It’s Happened Again

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Let me predict what we will find out about the shooter in the appalling church massacre that happened last night. I’m doing this without benefit of much more than the basic CNN headlines this morning.

He’s a loner, not popular in high school or college. Probably bullied. Probably doesn’t get on well with women of any kind. He will have a history of mental health issues and/or drug problems. Those drugs will likely be from his parents’ medicine cabinet. Those problem will have gone under-treated or entirely untreated.

He’s probably very focused on guns and all things gun. I’ll give you any bet that his family has a good sized gun collection, which he used extensively. It’s also likely that school and perhaps family medical professionals were unable to escalate the care he was receiving because of reporting limits and patient confidentiality.

How can I be so sure that I’ll hit the bulls-eye on most of these? It’s easy; they are always like that. I’ve ranted about this issue so many times in this blog, it feels like a broken record. This country has two huge problems, simply put: mental health and guns. Our medical system is horrible at spotting and escalating mental health problems, in part because of resources and in part because the draconian patient privacy regulations mean that what they can do is drastically curtailed.

This country has always had a weird relationship with mental health. Our Puritan roots lead us to regard it as a character flaw to be mocked, feared or hidden rather than treated. It’s true that in earlier times it was possible for people to be cast into psych ward hell for the wrong reasons, but the pendulum has swung back too far.

When Reagan closed the majority of mental hospitals in the early 80s, it set the direction. Now, our inner cities are littered with the broken remains of the homeless and mentally ill — a growing group of which are returning veterans. We have a massive problem of over prescription and abuse of narcotic pain meds.

Now let’s add in widely available guns held as a political third rail by a vocal and powerful gun lobby, and there is a recipe for disaster. I have said this so many times it’s becoming a cliché, but it bears repeating. The UK and the US have so much in common. We speak alike, we love our kids, our teams and our countries. We think alike (in many ways), but the one thing I can think of where our cultures differ dramatically is in guns.

In the US in 2013, the deaths by firearms per 100K of population was 10.64. In the UK, the same prorated number for 2010 was 0.25. That’s 42 times the death rate. I can’t think of a single other area where our societies differ so dramatically.

As I write this, I see that he’s been caught, apparently alive. The president will speak, people will hold candle-lit vigils. There will be a trial with an insanity defense, nothing will change, and we will all go back to usual. Until the next time.

Not My Circus…

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As an old fashioned European liberal who actually voted for the UK Labor Party (that’s as close to socialist when compared to any US party) and who doesn’t have the right to vote in the US, I should probably stay out of politics over here completely. But really?! Donald Trump? Really?

We shouldn’t be surprised that The Donald is officially entering the GOP 2016 circus. Lord knows there are enough clowns already in that race. Trump befuddles me. He’s gone broke several times and done more harm to the New York skyline than 9/11, but yet he’s supposedly worth $8 Bn and plans to fund his own campaign. I’m sure the acres of publicity he will garner from this stunt will be worth it, but we all look a little ridiculous. To add insult to injury, he suggested that Oprah Winfrey would make a great vice president. Yes, and so would my American Bulldog, Hedwig.

I don’t mind that his absurd, self-aggrandizing exercise in media titillation will clog up a couple of news cycles, but his name recognition and notoriety will likely mean that he will qualify for the GOP debates starting in August. The criteria Fox plans to use is name recognition and popularity running up to the debate. Even though Voldemort himself recently polled better than most of the GOP field, Trump will be in the hunt. That will leave us with a nationally televised debate featuring a reality TV show mogul who can say or do anything he wants without any requirement that he follow the beat of any drum other than his own.

Trump argues that’s part of his strength. He’s not answerable to anyone else. Hm, let’s think. Can we recall any ego maniacal, populist, rabble-rousing politician who simply told civilized norms to take a hike in his quest for power? Yeah, me too. Is it hyperbolic to speak of The Donald in those terms, of course. However, in a celebrity- and media-drenched society where goldfish have been shown to have longer attention spans than most Americans, it’s a little worrying.

The other thing to think about is what China or Russia must make of this billionaire buffoon becoming a candidate for the big red button. If Trump develops into a self-funding serious contender, things may not go well.

There’s an old Polish saying — “Not my circus…not my monkeys” — meaning it’s not my problem, so I shouldn’t worry about it. To the extent that I can’t vote and wouldn’t vote GOP if I could, it’s not. To the extent that it affects my country and my family and my company, it is. This is one monkey that could really hurt the circus, and I do find that worrying.

IBM Doubling Down on Apache Spark

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IBM has long been involved with Apache Spark, an open source data analytics project, since its inception but has now upped the ante by releasing some of its own software and adding the technology to several of its own products.

IBM announced that they plan to embed Spark into its analytics and commerce platforms and offer Spark as a service on Bluemix. As part of the commitment, IBM is donating its IBM SystemML, a machine learning technology, to the Spark open source ecosystem.

Apache Spark began as a project at the University of California-Berkley in 2009, and IBM claims it is the fastest growing open source project in history. Federal agencies benefit greatly, as Spark should help them more quickly use and manage the massive amounts of data they produce; IBM is working with NASA and the SETI Institute to analyze terabytes of deep space radio signals using Spark’s machine learning capabilities.

IBM also pointed to the Agriculture Department as a beneficiary. The USDA collects data about farming, food inspections and economic data related to food production. They also have access to weather data and agricultural data from around the world. Spark can put all of those disparate forms and sources of data into a single data stream for analytics.

Oculus Reveals 1.0

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It’s here! And as predicted, it will launch with Xbox One and Windows 10. Yay! Sorry, let me back that up, I was momentarily exuberant. As you may know, I’m one of the idiot geeks straining at the leash for the launch of meaningful virtual reality. The gamers want it for that total immersive kill factor; I want it because there’s a bunch of stuff I want to do and a bunch of places I want to go that I may not get to in the real world any time soon. I’m also hopeful that we may just figure out how to cheat (or greatly delay) death in my lifetime, and VR will no doubt be an important factor.

Anyhow, my exuberance is a little premature because yesterday they revealed the equipment, but not the price or launch date, which is a vague “Q1 2016.” But still, the equipment looks like the real thing and the gizmos that go with it allow you to virtually touch and hold things in the VR world. That’s a little more than I’d expect out of the box with v1.0.

Importantly, they are announcing with Xbox One and Windows 10. That will give them a ton of early adopter gamers to sell to.  They are also offering $10MM in incentives to game manufactures to support VR. If you add in the recent announcement by GoPro of a 360 VR rig to allow users to record their own VR content, by the time the final thing is ready for release, there may well be a ton of VR enabled content out there that isn’t just VR versions of big selling games.

Their schedule means they will miss the Christmas window for this year, but they will be showing more details and announcing more partnerships at E3 in a couple of weeks. I wonder if that will include the price?

Googleopolis?

Key Speakers At The Google I/O Annual Developers Conference

It’s good to be Larry Page. The former boss of Google is famous for what can look like harebrained schemes. His plan to provide WiFi to the poorest places on Earth by balloon might even be fulfilled next year, and his self-driving cars are famous, or infamous depending on how you view the accident statistics. His latest “wouldn’t it be nice” idea is to re-imagine cities as better places to live. Sidewalk Labs has just been announced in conjunction with Bloomberg and NYC as a program to improve city life. It plans to link together a whole bunch of buzz words, like “ubiquitous connectivity” and the “Internet of things” to make cities better places in which to work and live.

Part of the background of this is the phenomenon of urban renewal, where young, rich white people are moving back into the cities instead of out to the suburbs. I hate to sound all political and bitter about this, but it’s hard not to. If you visit San Fran, you see this new world already in action. It’s the only city I’ve ever seen where the morning commute out of the city is about the same as the commute in. Worse in many cases.

What we see is a hipster tech army commuting out of their converted downtown lofts to their tech gigs in Silicon Valley. How convenient that Google decided to champion making the places their people want to live into nicer places (by “their people” I mean white, educated, techy millennials). This trend is reversing “white flight,” which left many of our cities to the poorest sectors of our society, while the wealthy built McMansions out of town. It also means that after five and on the weekends, many cities are wastelands occupied only by the homeless and mentally ill.

By all means, Google, let’s make change happen. If Google wants to make a real difference, how about launching “Google Sane,” a project to get the mentally ill off the streets and into care. How about “Google Club,” a program to offer after school activities and coaching so that minority kids have somewhere else to go that doesn’t involve gangs. How about “Google Bridge,” a program where Google puts their wealth and technology to work fixing the horrible infrastructure of many cities.

A super wealthy and powerful company like Google applying technology and working with local volunteers and agencies could make a huge difference quickly. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has eliminated several world-wide diseases pretty much single handedly. This bottom up approach is not a planned urban utopia (yet), but it would increase the quality of life for so many people in our cities, and make them better places for hipsters to hang out right away.

Apple Gunning for Google…Again

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A few weeks back, Facebook announced that it was adding a good sized index of Facebook-exclusive stuff to its product, which in theory presents a threat to Google News and possibly other search products. At its developer conference this week, Apple announced a much larger threat to Google.

This gets inside baseball very quickly, but it’s worth it; hang with me. If you are an iDevice user, you will be familiar with Spotlight search. It’s the search box that appears if you swipe down from pretty much anywhere in iOS. At the moment, it pulls up matches from some native apps on your phone; things like your contacts, calendar and some email programs.

The Apple announcement today will allow pretty much any app to link into Spotlight search through an API (that’s the language in which programs talk to each other). So if you have the CCN app (for example), and you searched for “ISIS” in the Spotlight bar, the CNN app could return stories from the main site CNN.com without you ever calling up a browser or doing a search on any other search engine. That’s potentially huge. It would also allow apps like Amazon and eBay to pull up commercial results, again without recourse to Google.

The nuance to this is that (unlike Google) Apple doesn’t rely on exploiting search results with commercials to drive 95% of its revenue, so it can promise (as it did this week) that your searches will never be shared or targeted. Given the massive and accelerating growth of mobile vs. desktop usage, this could make a significant dent in Google.

The good news for Google is that it owns Android, which holds a significant market lead in mobile devices. It could certainly make a similar move and return Google Ads around the results, but it doesn’t have the vice-like grip on its own mobile OS the way Apple does. Carriers futz with Android, which makes this kind of over-arching play trickier. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

The British Are Coming

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I’m a huge theater geek. Every time I visit New York, I stay as close to Broadway as possible and have been known to see a show a night for the entire trip. It’s not exactly a cheap hobby, but you do see some terrific stuff. Last night, I swapped Game of Thrones for the Tony’s and settled in for the usual cavalcade of “luvvy” fun watching a rich whitey award talented young things. By the way, what on earth prompted them to put Kristin Chenoweth in charge of anything? Let alone half the hosting duties. Fortunately, the writing was strong and she was there mostly as a punch line. But really, that was the best we could do?

It started with Helen Mirren and got progressively more and more British as the evening wore on. It’s tough to get more British than Helen Mirren, but somehow they succeeded. In category after category, the large glossy American shows and plays were aced out by edgy Brit fare. It was almost weird to watch. Plays like Fun Home and The Curious Case of The Dog in the Night pretty much swept the board. The Brits also won the categories they don’t typically feature on the show, like design and staging.

The stuff that did the best was by no means typical Broadway. It was dark, edgy, disturbing and, in most cases, pretty low budget. It was as if the powers that be just had enough of the glittery stuff. Speaking of glitter, I was delighted to see that John Cameron Mitchel — the creator of the show I have seen more than any other, Hedwig and the Angry Inch — was given his own special award. Having won a bunch of Tonys (including best revival of a musical last year), it didn’t seem like he was missing one. But perhaps it was special recognition for soldiering on with a knee brace, having broken his ACL on stage in the current run. A theatrical Purple Heart maybe.

There is some very cool looking large-scale and edgy US material currently burning up Broadway. If I was a gambling man, I’d have $50 on the hip hop musical about our founding fathers, Hamilton, sweeping next year’s crop. I was trying to get tickets last night, and there was nothing available until late July. Either way, last night it was cool to be a theater-mad Brit. Now, if we could only make more great movies.

Is Google Treading Water? Or Drowning?

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I’m not really a stock market betting guy. It’s a game I’ve never been good at and frankly doesn’t interest me. I do keep an eye on several stocks, though, and one of them is Google. It’s been a tough year for them, and I’m sure their larger investors are letting them have it at their current shareholders meeting. The problem is that they have been more or less flat, showing a 1% decline in a period where the S&P 500 has hit nearly 10% growth.

I have extensively documented the factors driving these doldrums. The rapid move to mobile by users when advertisers have been slower to follow has hurt them. They have swapped desktop dollars for mobile pennies in many categories. The irony of that transition will not be lost on newspapers, who suffered a similar calamity a decade or so ago when print dollars became online pennies.

Having conquered search, they went on to miss out on social media. They missed Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and a bunch of other upstarts that have been pulling users away from Google properties. They also have a penchant for super expensive, “revenue-free” projects like Google Glass, Fiber, Nest, Driverless cars and Loon. That’s fine and dandy when you are king of the hill and leading the pack, but it’s less cool when you are just another online ad platform. Add to those woes the growth of markets over which they don’t have any sway, like Amazon and eBay. It’s tougher to be a Googler than it was a few years back.

At its core, Google is an advertising platform based around an auction system. The explosion of mobile inventory and the slower rate of adoption by advertisers has driven their click prices down month over month. That will likely improve as the ad world catches up, but it won’t be soon.

They need some game-changing, revenue-rich ideas. To that end, they are moving towards being the marketplace and selling goods and services direct, as opposed to being the forum where advertisers pay to reach the audience. It’s a good idea if they can make it work, but it’s also dangerous as they may end up in competition with their own advertisers.

There is talk of them moving into our local space. The idea is that Google becomes the platform which a local business uses to get jobs, then shares the profit on that job with Google (as opposed to merely buying ads to get customers). It’s huge and potentially game changing. It’s also fraught with friction and would require a fundamental change in how the local economy works.

It’s possible that in spite of having a massive war chest of cash and market leadership in something as fundamental as search, the glory days of Google growth are behind us. If they are, Google stands the risk of being discounted in the same way that newspapers were a decade or so ago. Maybe it is already far too far out, and not waving but drowning.

Counting Calories the Google Way

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We all know that not all food is cooked equal. A fast-food cheeseburger versus one cooked at home contains quite a different nutritional value due to the choice of ingredients used during the preparation process. This is why sometimes counting calories might not necessarily be very accurate, but it is still a good way of getting a rough idea of how much you are consuming.

To aid you with this process, Google has been working on a project that taps into artificial intelligence to help analyze photos of food and give its best bet of the amount of calories there are in that meal.

This technology was recently revealed during the Rework Deep Learning Summit. Dubbed “Im2Calories”, it relies on a camera to analyze the photo. Based on demonstrations, it seems that the system is pretty adept at recognizing the different elements on a plate of food. It also gauged the size of each piece of food in relation to the plate, and also took into consideration any condiments that might have been used.

So how accurate is Im2Calories? At the moment it is unclear as to how close or far the system is from its readings, but Im2Calories is a system which will improve itself through use over time. Even if the technology only works some of the time, as more people begin to use it, the more data will be collected and the more accurate it will become. Im2Calories is designed to improve itself through usage.

At the moment there are apps like MyFitnessPal which has a huge database of different types of food, portion sizes, etc. that users have to enter in manually, but if Im2Calories could speed up the process through automation, more people might ditch the pen, paper, and calculator to figure out how much they are consuming.

Virtual Reality: Visible From Here

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If you follow my random jottings, you may recall that I’m very bullish about Virtual Reality. As a lifetime science fiction geek, VR has always been the Holy Grail. It never seemed achievable (for the average user at least), but it’s getting increasingly closer.

There are three monsters driving this development. A couple of years back, Facebook bought Oculus Rift, the company who managed to hack the human optic nerve and has been working on a ground-breaking headset ever since. I tried an early version, and it’s amazing.

Where Facebook is, can Google be far behind? In their recent I/O conference, Google announced improvements to its Android operating system to allow developers to essentially stitch together video sources from multiple cameras to produce a true VR result. It also has another larger version of its Android-based cardboard headset, which does VR on a shoestring. I have one; it’s clunky but cool, and only cost $40.

The last (much smaller) monster is GoPro. They have just announced a rig which puts six GoPro cameras on a circular rig, allowing users to collect images from multiple cameras simultaneously and then send them on to the Kolor VR platform they acquired recently.

All this stuff is super geeky for right now, but the moment the Oculus Rift headset is launched (hopefully in association with XBox or Sony PlayStation), it will be game on. Gamers will be the first customers, followed rapidly by the porn industry and sports. I’d expect Hollywood to be a year or so behind. What’s especially encouraging is that these players are working on a ‘wide and cheap’ approach, where VR will be readily available to pretty much anyone with modest income.

I realize I’m in the minority in my wildly excitement about this development, in the same way I was wildly underwhelmed by 3D TV. It’s coming folks, and sooner than we thought.