Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

More on Summly

March 28, 2013 Comments off

After yesterday’s post on Summly I’m seeing more folks talking/posting about it, such as a writer for Time who asks, Why Is That 17-Year-Old’s $30 Million News App Even Legal?  The key bit:

The issue now isn’t what fancy car the teenager plans to buy with his millions. The real question is whether Summly, and now Yahoo, can take news stories from around the Web, present altered versions of them, and not run afoul of copyright law.

The precedent here – that GoogleNews uses, for example – is that search or aggregation services can display article titles and lead sentences – that is deemed fair-use.  Content creators *want* such services to do this because it ultimately drives traffic to their sites.

However Summly does more than show a title.  Through its wondrous algorithms it creates a 400-word news summary that is supposed to contain the essence of the source news item.  While I haven’t directly experienced Summly (and probably never will) it seems clear to me that this will take traffic away from content creators – why read the original 1,000 word news item on Kim Kardashian when Summly can quickly give you the 400 words with the tastiest bits?

A US Court has already ruled, in Meltwater vs. A.P., that this type of abstraction goes beyond fair-use.  A key part of the evidence there was the contention that a lede – the key summary paragraph of a news story – takes substantial skill and effort to craft, and that Meltwater’s summary services was taking ledes and offering them separate from the original content.  Certainly sounds wrong to me.

I’m sure Summly will continue to make the rounds another day or two … the world will then get back to cat pictures and Boromir memes.  Meanwhile the winner of cleverest Summly headline so far goes to Reuters:

Is this story less than the Summly of its parts?

Categories: Technology Tags: ,

Another thing I don’t need

March 27, 2013 1 comment

A “genetic algorithm” that “thinks like I do” and that “helps” me find the news I need on my mobile phone, faster than ever.  All devised by a 17 year-old Harry Potter-like whiz kid entrepreneur who made a cool video with Stephen Fry and has now sold his company to Yahoo for $30 million.

This is Summly.  And, no thank you.

This is just more rampant “solutionism” – the mind-set of arbitrarily declaring something a problem, then selling you an “innovative” solution for it.  And if the solution provides you with monopoly power over a much-needed basic service, well, that’s the price of progress I suppose.  Clearly Summly aims to be the conduit that feeds you news and by doing so, will no doubt employ your personal settings for tuning these algorithms into other, I’m sure purely innocent, needs.  All this magic was in part evolved by SRI International, some legitimately clever people with a hand in creating “the Internet”, ultrasound diagnostics, robotic surgery but also – alas – Siri, that service which has enabled an entire industry devoted to stupid things it says.

For my part, here’s the news I need to have reach me on my mobile phone:

  1. Daughter’s school ending early today.
  2. Regional tsunami approaching.
  3. Timing of immanent life-ending asteroid strikes.
  4. Nuclear launch codes mistakenly left in Silicon Valley Red Robin being found by Dick Cheney.
    I’m pretty much covered on #’s 1- 3.  If someone writes an app for 4, maybe I’ll actually buy that – but meanwhile I will pass on Summly.

Stephen Fry, as to your role in all this I can only say (with the added bonus of being confident no one in existence has ever written this combination of words before):

I know you must pay the mortgage, but next time choose a means that would not so obviously raise the gorge of a hippopotamus to levels not seen since Noah decided the dinosaurs could very well swim for it.

Where is this Stephen Fry now that we need him?

Hold the news-reader’s nose squarely, Stephen.

Categories: Technology Tags: ,

Seeds of Innovation?

February 17, 2013 3 comments

Monsanto timeline

The New York Times reports on a suit coming to the US Supreme Court.  The suit is brought by Monsanto against 75 year old Indiana farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman.  The matter at hand is Monsanto’s “Round-up ready” soybean seeds.  Roundup-ready is a gene, developed by Monsanto, that they insert into various plant genomes.  It confers immunity against the herbicide Roundup – after planting these seeds, farmers can douse their fields with Roundup, which kills all weeds but leaves the immune crops alone.

Farmer Bowman is a Monsanto customer and has been using Roundup-ready soybean seeds for a number of years.  What offense does Monsanto allege?  That Bowman did not sell or use all of his grown crop, but instead – as farmers have done since agriculture was invented – held back some of his crop to plant next year.  This, Monsanto alleges, is illegal “copying” of their patented organism.  The bottom-line is Monsanto wants farmers to buy seeds every year, instead of buying them once and “growing their own”, as it were.

I am not against genetically engineered foods (GEF), per se.  Like any technology GEF should be judged on its real merits and risks.  As you can read here, there’s significant evidence that Roundup-ready crops are actually inferior products.  Also as it turns out weeds are developing resistance to Roundup, so who knows how long the technology will remain even superficially useful.

The pros/cons of GEF are not what interested me here, it is more the what this case says about the state of IP law.  In their brief, Monsanto alleges:

Without reasonable license restrictions prohibiting the replanting of second- and later-generation soybeans, Monsanto’s ability to protect its patented technology would effectively be lost as soon as the first generation of the product was introduced into the market.

The Monsanto license does in fact prohibit any use of 2nd-generation seeds other than selling “… the harvested crop through customary distribution channels as a commodity, or for use as animal feed.”

SCOTUS will in part rule on whether such a license is “reasonable” and should be enforced.  There’s also a lot to be considered in the method of these “inventions”.  While the gene-insertion method does seem like an actual invention to me, the way the actual Roundup-ready gene was created was more like observation – expose plants to the herbicide and examine the genes of those that are resistant.  Observations, no matter how arduous or costly, cannot be patented.

Without going through the twists and turns of IP law on this, my thinking comes down on the side of Farmer Bowman.  Yes, Monsanto created a better seed.  They should charge more for it and let the marketplace decide on its merits.  But it is still a seed.  I don’t see that Monsanto’s activities warrant any change in the 1,000s of years-old practices of agriculture and the normal use of seeds.

I find it troubling that the Business Software Alliance has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in this case.  In it they contend:

A legal rule eliminating patent protection for “self-replicating” seeds that had the same result with respect to temporary copies of software programs would facilitate software piracy on a broad scale.

The BSA of course is concerned about licensing and doesn’t want anything to interfere with current software industry practices, where you don’t actually buy software, you license it.  I went through the brief – it is quite vague, and calls for “balance” as if they were Jedi knights and not corporate executives.  Essentially the BSA hates copies of software and resale of software. Now, the chances of Bowman vs. Monsanto being relevant to software are low.  Soybeans are self-replicating, and right now the only meaningful category of self-replicating software is the computer virus  I guess the BSA wants to keep the door open for Microsoft to create a useful virus and to charge everyone who ever gets infected.

Alas, in all this customers are rarely mentioned.  Everything is about protecting industries – farmers, who exert massive effort and resources growing those 2nd generation contraband soybeans, are never mentioned.  Nor are software users, who sadly often spend more time working on their software than the software spends working for them.

On the plant front seems to me there’s a lot of innovation happening with heirloom seeds – breeds that have been re-discovered, either on farms or in the wild.  Finding, cataloging, assessing, distributing – all that is innovative and, frankly, looks pretty tasty too.

The Age of Miracles is Here

February 9, 2013 4 comments

Recently a Facebook friend posted a question on miracles: What were they, and could they be verified.  I don’t believe in the traditional definition, loaves, fishes, all that.  But I do agree with the poster who said that it is really the unfolding of the natural world by science that deserves the label “miraculous”.

What better proof than the video above.  Home Sapiens … sometimes we get it right.

Categories: Sundries, Technology

Connect 2013: Gettin’ Smaht

January 31, 2013 1 comment

Just to clarify, “smaht” is Massachusetts-ese for “smart”, as in when Tommie tells Kevin on This Old House,  “Ainchu the smaht one?”

All across the Connect 2013 show you see and hear stuff that is “smart”:  Smarter Commerce, Smarter Workforce, Smarter Cities, and more.  When I first came across these “smarter” products I confess I was skeptical.  I mean, Agent 86 had a “smart shoe”, that wasn’t actually very smart, right?

But a message coming through loud and clear for me here at the show is smarter is where we need to go.  Let’s face it: The fundamentals of collaboration are the same today as they were 20 years ago at the first Lotusphere: Saving information and sharing information with people and teams.  A Connections community is logically pretty much the same as a circa-1999 Notes teamroom.

There is a difference though – the community is smarter.  It sends notifications and makes recommendations, just to name the top 2 clever things a community can do.  These are individually small things, but their cumulative effect makes a major difference.

But I have to say the smartest thing I’ve seen at Connect 2013 so far was They Might Be Giants in the OGS:

TMBG at the OGS

After 30 years these guys still have it.  They did this number for us, one of my faves:


Leaving out the whistles and bells … all time greatest – and smartest – song about a nightlight, ever.  Well done, OGS!

Connect 2013: All About People

January 27, 2013 Comments off


I’m at IBM Connect 2013 … was a long trip from India, but here now and getting into the familiar flow of going to talks, meeting people, and hikes twixt Dolphin, Swan and elsewhere.

The first talk I’m at … seen above … is all about Kenexa, IBM’s new acquisition of Smarter Workforce technology.  The topic of Smarter Workforce has a lot of synergy with the Connect show (Lotusphere of years past).  Kenexa let’s you improve your workforce, by finding the right people, developing them, assigning them and improving them.  The majority of worldwide CEOs in IBM’s CEO Survey recognize that developing talent is the top need for maintaining and increasing competiveness.  It’s the old idea on “our people are our greatest asset”, but in the modern world, where physical resources and assets can be anywhere and become less important, it really is quality of people that makes the difference.

And the Connect show?  What else is it about, but people?  On the web today we can learn whatever we want, whenever we want.  Coming to a place and seeing others F2F, we do that because a connection with someone else you make when you see and hear each other is so much more valuable than a purely virtual one.

Will try to do more blogging while I’m here.  But hopefully I’ll be doing a lot of old fashioned sit down and talk sessions.

Power To The People

January 23, 2013 Comments off

IMG_0341Or at least some of them, namely: Me.

What you see here is my new, Microtek DoublePOWER 800VA UPS – an uninterruptible power supply.  Here in India electrical service is not consistent.  Brown-outs and outages are common. For example back when I first arrived in Pune and was recording my lease at the Registrar’s office, power went down there and for a few blocks around, at which point civic work halted and we collectively went out for tea.  Power was restored in a few hours and my lease was eventually duly recorded.

Buildings like mine have their own generators which pick up when mainline power fails.  However there is anywhere from a 10 to 30 second failover time when that happens – way more than enough to power down my wireless router, not a great thing to have happen when you are in the middle of, say, online banking.  So I got this UPS in the hopes that when these brief outages occur I can at least keep internet going for a while.  Kim tells me that today we had a short outage and all seemed to work as planned.  Bahuta acchā!

An amusing thing about the delivery of this unit … Saturday I received a call.  Was hard to make out what the other party was saying, but I eventually understood that there was a parcel for me at the local post office and that I needed to come by and pick it up.  So Monday myself and driver Rupesh make our way there and indeed it is the UPS.  Rupesh asked, why was the package not delivered to the address?  For answer they indicated this label on the package:


So, from a spirit of diligence they decided that “transporting” the package to my flat was forbidden.

I forebore from asking what miraculous agency had gotten the package to the post office in the first place …

Categories: Expat life, Technology

Growth & Robots

January 6, 2013 3 comments

Robert J. Gordon: Is US economic growth over?
What is shown here is a graph of per-capita GDP growth, starting in the year 1300 and projecting to 2100.  Neat, huh?  This is projecting the possibility that for my kids and their kids, they will be living in a static time where things pretty much stay the same generation to generation.  No problem, if by then we finally all have flying cars and universal health care – not so great if we don’t.

Paul Krugman has lately been writing about this, and another really interesting and related idea, the role of robots in future growth.  At IBM where I work I’m a member of the IBM Academy of Technology, which does a yearly internal survey of members on business, technology and social trends for the coming year.  In answering the survey Krugman’s recent observations were much on my mind – however the predictions play out I think these are critical challenges for the next 20 years.

Here’s the substance of the two ideas.  On growth, the seed is a paper by Robert J. Gordon, entitled Is US economic growth over? Faltering innovation confronts the six.  Gordon observes that the Western world has had three periods of growth: The first started in the 18th century, lasted roughly 100 years and introduced steam power and railroads – this is what is typically termed the Industrial Revolution.  The second was a technological revolution, running from around 1870 to the Great Depression; this phase brought electricity, internal combustion, chemicals, petroleum and control of infectious disease.  The third phase, shortest and most recent, started in the 1960s and is all based on information technology and communications.

Moore's LawThis arc of technological progress is familiar to everyone in the developed world and it’s central to our implicit belief that things will always get better.  The narrative goes like this: My grandparents as kids had neither electricity nor indoor plumbing; then my parents had both but no information technology; and now we have online banking, digital entertainment and hybrid automobiles.  Can the technological singularity not be fast approaching?

Gordon’s thesis however is that the growth brought by the IT revolution is far less fundamental than the growth of phase #2.  Phase #2 included numerous major innovations that created new economic baselines but were not repeatable.  For example air conditioning was a great advance in that it allowed people to live and be productive in times and places they could not before; but now that we have those productivity gains AC isn’t adding any more new benefit.

So, growth may not be a permanent state: Many of our major innovations were 1-time things, with no expectation their performances will be repeated.  And our current phase of growth has run its course in terms of productivity and now focuses on areas like entertainment.  In his paper Gordon proposes this thought experiment:

A thought experiment helps to illustrate the fundamental importance of the inventions of IR2 compared to the subset of IR3 inventions that have occurred since 2002. You are required to make a choice between option A and option B. With option A you are allowed to keep 2002 electronic technology, including your Windows 98 laptop accessing Amazon, and you can keep running water and indoor toilets; but you can’t use anything invented since 2002.

Option B is that you get everything invented in the past decade right up to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad, but you have to give up running water and indoor toilets. You have to haul the water into your dwelling and carry out the waste. Even at 3am on a rainy night, your only toilet option is a wet and perhaps muddy walk to the outhouse.

Which option do you choose?

Not much of a choice, is it?

It’s hard not to be suspicious of the sticking-power of today’s IT driven growth, especially when you consider there are probably 1 billion pictures of cats on the internet.  Anyway what Gordon is saying is that phase #3 has a great many incremental improvements, but in the larger scheme of things few game-changing innovations.  Thus, phase 3 brought us a flare of intense growth but is diminishing as the world quickly becomes saturated with PCs, phones and software.

Wages vs. GDP

Now let’s turn to the robots notion.  Krugman’s first post on this was titled (in a nod to Asimov, I suspect) Rise of the Robots.  In that post he observes that labor’s portion of GDP – i.e., wages and direct payments to employees compared to total production – has been dropping steadily since the early 1970s; this is after staying mostly steady through the 40s, 50s and 60s.  In a way that is to be expected – since we are becoming more productive, each $1 paid in wages should be producing more and more goods (although I suspect socially and politically there’s more going on here than just productivity improvement).

The question is, where will it end?  A telling event is Asian tech manufacturer Foxconn’s announcement to deploy 1 million robots.  Foxconn currently employs 1 million workers.  While the company states the purpose of the robots is to enable “advanced manufacturing”, no one doubts that a great many workers will be displaced.  And this is in a region where wages are amongst the lowest in the world.  On the other hand, automation may enable the return of manufacturing to the developed world, just as Apple has stated it is investigating.

Regardless of where it happens this trend in automation could lead to even greater economic inequality.  More and more profit will go to those who own the means of production – i.e. the robots – and less and less to people who work.  Machines displacing workers is nothing new – that is how the term sabotage was invented after all – but in the recent past we have had growth to reduce the impact: Workers got less of the pie, but the pie was growing really quickly.  Now pie-growth is slowing and may even stop.

After all this I have no big conclusion – certainly not today.  Questions on my mind:

  • Are there real, move-the-needle innovations yet to come from the IT revolution?  Or will we be just using algorithms and machine intelligence to make our existing stuff incrementally smarter?
  • What kind of opportunities are there for individuals or small teams in the upcoming automation revolution?
  • Do we need to re-examine our ideas of growth?  Maybe Stiglitz is right, that we need a better GDP, that includes externalities and quality of life and not just raw production.

Like I said, don’t know.  Maybe this is the future:

Categories: Economics, Technology

Crowdfunding Update

December 4, 2012 1 comment

A few posts ago I talked about crowdfunding, where people use sites like Kickstarter to find backers for projects or products.  Most of the stuff on Kickstarter is consumer goods, artworks, even computer games like Project Eternity, of which I myself am a backer.  I, like most people, have been assuming no major high-tech projects would come out of Kickstarter, because the resource and market requirements for meaningful products in that space are just too great.  No one is going to crowd-fund a new enterprise data-warehouse tool, for example.

Wrong assumption. Today I’m reading news about a company called Adapteva and its Parallella Open Computing Platform.  Here’s what Adapteva says about all this:

Adapteva, a semiconductor start-up company, today announced the Parallella Kickstarter project to build an open and affordable, credit card-sized supercomputing platform that offers a 50x performance boost over existing open hardware platforms like Raspberry Pi. The truly disruptive performance leap of the Parallella computer is enabled by Adapteva’s 16-core and 64-core Epiphany microprocessor chips that lead the world in processor energy efficiency.

I read about this in a piece by Hiawatha Bray at the Boston Globe.  For $99 you get the Parallella add-in board and a C toolkit; the initial version works with Ubuntu.

I have to think about this.  The idea is now anyone can create, test and run highly efficient parallel code, which should port smoothly to higher-scale platforms.  If you had an 16-core, or 64-core add-on on your PC, what would you want to do?  Analyze all your  emails back to the 90s?  Do facial recognition and auto-tagging on 1000s of photos?  Play chess?

Hear about the Parallella first-hand here:

Categories: Technology

Patents: Innovation Help or Hindrance?

November 19, 2012 1 comment

I think most Americans’ attitudes about inventions are unchanged from the 1940 movie, Edison, the Man, starring Spencer Tracy.  I saw that movie many years back and it’s pretty much what you would expect: Edison is portrayed as part visionary, part tinkerer, part business-wizard, part ascetic (for his “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration” philosophy), and all dedicated to the betterment of mankind.  Edison’s actual story was more complicated than that, but the core idea in the movie was correct: Inventions help us all.

Inventions helping us all is why we have patents.  Without protection for an idea, the return on making an invention would be lowered, and so we’d get fewer inventions than we otherwise would.  The framers of the US Constitution thought this such an important concern that they dedicated a section to patents and copyrights.

From Edison’s time, what have we come to?  As the New York Times describes, Apple Now Owns the Page Turn; they have been awarded a design patent for a display screen animation of a turning page, like so:

Note that this is a design patent.  This type of patent essentially protects how something looks.  There’s no underlying software advance here, something that makes the page-turning animation better, faster, more page-turny or whatever.  The protection is just for the appearance of turning a page on a display screen.

This just doesn’t make sense to me. Page turning has been an everyday activity since … I was going to say since Gutenberg, but that may be overstating it. Suffice to say people have been turning pages since long before display screens and information technology.  Is now every on-screen representation of the physical world patentable?  For example there are other “book technologies” other than the codex, such as the scroll.  Could I patent an animated rolling scroll?  Of course you are probably “scrolling” this display right now, but how about if I crafted some displayed wooden rollers at top and bottom, and I required your finger or mouse to “turn” the displayed wooden spindle?  Should that be patentable?

I say, No.  Now design patents are kind of a special thing, but their main intent is to preserve distinctive looks that identify products to the public – think of the Coca-Cola bottle shape or Oakley Sunglasses.  Now let’s say the Apple page-turn appeared on Kindle, or on an Android tablet.  Would that effect somehow confuse me I was using an iPad?  Of course not.  Nor would it lead me to an assumption of quality – any consumer knows that a device capable of running Angry Birds is capable of an animated page turn.

Seems like obsessive/defensive patent disorder to me.  Certainly there are patents to things that deserve to be protected – there probably would be no Google without the patent on PageRank, for example.  But as you can see here, patents are being filed at more than 5 times the rate they were in the 1980s.  Are we 5 times smarter, more innovative?  I don’t think so.  Somehow we need to stop wasting all this defensive effort and channel it into actual innovation.


BTW, I see the phrase “obsessive/defensive patent disorder” can’t be found on Google.  I hereby declare “obsessive/defensive patent disorder” to be © 2012, Fernando Salazar.  So there.

Categories: Technology