Subscribe via RSS Feed Connect on Google Plus Connect on Flickr

Yahoo and the end of Web 1.0

Thursday, 28 July, 2016 0 Comments

More than a billion people now check Facebook on their phones every single day. The social network revealed this new milestone last night when it released its impressive second-quarter earnings. What’s that got to do with Yahoo and the headline on this post? Well, context is important. Consider these stats:

Facebook now owns a $17-billion-a-year mobile ad business. In the second quarter, mobile sales made up 84 percent of its $6.24 billion in advertising revenue. Overall, the social network reported $2.05 billion in profit, up 186 percent year-over-year, on $6.43 billion in total revenue, which rose 59 percent compared to the same period last year. And Facebook ended the second quarter with 1.71 billion monthly active users.

Which brings us to Yahoo, which was was acquired on Monday by an American telephone company, Verizon, which paid $4.8 billion for the brand and its internet properties. The cause of this ignominious end was simple: Yahoo became irrelevant for adults quite some time ago, and young people don’t use it at all. They spend their time now on Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Spotify and Facebook.

Yahoo’s major missed opportunity was the rise of the mobile web. That failure had a lot to do with the short stint as CEO of Scott Thompson, who departed in a cloud of controversy. Distracted by its internal troubles, the company took its eye off the ball, as it were, at a critical moment. Thompson was replaced in July 2012 by Marissa Mayer, who bought Tumblr for a billion dollars in an attempt to attract younger internet users. A blogging platform is not what the yoof wanted, though.

The new milestone, as stated above, is that more than a billion people check Facebook on their mobile phones every day. The old milestone was Yahoo’s directory of websites and this week began with the purchase of its gravestone. Yahoo belongs, with the rotary phone, to another era, and its departure marks the end of Web 1.0. Those riding high on the Web 2.0 wave now should remember, however, that “the bubble fame” does burst and voice-based interfaces on devices such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home are moving the web beyond browsers and smartphones. Blink, and you miss it. Yahoo fell asleep and its legacy includes happy memories of its “Site of the Day” feature. The web was young then. It’s mobile now.


Buongiorno! Amazon’s wake words in Italy

Wednesday, 27 July, 2016 0 Comments

Amazon apre un nuovo centro di sviluppo per l’intelligenza artificiale e il Machine Learning a Torino. That was the welcome news for Italy’s battered economy earlier this week. Translation: “Amazon to open a new artificial intelligence and machine learning development centre in Turin.” The charming capital of Piedmont will soon be home to a batch of software engineers and linguists developing machine learning capabilities for Alexa, Amazon’s cloud-based data and analytics service. This sentence in the press release stood out:

“Alexa usa l’apprendimento automatico in campi come il rilevamento delle parole di attivazione, il riconoscimento vocale basato sul cloud e la comprensione del linguaggio naturale.”

Question: How does one translate parole di attivazione? The available online Italian-English dictionaries are not up to the job and Google Translate offers “words activation” as its best shot. Close, but no cigar. In fact, parole di attivazione are “wake words”. Eh?

Amazon Echo To understand the function of wake words, get an Amazon Echo. This hands-free speaker connects to the Alexa Voice Service to play music, provide news, sports scores and weather forecasts. When you want to use your Echo, speak the word “Alexa” and the device comes to life instantly. That’s the “wake word”. If you have more than one Echo, you can set a different wake word for each. You can pick “Amazon” or “Echo” as the wake word. And that’s it. Why the paucity of wake words? Well, according to Veton Kepuska, author of Wake-Up-Word Speech Recognition, the challenge is to:

“Detect a single word or phrase when spoken in an alerting context, while rejecting all other words, phrases, sounds, noises and other acoustic events with virtually 100% accuracy including the same word or phrase of interest spoken in a non-alerting (i.e. referential) context.”

See the problem? In its search for usable wake words, Alexa needs ones that are not only easy to pronounce and remember, but are also rare enough that they’re not even used at the start of sentences. Very tricky. As things stand, it’s doubtful Echo owners will be able to choose their own wake word for a long, long time to come. The best hope of the Turin project is that the team there will create an expanded list of words that are unlikely to lead to too many false wakes. No false dawns. No hurry, in other words.

Turin is an ideal location for this venture. It’s the home of the slow food movement.


Evil is neither awful nor tragic. It is the enemy.

Tuesday, 26 July, 2016 0 Comments

Another day, another dreadful deed: Nineteen residents at a Japanese care centre for people with mental disabilities killed in a knife attack. Police have arrested a former employee. He is reported to have said he wanted people with disabilities “to disappear.”

The number 19 was central to another report, one equally dreadful, which went under-reported at the time, perhaps because the source was the Iranian Shia Ahlolbayt News Agency. “ISIS burns 19 Yezidi girls to death in Mosul” was the headline. After reading it, William Dalrymple, the English writer and historian tweeted yesterday, “This is so awful and tragic.” His choice of words was criticized by some who felt that “awful and tragic” were timid synonyms for such a monstrous crime.

Quite simply, “awful and tragic” do not cut it when we’re talking about deeds that “constitute a direct negation of human liberty, and vent an undisguised hatred and contempt for life itself.” So said the late Christopher Hitchens in The Enemy, his meditation on the death of Osama bin Laden.

According to Hitchens, “this force”, the one we have seen at work recently in Sagamihara, Ansbach, Nice, Mosul, Orlando, Brussels, Paris… “absolutely deserves to be called evil.” Here’s the full quote:

“I thought then, and I think now, that Osama bin Laden was a near-flawless personification of the mentality of a real force: the force of Islamic jihad. And I also thought, and think now, that this force absolutely deserves to be called evil, and that the recent decapitation of its most notorious demagogue and organizer is to be welcomed without reserve. Osama bin Laden’s writings and actions constitute a direct negation of human liberty, and vent an undisguised hatred and contempt for life itself.” — Christopher Hitchens, The Enemy

UPDATE: In Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, two IS adherents murder Fr Jacques Hamel, 84, by slitting his throat while he was saying Mass. Evil is now ascendant in Europe.


The Feast of Saint James the Great

Monday, 25 July, 2016 0 Comments

Today is the Feast of Saint James, patron of pilgrims. His symbol is the scallop shell, which marks a network of pilgrimage routes that leads to the Romanesque cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, where his remains are said to buried. Saint James’ Day is a public holiday in the autonomous communities of the Basque Country and Galicia, and the feast day is celebrated in the Canary Islands, Castile-Leon, La Rioja and Navarre.

This magnificent scallop-shell door handle was spied last week by a pilgrim in the Benedictine Abbey in Schäftlarn, which is 2,208 km from Santiago de Compostela.

The pilgrim door


Rus in urbe

Sunday, 24 July, 2016 0 Comments

Hens are famously random. They live in the moment and their actions are completely unpredictable, as anyone who’s ever tried to herd hens will tell you. When logic suggests that turning to the right will lead to shelter and food, the hen will turn left. Hens spend lots of their time huddled together under bare light bulbs thinking up intricate escape plans. Once free, they get busy scratching out maps of the best routes to liberation. Then, they forget about it all and return to randomness, and life under bare light bulbs.

The urban hen


From Nice to Munich, humanity will prevail

Saturday, 23 July, 2016 0 Comments

The French filmmaker and photographer Fabien Ecochard made this “Hommage à tous les Niçois. Parce que Nice est et restera toujours Nissa la Bella.” Despite the Bastille Day terror on the Promenade des Anglais, “Nice is and will remain Nissa la Bella,” he says.

In the third attack on civilians in Europe in eight days, an 18-year-old German-Iranian killed nine people and wounded a further 21 at a shopping center in Munich last night before shooting himself. As in Nice, the victims were killed randomly, cruelly.

But like Nice, Munich will recover from this horror. Humanity will prevail.


We’re not just saving lives, we’re saving souls

Friday, 22 July, 2016 0 Comments

Tomorrow, Frank Turner is playing in Latvia, in Cēsis, to be precise. To give you an idea of how history has had its way with this region, Cēsis is called Wenden in German, Venden in Livonian, Võnnu in Estonian, Kieś in Polish and Цecиc Tsesis in Russian. After Latvia, Frank is off to the USA for a huge three-month tour and he’ll be back on this side of the Atlantic on 16 November when he’ll play Dublin, Ireland.

“Hear ye, hear ye, now anybody could take this stage.
Hear ye, hear ye, and make miracles for minimum wage.
Hear ye, hear ye, these folk songs for the modern age,
Will hold us in their arms.”


Under that high and insolent dome

Thursday, 21 July, 2016 0 Comments

There’s a lot of history in the baroque wrinkles of Kloster Schäftlarn, the Bavarian Benedictine abbey where monks continue a tradition that stretches back 1,500 years to what Saint Benedict of Nursia started at Subiaco in 529. According to legend, the Benedictine motto is Ora est labora, which would mean “Pray equals work.”; the actual motto, however, is Ora et labora, meaning “Pray and work.” Daily life in the monastery is governed by The Rule of Saint Benedict, which emphasizes prayer, work, study, hospitality and renewal. The result is a legacy of enduring value.

Kloster Schäftlarn

“This was my conversion to the baroque. Here under that high and insolent dome, under those tricky ceilings; here, as I passed through those arches and broken pediments to the pillared shade beyond and sat, hour by hour, before the fountain, probing its shadows, tracing its lingering echoes, rejoicing in all its clustered feats of daring and invention, I felt a whole new system of nerves alive within me, as though the water that spurted and bubbled among its stones was indeed a life-giving spring.” — Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited


Green fingers are the extensions of a verdant heart

Wednesday, 20 July, 2016 0 Comments

“People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.” — Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat

Mother's garden of flowers


FinTech WOTD: Tokenization

Tuesday, 19 July, 2016 0 Comments

FinTech? It’s a portmanteau word created from “Financial Technology.” It’s hot because it threatens to grab some power from the bloated banks and give the the entire byzantine money business a much-needed shakeup. Heard of Bitcoin? It’s the most popular FinTech cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrency? It’s a form of digital currency that uses cryptography for regulation and security. No one is really sure who “mined” it, but the open-source software underpinning it has a shady history. Heard about the Blockchain? It’s where cryptocurrency transactions get recorded. It operates like a public ledger and once data has been entered, it cannot be altered.

All this brings us to our FinTech WOTD (Word of the Day): Tokenization.

Tokenization replaces sensitive data with unique symbols. These “tokens” enable users to retain essential information about their credit cards and transactions without compromising security. Tokenization also turns complex information into short, useful codes.

If you’re still not convinced about the power of FinTech to do good, don’t forget that its advocates say it may help the underbanked to become, well, more banked. Win win.

Language note: There’s tokenization and then there’s tokenism. The latter is the policy and practice of making a superficial gesture towards members of minority groups. Adding a token employee to a workforce usually is intended to create the appearance of diversity — racial, religious, sexual — and so avert accusations of discrimination. Following the Bastille Day terror attack in Nice, Channel 4 was accused of tokenism by putting the hijab-wearing Muslim Fatima Manji in the anchor’s chair.


Fjord watching

Monday, 18 July, 2016 0 Comments

“These timelapses are all recorded in the western part of Norway, where the mighty fjords Geirangerfjord, Hjörundfjord, and Storfjord sits quietly and waits for anyone who wants to seek something else than watching the latest show on TV.” So says the Norwegian photographer and videographer Jonas Forsberg.

Watching TV these days is not very good for the soul, especially given the news from Nice, Turkey and Baton Rouge. Fjord watching, like whale watching, offers a temporary, healing respite from the woes of our troubled, tele-visual world.

Nerd note: The 4K resolution standard was created for digital cinema and computer graphics. It was so named because it offer 4000-pixel horizontal resolution (4K is technically defined as 4096 x 2160 pixels). 4K provides higher image definition quality, more detailed pictures and larger projection surface visibility.