Author Archive: Eamonn Fitzgerald
Ex-pat Irishman keeping an eye on the world from the Bavarian side of the Alps.
The state-run China Daily, which has the largest print circulation of any English-language newspaper in the People’s Republic, has come up with one of the great headlines from the front-lines of the Fourth Industrial Revolution: “Robots must do more than just playing sports.” They’re slacking already!
What’s intriguing is that the story, however, is that it contains nothing to support the demand asserted in the headline. “Premier Li Keqiang visited a town in Chengdu, capital of Southwest China’s Sichuan province, on Monday, during which he played badminton with a robot,” is how it begins, and the final paragraph is a classic example of socialist-realist reporting:
“Early in 2011, Zhejiang University developed Wu and Kong, two special sporting droids, which could play table tennis with each other and with human players. In that sport, the robots need to recognize the ball more precisely than in playing badminton. Instead of a technological breakthrough, the droid that plays badminton in Chengdu can be better called a good, practical model that uses these technologies.”
For those interested in how robotics and artificial intelligence are viewed in Beijing, China Daily is required reading. It informs us that on Tuesday President Xi Jinping visited the Institute of Advanced Technology in University of Science and Technology of China in Heifei, and was greeted by a pair of human-like robots developed by the institute. “The two life-like robots named ‘Xiao Man’ and ‘Jia Jia’ interacted with Xi when he approached them during the inspection,” we learn. “‘Hello Mr. President. I am Xiao Man. We have been looking forward to your visit,'” Xiao Man said. “‘I’m very happy to see you, dear President, I wish you happiness every day,'” said Jia Jia, who has been dubbed ‘robot goddess’ for her good-looks.”
This is all to the good, but they must do more than just playing sports.Tweet
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was…” So begins A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, and while it would be bordering on the sacrilegious to compare the fates of Facebook and Twitter to the epochal events that took place in “the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five,” the rise and fall of the great (social media) powers is the stuff of which history will be made. The fact that the tumbrels are virtual these days, makes the digital revolution less gruesome, for which we should be grateful.
Yesterday, Facebook exceeded Wall Street forecasts on almost every critical metric. The social network made $5.38 billion during the first three months of this year and grew its base to 1.65 billion monthly users. Profit was 77 cents a share, which blew away the 63 cents analysts had been expecting, and the the stock jumped nine percent in after-hours trading. During his conference call with investors, CEO Mark Zuckerberg noted: “Today, people around the world spend more than 50 minutes a day using Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger. That doesn’t even include WhatsApp yet.”
COO Sheryl Sandberg put her finger on Facebook’s success secret when she said the company is on a mission to help marketers adapt their ads for a mobile world — where messages must be shorter and often without sound. The auto-captioning feature, she added, has led people to spend 12 percent more time with an ad.
Contrast all this with Twitter, which has disappointed investors yet again with first-quarter results that showed stagnant revenue growth. Twitter, simply, doesn’t have the scale to compete with Facebook. It’s 320 million monthly users are no match for the 1.65 billion Facebook bring to the game. So, what’s the strategy? Twitter’s answer is the same that everyone else on the web has: We’ll fix it with video. That’s what Peter Kafka says in Twitter is going to have a hard time fixing its ad problem. Snippet:
“The company says it wants to convince its advertisers to upgrade their old text+photo Twitter ads with video ads, which sell at higher prices. This sounds like a good idea, but then again, it’s the same idea everyone else has — and Twitter’s already having trouble competing with everyone else.”
In Your Media Business Will Not Be Saved, Joshua Topolsky, co-founding editor of The Verge and recently head of digital at Bloomberg, pours a big bucket of water on the notion that video will fix it. “Video will not save your media business. Nor will bots, newsletters, a ‘morning briefing’ app, a ‘lean back’ iPad experience, Slack integration, a Snapchat channel, or a great partnership with Twitter.”
To paraphrase Dickens, all these things, and a thousand like them, came to pass in and close upon the dear old year two thousand and sixteen.Tweet
On 12 December 1980, the Apple IPO saw 4.6 million shares being offered at $22 each. Steve Jobs made $217 million that day, and when the closing bell rang on Wall Street, the stock price had jumped 32 percent to $29, giving the company a market value of $1.7 billion. Lotsa bubbly. Champagne times.
Fast forward to this day, 27 April, in 1997, and sobriety had set in. The Apple share price closed at $17 and the doomsayers were so emboldened by this decline that Wired magazine published a famous cover story in June urging distressed Apple fans to Pray. The company needed divine intervention due to “a confusing product line, little inspiration from the top, software developers fleeing.” 101 solutions were offered, starting with, “1. Admit it. You’re out of the hardware game. Outsource your hardware production, or scrap it entirely, to compete more directly with Microsoft without the liability of manufacturing boxes,” and ending with, “101. Don’t worry. You’ll survive. It’s Netscape we should really worry about.”
In between, there was “27. Relocate the company to Bangalore and make it cheap, cheap, cheap,” “52. Return to the heady days of yore by insisting that Steve Jobs regrow his beard,” and “81. Merge with Sega and become a game company.”
All of this is by way of background to the news that Apple has reported a fall in quarterly sales, the first time its revenue has fallen in 13 years. Apple shares were hovering around $104 when the company released its report yesterday. Half an hour later, the stock price had declined eight percent to under $97. For those prone to panic, it’s worth noting that Apple has a cash hoard of $233 billion, which is more than all the foreign currency reverses around the world, and with a market capitalization $575 billion, it’s the world’s most valuable publicly traded company. Hold those tears.
People have become impatient with Apple because it doesn’t produce something amazing every 12 months. The reality, however, is that major technological innovation is the exception, not the rule. Iteration of the existing product line is the pedestrian norm. Apple has some big cards up its sleeve, however. The company is said to be working on an electric car, stealing engineers from Tesla and looking for test locations in California. It is also filing patents that suggest it’s toying with some kind of a virtual reality device. There’s no need to cry or pray for Apple.
“What a nice barbed wire.”
“Thank you. I knitted it myself.”
While that’s the kind of surreal exchange one could imagine happening in a bar on Mars run by Salvador Dali, it’s actually an example of conversational English as presented by English Vocabulary Not on Any Test, a book that’s big in Japan. And that’s not just an idle phrase, either. The Twitter account has 88,000 followers. The book depicts ordinary people doing ordinary things, using English and Japanese. The target market is Japanese speakers who want to learn English as it is used in conversation across the Anglosphere. Well, an Anglosphere where HR managers convey the bad news by saying, “I’m afraid to say this, but you are passed your best-before date.”
Note: “octopus wiring” is authentic Japanese English and the term is used internationally to described hazardous arrangements of electrical cables.
There’s a synonym for infobesity doing the rounds and it’s infoxication. If neither makes sense, here’s the older version: information overload. For those who think infobesity and infoxication are silly abuses of medical terminology, Stewart Butterfield has two words: cognitive diabetes. And he should know. Stewart Butterfield is the CEO of Slack, a cloud-based teamworking tool with some three million users and a value close to $4 billion. When he raises a red flag about messaging addiction, it’s time to listen.
Speaking at the Bloomberg Businessweek Design Conference earlier this month, Butterfield compared our obsession with Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and, yes, Slack, to the diabetes epidemic, when “suddenly, as a species, we got infinite, free calories,” he said. Now that we have “infinite, free communications,” the messaging addiction has become a form of “cognitive diabetes.”
None of this is new, of course. Early in the 20th century, the poet and critic T. S. Eliot worried that the “vast accumulations of knowledge — or at least of information — deposited by the nineteenth century” were creating “an equally vast ignorance.” In his essay, “The Perfect Critic,” for the literary journal Athenaeum in 1920, he put it like this:
“When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when every one knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not.”
When every one knows a little about a great many things… Must put this post on Twitter, Kik, Whatsapp, Skype and Facebook now.Tweet
Terence Kilmartin and C. K. Scott Moncrieff translated À la recherche du temps perdu, Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, in the 1920s. In need of an English title, they found inspiration in Shakespeare, in Sonnet 30, which begins: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past.”
Remembrance of Things Past is a work about time, memory, the past, the present and loss, as is Sonnet 30. When Shakespeare talks of “precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,” does he mean that our departed loved ones are buried, like treasure? Or are they hidden from us in some way we cannot perceive? Despite the ache of loss, what shines through the sonnet is our lifelong longing for friendship, for spiritual and emotional support. As we mark 400 years of Shakespeare, the brilliance of his writing continues to illuminate. Some things might have been lost in interpretation down through the centuries, but what this astonishingly gifted witness of the human condition observed in Elizabethan England continues to echo around the globe. In Shakespeare, we find our remembrance of things past, of lost friends, princes, lords and ladies.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan th’ expense of many a vanish’d sight;
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d, and sorrows end.
William Shakespeare (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616)
There are many compelling reasons to read Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews. Perfidy is one. The villainy of Russia under Putin is well documented by non-Russian media, but it acquires a new pungency in a fiction that mirrors fact. Snippet:
“What fuelled the Kremlin kleptocracy, what motivated it, was not to bring back the Soviet Union, nor to reinstall the worldwide dread generated by the Red Army, nor to formulate a foreign policy based on national security requirements. In Russia today, everything happened to maintain the nadzirateli, the overseers, to protect their power, to continue looting the country’s patrimony.”
The characters in Palace of Treason ping-pong around the world — from Paris to Moscow to Athens to Vienna to Washington — as they attempt to steal secrets and outdo each other in a deadly game of influence zones, encompassing Europe and the Middle East. All of this activity demands feeding and Jason Matthews has come up with a novel touch: each chapter ends with a short recipe for one of the delicacies consumed by the protagonists. When an Iranian nuclear scientist is caught in a honey trip, he’s served shirini keshmeshi: Persian pastries dotted with raisins. “Jamshedi goggled at the cakes. Here he was, sitting with a blackmailing Russian intelligence officer, spilling his country’s secrets, and this prostitute was serving him the confection of this childhood.”
Palace of Treason recipe for shirini keshmeshi: “Thoroughly mix flour, sugar, melted butter, vegetable oil and eggs. Add saffron diluted in warm water, small raisins, and vanilla extract. Blend well. Put dollops of dough on a parchment paper-lined sheet pan and bake in a medium oven until golden brown.”
Highlight of tomorrow’s Tribeca Film Festival will be the screening of Pelé: Birth of a Legend, a biopic about the rise of the great footballer, who led Brazil to three World Cup wins. It is written and directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, who made The Two Escobars, a superb film about the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar and the Colombian footballer Andres Escobar. Jeff Zimblast also co-directed Favela Rising, which focuses on the work of Anderson Sá, a former drug trafficker who established the AfroReggae movement in one of Rio de Janeiro’s worst slums, Vigario Geral.Tweet
Zanny Minton Beddoes, Editor-in-Chief of the Economist, is offering readers two covers this week. Latin America gets “The great betrayal,” which is about the economic crisis in Brazil and the upcoming impeachment of its president, Dilma Rousseff. The country is in a state of despair as it fights its worst recession since the 1930s, and the real should stop at Ms Rousseff’s desk, but the Economist is magnanimous: “The failure is not only of Ms Rousseff’s making. The entire political class has let the country down through a mix of negligence and corruption.”
For the rest of the world, the Economist cover features Hillary Clinton. “Could she fix it?” America, that is. It’s a lukewarm leader, peppered with reservations such as “Mrs Clinton’s solutions too often seem feeble,” and “her policies are fiddly.” As she rolls up her sleeves to retune the USA’s rusty engine, the lack of enthusiasm is startling: “Yet, rather than thrilling to the promise of taking the White House or of electing America’s first woman president, many Democrats seem joyless.”
It’s been 25 years since Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis hit the highway in Thelma & Louise, Ridley Scott’s road movie that put women in the driver’s seat, finally. The film kept them at the wheel all the way to the vivid end as they flew into the blue yonder above the Grand Canyon in a green Thunderbird convertible. In Paste Monthly, Amanda Schurr remains transformed by it all. Snippet:
“… their flight from Oklahoma to Mexico is urgent, telling and inimitably American. Leave it to Ridley Scott, taking visual inspiration from Terrence Malick’s Badlands, and the sweeping flyovers of fellow Brit cinematographer Adrian Biddle to capture the promise and danger of the scorched West — the film was shot largely in California and Utah, and it’s never looked more stunning, nor strangely unsentimental and unforgiving.”
A bit like the electorates in Brazil and the USA, “unsentimental and unforgiving.”Tweet
To understand the magical world of the technology Unicorn (AirBNB, Slack, Snapchat, Uber), one has to speak the language of dizzying money. For example, Limited Partners (LPs) are large pools of capital, such as pension funds, endowments, foundations and high-net-worth individuals, that invest in Venture Capital (VC) firms, hedge funds and the like. And in these Unicorn times, LPs are increasingly being asked to participate in SPVs (Special Purpose Vehicles) especially created to feed the insatiable Unicorns. Well, that’s what Bill Gurley, a General Partner at Benchmark Capital, says.
Gurly has been keeping a close eye on the money flow and he’s noticed something disturbing: “investors have also broadened their SPV marketing to family offices and other pools of capital. The pitches typically involve phrases such as ‘you are invited to’ or ‘we will provide access to’ an opportunity to invest. This ‘you are so lucky to have this opportunity’ pitch is eerily Madoffian.”
That excellent coinage, Madoffian, is a play on the name of the fraudster Bernard Madoff, who scammed investors in a $65 billion Ponzi scheme that was exposed in 2008. The use of his name should alarm everyone and that’s what Bill Gurley seeks to do in a brilliant analysis titled Why The Unicorn Financing Market Became Dangerous… For All Involved. Snippet:
The main message for investors who are just now being approached is the following: it’s not the second inning or even the sixth, it’s the fourteenth inning in a five hour baseball game. You are not being invited to a special dance, you are being approached because you are the lender of last resort. And because of how we meandered to this place in time, parting with your dollars now would be an extremely risky move. Caveat emptor.
To avert disaster, Gurley is calling for “a dramatic increase in the real cost of capital and a return to an appreciation for sound business execution.” Note: What makes his analysis particularly valuable is that he singles out John Carreyrou’s October investigation of Theranos in the Wall Street Journal as “the seminal bubble-popping event.” A month prior to that, Fortune Magazine ran a fawning Theranos article titled “How Playing the Long Game Made Elizabeth Holmes a Billionaire.” That game is up.Tweet
Headline: Intel to Cut 12,000 Jobs, Puts Focus on Cloud. Why this? Why now? Because of two self-inflicted mistakes:
- (i) ignoring the decline of the PC
- (ii) ignoring the rise of the smartphone
“The old way of doing things reaches perfection just as it’s time to be replaced,” says Benedict Evans when telling people that mobile is going to eat the world. And it’s true. As one technological ecosystem becomes obsolete, it is replaced by a new model that expands to fulfill the needs of an even larger market. So, Intel out.
Is has been predicted that 70 per cent of the sub-Saharan population will be on 3G network connections by 2019, and that 80 per cent of the world’s adult population will have a smartphone by the end of this decade. In other words, the market for the IT industry is, for the first time in history, everyone on this planet. Intel thought that the “complete” internet was available on a PC while smartphones offered a “miniature” version of the web. That view has been upended and smartphones now offer a more mobile, flexible, full-featured internet experience. Mobile has eaten Intel’s lunch.