Saturday, 15 December 2012

Tech fanboyism

This was a reply to the Terry Zink post that became far too long for the MSDN comments section (what a surprise :-)).

As someone who has spent the last 10-odd years coding and administering at least 50% of my time on the MS stack, I can say that there are a number of great things about many of the products and environments offered. Particularly in recent years, the performance and sophistication, not to mention security, of many MS products have overtaken other products and represent excellent ROI. However, I don't believe this is because MS management wanted to make great products, I believe it is because, through hard work and innovation, other companies were able to get around MS's rabidly anti-competitive practices and put pressure back on MS to innovate. MS has been fined billions of $£€ (cumulated) for anti-competitive business practices in many places around the world. A lot of MS products also suck...

When the Apple renaissance started about a decade ago with the introduction of a *nix-based system (based on the open-source BSD!!!), I thought it was great. Darwin was provided to the community and we might just get an open-source system with good device support, I said to myself. Later on they adopted the khtml engine and rebranded to webkit, providing a third, truly viable HTML layout engine. The extra competition would allow innovation to leap forward, particularly with the resources of Apple and later Google. And then Apple's true colours started to emerge. Patent bombs started being thrown around and they turned to their lawyers instead of their tech teams. This was Microsoft/Oracle type behaviour! Forget innovation, let's use the lawyers instead! "Hey, we invented the touchscreen, give us money", "hey, we invented multi-touch, give us money". Yeah right... The final nail in the coffin for me was learning about Steve Job's "Mercedes manoeuvre". Any able-bodied billionaire who uses a legal loophole not only to park in parking spots for people with lives far more difficult than his, but also to AVOID PAYING THE FINE is going to get as little of my money as humanly possible. This in spite of the fact that he would probably my hero for his carpenter quote - the passion to constantly push the boundaries in search of perfection is something that resonates on a very deep level with me.

In my personal situation, Facebook is probably the closest example of what you are talking about. While I am quite sensitive to/aware of privacy issues, I am willing to accept the benefits and I understand the costs. I choose to partake of this new world of ultra-connectivity and zero privacy. I was probably one of the first hundred million or so users but recently actually "closed down" (I know, not really possible) my account for quite a while. Ostensibly it was in protest at Facebook's lack of respect for privacy and the fact that basically your data, once you put it on their systems, becomes THEIRS. In reality it was fanboy behaviour - Google was coming out with G+ and I wanted them to succeed.

So I'm a Google fanboy. Why? Because of a couple of things, one being "Do no evil". While they do plenty of evil, having that as a guiding principle says a lot about the values of management and the company. The second reason is that, in most areas at least, Google competes mainly through simply being better. They have the "we don't need patents/lawyers to protect our work, we are innovating so fast that by the time the competition works out how to copy us we're already 2 generations ahead" attitude. They have their share of secrecy. They have their share of privacy issues. They have their share of quality issues. They have their share of product management issues. But they are also staunch supporters of FOSS in many areas, and I believe that FOSS is fundamentally a tool that can be used to address many of the radical economic differences we see in countries around the world. After all, if only rich people/countries get access to the best tech, they will stay rich and the poor will stay poor. It's very complicated but for me there is truth in this.

But other companies do more in open-source, like Oracle, for example. Yep, but they are also probably worse than Apple on patents, and there is no altruism in their business practices whatsover (proof that FOSS is not just for "commies"!). IBM? Yeah, they are Ok but also are heavily invested in patents and they no longer really make consumer devices, so it's hard to be a fanboy...

Things also change. Not only have my anti-MS rants softened markedly (and your posts are honestly a factor in that!) over the past few years, in some areas I actually really want MS to succeed - I think having three or more viable mobile eco-systems will benefit us all. Now that MS is being forced to compete on the merits of their products, great things are starting to happen again. I am also getting completely fed up with Google's America-is-all-that-really-counts attitude. A lot of products are released first in the US and often don't make it outside there for months or years, if at all. They make absolutely NO attempt to communicate this until you've already got excited about it. You feel they have that good ol' "Europe, oh shucks, sorry folks, we can't support all of the Canadian provinces at this time". Amazon is also bad like this. Apple and MS at least make a good attempt and often do a very good job at doing global releases. Though I haven't followed their tech much, Facebook seem to only do global (at least for what is visible to the casual consumer), and I recently reactivated my account - I still don't like their interface or privacy policies but it is a useful service so why not...

Yes, we all need to feel part of a tribe. This is a deep psychological need that has evolved over the last million or so years. It is part of being human. We now live in massive, impersonal cities and in this context sharing things like sports teams and brands performs an essential function in how we interact on a basic level. But there are also rational parts to these (ok, not so much with sports teams...) and I reject that these are always ex post facto. Many people are not quite as stupid or ignorant as many think and there are genuine VALUE decisions being made. Google better represents my values than the alternatives, and on certain issues I feel deeply enough about social, economic and technical issues that push me to strongly reject some of the participants. But like everything actually real in the world as opposed the abstract constructions of the ivory towers, it's actually all rather shades of grey than black and white...

Sunday, 5 August 2012

On foie gras

When I arrived in the South-West of France from NZ 8 years ago, I refused to eat foie gras and acted as indigninantly as possible whenever anyone ate it in my presence. Relatives and friends that come to see me often act similarly. I am adventurous though (I went out of my way to eat as many different things as I could when in China, for example), and I didn't get past the first Christmas before actually trying it. And that was that. It tastes GOOD. Many, many French people have exactly the same reaction "yeah, it's not a particularly nice way to do things... but it's not really cruel, and they are better treated than chickens and it's traditional, and... it's just so damned TASTY!".
What really, really annoys me though about the "affaire foie gras" is that it shows how completely biased and voluntarily blind to the facts people are. Yep, it's a little bit nasty but it's nothing even close to bear baiting, dog/cock fighting, or the other really heinous crimes against animals like battery farming or milk farming in the Saudi Arabian desert. I personnally know people who raise ducks for foie gras and to even compare the lot of foie gras ducks (or geese) with a battery chicken is fundamentally dishonest.
So the reality is that people pick their battles. I live in the certainty that those who promote foie gras bans are active to more or less of a degree in the fight against factory farming - the problem is that "real American", or "pure British" or "fine German" farmers do that, so they can just forget about actually doing anything about it. Let's just pick on the Frenchies. They have a funny accent and everyone remembers "Allô allô"... so we don't actually have to take them seriously. Singling out foie gras makes you feel good but you are actually not making any useful change at all.
The real problem is our current consumption-based economy that favours some pseudo-scientific view of "the market" and "growth". There is a fundamental disconnect between the realities of production and our appreciation of it. Whether it be food production ("what, that steak comes from an animal? That's horrible!") in particular or any other kind, the realities (the "tradition" in many senses) have been abstracted away to leave nothing but seemingly rational and scientific equations and graphs. We now have entire industries dedicated to studying and predicting the future "value" of interest or exchange rates. How are we supposed to be able to think clearly about animal welfare when we go from sanitised home to sanitised office and back again and the only actual life we get exposed to are the germs on the tube?!? You can attempt to cure cancer with morphene but you won't succeed - you have to remove the cancer. Anyway...
It is definitely worth looking in detail at one aspect people often talk about regarding the raising and eating of animals: intelligence. Humans have farmed flora and fauna for millenia. Today we farm lettuces in hydroponics labs right up to monkeys for experiments. Most of the foie gras haters would probably not eat hydroponics-grown lettuces but they are not on a crusade against them either. So lettuces are "Ok", as are aubergines, mushrooms,... but what about fish? Factory fish farming, even if it's done in picturesque fjords, is nasty and dirty. But because there are basically no "natural" fish left, we'll let it slide. We then, at least in anglo-saxon kitchens, move on to the birds as we "climb the evolutionary ladder in our larder". Ducks might be a little more intelligent than chickens but we are already faced with incoherence. Anyone with any knowledge of how things are done knows that battery chickens have had any semblance of "life" completely removed. They are simple carbs + vitamins/minerals to protein conversion engines. They are pumped full of hormones (yes, in California "the term "natural" can legally apply to cattle raised on corn, hormones and antibiotics, and kept in confinement for a full year", thanks and anti-biotics and everything about their existence (length of day even!) is optimised for quick and profitable protein creation. But it doesn't just stop there - we move on to cattle. In the US, and yes even in California, the beef production factories churn out billions of pounds of low quality, carbon-spewing, genetically modified bovine protein each year. Cows are not spectacularly intelligent but most would agree that they can suffer, and do when raised in the conditions they are. Google it.
But then we move on the the real doozie - pork. In English we have two words for many common animals - one for the physical animal and one for its meat. Pork on the one hand and swine/pig on the other. There is a historical reason for this but I like to think it helps some people forget about the fact they are actually eating an animal. And a pig is not only an animal, it is a highly intelligent and empathetic one. Pigs are more intelligent even than dogs, and share many things with humans, like many diseases and even the taste of our flesh! And yet the factory farming of pigs is a world-wide phenomenon that is not really under any threat. The monstrous inhumanity we show towards such a magestic animal makes the foie gras raising French (and Spanish too!) look almost like the SPCA when we factor in intelligence and the level of sentience associated with their living conditions. And the foie gras haters know this to be true - it's just easier to pick on the French, those Commie-frog-leg-lovin' Europeans!
I will never forget the delightful irony of a couple of "vegetarian" girls I flatted with at varsity. "It's cruel and we don't need to eat animals". They often got quite passionate about defending the rights of animals and the conditions we accepted, even in "clean, green NZ". Except for every now and then when we had a fry-up on Sunday morning, and all conviction melted away in front of the almighty Bacon. "It just tastes sooooo GOOD!".

Sunday, 8 July 2012

The Next Steps

The Next Steps

From the very beginning of our existence as a species, humans have been imagining new technologies that will make it possible for us to work, play and live in novel ways. Leonardo da Vinci is famous for having imagined such things as helicopters many centuries before we had the actual know-how to build them. Science fiction writers of the last century, including actual scientists like Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov, have oft imagined what the future might be like from a similar point of view.

As a geek I have long been fascinated by technology, real and fictional. While you can never really identify a single point for massive changes in the way we live - there are myriad influences and forces at work in anything that happens on this earth (as the wonderful British documentary series Connections shows) - I believe we are at the dawn of a new revolution in the way we work, play, and in general go about our everyday lives. A lot of people I talk to are sceptical about my view of where technology is heading - it sounds more science-fiction than science-fact to many - but I don’t see anything science-fictiony about the technologies that are coming out of today's research labs and tech corporations.

Few people would argue that the personal computer and mobile phone/computing revolutions haven’t already transformed the way we live our lives. Most of the time we are now in front of, or at least have in our pockets, a device connected to a wonderful interconnected network of knowledge and computing tools. You can even go into the mountains and remain connected so you might upload (in real time) the photo of an eagle that just flew overhead or stream your marriage proposal beside a glacial lake. The remaining blackspots are fast being filled - even the poorer countries of Africa are being connected to “the web” at breakneck speed. Soon we will be connected to the internet wherever in the world we go - sometimes whether we like it or not.

Before talking about the 3 current technologies that, when they mature and come together, will transform our lives, it would be remiss not to talk about two of the major difficulties that have limited the turning of science fiction into science fact in the recent past. One is safety, the other is energy. These are actually closely related, and the current (fissile) nuclear energy debate is a perfect illustration of the issues. In spite of the resources spent on alternative energy technologies1, we are still to find anything remotely as good as fossil fuels in terms of energy density, dependability, cost and safety. And fossil fuels suck! The promise of clean, safe and basically free, energy for all has not come from fissile nuclear technologies. The ballooning costs of the few new projects that are under construction make nuclear look ever less defensible, and that was before Fukushima. Now entire countries have decided to completely remove existing nuclear installations - with a few exceptions like China, fissile nuclear tech looks like it is going to die a slow death. The reason is simple - it produces nasty, nasty radioactive material that we still have absolutely no idea what to do with, and if things go wrong, they can go very, very wrong. In order to have any sort of certainty, and so safety, the money and resources required make it far too expensive. Nothing apart from nuclear looks doable at reasonable cost for producing energy with high reliability.

This brings us to one of the great failures of scifi-to-science - where are the flying cars? A quick search on the net will turn up many ideas but almost no substance, certainly nothing like the novels and films have been promising. Safety and energy are the problem here too. Keeping an object large enough to safely hold humans and transport them at high speed is hard enough when many people are involved and the routes (start, end and in between) are highly restricted. We are absolutely nowhere near the majority of the population being able to fly to the bakery to buy their fresh croissants and Sunday paper. Fossil fuels simply don’t have the energy density and anything similar is simply too volatile/dangerous to send hurtling around at high speeds.

So moving around heavy objects quickly and safely is beyond us for the moment. But what if we don’t move? Or rather, what if what we are moving are not whole atoms but just electrons and photons? We can very safely move large quantities of information from one side of the planet to the other in micro-seconds. I am writing this in a web browser, and the movement of my fingers is being translated into binary on magnetic platters somewhere thousands of kilometres away in mere micro-seconds. While teleportation technologies are still far from reach2, projecting ourselves and interacting with others’ projections is very quickly becoming a reality. One of the main areas of research in computing today, whether it be for military or consumer purposes, is undoubtedly freeing ourselves from the mice, keyboards and screens that shackle us in our daily lives, whether it be in work or play.

About a decade ago when I was doing my computing degree, I went to see a talk by a guy from the University of Washington who was visiting the Human Interface Technology ( at Canterbury University in Christchurch, NZ. One of the things he talked about was a fighter pilot helmet project they were working on with the US military. The goal was to “increase the bandwidth to the brain”. Maybe I just didn’t stick with it enough but at the time it struck me as a little fanciful. When I saw the latest Google Glass demos that talk came back to me, I realised that we are now truly talking about “bandwidth to the brain”.
There have been many advances visible outside the military since I heard that talk - one that proves just how close we are to having this tech in our everyday lives is that shown by Pranav Mistry and the others in his team (which is run by Pattie Maes I think). Most of my colleagues thought this video was a hoax when I first discovered and showed it to them back in early 2010. The tech was apparently doable with $300-odd worth of hardware and he was going to post the code as open source3. Mistry hasn’t made the headlines much since then but others, like Google, are happy to do so! The idea behind all of this is the same though - free ourselves from fixed screens and let information enrich the world as we move through it.
There are some advantages in using glasses over actual surfaces - other light sources won’t interfere as much and you don’t necessarily want passersby to be looking at your personal photos while you’re sorting through them waiting for an ice cream. Glasses avoid that problem. Glasses are not perfect though - they can fall off, break, and they get dirty. It would be much better if this stuff was just “installed”.
Chip technology is now at a point where blind (or almost) people can be helped to see again using implants.
This technology will get better quickly - it has massive and obvious medical applications for blind people, much like cochlear implants for deaf people. Unlike the audible channel, humans are well adapted to absorbing massive quantities of information through the visual channel. Military and law enforcement would benefit hugely from an overlay of information on normal sight. Glasses like Google’s will become common in the coming years. For driving, flying, or basically anything where large amounts of information can save lives, these objects may well soon be mandatory. When people are used to wearing these glasses and they become internalised as objects of our daily lives, many people will start asking for them to just get implanted. “Then I don’t have to worry about forgetting/breaking/losing them.” The accompanying processing and power sources will get smaller as to be almost negligible - see what has happened to pacemakers over the last few years and you will realise that this is not just a fantasy. Technologies are emerging that may in fact let these body-internal electronic objects be powered directly by the body’s heat or other natural electromagnetic or kinetic sources.
When we arrive at a sufficient level of sophistication, probably only a few years from now, we will be able to experience a fully immersive visual experience from the comfort of our own couches.

But passively absorbing information or having it overlain on our visual world is only half the puzzle. Tech like Mistry’s 6th Sense, or even Microsoft’s Kinect, tries to free us from computer input devices by enabling us to “ouput” information without using foreign objects like keyboards, mice, or game controllers. Make a rectangle shape with your fingers and a picture is taken. Make a grabbing gesture towards a picture of a chart on a physical page and throw it onto the computer screen to include it in your project presentation. Siri, and particularly the new Google Voice Search technologies appearing on our cellphones, are finally bringing the hands-free computing experience that we have been promised for so long. These are definitely interesting advances and will certainly transform how we interact with technology and others. They are in our living rooms and pockets now, and will soon be in our kitchens, garages, bathrooms and even bedrooms (“Hal, is that rain I hear? Is it going to rain all day?”).
All these technologies are, however, limited by physical presence and physical movement. If we are going to truly free ourselves from the shackles of physical output (or output for computer input) devices then we need to get past fingers, arms, or voice.
Technology is now appearing that will let computers directly read electrical impulses as they are produced in our brains. With or without electrodes.
Again, the first uses will clearly be for medical and military purposes. Severely physically handicapped people will be able to have some sort of autonomy again, and telepresence robots will become almost natural. Robotic soldiers, controlled by real humans from the comfort of HQ will finally be able to provide the “surgical” accuracy smart bombs were supposed to, all with no risk to a soldier’s (physical) health. Physical speed and coordination become obsolete - we can now enter into a world of direct interaction with the world via multiple outlets in multiple places without being constrained by height, weight, strength or any other physical trait.
Exactly the same comment about the miniaturisation and “installation” of this technology holds as it does for the input technology.

So what does all this mean? With these newfound means of interacting with the world, there will be new media (or is that mediums?) via which we will interact. As we increasingly rely on tech to interact with other human beings, behavioural analysis will be able to reach a level of sophistication only dreamed of now. As our entire online lives are now observed by Google, Facebook, or other next-gen tech companies, so our entire lives will be tomorrow, by these or new companies. Some will resist these “advances”. And like Google or Facebook don’t try and force you to be observed by them now, the companies of tomorrow won’t either. If you want to hang out in a true virtual world with your friends from all around the world then you’ll let them sit in though. You are more than welcome to unplug and actually go and see each of your friends. Wouldn’t you rather do both though? With this level of immersion and the vast computing resources of tomorrow, virtual realities indistinguishable from “real” realities, and true artificial intelligence may just be around the corner. Whether they are for sooner or later, virtual realities and intelligences that are at least helpful and fun are here now. As gigantic compute centres proliferate across the globe, what we now think of as mere “games” will become far more important. What if you had a virtual office where you could actually “walk” about, have “real” meetings, or even “shake hands” and do the latin morning kisses (all without the risk of those pesky germs)! Want to spend more time with the kids? Want to avoid travel but the boss still wants you to be “observable” at all times? Does the call centre person or front desk secretary really need to have a physical brain, or would a sophisticated expert system that is able to understand and answer questions not be better? If virtual contact can produce the same electrical impulses in the brain, then why bother with the risk of breaking limbs on a mountain bike, or of getting bitten by a real snake (or a metaphorical one ;-))? Better yet, why not mix and match and have both? Have a tennis game with your brother in Melbourne and then romantic walk along the beach in (virtual) Rio with your girlfriend, who is physically in New York?

Online games and realities are already becoming highly compelling places to spend both our work and leisure time. Is this not simply the logical extension of what Pranav Mistry says when he says we need to free ourselves of technology by immersing ourselves in it and letting it enrich our experiences?

None of the technologies I talk about here are new. None of them require fundamental advances - they just need to get more sophisticated. The “resolution” needs to get better, the batteries smaller, the memory bigger, and the networking and processing faster. Nobody doubts these things now. And it seems that every year the advances in technology get bigger and faster - not slower. Anyone over the age of 25 can only marvel at the thought of having a 1.5 GHZ quad-core, 2GB memory machine in their pocket. Was that even imaginable 20 years ago? Will we not be able to miniaturise today’s technology over the next 20 years? Make the resolution better? The processing faster? The batteries smaller?
There are definitely areas where our “imaginations have been bigger than our brains”, so to speak. We don’t have flying cars or intergalactic space travel, and alien encounters notwithstanding, I don’t see us having them even in the mid-to-long term. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t posed for a major revolution in the way we live...
Whatever technologies are going to take the world by storm over the next  couple of decades, one thing is certain: the next revolution is most certainly going to be televised!

1. Let’s not get into the “Oil companies buy up/get rid of the alternative technologies” debate. While there may be some of that going on - I refuse to believe that it would do any more than delay new tech, and we haven’t seen anything really useful at all yet. So whether it happens or not is a little irrelevant, proven by countries like China and India, who have no real interest in supporting Western Big Oil and are yet to make any serious advances, in spite of the resources poured into it.
2. Though 3D painting is starting to suggest how things might eventually get done...
3. Which he finally did earlier this year!