Technology

Elizabeth Holmes and the Art of the No Easy Ask

Thursday, 12 April, 2018 0 Comments

If you think Mark Zuckerberg is having a tough week, consider the (mis)fortune of Elizabeth Holmes. Remember her? The CEO of Theranos was the poster girl for all those who bought and sold the delusion that a photogenic founder was an essential first step on the road to unimaginable riches. And, sure enough, gullible investors and sycophantic media beat a path to the golden door in the Valley in the hope of turning blood into treasure. And they ponied up an incredible $1.4 billion along the way.

Zuckerberg may have been on the hot seat, but Holmes is in deep water. Consider the letter she recently sent to shareholders regarding the company’s looming default on a $100 million loan. Snippet:

“The most viable option that we have identified to forestall a near-term sale or a potential default under our credit agreement is further investment by one or more of you. In light of where we are, this is no easy ask. However, given your support of the company over the years, we wanted to provide this opportunity before we proceed too far down the current path.”

Holmes is a fraud, but one has to admire (almost) the chutzpa of “this is no easy ask”.

Miss Fortune


Nasim Aghdam and the YouTube convergence

Saturday, 7 April, 2018 0 Comments

Recap: In Iran, she was known as “Green Nasim”, commanding a certain degree of social media clout. On Tuesday, in California, Nasim Aghdam proceeded to the headquarters of YouTube in San Bruno and went on a shooting spree. Three were wounded, with the sole death being Aghdam, who took her life after the bloody splurge.

Mark Steyn peels back the layers in a piece titled The Grand Convergence. Snippet:

“What happened is a remarkable convergence of the spirits of the age: mass shootings, immigration, the Big Tech thought-police, the long reach of the Iranian Revolution, the refugee racket, animal rights, vegan music videos… It was the latest mismatched meeting between east and west in the age of the Great Migrations: Nasim Aghdam died two days before her 39th birthday, still living (according to news reports) with either her parents or her grandmother. She came to America at the age of seventeen, and spent two decades in what appears to be a sad and confused search to find something to give her life meaning. But in a cruder sense the horror in San Bruno was also a sudden meeting of two worlds hitherto assumed to be hermetically sealed from each other: the cool, dispassionate, dehumanized, algorithmic hum of High Tech — and the raw, primal, murderous rage breaking through from those on the receiving end.”

For all those who have fallen out of love with the Silicon Valley dataopolies, Blockchain is the most promising technology as it has the potential to disrupt the centralized social media companies.


Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology

Thursday, 5 April, 2018 0 Comments

The full title of Adam Alter’s book is even longer: Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Money quote:

“Facebook has an endless feed; Netflix automatically moves on to the next episode in a series; Tinder encourages users to keep swiping in search of a better option. Users benefit from these apps and websites, but also struggle to use them in moderation. According to Tristan Harris, a ‘design ethicist,’ the problem isn’t that people lack willpower; it’s that ‘there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have.'”

Our age of behavioural addiction is still in its infancy, but we can no longer ignore the writing on the screen. Everything from family and friendship to rest and play is being crowded out by smartphones, e-mails, social networking and on-demand viewing. Understanding the nature of addiction is a necessary first step in defending our well-being, but it will be hard to beat our new habits when thousand of dopamine pushers “on the other side of the screen” are being paid huge sums to hook us.

Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked


Utopia, Dystopia, Heterotopia and, now, Bettertopia

Friday, 23 March, 2018 0 Comments

Did you know that Björk used 12 flutes on her Utopia album? She has decided, however, to employ just seven flautists in her upcoming concert in Reykjavík on April 12th.

So much for Utopia in Iceland. In China, by way of contrast, they’re moving rapidly towards the opposite. “China’s Dystopian Tech Could Be Contagious” warns Adam Greenfield in The Atlantic. Beijing’s Dystopia is terrifying: “Known by the anodyne name ‘social credit,’ this system is designed to reach into every corner of existence both online and off. It monitors each individual’s consumer behavior, conduct on social networks, and real-world infractions like speeding tickets or quarrels with neighbors. Then it integrates them into a single, algorithmically determined ‘sincerity’ score.”

And Heterotopia? The term was used in 1984 by Michel Foucault (who else?) in a text titled “Of other spaces” that was published in Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité.

Which brings us to Bettertopia. “Welcome to Bettertopia,” says Panasonic, the Japanese multinational electronics corporation headquartered in Osaka. “This dream city is always filled with smiles and vitality. Panasonic’s products and services, using current and future advanced technologies, are supporting people’s lives and businesses here.”

Love this bit on what happens when sports fans visit the Bettertopia Stadium:

“Thank you for coming. I’m the manager here, so let me show you around. First, come this way to the entrance gate. Where’s the line? There is no line to enter. We don’t have such a thing in our stadium. You’ve already registered with a photograph of your face, and the face recognition system does the job. So you can get in quickly. You can pick up your pre-ordered meal and drinks here. Merchandise and food can be purchased without cash or credit cards. Your face is all you need.”

If you dream of Panasonic’s dream city, note: “Your face is all you need.”


Tech Will Save Us

Monday, 19 March, 2018 0 Comments

Well, I don’t know if it will but the fact is that a UK startup called Tech Will Save Us recently raised $4.2 million in funding. What does it do? It creates STEM-based products for children that teach basic tech skills and thus prepares them for a tech-focused future. Critically, for the funders, Tech Will Save Us will partner with Disney to create a new Avengers-themed electronics play kit. Sales pitch: “Save the world with Hulk, Iron Man and Captain America by completing missions with conductive dough.”

Upon receiving the tangible dough from SaatchInvest, Backed VC, Initial Capital and Leaf VC, the founder of Tech Will Save Us, Bethany Koby, had this to day about the kindness of investors: “They will not only bring expertise and insights from the gaming industry but they align with our values as parents and entrepreneurs to use our time to impact the next generation in a positive way.” What a pity that Lucy Kellaway isn’t available to decrypt “they align with our values as parents and entrepreneurs to use our time to impact the next generation in a positive way.” She would have shredded its sanctimony.

Note: The Avengers earned more than $1.5 billion worldwide and became the third-highest-grossing film during its cinema run. It was the first Marvel production to generate $1 billion in ticket sales and became the highest-grossing film of 2012. A sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron, was released in 2015, while an additional sequel, Avengers: Infinity War is scheduled for global release on 27 April. If tech will not save us, The Avengers will, is the message.


The KPMG AVRI

Thursday, 8 March, 2018 0 Comments

Which countries are most prepared for driverless cars? The question is pertinent because autonomous vehicles (AVs) will revolutionize transportation and the way people live and work. The 2018 KPMG Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index (AVRI) offers an in-depth view of what’s needed for countries to meet the challenges of self-driving vehicles. This is the first study of its kind, examining where countries are in terms of progress and capacity for adapting AV technology, and the top ten are:

1 The Netherlands
2 Singapore
3 The United States
4 Sweden
5 The United Kingdom
6 Germany
7 Canada
8 United Arab Emirates
9 New Zealand
10 South Korea

Quote: “There will be economic benefits, because the time we currently spend driving a car becomes productive time in an AV that can be spent working, relaxing or sleeping. But moreover, there will be social benefit, including a vast reduction in the 1.3 million people killed each year in car accidents, and accessibility for those who currently cannot drive, because of age or disability.”

The learn more, download the KPMG AVRI PDF (2.9 MB).

KPMG


We’re on the road to Mars!

Wednesday, 7 February, 2018 0 Comments

We will look back and marvel at what Elon Musk did yesterday. In short, his SpaceX company successfully launched the most powerful rocket in the world into space. And this was done by a private business at a fraction of a cost of other systems currently being built. SpaceX claims that Falcon Heavy launches will cost about $90 million per flight, while NASA, which is working on its own heavy launch system, called the SLS, estimates it could cost about a billion dollars per flight. But the icing on the cake is that the notion of re-landing reusable rockets, which seemed like science fiction a decade ago, is now reality. SpaceX regularly lands rockets back on land or on a drone ship in the Atlantic. Yesterday, it landed two Falcon 9 rockets simultaneously, each dropping elegantly from the sky with a majestic controlled burn.

Elon Musk is making the future great again. We’re on the way to Mars!


Goat simulator acquired by Coffee Stain

Monday, 5 February, 2018 0 Comments

Yes. That’s a real English-language headline: “Goat simulator acquired by Coffee Stain”. A decade ago, it wouldn’t have been possible to write it and even today 99 percent of those who understand its six English words have no idea of what it all means. So what’s it about, then? Here goes:

“Goat Simulator is an open-ended third-person perspective game in which the player controls a goat. The player is free to explore the game’s world, a suburban setting, as a goat, and jump, run, bash things, and lick objects. Licking objects attaches the goat’s tongue to the object and lets the player drag the object around until they let go. At any time, the player can let the goat drop into a ragdoll model, allowing the game’s physics to take over.”

This is 2018, after all.

Anyway, up Scandinavia way last week up, Swedish game maker Coffee Stain Studios, based in Skövde, acquired a majority stake in the Stockholm-based Gone North Games, the makers of such hit mobile games as Goat Z and Goat Simulator: Waste of Space.

This is 2018, after all. And Goat Z is a goat simulator, not a goat stimulator, by the way.


Depressed? Put on this headset, please

Monday, 29 January, 2018 0 Comments

David Foster Wallace: “The cruel thing with depression is that it’s such a self-centered illness. Dostoevsky shows that pretty good in his Notes from Underground. The depression is painful, you’re sapped/consumed by yourself; the worse the depression, the more you just think about yourself and the stranger and repellent you appear to others.”

Could a brain stimulation headset offer humane treatment for the disease that led David Foster Wallace to kill himself? Might it, at least, be an alternative to the dreaded opioid medication? Flow Neuroscience from Sweden claims its headset can stimulate and change the brain’s neuronal activity using tDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation), and a related app that advises the user on eating, sleeping and exercising routines will provide holistic backup.

With 21 million people in Europe suffering from major depressive disorder, the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme is on board and Flow Neuroscience recently announced a funding round of $1.1 million from Khosla Ventures, SOSV and Daniel Andersson.

If the depression epidemic can be addressed with a solution that’s safe, effective, medication-free and designed for use at home, great benefits might flow to sufferers, who would experience a huge quality-of-life improvement as a result. And great benefits might flow, too, to those VCs who have placed their bets on Flow Neuroscience.

Flow

Sylvia Plath: “It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next. It made me tired just to think of it.”


Sting warned us about Google

Friday, 26 January, 2018 0 Comments

If you’re using an Android phone, Google may be tracking every move you make:

“The Alphabet subsidiary’s location-hungry tentacles are quietly lurking behind some of the most innovative features of its Android mobile operating system. Once those tentacles latch on, phones using Android begin silently transmitting data back to the servers of Google, including everything from GPS coordinates to nearby wifi networks, barometric pressure, and even a guess at the phone-holder’s current activity. Although the product behind those transmissions is opt-in, for Android users it can be hard to avoid and even harder to understand.”

So writes David Yanofsky in Quartz. And, as Sting sang during the last century:

Every single day
Every word you say
Every game you play
Every night you stay
I’ll be watching you

Back now to David Yanofsky:

“As a result, Google holds more extensive data on Android users than some ever realize. That data can be used by the company to sell targeted advertising. It can also be used to track into stores those consumers who saw ads on their phone or computer urging them to visit. This also means governments and courts can request the detailed data on an individual’s whereabouts.”

Back now to Sting:

Every move you make
Every vow you break
Every smile you fake
Every claim you stake
I’ll be watching you

David Yanofsky again:

“While you’ve probably never heard of it, ‘Location History’ is a longtime Google product with origins in the now-defunct Google Latitude. (Launched in 2009, that app allowed users to constantly broadcast their location to friends.) Today, Location History is used to power features like traffic predictions and restaurant recommendations. While it is not enabled on an Android phone by default — or even suggested to be turned on when setting up a new phone — activating Location History is subtly baked into setup for apps like Google Maps, Photos, the Google Assistant, and the primary Google app. In testing multiple phones, Quartz found that none of those apps use the same language to describe what happens when Location History is enabled, and none explicitly indicate that activation will allow every Google app, not just the one seeking permission, to access Location History data.

Sting was way ahead of his time:

Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
I’ll be watching you

Note: Every Breath You Take appeared on the 1983 Police album Synchronicity. Written by Sting, the single was the biggest US and UK hit of 1983, topping the UK singles chart for four weeks and the US Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for eight weeks. And it remains a winner. In October last year, the song was featured at the end of Season 2 of the Netflix thriller Stranger Things and it also appears on the Sony Music soundtrack of songs used in both Seasons 1 and 2.


The Morozov File

Monday, 22 January, 2018 0 Comments

Ever since the great media theorist Marshall McLuhan died in 1980, the search has been on to find a worthy successor. Many have been called but all have failed. Some lacked his intellect, most couldn’t match his wit. For a while it looked as if Neil Postman would carry the torch, but he never said anything as memorable as “the medium is the message.” The latest contender is Evgeny Morozov, who was born in 1984 in Soligorsk, a hideous city in Belarus created by the Soviet tyranny in 1958. Naturally, Morozov fled the ghastly Belarus for the freedom of the USA and there he morphed into a media theorist.

Morozov is very much in touch with the Zeitgeist as his McLuhanian formulations shows. Examples: “data extractivism”, “algorithmic consensus” and “predatory emancipation”. Here’s now he threads this jargon together:

“Any effort to understand why the intensification of the regime of data extractivism has failed to generate widespread discontent has to grapple with the ideological allure of Silicon Valley. Here one can also detect a certain logic at play — a logic of what I call ‘predatory emancipation.’ The paradox at the heart of this model is that we become more and more entangled into political and economic webs spun by these firms even as they deliver on a set of earlier emancipatory promises. They do offer us a modicum of freedom —but it only comes at the cost of greater slavery.”

Evgeny Morozov That’s from a paper he wrote for a Strasbourg quango called the Council of Europe titled DIGITAL INTERMEDIATION OF EVERYTHING: AT THE INTERSECTION OF POLITICS, TECHNOLOGY AND FINANCE (PDF 401KB). It’s turgid stuff, but it goes down well in Europe, especially in Germany, a major funder of Morozovian output, as his dissing of Silicon Valley and his critiques of capitalism is music to the ears of an elite anti-American clique in German media. And, in fact, Morozovian English sounds at times like machine-translated German:

“We are moving towards the model of ‘benevolent feudalism’ — where a number of big industrial and, in our case, post-industrial grants take on the responsibilities of care and welfare — that was postulated by some analysts at the beginning of the 20th century as the future of industrial capitalism as such. It took an extra century to arrive at this vision but any sober analysis of the current situation should dispense with the ‘benevolent’ part of the term and engage much deeper with its ‘feudalism’ part: just because power is exercised upon us differently than in the good old days when the capitalist mode of production ruled supreme and unchallenged does not mean that we are ever more emancipated. After all, plenty of slaveholders in the American South argued that slavery, too, was a much more humane system than capitalism.”

Morozov is no McLuhan but he’s trousering lots of euros for his gadfly vexatiousness. In the end, he’ll turn it into an academic act powered by a Harvard doctorate and tenure will, inevitably, soften his rage against the machine. It’s a long way from Soligorsk to Sunnyvale and although Evgeny Morozov will never publicly thank Silicon Valley for his success, he must, secretly, be grateful for its existence. As Marshall McLuhan once said, “Art is anything you can get away with.”