are recognized. The need to go back frequently and review progress towards both 2 and 1.5 degrees C in the light of innovation is there in the text.

That last point is a big deal. While the research funding that governments will offer remains worryingly nebulous, the chances for companies to bring some original ideas into play and - critical - get a better hearing from investors have improved. There is a more attractive framework for turning post-carbon energy R&D into dollars - the private sector might actually save the planet.

Yet for all the plaudits, much of the Paris deal is a fudge. That said, we all knew beforehand that it would lack absolute rigour. The real challenge in ensuring that it does not become the new Versailles lies in understanding how far it goes in settling the debate, potentially stimulating new ideas and - we must hope - resolving rather than seeding conflict.

If you'd asked me after that COP-Up-In-Copenhagen if we could ever have got even this much at the beginning of the month, I'd have called you a dreamer. Luckily, you didn't - but it's still down to you to top up the glass.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 14 December 2015 10:43 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Could a choking China finally kickstart the home automation business?

10 December 2015 by Paul Dempsey

As Beijing hosts its latest Darth Vader cosplay festival and, back home, Cumbria could make you believe that it's John Wyndham's Kraken rather than The Force that's awakening for Christmas, these latest high profile environmental horrors might, just might, seed one of the most overdue markets in consumer electronics: home automation.

In the pollution-choked Chinese capital, the latest iPhone has been supplanted as the must-have gadget of the year by the Laser Egg, a domestic air quality monitor marketed by start-up Origins Technology.

The Egg can be moved around various rooms in an apartment and calculates just how bad (or good) the atmosphere is, according to the dual standards of US and Chinese environmental protection bodies.

As though what they can see isn't bad enough, Beijing residents can already go to websites that publish both sets of metrics to get a reading on the air quality in the street. But even where air conditioners/fan heaters are turned off and windows firmly shut, a further concern remains increasingly high levels of indoor pollution.

So-called PM2.5 contaminants - fine particles measuring 2.5 micrometers or below (that's less than one-hundredth the width of a human hair) - are seen as especially dangerous in terms of causing and aggregating respiratory illnesses. As their size suggests, they can easily seep into homes from the outside, though domestic levels of better known nasties like Carbon Monoxide and Sulphur Dioxide are also a big part of the problem.

What makes the Egg more interesting than a simple monitor is that it is very much an Internet of Things (IoT) play. In its current launch configuration, the USB-charged hardware also includes WiFi connectivity, so you can access readings from a smartphone app (it also provides the latest external air quality indices for comparison and its functionality is undergoing continuous updates).

Today, homeowners are typically using Eggs to measure the performance of their expensive and imported air purifiers. But Beijing-based Origins has ambitions here too and has started selling its own version, the OxyBox.

Its argument is that the purifiers most Beijingers own were typically designed to cope with European pollution levels. Recent reports from cities such as Paris and London show that these should not be discounted. But China's fast-growing metropolises face issues on a far greater scale. In response, the OxyBox claims to be a far more heavy-duty piece of hardware.

The next step in all this is, to anyone who has followed the IoT at any rate, easy enough to spot. WiFi-enable the OxyBoxes, integrate them with constant Egg monitoring and build out a filtration system that automatically controls your domestic AQI. No need to run from room to room nervously checking the stats.

It's always dangerous to move from the specific to the general but as home automation products, the Eggs and OxyBoxes arguably have something going for them that, for all their undoubted usefulness, those from rivals such as the Google-owned Nest do not. Origins' products address something that their users view as an existential threat.

Yes, Nest's products have important safety features, such as CO monitoring, and the ability to manage your central heating can both save money and help 'save the planet'. But its hardware has stayed on the fringes of the mainstream, an upper-end play for more educated consumers. Set all that, though, against a visible threat of such diseases as cancer and emphysema or a potential customer's fears of the harm pollution does to growing children. That's Origins' market.

This isn't about the financial benefits or even some cuddly green feeling you might get from home automation. It isn't about home automation at all, really. It's about saving lives - or at least achieving a just-about-endurable quality of life.

However, it is also an extreme (hence for now that caveat about jumping from specific to general). Drawing a line between, say, setting your home thermostat higher than necessary leading to excessive power generation, higher carbon emissions and thereby extreme weather that generates flooding levels that are difficult to predict or defend against. More difficult, no question about that.

But if products like the Egg, addressing the local problems of regions that suffer considerable environmental blight, continue to sell at current rates, those who would see home automation become mainstream (and, finally, overcome the comical image of the smart refrigerator) should nevertheless note that the existential sells.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 10 December 2015 05:09 AM     General     Comments (0)  

ARM's not-so-secret recipe for 25 years of success

30 November 2015 by Paul Dempsey

Had I a quid for every time I've heard ARM described as some variant on, as Sunday's Observer had it, Britain's most successful tech company you've never heard of, I reckon I could buy my own 64bit Cortex licence. Such statements verge on the meaningless and are often misleading. Here it isn't the case that ARM is an unusually stealthy success story.

ARM is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Congratulations to all in Cambridge and beyond. But to mark it, here's an apparently unusual test: Ask someone you know who has nothing to do with electronic or electrical engineering to name a successful British technology company that launched during that last quarter century.

Amstrad? Sorry, Lord Sugar opened for business in 1968. Dyson? Tricky one. The eponymous manufacturing company does qualify (it opened in 1993) but the signature vacuum cleaner first started coming off production lines to acclaim and status symbol success in 1986. It was produced under licence by Japanese group Apex.

Of course, ARM's roots lie in a British tech darling of the 70s and 80s, Acorn Computers. But the purpose of the question is to show just how hard it is for most Brits to think of the UK in terms any more of technological innovation. (I don't think ARM would be the leading answer, by the way. You're probably looking at a company like Rockstar Games, creator of the Grand Theft Auto franchise. And even thereby hangs a thread, given Rockstar is now effectively US-based).

O.K. I guess you think we're about to go all sackcloth-and-ashes. Why oh why do our politicians favour policy for prats in the City of London over innovation and innovators? Why can't one ARM foster a plethora of start-ups - oh, because all our venture capitalists are risk-averse toads! Why can't we see engineers at economic heroes generally?

There is something in those questions but we've debated them to death. Let me offer three other personal perspectives on 'the ARM thing', and where UK technology may be going in general.

1. Where it needs to be, ARM is a rock star.

Go to Silicon Valley. Go to Taipei. Go to Bangalore. These are three places where you will find big concentrations of ARM clients and partners. If the company supplies a keynoter to a conference in any of them, the audience will be big and not just the technical press but also local and national newspapers will turn up to harvest Mr or Mrs ARM's thoughts.

By contrast, ARM's potential UK customer base is small - though it does have a number of important local partners. Still, on a sales to image-marketing basis, Blighty scores comparatively lowly. And it always has.

The air miles accumulated by ARM's founding CEO, Sir Robin Saxby, are the stuff of legend though the received wisdom is that the key deal he sealed for the company wasn't struck that far away. It got the ARM processor core designed into Nokia handsets. Once that market took off - and mobility remains an ARM mainstay thanks to its cores' low power consumption - the UK was never a massive player.

A global focus is a necessity, and as much for ARM as it is for - the most pertinent example - its big UK rival in semiconductor intellectual property, Imagination Technologies.

2. ARM is another UK 'ideas factory'

Name the company that makes Downton Abbey? The answer - and I'm sure a few, but only a few of you got it - is Carnival Films, a UK subsidiary of the American communications conglomerate Comcast. Comcast gives Carnival plenty of autonomy because it sees the company as a great ideas factory. Downtown is just the latest example of it leveraging UK history in an AngloupperclassyWorld way. Carnival also produced David Suchet's long run as Hercule Poirot.

What's this got to do with ARM? Well, in his recent analysis of British popular art, historian Dominic Sandbrook made great play of how we have shifted from making things to making culture and ideas as our manufacturing base has declined. Downton follows in a tradition that, Sandbrook argues, includes The Beatles, James Bond, Harry Potter and more. I'd argue that ARM fits in there as well. There's more to this British skill with selling the intangible than wizards and Walther PPKs.

ARM quite literally sells ideas, the intellectual property that semiconductor companies use as the 'core' of a design. Its business model is built around passing all the manufacturing risk and capital requirements to its customers. It expands on the still very high reputation of British engineering in the global marketplace - even if that image does not persist so hardily at home.

3. It's B2B, innit.

If you look at ARM's 'value chain', the company plays an extremely important role, but is at least two steps away from the consumer branding on the finished product. It supplies a processor core that goes into a chip (or SoC, today, if you prefer) that itself goes into a handset, tablet or perhaps now some kind of Internet of Things device.

There is an inherent tension here, even at the level of the chipmaker. Here's an example. NXP Semiconductors is right now trying to establish itself as the best SECURITY player for the IoT (Its caps.... Kind of). It wants you to think of NXP's implementation therefore, not NXP's implementation of ARM technology including ARM TrustZone. And of course, once NXP gets its design win from, say, a medical device company, its own name will be further subsumed within the technical specifications.

It's an old story. Yet it remains true that we expect business-to-business marketing to work much as traditional consumer marketing. But the real trick in B2B is to make an impact but not be seen as competing with your customers. By and large, ARM has got this balance right for a quarter of a century. This is not so much a stealthy as a diplomatic aspect of its success.

This image of ARM having somehow succeeded in spite of its national circumstances - and the repeated question, 'Why haven't we heard about these guys?' does imply that - actually gets things completely the wrong way around. In many respects, ARM is exemplary of what makes a successful British technology company in the 21st Century: you don't last 25 years running against the grain.

Edited: 30 November 2015 at 07:26 AM by Paul Dempsey

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 30 November 2015 07:00 AM     General     Comments (0)  

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)  

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