Creeping Grass Roots of Democracy?


I have long lamented the slow lingering death of our democracy, stifled by big brother and big business…I wonder if tech that might finally be changing that. Two stories gave me hope this week…both have been around for a good while and you could hardly find more different topics. The first is Net Neutrality.

This became an issue when the supreme court threw out their earlier rulings last year, essentially requiring that the FCC had rule on Net Neutrality or “Open Internet” and in spite of all the lobbying dollars spent by Big Telco they came down on the side of regulating the Internet like water or electricity. Naturally people will still get different service levels depending on what service they subscribe to but your ISP will not (legally) be able to slow down your access to a service because it’s not offered by them or one of their partner companies. In spite of the obvious benefits of this measure the right wing-nuts and the big business they shill for are complaining up a storm that this is government interference. What’s fascinating…even amazing is that the FCC received over four million messages about this issue, the vast majority of which were private individuals expressing support of Open Internet. Four million!  The campaign to support Open Internet was waged by all kinds of companies and entities through social media, Podcasts and millions of discussions on thousands of online news stories in a desperate attempt to stop us falling further under the sway of Big Telco… and it worked. technology facilitated the discussion and gave the people a voice.

At the other extreme end of the spectrum recreational Marijuana was legalized (after a fashion) in Alaska and Washington DC this week.  In both cases the “powers that be” fought the measures tooth and nail, even threatened to jail the mayor of DC if it passed. Unfortunately the ground swell of people who are sick to death of being told what they can and can’t do by an over bearing militarized police state carried the day. Like Marriage Equality the corrupt right wing, big business religious bigotry which has held sway over so much of our history is coming up short because with social media and the increasingly fragmented media they can no longer control the message or the media. We can expect to see prison reform next on the agenda.

It’s fascinating to see that just as social and new media has driven the democracy campaigns across the Middle East and Asia the very same channels are allowing people in America to register their protest and make their voices heard. God Bless The USA….and Twitter.

Score One For The Bad Guys


Q: What do you call 10,000 lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean…A: A good start.

I imagine I’m not alone in the category of business people who loathe large chunks of our legal system. Among the most repulsive are the patent laws. In a case announced today Apple has been hit with an absurd fine of $533 million over alleged infringement of patents claimed by SmartFlash LLC. Thankfully the ridiculous size and basis of the award will more than likely mean that it will be rightly thrown out in the appeals process but the award will likely encourage the foul occupation of patent trolling to continue.

Just in case you missed my earlier rants on this topic the patent trolls are essentially investment companies who buy up old patents (typically absurdly general and wide ranging ones granted before the patent courts had any handle on technology) and hold companies of all sizes to ransom by suing for infringement. The poster child for this process who just won against Apple has no employees, makes no product, has no revenues and only solely exists to attempt to exploit defunct overly general patents. This is a toxic business…it’s a tax on any company trying to business in this fair country and makes us look ridiculous as a nation. I wish Apple all the best possible luck in overturning this toxic verdict.  The verdict was (of course) issues in the same East Texas jurisdiction as most of the other patent Troll cases. I have no idea why a particular set of Texan judges have set them selves up as the arbiters (and cheer leaders) for the patent troll cases but they have…one can only assume they have their own internal rewards structure in place to make it worth their while.

As in increasingly tech based economy this kind of nonsense is harmful to growth and stifling of innovation. Unfortunately the trial lawyers are a huge political force so getting legal reform is going to be an uphill battle. Until then us tech folk will keep wasting time and money fighting absurd law suits…Thank you Texas

Does Google’s Future Look Bright or Dark?


It may be hard to imagine a world without Google, and the tech giant is working hard to keep it that way. They have perfected the art of search advertising on desktop and laptop, and it controls the widely used Android mobile OS, as well as YouTube and Nest. But is the company nimble enough to capitalize on the next best thing in tech?

Some tech industry observers aren’t sure.

Have we reached “Peak Google,” or will they continue to grow? While it is impossible to know the future, there is evidence for both eventualities. Here, first, are three reasons why Google should be concerned about the future.

  1. Trouble mastering mobile. Google has perfected the art of direct-response advertising alongside search results. About 90% of the company’s revenue comes from this lucrative exercise. However, as smartphones and mobile computing push time spent on desktop and laptop computers to the sidelines, Google has grappled with how to remain an advertising powerhouse. The company has notoriously struggled with mobile advertising, while rival Facebook has seen more success. In a world centered on a fragmented mobile advertising market, Google could suffer.
  2. The perils of incessant experimentation. The “throw it up against a wall and see what sticks” method. Good for testing spaghetti, sending out college applications, and … for technological innovation? Google seems to think so. The company has famously introduced a myriad of now-defunct services — ones that didn’t pan out as expected such as Google Wave and, more recently, Google Helpouts. This kind of innovation is bold, and not a bad strategy so long as something does, eventually, stick. Specifically, something profitable. But there are no guarantees, and some draw parallels between Google X, the research lab responsible for Google Glass, driverless cars, etc., and Microsoft Research. In both cases resources have been directed toward lots of flashy ideas that, in many cases, ultimately lack in financial follow-through. Of course, Google CEO Larry Page has famously prescribed that the company will now put “more wood behind fewer arrows,” meaning that Google will place more focus on its key projects. Still, those arrows need to be chosen carefully, and investors are worried that an excess of Google’s attentions are directed toward ancillary aspects of the company.
  3. The ebb and flow of power. The final reason Google may decline is more esoteric, but somehow sensible. As Ben Thompson, tech strategist and blogger, comments: “When a company becomes dominant, its dominance precludes it from dominating the next thing. It’s almost like a natural law of business.” Essentially, an industry giant lacks the maneuverability of a younger company, perhaps a startup.

But there are reasons to believe that Google’s future is bright. Here are three:

  1. Money, money, money. Google is hugely wealthy. The company posted $14.4 billion in profits in 2014, up about 12 percent from 2013. While a look behind the numbers unveils a more complicated reality, the fact remains that this kind of income allows Google to invest in innovation, even for a product or service that may not pan out.
  2. A high premium placed on innovation. The Google workplace culture is renowned for the concept of “20 percent time.” This is the idea that, for 20 percent of the time they spend at work, Google engineers are encouraged to pursue independent passion projects. The results of this ethos can be seen in successful projects such as AdSense and Gmail. The reality of whether this 20 percent is truly integrated, or only possible in addition to an employee’s normal schedule, is a topic of contention among current and former workers and the management. However, spending time working on more than day-to-day projects is an important value that sets Google apart. If any company seems likely to buck the “natural law of business” trend mentioned above, it would be a company with these priorities.
  3. Smart acquisitions. Google bought Android in 2005 as a way to secure a foothold in the mobile market. In 2006, Google picked up YouTube, the popular online video site. And in 2014, Google acquired Nest, a company that has developed a smart home thermostat and smoke detector. Android is the most widely used operating system in the world; YouTube is a powerful road into the mobile advertising market; and Nest, with Google’s expertise, appears to have a lot of potential to lead home automation. This is another benefit of the deep pockets of Google — the ability to buy into a promising market.

Google has a lot of strengths, making it hard to imagine that the company has started its decline. Of course, no one is suggesting that Google will cease to be relevant overnight. As Farhad Manjoo writes in The New York Times, “Technology giants often meet their end not with a bang but a whimper, a slow, imperceptible descent into irrelevancy.” While Google won’t disappear, it might not lead the charge into our technological future either.

Apple’s Auto Gamble Is Risky Business


Apple may be taking a big risk by wading into the automobile market, but that it may be an essential one for a company that must keep moving forward or risk being left in the dust by competitors.

Rumors have the $700 billion company looking at getting into the automotive business, and that the company has already assembled a large team of experts to work on the project.

An “iCar” by 2020 may mesh well with the company’s core competencies of redefining everyday products such as music players, smartphones, and eventually watches. Apple may have decided that cars is the next logical place to go, and the company certainly has a lot of pressure to continue to take bold new steps, especially with developments by competitors such as Google creating their own self-driving cars.

It won’t be a decision to be taken lightly, and Apple certainly has time to back out. Former General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz noted in the report that it would take enormous capital to launch an automotive product, and the industry typically doesn’t have big profit margins. It seemed strange to him that Apple would go into a business where, at best, Apple can expect a 5 or 6 percent margin, and in bad times, it will cost the company a great deal of money.

And it’s more than just the capital. There are a huge amount of state and regulatory obstacles to overcome, as well as global hurdles such as engineering a car to drive on the right-hand side. Most likely, Apple would jump into the electric car market, as Tesla has. It’s not clear whether it would also seek to go for automation as Google has.

Tesla may be an example of why Apple might want to think twice. The automaker has burned through lots of money in the past 10 years and have sold just 35,000 cars in the last year. Apple is not likely to be happy with similar figures.

What do you think? Would Apple fare well in this new endeavor?

Sony Follows Glass


When Google backed away from Glass last year I was one of many welcoming the move. At the time I argued that my complaint with Glass wasn’t that it wasn’t an interesting technology initiative, rather its implications for privacy and the elitist way it was marketed pigeon holed the tech into a “Glasshole” place which did nobody any good.

This week Sony has announced the sale of the “developer” edition of its version of Glass…..imaginatively called EyeGlasses.  It still has the privacy issue to get around (although the red light indicating camera activity helps address that) but it’s a step in the right direction. Aesthetically the Sony offering is a mess.  The frames are ugly and tethered to a hockey puck sized control unit. That will be a big issue for consumers but not as important to industrial users who already often have to put up with clunky protective eye wear. That’s clearly where Sony is positioning this equipment. although the cute commercials feature end users it makes more sense in an industrial or medical context.

Perhaps more important is the price point. Sony has pitched it at $850 which puts in the the high end of the consumer space and quite affordable in an industrial context. It has some clever augmented reality features like directions and facial recognition so if you meet someone you know who is in your contacts (and you have a picture of them) it will let you have their name. This release is significant because it brings a major another player into the game and in the case of Sony a player in dire need of a big win. They are pitching it at practical use rather than tech snobbery and it’s another step towards the end game.

It’s clear, in my mind, that the big win will be believable augmented then virtual reality. This will be led by gamers and the adult content industry with industrial applications running third place. Sony is well entrenched in the gaming world and it’s likely that a subsequent version of this equipment will have integration with PS4. That would give gamers a heads up display fully integrated with their game experience. Sony is talking about eye movement control for things like scrolling and opening in future editions. If they make that part of their game system navigation we would have  a serious contender. at this price point…or close to this could become a viable mass market game controller which happens to be useful for other applications if you can stand the embarrassment of being seen out in them.

The NSA May Have Been Hiding in Your Computer for 14 Years

FILE PHOTO  NSA Compiles Massive Database Of Private Phone Calls

Security researchers at Kaspersky Lab have unearthed a suite of surveillance platforms that can hide within the firmware of hard drives from more than a dozen manufacturers. The attackers, which Kaspersky is calling the Equation Group due to their complex skill set, are the most advanced that the researchers have encountered to date.

The programs, some of which date back to 2001, appear to have been developed in succession with each new program being more sophisticated than the last. Personal computers in more than 30 different countries have been discovered to carry the infection.

One of the worms uncovered has direct connections with Stuxnet and may have even been used as a test to help figure out the best route for the malware to reach systems involved in Iran’s nuclear program. Researchers didn’t name who they believe might be behind the attacks although there’s a good bit of circumstantial evidence that points to the NSA.

One component of the suite, GrayFish, is able to re-flash the firmware on hard drives. Because it resides in the firmware, reformatting the drive doesn’t get rid of the infection. Key to being able to rewrite the firmware is having access to source code. If the NSA is indeed behind the attacks, getting source code wouldn’t present too much of an issue.

In addition to physically intercepting shipments (in this case, hard drives) and loading them with malware before repackaging and sending to targets, the NSA could have simply asked manufacturers for their source code (directly or indirectly) or posed as software developers.

Who is Going to be Your Facebook Heir?


Will written, check. Funeral plans set, check. But there is something else you didn’t think you would need to do before you die; give someone permission to respond to comments, post photos, etc. on your Facebook account.

The world’s biggest online social network said Thursday that it will now let users pick someone who can manage their account after they die. Previously, the accounts were “memorialized” after death, or locked so that no one could log in.

But Facebook says its users wanted more choice. Beginning in the U.S., Facebook users can pick a “legacy contact” to post on their page after they die, respond to new friend requests and update their profile picture and cover photo. Users can also have their accounts deleted after their death, which was not possible before.

Facebook accounts are memorialized at the request of loved ones, who must provide proof of the person’s death, such as an obituary. Facebook tries to ensure that the account of the dead user doesn’t show up as a “suggested friend” or in other ways that could upset the person’s loved ones.

The social media giant has nearly 1.4 billion users, and won’t say how many accounts are memorialized, though Facebook product manager Vanessa Callison-Burch said there have been “hundreds of thousands” of requests from loved ones to do so.

Other Internet companies also offer ways to posthumously manage your accounts. On Google, a tool called “inactive account manager” lets you choose to have your data deleted after three, six or 12 months of inactivity. Or you can choose someone, such as a parent or a spouse, to receive the data. The tool covers not just email but also other Google services such as Google Plus, YouTube and Blogger.

Twitter, meanwhile, will deactivate your account if contacted by a family member or a person authorized to act on behalf of your estate, after verifying not only that you died but that the Twitter account is yours, since many people don’t use their full names on the site.

Dr. Google?


Occasionally Google comes up with an idea which is just plain great…and they should get credit for doing that.  According to Google about 5% of searches are in some way health related. What they have just announced is that they will be expanding their Knowledge Graph to include health topics and disease conditions. In case you aren’t a sad search geek like myself the Knowledge Graph is the big box on the right which opens up in the results for a wide range of common searches like dictionary definitions, famous people, places and many popular topics. The search results for health queries is a heavily fought over area. The major drug companies spend enormous amounts of effort in terms of content creation (and paid ads) to secure top placement.  Obviously they have a dog in the hunt and perhaps on many occasions the last person you would want to consult about your health is big Pharma. That’s where this idea hits home. At the moment if you search Google for a medical term you will get back something from some form of online reference like the National Library of Medicine but it’s typically pretty thin.

Google says they will be working with an independent group of doctors from the Mayo Clinic to curate accurate and sensible information about a wide range of health topics and conditions, going further than the thin outline they currently present. Even if the top of the search results is packed with content schilling for the drug barons the Knowledge Graph to the right will give you a sane and trustworthy block of detailed independent information as opposed to marketing hyperbole. It’s a great idea.

Today in Creepy Privacy Policies… Samsung Smart TV’s Eavesdropping


You might be wanting to go to another room if you don’t want Samsung’s Smart TV’s to record your personal conversations. They don’t just respond to your commands – they will also tell a third party what you’re saying while you sit in from of them.

Some sharp-eyed people have spotted this curious addition to the Privacy Policy: “To provide you the Voice Recognition feature, some voice commands may be transmitted (along with information about your device, including device identifiers) to a third-party service that converts speech to text or to the extent necessary to provide the Voice Recognition features to you.”

So far, so mostly-reasonable: if a TV had enough CPU grunt to do voice recognition it could push the price into nasty territory. A cloud-assist feature could be messy, but not terrifying, not least because bigger samples will probably make for bigger improvements in voice recognition. Next comes the admission that “In addition, Samsung may collect and your device may capture voice commands and associated texts so that we can provide you with Voice Recognition features and evaluate and improve the features.”

That’s far less comfortable, as it suggests Samsung can identify individuals. If it’s matching MAC addresses, that’s not terrifying. If it depends on logins … yikes! Samsung can identify you and the stuff you say to your TV!

It gets worse in this final sentence:

“Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition.” And let’s not even begin to ponder how the sets’ cameras and fitness services might use that data, or the conclusions they would draw, if a program moves to amorous activity on the sofa.

Worse still, this all happens even if you don’t turn voice recognition on, as Samsung says: “If you do not enable Voice Recognition, you will not be able to use interactive voice recognition features, although you may be able to control your TV using certain predefined voice commands. While Samsung will not collect your spoken word, Samsung may still collect associated texts and other usage data so that we can evaluate the performance of the feature and improve it.”

Samsung’s responded to widespread discussion of its privacy policy be insisting the data it collects is encrypted and cannot be accessed or used by unauthorized parties. But of course Anthem Healthcare, Target, Sony (Pictures entertainment and the PlayStation arm) and a myriad others have all made similar pledges about the effectiveness of their security.

Measles: Boiling My Blood…Again

Penn and teller

The recent furor over the measles outbreak illustrates almost perfectly a fault lines which runs through our society. For what is supposedly the worlds most right and powerful country we are mind-blowingly stupid about some issues. I’m a foreigner…I chose to move my life to the US and I’m very happy that I have. I love this country…but good lord people! I have no idea where it comes from but there is a fiercely anti science/common sense thread which runs deep in our society. It typically doesn’t do much more than cause debates over well established science like evolution and the existence of angels (more Americans believe in angels than evolution) but the measles outbreak clearly illustrates that it can cause real harm also. Between 2001 and 2011 the median number of measles reported per year in the US was 62. This year one month in it’s 102.  That seems to put us on track for a 20x the norm year.  There are third world countries with higher inoculation rates than the US.

The mere fact that there is absolutely no credible scientific fact to support not immunizing doesn’t seem to matter. This is even becoming a political issue with lunatics on both the right and left are using immunization as a totem for their brand of selfishness. It beggars belief that supposedly educated people can be so blinded by a quasi religious rights/civil liberties concoction of complete garbage. I’m old enough that I actually had measles, and German measles and chicken pox the hard way as a kid. some of my earliest memories are from the misery those diseases caused.  I’m also asthmatic so it’s lucky I didn’t get killed by complications.

I get that the gun nuts are so powerful that we will have to endure a school shooting per month for the foreseeable future, and I get that we don’t want to curtail any aspect of our society in-order to mitigate climate change…but we are killing our children through this blind ignorant anti science nonsense. If we make the mistake of further politicizing this issue the various factions will dig in, it will become like every other issues which are regarded as settled law in most civilized countries and we will kill more of our kids.  If you have any doubt at all watch this video. Penn and teller (as always) hit the nail right on the head. Not immunizing our children is Bullshit and we should stop the madness.