View from Washington - General

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Obama pushes education and climate change, soft pedals cyber

21 January 2015 by Paul Dempsey

The US President's annual State of the Union address is typically dominated by broad brushstrokes with few detailed policy notes. The 2015 edition was no exception, although it did show President Obama maintaining his aggressive stance on climate change while emphasizing education and the need to upgrade the US workforce.

Let's start with education because it is an area where Obama wants to set a progressive agenda at odds with many of his international counterparts. Specifically, he wants to make tertiary education at the 'community college' level completely free for two years to those who reached required high school standards.

The President explicitly linked his proposal to two things, one from the past and one from his vision of the future.

First, he cited the original G.I. Bill which gave veterans guaranteed access to higher education and led to - according to an online PowerPoint that accompanied the speech - 8 million upskilling to enter, among other professions, science and engineering. It was the creation of "the largest middle class in history" and one of the perceived drivers of US economic dominance in the latter half of the 20th century.

Second, he took on the changing face of the labour market. "By the end of this decade, two in three job openings will require some higher education. Two in three. And yet, we still live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need. It's not fair to them, and it's not smart for our future," Obama said.

Making community college free may not in itself be the answer. Some 40% of Americans who go into higher education attend one of these colleges but, as pointed out by The Guardian, unemployment among those who only take the associate degrees available from most two-year courses is much the same as that for workers with only high school diplomas. The keystone, though, may be the number that having achieved a community college foundation can be encouraged and enabled to go on to bachelor's and higher degrees.

Either way, the proposal puts Obama on one side of a dilemma facing politicians throughout the western world. He sees government funding as a necessity that will shoulder almost the entire burden of creating a post-digital workforce; elsewhere (including the UK) the trend has been instead to pass tuition costs to students because of other increasing financial burdens on the state, notably healthcare and welfare.

Beyond that, while there is no guarantee that a Republican-dominated Congress will pass the legislation (indeed, the initial response was at best cool), this should still put US rivals on notice that the country is grappling assiduously with the consequences of an increasingly knowledge-based global economy. Given the US' own consumption-driven economy, does it have a choice?

"To make sure folks keep earning higher wages down the road, we have to do more to help Americans upgrade their skills," Obama said, going on to also encourage the more widespread use of privately funded apprenticeships that would appear to draw on Germany's well-respected education system.

The President's comments on climate change, by contrast, offered nothing new. Rather they sought to foreground what has been seen until now as a 'toxic' issue in American politics and also underline Obama's personal impatience with predominantly Republican naysayers - particularly those who have used the 'I'm not a scientist' argument to dodge the subject.

This is a lengthy quotation, but worth looking at in full because there is an iciness to it not commonly seen in States of the Union.

"I've heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they're not scientists; that we don't have enough information to act. Well, I'm not a scientist, either. But you know what - I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we'll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it," the President said.

"That's why, over the past six years, we've done more than ever before to combat climate change, from the way we produce energy, to the way we use it. That's why we've set aside more public lands and waters than any administration in history. And that's why I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts. I am determined to make sure American leadership drives international action."

Again, returning to the PowerPoint, the accompanying slide said that Obama's executive action addressing power plant emissions would lead children to suffer 3,700 fewer cases of bronchitis, 150,000 fewer asthma attacks and 180,000 fewer missed days of school.

Emotive stuff, underlining how Obama's Democratic Party now sees climate change moving up the wider political agenda. Indeed, Obama has effectively double-downed on his challenge to the Republicans to block his proposals so far and scupper last year's accord with China on cutting emissions.

In one other important area, the President did 'kick the can down the road', although his spin team will probably argue, 'But not that far' in response. Sony, Snowden and the whole cybersecurity challenge was addressed with platitudes albeit ones gently fleshed out with a promise that, "Next month, we'll issue a report on how we're keeping our promise to keep our country safe while strengthening privacy."

With two years of his term still to go, Obama will know that the issue isn't going anywhere soon. Indeed within Washington's political community, it remains a far hotter potato than the two other critical technology concerns he did address more directly - and one that will probably need to be addressed sooner than either as well.

Edited: 21 January 2015 at 05:24 AM by Paul Dempsey

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 21 January 2015 04:10 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Charlie Hebdo and The Human Factor

15 January 2015 by Paul Dempsey

As Prime Minister David Cameron meets in Washington with President Barack Obama, the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack forms a major part of the agenda. But both men need to be careful about how they proceed.

Today's Guardian reports that Cameron will seek, as a priority, a concerted UK-US effort to once more increase the cooperation of Internet companies in tracking the secret online communications between suspected terrorists.

But is this the most immediate problem?

Leave aside the fact that Silicon Valley is still nursing the bruises it suffered over Edward Snowden's revelations, and would likely kick back hard. The sad truth is that events in France mostly exposed weaknesses at the human level.

The perpetrators were known to the French security services, but after periods of inactivity full surveillance was withdrawn. Tragic echoes of Lee Rigby's murder are unavoidable. Nor is that the only example.

The security services draw the distinction between SIGINT and HUMINT. For those unfamiliar with the terms, SIGINT is signals intelligence, that drawn from monitoring all forms of communication by organisations such as GCHQ and the NSA; and HUMINT is human intelligence uncovered by the officers and contacts of everything from the police to covert agencies.

To truly defend the realm, both components must work in harmony. More to the point today, both require considerable human resources. Somebody has to make sense of all that SIGINT chatter and HUMINT's requirements are in many ways an extension of the more mundane debate about "Bobbies on the beat".

Cameron's Internet priorities are worrying here, notwithstanding that a more effective (and generally acceptable) relationship needs to be built between cybergiants and the security services.

Many security experts - including those who channel the thinking of senior figures within the covert agencies - are expressing concern that we are promoting technological solutions too aggressively.

This is not really about some Bondian fetish for gadgets. Rather, it is about the perceived cost-effectiveness of automation. That has been going on for a while, but the argument has grown still more persuasive among governments faced by the current demands of 'austerity'.

Well, whether they call themselves Al Qaeda or Islamic State, it is clear that our enemies understand the concept of the 'sleeper cell', groups that can remain long dormant before committing atrocities waiting out those watching them.

Moreover, in the Charlie Hebdo case, we are also now aware of a significant failure in SIGINT analysis. It was initially believed that the girlfriend of one of the terrorists was involved on the day. Records were eventually found showing she had left Europe before they began.

When terrorist attacks succeed, there is a blame game today, or at least a more politically poisonous one than that seen when groups such as the IRA or ETA were most active. This process seriously hampers our ability to address some real challenges.

As technologists, we understandably want to give those who protect us the best appropriate tools. But while we all know GIGO, we also acknowledge that it's still 'garbage out', if there are not enough people to act on what the tools produce.

Prime Minister, Mr President, please take note.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 15 January 2015 09:42 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Meet the new year. Same as the old year?

31 December 2014 by Paul Dempsey

So that was 2014. In technology, it was largely the year when both US business and the public woke up to the challenges of digital security, and also began to see climate change as part of the mainstream political agenda.

Although they began in 2013, the ongoing revelations from Edward Snowden suggested that the West - specifically, the US and its main English-speaking allies - were prying into our affairs with perhaps more zeal than was justified. And that they were doing so with the cooperation (whether forced or not) of some of the Internet's biggest players.

The year-end hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment showed, by contrast, that there are some very bad people out there. They could be nation states. They could be independent mischief-makers. Either way, they can wreak terrible damage.

Climate change - some would say ironically - saw the US and China become two of the most aggressive actors, unveiling their own pact and targets before the important US-sponsored Conference of the Parties in Lima, Peru. It was a move designed 'pour encourager les autres', though many thought that some other big players - notably India, Russia and Brazil - failed to take the hint.

The general consensus is that the value of the Peru meeting itself is not yet clear. It did, for the first time, lead to an accord under which all nations agreed to cut their carbon emissions. But the deal is not legally binding and includes hedges, such as a vague acknowledgement of "common but differentiated responsibilities".

More important, it gives nations until March 2015 to detail some numbers on what they actually will do, and even then there are ways in which this deadline could be pushed out further. Right now, there are only so many cards on the table.

So, neither of these key issues could yet be described as close to any resolution. The big change to both though has been one of public awareness, particularly in the USA.

The US public certainly seems to have turned out to support Sony - whatever the more gossipy leaks contained - and spent an astonishing $15m officially streaming and downloading The Interview over the Christmas weekend.

The plot of the film's release is almost as outlandish as that of film itself. First, the hack purported to be in response to the makers' mockery of North Korea. Then, a badly damaged Sony Pictures appeared to cave in to the hackers' demands and cancelled the cinematic release (though officially it has said its initial decision was forced upon it by exhibitors). Finally, after a wagged finger from President Obama himself, Sony elected to release the film through independent theatres and the Internet.

A little context here is needed. The $15m online take (and a further $4m in those smaller cinemas) is said to be roughly as much as Sony could have expected had a 'traditional' release gone ahead. That might be true, but there are two important wrinkles.

First, Sony's net receipts will almost certainly be higher from the online release than those they would have otherwise shared with cinema owners. Second, each download of The Interview was not necessarily a 'single ticket': there were reports of parties and other gatherings where many supporters of free speech gathered to watch the film together and spite the Guardians of Peace. In short, Sony will make more from the film and many more people have seen it than would otherwise have been the case. That is just one illustration of how hacking has now become a general political issue.

Climate change, meanwhile, had already been bubbling up the political agenda, as we've noted earlier in the blog, with more Americans than you might think believing it needs to be addressed. However, the consequences of the US-China deal and Lima have pushed it up still further.

President Obama's Republican opponents are fuming about the White House's use of executive powers to overcome their ability to block any climate change legislation in the Senate and House of Representatives. This is significant because it almost certainly means the party will commit to overturning Obama's plan if it regains the presidency in 2016. This could potentially make climate change a first-order issue in the next big US political campaign.

And as we look at the implications for both cybersecurity and carbon emissions, that campaign will begin in just a few weeks time. Obama cannot stand for re-election, so both major US parties will soon begin the arduous, sometimes tedious, sometimes fascinating process of selecting candidates.

Add also the president's proposed immigration reforms - albeit of arguably less global impact than the two other themes mentioned here - and it becomes clear that what we've seen on these topics in 2014 is only the beginning of the story.

Happy New Year... and stay tuned.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 31 December 2014 06:40 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Sony. Dog. Bone... Still heed the teachable moment

19 December 2014 by Paul Dempsey

Amid the furore over Sony's decision to not release The Interview, fewer column inches have noted that eight former employees have already launched class action lawsuits against the company for failing to protect personal information. Much of the mainstream press will move on as, presumably, the more gossipy leaks dry up. CIOs (and CEOs) will know that a battle of potentially wider relevance is under way.

Because class action suits always start small, but can they snowball.

As a friend in the IT security business put it, Sony's legal vulnerability could come down to "rooks and knights". It's a popular analogy in his circles: no matter how high the castle walls, any lord of old knew that he needed something behind them.

A highly sophisticated hack got inside. But what then?

In IT terms, leaked documents and emails have already shown that some Sony staff took a cavalier attitude to highly sensitive information. But this is not just about a plethora of Social Security Numbers, medical data, and personal email and home addresses.

There is the case of a hack into Sony Pictures' Brazilian operations that the company chose not to report but was aware of (and which is speculated to have been a precursor to the main attack). There is Sony's apparent sloth in reporting the main hack to ex-staffers where their information had been compromised (and, indeed, offering them the same identity theft services as have been offered to current employees).

That last issue is one of the main planks of the lawsuits moving forward.

Meanwhile, Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton delayed an internal town hall meeting about the hack though apologies to celebs were delivered with more urgency. Was the reason really to do with the weather in LA? That wouldn't say much for the videoconferencing power of a Vaio, would it?

I don't mean to feast on Sony. This was an appalling attack that degenerated from cyber to real terrorist threats. We should all be disgusted by this assault on freedom of speech. The greater villain is clearly these self-styled Guardians of Peace.

Sony makes some fantastic products. The PS4 is great. So, for that matter is Fury: see it on the biggest screen you can not on some crapulous leak. And I could go on - really, I could because I grew up with an old man who saw Sony as defining mainstream quality.

So, heres a company that has given us so many great teachable moments over the decades. Sadly though, this isn't one of those.

The grunts matter. Hopefully, if you are a CIO or CEO, you can see that now. If you can't, may the Spagmon - oh you know.

Footnote: Scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin has written some excellent movies, including two that for me really get technology: The Social Network and Moneyball. You may also have heard he's involved with some Steve Jobs project.

Well, Aaron just called out those of us reporting on the Sony hack as "morally treasonable and spectacularly dishonourable".

It's a pity he didn't help write The Interview because he's got that Pyongyang rhetoric better than the locals - well, in better English.

Joking aside, if you want to have at this Aaron, we have a debate thing on the site, and if you're game, let me know... Twitter: @dempseypaul.

Edited: 19 December 2014 at 12:26 PM by Paul Dempsey

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 19 December 2014 11:39 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Sony's 'Better call Saul' move backfires

15 December 2014 by Paul Dempsey

Sony's hack woes continue. But now as well as those flowing from the juicy gossip, compounded by the technology giant's own actions.

Over the weekend, Sony Pictures Entertainment engaged a high profile US lawyer, David Boies, to write to a number of the country's leading newspapers and some major publications dedicated to the film and TV industries. All have reported various revelations from the hack.

The letter is basically a 'cease, desist and destroy' demand. Boies writes, "We have reason to believe that you may possess or may directly or indirectly be given illegally obtained documents or other information stolen from SPE.... SPE does not consent to your possession, review, copying, dissemination, publication, uploading, downloading, or making any use of the Stolen Information and [request] your cooperation in destroying the Stolen Information."

Fail to take heed and, the lawyer continues, "SPE will have no choice but to hold you responsible for any damage or loss arising from such dissemination by you, including any damages or loss to SPE or others, and including, but not limited to, any loss of value of intellectual property and trade secrets resulting from your action."

Editors get a lot of strongly worded legal missives, particularly those on the world's biggest publications, and where there is a reasonable chance that the threats they contain could be carried out, they sometimes step back. However, that isn't the conclusion an outlet can be said to have reached when - as is the case here - most of the letter's recipients decided to publish some (and in a few cases, all) of its content.

Indeed, there's more. US news coverage of the SPE/Boies letter has typically gone on to cite a couple of well-known US Supreme Court judgements that support the media's right to publish stolen information where the outlet itself was not involved in committing the actual theft itself and can demonstrate that the content is newsworthy.

The response to SPE's move has been the journalistic equivalent of "Get stuffed" - you could even call it a US spin on Arkell v Pressdram.

It may well be that Sony's letter was not written in much hope that the media would comply (certainly not those with access to decent lawyers themselves). Rather, for example, the company may be attempting to show partners that have also been caught up in this clusterhack that it is doing all it can to stop further revelations - and thereby avoid any equally nasty lawyerly correspondence from those partners.

But it is still technologically tone deaf, and represents yet another example of digital clumsiness on the part of what is supposed to be a cutting edge conglomerate. Hasn't Sony seen how the world has changed?

Consider how impotent the UK's egregious superinjunction system turned out to be. Yes, papers at home might have been muzzled, but that process only encouraged naming on social media and reporting of who had been granted these legal tools by websites beyond the reach of the UK courts.

Wikileaks and Edward Snowden have further and still more pointedly illustrated how even arguments of suppressing information on the grounds of national security can be circumvented in the digital age.

Cybersecurity and data protection matter because once it's out there, it's out there. Attempting to enforce some kind of blanket ban merely draws more attention to what's been leaked.

In Sony's case, the Boies letter is also quickly being seen alongside its CD root kits, too-weak PlayStation Network, and now too-weak internal security as a further example that the company somehow just doesn't get it. Remind me again how Sony makes most of its money.

The letter is similarly surprising in that the media has shown restraint with regard to the most sensitive content in these leaks, the personal information of SPE employees that breaches their privacy and could be used for identity theft.

That such data forms part of the leaks has been rightly reported - specifically because Sony appears to have paid insufficient care in protecting it - but no self-respecting outlet has or would release any of the details.

That is unlikely to change even in the light of Sony's blunderbuss of clown's confetti. Instead, the focus shifts to how this is becoming a textbook case of how not to manage a hack.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 15 December 2014 03:31 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Another Sony? Yes, it could be you... or me... or anyone

7 December 2014 by Paul Dempsey

As the business world digests the implications of the latest Sony hack, we're quickly moving beyond the inevitable schadenfreude. Any CIO in any industry has to be asking him or herself the question, 'Am I next?'

The hack has fed the obsession of both the media and the public with Hollywood's numbers (box office, star salaries, etc) and gossip (ever think you'd feel so sympathetic towards Adam Sandler?). But beyond that, there is the extremely corrosive nature of much of the information that has been distributed, information that would do any company serious damage.

Three Sony examples worth considering.

1. The exposure of salary details that are said to suggest a notable gender gap between what Sony Pictures pays male and female employees in identical or similar positions.

2. The distribution of charts suggesting that while Sony Pictures pays senior executives of all genders above the average industry rate, those further down the ranking are paid significantly below it.

3. The receipt by Sony Pictures employees of personally threatening emails sent to their private email accounts.

The first of these may point to illegalities under US law and lead to class action lawsuits by current and former women employees. The second and third hardly paint Sony as a good place to work, a company that under-rewards staff and pays insufficient regard to their personal data (the leak also includes Social Security Numbers for much of the workforce).

As the hack unfolds - and the hackers say there is more to come - Sony Pictures' staff have every right to be as angry with their top management as they undoubtedly are with those who undertook the cyberattack.

CIOs and CEOs elsewhere will acknowledge that were they to find themselves in a similar position, it could fundamentally undermine the viability of their businesses.

Beyond that, there is the simple fact that while the hackers only got inside its film and TV operations, Sony is one of the world's premier technology companies. When it comes to its own products, Sony has also been one of the toughest players in terms of DRM, piracy and other aspects of IT security. The worry therefore arises that if someone can do this to Sony, who really is 'safe'.

Initial post mortem findings suggest that this was an extremely sophisticated attack. The invaders were apparently able to get into Sony Pictures' systems and spend quite some time in them undetected. This was not the kind of smash-and-grab hack seen in, ironically enough, the movies.

The FBI is on the case. It may well prove to have the forensic IT tools that can trace the attack back to its source. But when information is stolen, after-the-fact investigations go only a little way to repairing the damage even if they serve 'justice'.

Identifying the culprits here will not repair damage to Sony's relationship with its workforce and many business partners. It will not repair damage to Sony's technological reputation and brand (and remember this hack follows a high-profile attack on the PlayStation Network). It will not restore the secrecy of the information that has been leaked.

So what is to be done? Pen-and-paper, suspension files, and double-deadbolted filing cabinets? Sony employees did find their working practices tumbling half-a-century backwards in the immediate aftermath of the hack, but that is hardly a viable long-term solution.

Here, however, is somewhere that we could make a start: by looking at how the state works to promote awareness of the need for strong cybersecurity, and ensures its availability. The leap from Sony to the role of government isn't as great as it may first appear.

As this column has noted, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron have placed the issue before local business in the US and UK respectively. But at the same time, the state itself is also demanding more access to data everywhere under the umbrella of national security.

There is a tension between these demands that no-one seems capable of resolving, largely because it simply isn't discussed. The security services want one thing. The commercial world (and, let's not forget, the private individual) want another. The fact is that the Internet has yoked together these positions more tightly than ever. Yet everything still comes down to a messy land-grab in cyberpolicy that leaves no-one satisfied. There are few best practices and plenty of loopholes for hackers to exploit.

That the Sony hack should have occurred at a time when data privacy is so high up the political agenda may not help the company but it might help us finally understand the need for a serious debate as to what protections states (and their populations as a whole), companies and individuals should have and how they should be implemented.

Such a debate in itself will not provide sufficient security but without it we will muddle through to many more 'Sonys' in the none-too-distant future. Because, yes, any of us could be next.

Edited: 07 December 2014 at 08:47 AM by Paul Dempsey

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 07 December 2014 08:32 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Google's rope-a-dope ain't working.

28 November 2014 by Paul Dempsey

It's tempting to see the European Parliament's symbolic vote to break up Google as an example of nanny again interfering in the free market. Then you look at the more powerful companies supporting lobbying towards both the vote and, they later hope, tough anti-trust measures against the search giant by the European Commission. You find that many come from the US, the supposed home of capitalism and creative destruction.

For example, two key supporters of FairSearch, a particularly vocal anti-Google lobbying group, are Microsoft and Oracle. Microsoft had a bruising battle with Brussels a few years ago and Oracle more recently had to convince the EU to sign-off on its acquisition of Sun Microsystems. At a personal level meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch has fired several broadsides at Google attacking its claimed impact on businesses from his newspapers to his film and TV studios attributed to everything from aggregation to piracy.

It was Murdoch who famously once quipped, "Monopoly is a terrible thing, till you have it."

These and many other US players (as well as quite a few important European ones) now find themselves on the same side as a political institution they loathe. Of course, the Parliament's vote is unenforceable, as my colleague Pelle Neroth has already noted. The final executive decision must be taken by the European Commission, specifically Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager. But, as Pelle also pointed out, she has been encouraged to throw if not the entire book, then as many pages as she can at Google.

To add to that scenario, Vestager will know that while there have been rumblings from Washington, it is unlikely that the US federal government will take a severe final judgement by her as the opening shot in a trade war precisely because such a large chunk of US high technololgy wants robust action: a large chunk that makes fair-sized campaign contributions at home. So, Google should think again about the cavalry on Capitol Hill.

Rather, one of Vestager's bigger concerns is the likely very damaging disruption to users that would follow any enforced break-up of Google.

Particularly curious amid all this, then, is Google's own 'playbook'.

Right now, the company faces serious issues in two of the world's three main economic blocs. In addition to its EU travails, it remains largely absent in China. It quit the Middle Kingdom four years ago over a well-documented controversy about its unwillingness to censor search results and following attacks on the Gmail network.

It is said to be looking to return, initially by offering a version of the Play apps store, but this could be tricky. Beijing recently added to its existing antipathy towards Google on search by noting concerns about the dominance of the company's Android operating system in the local smartphone market.

Virtually anywhere you care to look, the belief that Google has gotten way too big for its boots seems to be getting ever more widespread.

Yet Google's default response seems to be building a brick wall of passive aggression. It rarely responds to most journalists on any questions of a substantial nature (the European Parliament vote drew another blanket, 'No comment') nor, more importantly, to the majority of comments from users of all stripes. Instead, the best typically to hope for is to be directed to a post on the company's stage-managed blog. That's yer lot.

True, when it comes to an EU anti-trust probe (or negotiating with the Chinese government) there are legal and political niceties to be observed which will restrict how much a company can say openly. However, Google's silence speaks more of arrogance than prudence. Particularly since Google seems to be relying on Vestager's assessment of the public interest (or rather 'public disruption'), its users get a sense of being held hostage to its fortunes and that leaves a sour taste.

So, this strategy is unwise. Google has launched many brilliant products (and some not-so-brilliant ones). Still, it has largely reached its powerful market position on merit, both in terms of its technologies and the business models it has pursued. Regardless of that, the company may be too big in its sectors for comfort. Some kind of anti-trust analysis seems justified. And also deserving of some kind of public response (particularly if the public is part of the argument in your favour).

Given the breadth of forces ranged against it, you would think that Google would articulate the good (or if you prefer, 'not evil') it has done, rather than simply letting it be assumed. Because we've seen coalitions as broad as this emerge before, and if left to run their course, wings inevitably get clipped and sometimes sheared off entirely.

The European Parliament vote might well be virtually meaningless in the legal sense. But it's still a warning, and a very clear one.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 28 November 2014 07:04 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Freeing H-1B holders from indentured servitude

24 November 2014 by Paul Dempsey

President Obama's long overdue moves on US immigration reform have received a mixed response in the high technology community. But that's hardly surprising - it was always going to be impossible to strike a perfect balance. The reforms do however have much for British (and other non-US) engineers interested in moving to America.

Silicon Valley's main complaint is that the White House has not addressed a perceived shortage of H-1B visas, those that US companies seek to initially employ most immigrant technology staff. These visas remain capped at 65,000, though for the 2014 fiscal year there were 124,000 petitions.

However, Obama has tackled a fundamental flaw in the H-1B system from engineers' points of view, both immigrant and native-born American.

Until now, H-1Bs have been often criticised by holders as a form of indentured servitude, and by Americans as a tool for employing foreigners on far lower wages than they would - or could - accept. Obama's proposal for a "portable work authorisation" addresses these views directly.

First, here's how things stand before Obama's plan actually comes into force.

Under an H-1B, the holder can work in the US only for the company that sponsors the original visa application and for up to six years. Employers can (and typically do) sponsor H-1B staff in subsequent applications for permanent immigrant status (i.e. a 'green card') that allows those employees to move jobs. Sounds fair enough? However, there's a bureaucracy at work here and some companies have exploited that.

During the green-card application process, the H-1B holder must remain with the sponsor employer. He or she cannot in any practical sense change jobs. Securing another H-1B from another company offering a more attractive package entails such inconveniences as the need to go and live outside the US for a year before returning. More important, securing that second H-1B means a new green card application with a new sponsor - back to the end of the queue.

And it can be a very long queue, particularly in regions like Silicon Valley where the immigration services are knee-deep in applications for obvious reason.

Hence, the visa holders' claims of indentured servitude. The worker is tied to an employer who can - though not all do - pay him less, restrict his benefits, withhold promotions and more. The more unscrupulous companies know that these staff members are, for a good few years, trapped.

Those are the main reasons for immigrants' frustration. US citizens are even more critical. They see this system not merely as enabling companies to bring in cheaper workers from overseas but actively encouraging them to do so. This is not ugly 'taking away our jobs' rhetoric. The wage differential between H-1B and other employees has been documented, as has more extreme abuse of the system.

So what's changed?

Obama's portable work authorisation will allow those H-1B holders who submit applications for permanent residence to move to other companies while they are being processed. Moreover, the legal partners of H-1B holders will themselves be allowed to seek employment where previously they were not.

So, employers will have to be more honest. Assuming they bring staff to the US on merit, they will find it harder to deny or delay sponsoring their green card requests and to treat them as second class relative to US citizens. Meanwhile, as the H-1B stops looking like a cheap option, local engineers will hope their employment opportunities also improve.

And this move has potential implications for Silicon Valley's claims of skill shortages because it expands the labour recruitment market. Companies can look across a broader swathe of the Valley's working population. Just how far this might go in addressing the visa cap issue is hard to say, but it is a start.

The reforms will be introduced by 'executive action', the power that allows the president to enact measures without first getting approval from Congress. So, Obama has bypassed Republican intransigence on immigration reform (which the party blocked even when it held the presidency, despite George W. Bush's genuine efforts).

There remains much in the US immigration system and how it applies to high technology specifically that could do with further work. But, as I said at the outset, the risk/reward calculation for a British engineer who wants to try his luck in the Valley has shifted significantly in the right direction.

Edited: 24 November 2014 at 09:53 AM by Paul Dempsey

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 24 November 2014 03:46 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Celluloid rages against the dying of the light

20 November 2014 by Paul Dempsey

Which version of Interstellar have you seen? You may not realise this but there are at least six. That's largely down to director Christopher Nolan's determination to keep the debate going about shooting and exhibiting movies on film or digitally.

Nolan is an unashamed film guy. He shot Interstellar on a combination of 35mm standard and 65mm IMAX stock, the 35mm material in the anamorphic 2.4:1 aspect ratio and the IMAX material in a the near-golden 1.43:1 ratio. He wants as many of you as possible to see his work that way, with the projected images swapping between the two formats. However, only a few IMAX cinemas worldwide can screen the movie native (just four are doing so in the UK, a few dozen out of thousands in the US).

Even most IMAX-branded cinemas screen movies digitally at 4k resolution (and they show Interstellar in another slightly different version mixing 2.4:1 and 1.9:1 ratios). Then there are other 4k-digital cinemas and 2k-digital cinemas as well as a handful that still have 'traditional' 35mm and 70mm film projectors. And there's more ratio soup to sup at each of those.

Confusing, isn't it? But from Nolan's point of view, accepting this jumble is a necessary evil. He believes that film offers qualities that digital cannot yet match and may never match. He's no luddite. The content of his film makes that clear enough. Rather, Nolan is a talented moviemaker who wants to make his medium's equivalent to a painter's choice from oils, watercolours, and various other materials. And Nolan feels his audience should be able to see the result in as close a version as possible to his intentions.

Nolan is not alone in this battle. This July, he joined up with fellow directors such as J.J. Abrams and Quentin Tarantino to convince Hollywood to keep funding Kodak's film processing operation. Kodak's film revenues have fallen 96% in the last decade as cinemas have moved to digital projection and it is the last remaining movie stock maker (Fujifilm closed its division in 2013).

But though the drive to preserve what we'll perhaps now have to call 'film moviemaking' is supported by other A-list directors - most notably Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese - Kodak's lifeline is said to be finite. So, Interstellar being a huge hit with the public and critics matters a lot.

Even seen digitally - for me in IMAX digital - enough of what Nolan has captured and crafted on film translates into the images on the big screen. Interstellar is a beautiful movie. So, you might reply, is James Cameron's all-digital Avatar. And you'd be right. But what these two master directors offer is distinctively different visually. Because this isn't about digital being a second-rate format, rather a different one.

Economics have driven digital projector adoption for cinemas: it's massively cheaper to produce and ship bits of data than cans of celluloid. But, for many moviemaking projects, digital is the better way. Avatar cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but then consider another of the great action movies of recent years, Welsh director Gareth Evans' The Raid. It is a low-budget Indonesian work with kinetic visuals that would have been near-impossible to realise without advances in lightweight digital cameras.

Many classics of the past continue to speak to us about the visual qualities of film: Sir David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus, to name but three. But as a contemporary 'event' movie, Interstellar gives us the chance to compare what remains possible with film today. It shows us something worth preserving... as well as the human race.

That Interstellar is a terrific science-fiction movie on many other levels obviously helps. Some parts recall, though it doesn't quite match, Andrei Tarkovsky's sublime Solaris. Others, for all its well-documented flaws, show far greater respect for science than usual Hollywood blockbusters. But Interstellar also reminds us that as digital technologies develop we should sometimes see them as alternatives not harbingers of technological Darwinism.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 20 November 2014 04:28 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Climate change as gigascale quantitative easing

12 November 2014 by Paul Dempsey

I'd like to claim a great hulking 'TYS' over the US-China agreement on climate change unveiled today (November 12). Particularly since The Guardian says it was a 'secret'. Well, maybe the detail of the talks were, but that they were happening was common knowledge.

'Something on climate change' was long expected to form part of President Obama's state visit to Beijing. To some degree, the deal's announcement was held back from the UN's September environmental summit in New York because President Xi did not attend - it would have put him in the diplomatic quandary of visiting the US twice before Obama had been to China.

The real key to the deal is much as outlined in more detail in my last blog. But to briefly recap.

The US has long been working to preemptively determine the framework for what can be negotiated during December's Conference of the Parties on climate change in Peru and then signed off a year later at the Paris COP.

It cannot be a treaty - there aren't the votes to get one ratified by the US Senate. It has to be a series of interlocking agreements and commitments that bypass the need for Capitol Hill's assent. With China joining the US to promote this strategy, the COP outcome may well fall short of what activists want but it's about as good as we're going to get. Either way, other countries are now more likely to fall in line with the US approach - again, getting China on side first pour encourager les autres has always been part of the plan.

If there is a further interesting aspect of the deal to explore though, it is what China has put on the table.

The US' main commitment is to get its carbon emissions to 26-28% below their 2005 level by 2025. China's is for its emissions to peak by no later than 2030 by which time it will meet "around 20%" of its energy needs from non-fossil fuels.

The big news here is summed up in the White House's own analysis of the Chinese plan: "It will require China to deploy an additional 800-1,000GW of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero-emission generation capacity by 2030 - more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to total current electricity generation capacity in the United States."

Setting aside the climate change issue, another way of looking at this is to note that President Xi has just unveiled a truly massive capital spending programme, and invited the US to call him out if it fails to progress. Its value is probably incalculable - though over the coming hours, some will no doubt try - but it could dwarf the billions China has already poured into infrastructure and general construction as part of its dash for growth.

Moreover, China feels up to the task based on its own resources - not just materials but also technological know-how. We have already reached the point where the prospect of the UK buying nuclear power plants from the Middle Kingdom can be seriously discussed. In terms of everything from 'green' energy R&D through to precision tooling and manufacturing, China has come a long way.

So, at a time when the world's markets have been getting increasingly twitchy about China's ability to maintain economic growth, this is quantitative easing on the grandest scale.

It is also, surely, the largest co-ordinated engineering programme the world has ever seen.

The deal also gives us an insight into Xi Jinping's political objectives - or at least one that this time expresses itself in terms of engineering. Specifically, it is his drive to reassert the position of the Communist Party at the unquestioned summit of Chinese society.

This has expressed itself most explicitly and controversially to the West in terms of rigid authoritarianism, most recently the impasse between Hong Kong's democracy protesters and both Beijing and the regional government. However, Xi is also aware of the need to satisfy the old maxim that, "The Party will provide."

China today is reckoned to have more than 160 cities with populations of more than one million people. It is not just Beijing and Shanghai that are choking on pollution - smog is a national and unavoidable issue. Even those who accept environmental blight as a byproduct of industrialization - and one they note, with some justification, that many 'clean' western nations needed to suffer in the past - believe that something must now be done. That belief extends into Beijing's top echelons.

Even at the most cynically political level, there is an apparent acknowledgement that pollution is a powerful argument that can be wielded by dissidents (Remember artist Ai Weiwei on Twitter in his gas mask). The one way to take that from the regime's opponents is to do something about it... and do it big.

These factors on the Chinese side need to be seen alongside US pragmatism as we set our expectations. There is always a good chance that plans of this scale will not meet their targets. Some scepticism is also still fair enough. However, these objectives represent a great deal more than simply fine words.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 12 November 2014 10:15 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Obama and the breeze of climate change

10 November 2014 by Paul Dempsey

There's a view that Republican victories in the US midterms massively set back plans for a binding global treaty on climate change within two years. The reality is that we were never likely to get one - and the Obama administration had already been planning along those lines.

When it comes to climate change, the fact that President Obama will see out his term facing simple Republican majorities in both Houses on Capitol Hill is moot. For the US to formally ratify any binding treaty requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate. This 'supermajority' requirement did for the Kyoto Protocol and would have done the same for any successor, even had the parties remained unchanged after last week's election.

Obama has never had the votes. So he has tackled climate change side-on. At home, his administration has sought to introduce regulation by 'executive action'. This concept gives the President power to direct federal agencies to enact certain measures without new law being passed. It is a controversial way of bypassing the Senate and the House of Representatives, though both Democrat and Republican White Houses have used it.

One of Obama's executive actions addresses carbon emissions from coal-fired power stations with cuts to be imposed through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 2015. Not surprisingly, groups within the energy industry and a number of Republican state attorneys general have filed suit claiming the president has exceeded his constitutional authority. However, the White House is confident the judgements will come down in its favour.

Absent the realistic prospect of a formal climate change treaty, this is strategically significant. Obama's administration has been developing another legal workaround here for some time.

The UN's ideal is for a globally-effective follow-on treaty to Kyoto to be agreed at a 'conference of the parties' (COP) in Paris next year. Much of the hard bargaining is due to take place this December at a COP in Lima, Peru.

Many countries - and UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon - say publicly that they are driving towards this goal. Privately, they acknowledge that political deadlock in the US makes it nigh-on impossible. Without the US in any deal, adherence by other major carbon emitters would be impossible to enforce.

Obama's negotiators have therefore touted an alternative. Instead of a full treaty, they propose a set of 'accords'. Again, legal niceties envelop the proposal. It's surely fair for any layperson to ask what is the difference between a treaty and an accord. But the White House lawyers reckon they know the answer to that.

These accords could set targets and international aid commitments to the most badly affected countries. They could incorporate both monitoring and reporting. However, their power would likely reside more in an ability to 'name and shame' offenders than one that required them to act.

At first, that tastes like small beer. Particularly since the immediate run-up to Lima was prefaced last week by a gloomy update from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It wants an end to all fossil-fuel generated power by 2100 - or else.

However, the White House is arguing that accords today could be a platform for explicitly binding terms on the US and others sooner rather than later. Even at home, it reckons that voter anger could soon keep all politicians on the right side of voluntary commitments.

Polling of Republican voters is said to indicate that only a third actively support their party's position on climate change. This is in line with wider research. A YouGov poll for the Huffington Post, taken shortly before the midterm vote, found that 53% of the US electorate wanted its politicians to pass related legislation within the next year - 29% said it was "very important", 24% "somewhat important". In addition, 44% of respondents said that human action was the cause, while only 12% said no change was occurring at all.

Going further, this election saw the emergence of a Political Action Committee (PAC) funding candidates supporting legislation. The millions spent by NextGen Climate Action (backed primarily by hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer) did not stem the Republican tide. But what they did do was force a number of Republicans to either embrace 'green' energy or hold their tongues on climate change.

In other words, the argument that regulation here equals bad science, higher taxes and lost jobs is becoming less persuasive.

None of this will be enough for climate change activists. But, the thinking goes, such supporters can only ever seed a movement. The EPA itself was set up because the arguments of people such as Silent Spring author Rachel Carson finally entered the zeitgeist.

More pertinently, the UK's clean air legislation came about because the public of the 1950s could actually see what was going wrong - a trend today visible in China which is gradually abandoning its "We will if you will" attitude to curbing carbon as cities like Beijing and Shanghai literally choke.

Indeed, don't be surprised to see China align itself with the US strategy this very week, as the Middle Kingdom's premier Xi Jinping and Obama meet at APEC and after that during a formal American state visit to Beijing.

The winds of political change, then, may be blowing more slowly than those in accumulating environmental research. Is that good enough? Perhaps we should start by asking if it is as good as we can get? Either way, rumours of Lima's and Paris' demise are overstated. Rather, it's our old friend 'the management of expectations'.

Edited: 10 November 2014 at 07:46 AM by Paul Dempsey

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 10 November 2014 07:40 AM     General     Comments (0)  

The 'For all mankind' question again faces Virgin Galactic

3 November 2014 by Paul Dempsey

I grew up during the Space Race between the US and the USSR. It was glamorous, exciting, futuristic. We left it to our elders to ask, 'Why?'.

There were important adult answers to the question. We hear many of them again in the current race between China and India. Excluding an ideological confrontation between capitalism and communism, we in the West view their efforts through the prisms of Apollo and Soyuz, Sputnik and Telstar.

It is a competition between two nations aimed at boosting their global stature and energizing their own peoples. We also understand the Chinese and Indian programmes in terms of attempts to develop technological know-how and military strength.

The underlying message: "If we can conquer space, nothing is beyond our reach."

Now, there is also commercial competition in launchers. They aim to reduce the cost of putting vehicles into space. For example, SpaceX has flown four cargo missions to the International Space Station and has various other contracts. Its longer term goal is a permanent manned-presence on Mars.

We see these private players in the context of communications, science and exploration.

But what about Virgin Galactic?

The loss last week of SpaceShipTwo and test pilot Michael Alsbury is a tragedy for his family, colleagues and those who knew him personally.

For those of us in technology, it is a timely reminder. We have been too eager, in our Apprentice-style way, to make heroes out of desk-bound executives as brave risk-takers. A good number of cutting-edge technologies - though particularly aviation and marine exploration - require people who are prepared to put their lives rather than just their livelihoods on the line. They demand the greatest respect.

That disaster should strike Virgin Galactic has however once more raised concerns about the venture itself.

Many of these are about economic disparity - some would say inverted snobbery. Either way, Virgin Galactic is not, unlike other space programmes, one whose reason-to-exist is the extension of human knowledge. It is space tourism, a chance for the very wealthy ($250,000 a ticket) to experience a few weightless moments outside our atmosphere.

OK, pause button. That goal does not mean that Virgin Galactic has not and could not yet innovate in ways that have broader benefits. Advanced avionics, airframe and other engineering disciplines are necessary, and could well have applications elsewhere.

Moreover, the cost of space travel has always been an issue. In the US, the space race was contemporary with great social upheaval and the emergence of the civil rights movement. Many commentators then saw NASA as an expensive luxury when there were bigger earthbound problems. A similar debate rumbles on in India today.

But there's another side to the problem. Our relationship with space exploration has until now been decidedly vicarious. NASA famously brands its efforts as being 'For all mankind'. The astronauts are our most immediate representatives, the scientists and other workers are the enablers but, by broadening our knowledge, we are all the beneficiaries. Or that's how the bargain is supposed to work.

Virgin Galactic feels quite the opposite. Placing those who can afford a ticket in orbit does have unavoidable connotations of bragging rights which do not chime well. But perhaps more importantly, it breaks that philosophical bargain.

We expect work in space to have general and clear benefits for humanity even now, be they as mundane as global communications networks or as potentially existential as furthering our understanding of climate change. Do projects that undermine that criterion undermine space exploration as a whole?

You may think it is 'too soon' to raise that question after a test pilot's death - but 'test' is an important word here. This is a chance to ask ourselves if it is still 'too soon' for scientific (and yes, military) research to translate into any type of consumer day-tripping. Because the answer probably is not just about the safety of the vehicles that are used.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 03 November 2014 07:01 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Elon Musk kicks Ultron's butt... with ironclad rules

27 October 2014 by Paul Dempsey

"I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I were to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it's probably that.

"So we need to be very careful with artificial intelligence. I'm increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don't do something very foolish.

"With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon. You know all those stories where there's the guy with the pentagram and the holy water and he's, like yeah, he's sure he can control the demon. Didn't work out."

The quote itself sounds like it's from a movie. Latter-day Cassandra describes dire threat from behind lectern. Nobody listens. Uh-oh.

But these are the thoughts of Elon Musk from last week's Centennial Symposium at MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The man behind SpaceX, Tesla and PayPal is hardly one of the tinfoil hat brigade. Rather, a prescient and successful visionary - Tony Stark without the penchant for blowing things up.

Hollywood has given us many AI villains. From Hal 9000 to Skynet to the battling cyber intelligences of current TV hit Person of Interest. This Spring, Marvel's Avengers will battle the genocidal robot Ultron, with last week's leaked trailer coldly referencing Pinocchio: "There are no strings on me," intones our not-at-all-a-real-boy.

As for Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, those date back to 1942 - clearly he had the original Hydra in mind.

Joking aside, with a few notable exceptions like Asimov, we have used dramatic conflict between man and machine to define our own humanity - and its superiority. We give HAL a nervous breakdown; the machine couldn't cope with our garbage inputs. In Terminator 2, the story pivots around teaching Schwarzenegger's 800-series human morality.

This was hardly stuff that many technologists would debate publicly. AI was then still a remote prospect - great for sci-fi authors to exploit and philosophers to debate, but engineering had more immediate problems.

What's changed - and what makes Musk's comments important - is that AI is finally here. It may not be 'fully formed' or 'conscious', but consider this example.

The human sales process involves an understanding of emotional responses, body language and desires. It's very much about telling the client what he or she wants to hear. Something you might look for from a Turing Test perhaps.

Now consider how good Amazon's personal product recommendations or Facebook's ad placement are getting. They are also about reading you.

Obviously, this is just one component of a fully-fledged AI, but we are seeing more of them enter real-life use all the time.

And when someone like Musk raises the topic, we listen. Because here's a savvy guy who gets bombarded with investment opportunities in Silicon Valley. In that context, AI is hot.

But it's also a secretive sector, even by Valley standards. Some start-ups are wooing the military and others are after similarly protective e-commerce companies. And more.

Musk will be seeing a lot of these pitches cross his desk. He has insider knowledge. Whatever, his teeth are itching.

Given all this, the more immediately important thing in what he says isn't the existential Hollywood trope. That's to get your attention. What matters is the call for regulation.

Today, we can identify AI components and how to create them - and it is inevitable that they will play an increasing and ubiquitous role in our lives. If Musk is talking about them like this, we need some rules - detailed post-1942 rules.

We can no longer use AI as a straw man to define how 'good' we are; we have to define AI to make ourselves and our world better.

Or maybe Ultron (and Douglas Adams) are right: "Virus with legs. P'ah. See ya."

Edited: 27 October 2014 at 09:57 AM by Paul Dempsey

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 27 October 2014 09:22 AM     General     Comments (1)  

Nokia - so much more than what's in a name

23 October 2014 by Paul Dempsey

So, Microsoft is to kill off the Nokia brand in mobile phones - at least on its own kit. It's amazing in some ways that the news does not come as much of a surprise.

Nokia's phone division had been stumbling for a while. Widely acknowledged as having missed the boat on smartphones, it pushed Psion's Symbian mobile OS spin-out to the point of acquiring it, then jumped for Windows Mobile with a few Android products, and was finally acquired by the Redmond behemoth. Just six months later, in comes the towel.

Then, add the facts that younger rivals can now pump out smartphones at ever cheaper cost - shoppers can pick up unlocked models for well under £100 - and that Apple stole Nokia's reputation for having the best UI.

Yet it is still only a little over 20 years since Nokia got the mobile revolution going with the first mass-produced GSM handset. The 1011 arrived in 1992 and was followed, even into the early WAP days of the mobile Internet, by a sequence of hands-down winners. We even forgave them that diddle-ee-dee, diddle-ee-dee, diddle-ee-dee-dee ringtone.

In Europe particularly (though less so in the US where GSM was a late arrival), Nokia was intensely fashionable. It pioneered garish fasciae long before the iPhone 5C. It had all of us peering at that blasted Snake game for far longer than was healthy. And, among the young, its cheaper, easy-to-use phones kickstarted our continuing fondness for instant messaging, then with SMS.

You would think that, even some obvious missteps aside, there would still be a residual brand value in the Nokia name. And maybe there would have been had it not been Microsoft that bought its handset business - I'm not saying that for any malicious reasons, but more because Microsoft has been juggling so many mobile brands, some rationalization was inevitable.

It's unlikely though that the continuing and separate Nokia Oyj conglomerate - still a major player in comms infrastructure and IT in its own right - will quickly seek to re-enter the handset business, assuming that use of the brand now reverts back to it. Questionable margins, too many players.

Moreover, it's arguable that as the handset market grew, it did progressively shift away from where Nokia as a company has historically and culturally been strongest.

Some years ago, Nokia was jokingly introduced to me by one of its own executives thus, "You've heard of 3M. Well, we're the 3W company: wood, wire and wellies." We were talking about the company's then early emergence as a mobile technology giant. But while Nokia had also moved on from those industries by then, there was a character truth to the quip that carried over to its new incarnation.

Nokia was built by harnessing Finland's natural resources and turning them into practical products for use at home and, more important, export - particularly in the 20th century to Russia. Paper and other finished timber products. Cable for telegraph and telephony. Rubber boots for workers and consumers battling some of the world's more inclement weather. And so on.

The move into mobile communications was itself seeded in practicality and the company's own experience. Supplying infrastructure for wired networks in often inhospitable conditions taught Nokia how difficult it could be to construct and maintain. Reliable, ubiquitous and affordable wireless communications had attractions you could readily grasp in Scandinavia.

As Microsoft winds down the brand's use, it's ironic perhaps that wellies will soon represent the most likely way in which consumers will encounter the Nokia name on the High Street. Albeit also sold off by the main conglomerate, the brand is battling Hunter for gumboot glory amid one of the more unlikely fashion trends in recent memory.

The Nokia conglomerate carries on. Its ability to innovate from necessity and then also deliver solid, well-designed and reliable products has been baked in for more than a century. It has reinvented itself more often - and generally more successfully - than HP. Don't let a mere brand retirement mislead you.

On hearing the news, though, I still had to pause and miss my own old 3210. It looked good. It did everything I thought I could want of a phone at the time. And it took the kind of physical beating none of today's kit could withstand. Nowadays, I carry a fragile toy by comparison.

Edited: 23 October 2014 at 07:21 AM by Paul Dempsey

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 23 October 2014 06:55 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Technology and content: better-off apart

17 October 2014 by Paul Dempsey

Word has it that Silicon Valley is circling Hollywood for acquisitions. We've been here before and what evidence there is suggests that technology and content do not make such happy bedfellows.

Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter chose San Francisco for his magazine's New Establishment Summit this month. You get an idea of where Carter used to see that establishment's epicentre from his other big annual shindig: the post-Oscars party that attracts simply everybody daaahling.

Collared by the New York Times, George Lucas divined Carter's summit thinking bluntly.

"Do you smell that?" he said. "It's the smell of money. That's why they're here."

So it was that L.A. movers like Disney's Bob Iger and Paramount's Brad Grey sat down with Valley shakers like Google's Eric Schmidt and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. Neither quite sure which was lamb and which lion.

Silicon Valley has already done music. Now, technology companies are becoming more active in film and TV production. Netflix led the way with House of Cards. Amazon backs a raft of shows and stepped in to rescue the BBC's excellent Ripper Street from cancellation. YouTube has deals with Endemol of Big Brother fame and many other major producers.

These are examples of streaming services securing high profile content, but it isn't such a leap to imagine many more kit-sellers and portals commissioning their own shows, maybe spamming U2 at you. Then, as the Times' Nick Bilton notes, nudge things one arguably affordable step further:

"[At the summit,] I heard several venture capitalists mention that for one-fifth of the $22bn that Facebook paid for WhatsApp, the messaging platform, it could buy Lions Gate or AMC Networks, valued at $4bn each. Facebook could easily make that content exclusive (Breaking Bad, brought to you by Facebook). In one session, Kara Swisher of [tech news site] Re/code talked about Apple buying Disney, as if it were buying a carton of milk at the deli."

OK, my first reaction to that possibility consists of one word: Sony. My second consists of three: AOL Time Warner.

Next month marks the 25th anniversary of Sony's acquisition of Columbia Pictures. The Japanese giant still owns its movie studio. It still owns the bulk of the music industry acquisitions it has made since CBS in 1988. Sony controls and profits across a broad swathe of the supply chain.

But few would say the company has built enduring and innovative content/hardware crossover businesses as a result of its adventures. The Walkman was ubiquitous when it bought CBS. Columbia's movies would help Blu-Ray win the last great packaged media battle against HD-DVD, but only for Sony to get blindsided by streaming.

More immediately pertinent, Sony is reckoned to earn far more in music sales from iTunes than it does from the PlayStation Store. Sony got into online music fairly early, but for all its supposed synergistic resources, suffered ignominious failure. It overpriced and only 'rented' songs. Apple had no in-house vested interests pushing back, came later, got the model right and has prospered profusely.

As for 2000's $350bn merger of AOL and Time Warner...well, that went well.

Sony has stayed the course because various businesses that were meant to play well together - but didn't - have been successful in their own right. But the point stands: one 'competence' has not informed the other as much as it was supposed to.

So, if these deals offer a warning from the past, is anything different today?

A big part of what fuels current talk of 'synergistic M&A' is fear within the music, TV and film businesses. Traditional distribution channels are being marginalized. Then, there is the belief that getting some major technology companies inside Hollywood's tent would lead Silicon Valley to lobby more aggressively on piracy.

OK, but is that really different? The large content providers fought tooth-and-nail against video rental back when VHS and Betamax slugged it out. In their view, it would diminish receipts from cinemas and TV sales. In reality, it filled their boots to overflowing and sparked a surge in content production. And despite what the 1980s campaign said, home taping did not kill music. Technology did those guys a lot of favours despite their best efforts.

Invite such forces inside a technology company in the digital age and chances are they will push back again. Content has already proved ponderously slow to adapt to today's market.

For here's a final irony: creative industries don't do creative destruction. Not when it comes to business models. Technology companies should buy the content gurus' cool stuff (oh, and push the budgetary controls on them too). But they shouldn't get too close or they could find their co-drivers slamming the brakes on innovation.

History says we're best staying just good friends.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 17 October 2014 06:54 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Apple bites Asian pair

14 October 2014 by Paul Dempsey

One of the many ways in which Tim Cook is not Steve Jobs is that he doesn't do 'feuding' - at least not in the public, theatrical sense. Arise then Sir Jony Ive.

Aside from the carefully choreographed launches, Jobs was infamous for firing off caustic zingers at staff, hacks, rivals and even customers who sent in what he considered dumb emails.

His biographer Walter Isaacson recalls when even Phil Knight, the equally marketing savvy founder of Nike, got a tongue-lashing from Jobs for having too diverse a product line: just make a couple of awesome sneakers and be done with it.

Cook's smart-casual demeanour belies a tough negotiator - this is the guy who struck Apple's rock-hard manufacturing contracts - but you can't quite see him doing that. Then again, until just now you'd have been tempted to say the same about Sir Jony. Before he gave 'cool' Chinese smartphone company Xiaomi quite the slap.

A Vogue interview and high profile presence at Paris Fashion Week were all part of Apple's backroom design guru emerging into the spotlight. He grabbed centre stage by essentially accusing Xiaomi and its founder Lei Jun of ripping him off.

OK, Sir Jony kept his actual comments generic, but given they were in response to a comment about Xiaomi, it was clear where his ire was directed.

This is particularly good feud stuff because Xiaomi has been cultivating its image as the Chinese Apple both assiduously and openly. Lei Jun sports a turtleneck and jeans for his own launch events and cites Steve Jobs as his corporate icon.

Xiaomi has so far offered a muted, almost apologetic and apparently surprised response via the Chinese Weibo blogging portal. Now, that could simply be the sad pushback of a wannabe. I"m not buying it.

Ive's comments have brought Xiaomi to global attention, far beyond its rapidly growing Asian base. No publicity is bad publicity, particularly when you just got the stink eye from the 800lb gorilla. And you ain't no pup no more - but you got ambition.

So, taking this one on the chin might not hurt so much. Xiaomi does make well thought out products - although yes, it stands on giant's shoulders. Still, those products are now being sought out far more widely by the West's geek community.

At the same time, I admire Ive's outspokenness. Released from the design studio, he has emerged as someone who puts heart and soul into his work. In the context of a supremely successful shedload of iStuff, he's more than earned the right to snark. For here, the cliche holds up: his influence is profound.

And it takes us back to a time when tech professionals were more willing to speak their minds, for good or ill. Dialogue in the business has become too tame, too corporate. Jobs' generation includes other brilliant but also sometimes candidly OTT men like Larry Ellison and Scott McNealy. Ive feels a bit like a throwback to that, and they were exciting, innovative and passionate times, full of doers.

So there may be two winners here - albeit one more than Sir Jony had in mind.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 14 October 2014 11:51 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Ebola: the IT side is about resources too

10 October 2014 by Paul Dempsey

The IT tools and methodologies that help combat viral outbreaks are mature and effective. Like many other aspects of the Ebola crisis spreading beyond West Africa, their usefulness has and will be determined by available resources.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released an important analytical tool last month. Ebola Response is a free-to-download and easy-to-use Excel spreadsheet - no major advanced training required.

The problem is GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. A tool is only as valuable as the quality of the inputs.

This is no criticism of the frontline teams fighting the virus. They are doing all they can, but have been too long constrained by the resources of some of the world's poorest countries. Maintaining data integrity comes a distant second when you don't have enough careworkers and beds in isolation wards.

This is why it is so critical that governments, like our own, and global institutions, like the World Bank, acknowledged this week that the fight against Ebola needs an urgent and meaningful increase in support. It is long overdue, and may need to be substantially increased - but endless point-scoring about that won't help us win. Bodies like the World Health Organisation need all the help they can get.

Let's remind ourselves why analytics matter. The delivery of actual care is the priority, but without the data to review and predict that process as accurately as possible, where will we be?

A specific but simple example. Healthcare experts say that you know you are 'winning' when you bring a reinfection rate below 1 - every victim passes the disease on to less than one other person. Therefore, the outbreak is in decline. Your strategy is paying off.

The rate for the current Ebola outbreak is variously estimated between 1.5 and 2 - and that is on the basis of patchy data. But here is another concerning report.

In one rural region, there were reports of a fall in the reinfection rate. Good news or outlier? Nobody knows.

There have been claims of villagers moving victims out of sight; others have proved to be in slightly further outlying areas care teams did not or could not reach.

Those gathering the data could not say there were enough resources going into its collection - or indeed their care efforts - to be confident of what the analysis said. We must praise their caution.

But this highlights a danger. Health workers need to know if their strategies are working. IT analytics help track progress. But reports that sow false confidence can be fatal, allowing an epidemic to burn on when experts thought it was being extinguished.

We need to get the technology not just in the right hands, but enough of them. Let's hope we've started to do that.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 10 October 2014 12:42 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Team Geek - saving the world nightly. But what's in it for us?

3 October 2014 by Paul Dempsey

We used to complain that there were far too few 'positive' representations of science and scientists on TV and at the movies. Right now though, we're drowning in them. And that begs another question.

Do you remember when it was said that if we had a more 'attractive' image it would translate into more young men and women taking STEM degrees and jobs? Hasn't happened, has it?

First, look at some of what stands atop the TV schedules on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the UK, The Doctor might not get Downton numbers but he's graduated from children's hour to primetime and will hang around a lot longer. Sherlock, that most rational of autodidacts, is another international phenomenon. And while Blighty may have more soaps and reality shows than we'd like, our ever superb documentarians give the science fiction a factual spine.

It's in the US, though, that the geeking has really got serious. CSI will mark its 15th year on air in 2015. Sure the UK has the even longer-running Silent Witness, but few shows have fetishised technology quite as well. And the franchise, which has already spawned two spin-offs in New York and Miami, will mark its birthday by launching a third: CSI:Cyber is explicitly dedicated to all things blackhat.

Meanwhile, Person of Interest continues to explore the worlds of surveillance and artificial intelligence while, albeit in supporting roles, shows such as 24 and The Blacklist have heroes who depend heavily on their own versions of Q. Indeed, they are so integral to the plot, you could even say the increased role Ben Whishaw's Q had in Skyfall was Bond copying back from such programmes the 2.0 version of what they had originally stolen from it.

Oh, and now we also have Scorpion. This latest, heavily-hyped addition to US primetime sees a team of multi-disciplinary geniuses save the world every week, and even claims a basis in fact. Specifically, it says it is drawn from the case files of real-life cybersecurity expert, Walter O'Brien - though what they have done with any input he has had is often pretty eyerolling.

As for the movies.... Tony Stark anyone? Iron Man 3 saw him explicitly encouraging a young lad along the engineering path.

An important thing to note here is that all the TV shows I've cited score well with teenagers and those slightly younger in the ratings. These audiences like this stuff, and like it more than the traditional police procedurals it has typically replaced. So why don't we see more of the same kids becoming more engaged with STEM? Where's the knock-on enthusiasm?

You could say that in today's dramas, we like our heroes to be imperfect. Indeed, we've long preferred them that way. The old-school copper might be a brilliant detective but also needs some marital tensions or to be too fond of a pint. Similarly, today's geek heroes therefore tend to be socially awkward (As Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock sarcastically misdiagnoses himself: "I'm not a psychopath, Anderson. I'm a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research").

So 'positive' representations? Only up to a point.

But this is a dead-end. It suggests that we haven't quite got what we want, but that we can. When it comes to drama, I'd suggest that we can't and should probably give up ever expecting to. Drama requires conflict; conflict typically requires character flaws.

There's also a bit of 'shoot the messenger' going on here. It's the media's fault because 'they' make 'us' all look like nutty professors or, also, because they play fast and loose with what science can do. In fact, on that last point, transparent Marvel-like fantasies aside, today's writers take far more care to stay on the right side of the divide between speculation and absurdity.

The reality is that those countries and cultures that seem to be encouraging more young people into STEM education and careers place considerable top-down value on science and engineering. They may use the media to communicate that but only in how they pass those values through the social hierarchy.

India and China, for example, have large totemic space projects - their own Apolllos. But an economy doesn't need their size or scale to get across the same kind of message such endeavours do convey.

So, here's an irony. Perhaps the success of science-inspired TV fiction shows us that there is a generation intrigued by technology. Its fondness for gadgets and gaming consoles would tend to suggest that also. The challenge, though, is not in getting media or dramatists to harness that, but figuring out how we do it ourselves. And with the help of the others who actually lead our societies.

Meanwhile, there's some great telly back on for the autumn season. Do enjoy.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 03 October 2014 11:14 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Climate change and the limits of realpolitik

16 September 2014 by Paul Dempsey

The United Nations will host Climate Summit 2014 on September 23rd in New York. Hype and expectation around the event are lower than in the past. Everyone still remembers the misfires of 2009. And this prelude to the next round of detailed treaty negotiations in Peru this December has already been put in its place.

About 120 heads of state will attend the event, including US President Barack Obama. He will unveil an initiative to phase out US use of the ubiquitous HFC greenhouse gas R-134a - a coolant found in most American cars, homes and offices - in the hope that other nations will follow suit. Good for him. But he will not be joined by his opposite numbers from either China or India, respectively the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases along with the US.

This is not an outright snub as senior politicians from both nations will attend (and the US has done the same at other climate change events). But China's and India's decisions are still underpinned by realpolitik in a way that shows where and how any final treaty is likely to be written.

China, for example, will send Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli as a special envoy representing President Xi Jinping. For Xi to attend in New York would involve him traveling twice to the United States before Obama has visited Beijing once since his appointment.

Instead, look to see how climate change figures during Obama's trip to the Middle Kingdom. It's currently scheduled, conveniently enough, for November, just before the Peruvian treaty bargaining begins.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likewise busy elsewhere. He is sending environment minister Prakash Javadekar to the UN meeting (though he will address the full General Assembly four days later).

One critical climate change discussion here is set for the following week when Modi is due to meet with Obama for bilateral talks in Washington. Modi is also said to be unwilling to be forced into making any major public statement on the topic at what would be his first major UN engagement as Prime Minister.

Nevertheless, the impression is that the real horse trading is taking place among the main industrial players on their own terms in a group that also includes the EU, Brazil and Russia.

'Twas ever thus, you might say.

But the especially disappointing aspect of this is that moves towards a successor to Kyoto were supposed to take place not just across but in a much broader church for very good reasons.

While we debate the topic of extreme weather in the developed world, it has already become an existential threat to many smaller nations. Island coastlines are eroding to a degree that the medium term viability of countries such as The Republic of the Maldives and Kiribati (formerly the British possession of Gilbert) is already in doubt.

There are two issues to unpick, it must be said.

The first concerns politicians' varying attitudes to climate change itself (other notable UN summit absentees include Prime Ministers Tony Abbott of Australia and Stephen Harper of Canada, notable sceptics on the economic viability of carbon curbs).

The second is the issue of what responsibilities the world's other nations will face if some countries (or very large portions of them) become uninhabitable because of changing weather patterns whatever their cause.

It is that last factor that makes you uneasy about the stayaway decisions of some of the world's more powerful politicians. Small nations may be involved but we could still see massive population displacement and whole sets of regional economic dominos tumbling. And all this, according to some research, before the end of the century.

Will a big country-drafted climate change treaty fully address the potential implications of that? You can't hold out much hope, can you?

As a final point, the UN itself is not my favourite organisation and one in desperate need of reform. You can point to regional bodies - like the EU - or trans-continental groupings - like the Like Minded Developing Countries - as other potential forums. But for all the UN's flaws, they lack its global reach. It is what it is; it is what we have.

The lesson of 2009, both at the UN in New York and later at the Copenhagen negotiations, was that a muddled-through fudge wouldn't work. It hasn't been learnt.

Edited: 17 September 2014 at 06:14 AM by Paul Dempsey

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 16 September 2014 07:59 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Apple Pay is the company's biggest gamble ever

12 September 2014 by Paul Dempsey

Among other fine qualities, Apple is a company that legitimises new technology with the general public. That's good for Apple and also good for engineering as a whole. But with the launch of Apple Pay this week, it has put that reputation on the line.

There was once a saying in business that, "Nobody got sacked for buying IBM." In consumer electronics, the simple but telling slogan "It's a Sony" served the Japanese giant well. Implicit in both were claims to pre-eminence in quality, technological innovation, design and reliability - but most of all trust.

New features appear on products all the time, but back in the day their adoption by IBM or Sony signaled readiness for the wider market. They were safe to use. Apple has now assumed that mantle.

Look at the reaction to Apple's adoption of Near-Field Communication (NFC) to power its new tap-to-pay service. In the critical world beyond us techies, Alexandra Shulman, editor-in-chief of the UK edition of Vogue, wrote about Apple Pay as though nothing like it has been seen before.

"[Apple Pay] allows you to pay at the touch of a fingerprint ID for every credit card you log in. Heaven for those of us carrying around huge numbers of credit and storecards."

Then in our backyard, CNET headlined its report, Apple takes NFC mainstream on iPhone 6, Apple Watch with Apple Pay.

Mainstream? Only now? Really?

Tap-in stored-value NFC cards are an established reality for millions of commuters worldwide (Oyster in London, SmarTrip in Washington DC, Octopus in Hong Kong, etc). Several credit card issuers already incorporate NFC in their plastic.

As for handset-based payments, Google Wallet launched as a smartphone app in 2011 and you can load your Visa or MasterCard on devices from HTC, LG, Motorola and Samsung.

Apple is very late to the NFC party. Yet Shulman's gushing reaction illustrates a High Street thought process that goes far beyond haute couture: "Apple's now doing this, so I can believe in it." Moreover, CNET's "mainstream" claim basically stands up.

Google Wallet has been heavily pushed in the US, particularly by connecting it to GMail. But in June 2013, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that Play Store downloads had yet to pass 10 million and that it was "leaking money". Today, Google claims downloads in the 10-50 million range, but even given a year as an eternity in the apps world, most analysts believe the number remains at the lower end. The installed base is a tiny percentage of the Android market.

So yes, Apple has legitimized ubiquitous, phone-based tap-to-pay. For now.

But it is putting perceived core values at risk.

The biggest issue is of course security. Google Wallet came under initial criticism for claimed vulnerabilities. That may still dog downloads although flaws have been fixed. For its part, Apple has gone further than almost all other tap-to-pay configurations in adding fingerprint ID as an extra layer of protection before the app will run. Good move.

Nevertheless, such is Apple's power in promoting technology that it is now the poster child for NFC and tap-to-pay. The trust consumers place in the company - far greater than that they place in Google - means its implementation will be judged to a higher standard than those from its rivals. So beloved is Apple that the bar may also be set higher than for banks' work on cyberfraud.

So for starters, a plethora of benevolent and malicious hackers will look to break Apple Pay (a big takeaway for lay readers by the way: don't opt into the first generation of any app, but particularly a financial one. Engineers generally don't and there are some very bad people out there. Murphy's Law is your friend).

But there is also a social risk. Apple may soon find itself under scrutiny because tap-to-pay is so easy to use that it leads to excessive spending. Take the controversy over huge bills run up on in-app payments, then multiply its possible intensity by several orders of magnitude (hat-tip: shortly after writing that I noticed The Guardian's Oliver Burkeman has already pushed this button).

The potential rewards of Apple Pay are huge, certainly greater over time than those from any of the new phones and the Watch launched last week. But the charges Apple will face if the launch has but just a few hiccups could damage the company more seriously than any issue it has faced before. The risk/reward balance is as delicate as they come.

There is an upside that comes out of Apple's technological conservatism. You can be pretty sure that Apple Pay will be as carefully crafted as anyone could reasonable expect. It's just that the 'reasonably expect' benchmark will be the one we apply to our money, rather than to downloading the latest album from U2.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 12 September 2014 05:10 AM     General     Comments (0)  

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