Friday, December 27, 2013

World Economic Doldrums Ending in 2014? An Unprecedented WTO Agreement Certainly Helps

World peace? Not yet. But more open trade? It seems possible.

The World Trade Organization was born from the ashes of World War II and the zealous trade protectionism that preceded it. As WEC characterized it, sometimes a nation became protectionist and limited imports, and sometimes protectionists became wild-eyed nationalists and inched their nations into war. WTO's champions strongly believe that no two nations with McDonald's franchises will ever declare war on each other; that trade and multinational presences assure peace; that WTO rules will reduce consumer prices by stimulating global competition, resulting in increasing consumer demand that will spur productivity. WTO idealogues believe that "free trade" somehow creates an entrepreneurial class that will champion democracy, eliminate abuses of human rights, save the environment, and nurture equitable economic development. Moreover, WTO members dislike variety in trade agreements: e.g., agreements that favor former colonies (Europe and its Caribbean banana growers), or further non-trade goals (protection of sea turtles or Russia's sugar prices to Cuba). Their clarion call is one set of rules for all the globe. WTO trade is "rules based." It prides itself on one set of predictable global directives (26,000 pages worth!) and contrasts WTO with the disastrous WW II trade system in which nations bargained prices, market shares, quotas, and volumes, and hoped the results would be good for all concerned.

Increasingly, the WTO has become the governor of world trade. It is a freestanding organization of 135 nations, beholden to no one but its members; parallel to the UN but granted power unprecedented in history. The WTO can set trade rules and order stiff penalties against member nations that break them

Compared to glacial climate-change talks, trade liberalization seems on track for improvement, with governments reaching a modest but (almost) universally agreed-upon goal to boost the flow of goods across borders. The WTO has been locked in the long-suffering Doha round of talks since 2001, so this agreement, unveiled this month in Bali, assist the to the global economy to the tune of an estimated $400bn to $1tn. If it comes to fruition, this will be a welcome shot in the arm for the weak global economy.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Why Does the Government Still Shy Away from the Cloud?

We know the U.S. government is notoriously slow in adopting new technologies (except, of course, for spying). But the cloud is hardly new. At Bluedog, we describe cloud computing as a whole range of infrastructure, software, data and applications residing in the cloud -- that's to say, outside your data center, accessed via the Internet. You know, like Google.

At a recent event, GSA's Mark Day, the acting deputy assistant commissioner in the Integrated Technology Services office of the Federal Acquisition Service, said agencies spent more than $550 million on cloud services through governmentwide acquisition contracts, while they spent less than $100 million on cloud-specific contracts, such as email-as-a-service or infrastructure-as-a-service. Day said the difference in the spend shows integration services are important to agencies.

"There's a cloud broker who can help do security, single sign-on tie-ins for all cloud providers. You could have a cloud broker do security monitoring in a standardized way across all cloud providers, giving you a single pane of glass to manage from. You could integrate legacy and cloud so it's easier to manage your pieces," Day said. "There's a whole set of layers as you start to think this through that a cloud broker could do. Now the question is, which of those functions can a cloud broker do economically and efficiently for the federal government? Where do they add value? Where do they drive speed to market? Where do they make it easier for the consumer to know what they've actually gotten and be able to anticipate problems and react to problems better? And where frankly, are they just an added cost?"
Of course, the U.S. is hurting the program -- when our own government makes cloud computing a non-started by spying on everyone, the fallout is wide spread. Other governments lose confidence in U.S. industry. The European Commission is looking to promote EU-based cloud services with the urgent drafting of a new charter.
The mounting evidence is that the U.S. Prism spying scandal may damage the global market share of US-based tech companies involved in the cloud computing sector. So even if the Feds starting buying more SAAS and other Cloud products/services, we are all going to suffer with the reputation that the U.S. spies on everyone -- its own citizens, not just our global allies.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The End of the Banana As We Know It

The world's most popular fruit -- not just among Germans -- is in danger. A fungus that is deadly to Cavendish bananas — the common yellow variety that amounts to 80 percent of all banana exports — has shown up in Mozambique and Jordan. Until now the fungus, Fusarium oxysporum f. sp.cubense, only affected crops in Southeast Asia and Australia. (Specifically Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and China.) With this cross-continental migration, researchers fear the fungus will soon reach Latin America, which grows the majority of the world's bananas.

This isn't the first time. A strain of the fungus in the 1950s was responsible for the demise of the precursor to the Cavendish, the Gros Michel banana -- the main type of banana imported into the U.S. from the 19th century through the 1950s. Gros Michel has been described as tastier than the much-loved Cavendish, but most present-day fruit lovers have never tasted its glorious flavor.

The Cavendish, which is rich in Vitamins B6 and C, has high levels of potassium, magnesium, and fibre; it is also cheap—about sixty cents a pound. In 2008, Americans ate 7.6 billion pounds of Cavendish bananas, virtually all of them imported from Latin America. Your supermarket likely sells many varieties of apples, but when you shop for bananas you usually have one option. The world’s banana plantations are a monoculture of Cavendishes.

Compounding the problem, Costa Rica declared its own banana emergency after mealybugs and scale insects began attacking banana plants, making them ineligible for export. Agriculture engineer Eric Bolanos told Sky News that these bugs are essentially banana vampires:

Basically, what it does is suck out the nutrients, or sap from the plant's organs, stems, leaves. It could reach the fruit, causing damage (like) dark stains.

A representative from the country's Phytosanitary Service said up to 20 percent of crops could be affected. But as for the fungus threat, scientists are working on options. A team of scientists -- led by James Dale of the Queensland University of Technology -- is working on genetically modified Cavendish. Another group, led by Juan Fernando Aguilar of the Fundación Hondureña de Investigación Agrícola, is attempting to naturally engineer a better banana.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Integrated Electric Motor - Shrinks Biking Distances

The Copengahen Wheel collects energy and data as the cyclist pedals. That energy can be used to power a small motor while going uphill or just when cyclists need a rest from pedaling. The wheel also collects data that can be used to make cities more sustainable and efficient, according to MIT:

Controlled through your smart phone, the Copenhagen Wheel becomes a natural extension of your everyday life. You can use your phone to unlock and lock your bike, change gears and select how much the motor assists you. As you cycle, the wheel’s sensing unit is also capturing your effort level and information about your surroundings, including road conditions, carbon monoxide, NOx, noise, ambient temperature and relative humidity. Access this data through your phone or the web and use it to plan healthier bike routes, to achieve your exercise goals or to meet up with friends on the go. You can also share your data with friends, or with your city – anonymously if you wish – thereby contributing to a fine-grained database of environmental information from which we can all benefit.

Private Messaging -- a Trend in Response to Government Spying?

After racing for years watching to make everything public, are we seeing companies, large and small, responding to the public's desire for more privacy? Twitter has added photo-sharing to its direct messaging functionality, and Instagram is enabling users to share messages plus photos and videos with a single person or small group of people.

All these companies seek to be “the email of chat,” the "killer app" of the second decade of the new millennium. This has happened before -- ICQ, AIM, etc., of the early days of the public uptake of the internet.

Until lately, Twitter users could view Instagram photos within Twitter itself thanks to the microblogging network's media-friendly expanding content cards. Then one day, they couldn't — having instead to perform the arduous task of clicking an outbound link to the Facebook-acquired Instagram's still relatively new website. So, while you could still technically share Instagrams to Twitter, the experience was drastically altered. Instagram killed support for Twitter, as well. Instead of a toe-to-toe nuclear conflict, Instagram photos shared by brands on Twitter decreased in engagement, brand activity on Facebook and Instagram increased.

The term "conversations" has been replaced with the term "messages" in many places throughout the enterprise. Twitter pushed out a new version of its iOS and Android apps, as well as the web-based versions of TweetDeck. Previously, all photos posted to Twitter were public by default, and all direct messages could contain only links and text. Now users can privately message photos back and forth through the app, helping the company compete with photo-sharing apps like Snapchat and messaging services such as WhatsApp and Kik. Unlike Snapchats, however, privately messaged photos on Twitter can be saved.

Clearly private messaging is an important component of public real-time conversations using distributed platforms such as Twitter. Can these private "conversations" survive government snooping? Not when the spooks are snooping in places like Second Life and WoW.

The spies have created make-believe characters to snoop and to try to recruit informers, while also collecting data and contents of communications between players, according to the documents, disclosed by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden. Because militants often rely on features common to video games — fake identities, voice and text chats, a way to conduct financial transactions — American and British intelligence agencies worried that they might be operating there, according to the papers.

Facebook introduced a new feature which allows business pages to receive private messages from their fans on the social network, first available to Asia-based administrators, is a significant private messaging tool that will allow organizations to interact more closely with stakeholders on the service than ever before. Consumer facing businesses will find the feature particularly useful as it enables more personal communication with individual customers, opening the possible of a greater level of customer service .

But what will this mean for privacy? Only time will tell if the NSA and other government agencies (US and UK, for example) tap these networks.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Time Magazine - More In Touch than the Nobel Peace Prize

Time Magazine has named Pope Francis as "Person of the Year" -- the third pope so honored as Time’s Person of the Year (Pope John Paul II made the cover in 1994 and Pope John XXIII made the cover in 1962). Lilian Cunningham at the WaPo writes,

By the judgement of Time’s editorial staff, the pope–elected earlier this year after a surprise resignation by predecessor Pope Benedict–was the most influential global newsmaker of the past 12 months. Earlier this week, Time narrowed the finalists down to ten, then five. Pope Francis ultimately won out over Edward Snowden, Syrian president Bashar Assad, Texas senator Ted Cruz and gay rights activist Edith Windsor.
The magazine first released such a cover in 1927 under the name “Man of the Year,” and conferred the title on Charles Lindbergh for his solo trans-Atlantic flight. Since then, the annual covers have featured global peacemakers, U.S. presidents, tech billionaires, dictators and more amorphous concepts, like “the protestor” and “the endangered earth.” The editors’ intention is not to praise the figures selected, but to acknowledge their influence in shaping the news and history of the outgoing year. (Hence why Adolph Hitler made the cover in 1938.)
The magazine's cover story sometimes seems to make more sense than the actions of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, who have turned this esteemed artifact into a political football. At The Economist, recognizing an institution (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons -- a very noble cause, of course) and not a person reduces the heroic nature of past laureates, like Nelson Mandela (1993). This award seems consistent with the recent mediocre underwhelming recent winners (last year, the European Union or Barak Obama (2009), who had been president for just 12 days before nominations). The magazine's chart of past prizes calls out this pattern of suspect winners. An organization, not a person, won the fourth year. In an enlightened sign, the first woman won a year later. Yet non-Westerners weren’t recognized until the 1970s.

Why do such awards matter? Calling attention to those who do "good" (or, in the case of Time's criteria, just "do" important things, good or evil) in the world is important to the health of our combined human psyche. Dark days continue, economically and socially, around the world. When the person who invented an awesome tool -- used for both good and evil -- is humanistic enough to dedicate his earning to fostering peace, we should take the assignment of that prize with gravitas.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Sharing Economy - the Start Trek future is happening, again

First it was the communicator, er, ubiquitous mobile phones.

And Bluetooth

Then transparent aluminum. And, of course, that device Mr. Spock used to always carry over his shoulder, particularly when the Away Team first surveyed a new planet, the tricorder.

Now, the replicator from Star Trek may push the world into a future more like the Federation. Many posit that the future depicted in Star Trek relies on an apparently post-scarcity, post-currency, socialistic economy. In the time-line of ST, technology gets better and better, so things that are mass produced (get cheaper and more abundant). From obvious clues in the TV shows and films, in ST there exists a post-scarcity economy where anyone can replicate any kind of consumer goods. This is not some Orwellian welfare state, but a world (universe?) where energy is abundant enough (anti-matter for power generation) and computational power is so high that people have unrestricted access to consumer-grade replicators. Consider what Matthew Yglesias says in his column,

There is absolutely, obviously, still private property in the Federation: most obviously Joseph Sisko’s restaurant in New Orleans and Chateau Picard, evidencing that not just small possessions are allowed but that the land itself is still privately owned. One could argue that these aren’t really Sisko and Picard’s to own, but they are routinely referred to as “his” restaurant and vineyard so we gotta go with Occam’s Razor here and assume they do, in fact, own them.

Over at the BBC, we read that first music, then movies and novels, became the vanguard of the "sharing" (post-scarcity) economy. Now everything in "meatspace" (IRL, in real life) appears to be at risk of piracy. This is perhaps nascent steps towards the replicator of the future. The proliferation of 3D printing open the possibility where, potentially at least, anything can be made at home, And, of course, anything could be pirated.

Next up, unlimited (well, cheap) power, not from anti-matter, but from fusion. Fusion offers the prospects of an inexhaustible source of energy for future generations -- but there are (so far) ginormous scientific and engineering challenges. Research is centred on tokamak reactors which confine a deuterium-tritium plasma magnetically. Many countries take part in fusion research to some extent, led by the European Union, the USA, Russia and Japan, with vigorous programs also underway in China, Brazil, Canada, and Korea. Initially, fusion research in the USA and USSR was linked to atomic weapons development. Following a breakthrough at the Soviet tokamak, fusion research became 'big science' in the 1970s. But the cost and complexity of the reactors involved increased to the point where international co-operation is the only way forward.

All we need to complete Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future -- warp drive. And we are on it! Hello, united federation. Goodbye, alien invaders.

Of course, nerds everywhere think the Xbox with Kinect will lead the way to the holodeck...

Friday, December 6, 2013

No Presidential iPhone for Security Reasons? What the Frack?!

Recently, the President told attendees at a White House Youth Summit he wasn't allowed to have an iPhone "for security reasons." President Obama was talking about the price of health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). He compared cable / phone bills many young people are paying (more than US$100 per month) to health insurance at the same price, saying it is a good deal.

Then he said, “Now, I am not allowed, for security reasons, to have an iPhone,” adding that Sasha and Malia seem to be spending a lot of time on their own Apple devices.

Crikey, the President of the United States is out of touch.

As Tom Cheredar points out,

First of all, using a BlackBerry in 2013 means you’re probably out of touch with the majority of other people. That may sound like an insignificant detail, but the iPhone’s (and yes, Android’s certainly as well) UI and usability can shape a person’s perspective on how to approach and resolve new problems. So, do we really want BlackBerry OS coloring the president’s perspective, or would we rather have iOS, Android, or Windows Phone?

While it is hard to imagine decade-old technology is the best choice for the Commander-in-Chief, remember that White House mobile communications are secured with SecurVoice, a company slow to support Apple technology. One might imagine camera-phones are not allowed in the top-secret environments of the White House. But so are any other transmitting/recording devices.

I can understand wanting to get the most out of the government's investment in existing infrastructure (BlackBerry technology is on the server side), but certainly some of the money that goes into upgrades could be used for a phone from this millennium? Even at Bluedog central we use secured base stations locked to specific devices.

Quoting Tom again, a nation whose companies and entrepreneurs are leading the world in technological advancement, I’m sad that giving Obama his choice of smartphone even merits a discussion. After all, 44 years ago we put a man on the moon just to say we did it before anyone else. But in our current era, we’re struggling to keep a man on long enough to sign up for health insurance coverage and telling the commander-in-chief what smartphone he’s allowed to use.
Sigh, so much for technological leadership.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Software development -- not management friendly

While we might not all agree what methodology works best (waterfall, agile, some combination of X-treme, etc.), we all know that software projects can be painful.

But they don't have to be. Management and marketing teams generally have a difficult time understanding the mind of the creative types -- be they graphic designers or software developers.

There's a trick that I employ that has worked over the years: manage programmers the way beekeepers domesticate bees. With the right application of beer, flexible hours, and input into a project, I've been able to get excellent Java/Objectve-C programs to swarm in place. And then harvest the honey they produce (satisfyingly workable applications).

Having a group of programmers who get along, who enjoy a challenge, who work as a team means building a small group that has esprit-de-corps. One team I cultivated matched junior devs willing to challenge each another, and an expert coder that the rest (including gem) looked up up to. Not for pair programming, but as a mentor and a high-level problem solver.

If the team gets too big (or, even, too productive), management and sales will take a big interest in what is going on in the developer department. But these are not robots working on the line to churn out, well, lines of code. The suit-wearing business types find that developers are unpredictable, odd-hours-keeping and anti-social, to boot. Planning, attending in-person meetings, working on schedules, producing reports -- these are anathema to creatives.

Seeing developers struggle with the team aspect of productivity in an organization can be painful. I've worked with software experts who could easily figure out the most effective way to write an algorithm to fulfill the defined requirements. But he was out-of-pocket when the team needed to design a solution that would not negatively impact a downstream system -- if the problem wasn't in his code, he had no ownership of it. And solutions frequently were inefficient or a long time coming.

Ultimately, that developer moved on, but I learned a valuable lesson -- team building helps everyone understand how to leverage each other's strength. Instead of a waste of intellectual capital, teams can find synergy through mutual understanding and -- best of all -- cooperation.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Orwell has nothing on the NSA consultants writing white papers

Over at my fav online magazine comes revelations of wide-spread "corporate speak" used to pepper NSA documents. The insidious nature of obfuscation and deliberately vague word-smithing helps lend credence to the agency's desire for ubiquitous/universal surveillance.

Here are some excellent examples from the leaked document:

“We must proactively position ourselves to dominate that environment”
“Fully leverage internal and external partnerships to collaboratively discover targets”
“a collaborative information space that mirrors how people interact in the information age”
“Drive an agile technology base mapped to the cognitive processes”
“Integrate the SIGINT system into a national network of sensors which interactively sense, respond, and alert one another at machine speed”
“Collectively foster an environment that encourages and rewards diversity, empowerment, innovation, risk-taking and agility” [Which reminds Vulture South, the Human Resources sector seems to have contributed to the infiltration task-force]
“Enable better, more efficient management of the mission and business by establishing new, modifying current, and eliminating inefficient, business processes; by strengthening customer relationships; and by building necessary internal and external partnerships.”
“Align and standardize administrative business processes”
“Champion the development of a unified NSA/CSS U.S. customer engagement strategy”
“Counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor*”

This kind of language deliberately disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words -- euphemisms primarily meant to make the truth sound more reasonable. This intentional ambiguity in language or actual inversions of meaning disguises the nature of the true message.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

End the welfare state -- by giving everyone a base income?

The concept of paying people to sit around has an upside, writes Tim Harford in the Financial Times. The idea was endorsed by Oxford’s Sir Tony Atkinson as well as (the now decease) Milton Friedman, who reasoned a stipend to every adult would serve as an alternative to the current welfare state. Governments pay money to certain people of working age, but often only on the condition that they are not working. Then, in an attempt to overcome the obvious problem that we’re paying people not to work, the government badgers them to get a job -- efforts that are frequently demeaning and bureaucratic without being particularly effective. A basic income goes to all, whether they work or not.

But how would this be paid for? In Switzerland, it will depend on whether people withdraw en masse from the labor pool. If most people keep working, such a basic income could replace all sorts of benefits, and would also presumably replace the personal allowance for income tax. Harford see that, in some ways, the size of the state would have to rise. Some tax, such as VAT, income tax, or both, would have to increase to collect more money. In other ways the size of the state would shrink, appealing to some conservatives. Friedman believed that with a reasonable basic income for all, the welfare state as we know it would wither.

Fred Hubleur argues...

The important thing is that this revenue is fixed for everyone without there being a requirement to work; that's right, it is income without employment. This might seem shocking. But at its heart it is an entirely defensible idea. On the one hand, we are fighting against poverty and insecurity, there will no longer be a need for social security to bolster other incomes, and dozens of different and unwieldy benefits. This unconditional income is equally good news for innovation and creativity. (…) We have also made a paradigm shift that dyed-in-the-wool capitalists might find alarming: the liberation of working man, returning him to his status as homo sapiens over that of homo travaillus (ed's note: Homo travaillus is a play on word to describe the working man) which holds such sway in our society.

Read more details here...

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Surveillance = Control

Just a decent article about the ramifications of the surveillance culture we love in...


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Permissionless innovation -- can the internet break us free?

Permissionless innovation means that the Internet serves as a global platform on which anyone can try out new, unorthodox ideas without the need to secure authorization from anyone -- and that freedom to experiment results in the flourishing of innovative online services that we have seen over the last decade or more. Is permissionless innovation reserved for just certain types of innovators, such as software developers? Anyone with a dynamic idea can leverage innovation and competition to grow within this electronic ecosystem. We see the ability to innovate spring to life without having to seek permission from your mom and pop, the boss, or investors. Freedom to build new mousetraps, better or not, is critical to the continued success of the Internet.

What risks could an entrepreneur run into? Prohibition attempts to eliminate potential risk through suppression of technology, products, or services, or outright censorship of content. Worse, governments may make anticipatory regulation controls -- preemptive, precautionary safeguards, including administrative regulation, government ownership or licensing controls, or restrictive defaults. In terms of market conditions, we might see a resilient space, where a business owner might need to employ education, awareness propagation, and empowerment to propel his/her idea forward. In my mind, ultimately adaptation serves as the greatest mitigation to these risks -- learn to live with risk, embrace trial-and-error experimentation, and evolve as one's understanding of one's audience or potential buys changes.

Let's look at Kickstarter, which, since its launch in 2009, has become the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects. What makes the their model so interesting is accessibility for individuals and small organizations seeking a fresh way to build support for their work. With a winner-take all funding approach (if you don't reach your funding goal, no money changes hands), the most fleshed out ideas move forward. This is an awesome resource for testing concepts. Another interesting take-away is the core concept of “offering products and experiences unique to the project” rather than having funders “own” projects in any way. What is the real and unique value our potential contributors are seeking? Many times, it is a product. Kickstarted is not about investing, but about brining new products to market, without anyone's permission.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Distributed, Independent Workforce -- Freelances Plus+

With knowledge workers able to link together via the internet, and the accelerating rate of economic development and innovations in business models, there is room for a new kind of workforce.

In the past, employment with one or two organizations might have been commonplace. Instead of a single career with a single company lasting from graduation to retirement, employees are increasingly on the move. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that people born between 1957 and 1964 held, on average, 11 jobs from ages 18 to 44. That’s roughly one new job every 2.4 years. In today’s world, 5 to 7 careers during a lifetime is becoming commonplace.

What's needed for the 24/7 as-needed knowledge worker? This article outlines several: From a participant in this pool of labor, a different education approach is called for. In addition to hard skills, freelancing requires selling and marketing abilities. Finding new clients is the number one challenge for every freelancer. Remaining visible to potential clients worldwide requires skill as an online marketer, website designer and social network guru. Negotiating skills are also a necessity. All of these abilities must be acquired early on in a freelancer’s career. To remain highly motivated, working in a field with passion is the only sustainable solution. Thus, education will have to be closely aligned with personal preferences and talents. Continuous learning will become an important habit. Keeping up with rapidly changing industry trends must be an integral part of media consumption and social networking.
Freelance workers will increasingly face global competition. Thus, comprehensive English-language skills will become indispensable. A different mindset is also required to endure the freelancer’s low level of job security. Instead of hoping to land a permanent position, confidence and the entrepreneurial spirit are vital to future success.

Telecommuting for knowledge workers is growing rapidly. The International Telework Association and Council (ITAC) forecasts a more than a 50 percent increase in the next three years. This growth is occurring across all sectors of business – business and legal services, health care, banking and finance, and others. The “knowledge worker” pool of labor is one of the best positioned to take advantage of this work option.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Strongest Security is Probably Just Following Your Existing Policies

The materials leaked by Edward Snowden include data that he should not have been able to get access to. So how did he get the materials? He apparently persuaded more than twenty co-workers to give him their login IDs and passwords. He told them he needed the credentials to do his job as a systems administrator. The use of so-called "social engineering" is a tried-and-true method of gaining access to off-limits resources. This is the psychological manipulation of people into performing actions or divulging confidential information.

A famous use of social engineering was by Kevin Mitnick, some think the world's most infamous hacker. His exploits as a cyber-desperado and fugitive from one of the most exhaustive FBI manhunts in history and has spawned books and movies. Since his release from federal prison, in 1998, Mitnick has turned his life around and established himself as one of the most sought-after computer security experts worldwide. He was an expert at getting people to trust him, and give him the "keys to the kingdom" so he could access all sorts of information.

A lesson all of us in the cyber security business know -- all the firewalls and encryption protocols in the world will never be enough to stop a savvy con-man intent on stealing a database or an irate ex-employee determined to crash systems. Next time the government should think of preventing these types of social engineering hacks through better-enforced security protocols, training programs, and educating the right people to address this all-to-human element of security.

The New Face of Microsoft is... a robot-slaying teenage anime girl?!

I will say, I like the artwork, and it isn't the first time Japanimation-style cartoon characters have been used to sell Microsoft products. This one has high production values, however.

View it here...

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Steve Jobs jumped in bed too soon with micr$oft in the 80s, Google in the double-oughts

When Steve Jobs recruited Microsoft to be the first outside developer of applications for the Macintosh in 1981, he was concerned that they might try to copy Apple's ideas into a PC-based user interface. As a condition of getting an early start at Macintosh development, Steve Jobs made Microsoft agree not to ship any software that used a mouse until at least one year after the first shipment of the Macintosh.

In 1983, after his visit to Apple, Bill Gates made an exciting announcement at the industry's biggest trade show, Comdex -- he had a new, mouse-based graphical user interface called Windows. It worked just like the top-secret one Steve Jobs had shown him. Bill gates had stolen Steve's thunder before the Macintosh had been released yet. When Steve found out, he went ballistic. A rift that took decades to heal was formed. And the crucial lead in bringing a product to market was hampered.

Fast forward to this century. Apple allied itself with Google,

In 2001, when Google was a noob start-up with roughly $50 million in revenues, Google's co-founders met Steve Jobs and wanted him to become Google's CEO. Having just developed the iconic iPod, Jobs demurred and took Larry Page and Sergey Brin under his wing and mentored them.

In secrecy, Apple started development of the iPhone in 2004. In August 2005, Google quietly bought the Android start-up, when no one outside of Apple was supposed to know that Apple was working on the iPhone. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt joined Apple's Board in August 2006.

Apple launched the iPhone in 2007; later that year Google showed a video that compared Google-Android's original pre-iPhone "before" prototype -- it looked and operated more like a Blackberry than the "smart" phone look we all know today. That video compared the old look to a post-iPhone-launch "after" prototype that heavily-resembled the look-and-feel of iOS. This new look incorporated many of Apple's signature touch-screen innovations.

Google's leaders betrayed a longtime personal trust and friendship of Steve Jobs, stealing what he believed was Apple's most prized possession.

In Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs famously quoted,

"…I will spend every penny of Apple's $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong. I'm going to destroy Android, because it's a stolen product. I'm willing to go thermonuclear war on this."
Steve Jobs is widely regarded as a visionary leader but could be harsh with people working around him. Leaders with a high degree of emotional intelligence know what they're feeling, what their emotions mean, and how these emotions can affect other people. For many, high levels of emotional intelligence is essential for success.

Will Apple thrive as a creative company without Jobs? Did Steve Jobs balance emotion and intelligence as a leader? I believe he did -- his mistakes were from honest efforts at cooperation and collaboration, and an emotional commitment to others. Sure he was flawed -- we all are -- but his creative instincts were coupled with his emotional side. Even with some mistakes, we all move forward, if we persevere.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Unsecured Data Communication at the Health Care Exchange? Shouldda gone with My TRA

In May of 2011, I presented a back-end web services architecture for U.D. Dept of Health and Human Services Center for Medicaid & Medicare to the CTO (Mark Hogle). If the contractors for the public portal had gone with the technical reference architecture (TRA) as it was written and approved by the CTO, the concerns regarding back-end data in-transit, unsecured, would not be warranted.

Specifically, the reference architecture I developed called for,

Where the highest level of practical protection is called for, encrypting all message fields should be included in the architecture. XML Encryption (and decryption) requires fully parsing the XML transaction and then, for select message section(s), performing a set of processing-intensive XML and cryptographic encryption (decryption) operations. Deploying both XML Encryption and XML digital signatures can significantly affect the performance of high-transaction applications due to their resource-intensive nature. This can be mitigated by using hardware (an appliance, for example) rather than a software-based solution.

What are the implications of ignoring this (common-sense?) policy? Typically, a man-in-the-middle attack could be orchestrated. This breach is a form of active eavesdropping by which the attacker makes independent connections with the targets and relays messages between them, making them believe that they are talking directly to each other over a private connection. Data could be modified or absconded with.

Another problem is the repudiation -- where did this message originate from? Without this assurance, a provider is unable to ensure that a party to a SLA cannot deny the authenticity of their signature on a document or the sending of a message that they originated. Repudiations ensure electronically signatures are trustworthy, to ensure that a person cannot later deny that they furnished the signature. Any financial transaction needs this.

Plus, there's a bonus! The TRA specified performance testing! The issues around poor performance (that, of course, are not client-specific such as poor HTML coding) would never have made it from the test lab to deployment. In the TRA, CMS mandates Web Services testing and performance engineering. Specifically, these processes should use a systematic, quantitative approach to building Web Services that meets both business and performance objectives. While crafting software to meet business objectives is the developer’s primary focus, performance engineering should also map to critical use cases that take into account performance objectives, including response time, throughput, resource utilization, and workload.
Web Services testing should focus on regression testing and benchmarking against stated performance goals for individual services. The UDDI directory should be employed to document those goals. The purpose of such testing is to demonstrate that a service meets performance criteria, thus testing should assess load and stress.

The rationale for measuring Web service performance is multifold:
• Consumers need to know response times and anticipated throughput via APIs.
• Service resource demands are needed for different workloads.
• SLAs or other contractual obligations will rely on performance as a key concept.

Nobody wants problems with the President's attempt at reforming the health care insurance marketplace in this country. But just by applying the existing design constraints at the outset, HHS/CMS would have plugged another hole in the leaky dike that the Health Care Exchange has become, before any drips started.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Apple's Steve Jobs was too quick to tie the knot with Microsoft, and Google

Around the 2nd anniversary of his death, and looking back at Steve Jobs’ tenure at Apple, it iss impossible to separate the role Microsoft and Bill Gates played in SJ's complex career. Microsoft and Apple helped pioneer the personal computing industry and defined not one, but two eras (PCs, and the post-PC mobile world). The two CEOs partnered at various times, competed all the time, and challenged one another in ways that helped shape the landscape of technology.

Early on, the strength of their relationship could be witnessed at an Internal Apple Event in Hawai where Steve Jobs introduced the Macintosh to a few Apple VIPs. Bill Gates sugarcoated the Mac and Steve Jobs loved every moment of it.

But with Bill Gates famously ripping off the Mac interface, a rift was formed.

This was somewhat healed, over time, when Steve returned to save Apple, and even, to the dismay of Apple loyalists, called on MS to help. In the new era of cooperation caused by intense competition from all corners of the Internet, Steve brought Google into the fold early. And this was a mistake as big as handing the Mac prototype to Bill Gates.

Rob Enderle, at Forbes, convenes a moot court to try and convict Google,
The fact that Google copies isn’t in dispute. They clearly have copied Microsoft and really there is nothing wrong with that other than trying to argue the efforts (other than price) are innovative. The sequence of events suggest that someone got the idea of doing a phone before Apple locked down on the iPhone, but after the ROKR, and were unsure as to what to create. That was until the iPhone emerged at Apple and then they created a very similar, though initially inferior product. So we have historical behavior that showcases Google copies, we have motive (to build a better phone), and with Schmidt on the board we have opportunity.

Broadly, Google (and Samsung and others) clearly did “steal” Apple’s technology. A number of key concepts, such as pinch-to-zoom, were first introduced on the iPhone and later incorporated into Android. The iPhone was an innovative product, and obviously Apple’s competitors are going to want to match it feature for feature. This is a good thing, for consumers. Better products all around, and more choice.

But Steve Jobs, for all his reputation as a tough leader, also followed his heart. Of the many qualities made Steve Jobs an innovator, one key aspect was his interest in Zen Buddhism. He relentlessly filtered out what he considered distractions (focusing the mind)and his passion for taking responsibility for every element of a product reflect a Zen approach. Not controlling, but responsibility, a core concept of the experience. Read more about the influence of this way of thought on Steve Jobs. Sometimes mistakes are opportunities for growth.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Inquiries into the Obamacare Exchange launch

Fox News is reporting:

Leaders of the chamber’s Energy and Commerce Committee are pressing for public answers after the Obama administration and companies involved in the site's development and launch said the online health care exchange was “on track” for the October 1 start.

However, the site, which provides a menu of insurance plans for Americans in the 36 states without their own site, has instead been plagued by such problems as crashing under heavy user traffic, failing to let customers register or purchase plans and reportedly logging inaccurate information.

Committee Chairman Fred Upton began focusing on Secretary Sebelius after she went to Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” last week to talk about the website.

“Secretary Sebelius had time for Jon Stewart, and we expect her to have time for Congress,” the Michigan Republican has repeatedly said.

The committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Thursday that will focus on whether officials involved with the site “Didn't Know or Didn't Disclose” problems.


The NYT has more on the government's attempts to correct some of the problems:

One major problem slowing repairs, people close to the program say, is that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency in charge of the exchange, is responsible for making sure that the separately designed databases and pieces of software from 55 contractors work together. It is not common for a federal agency to assume that role, and numerous people involved in the project said the agency did not have the expertise to do the job and did not fully understand what it entailed.

And of course the classic problem,

Communications between the administration and contractors improved over the weekend as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services began negotiating agreements with contractors on responsibility and deadlines for repairs, people involved in the project say. They hope to have a plan before a Congressional hearing set for Thursday. “The issue right now is between C.M.S. and the White House,” a specialist said Friday before communications improved. “Everybody sits and waits and the meter runs.”

The article discusses the prime, a Canadian firm,

CGI Federal, a unit of the CGI Group, based in Montreal, has the biggest contract and is responsible for the architecture of major parts of the system, but not for its integration. Quality Software Services Inc., or Q.S.S.I., a unit of the UnitedHealth Group, developed the identity management system, another major component that allowed consumers to register and establish accounts. The identity management system from Q.S.S.I., which also taps into government databases to retrieve users’ personal information, was a particular source of trouble when the exchange opened. Change orders show that on Oct. 4 — after millions of people had been trapped in technological loops trying merely to log in — the government asked CGI to help it devise a new identity management system to replace the one provided by Q.S.S.I. But specialists said that approach was abandoned as too risky. Ultimately it was decided to fix the current identity system.

Of course, I mentioned in a previous post the architecture and prototype I developed while detailed to MITRE, but that seems to have been ignored in favor of an off-shore solution. Which seems crazy, in these uncertain economic times. Why is the federal government going outside our borders for technological expertise of this nature?

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Cloud Saves Obamacare

Whatever the side of the Congressional aisle you are on (or maybe in the middle?), one of the more interesting aspects of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is its emphasis on technology’s role in curbing healthcare costs.

As David Linthicum notes, “No matter where you sit on Obamacare, it’s going to change the processes in how organizations deliver healthcare.” But nowhere is cloud approached more cautiously than in the healthcare industry. Yet evidence suggests that cloud and healthcare are poised to push the industry forward into its next phase, while reducing costs. But with so much negative press recently on overall government and healthcare, might cloud be an agent of change?

There is a lot of concern among the organizations supporting this healthcare IT push around security, but especially with maintaining compliance. HIPAA compliance is still opaque, requiring a great deal of guidance for implementation. This becomes especially tricky as an organization begins creating business associate agreements among vendors.

The federal government is aware of the value of cloud computing -- the U.S. Department of Defense has identified concurrent steps that enable a phased implementation of the DoD Enterprise Cloud Environment:
• Foster adoption of cloud computing
• Optimize data center consolidation
• Establish the DoD enterprise cloud infrastructure
• Deliver cloud services
This plan describes a defined transformation strategy that takes the DoD from its current state, preps the department for cloud computing, then concludes when DoD information systems can finally take advantage of public and private cloud computing providers or technology.

Read more here.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Could Flight be Man's Greatest Achievement?

While the Wright Brothers were first out the gate successfully, to complete man's eternal quest to achieve a powered flight, in 100 years we have come very far. The short flight in 1901 changed air travel in the twentieth century and remains one of human kind's great technical achievements. Of course, this culminated in one giant step, and a smaller one.

This is a cool article, about the language of the skies...

Aviation has a lot of special language, like sailing or gymnastics. Its brief, even curt efficiency and orderly templates keep planes on course and out of each other’s way.... But there is one special set of aviation jargon, more alien than the concocted vocabulary of Esperanto and more bizarre than patterned wordplay of Pig Latin or Id. This is the lexicon of waypoints, which are the road markers in the sky for directing planes on a course.

In the 20th century, airplanes and mass-­produced cars have changed the way we live. Cars, affordable for masses, have allowed us to move around, and planes make faraway destinations close. People still struggle towards a century-old dream -- the merging of cars and planes into flying cars. But, as readers know, self-driving cars are, in my opinion, much closer at hand, and a better option. I love flying, but I'll settle for a robot chauffeur.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Last week - magazine suck on tablets. This week: tablets can save the newspaper business

If you believe Google, the newspaper industry has been in decline since 1972 and that online journalism as a threat to newspapers is only a continuation of broadcast journalism’s inexorable encroachment, but that newspapers have a new opportunity to profit from old-school long-form journalism by paying special attention to tablets. So says Google Chief Economist Hal Varian in this speech.

Although printing and distribution costs are decimated by the shift to online news, competition is exponentially fiercer. To fight the advance of bloggers, citizen journalists, and other competition, newspapers have resorted to publishing shorter, shallower pieces to cater to the traditionally attention span-stunted Internet public. This has largely compromised the “analytic depth” the printed word affords. Varian suggests that it doesn’t have to be this way -- by focusing on tablets and other innovative ways to keep eyeballs glued to the news, online journalism can step up profits even while rescuing the Fourth Estate from irrelevance.

Roger Fidler was one of the original proponents of these portable "electronic tablets" when he ran the Knight Ridder Information Design Lab in the early 1990s. These devices, known as 'flat panels' or 'tablets,' will combine the readability and convenience of paper with the technological abilities of video and sound. In the same way that ink-on-paper printing has defined the present era, it now appears certain that electronic 'presses' and multimedia publishing will define the new one," Fidler wrote in an October 1992 AJR article called "What Are We So Afraid Of?" In October, the Society for News Design presented Fidler, a founding member of SND, with its Lifetime Achievement Award for his groundbreaking and innovative work.
Fidler started his journalism career in 1962 writing and illustrating a science column for Oregon's Eugene Register-Guard. The following year, he also began writing feature stories and creating maps for the paper while attending the University of Oregon. Fidler had originally planned to become an astronomer, but a chronic illness that he developed in high school forced him to switch his major to journalism. In 1990 he produced an animated video of a tablet newspaper scenario in collaboration with RayChem, a company that was developing an electronic paper display technology. A year later, Fidler became a Freedom Forum Media Studies Fellow at Columbia University. There he created an operational prototype of a digital newspaper optimized for his media tablet. He frequently demonstrated the prototype on Macintosh computers.

Read the full article here on SlashGear. And check out the forward-looking video here.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Government wants to spy on the people... so engineers back-door into popular video conf software

Anyone might suspect that the NSA has hooks INTO skype. It is highly probable that the U.S. government paid Microsoft to buy Skype, re-engineer it to allow easier access than the peer-to-peer architecture it had originally.

But don't take this paranoid IT architect's word for it -- read more here.

Autonomous cars - who do you trust more, Detroit, or Google?

Surprise, the answer is... Google. Nearly every automaker is working on some form of autonomous vehicle technology, but according to a new study, consumers are more interested in a self-driving car from Google than General Motors. The study, conducted by U.S. audit and advisory firm KPMG, polled a diverse group of drivers from both coasts and in between

Some cool stuff from the Wired article/report:

“We believe that self-driving cars will be profoundly disruptive to the traditional automotive ecosystem,” said Gary Silberg, KPMG auto expert and author of the report. The company’s polling bears that out, although KPMG is quick to add the caveat that while “focus group discussions are valuable for the qualitative, directional insights they provide; they are not statistically valid.”

California drivers were significantly more interested in autonomous vehicles from the onset of the discussions, with L.A. residents ranking their willingness to use a self-driving car at 9 out of 10. Chicago residents came in at four, and New Jersey drivers’ median was six.

Additionally, premium vehicle owners — who made up nearly a third of the focus group — were more interested in autonomous vehicles and self-driving technology.

In Silberg’s estimation, the reason is that Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz drivers are “already accustomed to high-tech bells and whistles, so adding a ‘self-driving package’ is just another option.” Throw in the possibility of a special lane on highways for autonomous vehicles and the ability to turn the system on and off at will, and premium buyers were sold on the option full-stop.

But the major takeaways from the study are that consumers — while still concerned about safety and liability — are increasingly interested in autonomous cars, as long as the benefits outweigh the costs, and the company manufacturing is seen as being at the top of their game. And while 0-60 times and horsepower may be of interest to consumers now, if you’ve ceded control to the machine, style and functionality will trump performance and driver engagement.


Like any complex product, I can see a further diversification of offerings -- sports cars, hybrids, sport-ute/SUVs, and others demonstrate this slicing of the offerings. Why not a self-drive, too?

Government Shut-Down Got You Down? Apple Could Teach the Feds a Lesson in Branding

In today's global economy, whether a country or a company, you have to be visible and active to maintain your image and to advance -- economically and politically. Citizens are consumers—and citizen-consumers, increasingly, exercise power in today's economy.

In this NatGeo opinion piece
, there are several points on Apple's strategy to be a world-wide success that Uncle Sam could follow.

Apple has topped Coca-Cola as the world's best-known brand. Apple just ended Coca-Cola's 13-year run at the top of a highly regarded annual list put out by Interbrand that has been compiling what it calls the Best Global Brands report since 2000.

Apple ranked high this year because its products are well liked, its services are considered good, and people have come to value the company as practically a cultural icon of America—particularly with young people. Those characteristics are good for a company and good for a country.

But it is hard to deliver high-quality services and a good experience if you are not open for business—whether it is the National Zoo or the Grand Canyon. Both convey American values.

Clearly diplomacy should never be equated with corporate public relations. One is a public good; the other is a bottom-line sell. But that doesn't mean we can't learn from both about the importance of being understood in a crowded global market. Apple, as a company and a symbol, is, well, as American as apple pie. Congress should consider that our interests won't be well-served if the doors are barred here at home to our collective storefront, the federal government.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Poor Architecture Hampers Obamacare Exchanges

A few IT experts question the architecture of the Obamacare website. Government officials blame the persistent glitches on an overwhelming crush of users - 8.6 million unique visitors by Friday - trying to visit the website during its launch.

Disappointedly, the U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services did not implement the prototype architecture I developed for them, while on detail to MITRE. Instead, they opted for a Canadian firm's approach. (One wonders, why does the U.S. need to go "off-shore" for IT architecture when we have such talent widely available here?) CGI Group Inc, the Canadian contractor that built, is "declining to comment at this time," said spokeswoman Linda Odorisio. According to one analyst,

One possible cause of the problems is that hitting "apply" on causes 92 separate files, plug-ins and other mammoth swarms of data to stream between the user's computer and the servers powering the government website, said Matthew Hancock, an independent expert in website design. He was able to track the files being requested through a feature in the Firefox browser.

Of the 92 he found, 56 were JavaScript files, including plug-ins that make it easier for code to work on multiple browsers (such as Microsoft Corp's Internet Explorer and Google Inc's Chrome) and let users upload files to It is not clear why the upload function was included.

Hancock's analysis suggested that the security questions were coming from a separate server and that better system architecture would have cached the questions on the main server. In the architecture I developed over a six-month engagement, the front-end web site was streamlined with minimal Javascript, and was served up via a WebObjects application handling the back-end connectivity to various data services.

I had applied my expertise in service oriented architecture — particularly how to apply SOA for cloud efforts — to come up with a prototype that could support 10's of thousands of concurrent users. I leveraged my expertise to demonstrate:
• How SOA 'automatically' improves end-to-end visibility and responsiveness.
• How to massively scale SOA in the cloud for extreme high-traffic, high-bandwidth applications.
• How current on-premises SOA can foster cloud architectures and deployments.
• How WebObjects frameworks will make web services and web-based user interface efforts more productive.
• How 'intelligent ESBs' help the cloud solution react in real-time.
• What SOA 'best practices' today offer the best ways to improve a cloud strategy, at little cost.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Why hasn't the Tablet made Magazines Huge?

With the multimedia capabilities, "push" data to refresh content, and a known display platform, you would think tablets such as the iPad would have made magazine apps a win.

In this article, there are several areas that impact magazine apps. One important data point:

Magazines need dedicated readers. But, Nielsen estimated the average mobile user has 41 apps on his or her smartphone. In April, a Flurry study showed the average smartphone user opens only eight apps a day, with the most popular being Facebook, YouTube and game apps. And according to a 2012 report from Localytics, 22 percent of all apps are only opened once.

To overcome this, a magazine app needs to be compelling.

Finding magazine content is not helped by the very nature of mobile apps. Unlike web-based content, magazine articles can neither be indexed or searched on the web when they are locked up in an app. Following a link from Google at best takes readers to an app store, not to the article itself — cutting the magazine out of this important referral service.

Magazine publishers should consider a consolidated content management system to mirror content in both locations -- the web and in their dedicated app.

Subscription models for magazine apps is a tough sell. People are troubled by pay-walls on newspaper web sites. They apparently dislike a similar approach to magazine apps. Think about any successful standalone iPad magazines -- the most assertive attempts, News Corp’s “The Daily” iPad app, closed after two years of operation. The Daily only cost $0.99 a week, but with just a little over 100,000 subscribers, it couldn’t break even.

Perhaps just going with the advert-driven model, with paid ad-opt-out, might solve this? While the future of producing quality content for niches is bright, such content should be presented openly (think social, such as via Facebook and Twitter). The age-old model hasn't really changed: eyeballs, after all, translate into advert revenue.

Read Jon Lun's assessment here.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Self-Driving Car - the Race gets Electric

From Reuters News Service: Electric car company Tesla Motors is working to produce a car capable of running on "auto-pilot" within the next three years, CEO Elon Musk said, joining tech giant Google and rival carmakers in the race to roll a driverless car into the market. The California-based company's autonomous car would allow the driver to hand 90 percent of the control of the car over to the vehicle's computer system, Musk said in an interview with the Financial Times newspaper.

The electric automaker posted a job opening for an Advanced Driver Assistance Systems Controls Engineer that will help the company develop technology for fully autonomous vehicles. The listing says the engineer "will be responsible for developing vehicle-level decision-making and lateral and longitudinal control strategies for Tesla's effort to pioneer fully automated driving." Tesla wants this engineer to not only develop self-driving features for future electric cars, but also retrofit such systems to its Model S sedan.

Wired first reported the listing, Tesla has plenty of catching up to do when it comes to automation. The Model S lacks features that are commonplace in many other top-tier luxury vehicles such as adaptive cruise control, automated lane changing, and self-parking.


Friday, September 6, 2013

Tired of the NSA reading your emails? Go quantum

Toshiba has invented a quantum cryptography network that even the NSA can’t decrypt. Quantum cryptography harnesses the baffling world properties of quantum physics to ensure that information sent from point A to point B isn’t intercepted. The laws of physics dictate that no oecan measure a quantum system without disrupting it.


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Where is an industry consortium when you need one? More manufacturers promising autonomous vehicles

Besides Google, others are working hard at self-driving vehicles. Nissan has big plans:

The car maker promised to have "revolutionary," commercially viable self-driving technology in multiple vehicles within seven years.
"Nissan Motor Company's willingness to question conventional thinking and to drive progress — is what sets us apart," CEO Carlos Ghosn said in a statement.
He pointed to a 2007 pledge in which he said that by 2010 Nissan would mass market a zero-emission vehicle, adding that today, the Nissan Leaf is the best-selling electric vehicle in history.
"Now I am committing to be ready to introduce a new ground-breaking technology, Autonomous Drive, by 2020, and we are on track to realize it," Ghosn said.

Of course, in these pages we have reported on Google's efforts, even as far back as 2010 information was flowing:

Our automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to “see” other traffic, as well as detailed maps (which we collect using manually driven vehicles) to navigate the road ahead. This is all made possible by Google’s data centers, which can process the enormous amounts of information gathered by our cars when mapping their terrain.

To develop this technology, we gathered some of the very best engineers from the DARPA Challenges, a series of autonomous vehicle races organized by the U.S. Government. Chris Urmson was the technical team leader of the CMU team that won the 2007 Urban Challenge. Mike Montemerlo was the software lead for the Stanford team that won the 2005 Grand Challenge. Also on the team is Anthony Levandowski, who built the world’s first autonomous motorcycle that participated in a DARPA Grand Challenge, and who also built a modified Prius that delivered pizza without a person inside. The work of these and other engineers on the team is on display in the National Museum of American History.

A consortium of all these great minds would make headway. In the 1990s, there was some impulse towards this, but it stalled. There was efforts like this. Here's an excerpt, reporting on "progress:"

The National Automated Highway System Research Program was begun in 1992 in response to a legislative mandate for the development of an auto- mated highway system prototype and test track by 1997. To assist it in carrying out this mandate, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) created the National Automated Highway System Consortium (NAHSC) in 1994, enlisting the participation of nine leading organizations from academe and the motor vehicle, highway, electronics, and communications industries. Envisioning a fully automated, “hands-off, feet-off” system that would greatly enhance highway safety and capacity, DOT charged NAHSC with staging a public demonstration of automation concepts and technologies within 3 years. The demonstration, held in San Diego, California, in August 1997, fulfilled this mandate. DOT also charged NAHSC with specifying a pre- ferred automated highway system for future development and deployment. This goal was to be accomplished within 7 years.
Three years into the program, DOT asked the Transportation Research Board to convene an independent study committee to review the overall vision and mission of the National Automated Highway System Research Program, as well as the findings, performance, and future role of NAHSC. During the course of the committee’s 71⁄2-month assessment, DOT withdrew financial support from NAHSC. This decision apparently was driven by a de- sire on the part of the DOT to shift its priorities to encouraging adoption of nearer-term, safety-oriented technologies; it was hastened by a shortfall in research funds caused when the Intermodal Surface Transportation Effi- ciency Act expired in late 1997 and was extended temporarily by Congress. After critically examining the vision, mission, and approach of the National Automated Highway System Research Program in general, the study com- mittee concurs with this decision.

Time will tell if Nissan and Google can succeed where others failed.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Web apps - ubiquitous, but second-hand step-child of software. Will that be true forever?

Here's some good stuff from over at ZDNet:

Jo Rabin, who's leading the push by web standards body W3C to get web app performance up to scratch, is optimistic web apps will eventually be the default choice for building the majority of commercial and business apps, while the article weighs up just how much web technologies need to be improved before this could happen.

Here at Bluedog we know web applications are definitely the foundation of world-class software.

Jo Rabin believes native apps are generally first to gain access to new platform-specific hardware features — such as navigating using a phone's GPS and accelerometer or taking pictures with a phone's camera. According to Rabin, if a particular hardware feature becomes popular, standards to implement that feature in the browser will always follow. Work is taking place within W3C to standardise APIs for web technologies to access many of the features found on modern smartphones. Ongoing work this year includes setting out a system-level API to allow a web app to manage a device's contacts book, a messaging API for sending and receiving SMS and MMS, new mechanisms for capturing photos and recordings, new event triggers that could handle mouse, pen and touch inputs, a new push API to allow web apps to receive messages in the background, new media queries for responsive web design, an API for exchanging information using NFC and precise control over resource loading times in a web document.

Since the mid-nineies. the design and implementation of dynamic web-based applications has captured the interest of software developers and customers alike. With a multi-tier architecture, we've seen the evolution of scripting languages, SQL databases to back them up, and XML as a means to simplify data. Developers today are adept at session handling, working with non-desktop browser clients (such as mobiles). Architected correctly, web apps implement web services and other service-oriented concepts to achieve scalability and security. This results in huge usability gains in the web context.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Cryptography -- not as secure as we thought

An M.I.T. article looks at how encryption as we know it is less secure than we assume:

Information theory — the discipline that gave us digital communication and data compression — also put cryptography on a secure mathematical foundation. Unfortunately, as a group of researchers at MIT and the National University of Ireland (NUI) at Maynooth, demonstrated in a paper presented at the recent International Symposium on Information Theory, that assumption is false.

“We thought we’d establish that the basic premise that everyone was using was fair and reasonable,” says Ken Duffy, one of the researchers at NUI. “And it turns out that it’s not.” On both papers, Duffy is joined by his student Mark Christiansen; Muriel Médard, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT; and her student Flávio du Pin Calmon.

The problem, Médard explains, is that information-theoretic analyses of secure systems have generally used the wrong notion of entropy. But in cryptography, the real concern isn’t with the average case but with the worst case. A codebreaker needs only one reliable correlation between the encrypted and unencrypted versions of a file in order to begin to deduce further correlations. In the years since Shannon’s paper, information theorists have developed other notions of entropy, some of which give greater weight to improbable outcomes. Those, it turns out, offer a more accurate picture of the problem of codebreaking.

Read more here…

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Apple - Not the Patent Troll You Think

This article at Apple Insider provides an excellent summary of the history of Apple and its attempts to protect its intellectual property. And, by the way, the folks at Cupertino did not steal from Xerox.

The closest thing in the history of computing to a Prometheus myth is the late 1979 visit to Xerox PARC by a group of Apple engineers and executives led by Steve Jobs. According to early reports, it was on this visit that Jobs discovered the mouse, windows, icons, and other technologies that had been developed at PARC. These wonders had been locked away at PARC by a staff that didn't understand the revolutionary potential of what they had created. Jobs, in contrast, was immediately converted to the religion of the graphical user interface, and ordered them copied by Apple, starting down the track that would eventually yield the Lisa and "insanely great" Macintosh. The Apple engineers-- that band of brothers, that bunch of pirates-- stole the fire of the gods, and gave it to the people.

It's a good story. Unfortunately, it's also wrong in almost every way a story can be wrong. There are problems with chronology and timing. The testimony of a number of key figures at Apple suggests that the visit was not the revelation early accounts made it out to be. But the story also carries deeper assumptions about Apple, Xerox PARC, computer science in the late 1970s, and even the nature of invention and innovation that deserve to be examined and challenged.

So when innovators try to protect their hard work, thieving brigands should beware.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Emulate the Dutch for Healthy Citizens, Higher Quality of Life

Cycling in the Netherlands is extremely popular -- for a long time, except for a brief period post-war. The BBC has an interesting look at why bicycles are so popular in the Netherlands. This method of transport (and source of recreation) accounts for 27% all trips nationwide, and up to 59% of all trips in Dutch cities; so says Yes Magazine.

What can other countries adopt to help citizens become more fit, lower domestic reliance on petrol, and reduce congestion and pollution? In many countries bicycles, as a means of transportation, are largely ignored. Those who use bicycles to get around are often required to choose between uncomfortable, unsafe routes that go directly to their destination, or indirect, roundabout routes that provide better safety.

It seems in the Netherlands, the government is adept at providing direct, well-marked routes for bicyclists. This makes it easy to avoid busy, arterial roads with high speed traffic. This is a worthwhile step planners can take increase the number of people bicycling in DC, Dublin or elsewhere. Routes that are more direct for bicyclists provide further incentives for people to leave the car at home.

Luckily, if you want to visit European countries that are bicycle freiendly, Google has the tools you need -- especially now that they have added bike routes to many maps. Google has worked with partner organizations to map out the best and up-to-date bike routes and has added hundreds of miles of bike paths through Google Mapmaker.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

How Do You Ticket a Driverless Car?

Over at New Scientist, an interesting discussion of the legalities of robot cars. Such vehicles, like the Google Car, use a variety of onboard sensors - and, in some cases, stored maps or communications from other vehicles - to assist or even replace human drivers under specific conditions. And they have the potential to adapt to changes in existing infrastructure rather than requiring it to alter for them.

Infrastructure, however, is more than just roads, pavements, signs and signals. In a broad sense, it also includes the laws that govern motor vehicles: driver licensing requirements, rules of the road and principles of product liability, to name but a few. One major question remains though. Will tomorrow's cars and trucks have to adapt to today's legal infrastructure, or will that infrastructure adapt to them?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Snowden's Leaks -- Bad News for the Cloud?

According to Business Insider, Edward Snowden's leaking of National Security Agency (NSA) programs has signaled the end of the so-called "Cloud Bubble".

But was there ever a bubble to begin with? BI cites IBM's own admissions,

IBM used the word 14 times during its earnings call in July. “Cloud computing,” “cloud offerings,” “cloud infrastructure,” it was all there. Revenues from the cloud jumped 70% during the first half, IBM bragged – to cover up an ugly tidbit: overall revenues fell 3.3%, and revenues at its US hardware division, Systems and Technology group, plunged 12%.

Business Insider's Wolf Richter continues,

“Cloud computing you can trust,” is the motto on IBM’s Cloud site. Notwithstanding Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s unhampered access to data stored in the cloud. And it’s serious business: IBM blew $2 billion in July to acquire Softlayer Technologies, which it praised as “the world’s largest privately held cloud computing infrastructure company.” Whatever that means.

The cloud is also the big hope for another revenue-challenged high-tech hero, Oracle. Its cloud revenues were up 50%, screamed the headline on its earnings release for the fourth quarter, ended May 31, though overall revenues stagnated. In the prior quarter, revenues had dropped 1%, instead of rising, with hardware sales being an outright disaster. At the time, Oracle’s fearless leaders ridiculously blamed thousands of “new reps” for their “lack of urgency.” But the global cloud is where the action is for them.

Facebook, Amazon (its AWS hosts a number of big cloud-based websites, such as Netflix), Microsoft, Google... just about all tech companies, online retailers, social media companies, app makers, every company with online storage products, spreadsheets, calendars, collaboration tools, online data back-ups, photo-sharing sites, and what not, they’re all playing in the cloud. You log into a website to access software and your own data – that’s the cloud. In terms of hardware, it’s data centers and fiber-optic links. Thousands of them. Everywhere. Big Data takes place in the cloud. And the cloud is where the NSA goes to pick through everyone’s data.

Will government surveillance of so much private data cause a re-think of this model? I'm not sure. But I am skeptical there ever was anything besides normal growth for all things cloud. The internet itself *is* the Cloud -- from time immemorial the internet has been depicted as a cloud in architectural diagram, after all. With cloud architecture, servers and client apps can’t do everything. They are the engines for the software in between -- middleware -- that is the end reason the Cloud exists. Since the beginnings of the internet, the goal, IMHO, has been to break down the barriers between end users and the functionality they seek (be it computational power, data, or true information). And application hosting was the first step. For example, Bluedog's first offering was a version of our venerable product, Workbench, running as separate instances, connected to SAP R3 deployments -- the application service provider (ASP) model. But scaling and support for many customers made this approach untenable in the long run. The cloud aspect was there -- access complex software over the internet. But, as the architect of Workbench, I saw the need for a more balanced and flexible approach -- on that would allow much greater scalability when compared to the ASP model. Under my direction, the Bluedog team sought to support end users with direct access to a web-based applications running in a single stack -- all users and their data in one application. This cloud model enabled our customers to gain use of social collaboration tools without having to overhaul their entire infrastructure.
The scalability aspect of the cloud apply to more than just the multiple users, single database model – if the solutions in the cloud are structured correctly. Sometimes an organization will need to ramp up as future needs expand. Sometimes operations contract, entailing the dialing back of resource expenditures. In either case, change is much easier when using the cloud as the platform.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Cycling Innovation - Dutch Style

At BBC, read how a team of Dutch designers is pioneering technology to make winter journeys even safer for and more attractive to cyclists.

Reflective crystals make lines in the road more visible in poor light, while other roads are getting underground heating.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Star Trek replicator, now...

Proponents of 3D printing say it has the potential to alter radically a number of industries. Peter Marsh, FT manufacturing editor, talks to one such supporter - Abe Reichental of US-based 3D Systems - to find out how it works and if it really is a 'disruptive technology' -- from the Financial Times.

Privacy in the post-PRISM Age

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel has given her backing to proposed European privacy regulations and demanded that US firms should meet German privacy rules. Merkel's stance comes as US firms lobby against strict EU privacy proposals — but also follows revelations from Edward Snowden through German newspaper Der Spiegel, that the German authorities are helping the NSA spy on German citizens.

Update: NPR reports Germany canceled a Cold War-era surveillance pact with the United States and Britain on Friday in response to revelations by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden about those countries' alleged electronic eavesdropping operations.

Is Your Organization, well, Huggable?

The Japanese have a way with cute -- think Hello Kitty cute. Culturally, that works not just appealing to children, but as an overall marketing/communications strategy. Think about how Japan has leveraged brand characters, such as the cat. This has not been seen much outside of Muffy in the Netherlands or the Simpsons -- extending a character from the non-brand cultural space, turning it into an artifact that simultaneously signifies and does not signify a brand.

But does "cute" work elsewhere?

In a study by Rebecca Dyer, a graduate student at Yale, showed that people actually are more aggressive when they are confronted with cuteness. In the study, 90 men and women were invited to watch a slide show. Some were shown a funny slide show, others a neutral slide show, and a third group watched a cute slide show. They were instructed to pop bubbles on the bubble wrap, as many or as little as they wanted just as long as they were engaging in some form of motion. The results showed that the group that watched the cute video popped 120 bubbles while those that viewed the funny and neutral slide show only popped 80 and 100 respectively.

The research interprets this “aggressive” behavior as normal, that the cute images make us want to care for the creature (cute puppy, wide-eyed baby). Then, because we can’t, we react in a negative way with aggression. It does not seem Dyer is not suggesting that if we see a cute baby we are going to sock it in the face because we can’t take it home; she is describing a phenomenon that explains why we are so taken by child-like images.

Psychology Today examines a similar affect of cute on the brain. The study concludes that cute babies’ photos elicit a response in our brain that is different than when shown a picture of an adult, whether we are male or female. Cute is cute and it all make us want to take care of the cute thing. Women, the study says, respond more intensely to pictures of their own babies and children.

When making a purchase, many Japanese take a holistic approach to a product and its presentation. Also, they may be more concerned how the purchase will affect their individual and group identities. It is possible a Japanese consumer may want to feel secure about their purchase and seek to minimize uncertainty. An understanding of the social-cultural underpinnings of these strategies will help foreign firms compete in Japan, but may also help other organizations the U.S. and E.U. with breaking down barriers to serve customers better.

Mobile + Cloud = Results for the VA

"Mobile applications themselves will be local to the device, not cloud-based," said Jerry Ambrosh, FirstView's Senior Vice President, Health Solutions. "The Cloud Computing Environment is being used to support the VA's Mobile Device Management (MDM) solution, a Mobile Application Environment (MAE) for development, and an Internal and External App Store."

Mobile app developers will be able to access a cloud-based Veterans Health Administration's benefits system, he added.

More on Autonomous Vehicles -- the Robot Car of the Future Could Kill You

With autonomous vehicles such as the Google Car, there are potential benefits beyond reducing accidents and increasing traffic flow. We know that such cars could save time and fuel through more efficient driving and fewer traffic jams. There would be reduced accidents. And the technology could enable many groups — think, the elderly and handicapped — with the freedom of greater mobility. With BMW, Audi, Volvo, Mercedes and others hard at work on autonomous vehicles, we could see improvement in the environment by reducing greenhouse gases and pollution; and more.

Google’s driver-less cars are street-legal in three states, California, Florida, and Nevada. Eventually automated vehicles might be able to drive better, and more safely than you can -- a robot does not suffer from a drink driving problem, has no distracting texts to read, and has better reflexes.

Such technologies of course can benefit aerial vehicles, such as passenger plans and drones.

But this article in Wired explores some nuances of the ethical implications of robot cars.

On a narrow road, your robotic car detects an imminent head-on crash with a non-robotic vehicle — a school bus full of kids.... Your car, naturally, swerves to avoid the crash, sending it into a ditch or a tree and killing you in the process.

Ethical issues could also manifest as legal and policy choices. For instance, in certifying or licensing an autonomous car as safe for public roads, does it only need to pass the same driving test we’d give to a teenager — or should there be a higher standard, and why?

These kinds of questions will be addressed, by our legislature or by our courts.