Category Archives: Digital reflections

Elon, I want my data!

Last week I got a parking ticket. I stopped outside BI Norwegian Business School where I work, to run in and deliver some papers and pick up some computer equipment. There is a spot outside the school where you can stop for 10 minutes for deliveries. When I came out, I had a ticket, the attendant was nowhere in sight – and I am pretty sure I had not been there for 10 minutes. But how to prove that?

Then it dawned on me – I have a Tesla Model S, a very innovative car – not just because it is electric, but because it is constantly connected to the Internet and sold more as a service than a product (actually, sold as a very tight, proprietary-architecture product, much like whatever Apple is selling). Given that there is a great app where I can see the where the car is and how fast it is going, I should be able to get the log from Tesla and prove that I parked the car outside BI less than 10 minutes before the ticket was issued…

Well, not so fast. I called Tesla Norway and asked to see the log, and was politely turned down – they cannot give me the data (actually, they will not hand it over unless there is a court order, according to company policy.) A few emails back and forth have revealed that the location and speed data seen by the app is not kept by the internal system. But you can still find out what kind of driving has been done – as Elon Musk himself did when refuting a New York Times journalist’s bad review by showing that the journalist had driven the car harder and in different places than claimed. I could, for instance, use the data to find out precisely when I parked the car, even though I can’t show the location.

And this is where it gets interesting (and where I stop caring about the parking ticket and start caring about principles): Norway has a Personal Data Protection Act, which dictates that if a company is saving data about you, they not only have to tell you what they save, but you also have a “right of inspection” (something I confirmed with a quick call to the Norwegian Data Protection Authority). Furthermore, I am vice chairman of Digitalt Personvern,  an association working to repeal the EU data retention directive and know some of the best data privacy lawyers in Norway.

So I can probably set in motion a campaign to force Tesla Norway to give me access to my data, based on Norwegian law. Tesla’s policies may be American, but their Norwegian subsidiary has to obey Norwegian laws.

But I think I have a better idea: Why not, simply, ask Tesla to give me the data – not because I have a right to data generated by myself according to Norwegian law, but because it is a good business idea and also the Right Thing to do?

So, Elon Musk: Why not give us Tesla-owners direct access to our logs through the web site? We already have password-protected accounts there, storing documents and service information. I am sure some enterprising developer (come to think of it, I know a few myself, some with Teslas) will come up with some really cool and useful stuff to make use of the information, either as independent apps or via some sort of social media data pooling arrangement. While you are at it, how about an API?

Tesla has already shown that they understand business models and network externalities by doing such smart things as opening up their patent portfolio. The company is demonstrably nerdy – the stereo volume literally goes to 11. Now it is time to open up the data side – to make the car even more useful and personable.

PS: While I have your attention, could you please link the GPS to the pneumatic suspension, so I can set the car to automatically increase road clearance when I exit the highway onto the speed-bumpy road to my house? Being able to take snapshots with the reverse camera would be a nice hack as well, come to think of it. Thanks in advance! (And thanks for the Rdio, incidentally!)

Update a few hours later: Now on Boingboing!

Update Sept. 2: The parking company (Europark) dropped the ticket – didn’t give a reason, but probably not because I was parked too long but because I was making a delivery and could park there.

Turning the 77 bus electric

I am currently back in Boston, have visited my friends at MIT and will go to a reunion at HBS tomorrow. The weather has been great and it is just fun to visit old friends again.

But hey, this is product review. I have just purchased a set of Bose QuietComfort 20i Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones (or, rather, earbuds) which are rather impressive. I already have the noise cancelling headphones and love them for air travel, but the earbuds can be used in many more circumstances.

77 busAnd yesterday I had to take the 77 bus (Arlington Heights) from Harvard Square’s underground bus stop, an area seemingly designed to put people off public transportation. The MBTA uses old diesel buses (I think they literally are the same ones I took in the early nineties as a grad student, at least they don’t seem to have upgraded the technology) and the noise level is fantastic.

So, as I was waiting for the bus, I decided to try out my newly acquired earbuds, plugged them into my iPhone, turned on Spotify and selected Steely Dan’s Babylon Sisters. The noise instantly disappeared, and Steely Dan’s perfectly engineered music sounded not unlike it would in a perfect environment.

And here is the catch: When the bus finally arrived, I looked at it driving up and for a fleeting second thought “Hey – they made them electrical now!” Then, of course, better judgement prevailed, but as a testament to the noise cancelling qualities of the earbuds, it says something.

The rest, of course, is silence…

NeXT and the voice from the future.

The NeXT at CERN that started the WWW

I am currently watching a rerun of a BBC documentary about Apple and Steve Jobs, which made me think of the first (and only) NeXT machine I ever had. (The NeXT was what Steve Jobs did after he was fired from Apple – and the picture here is the NeXT machine at CERN that Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first web browser on.)

Anyway, the year was 1990, I was a doctoral student in my first year at Harvard Business School, and had a large office to myself (I was sharing it with other doctoral students, but for some reason they were seldom in.) One of the MBA students worked for NeXT and got us a loaner machine, and, well, it was just standing there.

At a time when computers either went “beep” with text-based displays (that would be the 386-based Intel computers) or made a lot of noises with graphic but rather crude displays (that would, mainly, be the Mac II), the NeXT stood out – a black cube made of magnesium, a connected laser printer (most of the processing was done on the computer), and an excellent screen using Display PostScript, which meant that there was no difference between what you saw on the screen and what came out on paper – it was, quite literally, the same technology.

I dicked about with that machine far more than I should have done, given my course load, but on the other hand I wrote some papers on the importance of object orientation for complex business applications – as well as a few Smalltalk programs. The NeXT cube really was not that useful – not because it wasn’t good (it was excellent) but because it was very much a network machine – and I had no network to connect it to. Neither could I get hold of the CDs necessary to store the information from the computer. I could print, but that was about it – so the machine became a highly desirable but not really useful toy.

But it managed to give me a scare, once. It had a digital signals processor – a DSP – and a good speaker system, at a time when most computers could not play video and had tinny little speakers that mostly beeped. I was sitting in the office reading something, and the NeXT machine was on, but I wasn’t using it.

Suddenly I heard a very attractive woman’s voice saying with a certain British crispness: “The printer is out of paper.” I was startled and literally looked around in the room to see if anyone was there. It took me a while to understand that it was the computer speaking – and then, of course, I couldn’t reproduce the sentence.

I still remember that confused feeling. Now most of our music and half the dialogue we hear come out of computers, but back then it was, literally, a voice from the future. And it was just a little bit scary.

Peter G. Neumann in New York Times

Peter G. Neumann is one of my heroes – a computer science and security expert with a sense of humor (his dry comments on the Risks Digest are legendary), inventive solutions to problems (he once built a keyboard with two pedals (for “alt” and “ctrl”) to deal with carpal tunnel syndrome) and far-reaching views on most things. He is currently profiled in New York Times, including the story of the RTM Worm, which I remember clearly, and where the RISKS Forum played a role in analyzing and stopping it.

I remember an email exchange with Peter in the mid-nineties, when I was writing a research report on knowledge management for CSC Research Services. Peter has been running the email list RISKS forever (I signed up for it sometime in 1985) and when asked about how to find people to do such a job in a corporate setting he replied:

The bottom line is that moderating a newsgroup wisely takes serious dedication to, familiarity with, and commitment to the subject matter and willingness to put oneself into an intrinsically sensitive position. It does not work well if someone is arbitrarily assigned to the task.

In other words – if you want social media to work in a company, let people loose and then support the leaders that emerge, rather than try to replicate the current organization in the new medium. Not a bad insight to have 15 years ago – before this social media thing started.

Doc Searls on the market of one

I quite liked Doc Searls’ piece in the Wall Street Journal on the market of one – or as he calls it, power to individuals to broadcast their intents until they find a vendor that matches what they want, not what the vendor wants to sell:

Since the Industrial Revolution, the only way a company could scale up in productivity and profit was by treating customers as populations rather than as individuals—and by treating employees as positions on an organization chart rather than as unique sources of talent and ideas. Anything that stood in the way of larger scale tended to be dismissed.

The Internet has challenged that system by giving individuals the same power. Any of us can now communicate with anybody else, anywhere in the world, at costs close to zero. We can set up our own websites. We can produce, publish, syndicate and do other influential things, with global reach. Each of us can be valuable as unique individuals and not only as members of groups.

According to David Weinberger, the caption “Customer as God” was not something Searls wrote himself – it does look a bit over the top. But customer power is increasingly on the rise – though it has come much longer in the USA than it has in Europe, no matter how much legislation EU has as opposed to the USA. The wonders of competition and falling transaction costs…

Best scanner I ever had

Just a short note to say that this scanner – the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500 Instant PDF Sheet-Fed Scanner for PC – is one of the best products I have ever had. Bought it after reading Mark Frauenfelder’s plug on Boingboing, and found it every bit as good as he says. It scans both sides, does not scan a page if there is nothing on it, scans straight into Evernote (which OCRs the document and thus makes it searchable), to documents, to pictures, to email. Swallows thick stacks of paper without complaint.

It just works. Highly recommended!

Seriously cool robot

These two robots, developed by Boston Dynamics, are Youtooobing:

I can imagine this one (called the Sand Flea) being used by the military and police for sending in cameras and other spy equipment in an urban landscape. The Big Dog (below) is something I really could use when I am gardening – a container on its back, and a voice interface so I could tell it to go empty itself in the compost bin when it is full of garden refuse.

Computing’s cathedral history

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital UniverseTuring’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a tour de force history of the birth of the modern computer – and, specifically, the role of Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study in it. Their “IAS machine” was a widely copied design, forming the basis for many research computers and IBM’s early 701 model.We hear of John von Neumann (who tragically died of cancer at 53), Alan Turing (stripped of his security clearing and probably driven to suicide at 41), Stan Ulam, and many others, some famous, some (quite undeservedly) less so. I continue to be amazed at how far ahead some of the thinkers were – Alan Turing discussed multiprocessor and evolutionary approaches to artificial intelligence in 1946, for example.

On a side note, I was pleased to see that a number of Norwegian academics, mostly within meteorology, played an important part in the development and use of the IAS computer. Nils Aall Baricelli, an Italian-Norwegian, was someone I previously had not heard of, one of those thinkers who is way ahead of his time and (perhaps because he was independently wealthy and led a somewhat nomadic academic existence, hence may have been considered something of a dilettante, though Dyson certainly don’t see him as such and credits him with the ability to see a possible way from programmed computer to independently learning mechanism (and, perhaps at some point, organism).

The book is a bit uneven – partly standard history, partly relatively deep computer science discussions (some of them certainly over my head), and partly – with no warning – brilliant leaps of extrapolating visioneering into both what computers have meant for us as a species and what they might mean in the future. It also shows some of the power struggles that take place in academics, and the important role IAS played in the development of the hydrogen bomb.

All in all, an excellent history of the early days of computing – a more recent history than many are aware of. As George Dyson says in his Ted lecture (below) in 2003: “If these people hadn’t done it, someone else would have. It was an idea whose time had come.” That may be true, but it takes nothing away from the tremendous achievements of the early pioneers.

View all my reviews

Competing online at Lorange

I have just finished (as a matter of fact, I am writing this from the classroom while the students are taking their exam) teaching a two-day seminar called Competing online at Lorange Institute of Business, located in Horgen, a small town about half an hour south of Zürich in Switzerland. Teaching is normally quite tiring, but this time it was a breeze – firstly because it was only 9 students, secondly because they all had interesting experiences and viewpoints on how to use the Internet and Web 2.0 for business and personal purposes. As a consequence, I could run the class as an informal discussion, with less lecturing and quite a bit of learning for me as well as the students.

The diversity of backgrounds was quite interesting – we had three people that owned their own companies (technical textile manufacturing, logistics, and personal credit), three from pharmaceuticals and health companies, one from sports event marketing, one executive from a hotel company, and, last but not least, Isabella Löwengrip, who with her blog Blondinbella could provide very interesting perspectives on how to establish and promote a business on Web 2.0. She did, of course, blog (here and here and here) and Tweet about the experience, occasionally in real time – and she took the pictures you see here.

Linus Murphy, lively and inspiring CEO of Masterstudies.com, was the main case under discussion after lunch on the first day – and he did a great job talking about the importance of making your company findable on Google. To do this, you have to make sure your content is fresh and not duplicated, that each page is about one thing only (so the search engine is not confused) and design the structure and context of the web site before handing it over to be made pretty by a designer. When most of your traffic is driven by search, you must be both findable and searchable.

David Weinberger on Too Big to Know

David Weinberger – another of those authors whose books I read as soon as they come out – recently published Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room, a very long title on the topic of how to separate the wheat from the chaff in a world where knowledge is seemingly inexhaustible. As anyone who has edited Wikipedia knows, knowledge is now dynamic, networked, and crowdsourced, both in academia and outside. Knowledge – good and bad – spreads blisteringly fast and can flatfoot many an authority.

I attended a seminar with David Weinberger today, at the Berkman Center – the turnout was quite good, about 150 people in my estimate. Here are my notes:

  • Physical instantiations of knowledge coming apart (encyclopedias, newspapers, libraries) because of one little innovation: The hyperlink.
  • Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, not his own facts (senator Patrick Moynihan.)
  • Knowledge seen as building on bricks on bricks, nailed down, and then a product of filtering
  • Too much to know, the world is too big to know – the strategy is to break off a brain-sized (“skulls don’t scale”) part of the world and allow an expert to know it really well. We can ask the expert, then get an answer and then we can stop asking. A system of stopping points – you don’t have to rerun the experiment, you can trust experts based on credentials.
  • Books are not linked – linear, winnowed (through good writing), permanent
  • Following footnotes used not to be done, now it is trivial.
  • Knowledge is picking up the properties of the new medium, just as it did pick up properties of the old medium.
  • Clay Shirky: No such thing as information overload, just filter failure.
  • Information overload (Toffler) came from sensory overload idea, 60s. People worried about information overload, would not keep you sane.
  • What constitutes information overload has changed – we tolerate much more stuff now.
  • Previously, stuff that was filtered out (by publishers and newspapers) was not available, but now it is, in blog posts. We filter forward on the Internet, we do not filter out.
  • New strategy: Include everything, the cost of getting rid of something is higher than getting rid of it. So you include almost everything. And you filter on the way out. (you’d never keep notes from library committee meetings in Wozilla, Alaska, because they would not be interesting, until Sarah Palin becomes vice-presidential candidate)
  • We are good at making order out of things. Knowing categories is to know the world – categorization is a serious pursuit for thousands of years. But physical entities need to have one and only one categorization – you cannot sort your CD collection alphabetically and by genre. But on the web, you can have thousands of playlists – a mess but a very rich mess.
  • Messiness is how you scale meaning.
  • For every fact on the Internet there is an equal and opposite fact. The Internet is a stew of disagreement. We don’t agree on anything and we never will. And that is fine.
  • We don’t even know if Moynihan really said that thing about facts and opinions
  • Shows picture of platypus, lots of arguing about its categorization – now we don’t care any more. We can have different namespaces that allow us to choose categorizations based on what we prefer.
  • We like to hang out with people like ourselves, and that is a problem – because we can create echo-chambers, which fragment and amplify disagreements.
  • Idea from the enlightenment – deep, down to the level of facts, anything else is not a real conversation. But this is a fallacy, for in order to do that you need to have large degree of similarity. Not going to solve that here, but Ethan Zuckerman and Yochai Benkler (both present) are working on it.
  • Long-form arguments are loosing their pre-eminence as highest form of human discourse. (Yes, I know I wrote a book, get the irony.) Not going away, but losing its preeminence. Darwin would, if he published now, be tweeting from the Beagle, had a conversation about finches’ beaks. And this web of knowledge would have more value than Darwin’s original work.
  • Michael Nielsen: Redesigning discovery. ArXive.org, scientists posting papers and discussing them.
  • Destructuring of knowledge is happening at all levels, also at the level of the data themselves. Darwin studied barnacles for 7 years after Beagle trip. Data is not like that any more. Data commons happening in field after field: Genetics, astronomy, government, libraries. Data.gov posting raw data because cleaned and curated data doesn’t scale.
  • Tremendous value in getting data out – and fast. Peer review doesn’t scale. Cannot scale science research, unless it is peer-to-peer review – open access journals that are peer reviews.
  • The third way data is changing is that it is linked – computers can make sense and link three different knowledge nuggets about platypuses (characterizing them as platypus, watermole, and ornithorhyncus anatinus) can be linked by linking to references.
  • This process is fractal and recurring.
  • Data are getting linked, fractal and destructured.
  • Networked knowledge may or may not be truer about the world, but it is truer about knowing.
  • What we have in common is not knowledge about which we agree, but a shared world about which we disagree.

Professor Ann M. Blair (author of Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age) with question: On the pyramid from data to information to knowledge to wisdom, Plato said that the purpose is wisdom. Aristotle wanted a disciplinary (certain) form of knowledge, middle ages brought us information concept (Bacon). Information explosion already in the 1800s, that’s when data enters the language, takes off during 1950s. Now it is just raw data.

Good things about the book: Nuanced, neither technology deterministic or not, but you can find data and authoritative knowledge behind every position. Like that it is not about substitution but net as an addition. The net cannot stand in for current institutions. The book is optimistic – we need to understand and use the net. I do hope that we are imparting mental maps and the wherewithal to make judgments – though I am of the wrong generation. Not “don’t use Wikipedia” but learning how to notice deficiencies.

Comment from librarian Harvard (missed the name). What are going to do about building a knowledge infrastructure? Knowledge is lumpy, intertwiningly linked and so on, but there are still tensions between truth and untruth. We do not have one foundation on which we can rest for very long. Today we are caught in a time warp between the long form book and the Net revolution, and we don’t have a handle on this new form of knowledge yet? Refer to Thinking, Fast and Slow: Is the net making us change from thinking slow to thinking fast – i.e., making decisions based on reactiveness rather than analysis?

Ethan Zuckerman: This is the book that shifts us from the early Weinberger to the middle Weinberger. I don’t think this a happy book – we just had a very smart man stand up and tell us that facts is not what we thought they were and consensus is probably not achievable. If this doesn’t unsettle you, what will? David’s central point is that this is not economics: What killed the Boston Globe was that some fundamental processes change the world, in how we know things and how we find it. He is making the argument that we are going to put something in a book and make it authoritative is challenged. We are now three nanoseconds after the Big Bang, and it will take us a very long time to navigate through this. The deep challenge he is putting forward is to understand the world is to understand and accept the complexity of the world. Those of us who figure out to navigate this space are given the possibility of succeeding in a new and very different way. Houseman: The advent of economic complexity: Think of it in terms of person-bytes: Houseman argues that you can figure out what economies can or cannot do, by understanding how many person-bytes you have in it. You can line up experts and that is good, but it works really well if the knowledge lies between the experts – understanding knowledge as a process. So what I am hoping for is some understanding of how we are going to navigate this web of knowledge. This is the most exciting question you can wrestle with. The world David is describing is much messier, but by helping us wrestle with it he has helped us.

Questions:

How does the definition of truth change – have we gotten truth wrong?

We all have categories, fight about them, are you saying they are losing relevance? No, not at all, but the notion of a single, right categorization is losing its primacy. We discuss whether bloggers are journalists or not, many things hang on it, but we understand that there is not one right answer.

Importance of personal relationship rising parallel to web? Social dimension to knowledge? Will take the easy way out – I learn from mailing lists, and they eventually become social bonds. We want to turn information into communication.

Norwegian Data Inspectorate outlaws Google App use

In a letter (reported at digi.no) to the Narvik Municipality (which has started to use Google Mail and other cloud-based applications, effectively putting much of its infrastructure in the Cloud) the Norwegian Data Inspectorate (http://www.datatilsynet.no/English/), a government watchdog for privacy issues, effectively prohibits use of Google Apps, at least for communication of personal information. A key point in this decision seems to be that Google will not tell where in the world the data is stored, and, under the Patriot Act, the US government can access the data without a court order.

Companies and government organizations in Norway are required to follow the Norwegian privacy laws, which, amongst other things, requires that “personal information” (of which much can be communicated between a citizen and municipal tax, health and social service authorities) should be secured, and that personal information collected for one purpose may not be used for other purposes without the owner’s expressed permission.

This has interesting implications for cloud computing – many European countries have similar watchdogs as Norway, and many public and private organizations are interested in using Google’s services for their communication needs. My guess is that Google will need to offer some sort of reassurance that the data is outside of US jurisdiction, or effectively forgo this market to other competitors, such as Microsoft of some of the local consulting companies, which are busy building their own private clouds. Should be an interesting discussion at Google – the Data Inspectorate is a quite popular watchdog, Norway has some of the strongest privacy protection laws in the world (though, for some reason, it publishes people’s income and tax details), and Google’s motto of “Don’t be evil” might be put to the test here – national laws limiting global infrastructures.

Good product: Logitech wireless earphones

I spend a lot of time on teleconferences and giving presentations via the Internet. I have tried a number of headphones and microphone setups. Most of them are good, but the last four months I have used a Logitech wireless earphone system (Logitech Wireless Headset H760 With Behind-the-head Design (981-000265)). These headphones have quickly become my favorite. They are comfortable to wear, and the battery lasts three-four hours (you can use the headset while it is charging, with a standard USB cable). The sound is decent and the microphone is good enough to use for online presentations and for automatic dictation. I am actually using them now, for this blog post, using DragonDictate 11.

One of the reasons I like them is, of course, that I can wander around the kitchen or my office while dictating or presenting online. Another is the very intuitive user interface: If you want to mute the microphone, all you have to do is turn the microphone boom to an upright position. This is a very natural movement, and you are never in doubt about whether your microphone is muted or not.

I actually have two of these headphones. The first one I got four months ago. Unfortunately, since I have a large hat size (and they are a little bit on the delicate side) the headset broke – it cracked along the slide that goes behind the ears. I needed to use the headphones right away, so I take them and started using them, and then forgot about them. Eventually the crack widened and I had to call Logitech customer service, who promptly sent me a new pair which I am using now. The customer service call was quick and painless, and the Amazon employee I first communicated with assured me that my problem would be fixed promptly. Which it was, making Logitech customer service another reason to recommend this product.

A lament for nickfromfulham

(or, why BBC should put their material on Youtube).

The future of TV is on the net. Too bad the leading TV producers don’t understand it.

imageThis year I am living in the US, without a TV. So far I have not missed it – we have Netflix for movies and Youtube for music and clips. Having to chose your programming yourself means zero hours channelsurfing on the sofa, and a delightful lack of background noise from breakfast TV shows and similar junk.

But – what to watch when you want a little fun? For my youngest daughter (she is here in Boston to take a year of US high school) and I Friday nights have been spent in front of our nice 23 inch monitor, wathing Never Mind the Buzzcocks, a great, wild, satirical quiz show about pop music. And when I want to relax by myself, there is the unsurpassable QI, a [deeply intelligent/self-indulgingly moronic] quiz show with a pop science bent. Or I can watch some of BBCs great series, such as Stephen Fry’s programs about the English language.

Through Youtube, I have come to know and appreciate comedians and actors such as Bill Bailey, Phill Jupitus, Jo Brand, Noel Fielding, Alan Davies, Jimmy Carr, Sean Lock, Rich Hall, John Sessions, Rob Brydon, David Mitchell and Dara Ó Briain, just to name a few. I have learned a lot and laughed even more. The episode where Emma Thompson describes how she used her body to terrify Stephen Fry to complete breakdown or where Jack Dee serves the mother of all putdowns to Sandy Toksvig and Ronni Ancona are complete jewels.

Which brings me to a sad point: The channel NickFromFulham, who (assuming there is a Nick and he is from Fulham) has put up all these videos, was recently shut down from Youtube. Where should we go now for our witty and intelligent entertainment? You see, almost none of the stuff that BBC produces is viewable outside the UK, except in short snippets, on DVDs, or on the anemic BBC America channel, for which we would have to get a TV, and then put up with programs that are both delayed and also watered down in terms of swearwords, sexual and scatological references and much of the Britishness that makes Britain both British and bearable.

The funny thing is, of course, that if it wasn’t for Youtube’s technical capability and NickfromFulham’s diligent uploading and characterization, I wouldn’t know much about QI and nothing about Buzzcocks. Which makes me wonder a) what else is out there, not just in BBCland but in many TV stations around the world, and b) why the heck doesn’t BBC (and NRK, its Norwegian state-funded equivalent and all others) put their stuff out in digital format?

To the first point: I gave a talk to NRK in June, about disruption in the media industries and so on. As part of the discussion of how to strategize for the future, I urged them to fill up available spots in their many channels with stuff like QI – quality shows that have a very local appeal, but in an increasingly global world will have global appeal without sacrificing quality. When you treat your viewers as intelligent, they will act intelligently. To quote David Foster Wallace, in his his brilliant essay E Unibus Pluram:

TV is not vulgar and prurient and dumb because the people who compose the audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests.

The point being – with infinite channel capacity, you can attract a large audience, in many countries, by not pandering to the lowest common denominator. (The fact that QI is one of BBC’s most watched programs shows that the common denominator may, in fact, not be so low after all.)

The future of TV is on the net – but in order to attract people to the net, you have to release your best stuff, and gradually become the source and context of quality entertainment rather than a prison of old business models. And incidentally, slamming the door in the face of your biggest fans is not the way to go about it.

As for us? Well, my daughter is 17 and an accomplished net surfer. She can easily find and download the next episode of Buzzcocks from one of many pirate sites. Not that I like it, but what can I do? (Well, IP spoofing and going to BBC’s web site in the UK itself would be another option.) Or I can watch something else, which, of course, lowers the commercial value of all those actors and comedians participating in the things I would like to see.

Incidentally, here is one of the most watched Norwegian skits on Youtube. Let’s see if you understand it, even if it is in Norwegian (with subtitles):

Human-computer interaction, indeed

This event was great fun – fun as a show, but also impressive in what both the student teams (well, MIT didn’t do that well…) and the computer could do. Jeopardy is a very complicated game, relies on wordplay (In the category “presidential rhymes”, the answer is “George W.’s bottoms”, the question “What is Bush’es tushes), obscure knowledge and word combinations (such as combining two movie titles into a new one, as in “Millon Dollar Baby Boom”).

If only the HBS team hadn’t played it safe towards the end – they bet just enough money so that they would not lose to MIT if they missed the last question – we would have had the first instance where the computer had lost to a human team. Oh well…

Addendum: A perspective from Stacey Higginbotham: Why Watson can’t talk to Siri. (I wonder if they used the same questions at that event, since Chile was an answer in the HBS one, too. Doesn’t mean they are cheating, though – it is quite easy to make a computer forget…

Big data and the study of connections

I read this very interesting article at Om Malik on Broadband, where Dr. Alex Szalay of Johns Hopkins argues that Big Data – the enormously increased availability and analyzability of data as the world increasingly becomes digitized – will mean as much to science as the microscope once did.

It made me think of Douglas Adams’ wonderful lecture on “Parrots, the Universe and Everything.” One of his central points there is that science is changing – from a focus on taking things apart to understand to one where we put them together so that we can watch them interact.

On a smaller scale, I think this is extremely important for businesses, especially those that can be characterized as value networks, i.e. companies whose main value provisioning consists of connecting people and helping them exchange information, goods or money (well, OK then, money is information, I agree, but still.) At present, these companies segment their customers mainly by demographics (age, gender, location, education, etc.) or, for business customers, by size, industry and location. Massive data analysis will allow them to stop segmentation (which is only a representation reducing your market transaction cost, but also providing a less tailored product for the customer) and instead offer services and connections based on which other users each member is connected to and what they exchange.

Imagine instead if your telephone company, bank or insurance company could analyze you in terms of your interactions with others. That would allow the telephone company to group and tailor their services for the customers that create the most traffic, have the biggest impact, prevent the most accidents or in other ways cause desirable changes in behaviors of those around them. This is now done in a very primitive way and after the fact – imagine if you could do it in real time.

Hard technology talk in very civilized package

Cory Doctorow likes this talk by John Naughton – which, given how often he quotes Cory without mentioning him, is a bit surprising, but then Cory has always been a very open fellow. I did not find much new here, but the last couple of minutes, and the answers at question time are generally good (including the discussion of copyright and the future of teachers). Decent intro for folks who need an explanation of the Internet in clipped British tones, without PowerPoint and ideology.

And academic speakers in the UK get a bottle of whisky, which I cannot help but see as an improvement…

To quote Cory: Technology giveth, technology taketh away… And incidentally, the idea that the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly is a myth.

Hoisted from comments: Entering the networked society

I liked this video, mentioned by @karthix in the comment for the previous post on examples of how computers are encroaching on domains formerly thought to be exclusively human:

Aside from the elegant examples, I found it relatively concrete and hubris-free – compared to this rather anemic vision of the future Microsoft has bestowed on us. It actually works better as a parody.

(And yes, I know that “hoisted from comments” is a Brad DeLong expression. Why not learn from the best?)

Computers taking over: Examples

I am currently thinking about how computers are taking over more and more of what we humans can do, in ways we did not think about just a few years ago. The impetus for this, of course, is Brynjolfsson og McAfee’s recent e-book Race Against The Machine, where the main examples given are Google’s driverless cars, instant translation software, and automated paralegal research. I’ll use this blog post as a repository for examples of this, so here goes:

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Singularity here and there

The discussion on the technological singularity is firing up again, this time in the MIT Technology Review blog, with this blog post by Paul Allen and Ray Kurzveil’s almost instant answer.

I think it is high time this discussion is taken up by a wider audience – and am working on something to do just that. More about this later.