Category Archives: Digital reflections

On videoconferencing and security

Picture: Zoom

Yesterday began with a message from a business executive who was concerned with the security of Zoom, the video conferencing platform that many companies (and universities) have landed on. The reason was a newspaper article regurgitating several internet articles, partly about functionality that has been adequately documented by Zoom, partly about security holes that have been fixed a long time ago.

So is there any reason to be concerned about Zoom or Whereby or Teams or Hangouts or all the other platforms?

My answer is “probably not” – at least not for the security holes discussed here, and for ordinary users (and that includes most small- to medium sized companies I know about).

It is true that video conferencing introduces some security and privacy issues, but if we look at it realistically, the biggest problem is not the technology, but the people using it (Something we nerds refer to as PEBKAC – Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair.)

When a naked man sneaks into an elementary school class via Whereby, as happened a few days ago here in Norway, it is not due to technology problems, but because the teacher had left the door wide open, i.e., had not turned on the function that makes it necessary to “knock” and ask for permission to enter.

When anyone can record (and have the dialogue automatically transcribed) from Zoom, it is because the host has not turned off the recording feature. By the way, anyone can record a video conference with screen capture software (such as Camtasia), a sound recorder or for that matter a cell phone, and no (realistic) security system in the world can do anything about it.

When the boss can monitor that people are not using other software while sitting in a meeting (a feature that can be completely legitimate in a classroom, it is equivalent to the teacher looking beyond the class to see if the students are awake), well, I don’t think the system is to blame for that either. Any leader who holds such irrelevant meetings that people do not bother to pay attention should rethink their communications strategy. Any executive I know would have neither time nor interest in activating this feature – because if you need technology to force people to wake up, you don’t have a problem technology can solve.

The risk of a new tool should not be measured against some perfect solution, but against what the alternative is if you don’t have it. Right now, video conferencing is the easiest and best tool for many – so that is why we use it. But we have to take the trouble to learn how it works. The best security system in the world is helpless against people writing their password on a Post-It, visible when they are in videoconference.

So, therefore – before using the tool – take a tour of the setup page, choose carefully what features you want to use, and think through what you want to achieve by having the meeting.

If that’s hard, maybe you should cancel the whole thing and send an email instead.

Summer reading for the diligent digital technology student

eivindgEivind Grønlund, one of my students at the Informatics: Digital Business and Leadership program at the University of Oslo sent me an email asking about what to read during the summer to prepare for the fall.

Well, I don’t believe in reading textbooks in the summer, I believe in reading things that will excite you and make you think about what you are doing and slightly derail you in a way that will make you a more interesting person when Fall comes. In other words, read whatever you want.

That being said, the students at DigØk have two business courses next year – one on organization and leadership, one on technology evolution and strategy. Both will have a a focus on basics, with a flavor of high tech and the software business. What can you read to understand that, without having to dig into textbooks or books that may be on the syllabus, like Leading DigitalThe Innovator’s SolutionEnterprise Architecture as Strategy, or Information Rules?

Here are four books that are entertaining and wise and will give you an understanding of how humans and technology interact and at least some of the difficulties you will run into trying to manage them – but in a non-schoolbook context. Just the thing for the beach, the mountain-top, the sailboat.

  • 816Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon. The ultimate nerd novel. A technology management friend of mine re-reads this book every summer. It involves history, magic reality (the character of Enoch Root), humor, startup lore, encryption and, well, fun. Several stories in one: About a group of nerds (main protagonist: Randy Waterhouse) doing a startup in Manila and other places 1999, his grandfather, Randall P. Waterhouse, running cryptographic warfare against the Germans and Japanese during WWII, and how the stories gradually intersect and come together towards the end. The gallery of characters is hilarious and fascinating, and you can really learn something about startups, nerd culture, programming, cryptography and history along the way. Highly recommended.
  • 7090Tracy Kidder: The Soul of a New Machine. This 1981 book describes the development process of a Data General minicomputer as a deep case study of the people in it. It could just as well have been written about any really advanced technology project today – the characters, the challenges, the little subcultures that develop within a highly focused team stretching the boundaries for what is possible. One of the best case studies ever written. If you want to understand how advanced technology gets made, this is it.
  • 24113Douglas Hofstadter: Gödel, Escher, Bach. This book (aficionados just call it GEB) was recommended to me by one of my professors in 1983, and is responsible for me wanting to be in academia and have time and occasion to read books such as this one. It is also one of the reasons I think The Matrix is a really crap movie – Hofstadter said it all before, and I figured out the plot almost at once and thought the whole thing a tiresome copycat. Hofstader writes about patterns, abstractions, the concept of meta-phenomena, but mostly the book is about self-referencing systems, but as with any good book that makes you think it is breath-taking in what it covers, pulling together music, art, philosophy and computer science (including a bit on encryption, always a favorite) and history. Not for the faint-hearted, but as Erling Iversen, my old boss and an extremely well-read man, said: You can divide techies into two kinds: Those who have read Hofstadter, and those who haven’t.
  • 34017076Tim O’Reilly: WTF? What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us. Tim is the founder of O’Reilly and Associates (the premier source of hands-on tech books for me) and has been a ringsider and a participant in anything Internet and digital tech since the nineties. This fairly recent book provides a good overview of the major evolutions and battles during the last 10-15 years and is a great catcher-upper for the young person who has not been been part of the revolution (so far.)

And with that – have a great summer!

Concorde moment

british_airways_concorde_g-boac_03I recently searched for the term “Concorde moment” and did not find it. The term has appeared on Top Gear some years ago (though I can’t find the clip), probably mentioned by James May (who knows something about technology evolution) or Jeremy Clarkson (who certainly lamented the passing of the Concorde many times.) What “Concorde moment” means, essentially, is (as Clarkson says in the video below) “a giant step backward for mankind”.

The Concorde is still the fastest passenger jet ever made (3.5 hours from London to New York) and still the most beautiful one. In the end, it turned out to be too noisy, too polluting, and too expensive, never really making money. But it sure looked impressive. I never got to go on one, despite working in an international consulting company and jetting back and forth across the pond quite a bit. But my boss once bamboozled someone into bleeding for the ticket, and lived off the experience for a long time.

palm_graffiti_gesturesA Concorde moment, in other words, is a situation where a groundbreaking technology ceases to be, despite clearly being (and remaining) best in class, for reasons that seem hard to understand. Other examples may include

  • the Palm Pilot with its Graffiti shorthand system, once used by businesspeople all over the world (and by my wife to take impressive notes in all her studies)
  • the Apollo space program – we last went to the moon in 1972, with Apollo 17, and have not been back since. 45 years without going back has resulted in some impressive conspiracy theories, but again, the lack of any scientific or economic reason for going there is probably why it hasn’t happened.
  • the Bugatti Veyron, at least according to Top Gear. Personally, I find the announced new Tesla Roadster much more exciting, but, well, everyone is entitled to an opinion.
  • and, well, suggestions?

Spam on LinkedIn

Got this LinkedIn invite this morning. I don’t know, but somehow I think this is not legit. If not, I am sure the real Erling Persson Family Foundation will be in touch…

Inbox__48 093_messages_

So far, spammy invites on LinkedIn has largely been young women with very short CVs. This is new, and something LinkedIn should pay attention to, as the network is one where the signal-to-noise ratio is unusually high.

A tour de Fry of technology evolution

There are many things to say about Stephen Fry, but enough is to show this video, filmed at Nokia Bell Labs, explaining, amongst other things, the origin of microchips, the power of exponential growth, the adventure and consequences of performance and functionality evolution. I am beginning to think that “the apogee, the acme, the summit of human intelligence” might actually be Stephen himself:

(Of course, the most impressive feat is his easy banter on hard questions after the talk itself. Quotes like: “[and] who is to program any kind of moral [into computers ]… If [the computer] dives into the data lake and learns to swim, which is essentially what machine learning is, it’s just diving in and learning to swim, it may pick up some very unpleasant sewage.”)

After Moore: Landauer

Very interesting blog by the very readable Ted: Is computing in reverse the next big thing?

As Moore’s law continues, it will reach certain physical limitations, such as electrons behaving less dependently the thinner the conduits become (think individual electrons instead of a more predictable stream. Another (they are linked, I suspect) is Landauer’s principle, which dictates that there is a certain lower limit on how much power that is necessary to flip a bit, and that forms a hard stop in terms of how much you can lower power consumption (and with it, heat dissipation.) (See Denning, P. J. and T. G. Lewis (2016). “Exponential laws of computing growth.” Communications of the ACM 60(1): 54-65, for an excellent discussion of Moore’s law and its remaining life.)

Turns out computing capability as a function of electric power consumption might be the next big obstacle (or at least measurement.) The BitCoin miners certainly know that.

Reverse, computing, which Ted writes about, is essentially computing where the power can be reversed, recreating the initial state. While difficult technically, it certainly would reduce power consumption to almost nothing.

To learn how, read the article. Recommended!

Singularity redux

From Danny Hillis: The Pattern on the Stone, which I am currently reading hunting for simple explanations of technological things:

Because computers can do some things that seem very much like human thinking, people often worry that they are threatening our unique position as rational beings, and there are some who seek reassurance in mathematical proofs of the limits of computers. There have been analogous controversies in human history. It was once considered important that the Earth be at the center of the universe, and our imagined position at the center was emblematic of our worth. The discovery that we occupied no central position – that  our planet was just one of a number of planets in orbit around the Sun – was deeply disturbing to many people at the time, and the philosophical implications of astronomy became a topic of heated debate. A similar controversy arose over evolutionary theory, which also appeared as a threat to humankind’s uniqueness. At the root of these earlier philosophical rises was a misplaced judgment of the source of human worth. I am convinced that most of the current philosophical discussions about the limits of computers are based on a similar misjudgment.

And that, I think, is one way to think about the future and intelligence, natural and artificial. Works for me, for now. No idea, of course, whether this still is Danny’s position, but I rather think it is.