Week 39

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Bread and Digital Circuses

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The system of government that underpins the Western democracy appears increasingly dysfunctional and devoid of answers to the many serious challenges society faces.  Four aspects which stand out are:

  • Ecology: Global ecosystem destruction is happening at a fundamentally unsustainable level as highlighted only this week in a widely publicized report from Living Planet charting a disastrous 67% decline in wildlife numbers over just 50 years putting us well into extinction level event (ELE) territory. Resource degradation combined with population growth has the potential to totally overwhelm international migration control efforts not to mention conventional insurance models of extreme natural event outliers:

The current rate of extinction is about 100 times faster than is considered normal – greater than during some of the previous five mass extinctions in the Earth’s history.

  • Demography:  Declining birth rates and increased life expectancy are disrupting assumptions around long term pension and health provision which will have a potentially profound impact on the quality of life for many who retire in the next 20 years or so. The tax implications for the rest of the working population will also be profound particularly if background negative sentiment around immigration creates functional resource gaps in key areas.
  • Technology: The prospect of human level machine intelligence is now generally accepted to be plausible within a 30 to 50 year time scale, a development that many consider will be a paradigm shift of the same degree as the rise of Homo Sapiens.  Well before we get there, the proliferation of workflow automation and AI in the workplace is likely to disrupt conventional thinking around the role of human work and raise the spectre of mass scale technological unemployment with the ensuing unrest that could entail.
  • Society: The rise of digital citizenry enabled by the internet and smartphones has made it possible for motivated individuals and what might once have been considered fringe outfits to communicate their message to essentially a mass global audience bypassing traditional broadcast media outlets and state PR efforts.   Unless you happen to live in a country like Russia or China where the state can exercise some control on internet service.  In the West the system seems to privilege those who shout the loudest and most persuasively using slogans not those that put the most effort or detail into building a case.   The rise of “the hinge that squeaks gets the grease” populist politics has has been one response where the emphasis of difference rather than unity provides sustenance for those that perceive their way of life and identity to be threatened.  This has been a key factor in the largely unforeseen success of both the Brexit and Trump campaigns against huge odds and broadly entrenched interests but digital revolution has its limits as shown by the relative failure of the Arab Spring. Populism is disrupting political culture by polarising and splintering the traditional vote and disorienting print media. Both politicians and journalists face a difficult four years ahead regardless of who wins the US presidential election and will need to raise their game to combat the unwelcome return of authoritarianism.

Any one of these challenges alone represents a serious threat to the status quo.  When taken together they suggest that further massive change lies ahead for politics and society.   Consider by way of example the establishment of universal income which though broadly dismissed today by many may yet be forced into serious consideration by future politicians looking to harness the zeitgeist of society in their time.  Change will continue because nothing is immutable.  Not even that Brexit means Brexit.  And certainly not the “will of the people” which is also subject to the vicissitudes of time – the People are a million different People from one day to the next, quite literally:

By 31 March next year, the deadline the government has set to trigger Article 50, the electorate will contain around half a million new voters and a slightly smaller number of adults will have died. By 2019, those numbers will be roughly 2 million apiece. Given what we know about the age profile of the referendum vote, most of those dying will be Leave voters and most of the new voters will favour Remain. As the majority for Leave was only 1.2 million, it is highly probable, therefore, that by the time we leave the EU most people will be against doing so.  The People are a different people now and they will be a very different people by the end of the decade. And their Will is likely to be different too. This perhaps explains the shrill and hysterical demands for the immediate triggering of Article 50. People tend to get very aggressive when they know that the demographic tide is running against them.

Brexit and Trump may embolden efforts and ambitions for change. The central proposal Adam Curtis makes in his film HyperNormalisation, reviewed here in the blog last week, is that most of us are conditioned to view the current system is a permanent fixture in our lives.   Events in 2016, if they have any upside at all, have disrupted the illusion to such an extent that it is possible to consider this particular genie is now well out of its bottle:

You were so much a part of the system that you were unable to see beyond it


The evidence that Trump appears to have modeled his whole campaign on the life of the fictional protagonist in his favourite film Citizen Kane is richly ironic and another example of Reality mirroring Art.  The durability of his campaign suggests that culture and not economics is the primary factor in the relative success of recent populist movements.  Specifically a highly unstable alignment of cultural interests between authoritarian social conservative protectionists and laissez faire libertarians that is likely to fall apart eventually post-triumph as seems to be happening in the UK:

Both Brexit and Trump were powered by an unstable alliance between two very different, even contradictory, movements. The bulk of their supporters were indeed social conservatives and protectionists who wanted to undo the social changes that began in the late 1960s. … To achieve majorities, the socially conservative protectionists had to unite with the remnants of the Thatcher-Reagan laissez faire movement, who resent the interventionist economic management of the post-2008 period and want to intensify the competition, deregulation, and globalisation that social conservatives resent.

The US election remains hard to gauge with just days togo.  It’s distinctly possible for Trump to win and do with disregard for his poor temperament and lack of policy detail.  In fact there’s more heavyweight backing for the idea this week from at least one respected source.   And that was before developments in the last few days with Clinton’s email travails which appear to have significantly aided his efforts.  Win or lose, one speech you’re unlikely to see Trump channeling is that of Chaplin in The Great Dictator in 1940 which remains remarkably relevant and compelling over 75 years later as a warning against authoritarianism:

In it he implores those listening “to fight for a world of reason, science and progress“.   Technology is in part responsible for our current predicament and will need to play a central part in addressing the three other system challenges.  However it faces its own issues. Today’s muscular nationalism sits uncomfortably with the patient international cooperation needed to maximize the benefits of technological progress and this is something that the younger generation seem to realise.  It’s a point underlined in this post by Professor Autio, Chair of Technology Venturing at Imperial College on why digitalisation changes everything:

Paradoxically, digitalisation drives internationalisation support back home.

Technology offers the potential to improve our lot but it can also be coerced by nation states for more nefarious purposes to control the populace.  It remains a clear danger that populism may yet morph into mass surveillance in the US and UK in the same way it has in Russia, China and to an extent the Middle East.   In fact in China, Reality is Black Mirroring Art in the shape of a nation-wide big data citizen scoring system which appears almost indistinguishable from the plot of Nosedive, the first episode in Black Mirror Series 3 now showing on Netflix:

A huge part of Chinese political theatre is to claim that there is an idealised future, a utopia to head towards.  Now after half a century of Leninism, and with technological developments that allow for the vast collection and processing of information, there is much less distance between the loftiness of the party’s ambition and its hypothetical capability of actually doing something.

Compare and contrast that quote with this Guardian review of Nosedive:

It’s not a huge jump to think how social media could assist in the injustices of our existing hierarchies – some people here are downrated just because their ratings are already low.

Dark and all too bleakly plausible, it is this dystopia rather than the punch and judy show on rolling 24 hour news that we are in real danger of falling into.  Moby’s “You Are Lost” video vividly captures the danger of the collective being distracted to oblivion by the Digital Circus:

Artificial Intelligence

This impassioned TechCrunch opinion piece suggests that “Augmented Intelligence” is “the biggest bottleneck in opening up a powerful new future” for humanity.  It’s a view that runs counter to the argument built by Nick Bostrom in SuperIntelligence where he suggests that an all-machine AI has a massive advantage because it is not constrained by human limitations such as the speed of signal transmission over nerve fibres and skull size:

To truly realize the potential of HI+AI, we need to increase the capacity of people to take in, process and use information, by orders of magnitude. For this, neuroprosthetics are the most promising avenue to meet this challenge.

Sebastian Thrun also has a human-centric and generally positive take on the prospects for AI in this interview with Credit Suisse for whom he is advising on the creation of a Fintech Labs setup in Silicon Valley.  Thrun is broadly dismissive of the threat of technological unemployment.  Meanwhile Credit Suisse rivals, Bank of America have unveiled plans to employ an AI chatbot called Erica (the clue is in the name) to help customers with this insight showing the fundamental motivation:

Industry executives, including Bank of America Chief Executive Brian Moynihan, have said they are looking to new technology to reduce costs and cut the time branch employees spend on routine transactions and questions. “Erica has your back and she’s looking out for you.”

Presumably Erica will be right behind you in your smart car given GM want to use AI to “sell you stuff while you drive“.

With AI at the heart of technology strategy for all the tech giants, intellectual talent in the field commands a huge premium.  No wonder the revelation that a leading Carnegie Mellon neural network research academic, Russ Salakhutdinov, is joining Apple as Director of AI Research generated a lot of interest.

MonkeyLearn’s Tarsier tool offers a simple, neat visualisation of Clinton vs. Trump Twitter sentiment operating across a comprehensive global dataset.  It offers a fascinating insight into the race for the White House:

For the past few months, we’ve been collecting millions of tweets posted by users from around the world that discuss this topic, and classifying them using sentiment analysis with MonkeyLearn. This is, for each tweet published that mentions either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, MonkeyLearn tags it with its sentiment, which can be either positive, neutral, or negative.

In terms of sentiment, it’s the political equivalent of a grim no-score draw with the visible bump in positive sentiment for Trump following the most recent developments around the Clinton email saga equating to last minute sustained pressure.


Mobile and Apps

Bloomberg review ex-Nokia CEO’s book on the rise and fall of the phone giant under his stewardship.  He seems to be pretty clear where blame lies.  Those of us who worked with Nokia through the Symbian era had plenty of opportunity to form our own views working with an organisation that was essentially hardware-centric:

“The computer industry heritage and operating-system know-how on the West Coast of the U.S. was just too much,” Ollila said Monday. “That was the main reason.”

Long Vanity Fair piece on the rise and fall of Theranos whose driven founder Elizabeth Holmes also seemed to show many of the characteristics of Jobsian era Apple-envy especially the secrecy which in this case appears to have led to a $9 billion valuation for the personal health equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Uber has 40 million MAU (monthly active users) spending around $50 each per month.

The Atlantic on why dating apps might have lost their novelty and become “tired” includes an inevitable reference to the musical chairs carousel analogy – if you’re on Tinder, maybe your train has already left the station:

“I’m going to project a really bleak theory on you.   What if everyone who was going to find a happy relationship on a dating app already did? Maybe everyone who’s on Tinder now are like the last people at the party trying to go home with someone.”

Entirely unsurprising to hear that Pixel in amongst all the new software contains legacy problems with Bluetooth car connectivity. This is a notoriously difficult feature with a large test surface exposing many potential interoperability problems requiring considerable focus on the corresponding QA setup to pick up the issues.  Many cash-strapped OEMs struggle to adequately cover it all.

Digital Transformation

What Agile isn’t – a recipe to cut costs by ditching process, plans and documentation.  Note to agile cowboys:

without adequate documentation your requirements will be lacking, and that will result in wasted time in meeting clarifying the requirements or worse still, it will may result in even more time-consuming and more expensive revisions to your software.

OReilly present their OSCON London highlights including Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth’s ‘Brilliant Pebbles’ talk in which he suggests:

your next million is more likely to come from an afternoon tinkering on your laptop and a tiny PC than beating your neighbour to web scale on the cloud.


A major distributed denial of service attack launched on DNS company Dyn on 21st October affected some of the internet’s biggest sites.  It seems to be linked to the Mirai botnet which surfaced in September that targets vulnerable internet-enabled DVRs and webcams and uses them en masse to devastating effect:

Mirai scours the Web for IoT devices protected by little more than factory-default usernames and passwords, and then enlists the devices in attacks that hurl junk traffic at an online target until it can no longer accommodate legitimate visitors or users.

The fact that the attack was so widespread and widely covered by mainstream media with the FBI now investigating suggests this could be a key turning point for IoT Security where it starts being taken very much more seriously.   It’s hard to defend against millions of hard-coded IoT devices without.  The Information suggest that ISPs need to be enrolled in the fight against this kind of mass attack.   A month ago, before Mirai materialized, cyber-security guru Bruce Schneier posted a chilling inside take on internet security which is well worth reading:

Someone is extensively testing the core defensive capabilities of the companies that provide critical Internet services. … Who would do this? It doesn’t seem like something an activist, criminal, or researcher would do. Profiling core infrastructure is common practice in espionage and intelligence gathering. It’s not normal for companies to do that. Furthermore, the size and scale of these probes — and especially their persistence — points to state actors. It feels like a nation’s military cybercommand trying to calibrate its weaponry in the case of cyberwar.


Dyson’s recent recruitment puzzle has generated a fair bit of online interest and is an interesting challenge that based on anecdote seems more accessible to a younger demographic more comfortable with video.

The use of puzzles such as this to select candidates is something that the likes of Google have traditionally been notorious for.   Laszlo Bock Google’s “Head of People Operations” claimed three years ago that the company had seen the limitations of that approach in building effective teams and were looking to use more behavioural interviewing as part of the process in line with the hiring process in other big tech companies.   The principle behind this technique being is that your past behaviour at work is the best guide to your future behaviour.  Dyson’s eponymous founder has publicly stated numerous times that he thinks experience is overrated which suggests that behavioural interviewing isn’t a priority there.  Relying primarily on puzzle solving and textbook level knowledge alone gives you no indication how a candidate might perform in a team in a typical tech workplace.  No wonder it puts off more experienced candidates including it seems several who have been through the Google process more recently and found it reverting to type:

“Google’s representative stated that both management and up-to-date coding skills were required (a rare mix). But having exercised the former for more than 2 decades and the latter for almost 4 decades was not enough: I failed to give the ‘right answers.'”

This post highlighting the author’s depressing recent tech interview experiences suggest that much remains to be done to make the process more transparent and frankly stimulating and positive for candidates.


The Independent on the inheritance of intelligence suggesting it is largely passed down from your mother’s side.

Culture and Society

The suggestion that English will not be an official EU language after Brexit seems to reveal more about the cultural faultlines now emerging between Britain and the continent than any actual reality.   Given English’s entrenched status globally as a primary language of business, the EU probably cannot go anywhere with a desire to stop using it even if they really wanted.  Likewise the manufactured right-wing media furore over Gary Lineker’s comments on child refugees. The Sun and its tax exile billionaire owner have zero elected power and little influence on the private expressions of BBC presenters. The real concern here is that certain publications seem to have taken it upon themselves to police public discourse and angrily stamp out anyone taking a contrarian view to perceived Brexit orthodoxy.   It’s refreshing to see the Guardian take an alternative and more humorous view on proceedings:

Rather than picking on TV presenters, the UK press would better serve their readership by scrutinising how Britain will make its way in the world as an independent trading nation which seems to be evolving the distinctly recidivist flavour of a Carry On movie:

British jam, tea and biscuits will be at the heart of Britain’s Brexit trade negotiations, the Government has said, as it unveiled plans to sell food to other countries to boost the economy.

Or indeed on the activities of global consultancy firms that are cynically profiting from austerity in the UK on an industrial scale by exploiting the management gaps that have opened up in local councils right across the country.   It’s a topic explored with forensic skill by an impressive Jacques Peretti in a TV documentary entitled Who’s Spending Britain’s Billions.   Their aggressive “land and expand” strategy built around the same universal Powerpoint template and use of “risk and reward” contracts whereby a cut is taken of any generated savings seem more genuine causes for outrage than anything Gary Lineker said.  It’s worth noting the documentary was screened by the BBC.

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