The Greatest Idea of All Time

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This post has nothing to do with our industry or the almighty Google, I just wanted to share this discovery. I love podcasts…it’s a good chunk of all the entertainment I consume. The other day I stumbled across “The Worst Idea of All Time” and my world was rocked. The premise is simple and insanely brilliant. Each Monday two young New Zealand based comedians gather to watch and review the appalling Adam Sandler movie Grownups 2…each week for a year!

I truly can’t stand Adam Sandler, I loathe everything about him and all of his films (OK Punch Drunk Love was alright and Happy Gilmore was fairly watchable…but anyway). I would rather do almost anything else than watch any of his movies especially one as famously vacant as this one. So the concept of voluntarily subjecting myself to watch and review this piece of garbage every week is in of itself a surreal idea….but these guys are doing it and it’s amazing.

Part comedy act, part social experiment, part hostage crisis each week they trudge through the mire of this movie like WWI soldiers; half blinded by gas and driven mostly insane by the constant shell fire. Part of me wants to ask them to stop for the love of all that is human Stop The Madness!…and part of me is wildly entertained. The idea is a train-wreck of monumental proportions, it shouldn’t work…but it does. It’s consistently very funny in the way that Sandler movies aren’t.

I came across this brilliant record of what almost amounts to a crime against humanity about 40 episodes in and I have been binge listening ever since trying to catch up so I can share the horror of their efforts in real time. It’s more addicting that “Serial” and funnier than anything else I know of right now. I thoroughly recommend to all of you to try out this comedic form of performance art, you will not be disappointed.

Is North Korea Really Behind the Sony Hacks?

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There’s plenty of rumors and speculation, but one thing is certain: something has gone awfully wrong with the computer systems at Sony Pictures Entertainment – the television and movie subsidiary of the huge Sony Corporation.

The company has shut down its servers, after a ghoulish skull appeared on computer screens alongside a claim that internal data had been stolen and would be released if undisclosed “demands” were not met.

In parallel, Twitter accounts used by Sony to promote movies were hacked to display messages attacking Sony Entertainment’s CEO from a group calling itself GOP (the Guardians of Peace) who claimed responsibility for the hack.

11 terabytes of information had been stolen by hackers from Sony Pictures, and even tweeted a photograph of a sign placed in the lift of Sony Pictures’ London office asking staff not to use their computers or log into the Wi-Fi. If hackers have indeed hijacked Sony Pictures’ network, and stolen a large amount of data, it all sounds very dramatic, but the most the company has said publicly is that it is investigating an “IT matter.” The absence of hard facts about the hack has inevitably led to reporters filling in the vacuum with some guesswork and, in some cases, speculation that may be have shaky foundations.

For instance, one report claimed that Sony Pictures was exploring the possibility that North Korean hackers could be behind the attack – because of anger over an upcoming comedy film featuring Seth Rogan and James Franco working with the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

It does appear that North Korea is genuinely unhappy about the movie, but does it really seem likely that that would motivate what appears to be a widespread attack against the Sony Pictures computer network?

That hasn’t stopped other media outlets from repeating the original claim of a North Korean link without much in the way of questioning, churning out the same “news” without considering just how tricky it might be to attribute the attack to any particular country – especially when the victim itself appears to still be mid-recovery and mopping up the mess.

Does North Korea use the internet to spy on other countries? Is it possible that hackers sympathetic to North Korea (or simply people who aren’t fans of Seth Rogan) might want to disrupt Sony Pictures’ activities? Hopefully until we know the answer, Sony will do its duty to inform the public of what information has been compromised.

Net Neutrality Fights Back

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It’s really hard to make net neutrality interesting or entertaining. The cable companies have been banking on nobody watching or caring about the topic and have been whittling away at the rules around this topic for a while. The cable guys would like to be able to charge heavy users like Netflix more for being heavy users and throttle them back if they don’t pay. This would effectively create an internet slow lane where the only people enjoying decent speeds would be the ones paying the premium for greater speed. That’s already true for end users but would be true for publishers also if net neutrality goes away. The FCC has been prevaricating on the topic for many years with various rules and regulations being attacked in various courts by cable companies.

I was interested to see the president speak about this today, he essentially came out strongly for net neutrality and suggested that we solve this by defining internet providers utilities like power or water. That would require that providers treat all users alike a concept which has already triggered some significant drops in the stock prices of several cable companies. What’s frustrating to me about this is that the president is only just now addressing this issue.  The FCC is essentially appointed by the white house and the president has had six years to appoint the right people to make this a reality through the FCC. Now, having suffered horrible losses at the midterms the president has decided to attempt to legislate the internet providers into utilities. Given the massive financial lobbying power the cable giants can bring to bear on the topic does it seem likely that the president will be able to get that kind of legislation passed?  it feels like the kind of thing the right wing-nuts would resist as ‘big government.’ The time to push this issue would have been during his first term, now as the lame ducks come home to roost I’m less optimistic that this will get done.

Russia…Really?!

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As a sixties baby growing up in London the Russians represented real and impending destruction…indeed when Regan assumed power we were reasonably sure it all be over and sooner rather than later. As the USSR collapsed Russia regressed to something close to its peasant roots until Czar Putin reestablished the monarchy.  Nowadays, Russia is a hot bed of tech innovation and in my industry, we spend inordinate amounts of time and effort fending off Russian hackers and bots. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many Russians and in the vast majority of cases they have been charming  educated folk…a little crazy in some cases but still.

All of this makes me wonder why on earth a good percentage of the Russian population is made up by apparently rabidly homophobic monsters.  Granted there are still an extraordinarily large number of states in the US were you can be fired for simply being gay…so we shouldn’t be too smug…but a good majority of Americans almost certainly wouldn’t join in beating a gay person to death on the street…or film it or post it online.  If that happened it’s likely that the police would get involved and (who knows) the perpetrators would likely be prosecuted.  Not so in Russia. There it’s common place for people to suffer outrageous assaults, even murder, simply for being gay. A climate of intolerance is encourage even codified by the government.

The most recent manifestation of this lunacy comes to us from St Petersburg where a monument to Steve Jobs (in the form of a giant cell phone) has supposedly been taken down by the company which erected it simply because Tim Cook recently came out as gay.

If this is true (and there may be some uncertainty around the timing) it’s as silly as it is sad. It may be especially ironic because Russians (who can afford them) simply love all things Apple.  A much more sincere idiotic reaction might be for Russians to stage iPad burnings where their beloved status symbols would be ritually incinerated…but that’s never going to happen.  Meantime I go out of my way not to buy anything made in Russia.  Granted that’s a reasonably futile gesture as most of what we buy from Russia is in the form of oil and raw materials and it’s hard to tell whether the gas you are putting in your tank is supporting oppression…but the thought is there.

Quantifying the Online Revolution

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Nearly three billion people are now connected to the Internet, that’s more or less 40% of humanity, it is arguably the single greatest human achievement since electrification re-defined our society a hundred years ago.  Those of us who lived through the tech bubble and bust of the late 90s could be forgiven for rolling our eyes when commentators expound on the impact of the continuing online revolution but the impact is real and much more wide-ranging than you perhaps might imagine.

The first ‘online revolution’ was actually a fairly superficial exercise which tended to focus on retail transactions moving from a physical location to online, the poster child for this was pets.com which achieved notoriety by establishing an absurd valuation just before going out of business.  The migration of retail online has continued apace. Almost every good or service imaginable can now be ordered online however this is an example of how much deeper and wider the internet’s impact reaches. The product or service you ordered online is still manufactured in the conventional way, it’s delivered by drivers and trucks which earn wages and use gas.  The customer service person who answers your questions is likewise employed although she may be working half a world away. The company making the product will likely be thriving in good part because the new economy allows them to market more efficiently and keep in close contact with existing and new clients. Although in countries where the internet is well ensconced like the US or UK the internet is directly responsible for approaching 10% of GDP the vast majority (in excess of 75%) of the economic impact the internet causes shows up in the non-internet economy.

The new internet  driven economy has been widely criticized for causing job losses in some sectors, for example when was the last time you checked in at the airport or went to the bank and actually spoke to a human being? However a more careful study reveals that for every one job lost through this process nearly three jobs are created. These jobs tend to require a better educated labor force and in many cases they can be done from anywhere in the world, so speaking globally this is a strong net positive effect.  The impact of these changes isn’t just felt in larger companies where dramatic improvements in efficiency have occurred through rapid growth through information and automation made possible by the internet. Small and mid-sized business have seen similar if not greater opportunities.  The panoply of tools and access the internet generates means that almost anyone almost anywhere can start a business or grow their existing business.  Small companies taking advantage of what the web offers have been shown to grow and export over twice as fast as their less tech engaged peers.  Although small business has benefited from these changes they still have an enormous amount of as yet unrecognized online potential.  The internet allows many businesses to do things which would have been unthinkable a decade or so ago. This leveling of the playing field has led to dramatic jobs growth, indeed over 60% of the jobs created in the last decade were created by small to mid-sized businesses more than compensating for jobs lost through globalization.

Across the world the impact of the information revolution has been dramatic. Areas which have never had access to the telephone or even roads can join the rest of humanity through a generator and a cell connection. Simple things like knowing which products to take to market to garner the best price can make dramatic changes to subsistence farmers.  The ability to speak to a doctor or attend a virtual classroom can help drive change and even help reduce the impact of extremist world views. We have seem many revolutions against totalitarian regimes mediated by the internet and this is only going to grow more common.

In countries with well-established internet adoption in excess of 25% of GDP growth can be explicitly linked to the web.  That’s a staggering statistic but in reality it’s probably a conservative number.  It’s clear that infrastructure investments made by governments or the private sector act as access and wealth multipliers. Each area impacted by the internet generates its own opportunities and challenges. For example the rapid growth of Uber has led to loud complaints from the established taxi driver interest groups yet it has generated by some reports in excess of 20,000 new driver jobs per month.

The data clearly suggests that almost the single most important thing an economy can possess is a strong internet infrastructure and widespread online adoption. It offers communication, information, entertainment and access to the wisdom and experience of humanity.  It mediates and enhances commerce frequently inventing entire new business sectors. It allows companies of all sizes to compete and market more effectively increasing the pace of development and discovery. In spite of the dramatic changes the internet has made to so many business sectors we are far from finished with this dramatic process.  In economies with widespread adoption there are many sectors which remain almost untouched, as these areas become changed impacted in the near future massive new opportunities for wealth creation will continue to arise. In countries where adoption is less well established we can expect them to learn from the experience of more connected countries and make even more rapid progress as they deploy.  It can even bring democracy and peace.  The internet revolution continues with no end in sight and the only constant is change.

Supreme Confusion

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We are used to the Supreme Court making news for things like affirmative action or marriage equality. If things keep going the way they are headed they may soon be picking the bones out of an even more opaque area of the law.  The question at hand is can an API be copyrighted. It sounds like a horribly inside baseball argument and to an extent it is. Oracle is suing Google over what they claim was its infringement of twenty seven APIs when it first crafted Android back in 2010. An API (Applications Programming Interface) is how one computer program or system talks to another, in many case (as with the systems we build at Search Initiatives) it’s how components of a larger system communicate internally. They are designed to be used by other software builders so it would make intuitive sense that although the code which they communicate with might be proprietary the actual interfaces themselves would be fair game. Not so fast! argues Oracle.  They claim Google stole and repurposed wholesale a core set of APIs which they don’t normally licence and which in of themselves constitute original work.

The issue has been argued and ruled on back and forth with Google losing the last round. As is the Google Way, Google litigates everything to the highest level. If you want to take on Big G you better have deep pockets and clever lawyers. The only place left to go is the Supreme Court.  If the Supreme Court agrees to take it on we will be hearing a lot more about this arcane tech area. It may actually be an important area. APIs are widely used in all kinds of tech and we think of them as being more or less open source.  If they are suddenly a proprietary component it may well change the way we all build the tech tools we use every day. It’s not anywhere near as interesting as marriage equality…but it might well end up being a very important decision.

Google’s Game

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Google is getting into so many parts of our world it had to be only a matter of time until they got further into the world of gaming. Gaming is the Rock and Roll of our generation. Our kids listen to many of the same bands we grew up with…but the thing they do which we mostly can’t do and don’t get is gaming. Google is teaming up with James Frey who I think of as the guy who wrote the very good Million Little Pieces, then got yelled at by Oprah because he wasn’t clear enough where the real world left off and the fiction began. In any event he’s now a big player in the Young Adult category. His latest venture teams him up with the Google gaming guys to produce Endgame. This will be a cross media book/massive online game which follows a dozen teenagers across the world. The kids in the story are trying to save the world, the players of the book/game will be trying to solve the clues which will lead them to the key which will unlock a chest of gold worth $500K on display in Caesars Palace Las Vegas.

It’s not an entirely novel idea, Masquerade was a kids treasure hunt book about a rabbit which was a big thing in the UK a decade or so ago and more recently someone achieved their fifteen minutes of fame by hiding cash in various California locations and leaving clues on Twitter.

This project sounds like World of Warcraft meets Hunger Games combined with Ender’s Game (great book …horrible movie BTW). The sad fact is that one of my guilty pleasures is I actually quite like Young Adult fiction. Although I draw the line at Breaking Dawn, I did read all the Hunger Games books and I’m a huge fan of Orson Scott Card, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman all of whom supposedly target younger readers. I guess that means that although I may be able to follow the story I won’t be able to win the $500K without gaming help from a teenager.

Oh Apple….Really?

 

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I tried really hard to listen live to the Apple announcement today.  The live feed started 6 minutes late and was apparently being simultaneously translated into Japanese….which I could hear much better than the English language version. The feed stopped, broke and stuttered …so I gave up. I like many other people live in  world of Apple hardware running mostly Google applications. I don’t think today changed much of that. The lame live streaming was a harbinger of lameness to follow.

Apple hit the most of marks that were strategically leaked. the phones and phone tablets Phablets (Lord I hate that word) are bigger, brighter more powerful as expected….none of the features would make me pay the extra to upgrade but would probably keep me on the brand going forwards. The downside (as always) is going to be cost. There are many very good much cheaper Android phones out there with bigger specs and lower prices.

The payment component is probably more interesting. Near Field technology to allow secure payment by device as opposed to a card or cash is ancient. they were doing it in South Korea when I was there a decade ago. It’s been very slow off the mark in the US but the fact that Apple has done the legwork to launch it with most the major banks and many thousands of retail outlets may finally get this off the ground in the US. It’s been a long time coming…but welcome none the less.

The other much leaked launch is the Apple Watch….interestingly not called the iWatch.  The world of wearable tech has been taking off nicely and this is Apples contribution to the effort. Put simply…it’s horrible. It looks like something dropped by my 2 year old grandson. The tech inside and the UI may be terrific but I would cut my hand off before I’d put this on my wrist. I’m actually kinda shocked that they would go with a watch most people wouldn’t be seen dead wearing. Leave aside the fact that there was no info on battery life and no wireless charging…this just looks awful….and fragile. At nearly $350 it’s not fitbit cheap….but looks worse.

They ended the presentation with a surprise performance by U2. Not sure that was a great message either. They are for sure mega stars…but also blow-hardy showing their age and haven’t innovated much at all in the last few years. Oh….no wait…that was perfect.

This is Google: You are under arrest

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There can be few things more heinous than kiddy porn…nobody (including myself) could defend any aspect of it. However the recent story where Google tipped off the authorities that a Gmail user had child porn in his Gmail account is a little troubling. What makes it even more interesting is that the offending images were apparently attached to email presumably for storage. To discover the images one would have to open them, obviously it’s easier for Google to open and read. If I wanted to store content without even risking sending them over the net, I could simply attach them to an email and save that mail as draft.

What if I played entirely consensual harmless bondage or kidnap games with my partner and sent her pics of her bound and gagged in the trunk of a car. Those images might be clear evidence of a highly criminal event…or two kinksters sharing legally and consensually generated content. What if I sent a hate filled tirade against a racial or religious group perhaps calling for a mosque or similar to be bombed…I might expect the NSA or the FBI to come knocking at my door…but can I assume that Google will be dropping the dime on me? I’m sure it’s a complex legal area…but it’s also potentially a slippery slope. If I email my dealer and tell him where to drop off the kilo of black tar heroin…should Google be telling the FBI? Google is amazingly great at analysing all things data…even encrypted data…should the FBI be subcontracting them to scan all of our mail and pass along candidates for incarceration. I appreciate that I checked the box which said I allow Google to scan my mail and serve any ads they may feel appropriate but I don’t recall giving them permission to send me to jail as well?

The Information Polluter?

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This is a new one….for as long as I have been watching search this one is news to me. You may recall that Google has fallen afoul of the EU regulators who have declared that people have  right to be forgotten and can request that Google remove content which is harmful under certain rather vague circumstances. It has subsequently been deluged with requests which vary from paedophiles attempting to cover their tracks to people seeking to protect victims of abuse from being identified. This was always going to be a tricky messy problem and it’s already getting worse. Google never agreed to do more than remove the content from the local domain of the complained if that domain is in the EU.  That means that anyone can check on Google.com and still find the content. Indeed Google flags that they have removed something which is more likely to draw attention to the problem content.  In addition sites have popped up which flag content which has been removed and notify news organizations to that effect. All this means that you are just as likely to find renewed notoriety than the obscurity desired.

The EU is already unhappy with the situation and has called Google, Bing and Yahoo in for a good spanking. It’s hard to imagine that they will readily agree to the EU essentially censoring indices which Google/Bing would claim they have no sovereignty over.  The new angle the EU legislators are taking is that by leaving the information in other places to found the search engines are guilty of “data pollution”. Leaving aside the weirdly Kafkaesque concept of information pollution its’ an interesting take. If a US oil giant pollutes an EU coastline they fall under the sovereignty of the country involved and can be fined/regulated accordingly.  Why is information different…if it’s harmful…it’s harmful…clean it up world wide.  As I said this feels like an entirely novel approach and I have no idea if it will have legs enough to impact the situation…but it will be fascinating to watch.