A view of South Africa
Brain implants deliver new sensations
February 19, 2013News
|I might have to move up some of the dates in my upcoming novel, The Boost. It takes place in a world in which most of us carry cognitive implants. Now, with the latest news from Duke researcher, Miguel Nicolelis, I think that day may come earlier than my projected 2043. Nicolelis and his team have hooked up rats to infrared sensors, and linked them to the part of their brain that governs touch. This light is invisible to mammmels. But when it went on, the rats immediately started touching their whiskers. They felt the light as touch. (Here's the BBC report.)
The early uses for this technology will be to help people with disabilities. Conceivably, a blind person could regain sight, or some version of it, through another sense. Already, people are moving prosthetic limbs with their thoughts. But in the longer run, as I see it, advances in brain-machine technology will extend to the population at large. Imagine downloading an app where you "feel" infrared light or police radar. You might not want it on all the time. But it would have its uses.
Nicolelis has a bigger announcement coming up next month. The Telegraph speculates that he and his team may have pioneered communication between two brains. We'll see. But if that type of communication isn't coming soon, it's coming later. Eventually, I'm betting, we'll all be facing the question of whether to wire our brains--or to stay back in the cognitive slow lane.
|This is a look at one of the experiments. You can make more sense of it if you read on Nicolelis' blog and look at the other videos.
Mapusha Weaving Cooperative
|One of my key stops in South Africa this week is at the Mapusha Weaving Cooperative, in the hills near Acornhoek. My sister, Judy Miller, has worked with the weavers for the last decade. That's her with the spinner, Anna Mduli. They're building a new studio a few hundred yards away. That's the big job this summer. The new studio will be just a stone's throw from the new nursery, where I stopped by for some songs.
|I'm in South Africa, on a short trip I decided to take, literally, from one day to the next. We went to Kruger Park yesterday and this morning, and this leopard is the first animal we saw. We didn't see another cat the whole time, in part because the summer grass, as you can see, is high.
It occurred to me as I looked at this picture that the pattern recognition required to perceive a the head of leopard behind that grass comes naturally to humans--and would be exceedingly hard for computers. Spotting potential predators hiding in the grass was vital for our ancestors. And even if we spend 99.9% of our days in cities or suburbs, that uncanny ability has been handed down to us.
I should note that a tour guide spotted this animal. We stopped when we saw his halted bus, and he pointed it out to us. So despite our ability to see a leopard through the grass, we probably wouldn't have seen this one on our own. When it comes to some of these survival skills, we're a little rusty.
Ed Koch is gone. Enjoy Steve Ballmer
February 3, 2013News
|Ed Koch, the late mayor of New York, was loud, garish, outspoken, and in love with his own opinion. He considered it the truth, even when it was patently self-serving, which it often was. And he patted his own back for telling it. In short, he was insufferable--but more authentic in his own way than the great majority of fellow politicians.
In the realm of CEOs, you can say many of the same things about Microsoft's Steve Ballmer. He's loud and way out there. He's often wrong, whether he's dissing the iPhone or hyping the Zune. By most measures, he has failed spectacularly in his job. He took over a dominant (though, to be fair, declining) tech franchise and has ridden it south. Most CEOs in his position would duck interviews. But Ballmer, like Koch, is a talker. He rolls right on.
In the latest interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek
, he dismisses competition from Dropbox
. He refers to the company as a "fine little start-up" and says that 100 million users "sounds like a pretty small number to me." Apparently he thinks that a start-up with that many users is powerless to disrupt the nature of a business software market that is his cash cow. Or more likely he believes that the new cloud-based Microsoft Office responds effectively to that disruption.
It doesn't matter. We don't have too many CEOs who speak with the candor (and apparent job security) of Steve Ballmer). He reminds me of Ed Koch. If I held Microsoft stock I'd be apoplectic. But as an observer, I enjoy having him around.
IBM's Watson trundles off to college
January 30, 2013News
|IBM will be sending a version of its Watson computing system to RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic), the company announced today. It's part of IBM's ongoing effort to work with universities to train data scientists. (An earlier one, which I wrote about for BusinessWeek, was a co-production with Google.) It's little surprise that Renssalaer gets the first Watson: RPI is where David Ferrucci, the head of the Watson team, got his doctorate. And RPI computer scientists collaborated with IBM on the Jeopardy project.
This work with universities is central to IBM's Big Data strategy. As researchers use Watson for their projects, they're bound to develop applications for the system, broadening into medicine, finance, corporate governance, and scientific discovery. As they do this, the Watson technologies could evolve into a platform. It's by distributing the technology this way that IBM can hope to gain a lead over its most likely competitors in extracting learnings from Big Data. They would include Google and HP, among others.
The Numerati I've never seen
|This is the Croatian version. I'd like to have a copy for my shelves, but am still waiting for the publisher to send one. It reminded me of a record from the '60, King Crimson. (Though now that I reacquaint myself with the original, the Croatian Numerati looks a little less energetic. Might be depressed, or perhaps just resigned.)
What Symbian's fall says for Apple
January 27, 2013News
There was a time, at the turn of the century, when Nokia resembled today's Apple. The company dominated the cell phone market. It ran its factories flat out and could negotiate the best terms and prices from suppliers. For a few years, Nokia made all of the profits in the industry. Everyone else, from Motorola to Sony, was losing money in cell phones.
But to extend its dominance into the smart phone era, Nokia needed to adjust. As cell phones evolved, many expected the industry to follow the pattern established with PCs: In this scenario, the companies making the innards--the software and chips--would run off with the profits, leaving manufacturers as little more than glorified assembly shops. This was the dynamic that propelled Microsoft and Intel skyward, while pushing IBM out of the PC business and relegating Apple to a struggling niche role.
The key was to develop a software platform under the control of the phone-makers. So Nokia invited its competitors to join a consortium, and together they launched Symbian. I covered the launch, in 1999, for BusinessWeek. Researching the story, I met the key strategist for the company, an articulate Dane named Juha Christensen. As Juha described it, Symbian was the hope Europe's tech economy. Europeans, who were more advanced in cell phones, were positioned to lead the wireless stage of the Internet. This would be bigger and more transformative than the desktop version. But the phonemakers had to keep the computer companies at bay. The biggest threat was Microsoft.
A year later, Juha left Symbian… for Microsoft. I wrote that story, too. He said Symbian was a mess. What he and I didn't know at the time was that Microsoft was also destined to flounder in mobile, and that a gadget that seemed to have nothing to do with cell phones--Apple's iPod--would eventually evolve from a music machine, to a touch-screen browser, to the world's leading smart phone. We also never could have guessed that struggling Nokia would eventually hire a Microsoft executive, Stephen Elop, as CEO, and that he would lead the two former titans into an alliance of underdogs. Today, Nokia's Lumia, with Windows 8, appears a last-chance bid for both companies to rescue their future in the mobile Internet.
Nothing is clear, though, because the forces that bring dramatic change do not progress from the story lines we know, but instead hatch from ideas that we don't yet see, or even imagine. If you ask analysts about the smart-phone market five years from now, they're likely to feature today's dominent players, led by Apple, Google, and Samsung, just as an entire industry once saw a future defined by Nokia and Microsoft. Things change, often dramatically.
For example, when I was interviewing Juha back in London, it didn't occur to me that 13 years later we would be friends on a social network, that I would see his update pop up (on my phone) about the extinction of Symbian. His update was followed by reminiscences from his old colleagues. I added a memory of my own, and asked him if his departure marked the beginning of the end. He responded (and told me I could post it.)
The beginning of the end occurred half a year before, when Nokia went from supporting Symbian as an independent venture, driven by the usual entrepreneurship, opportunism, paranoia and fear that propel start-ups forward, to treating the company as a buyers cooperative, restricting its ability to control the user experience and programmability.
The seeds to what became Nokia Series 60 were sown then, and eventually led to the trouble which Nokia now, fortunately, is well into recovering from, ironically as a beneficiary of the Windows Phone platform we pioneered at Microsoft.
I love this industry. Never a dull moment.
Incidentally, I just came across this excellent post by Eugene Wei about Apple, Amazon and the Beauty of Low Margins. If you have 10 minutes and want to explore the strategies of these companies, it's worth a read. (hat tip @timoreilly) Also, Henry Blodget analyzes Apple's fallen stock, and says it could be a bargain. He does caution that Apple could follow the route of other humbled giants, such as Nokia. But he says that Apple could also settle into a prosperous slower-growth mode, in which it rewards investors with dividends. In other words, he is seeing a transition for Apple from a growth to a value stock.
What children might be thinking
|What might this boy be thinking? He's standing in the bombed-out ruins of Essen, Germany, in 1947, and is caught on film by Chim, the photographer also known as David Seymour. Writing about an exhibit of Chim's photos in the New York Times, Ken Johnson ends his short article by focusing on the boy: "Like an angel descended from heaven, he bears witness to humanity's murderous and suicidal idiocy. He might be wondering: When will they ever learn?"
He might also be spotting a cool place to play hide and seek. I'm reminded of an interview in which filmmaker Werner Herzog
recalled his childhood in post-war Germany. Here's a snippet
He noted ... that while growing up in the ruins of a city was hard on adults, it was satisfying for a child. "Kids in the cities took over whole bombed - out blocks and would declare the remnants of buildings their own to play in where great adventures were acted out. . . . Everyone I know who spent their early childhood in the ruins of post - war Germany raves about that time. It was anarchy in the best sense of the word. There were no ruling fathers around and no rules to follow. We had to invent everything from scratch."
Facebook's use of "dirty data"
|Here's an interesting experiment (that I don't have time to do). Go into your Facebook page and add up all of your "likes," and then imagine the portrait of yourself that they create. I'm guessing the result won't look much like you. This is because "likes" are about as meaningful as the word "like" in modern American English. I'm, like, not sure they mean much.
An excellent post by Steve Cheney
(hat tip: danah boyd
) delves into the issues raised by this so-called dirty data. The nut of his argument:
In computer architecture they call an out of date piece of data “dirty”. Accessing dirty data is bad, wasting time and causing more harm than good. And in this context, much of the structured data that makes up Graph Search is just that: totally irrelevant and dirty.
It turns out as much as half of the links between objects and interests contained in FB are dirty—i.e. there is no true affinity between the like and the object or it’s stale. Never mind does the data not really represent user intent... but the user did not even ‘like’ what she was liking.
He continues the post by explaining how this fits--or doesn't--into Facebook's advertising strategy. This documents the point I was making in my Times piece earlier this month: that advertisers struggle to figure out what to count in social media.
Rich health care for Brazil's poor: (GE's $42,000 knapsacks)
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