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.