Archive

Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

The Long Tail of the Personal Brand

June 28, 2014 2 comments

Fernando's logoLately it seems we are surrounded – sometimes aggressively so – by advice that we must build our “personal brand”.  Like pretty much anyone in my business I have accounts (mostly unpaid) on sites like The Ladders and of course LinkedIn.  The regular emails I get from these sites constantly exhort me to promote the new-and-improved Salazar through my own brand.  The Ladders tells me:

 

Besides a marriage proposal, your value in the job market is probably the most important product you’ll ever sell.  … Your brand is what you’re known for and what you’re known for knowing. Use that to your advantage in making a career transition.

Great work-life-balance point they make there about marriage, which apparently in the eyes of The Ladders is also about selling.  Meanwhile the folks at LinkedIn offer this #1 tip on building a personal brand:

#1: Be authentic. The best personal brands are genuine and honest both in person and online. It can be tricky to showcase your personality on the web (you might love puns, but those don’t go over well on a professional profile), but it’s possible with a bit of effort.

Or, as Oliver Stone wrote in Nixon, “Nothing sells like sincerity.”

What occasions these observations is an article in the Times, The Self-Promotion Backlash.  The article is itself an observation on a new book, “Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion,” by David Zweig.  Just got this for my Kindle, and after only a few pages of the intro its thesis is crystal clear: Vastly more economic output is generated by “invisible” non-self-promoters than by all the glad-handing, like-me-on-Facebooking, personal-branding addicts that seem to be surging ahead everywhere we look.  One of the first examples Zweig talks about are fact-checkers, in his case at the CIA: pretty obviously essential, and pretty obviously invisible.

In the high-tech industry, because we make the tools that allow all this personal branding in the first place, we’re expected to use them and to do so loudly and often.  How bizarre that software engineers, one of the most introverted, invisible occupations you’re likely to find, get marked down because they are insufficiently “visible”.  This is sales culture run amuck.  Look, sales and sales-people – love ‘em, need ‘em, all that – but the cultural needs of engineering are vastly different from sales.  Back in the day, the men and women I most respected hardly ever spoke.  They were valued for their knowledge and their ability to show and tell novices, as I was, what to do to turn out good code.

I’m afraid nostalgia is an inevitable product of age, and for that I apologize.  But, if we did a 1 week ban on self-promotion, what would happen?  Quality go up? Output go up?  An impractical experiment of course … still, can’t help but wonder.

I’ll leave you all with this, the most influential drum-line is all the history of rock and roll, Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks.  It wasn’t created by drummer John Bonham, or Zeppelin lead guitarist and producer Jimmy Page, but by a recording engineer – and an invisible – named Andy Johns.  Enjoy.

And the winner is …

January 24, 2014 Comments off

The Rosetta Stone

Afraid further pic-posts from our London trip will have to wait, as I am later today off to the US for our yearly Collaboration-Services Conference, IBM Connect 2014.  There among the things I will do is present an hour-long session in video-panel format, with 10 developers from my worldwide team answering questions and sharing insights about IBM Sametime.  Though I have no fears about the software holding up, networking at these events is always tricky, so wish me luck.

But before I go I wanted to award a Mighty Marvel No-Prize to my good friend Tom, who correctly identified the location of the crowd-shot in my last post as The Rosetta Stone.  The shot above is closest I could get and was taken 1-handed with camera aloft.  I guess seeing as this is an artifact at the British Museum that virtually everyone has heard of, it’s not surprising people would cluster round.  But for those of us who read neither hieroglyphics, nor demotic, nor ancient Greek (the three languages used on the stone) I can only say it is a nice stone indeed, of impressive heft and neatly done carving, and one that would be a great conversation starter if displayed in the family den.

Now, back to a few hours of work, including some rehearsal for my talk, and then at 6:30 pm my time I embark to Mumbai to begin the journey towards Orlando and all things Collaborative and Mousey.  I should land in Florida around 6 pm Saturday local time, for an elapsed travel time of about 35 hours.  Such are the joys of international business life.

Categories: Sundries, Technology, Travel

Book Review: The Circle

October 20, 2013 2 comments

the_circleI really wanted David Eggers The Circle to be the dystopian novel of our time.  It isn’t – it is all at once too approachable, too light-handed, too inclusive and, oddly, too believable to be truly menacing.

And that’s a shame, because the subject of The Circle is an insidious one, a true and deadly threat, and worthy of a dystopic classic.

Here’s a spoiler-free summary of the book: In a future fairly near to now, a company named “The Circle” – a combination of Facebook, PayPal, Twitter, Google and others – dominates the worldwide internet.  The core of the company’s success is an authentication service called “TruYou”.  TruYou can be used by any third party application, much like Facebook’s OAuth-based service does today.  However TruYou purports to allow unique, real-world people only – no invented IDs allowed; when you login with TruYou, you can only operate as your actual self.  The great benefit of TruYou is supposed to be the greater transparency (get used to hearing that word if you read this book) and authenticity it promotes.  No longer can trolls, scam-artists, sexual predators and the like hide behind IDs like “rockrDude882”.

Into the world of The Circle enters Mae Holland, the every-person protagonist required by a dystopian story.  Mae is in her mid-20s, in a job at an old-school company she finds unsatisfying.  To the rescue comes Annie, Mae’s college roommate, who in the four years since she’s last seen Mae has had a meteoric rise in the management ranks of The Circle.  Annie gets Mae a job at The Circle, something incredibly hard to do as an outsider.  Annie does want to do a favor for her pal, but mainly she wants allies; even from the first few pages you see The Circle has a cruel corporate culture, though of course officially performance-minded and caring. Mae’s job is in “customer experience”, essentially a customer-service phone rep, as was explained to Mae by her trainer:

"Okay, as you know, for now you are just doing straight-up customer maintenance for the smaller advertisers.  They send a message to Customer Experience, and it gets routed to one of us … When you figure out the answer, you write them back…

“Now, that doesn’t mean you just paste the answer in and send it back.  You should make each response personal, specific.  You’re a person and they’re a person, and you shouldn’t treat them like robots … you should always be sure to inject humanity into the process.

Humanity, however, is the last thing the Circle is about, as Mae finds when the trainer explains the rating system:

“Now let’s say you’ve answered a client’s question … that’s when you send them the survey and they fill it out.  It’s a set of quick questions about your service, their overall experience, and at the end they’re asked to rate it.  The rating pops up here.”

He pointed to the corner of the screen, where there was a large number 99, and below, a grid of other numbers.

Mae’s first day of work is all about her struggles and triumphs with her score.  In the end she achieves a 98.  This news – the highest-ever score by a first-day person – is “zinged” (The Circle’s equivalent of Twitter) to over 10,000 people and leads to 187 follow-up comments.

You may be thinking: So what?  This already happens at countless companies today, and I don’t see the world coming to an end.  Well, 99% of what happens in The Circle is happening today – it just is not happening under the auspices of a single entity.  The Circle aggregates everything and is the one thing that has a total view, which it uses to promote its capitalistic growth and raw power.  Another example: In the course of the story, The Circle launches “transparent democracy”, a 100% public life-log for elected officials.  A fictitious Congresswoman describes the benefits:

“That’s right, Tom.  I’m as concerned as you are about the needs for citizens to know what their elected leaders are doing.  I mean, it is your right, is it not?  Who they are meeting with.  Who they are talking to.  What they’ve been doing on the taxpayer’s dime.  Until now, it’s been an ad hoc system of accountability … But still we wonder, why are they meeting with their former-senator-turned-lobbyist?  And how did that congressman get that $150,000 the FBI found in his fridge?

“So I intend to follow Stewart on his path of illumination. And along the way,I intend to show how democracy can and should be: entirely open, entirely transparent.  Starting today, I will be wearing the same device that Stewart wears.  My every meeting, movement, my every word, will be available to all my constituents and to the world.”

In the story, “transparent democracy” becomes an unstoppable force, driven by the insidious view that, if someone protests, they must be hiding something.  The persistent holdouts all find themselves forced from office, victims of sudden discoveries of past poor judgment, ambiguous financial dealings, or questionable tastes in pornography.

I hope no one doubts the fundamental plausibility of this.  We live in a world where a significant portion of the US population believes Barack Obama was born in Kenya, all based on publically retrievable information.  Given enough money and media control, anyone can be ruined just by “facts” – no need to concoct anything.  In the world of The Circle, The Circle has all information, all media, and everyone’s identity.  That “closing of the circle” is the danger.

Here’s a scenario to ponder.  One of the links in this post is to the Goodreads page for The Circle.  I am a member of Goodreads, having linked my Facebook ID.  Like a lot of people I have rated some books.  Now, imagine if I listed and rated every book I have read.  In there would be works like The Occupy Handbook, The Price of Inequality and The Myth of the Rational Market. Looking at these and other books I have read it would not be hard to infer my political leanings.  Now, let’s say I want to get a job.  Hiring today is done more and more through a small number of online providers, and has a heavy component of online analytics, looking at public internet data about you, like what keg-party pictures you publicly post on Facebook.

Finally, imagine that the online company that does hiring is the same company as Goodreads, as Amazon, as Facebook, and more.  They know everything you read, everything you buy, everything you search for on the web.  What do you think about the hiring process now?

Maybe that scares you, maybe it doesn’t.  This is one of the ironic truths of The Circle.  It correctly captures the reality that people aren’t frightened by this, that while (for example) they maniacally protest that affordable health care for fellow citizens is somehow destroying their liberty, they happily surrender liberty by telling everything about themselves to Facebook, to Walmart, to Twitter, and just about anything online with a nice looking web page, all for the sake of a few “Likes” on a cat picture.

The arc of the story in The Circle is embodied in Mae, who goes from angsty CE newbie to one of the 20-most followed people on the planet.  Like so many of us, Mae never notices what happens, every step on the path seems innocuous.  Things happen to people – which I won’t spoil for anyone – and much of the book’s message is in Mae’s reactions to it all.  The lobster/sea turtle scene made me squirm.

I said The Circle is not the cautionary story of our time.  I think its great weakness as dystopian fiction is it never really personalizes the threat, the danger.  Everything happens on the internet, as it were, and that makes it distant.  Again, that is part of the message: when your experience of destroying an enemy is not shooting him face to face, but through a drone attack you view by remote video, it’s a lot easier to follow through and just kill him.  But there’s a catch-22 here (another dystopian idea for which we should be thankful) that by showing the reality of how this threat works, Eggers weakens the message about the threat.

The most powerful thing in the book is the slogan of the Circle, articulated by Mae as she starts her rise to power:

SECRETS ARE LIES
SHARING IS CARING
PRIVACY IS THEFT

Because of these three lines, if for no other reason, we have to contrast The Circle with 1984, which made famous three lines of its own:

WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

1984 is still the more powerful work by far.  In a way, the quest of Winston Smith and Julia, the lovers of 1984, is the problem of The Circle: How to be private, how to be alone with one another.  Yet, nothing in The Circle comes close to the visceral, personal experience of Winston in The Ministry of Love, Orwell’s vision of the KGB-like future intelligence/torture agency that enforces political correctness and combats “thoughtcrime”.  Here a fellow prisoner loses all control at the thought of torture in the dreaded “Room 101”:

’Comrade! Officer!’ he cried. ’You don’t have to take me to that place!
Haven’t I told you everything already? What else is it you want to know?
There’s nothing I wouldn’t confess, nothing! Just tell me what it is and I’ll
confess straight off. Write it down and I’ll sign it — anything! Not room 101!’
’Room 101,’ said the officer.
The man’s face, already very pale, turned a colour Winston would not have
believed possible. It was definitely, unmistakably, a shade of green.
’Do anything to me!’ he yelled. ’You’ve been starving me for weeks. Finish
it off and let me die. Shoot me. Hang me. Sentence me to twenty-five years. Is
there somebody else you want me to give away? Just say who it is and I’ll tell
you anything you want. I don’t care who it is or what you do to them. I’ve got
a wife and three children. The biggest of them isn’t six years old. You can take
the whole lot of them and cut their throats in front of my eyes, and I’ll stand
by and watch it. But not Room 101!’
’Room 101,’ said the officer.

Orwell was able to pull out the fear that is in all of us and place it in the light where it can be seen for itself: cold, cowering, heartless, and dreadful.  The Circle verges on showing us ourselves but, at the last instant, it steps back and grants us too much absolution.

I did “like” The Circle, though you won’t see me reviewing it on Goodreads <g>. It is a fast read, though the somewhat nerdy sex-scenes might make you wince, especially the one where one of Mae’s lamer liaisons asks for a 1-100 rating so he can post it on his blog.  (SPOILER: As women have done through the ages, Mae gives him a 100.)  But that I think was part of the atmosphere Eggers was trying to capture.  One side-aspect I really liked was the way it captured the faux-inventiveness of Silicon Valley, and the heartless nature of big corporate existence, though I think these are aspects that won’t be apparent to a reader unless they have experienced some of that first hand.  I will say I disliked the character of Annie at the start, only to really feel for her at the end.

My final thoughts?  I think it is part of human nature to care, to share, and to do the right thing.  But only part.  We are often worse in the aggregate than we are on our own. 

Thinking on the title of this book, this came to me, something I haven’t heard in many years:

Like the hymn says, there is a circle that connects us.  As long as we find ways to make that come alive, not with packets and posts, but with flesh and blood, I expect we’ll do alright.  But if we don’t, we could be looking at a future that makes the brutality of Room 101 look like a merciful finality.

Categories: Books, Technology

India Grasshopper Big Nosebiter

September 7, 2013 1 comment

Nosebiter grasshopper

My little Canon Powershot A4000 is a great all-around tourist camera, but isn’t that good for low-light close-ups – this was the best I could do capturing this visitor to our flat vestibule.  About 4.5” in length – a veritable Hummer of a bug – I was taken by how leaf-like the wings were.

I’m a live and let live kind of guy, and so long as these hefty emerald Tettigoniidae don’t swarm excessively, destroying Pharaoh’s crops and the like, I’m good.  But I did want to find out some details on this specimen, like what species it was.

One thing I had to go on came from driver Rupesh and his copious store of local knowledge: these bugs hereabouts are called “nose biters”.  So, fire up Google and look for “india nose biter” … well, different variations of that tell me nothing about grasshoppers, but in the first few results of most of my searches was this article, about Sri Lankan politics:

UNP Has Gone To The Dogs, Nose-Biter MP Is A Racist Too

Dunesh Gankanda, a United National Party Member of Parliament from the Ratnapura District walked in to The Museum Club at the Galle Face Hotel around 1.30 am on Sunday with a friend, Capt. Senaka De Silva, a close aide of General Fonseka. Present at the night club was a Tamil businessman, Diwakaran, entertaining a group of foreign clients. Senaka knew Diwakaran and walked up to his table to say ‘hello’ and then introduced Dunesh. Diwakaran invited both to join his table. Dunesh initially made small talk and then broached  the topic of Raju Radha, ex-husband of Dunesh’s  wife Kushani Nannayakara.  She is the daughter of Capt. Nanayakkara and Mrs. Norma Nannayakara of Green Lanka Shipping Ltd. and has two children from her marriage to Raju.

Raju Radha, the son of the famous Indian actor M R Radha, is the owner of HRC Shipping and other businesses. His sister Radhika is also a popular Indian actress. Their mother is Sri Lankan.

When Diwakaran said he knew Raju well and Raju was a relative – out of the blue Dunesh lunged forward, bit Diwakaran’s nose and then disappeared into the crowd in the night club. Diwakaran was shocked and did not react at all.  Bleeding profusely and in pain Diwarakan was rushed to the General Hospital, Colombo where doctors performed surgery on his nose.

Ok, so the Sri Lankan parliament has its fringe cases, just as the Indian parliament – which incidentally has 125 of its 545 lower-house members indicted for crimes ranging from rioting to rape to murder, graphically shown here:

mp-crimes

Some of these crimes are amusing, like “GOVINDA (INC), Age: 41, From: Mumbai North, MAHARASHTRA; Defamation, obscene acts and songs”.  Sounds like Govinda needs a nightclub booking, not a court date.

Back to my bug … nose-biter was not helping, so now I just try “india big grasshopper”.  What do I get?  See for yourself:

The Grasshopper Experiment

Of course.  “big” == “Big Bang Theory”, “india” == “Raj Koothrappali” (the show’s Indian astrophysicist), and “grasshopper” == Raj’s favorite drink.

Ok Google, you win.  Don’t know what species my bug-visitor actually is, but far as I’m concerned it is Tettigonia magnus viridis bharati – big green Indian grasshopper.

Book Reviews: The Last Lion; The New Digital Age

August 3, 2013 1 comment

The Last Lion on Amazon

Like many baby boomers I can’t help being fascinated by WW2.  The war was a constant subject of TV and movies in my childhood, from Combat to Rat Patrol to Where Eagles Dare to Hogan’s Heroes.  As I got older and my taste for actual history grew, I started reading accounts and perspectives of the war.  Among the things I read – we are talking 20 years ago or more – was Winston Churchill’s The Second World War, a memoire in 6 volumes.

This lengthy work filled me with questions:  Who was this man I’d formerly known only as a pudgy cigar-smoker, who shuttled across 4 continents in the midst of the most furious conflict in human history, meeting world leaders and crafting the conduct of the war, all the while downing copious volumes of brandy and painting the occasional water-color?  Who was this man who, in addition to his famous remark, “Yes madam, but in the morning I’ll be sober,” also observed, “When you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite.”?  Who was this great politician who was also a great author, so much so he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1953?

Motivated by these questions, in the 1980s I read the first two volumes of The Last Lion, William Manchester’s biography of Churchill.  Entitled Visions of Glory and Alone, they were published in 1982 and 1988 respectively.  It would be 24 years until volume 3, Defender of the Realm, would be published, 10 years after Manchester’s death and co-authored by journalist Paul Reid.

Though it has been decades since I read the first two volumes, it seems to me the tone and pacing of Defender of the Realm is markedly different.  Whether this is due to the change in authorship or the subject matter is hard to say, but DOTR reads much more like a weekly newsreel of the war than an examination of Churchill the man.

Perhaps that is how it should be.  One of the key messages of DOTR is that Churchill, molded by more than forty years of political and military experience, and having had a perfect vantage for the great events of the first half of the 20th century, was the very man Britain needed in her hour of need.  Aristocratic but not royal, old and not young, Churchill was nonetheless the nation’s Henry V when he famously said:

… we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

When we look back at history, events oft times seem pre-determined; we can’t resist the assumption things could not have turned out any other way.  But something that comes though, in many places, in DOTR is that things could have turned out much, much different. In movies, of course the Germans always lose.   Well, they weren’t losing in 1940.  The German army of that time was savage, innovative, and gigantic.  Taking no losses of note, the Germans had neutralized and then defeated a combined French, English and Belgian force that numbered in the millions, driving the English to evacuate at Dunkirk.  In June 1940 by no means was any victory over Germany pre-determined.  Most English expected Germany to invade, and to overwhelm and pacify England just as they had France.  In preparation for this, Churchill carried cyanide, intending never to be taken alive by Hitler.

But, they didn’t invade.  The reasons were many and even today uncertain: Logistics, Germany was spent after the Battle of France and needed time to consolidate; Oceans, in that invasion required a Channel crossing, but Britain still had the most powerful navy of any European power; Uncertainty, in that if the Germans did manage to land, they rightly believed the English, as an island race, would defend their country to the last man, woman and child; and Politics, as Hitler fully expected England, in the face of obvious defeat, would sue for peace.  Manchester/Reid write:

The Fuhrer has assumed that invasion would be unnecessary.  After the fall of France he considered the war over.  In the East his pact with Stalin assured continuing peace as long as neither side abrogated it, which Hitler intended to do once the English came to terms.  When Hitler ordered the demobilizing of forty divisions, he told Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, commander in chief of the Luftwaffe, that all war plans could be scrapped; we would reach an “understanding” (Übereinkommen) with the British.

Hitler clearly had no understanding of Churchill and, by extension, of the English.  Churchill’s refusal to accept the European common wisdom of accomodation, as manifested by the French with the Vichy Regime, was his great accomplishment.  If not for this principled and obdurate stance on Churchill’s part, things would have turned out much, much different, and what seems pre-destined now might never have happened.  If you still can’t evade the feeling the outcome of the war was predetermined, try to envision an American president of the last 40 years carrying cyanide and preparing to use it in the case of total defeat.  I don’t think so.

Another aspect of Churchill that comes through in DOTR is the combination of his wildly active mind and his leadership style.  To his subordinates Churchill seemed constantly out of control.  Alan Brooke (later Lord Alanbrooke) observed “It is a regular disease he [Churchill] suffers from, this frightful impatience to get an attack launched” and that Churchill “… never had the slightest doubt that he had inherited all the military genius of his great ancestor Marlborough!”

But their was method to Churchill’s madness.  He understood he was waging a global conflict that would set the course of history for a hundred years.  To focus on any single thing, a single strategy or a single front, would have led to disaster.  Instead he pursued a strategy of many fronts and many activities and was always ready to bolster those that succeeded and stop those that stalled.

To concentrate on a single thing was very much what Stalin wanted the Allies to do, in his constant demands to open a Western front.  Stalin understood that Germany, arrayed against the combined industrial might of the entire world, could not prevail.  His desire was that the Allies spend their strength in head-on encounters with Hitler’s most powerful forces.  This would allow Stalin more time and space to expand his own empire, and to insure the forces of the Allies would be depleted when he eventually turned against them.  Churchill’s strategy of first confronting Italy and Germany in North Africa, and then in Italy itself – something by no means initially supported by Roosevelt and his advisors – was intended to keep the Nazis off balance, but also to create a presence in the East, so that the Allies could take positions in Eastern Europe when the time was right.

Alas, it was not to be.  American Generals like John Lucas and Mark Clark were too cautious in the Italian campaign, completely wasting the surprise at Anzio and generally focusing on annihilating Germans face to face rather than neutralizing their ability to fight.  Churchill had a vision of taking Rome by April 1944, and from there striking quickly into the Balkans and thence to Austria.  Instead the Italian campaign stabilized and the Allies devoted all attention to Overlord in Normandy.  When in May 1945 the Americans, British and Russians finally joined forces in a conquered Berlin, the Red Army had already taken Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and much more of Eastern Europe – essentially the territory marked by the Iron Curtain Churchill would later describe in his famous speech of 1946:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in some cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow. Athens alone — Greece with its immortal glories — is free to decide its future at an election under British, American and French observation. The Russian-dominated Polish Government has been encouraged to make enormous and wrongful inroads upon Germany, and mass expulsions of millions of Germans on a scale grievous and undreamed-of are now taking place. The Communist parties, which were very small in all these Eastern States of Europe, have been raised to pre-eminence and power far beyond their numbers and are seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control. Police governments are prevailing in nearly every case, and so far, except in Czechoslovakia, there is no true democracy.

As writing, I found Defender of the Realm to have a good pace, constantly weaving in Churchill’s views and activities with the unfolding events of the war.  The later chapters on Churchill’s post-war life and accomplishments are slower moving, but the links that were made to the younger Churchill – the writing, the socializing, the continued brandy and cigars – all serve to show how Churchill’s authentic self was always there.  The war did not make him – he made the war.

I’ll leave off this part of this long post (sorry for that) with my favorite image from DOTR:

Smoking a long cigar and stroking his cat, Nelson, he [Churchill] prowled the corridors of No. 10 wearing a soldier’s steel helmet (called by all a “tin hat”), a crimson dressing gown adorned by a golden dragon, and monogrammed slippers complete with pom-poms.  Sometimes he carried on anthropomorphic conversations with Nelson (including an admonition to be more stouthearted after the cat flinched in an air raid).

 

The New Digital Age on Amazon

Churchill was one of the architects of the modern world, a world where we  in the West enjoy the benefits of tolerance, democracy, and capitalism.  What have we done with the world Churchill bequeathed us?  One answer to that, at least, comes in The New Digital Age, by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Google “Director of Ideas” Jared Cohen, a quasi-futuristic view of how information technology will transform daily life around the world in the coming decades.

You may recall this book from a previous post of mine, where I quoted Julian Assange, who described the book as an “expertly banalized version of tomorrow’s world”.

I have to say that now having read TNDA, I get what he meant.  Schmidt and Cohen lay out a world where smartphones and pervasive internet, well, just make everything all right.  An example:

The future will usher in an unprecedented era of choices and options.  While some citizens will attempt to manage their identity by engaging in the minimum amount of virtual participation, others will find the opportunities to participate worth the risk of exposure they incur.  Citizen participation will reach an all-time high as anyone with a mobile handset and access to the Internet will be able to play a part in promoting accountability and transparency.  A shopkeeper in Addis Ababa and a precocious teenage in San Salvador will be able to disseminate information about bribes and corruption.

Or, how about this:

People who try to perpetuate myths about religion, culture, ethnicity or anything else will struggle to keep their narratives afloat amid a sea of newly informed listeners.

Are these guys using the same internet I use?  In the cases of Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and even retired General James Cartwright we see what happens when citizens “participate”.

The main point of this book seems to be dishing out relentless naiveté to the effect that, whatever social ill is on your mind, the internet will magically fix it.  To be truthful, the book is not 100% internet rah-rah.  Here and there Schmidt/Cohen chill the fragrant sponge of fermenting digital dough with a few colder observations:

As part of their virtual containment strategies, states will undertake a series of transparency gestures, releasing crumbs but withholding the bulk of information they possess.  These states will be congratulated for exposing their own institutions and even their own past crimes … Manufacturing transparent-looking documents and records will not be difficult for these regimes – in the absence of contradictory information (such as leaked original documents) there’s little hope of proving them false.

Jared Cohen seems a serious guy – before his Director of Google Ideas gig he was a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and staffer to both Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton.  But I have to say, despite the subject matter he and Schmidt undertake – Identity, Government, Revolution and Terrorism – this is not a serious book.  Despite the various cautionary notes like that above, everything in TNDA is too pat, too suffused with the notion that technology always works out for the best.

One obvious example that shows how information access is not an unambiguous benefit is climate change.  What Schmidt and Cohen would have us believe is, if you are concerned, just Google it and you’ll find the answer.  However every reasonable person on the planet knows the “internet” has no such “answer”.  What you do find is different sides of the debate using the tactics of the digital world to promote their information and to suppress or discredit contrary information. Does anyone think a regular follower of foxnews.com will suddenly be enlightened by something they read on npr.org? Without getting into my own views on climate change, if you tried to distill down what you get from the internet on this topic into a real answer, it would take years and you would end up being close to a climate scientist yourself.  So, yes, it’s faster than checking out dead-tree books from the library.  But it is not fundamentally better.

Really what this book is, is a commercial for Google.  Internet, phones, and information – with tasteful, well-selected ads, of course – is what they sell. And, like a weapons-supplier, they sell their stuff to anyone who can pay.  Google wants us to feel everything is fine, and for us to keep giving our information to them, to Facebook, to retailers, and to the government.

I don’t think everything is fine.  I love tech,  I make my living from tech, but no tech is an unalloyed benefit.  I do think individuals need to take action, but not by “participating” as Schmidt and Cohen would have it, but by taking control of what they can.

An FB friend recently shared a link on this very topic, the Surveillance Self-Defense Project, or SSD.  SSD is an Electronic Frontier Foundation project that informs the public on how better to contain personal information.  A vast amount of data about each one of us is in the form of “business records” – information that is publically or government-accessible because we have disclosed it, either explicitly or in the context of a transaction.  SSD has some good guidance on how to manage all that so you at least know what you are disclosing.  It will be efforts like SSD that really enable the benefits that TNDA talks about, not just the raw existence of technology itself.

To wrap up, the best I can say about TNDA is that much of what they foresee is indeed possible and to be hoped for – but hopin’ don’t make it so.

 

Perhaps you wonder why I chose to review these 2 books together?  Churchill was motivated by understanding of foundational truths, about Democracy, Totalitarianism, Tolerance, Opportunity and above all, about Power.  He was an ardent believer in technology – he was the father of the tank, after all – but not bound by it.

What would Churchill say to our challenges today, of government transparency, of economic inequality, of worldwide poverty and repression?    Would he erect a few cell-towers and make an app for that?

I think he would say: Never surrender.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get my tin-hat and bathrobe.  And who knows? when the monsoons abate I may get a few cigars.

Categories: Books, History, Technology

Teaching a Phone New Tricks

July 14, 2013 Comments off

Samsung Galaxy S2

Wherein I flash firmware and successfully petition the Allfather for root access.

Mobile phones are essential for life here in India.  More than essential: Vital, indispensible, crucial.  Without a phone you can’t reliably meet with anyone, travel anywhere, or conduct any business.  I came here with an HTC Sensation that I got on my plan in USA with T-Mobile; by popping in an Airtel India SIM card I was good to go.  This is a pretty good phone, 2-core 1.2 GHz cpu, 540 x 960 LCD screen, and HTC’s enhancements on top of Android, HTC Sense.  This phone is close to the iPhone 4 in capabilities and performance.

But I can’t say it’s a great phone.  Battery life is no more than average; in fact on trips I power-down the phone for long periods so I can be assured that my phone will have power when I get to my destination.  And here in India it sometimes acts flaky, getting into a mode where it flashes back and forth between full signal and no signal.  So in the hopes of longer battery life and greater reliability, I started looking for a new phone.  My ultimate pick was the Samsung Galaxy S2.  It specs out better than the Sensation in both talk-time and standby-time, and various reviews put it a bit ahead of the Sensation.  And, since I didn’t feel like spending the big bucks for an unlocked iPhone 5 or Galaxy S4, the S2 at its medium-bucks price was my choice.

One thing I was concerned about was the Android version on the phone.  The S2 came out in 2011, which means Android 2.3, aka Gingerbread.  My Sensation has 4.0.3 (Ice Cream Sandwich) and I was not about to go back. Some quick googling verified that the S2 could do Android 4.1, Jelly Bean, so I was off to Amazon to buy my new phone.  My rose-colored glasses showed me a vision of the future where my phone, being new, arrives with the newest Android pre-installed.

I should have been using my Peril Sensitive sunglasses, as phone arrived with antediluvian Gingerbread.  But not to worry.  I am a tech guy after all … I’ll just fix it.  A bit more googling shows that the upgrade can be done OTA by using the Samsung PC utility Kies.  Was able to get that installed no problem, only to find “Your current firmware does not support upgrading”.

Back to Google again.  Now I find there is a program, Odin, that allows you to replace the firmware of your Samsung phone with a new image.  Got Odin installed and after a bit more searching got a generic UK image for the S2 and Android 4.1.2.  Put the phone into “download mode” (power-on by holding down-volume, home and power simultaneously) and Odin was ready to work his magic:

Odin utility

Why a Korean tech company has a software utility named after Norse god, I have no idea.  Norse countries are heavily involved with mobile tech.  I guess I should be happy this utility wasn’t named Väinämöinen.

Regardless, Odin worked.  The phone rebooted and there was the Jelly Bean UI, all ready for me.  Yes!  Phone not bricked and X $s not wasted!  Put in the Airtel SIM card, setup my accounts, all my contacts synched down, installed a few more apps, and in short order I was ready to go, at parity with the data and functions I had on the Sensation.

Actually, not quite.  When you get a new phone, you dink around with the options, right?  One of the first things I dinked around with was the Lock screen. None of the settings did anything, the phone just would not lock.  Then I noticed that there was no warning when you press power-off – the phone would directly shut down.  That was not good, I could butt dial my phone off without knowing it.

I guess Google is the new hardware store.  If you are a home owner I’m sure you have had the experience of doing a project – fixing a mailbox or screen door, for example – and going to the hardware store once, thinking you have all you need, only to find later that 2nd, 3rd or 4th trips are needed.  So once again I go to Google, this time looking for “galaxy s2 lock screen problem”.

And once again, Google worked.  I quickly find that the lock screen and power-off problems can be corrected by placing a file named “keystr”, containing the characters “ON” in the right place.  Doing this, however, required root access to the phone – just like on Unix and Linux, on Android a plain ‘ol user can only see some of the file system.

And actually rooting the phone?  Odin can do this too, you just need the right kernel, which I got and flashed.  Once rooted, the app ES File Explorer allowed me to see the whole phone file system, and to put the needed file in the right spot with the right permissions.  One more reboot, and there was my lock screen.  Yay!

 

Moral of the story: Stuff is getting easier.  I have been looking at dev guides and how-to’s for phones for years and frankly, back then, they were pretty daunting, mostly involving a lot of *Nix knowledge, terminal sessions to your phone, that sort of thing.  Now, even “prosumers” can flash ROMs and root their phones by using GUI utilities.

Especially on Samsung, aided by Odin.  No human sacrifice necessary.

Categories: Technology

Don’t be Evil … at least for some definitions of “Evil”

June 9, 2013 1 comment

evil-alternatives

Decisions, decisions.  Grow the infrastructure of a police state – which history and experience tell us will eventually get used to its fullest extent at the expense of our fundamental freedoms – or, let the terrorists “win” – by which most people understand to mean that a self-renewing body of fanatics will have free rein to commit atrocities upon us.  In comparison to these, the third alternative of a powerful oligopoly of global corporations using technology to harvest money at ever greatest rates seems almost puckishly amusing.

Past week or so has seen the exposure of two programs run by the US National Security Agency, or NSA – often euphemistically called “No Such Agency” due to its penchant for utter secrecy.  The first program, reported by the Guardian, involves the retrieval of cell call records for millions of Americans.  Initiated on April 25, and due to continue till July 19, the program presumably was initiated to aid investigation into the recent Boston Marathon Bombing.  These actions were taken under provisions of the Patriot Act put in place in the last Bush Administration,  but this is the first time the Obama administration has used these powers.

The second revelation, also broken by the Guardian, is about an NSA program called PRISM, which gives government access to user data from major tech companies, including Apple, Google and Facebook.  PRISM is probably not an acronym, but it does have a creepy logo:

It is unclear how PRISM works.  Despite the statement on a top-secret Powerpoint slide that says PRISM collects “… directly from the servers of … U.S. service providers …”, what seems more likely is that there is, as the New York Times reports, a system of “locked mailboxes” where tech companies deposit requested data-sets in a way the government can see only that data.  All the usual billionaire suspects, from Cook to Page to Zuckerberg, deny there is any “back door” in their servers that is open to the government.

To add to this unsettling stew are many other ingredients.  One is that these revelations come close after stories on apparent abuses of government power: how the IRS targeted certain political groups for extra screening prior to being approved for tax-free status, and how the US Justice Department used phone records of Associated Press reporters to look for leakers of sensitive information.  Then, there’s the trial of Bradley Manning, who faces a possible penalty of life in prison for releasing 1,000s of classified documents to WikiLeaks including a notorious video of an Apache helicopter crew killing civilians and journalists in Baghdad.  Finally, we have the uncertainty of whether PRISM has ever actually stopped a terrorist attack, the expected alignment of the ACLU and the EFF against this surveillance, and an unexpected alliance of Bill Maher, Jack Welch and Lindsey Graham in support.

Whew.  What to do, what to do? Almost makes one long for the 60s, doesn’t it?

What seems most likely is the political part of this will, as it always does, run its course – committees will be convened, reporting will be done, and a new baseline of public belief and expectation will be established.  How grounded in truth that will be is hard to predict, but I have my hopes.  Maybe the best face I can put on it is to say this is an opportunity for Mr. Obama to “show his quality”, as Samwise Gamgee would say.

More troubling to me is the thesis put forth by Julian Assange – controversial founder of Wikileaks – in a recent NYT op-ed.  In it, he takes to task Google and two of its leaders, CEO Eric Schmidt and Director of Google Ideas, Jared Cohen.  His article, entitled The Banality of Evil, blasts Schmidt and Cohen’s book, The New Digital Age, as a “startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism”.  Assange writes:

The authors offer an expertly banalized version of tomorrow’s world: the gadgetry of decades hence is predicted to be much like what we have right now — only cooler. “Progress” is driven by the inexorable spread of American consumer technology over the surface of the earth. Already, every day, another million or so Google-run mobile devices are activated. Google will interpose itself, and hence the United States government, between the communications of every human being not in China (naughty China). Commodities just become more marvelous; young, urban professionals sleep, work and shop with greater ease and comfort; democracy is insidiously subverted by technologies of surveillance, and control is enthusiastically rebranded as “participation”; and our present world order of systematized domination, intimidation and oppression continues, unmentioned, unafflicted or only faintly perturbed.

In Assange’s view, Google and the other big techs are not outraged by government expectations of surveillance – to them it’s the price of doing business, and business means knowing everything about you not so you can be put in jail, but so you can be sold stuff … lots and lots of stuff.  His warning is about how we will come to consider loss of privacy, and of freedoms, as benefits rather than losses.

Assange is not exactly a well-considered, all-sides-of-the-issue kind of guy.  Also interesting is that Schmidt and Cohen interviewed Assange in 2011, as research for their book; apparently Assange was not too happy with the result.

I have the book in my Kindle, queued up to be read.  But it seems hard to conclude Assange is totally wrong.  The American people elected Obama, and they can elect his successor out, if that’s what they want.  No one elected Eric Schmidt.

If you read Assange’s piece on NYT, you may encounter the same ironic ad-juxtaposition that I did:

nyt-screenshot-evil-2

Google really is everywhere.

Categories: Internet, Technology