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Tech: General Technology

Where Innovation Lives

O'Reilly Radar - July 20, 2013 - 12:32pm

I sat down with Jon Bruner in New York City this week to talk about where innovation happens. Concentration still seems to matter, even in a networked world, but concentration of what? Minds, money, markets, or manufacturing know-how?

People we mention in this episode include Brady Forrest, Kipp Bradford and Alistair Croll.

Links for things we mention:

By the way, we clearly aren’t the only ones making comparisons between Silicon Valley and Detroit. Seems to be entering the zeitgeist. However, if you are interested in Detroit as a model for the unraveling of a dominant concentration of innovation, pick up a copy of the classic American Odyssey by Robert Conot or the more recent Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff.

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Categories: Tech: General Technology

Four short links: 19 July 2013

O'Reilly Radar - July 19, 2013 - 1:06am

  1. Operative Design — A catalogue of spatial verbs. (via Adafruit)
  2. Open Source Malaria — open science drug discovery.
  3. Surviving Being (Senior) Tech Management (Kellan Elliott-McCrea) — Perspective is the thin line between a challenging but manageable problem, and chittering balled up in the corner.
  4. Disposable UAVs Inspired by Paper Planes (DIY Drones) — The first design, modeled after a paper plane, is created from a cellulose sheet that has electronic circuits ink-jet printed directly onto its body. Once the circuits have been laid on the plane’s frame, the craft is exposed to a UV curing process, turning the planes body into a flexible circuit board. These circuits are then connected to the planes “avionics system”, two elevons attached to the rear of the craft, which give the UAV the ability to steer itself to its destination.

Categories: Tech: General Technology

The Stories I Enjoyed Most in Last Week’s Sunday New York Times

O'Reilly Radar - July 18, 2013 - 8:16am

I used to read two print newspapers every morning. Now, I get most of my news online, but I still treasure my Sunday New York Times in print. This week, due to travel, I didn’t get a chance to catch up with it till a plane flight on Friday. The news was dated, and I’d seen some of it online, but there was still so much of interest that I would otherwise have missed. The Sunday Times is a gathering of fascinating minds reflecting on the issues of the moment; it’s a conversation well worth being a part of.

Normally, you see a flood of tweets from me on Sunday as I share my favorite articles. This week, on a plane without wifi and nearly a week late, I still have the impulse to share, but this time, I’m going to gang up the list of my favorite articles into a single post.

Here are some of the things from last week’s Sunday Times that I think you too might enjoy reading. (Note that the titles online don’t necessarily match the titles from the print edition, which I use below.)

The Joy of Old Age. This is a lovely reflection by neurologist and author Oliver Sacks on life as he looks toward his eightieth birthday. The last paragraphs are particularly moving. I’m 59, not 79, but even now I can see many of the changes – both positive and negative – that Sacks talks about so eloquently.

A Hidden Consensus on Health Care. Ross Douthat makes the case that there are two types of consensus on health care reform – the political consensus, which resulted in Obamacare’s preservation of the broken system of employer-provided healthcare, and the policy consensus, that “the status quo is actually the problem.” While I think there is a lot to like in Obamacare, I totally agree that we could do way better if we scrapped the current system in favor of more profound change. Too bad politicians are so lacking in courage, and have such a hard time actually enacting sensible policies! But what I found most useful in this article is the very notion of the “political consensus” vs. the “policy consensus” as a way to understand what is most broken about Washington.

35 Big Steps to Accountability. I have a big interest in reforming corporate governance. There is a myth that public corporations are managed for the benefit of their shareholders; the reality is that they are most often managed for the benefit of insiders. I wasn’t aware of the Harvard Law School’s Shareholder Rights project, which is tacking this issue. One of their projects, as Gretchen Morgenstern explains, is to get rid of staggered board elections, which tend to insulate companies from shareholder-driven accountability.

In Cargo Delivery, The Three-Wheelers That Could. Claire Martin takes us into the world of Portland’s electric bicycle-powered delivery vans. This is an idea (and a business) worth spreading to other cities. We need fresh approaches to making our world more livable.

Has ‘Caucasian’ Lost Its Meaning?  I had no idea where the term “Caucasian” came from. It’s bizarre origin will quickly convince you that this euphemism for “white” exists to make racism a little less obvious. The article is thought provoking – the kind of piece that stretches your mind in the way that physical exercises can stretch and strengthen your body. And it’s accompanied by a fascinating photo montage showing the many different shades of “white” skin.

Why I Donated My Stool. We’re increasingly understanding the role of the microbiome (the ecology of the bacteria in our gut, on our skin, and in other parts of our body) in human health, leading to powerful treatments that once would have seemed utterly beyond the pale. Apart from the pioneering researchers who first proposed the idea as early as 1958, who would have thought a decade ago that transplanting material (yes, that material!) from the bowels of one individual to another could cure seemingly intractable diseases?

Letting Go of Our Nukes.  The case for the US to unilaterally reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our arsenal. It makes a lot of sense to me. As they used to say, “How many times do we have to make the rubble bounce?”

Austerity Won’t Work if the Roof is Leaking. Robert Frank makes a powerful case for investing in infrastructure, pointing out that Germany, the champion of austerity, is driving down its unemployment rate by making massive investment in repairing and upgrading its infrastructure. As for the US, “No one in Congress seriously proposes that we just abandon our crumbling roads and bridges, and everyone agrees that the repair cost will grow sharply the longer we wait.” So why aren’t we doing anything? (See note above about the difference between policy consensus and political consensus.) I found the arguments for acting now, while the economy isn’t at full capacity, to be particularly compelling. Costs will be lower, in addition to the stimulus effect.

Ireland, North by North-Westeros. Lovely photographs of sites from Northern Ireland used in Game of Thrones, and an account of how to find them (as well as many other sites in Northern Ireland.) I love Ireland, and encourage all of you to visit, both the North and the South. (My own family is from Killarney, and it too has been the evocative, romantic backdrop for many an movie scene.)

Hans Hass, 94, Early Explorer of the World Beneath the Sea. A great reminder of why it’s good to read the Obituaries section (and a perfect bookend to the Oliver Sacks piece.) I had never heard of Hans Hasse and his wife Lotte, who pioneered undersea photography and published books and films of the undersea world a few years before Jacques Cousteau appeared on the scene. He made a lovely comment when asked if he was bitter about Cousteau’s greater renown: “No, why should I be bitter? The sea is so big.” (Though Hass couldn’t help remarking on Cousteau’s self-promotion and lack of recognition for others in the field.)

Hans and Lotte Hasse

I particularly loved the photo of Hans and Lotte in scuba gear on the deck of a boat. The picture could have been shot this year, instead of the 50 or 60 years ago it must have been taken. There’s something about portraits that offer a unique window through time, showing us other lives so like our own but so unreachable. (This is why portraits, from Fayum sarcophagi and Roman busts through European masterworks of painting, through photography (Alfred Steiglitz’s portraits of Georgia O’Keefe!), are my favorite type of art. My gosh, we can look into the eyes of people from centuries, even millennia ago, share in their humanity, imagine their lives, so different yet with so many common threads!)

While Twitter and Facebook and Google+ can also introduce you to unexpected ideas and accounts of other lives, there is something special about the curation of a great newspaper, the very constraint that assembles such dissimilar content into a single frame.

Categories: Tech: General Technology

Four short links: 18 July 2013

O'Reilly Radar - July 17, 2013 - 6:45pm

  1. Ten Rules of the Internet (Anil Dash) — they’re all candidates for becoming “Dash’s Law”. I like this one the most: When a company or industry is facing changes to its business due to technology, it will argue against the need for change based on the moral importance of its work, rather than trying to understand the social underpinnings.
  2. Data Storage by Vertical (Quartz) — The US alone is home to 898 exabytes (1 EB = 1 billion gigabytes)—nearly a third of the global total. By contrast, Western Europe has 19% and China has 13%. Legally, much of that data itself is property of the consumers or companies who generate it, and licensed to companies that are responsible for it. And in the US—a digital universe of 898 exabytes (1 EB = 1 billion gigabytes)—companies have some kind of liability or responsibility for 77% of all that data.
  3. x-OSCa wireless I/O board that provides just about any software with access to 32 high-performance analogue/digital channels via OSC messages over WiFi. There is no user programmable firmware and no software or drivers to install making x-OSC immediately compatible with any WiFi-enabled platform. All internal settings can be adjusted using any web browser.
  4. Google Experimenting with Encrypting Google Drive (CNet) — If that’s the case, a government agency serving a search warrant or subpoena on Google would be unable to obtain the unencrypted plain text of customer files. But the government might be able to convince a judge to grant a wiretap order, forcing Google to intercept and divulge the user’s login information the next time the user types it in. Advertising depends on the service provider being able to read your data. Either your Drive’s contents aren’t valuable to Google advertising, or it won’t be a host-resistant encryption process.

Categories: Tech: General Technology

Four short links: 17 July 2013

O'Reilly Radar - July 16, 2013 - 11:47pm

  1. Hideout — augmented reality books. (via Hacker News)
  2. Patterns and Practices for Open Source Software Success (Stephen Walli) — Successful FOSS projects grow their communities outward to drive contribution to the core project. To build that community, a project needs to develop three onramps for software users, developers, and contributors, and ultimately commercial contributors.
  3. How to Act on LKML — Linus’s tantrums are called out by one of the kernel developers in a clear and positive way.
  4. Beyond the Coming Age of Networked Matter (BoingBoing) — Bruce Sterling’s speculative short story, written for the Institute For The Future. “Stephen Wolfram was right about everything. Wolfram is the greatest physicist since Isaac Newton. Since Plato, even. Our meager, blind physics is just a subset of Wolfram’s new-kind-of- science metaphysics. He deserves fifty Nobels.” “How many people have read that Wolfram book?” I asked him. “I hear that his book is, like, huge, cranky, occult, and it drives readers mad.” “I read the forbidden book,” said Crawferd.

Categories: Tech: General Technology

Four short links: 16 July 2013

O'Reilly Radar - July 16, 2013 - 12:25am

  1. Pete Warden on SensorsWe’re all carrying little networked laboratories in our pockets. You see a photo. I see millions of light-sensor readings at an exact coordinate on the earth’s surface with a time resolution down to the millisecond. The future is combining all these signals into new ways of understanding the world, like this real-time stream of atmospheric measurements.
  2. Quine RelayThis is a Ruby program that generates Scala program that generates Scheme program that generates …(through 50 languages)… REXX program that generates the original Ruby code again.
  3. Celloa GNU99 C library which brings higher level programming to C. Interfaces allow for structured design, Duck Typing allows for generic functions, Exceptions control error handling, Constructors/Destructors aid memory management, Syntactic Sugar increases readability.
  4. The Meeting (John Birmingham) — satirising the Wall Street Journal’s meeting checklist advice.

Categories: Tech: General Technology

Four short links: 15 July 2013

O'Reilly Radar - July 14, 2013 - 11:26pm

  1. Product Strategy Means Saying No — a resource for strength in saying ‘no’ to unplanned features and direction changes. My favourite illustration is for “but my cousin’s neighbour said”. Yes, this.
  2. git-imerge — incremental merge for git.
  3. The Paranoid #! Security GuideNetworked-Evil-Maid-Attacks (Attacker steals the actual SED and replaces it with another containing a tojanized OS. On bootup victim enters it’s password which is subsequently send to the attacker via network/local attacker hot-spot. Different method: Replacing a laptop with a similar model [at e.g. airport/hotel etc.] and the attacker’s phone# printed on the bottom of the machine. Victim boots up enters “wrong” password which is send to the attacker via network. Victim discovers that his laptop has been misplaced, calls attacker who now copies the content and gives the “misplaced” laptop back to the owner.)
  4. Why Mobile Web Apps Are Slow — long analysis. Just to be clear: is possible to do real-time collaboration on on a mobile device. It just isn’t possible to do it in JavaScript. The performance gap between native and web apps is comparable to the performance gap between FireFox and IE8, which is too large a gap for serious work. (via Slashdot)

Categories: Tech: General Technology

Podcast: George Church on genomics

O'Reilly Radar - July 12, 2013 - 2:51pm

A few weeks ago some of my colleagues and I recorded a conversation with George Church, a Harvard University geneticist and one of the founders of modern genomics. In the resulting podcast, you’ll hear Church offer his thoughts on the coming transformation of medicine, whether genes should be patentable, and whether the public is prepared to deal with genetic data.

Here’s how Church characterizes the state of genomics:

It’s kind of like ’93 on the Web. In fact, in a certain sense, it’s more sophisticated than electronics because we have inherited three billion years of amazing technology that was just like a spaceship that was parked in our back yard and we’re just reverse-engineering and probably not fully utilizing even the stuff that we’ve discovered so far.

A few other helpful links:

On this podcast from O’Reilly Media: Tim O’Reilly, Roger Magoulas, Jim Stogdill, Mike Loukides, and Jon Bruner. Subscribe to the O’Reilly Radar podcast through iTunes or SoundCloud, or directly through our podcast’s RSS feed.

Categories: Tech: General Technology

Sorry, but the Internet doesn’t change who you really are — it reveals who you really are [Matthew Ingram] - July 12, 2013 - 1:33pm

The more connected we get, the more we seem to hunger for disconnection. The more devices and services we use, the more we dream about how much better our lives could be — if only we could give up all of our devices and return to a simpler, less connected time. Those desires lead to efforts like Camp Grounded, an event put on in southern California last month by a group called Digital Detox, which offered attendees a peaceful environment without computers or phones, without the internet, without even the use of watches or real names.

As Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic noted in a recent post, these types of events cater to a certain anxiety that many feel about modern life — and a feeling that technology is to blame for our increasing restlessness, for our alleged lack of “real” or authentic relationships, for our inability to connect with others except via electronic means, etc. Hence the desire for someone who will force us to divest ourselves these barriers. As Madrigal puts it:

“There’s a move, cataloged in nearly every magazine, towards seeing the offline as authentic and the online as hollow, false, unreal. This may be a false distinction, digital dualism, as Nathan Jurgenson calls it, but it’s a widespread reaction to the technologies at hand. What was once an exciting new way to make friends now feels over-engineered.”

Returning to a Platonic ideal of our lives

Cord cutting / cutting the cord

The offer made by places like Camp Grounded is that by removing all of these technological impediments, we can somehow return to a more natural state in which our “true” selves are revealed, and that will allow us to connect with others in a more honest way — an offer that Madrigal rightly compares to the “back-to-the-land” movement that was popular in the 1960s (a movement that didn’t work out so well for many of those involved).

“The dream, I would offer, is that by stripping away the trappings of modern life, we reach a place where humans naturally fall into deep and honest relationships with each other. The vision promises that if it weren’t for all the damn new stuff (like watches), we’d all be sitting around sharing the parts of ourselves that we’re ashamed of, supporting others in their most meaningful endeavors, and paying mind only to worthy causes and ideas.”

Madrigal’s descriptions of Camp Grounded — which he got from a number of mainstream media outlets, including the New York Times and the New Yorker — reminded me of a recent project that technology writer Paul Miller engaged in, where he gave up using the internet for a year. The Verge writer said he did this in an attempt to clear away the distractions of the modern world and find the time to do all the things he wasn’t able to otherwise.

The internet isn’t the source of our problems

servers network

Unfortunately for Miller, his experiment turned out to be an abject failure: in a post written at the end of the project, he said that instead of spending all of his now-abundant free time reading the classic books of literature or deepening relationships and spending quality time with friends and family, he just found old-fashioned ways of wasting time — watching mindless television shows, playing video games, and so on.

What Miller realized is something I think we all understand on some deeper level: namely, that the internet and social networks and the web are not the source of our problems forming “real” relationships or making time to better ourselves in some way — and that most of the important flaws that prevent us from doing these things are internal, not external. In that sense, the online world is no more unreal or inauthentic than the offline world.

Is it good to disconnect from time to time? Of course it is. And there’s no question that the pace of modern life has accelerated over the past decade, with so many sources of real-time activity that we feel compelled to participate in, either because our friends and family are there or because our jobs require it. But disconnecting from all of those things isn’t going to magically transform us into better people somehow — all it will do is reveal us as we really are.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Serg Dibrova and Shutterstock Mikhail Menil

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Categories: Tech: General Technology

Four short links: 12 July 2013

O'Reilly Radar - July 12, 2013 - 1:45am

  1. How Well Does Name Analysis Work? (Pete Warden) — explanation of how those “turn a name into gender/ethnicity/etc” routines work, and how accurate they are. Age has the weakest correlation with names. There are actually some strong patterns by time of birth, with certain names widely recognized as old-fashioned or trendy, but those tend to be swamped by class and ethnicity-based differences in the popularity of names.
  2. Old Interfaces — a lazy-scrolling interface to Andy Baio’s collection of faux UIs from movies. (via Andy Baio)
  3. Pidder — browser-crypto’d social network, address book, messaging, RSS reader, and more.
  4. What I Learned From Researching Almost Every Single Smart Watch That Has Been Rumoured or Announced (Quartz) — interesting roundup of the different display technologies used in each of the smartwatches.

Categories: Tech: General Technology

Four short links: 11 July 2013

O'Reilly Radar - July 11, 2013 - 11:16am

  1. Sifted — 7 minute animation set in a point cloud world, using photogrammetry in film-making. My brilliant cousin Ben wrote the software behind it. See this newspaper article and tv report for more.
  2. Vehicle Tech Out of Sync with Drivers’ DevicesFord Motor Co. has its own system. Apple Inc. is working with one set of automakers to design an interface that works better with its iPhone line. Some of the same car companies and others have joined the Car Connectivity Consortium, which is working with the major Android phone brands to develop a different interface. FFS. “… you are changing your phone every other year, and the top-of-mind apps are continuously changing.” That’s why Chevrolet, Mini and some other automakers are starting to offer screens that mirror apps from a smartphone.
  3. Incentives in Notice and Takedown (PDF) — findings summarised in Blocking and Removing Illegal Child Sexual Content: Analysis from a Technical and Legal Perspective: financial institutions seemed to be relatively successful at removing phishing websites while it took on average 150 times longer to remove child pornography.
  4. OpenCV for Processing (Github) — OpenCV for Processing is based on the official OpenCV Java bindings. Therefore, in addition to a suite of friendly functions for all the basics, you can also do anything that OpenCV can do. And a book from O’Reilly, and it’ll be CC-licensed. All is win. (via Greg Borenstein)

Categories: Tech: General Technology

The Manning trial grapples with the question of whether WikiLeaks is a media entity [Matthew Ingram] - July 10, 2013 - 7:17pm

Defence arguments in the trial of former Army private Bradley Manning — who stands accused of a number of crimes for handing over classified documents to WikiLeaks, including a charge of “aiding the enemy” — finished Wednesday with testimony from Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler, who faced a number of questions from the judge and the prosecution about whether WikiLeaks is a media entity or not. Benkler’s answers highlighted some of the most contentious aspects of the trial, which in turn raise questions about what journalism and the media consist of in a networked age, and how we protect them.

Xeni Jardin, who writes for Boing Boing and is also a board member of the Freedom of the Press foundation (which has helped raise money for a number of public-interest journalism entities, including WikiLeaks) posted some details of Benkler’s testimony on Twitter, and it’s clear even from these snippets that both the judge and the prosecution were trying to figure out whether WikiLeaks was a journalistic vehicle much like a newspaper — and therefore deserving of some protection — or a lawless entity engaged in, or at least friendly to, terrorism. (A full transcript of Benkler’s testimony is here).

Advocacy and journalism

At one point, the prosecuting attorney — Capt. Joe Morrow — asked Benkler whether he would agree that “mass document leaking is inconsistent with journalism,” to which the Harvard professor said: “No, why would I agree with that?” Later, the prosecution tried to argue that WikiLeaks is not a journalistic entity because it has a political agenda: Morrow asked Benkler how one could tell the difference between a journalistic organization and one whose goals were political, and Benkler responded that the two are not mutually exclusive, noting that media outlets like Fox News have a “political perspective.”

Benkler: They're not always mutually exclusive. The Nation, Fox News, some have a political perspective & context for what news they follow.—
Xeni Jardin (@xeni) July 10, 2013

A similar criticism has been made about Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald and his reporting about the NSA surveillance program known as PRISM, which is based on documents leaked by former CIA contractor Edward Snowden. Some — including a number of traditional journalists — have suggested the Guardian writer is not a “real” journalist because he is a blogger who advocates a political viewpoint rather than remaining objective.

As I pointed out in a post about Greenwald, the debate over whether he is a journalist is important because there’s a perception that journalists and traditional media entities have special protections under the law, and so those who are critical of the Guardian writer — and those who want to convict Bradley Manning of “aiding the enemy” for giving classified documents to WikiLeaks — are trying to define journalism in as rigid a way as possible so their targets aren’t protected.

Benkler: “All the news that's fit to print” —which implies political neutrality—is one model of journalism but it's not the only one.—
Xeni Jardin (@xeni) July 10, 2013

The problem of defining who is a journalist

What this ignores, however, is something Benkler suggested in his testimony: namely, that there is no hard and fast dividing line between something that is a media or journalistic entity and something that isn’t. At one point, the judge asked whether “the fourth estate now includes bloggers,” and wondered whether anyone in the gallery at the trial — if they published information on a blog — would qualify as a journalist. Benkler’s answer: “That’s a hard line to draw. This is what’s problematic about defining the limits of reporters privilege. It depends.”

The Harvard professor then argued that the charge of “aiding the enemy” laid against Manning for simply providing documents to WikiLeaks doesn’t make much sense (the defence has asked the court to have this charge dropped due to lack of evidence). If a classified document is published on a website where theoretically an “enemy” can read it, does that mean publishing it somehow aids the enemy? If so, that would theoretically implicate the entire internet, not to mention every traditional media outlet.

“If any leak to media org is published online, where conceivably an enemy can access, it's aiding the enemy? That can't be correct.”—Benkler—
Xeni Jardin (@xeni) July 10, 2013

Although Benkler didn’t get into it in his testimony, the protections that journalists and media outlets are supposed to have under the law are also problematic at best — and always have been, although WikiLeaks and the Manning trial have focused more attention on the topic. The fact is that there is no explicit protection for journalists under U.S. federal law, which is why some legislators continue to argue for a so-called “shield law.” But that in turn would require defining who is a journalist and who isn’t, which raises a host of troublesome issues.

WikiLeaks and the “networked fourth estate”

The only real protection for the media is the First Amendment, which says nothing at all about traditional media or journalism or what they consist of, but simply protects a “free press.” This makes it even harder to argue that “real” journalists somehow have legal protection but bloggers or alternative media entities like WikiLeaks don’t. At least one judge has examined the logical extension of that as it applies to the web and to bloggers, saying in a 2011 decision that:

“Changes in technology and society have made the lines between private citizen and journalist exceedingly difficult to draw [and] news stories are now just as likely to be broken by a blogger at her computer as a reporter at a major newspaper. Such developments make clear why the news-gathering protections of the First Amendment cannot turn on professional credentials or status.”

Benkler looked at these issues as they apply to WikiLeaks in a fascinating paper he wrote for the Harvard Civil Rights Review in 2011, entitled “A Free and Irresponsible Press,” in which he argued that the First Amendment and its protections should apply to WikiLeaks just as clearly as they apply to the New York Times, saying: “As a matter of First Amendment doctrine, Wikileaks is entitled to the protection available to a wide range of members of the fourth estate, from fringe pamphleteers to major press organizations.”

What the Manning court thinks of Benkler’s arguments about how WikiLeaks fits into what he calls the “networked fourth estate” — and whether they will affect the judge’s decision on the “aiding the enemy” charge in particular — remains to be seen. The trial continues next week with prosecution arguments.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Caroline Georgatu

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Categories: Tech: General Technology

The real villain in the ebooks case isn’t Apple or Amazon — it’s publishers’ addiction to DRM [Matthew Ingram] - July 10, 2013 - 1:27pm

After much back-and-forth, a verdict came down on Wednesday in the Apple ebooks case: a judge found the company guilty colluding with five of the big six major book publishers in a scheme designed to inflate prices. The publishers (all of whom settled with the government before the trial) have tried to argue in the past that they were forced to cut a deal with Apple because of Amazon’s monopoly — but when it gets right down to it, the real culprit is the DRM lock-in that the publishers themselves pushed for. In effect, they forged the chains that bound them to Amazon in the first place.

My GigaOM and paidContent colleagues Jeff Roberts and Laura Owen have written about the details of the judgement itself, and also about the potential impact on Apple and the ebook business as a whole, but what really interests me is the broader landscape in which the lawsuit sits, and how much of that has been determined by the digital-rights management infrastructure the Big Five publishers put in place. Without it, there likely wouldn’t have been a trial at all.

Publishers locked themselves in

Tech writer Rob Pegoraro commented on this in a perceptive post last year, in which he noted that DRM locks provided the foundation for the Amazon monopoly that book publishers were complaining about so loudly:

“So long as DRM stays part of the plot, every Kindle reader sold, every Kindle app installed and every Kindle title purchased will strengthen Amazon’s hand… if you could buy an e-book in a standard format that, like an MP3 music file, would be playable on current and imaginable future hardware, it wouldn’t matter which store sold it. There would be no lock-in.”

iBooks apple

That’s not to say Apple and Amazon weren’t willing participants in the DRM game, because of course they were. It was in their interest to adopt measures that would (theoretically at least) prevent copying of content just as much as it was in the publishers’ interest, since that would help keep consumers locked into their respective platforms. And this was particularly important for Amazon because its whole business model is predicated on using the Kindle as a cheap delivery system for content.

But the publishers’ desire for DRM locks was what gave Amazon the bricks and mortar with which to construct that business model. In effect, as author Charlie Stross put it in 2011, by pushing for DRM so strenuously, the publishers gave Amazon the stick it subsequently used to beat them:

“The Big Six’s pig-headed insistence on DRM on ebooks is handing Amazon a stick with which to beat them harder. [Their] insistence on DRM has proven to be a hideous mistake. Rather than reducing piracy, it has locked customers in Amazon’s walled garden, which in turn increases Amazon’s leverage over publishers.”

The Big Six gave Amazon the keys


Imagine for a moment if an ebook wasn’t locked to a specific platform, or even to a specific retailer. It may sound far-fetched, but only because we have all come to accept that the way the digital book business works now is the only way it could possibly function. That’s not the way physical books work — we are free to buy them from whatever retailer we wish, and while publishers have exclusive deals with certain chains, that doesn’t prevent us from doing whatever we want with the book after we have bought it.

By contrast, DRM locks — and related restrictions on things like lending or moving ebooks to a different platform — make the whole process of buying ebooks so complicated and unfriendly that many book lovers don’t even bother doing it in the first place. That’s arguably as big a problem as Amazon’s control over prices, if not bigger. How much larger could the ebook market potentially be if publishers hadn’t built those DRM walls around their content and given Amazon and Apple the only keys to unlock them?

Instead of seeing the ebook market as one that could grow their market in different directions, or offer different opportunities for revenue generation, most publishers saw it instead as a threat to their existing business, and did whatever they could to protect themselves from that threat. That’s where the impulse for DRM locks came from, and they have been paying the price ever since. In that sense, the Apple case is more of a sideshow than it is the main attraction.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Ben Cumming and Giuseppe Bognanni

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Categories: Tech: General Technology

Four short links: 10 July 2013

O'Reilly Radar - July 9, 2013 - 7:17pm

  1. 6 Technical Things I Learned About Bitcoin (Rusty Russell) — Anonymity is hard, but I was surprised to see’s page about my donation to Unfilter correctly geolocated to my home town! Perhaps it’s a fluke, but I was taken aback by how clear it was. Interesting collection of technical observations about the workings of Bitcoin.
  2. NIFTY: News Information Flow Tracking, Yay! — watch how news stories mutate and change over time. (via Stijn Debrouwere
  3. EO Wilson’s Advice for Future Scientists (NPR) — the ideal scientist thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper. (via Courtney Johnston)
  4. New Web Model for Government (The Atlantic) — The new site has been built in public for months, iteratively created on Github using cutting edge open-source technologies. is the rarest of birds: a next-generation website that also happens to be a .gov.

Categories: Tech: General Technology

A tip for Uber: Sometimes the best PR strategy is to do something that isn’t rational [Matthew Ingram] - July 9, 2013 - 6:34pm

What the car-hailing service Uber likes to call “surge pricing” makes a lot of sense as a way of managing the supply of cars: during periods of high demand, the company boosts the price of a ride booked through its app, as a way of encouraging more drivers to respond. When disaster strikes, however, that kind of rational explanation doesn’t fly for a lot of users — instead, they like to call it “price gouging.” It happened during Hurricane Sandy, and it happened again during the massive floods in Toronto on Monday, and the result was a great lesson in how not to do PR for your startup.

Toronto, where Uber has been operating since last year, was hit by a record-setting storm on Monday: the Canadian city of 2.6 million people got as much rain in two hours as it usually gets in an entire month — an estimated 75 millimeters, or about three inches — and the rainfall for the entire day exceeded the record amount that was dumped by Hurricane Hazel in 1954. Much of the city’s subway system was shut down for at least part of the day, and large parts of the downtown including major highways were under water. floods #stormTO
Hassan Ouda (@Hassan_Ouda) July 08, 2013

Surge pricing in a storm looks bad

Not surprisingly, many residents went looking for alternative forms of transportation, and Uber was one of those alternatives — and just as it did during Hurricane Sandy, demand surged to the point where the company started charging as much as 2 times the normal amount for a typical fare. After criticism of the startup began to circulate on Twitter, a company spokesman responded (as the company did during Sandy) that boosting prices was the best way to get more cars on the road, but this seemed to fall on deaf ears.

The company also pointed out a number of times via its Twitter account that Uber’s regular taxi service — as opposed to the “black car” or livery service that it also offers — maintained the usual pricing levels despite the storm, but this didn’t seem to calm the waters much either.

Shameful… RT @lauraserra: So @Uber_TOR is doubling the rate because of high demand? Way to help in a crisis. #badpr
Sarah Barker (@sarahbarker) July 08, 2013

During the flooding, Toronto-based entrepreneur Aron Solomon sent out a number of critical tweets about the company’s pricing behavior, and then followed up on Tuesday with a post on Medium about the damage that Uber was doing to its reputation, entitled “The Don’t Be An Ass**** Rule.” In it, he made what I think is a good point: namely, that while surge pricing might be a legitimate strategy for managing a scarce resource, it just looks bad during a flood or other disaster.

In other words, while it may be a completely rational approach, the downside of doing so still outweighs the upside from a marketing point of view — in the same way that raising prices for bottled water, blankets and generators after a hurricane or earthquake might make sense economically, but still isn’t a very nice thing for human beings to do to other human beings. As Om has pointed out, data without a soul is meaningless. And as Solomon put it:

“When a really bad storm hits a city, people are stranded and very upset, and you provide transportation services to the citizens of said city, you should not dramatically raise your prices at that exact moment; if you do so, you are an ass****.”

Rational, and yet not advisable

Uber tried to find a middle ground during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, by first subsidizing the rates it was paying its drivers (which wound up costing the company as much as $100,000 in a single day) and then eating the fees that it normally charges. But from a PR point of view, the damage was already done by the time it decided to do so — thanks in part to some highly critical coverage of the initial surge pricing, such as the piece entrepreneur Paul Carr wrote.

Please note that the price for Hailo's service has NOT been increased due to the storm. Standard pricing is, as always, in effect.—
  (@HailoToronto) July 09, 2013

The undercurrent to Solomon’s post is that Uber can’t really afford to have too much bad publicity when it is fighting against several other players in markets like Toronto — including Hailo, a British startup that works with regular taxi services, and made a point of talking about how its prices remained stable throughout the flooding — as well as an existing taxi industry and regulatory environment that are less than welcoming.

For Uber, surge pricing makes rational sense. But that doesn’t make it a good marketing or PR strategy — in fact, it arguably makes things worse, because a commitment to a rational, algorithm-driven approach during a time of tremendous emotional turmoil like a natural disaster can make you seem, well… inhuman. And no one is going to remember how efficient Uber was when they think about the company’s service during the flood: all they will think of is how it was criticized for taking advantage of its customers.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Stephen Brace

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Categories: Tech: General Technology

Snowden maintains the NSA has direct access to company servers, which means someone is lying [Matthew Ingram] - July 9, 2013 - 12:15pm

Ever since The Guardian and the Washington Post first revealed the existence of a top-secret NSA surveillance program known as PRISM in June, there has been a glaring question mark at the center of the documents leaked by former CIA contractor Edward Snowden: namely, how much access the spy agency has to the servers and systems of companies like Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

All of these companies have strenuously denied that they provide any access at all, direct or indirect — but in the second half of an interview with the Guardian, released by the newspaper on Monday, Snowden maintains that PRISM gives the NSA “direct access” to company servers.

In the interview, which he did in early June with Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald and independent documentary film-maker Laura Poitras from his hideout in Hong Kong, the former CIA staffer repeats the allegations contained in the PRISM slides about tech companies willingly providing direct access to their servers — and doing so in an automated way so that they can deny any involvement:

“Companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft — they all get together with the NSA and provide the NSA with direct access to the backends to all of the systems you use to communicate, to store your data, to put things in the cloud, and even just to send birthday wishes and keep a record of your life. And they give the NSA direct access that they don’t need to oversee, so they can’t be held liable for it.”

Identical denials from every tech company

The slides that were originally published by the Post and Guardian describe how government agents could get “data collected directly from the servers” of what the presentation called “partner” companies such as Google and Facebook. This triggered a series of almost identical denials from the companies implicated in the story, all of which maintained that there was no such “direct access” provided — and that any NSA requests or orders to provide information on users were routinely resisted and handled via other methods.

A New York Times follow-up story, based on anonymous sources — including those at companies named in the PRISM presentation — said that several of these tech giants had set up secure “lock box” or “drop box” style servers or locations where they could send data requested by the NSA, as a way of automating the process of responding to court orders under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

This seemed to explain the denials from Apple, Facebook and others about providing “direct access,” while still fitting the general description of the PRISM system contained in the NSA slides — suggesting that the argument over the meaning of the term “direct access” was mostly semantic. But that was before Google doubled-down on its earlier denials, both in a Wall Street Journal story and in a public question-and-answer session that Google’s chief counsel David Drummond did with The Guardian.

Someone is not telling the truth


In the Journal story, the company said that it provided data primarily via a secure FTP program, and refused to participate in any program that required it “to provide governments with access to our systems or to install their equipment on our networks.” In the Q&A session, meanwhile, Drummond said that Google was not “in cahoots” with the NSA or any other government agency, and strenuously denied that the company provided any kind of access — direct or otherwise — to its equipment, saying:

“There is no government program that Google participates in that allows the kind of access that the media originally reported… there is no free-for-all, no direct access, no indirect access, no back door, no drop-box.”

The inescapable fact is that there’s no way of squaring Drummond’s statements and Google’s other denials with Snowden’s specific claims in the video interview the Guardian just released. And it’s not just Snowden reiterating that the program involves “direct access” to servers: in annotations to several new slides from the NSA presentation, Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman said they confirmed the existence of a program that allows security agencies to tap directly into FBI-operated equipment installed on company premises.

Either Snowden and those whom Gellman has spoken to in the course of his reporting — not to mention the sources that the New York Times used for its “lock box” story — are lying about what kind of access the NSA gets to company servers, or the companies involved have repeatedly lied about their participation in the program. There is no other explanation.

Thumbnail image courtesy of Shutterstock / Lightspring

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Categories: Tech: General Technology

Four short links: 9 July 2013

O'Reilly Radar - July 9, 2013 - 12:45am

  1. Autonomous Intersection Management Projecta scalable, safe, and efficient multiagent framework for managing autonomous vehicles at intersections. (via How Driverless Cars Could Reshape Cities)
  2. Quantum Information (New Scientist) — a gentle romp through the possible and the actual for those who are new to the subject.
  3. Ambient Backscatter (PDF) — a new communication primitive where devices communicate by backscattering ambient RF signals. Our design avoids the expensive process of generating radio waves; backscatter communication is orders of magnitude more power-efficient than traditional radio communication. (via Hacker News)
  4. Top Free-to-Play Monetization Tricks (Gamasutra) — amazingly evil ways that free games lure you into paying. At this point the user must choose to either spend about $1 or lose their rewards, lose their stamina (which they could get back for another $1), and lose their progress. To the brain this is not just a loss of time. If I spend an hour writing a paper and then something happens and my writing gets erased, this is much more painful to me than the loss of an hour. The same type of achievement loss is in effect here. Note that in this model the player could be defeated multiple times in the boss battle and in getting to the boss battle, thus spending several dollars per dungeon.

Categories: Tech: General Technology

Four short links: 5 July 2013

O'Reilly Radar - July 8, 2013 - 3:58pm

  1. Quantitative Analysis of the Full Bitcoin Transaction Graph (PDF) — We analyzed all these large transactions by following in detail the way these sums were accumulated and the way they were dispersed, and realized that almost all these large transactions were descendants of a single transaction which was carried out in November 2010. Finally, we noted that the subgraph which contains these large transactions along with their neighborhood has many strange looking structures which could be an attempt to conceal the existence and relationship between these transactions, but such an attempt can be foiled by following the money trail in a succinctly persistent way. (via Alex Dong)
  2. Majority of Gamers Today Can’t Finish Level 1 of Super Mario Bros — Nintendo test, and the President of Nintendo said in a talk, We watched the replay videos of how the gamers performed and saw that many did not understand simple concepts like bottomless pits. Around 70 percent died to the first Goomba. Another 50 percent died twice. Many thought the coins were enemies and tried to avoid them. Also, most of them did not use the run button. There were many other depressing things we noted but I can not remember them at the moment. (via Beta Knowledge)
  3. Bloat-Aware Design for Big Data Applications (PDF) — (1) merging and organizing related small data record objects into few large objects (e.g., byte buffers) instead of representing them explicitly as one-object-per-record, and (2) manipulating data by directly accessing buffers (e.g., at the byte chunk level as opposed to the object level). The central goal of this design paradigm is to bound the number of objects in the application, instead of making it grow proportionally with the cardinality of the input data. (via Ben Lorica)
  4. Poderopedia (Github) — originally designed for investigative journalists, the open src software allows you to create and manage entity profile pages that include: short bio or summary, sheet of connections, long newsworthy profiles, maps of connections of an entity, documents related to the entity, sources of all the information and news river with external news about the entity. See the announcement and website.

Categories: Tech: General Technology

Four short links: 8 July 2013

O'Reilly Radar - July 8, 2013 - 1:03am

  1. QCL: A Language for Quantum ComputingQCL is a high level, architecture independent programming language for quantum computers, with a syntax derived from classical procedural languages like C or Pascal. This allows for the complete implementation and simulation of quantum algorithms (including classical components) in one consistent formalism.. (Will not run on D-Wave, which is annealing rather a general purpose quantum computer)
  2. Quipper — a functional quantum programming language.
  3. How Copyright Makes Books Disappear — Amazon and YouTube data showing exponential growth in available content until copyright term is entered, at which point there’s a massive drop-off in availability. Graph is stunning. (via BoingBoing)
  4. Immersiona people-centric view of your email life using only your metadata. Horrifyingly revealing.

Categories: Tech: General Technology

Doug Engelbart and the vision thing: Is Silicon Valley suffering from a failure of imagination? [Matthew Ingram] - July 5, 2013 - 12:29pm

The word “visionary” gets thrown around a lot, but Douglas Engelbart — who passed away earlier this week — arguably deserved that title more than most. His research into how computers could augment our ability to think and collaborate led to the development of the computer mouse and many of the other innovations we associate with personal computing. At a time when innovation in Silicon Valley often seems to consist of inventing a new iPhone app or another walled garden for showing people ads, it’s worth remembering that we need those who are thinking farther ahead than just their next round of financing.

He was best known for inventing the mouse, but that was just one tiny part of what Engelbart contributed to the computing revolution. And his vision was not centered on what kinds of products he could develop and how they could be monetized — or how he could patent his innovations and charge others for using them — but on what they could allow people to do and how they could increase our ability to understand the world around us.

Doug Engelbart did a lot more than invent the mouse. It would be a shame if that became all he was known for.—
Mitch Kapor (@mkapor) July 03, 2013

A vision of a better world

Engelbart — who was influenced by Vannevar Bush’s visionary 1945 essay “As We May Think,” and the idea of a personal workstation with all the world’s knowledge connected to it — believed that only by collaborating via computers would scientists be able to process the vast amounts of information needed to solve the problems of the modern world. As he put it in one of his manifestos, prepared for the Air Force Office of Scientific Research in 1962:

“By augmenting human intellect we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems. Increased capability in this respect is taken to mean a mixture of the following: more-rapid comprehension, better comprehension, the possibility of gaining a useful degree of comprehension in a situation that previously was too complex, speedier solutions, better solutions, and the possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insoluble.”

With the incredibly powerful technologies we have in our hands — wirelessly-networked supercomputers many of us use to look at funny pictures or play Angry Birds — it’s almost impossible to fathom just how far ahead Engelbart was thinking when he started the Augmentation Research Center and began developing the technologies that he demonstrated in 1968, in a legendary presentation at Stanford University often called “The Mother Of All Demos” (video of which is embedded below). At a time when computers were still room-sized behemoths that used punch cards, Engelbart was already thinking of a network of individually-controlled desktop computers and what it could do.

1 guy in the 60's pioneered the mouse, video conferencing, word processing, and hypertext. Today, people invent Bang With Friends.—
Aaron Levie (@levie) July 04, 2013

Another “Facebook, but for X”

As former Apple designer and developer Bret Victor points out in a post about Engelbart’s legacy, despite almost a half a century of innovation around computing and collaborative technologies, we have still only scratched the surface of what he originally had in mind. And while it’s difficult to say for sure what he would have thought of Facebook or the iPhone, it’s not hard to imagine that he might have been disappointed by how little they take advantage of what is possible with a vast network of interconnected users, just as Sir Tim Berners-Lee is concerned about what we have managed to do with the web.

It’s not that building commercial technologies that people can use to buy things or play games is bad, but when you look at the sheer size and scale of the resources devoted to those things versus the amount of money and time spent on collaborative intelligence or other tools that Engelbart dreamed of, it can get depressing. Do we really need another “Like Facebook, but for X?” or “Like Pinterest, but for Y?” Do we need to spend as much time as we do patenting things like rounded corners on smartphone icons?

Jeff Hammerbacher: "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks."
  (@finitor) April 15, 2011

It’s easy to blame the venture-capital industry for failing to put enough money behind truly innovative technologies or concepts — and on that point it’s worth noting, as Tom Foremski pointed out, that Engelbart struggled to get funding for much of his life — but VCs have their eyes on the bottom line just as many entrepreneurs do, and it often seems as though the easiest way to generate a blockbuster product or service is to imitate a previous blockbuster. So why not just do that, if that’s where the money and/or the glory is?

Where have all the visionaries gone?

Even Steve Jobs, who turned Apple into one of the most valuable companies in the world, seemed more like Engelbart in some ways than he did a modern CEO or entrepreneur: yes, he commercialized research from Xerox’s PARC research center (much of which was based on Engelbart’s work) but he always seemed to be motivated more by a vision of the future and his own personal design aesthetic than by dreams of how much revenue he could generate or how much advertising he could help Madison Avenue sell.

Clearly there are still those who qualify as technology visionaries — a group that would have to include Elon Musk of Tesla and probably Jeff Bezos of Amazon. And Om is right when he says that there is innovation happening on the fringes of Silicon Valley, whether it’s research into using big data for genomic analysis, or augmented reality, or new chip technologies.

But at the same time, we seem to have lost the kind of big-picture thinking that Engelbart and others specialized in: the kind that didn’t have as its focus a specific market where things could be sold, or a better way of targeting advertising, but a vision of a world that could be changed for the better in some dramatic way through the use of technology — and a way of connecting the dots to show us all how we might be able to get there. And we are poorer for that.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / alphaspirit

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