Week 50

Pick of the Week – Progress, Innovation and Learning

Michael Hanlon outlines a controversial and perhaps counterintuitive thesis in Aeon, namely that our greatest cultural and technological achievements took place in a Golden Quarter between the end of the Second World War in 1945 and 1971.   According to his analysis, since the early 1970’s we have not made as much fundamental progress in the last forty years as we did during that era:

“Today, progress is defined almost entirely by consumer-driven, often banal improvements in information technology. in the US at least, a technological plateau has been reached. Sure, our phones are great, but that’s not the same as being able to fly across the Atlantic in eight hours or eliminating smallpox. As the US technologist Peter Thiel once put it: ‘We wanted flying cars, we got 140 characters.’”

The key reasons he presents to explain why, in his view, technological advances have reached a plateau are:

  1. All the “low hanging fruit” was picked off in the Golden Quarter and the remaining problems are hard (ie. expensive) to address.
  2. Governments and corporations have become increasingly risk averse.
  3. Wealth accumulation within a tiny elite and growing inequality has led to “less impetus to invest in genuine innovation”, a conclusion echoed in the work of Thomas Piketty.
  4. The market has rewarded products with built-in obsolescence.

In relation to this latter point,  the argument is essentially that the capitalist market system no longer values longevity as a design goal for consumer goods and is increasingly fuelled by aspiration culture for revenue growth as opposed to genuine innovation:

“As success comes to be defined by the amount of money one can generate in the very short term, progress is in turn defined not by making things better, but by rendering them obsolete as rapidly as possible so that the next iteration of phones, cars or operating systems can be sold to a willing market.

Half a century ago, makers of telephones, TVs and cars prospered by building products that their buyers knew (or at least believed) would last for many years. No one sells a smartphone on that basis today; the new ideal is to render your own products obsolete as fast as possible. Thus the purpose of the iPhone 6 is not to be better than the iPhone 5, but to make aspirational people buy a new iPhone (and feel better for doing so). In a very unequal society, aspiration becomes a powerful force.”

This HBR article examining the “death of game-changing innovation” in the US offers another reason, the reduction in social exposure to alternative viewpoints.  Although we are more networked than ever before, the people we regularly interact with are arguably much more similar in worldview than was the case a few generations ago when we were effectively “forced” to be more neighbourly:

The transition from “townshipped” to what might be called “networked” community has vastly reduced our participation in non-intimate relationships that might have exposed us to distinct viewpoints. Our horizons have narrowed. So the disappearance of neighborly relationships has made it easier for each individual to avoid those who look on the world with a different lens.

One remedy proposed in the article is to encourage wider general reading beyond narrow areas of expertise to gain exposure to different perspectives:

Managers need to encourage employees to read books, periodicals, and other forms of media that are a step or two beyond what they might select on their own. The determined march toward greater efficiency and productivity can’t be allowed to crowd out the creativity that stems from exposure to novel concepts. Growth is born from innovation, and new ideas depend on whether a business can cultivate ways to expand — and not just deepen — its workforce’s intellectual wanderings.”

The notion that creativity comes from making free connections between disparate areas of knowledge without prejudice is explored further below.  So are the dangers of over-romanticising an imperfect past:

End of an era. May 1973. Photo courtesy Dick Swanson/U.S. National Archives

Smartphones and Manufacturers

  • Apple have patented a method for reorienting an iPhone during freefall changing its angle of impact to ensure the fall.  The key example involves “a motor with eccentric mass able to impart a force on a falling phone’s rotational axis, causing it to land on a preferred site, such as its side or back.”   It doesn’t stop there though. AppleInsider provide this summary of some outlandish additional embodiments captured in the patent:

“More exotic embodiments include internal mechanisms that latch onto or jettison headphone cables in a freefall event, while others involve motors capable of extending and retracting air foils or aerodynamic surfaces for controlled landings. Moving further into the unconventional are miniaturized gas canisters that exert thrust forces to slow down a fall and sliding weights moved along an internal track by linear motors.”

Google and Android

  • In further evidence of their troubles outside their dominant Silicon Valley perch, Google are apparently closing their Russian engineering operations.  Presumably like other Western software firms, they are finding the politically driven regulatory environment in Russia increasingly difficult to work within:

“Perhaps most pertinently — unless the department’s shuttering is purely for business reasons — Google has been ordered to store the data of its Russian users in Russian data centers, and also to comply with the bloggers register law.”

  • Google Hangouts is receiving a big update which includes support for “last seen” timestamp and emoji or “stickers”:

“Hangouts users will finally gain the ability to communicate through stickers, with 16 sticker packs for starters and more to come in the future. Simply typing a term like “happy birthday” or “woot” in the chat window will show a matching sticker. Expect the usual bevvy of cute penguins and more-or-less grumpy cats.”

hangout stickers 1

  • Lamborghini have announced a $6000 KitKat-based Android phone running on a high end Snapdragon 801 with a 5inch 1080p display and a hefty 3400mAh battery.   The promo pictures focus on the hand-stitched leather rather than the software or services with the back of the phone more prominent than the front. As AndroidAuthority put it:

“Part of the problem with owning a Lamborghini is the lack of matching Android devices that come along with it, at least that’s apparently what Lamborghini thinks.”

Lamborghini Tauri 88 3

“With the advancement of new technologies we now know that many display ads that are served never actually have the opportunity to be seen by a user. In fact in a recent study of Active View data by Google, we found that 56.1% of all ads served were not measured viewable.”

  • The reasons why outlined in their accompanying infographic seem pretty obvious on further reflection.  They include page position, ad size and whether the ad is above or below the fold.
  • To compound advertiser woes, Adblock is undergoing accelerating growth highlighting recent evidence that throws into question the long-term sustainability of ad-funded business models:

Apps and Services

“Line Pay will allow users to make payments through the app at affiliated online and brick-and-mortar stores by registering their credit cards. Future plans include allowing Line users to send money to one another.”

  • Alexis Madrigal published an interesting post on how mobile apps have created an “Internet of Phones” where links are followed within standalone social apps, particularly Facebook, rather than a web site. He calls this “dark social traffic” because it isn’t available for mining by anyone other than Facebook whose power has grown as a result:

“People use their phones differently from their computers, and that has made Facebook more dominant. [If] you’re a media company, you are almost certainly underestimating your Facebook traffic. The only question is how much Facebook traffic you’re not counting.”

benedict

  • Analysing job adverts is a sure-fire of providing insight into the culture and practices of a large company.  This LinkedIn post deconstructs a recent specification for position of “Software Engineer – Growth” at Uber.   It serves to highlight the primacy of growth for its own sake – “We prioritize growth at all costs“.
  • Humin is a mobile app that offers an interesting new way of organising contact information.  It launched on iOS only but is now available as a beta for Android though judging by some of the feedback, they still some work to do before it is ready for the mainstream:

“Instead of simply keeping a list of people by groups or alphabetically, Humin lets you tie other relevant information to people, such as where and when you met them. This way you can search for people in a way that’s more natural.”

Asia

Security

  • Passwords “may soon be rendered obsolete” by the introduction of FIDO which is positioned as a cross-industry standard for biometric based authentication:

FIDO (fast identity online) was founded in 2012 but already has the backing of ARM, Alibaba, Bank of America, BlackBerry, MasterCard, Microsoft and Qualcomm. It has now launched an open protocol for simple and two-factor log-ins that anyone can use to implement in their own hardware, software or website.”

  • This anatomy of a man in the middle (MITM) attack on the anonymous Yik Yak service outlines how it is possible to co-opt a user’s identity once you’ve obtained their user ID which is can be relatively easily sniffed by packet tracing:

“The primary vulnerability is that Yik Yak authenticates users based solely on a user ID. There are no passwords. If you know the user’s ID number, it’s game over. … Once you have the user ID, you can take complete control over the account.”

“Launching at the start of next year, “Silent Space” will be featured by default and come with the suite of Silent-branded apps, the Blackphone store and a selection of third-party safety-conscious apps. The update will also introduce “Spaces,” a new feature that will help users divide their personal and work apps, data and accounts into two separate sandboxes on one phone. If you know of Samsung’s secure Knox platform, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Blackphone is trying to achieve.”

“Graphite’s Secure Spaces for Android allows users to experience any app and service they want without having to lose control of their personal information.

Enterprise, Networking and Cloud Computing

  • This IEEE article on how the OSI networking protocol suite failed to gain traction and ceded thought leadership to TCP/IP is sobering reading.  It highlights how bureaucracy can can exert a pernicious effect on the development of technology.

OSI vs TCP/IP

  • Today, the Docker container project is the latest example of a non-committee technology proposition that is rapidly achieving mainstream status with the networking community.  The Register provide more context on its huge potential:

“Companies that were already willing to recode their apps from scratch for the public cloud will find Docker a hugely compelling alternative.”

  • This must read from PayPal engineering provides some essential insight into how Python is used to provide internet scale services across a whole range of leading propositions.  Doing so requires careful consideration of overall system runtime architecture and the distribution of virtual machines, processes, threads and greenlets.  It can and is being done successfully by many:

DropboxDisqusEventbriteRedditTwilioInstagramYelpEVE OnlineSecond Life, and, yes, eBay and PayPal all have Python scaling stories that prove scale is more than just possible: it’s a pattern.

The key to success is simplicity and consistency. CPython, the primary Python virtual machine, maximizes these characteristics, which in turn makes for a very predictable runtime.

Here at PayPal, a typical service deployment entails multiple machines, with multiple processes, multiple threads, and a very large number of greenlets, amounting to a very robust and scalable concurrent environment (see figure below). In most enterprise environments, parties tends to prefer a fairly high degree of overprovisioning, for general prudence and disaster recovery. Nevertheless, in some cases Python services still see millions of requests per machine per day, handled with ease.”

  • If you use Slack at work you might want to acquaint yourself with the new Slack Plus paid service tier aimed at corporates wanting to get in on the new new thing:

“It allows your boss to view your Slack messages, including private direct messages to coworkers, as well as all versions of the messages you’ve edited.”

Data Science, Machine Learning and Robots

“Whether you’re running it on premises or in the cloud, Hadoop leaves a lot to be desired in the ease-of-use department. The Hadoop offerings on the three major cloud platforms (Amazon’sElastic MapReduce  — EMR, Microsoft’s Azure HDInsightand Google Compute Engine’s Click-to-Deploy Hadoop) have their warts.”

  • ContentLoop has a profile of Demis Hassabis, the remarkable multi-talented head of UK-based Google AI acquisition DeepMind:

“Today, Hassabis leads what is now called Google DeepMind. It is still headquartered in London and still has “solve intelligence” as its mission statement. Roughly 75 people strong at the time it joined Google, Hassabis has said he aimed to hire around 50 more. Around 75 percent of the group works on fundamental research. The rest form an “applied research team” that looks for opportunities to apply DeepMind’s techniques to existing Google products.”

Google’s Intelligence Designer

“By looking at a set of over one billion facts for comparison, DataSift’s new text-classification engine reads and understands natural language content, and categorizes social media, news and blog posts from sources like Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, BitlyTumblr and more into a hierarchical taxonomy of over 450,000 topics. This makes it easier to build apps to interpret all that data at scale.”

Datasift

“for many companies, the emphasis in the DS of data science and the focus for now and the near future should be the ‘D’ of data. And while it’s important to conduct research science it is also likely that operationalizing data will readily and quantitatively contribute to the bottom line – that is, getting the right data to the right people in the organization in a form that they can immediately put to use.”

  • However, there is a danger of focussing too heavily on data collection and not on concrete plans for how to use it.  This is a particular issue in respect of the Internet of Things, that other traveller on the hype bandwagon.:

“many IT departments that are thinking about the IoT now are focusing primarily on the data collection aspect. In order to get to a point where IoT projects really deliver business value — and avoid falling into Gartner’s trough of disillusionment — organizations need to have a plan for analyzing IoT data and acting on those analytics’ results”

  • Basically if you want to incorporate data science within your business activities, you need to understand: a) where and how you are going to collect the data, b) who is going to process that data, when they will do it and what the outcome of their analysis should be.  Multidisciplinary skillsets will be required.

Wearables and the Internet of Things

  • Wearable device maker Misfit have raised $40m in a Series C round which brings Xiaomi to their board.  It’s Xiaomi’s first investment in a US-based company and a significant indicator of future intention:

“when it comes to wearables, fashion, design, brand and experience are more significant factors. …  Capitalizing on market potential internationally could help Misfit continue to work on long-term strategy, while others flounder in the still nascent (and largely unproven) wearables market back in North America.”

Misfit looks to adrenaline boost from China, raises $40 million from Xiaomi and other investors - photo

  • Jawbone have launched a program called “UP for Groups” aimed at the potentially hugely lucrative Corporate Wellness market. Participants get access to aggregated data and receive significant discounts on bulk purchases of trackers:

“Jawbone isn’t the first fitness tracker to incorporate a social group aspect to its products. Competitor Fitbit has its own corporate wellness program, and insurance provider Oscar recently announced a rewards program tied to steps tracked by a Misfit Flash. While personal fitness metrics and step goals can help people get moving, nothing beats good old-fashioned peer pressure.”

MD_11

  • Three interesting static IoT propositions are highlighted in this GigaOM article.  Peeple, the “connected peephole” is pictured below:

“Peeple, a connected peephole that snaps a picture when someone knocks, fits into the existing hole in your door. Switchmate snaps over any light switch. Oh, and Fishbit, the connected water monitor, just drops into your fish tank.”

Peeple attaches into existing peepholes.

“the Uno Noteband syncs up with your phone, bringing you notifications about messages, phone calls, emails and social network activity. But instead of having you tab through these messages using buttons or swipes, you see a notification, tap the screen, and it pumps out the text at a few hundred words per minute.

Uno Noteband

Bluetooth and Hardware

“In this pioneering study, we attempt to analyze visitors’ behavior in one of the world’s largest museums – The Louvre Museum – from anonymized longitudinal datasets generated by noninvasive Bluetooth sensors. … On average, 8.2% of visitors activated Bluetooth on their mobile device in the Louvre Museum. Based on the paths derived from Bluetooth-enabled mobile devices and the number of ticket sales, we extrapolated visiting sequences and dwell times at key representative locations for the whole number of visitors.”

  • Their main conclusion is that visitors do more or less the same things albeit taking different amounts of time:

“The visiting style of short (less than 1,5 hour) and long (more than 6 hours) stay visitors are not as significantly different as one could expect.”

“This is what 4000 ARM CPUs look like – it doesn’t seem like much (given these chips are worth around 1/6th of the total amount pledged on KickStarter!). [£67.5k]”

Software Development

  • Android Studio, the Android IDE built on the IntelliJ IDEA Java IDE has reached v1.0 status.  The Register reviewed it highlighting a number of remaining issues though they conclude that “overall … Android Studio is a better experience than Eclipse for Android development” with two notable benefits:

“A key feature of Android Studio is a new build system using Gradle, whereas Eclipse projects generally use Apache Ant. Gradle handles dependency management and can be scripted using the Groovy language. … Another highlight is the visual designer, which lets you customise a layout using either XML or drag-and-drop tools.”

shadow studio hero code 2x 730x439 Android studio hits 1.0, makes it easier to build Android apps

  • The Hour of Code “is a one-hour introduction to computer science, designed to demystify code and show that anybody can learn the basics“.  It launched last year when it was famously endorsed by New York City Mayor Bloomberg.  This week has witnessed a second run right around the world:

“using Google’s Blockly tool, and writing a line of code using the programming language JavaScript.”

APTOPIX Obama

moveForward(100);

Usability and QA

  • Anyone reading this blog accesses an unconscious mental model that allows them to understand how to access, navigate and search it.  In psychological terms readers are able to take advantage of the Availability Heuristic to achieve their goals.  However the billions round the globe who have no experience of the Internet do not have recourse to that approach and are entirely “lacking what UX experts call a ‘mental model’ of how basic Internet services work or why to even use them“.   Hassan Baig outlines the supporting evidence in this TechCrunch article:

“the reality is we live in a world where 4.3 billion people have never experienced the Internet. These are people who mostly can’t tell what the X at the top-right of the screen does, or what “sign up” means, or what a username and password are, or that cancel buttons are red or gray, or how a QWERTY keyboard works, or how to sign up for mobile data, or why should one even do it in the first place.”

  • This HP survey reveals what many in the business are well aware of, namely that Software QA is hard and getting harder.  It’s increasingly reliant on having specialist in-house development capability to drive test automation, technical testing and tools strategies:

World Quality Report

  • http://hacksummit.org 2014 yielded an amazing and inspiring selection of talks encompassing a wide range of topics covered by high profile presenters.  This talk by Fabien Potencier, creator of the PHP Symphony framework, entitled “Stop Complaining You Have Great Powers” offers some great insights into why Usability can be literally, in one case, a matter of life and death:

Work and Culture

VirtualWorking

“In a new research report, UK regulator Ofcom found that the number of people signing on to their favourite social networking sites each week dropped from 65 percent in September 2013 to 56 percent in October 2014. “

  • The apparent fickleness modern consumers hold for social media reflected in the Ofcom findings is paralleled with attitudes to brand loyalty particularly amongst Millennials.  It is becoming progressively harder to earn and retain brand loyalty and all too easy to lose:

“Brands are extensions of the lives we lead, and if the brand message, intention or engagement is not what is expected – loyalty goes away. Consumers are holding brands accountable to assure they are constantly adding value to their lives. If they don’t get what they expect, you will certainly hear about it on social media.  Consumers are paying attention to the manner in which brands communicate. They know when a brand is speaking at them instead of speaking to them.”

Melancholia and Happiness

  • BrainPickings published an extended review of Meghan Daum’s book Unspeakable.  The book explores the shadow territory that lies between “who we think we’ll become and who we end up becoming” through a series of hypothetical conversations between the author’s Younger and Older Self.  There are very powerful psychological forces at work shining nostalgic, romanticised light on an imperfect past and fuelling the feeling that many experience of something having gone awry along the way:

“the sense she describes is a palpable, familiar one, perhaps best captured by the untranslatable Portuguese word saudade

  • Keeping a diary or notebook during your youth is one way of keeping an honest eye on proceedings:

“we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”

“In our lives, we’re all guilty of holding onto ideas, emotions or beliefs even if we know it won’t benefit us. We feel trapped by our experiences when all we have to do is let go.  A more scientific name for this is the Einstellung effect — the idea that preconceptions and past experiences can blind us, literally, to the point of not being able to see better options.”

Ferris Jabr Wandering Mind 730x479 Your past experiences are blinding you

  • One such technique cultivating the recognition that melancholia as an essential part of the human condition and as much a part of life as happiness:

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