Covid 2: The Best/Worst of Times

This is part two of a series on the lessons we should, and shouldn’t be drawing from the Coronavirus Pandemic. Part One is here.

Woman Wearing Mask on Train
Remembering the Cluetrain/Anna Shvets, Moscow

A crisis defines us. Perhaps more precisely, a crisis highlights what we have lost, and what defines us is how quickly we can regain it (or not).

First there’s the humanity. One of the redeeming features about Hong Kong’s dense life — and a restorer of faith in human nature — was that once you got into the hills and trails passing strangers would greet each other as if they were on a jaunt in Kew Gardens. It’s a strange world now, when we venture out alone and nervously pass another lone pedestrian at a safe distance, and bark when they get too close. And you know we are in the territory beyond compassion when a family loses one of its kind to the coronavirus, and yet doesn’t want to say that is the reason for fear of stigma. Society, even at its smallest component unit, can break down quickly if social norms don’t catch up with the crisis in its midst. Now that family (friends of a friend) can’t properly mourn, or warn others in the tightly packed neighbourhood where they live of a lethal infection, and those around can’t find a way to offer support because they can’t speak the killer’s name out loud. Empathy withers, rumours prosper and dog ignores dog.

But there are other trends afoot. When there are practical things to do, air rushes in to fill the gaps. Our obsession with just-in-time supply chains has exposed its achilles heel — a lack of the things we need the most. But others have stepped up. A group calling itself OSCMS-Mods (Open Source Covid-19 Medical Supplies) has emerged on Facebook “to evaluate, design, validate, and source the fabrication of open source emergency medical supplies around the world.” It has quickly proved its mettle: a document listing needs ranges from hand sanitizer to laryngoscopes, complete with glossary and warnings about safety and liability.

The Facebook group is dynamic. At the time of writing it has nearly 48,000 members. In the past hour or so I’ve seen posts by an electrical engineering instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison mulling whether to assign as a final project to his students an infrared thermometer. Others chip in, saying they’re working on something similar, offering advice (“don’t forget to program in an emissivity factor”) or help (“I’m pretty fast with 3D modeling and a 3D printer. If you guys need some help with the casing, hit me up!”). In another post a resident of Vancouver Island reports, after driving 500 km, that there is no hand sanitiser or isopropyl on the island. Some offer alternatives (not all them wise) but someone in Hong Kong offers a simpler solution: shipping some of the excess from Hong Kong, where emergency orders arrived too late and the price has fallen below its suppliers’ cost. Medical workers from Southampton, New York, post a photo of themselves in full gear to ask for help alleviate a shortage of surgical caps and masks. The jury is still out on this one, but there are some good suggestions, and hopefully the gap is plugged.

Such adhoc approaches are reassuring. For one thing, people want to help, and the platforms are there to make that a reality — Facebook, with its groups, and a growing mastery of the technology: 3D printing, materials, Arduinos and Raspberry Pis. Of course, these initiatives are only going to be meaningful if they are consistent, and find a way of ensuring that requests for help are not just met by comments and virtue-signalling responses, but concrete action. Time will tell. Technology can often be a hammer looking for a nail.

I think another side to this that may outlast these emergency responses is that the technology will find a way through to real usage, rather than a pure business model. In other words, that tools emerge not because people want to make money, but because they can be useful, and there’s nothing like a jolt to the system for us to realise we need different, or better tools and to define those needs better. A piece in TechCrunch relates how Jahanzeb Sherwani, who developed a popular screensharing app called ScreenHero which he sold to Slack, pushed out a follow-up app called Screen ahead of time — and made it free — to help teams stuck at home share their screens. Given how quickly we’ve grown sick of the ‘heads in a box’ conferencing view (where everyone to me looks like they’re baffled seniors, looking around for their false teeth) this tool works well by going the other way, realising that we’re online to work on something, not look up each other’s noses.

Image result for zoom multiple members
Zoom

This reminds me much more of the 2000-2005 era, when collaboration and thoughtfulness tended to be the norms, a post-boom pause which led to the development (or propagation) of the tools that became Web 2.0, and which in turn provided the (largely unacknowledged) foundations of the social media era. I’m thinking RSS, XML, podcasts, wikis, tagging, web-based apps, microformats, the Cluetrain Manifesto, simple beautiful interfaces. If you think we could have got to Twitter, Facebook etc without the work of largely unrewarded pioneers of that age, you’re mistaken. But it was born out of a particular era, a transition from the web’s beginnings to the mobile, silo-ed era we know today. It was a vastly underestimated period, where an explosion of ideas and connectedness led to an explosion of tools to make the most of that. Nearly all those tools were open source, nearly all became bedrock of these later, frankly more selfish, times. But the spirit, it seems, lives on, and I am hoping that what I’m seeing in initiatives like OSCMS and Sherwani’s generosity is something akin to that: a realisation that technology is the handservant, not of viral growth and big payoffs, but of building connections between us – in times of calamity (personal or global) and beyond, by providing tools for free because they might be useful and might lead to something great.

I don’t think for a moment that these initiatives will of themselves be enough; it’s clear that nearly every public medical facility and service was woefully underfunded and hence underprepared. No battery of 3D printers is going to be able to fill that void. But hopefully the level of interest and involvement — call it civic, call it individualist — in trying to address that gap contributes to a broader discussion about what is our baseline for supplying, funding, equipping and populating such services in the future. And just as Wikipedia arose, not out of commissioning existing experts to write up entries (an effort that failed abysmally) but out of just letting anyone — no need to flash credentials — to contribute and allow the water level to rise by itself, so may we find that out of this Quarantined Era emerges a new sense of how individuals might contribute, and what mechanisms and tools need to be developed or honed to make that happen.

Big, or Bigger: Southeast Asia’s Tech Economy in 2025

Google and Temasek have been taking a crack at estimating and predicting the size of Southeast Asia’s ecommerce economy for the past four years, starting in 2016 (yes, I know that’s three years but they’ve put out four reports, the latest this week, so there.) 

I’ve not had a close look at this report, there’s obviously some good stuff in there, and it’s easy to pick holes in this kind of thing, but it pays to be humble. I’ve done my own chart, below, taken the data from each report about their predictions for 2025, and how they’ve changed over time. The four left columns are more or less the years of the estimate (2016 assessed 2015 for some reason, while the others did the year the report was released in); the right four stacks are the estimates for 2025 in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively. You can see how much their view has changed. 

The first year there was no separate estimate for ride hailing; it clearly wasn’t considered to be a significant sector, or likely to be one. I think a smarter analysis would have seen that one coming. It was 2016 already, and Grab was already the region’s biggest unicorn. Then there’s the huge disparity in estimates between 2017 and 2018, the third- and second-to right columns, and then between last year and this. Overall, between 2016 and 2019 the report upped its project by 50%, from $200 billion to $300 billion. 

Of course, it pays for all those involved to cheerlead the region; no one is going to say things are going to get better, and it’s a good headline to say ‘we goofed up by underestimating how well things are going’. But these are big numbers, and big discrepancies. If nothing else, it’s a good reminder that such estimates need to be taken with a big grain of salt. 

Google Temasek estimate of ecommerce market size in Southeast Asia 2016 2019

Connected cows, cars and crockery prod chip mega mergers

My Reuters piece attempting to place the recent chip mergers in a longer timeline. Yes, I hate the term internet of things too. 

Connected cows, cars and crockery prod chip mega mergers | Reuters:

SINGAPORE/TAIPEI | BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF AND MICHAEL GOLD

Chip companies are merging, signing $66 billion worth of deals this year alone in preparation for an explosion of demand from all walks of life as the next technological revolution takes hold: the Internet of Things.

As cars, crockery and even cows are controlled or monitored online, each will require a different kind of chip of ever-diminishing size, combining connectivity with processing, memory and battery power.

These require makers to pool resources and intellectual property to produce smaller, faster, cheaper chips, for a market that International Data Corp said would grow to $1.7 trillion by 2020 from $650 billion last year.

By comparison, chip markets for personal and tablet computers are stagnant or in decline, and even smartphones are near peaking, said Bob O’Donnell, a long-time consultant to the chip industry.

‘We’re very much done in terms of growth of those traditional markets,’ said O’Donnell. ‘That’s why they are looking at this.’

Last month saw the biggest-ever chip merger with Avago Technologies Ltd agreeing to buy Broadcom Corp for $37 billion. That eclipsed the $17 billion Intel Corp agreed last week for Altera Corp, and the $12 billion NXP Semiconductors NV offered in March for Freescale Semiconductor Ltd.

On Friday, Lattice Semiconductor Corp said it was open to a sale.

 

CONNECTED COWS

The Internet of Things relies on chips in devices wirelessly sending data to servers, which in turn process the data and send results to a user’s smartphone, or automatically tweak the devices themselves.

Those devices range from a light bulb to a nuclear power plant, from a smartwatch to a building’s air-conditioning system. This range presents both opportunity and a challenge for semiconductor companies: their potential customer base is huge, but diverse, requiring different approaches.

Qualcomm Inc, for example, is used to selling chips to around a dozen mobile phone manufacturers. The Internet of Things has brought it business from quite different players, from makers of water meters to street lights that sport modems and traffic-monitoring cameras. All have their own needs.

‘You can’t think the new market is just like the old one,’ Qualcomm Vice President of Marketing Tim McDonough said in an interview.

Qualcomm estimates that the Internet of Things will bring in more than 10 percent of its chip revenue this business year.

And then there are those cows. Instead of monitoring herds by sight, farmers in Japan have tagged them with Internet-connected pedometers from Fujitsu Ltd and partner Microsoft Corp, to measure when they might be ready for insemination. Cows in season, it turns out, tend to pace more.

SPECK OF CHIP

This new business is pushing chip companies together in part to consolidate their expertise onto one chip, a trend forged by mobile phones.

The Avago-Broadcom deal, for instance, brings together motion control and optical sensors from Avago with chips from Broadcom that specialize in connectivity via wireless technologies such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

In the past ‘if you wanted to build a board that has all the components, then you needed to buy three different chips,’ said Dipesh Patel of ARM Holdings PLC, which licenses much of the technology inside mobile phones – and, increasingly, in the Internet of Things.

‘Now you only need to buy one chip. But you’re trying to get more of the same system on the same chip.’

As chips get smaller, they could be tiny enough to ingest, according to Vital Herd Inc. The Texas-based startup’s pill-like sensor, once a cow swallows it, can transmit vital signs, warning farmers of illness and other problems.

Jen-Hsun Huang, co-founder and chief executive officer of graphics chips maker Nvidia Corp, predicts chips will shrink to the size of a speck of dust and find their way into almost anything, from shoes to cups.

‘Those little tiny chips, I think they’re going to be sold by the trillions,’ Huang said in an interview. ‘Maybe even sold by the pound.’

PROCESSING

Installing chips into end products is only one side of the equation. The more things connect, the bigger the number and capability of servers needed to process the vast amount of specialized data those chips transmit.

To meet the demand, Intel could employ chips for its servers designed by new purchase Altera that analyze streams of similar data – specializing in one function, as opposed to multiple functions like chips inside personal computers – industry consultant O’Donnell said.

Combining such strengths is going to be vital, said Malik Saadi of ABI Research, because consolidation is not over yet.

More chip companies ‘will have to make that radical decision to merge,’ said Saadi. ‘This is just the starting point.’ 

(Additional reporting by Liana Baker in New York; Editing by Christopher Cushing)”

BBC: Cluetraining Disruption

Has technology, convinced of its own rectitude, lost its sense of moral direction? 

Disruptive innovation is one of those terms that worms its way into our vocabulary, a bit like built-in obsolescence or upselling. It’s become the mantra of the tech world, awhich sees its author Clayton Christensen, as a sort of messiah of the changes we’re seeing in industries from taxis, hotels and media. Briefly put the theory goes: existing companies are undercut and eventually replaced by competitors who leverage technology to come up with inferior but good enough alternatives — think the transistor radio displacing vacuum tube radios — or come up with wholly new products that eventually eclipse existing markets — think the iPhone killing off the MP3 player (and radios, and watches, and cameras, and guitar tuners etc.) 

Backlash 

A backlash has emerged against this theory, partly because it’s somewhat flawed — even Prof Christensen himself has misapplied it, as in the case of the iPhone — but also because it’s scary. Uber may be a great idea if you’re looking for a ride, but not if you’re an old-style cabbie. Airbnb is great for a place to crash, but feels like a car crash if you’re running a real b’n’b. And don’t get me started on being a journalist.   But there’s a much bigger problem here. The tech world is full of very inspiring, bright, charismatic people and that’s one reason I choose to write about it for a living. But it has changed in the past decade or so, undeniably. 15 years ago, just before the last dot.com crash, a tome appeared: The Cluetrain Manifesto, and you’d either read it or you hadn’t. It was a collection of writings by some fine thinkers, the great bloggers of the day like Doc Searls and Dave Weinberger. The main thesis: the Internet is unlike ordinary, mass media, because it allows human to human conversations — and that this would transform marketing, business, the way we think. Markets are conversations, it said.   For a while we were giddy with the power this gave us over corporations. We could speak back to them — on blogs, and later on what became known as social media. Even Microsoft hired a blogger and let him be a tiny bit critical of things at Redmond.

Last blast

Looking back, it was probably the last naive blast of the old dying Internet rather than a harbinger of the new. The language, if not the underlying philosophy, lives on in conferences and marketing pitches. Most social media conversations are harsh, mostly inhuman — we refer to deliberate online baiters as trolls, which I suppose makes them subhuman — and we’ve largely given up influencing the companies we do business with except in the occasional diatribe or flash hashtag full frontal mob assault.

And more importantly, there is no longer any of that idealism or utopianism in any startup movement that I can see. For sure, we cheer on these players because they seem to offer something very seductive, from free email, calendars, spreadsheets to cheaper rides, stays, music, video and goodies, to shinier bling, gadgets, wearables and cars. And they all sing the same mantra: we’re disruptive, we’re disintermediating, we’re leveraging technology, we’re removing friction, we’re displacing old cozy cartels, we’re doing it all for you.

The problem is that underneath this lies an assumption, an arrogance, that technology is a natural ally of good, that disruption is always a good thing, that the geeks parlaying it into products are natural leaders, and that those opposing it are reactionaries, doomed to the scrapheap.

Rapid cycle

The result: we’re just getting into a more rapid cycle of replacing one lot of aloof, cloth-eared giants with another lot, who in short order will be replaced by another. Microsoft, IBM, and HP, the giants of when Cluetrain was written, have been replaced by Amazon, Apple, Alibaba, Facebook and Google, all of them as hard to hold a conversation with as Microsoft ever was. And the big players of tomorrow, which may or may not be Uber, Airbnb, Tencent and Twitter, don’t seem particularly interested in a conversation either.

We need to recover some of that old Cluetrain idealism, naivety, when we thought that what we were doing was building a new platform for anyone to use, to talk back to authority, to feel heard and appreciated — and not just a cult-like celebration of the rugged individuals who dismantled Babel only to build a bigger, shinier and more remote one its place.

This was a piece I wrote and recorded for the BBC World Service. It’s not Reuters content – JW

BBC: The Decline of Self Expression

Here’s a BBC piece which the World Service broadcast recently. This isn’t Reuters content.

It’s taken us a long time to get to here, but I think I can safely declare us as, dextrously speaking, back before the caveman.

If we had stumbled into your average cave in about 40,000 BC, we might have chanced upon someone drawing on his bedroom wall, as it were, mixing ochre, hematite and charcoal. We might call this the dawn of manual input of user generated content.

Avail yourself of public transport these days and the best you’ll likely see would be a few people swiping upwards on their mobile screen in a now-familiar gesture meaning — I’m reading about my alleged friends on Facebook to check they’re not doing anything as exciting as I am.

You might, if you’re lucky, see someone actually trying to input some user generated content. A caveman would notice with some surprise that this is not as easy as it was in his day. One old fella I saw laboriously typing a missive on his iPad, tapping out each letter with one finger of his left hand, his right hand holding the device. Indeed, for the most part that is how people write on their mobile devices. Some have physical keyboards, but these are an endangered species.

Why is this a problem? Well, let me count the ways. Firstly, it’s kind of distressing to see people tap away at their screens like hens. Fifty years ago we’d have been lovingly writing letters, poems, diaries in longhand, dipping our quills in ink. Or at least gazing out the window composing poetry in our head.

The other reason is that we think we’re clever, and that somehow each iteration of technology is an advance. It’s an advance for people who make money out of us buying these devices, plugging them into a network and sharing pictures of frowning cats. It’s not an advance in terms of what we’ve come to call interfaces – of making it easier for us to convey our feelings, thoughts and mental creations from our head to others via a permanent or semi-permanent canvas.

In that sense it’s quite a retreat. We’re basically using a century-old technology — the QWERTY typewriter — to enter our thoughts into a device that’s more powerful than the one which put men on the moon. On a keypad the size of a matchbox. And on a piece of glass. That isn’t the sound of keys being hit, it’s the sound of cave people laughing at us.

One of my colleagues feels it necessary to add an apology to the bottom of his overly short emails from his mobile phone, I’m told: apologies if I sound terse, I’m not. I’m writing this on my phone. I can think of no greater indictment of our devices than having to apologise because entering text into them is so fiddly they don’t allow us to express ourselves adequately.

Now the thing is, it’s not all like this. Apple have recently done another splendid video ad extolling all the wonderful applications other people have come up with for their iPads and iPhones. Architects, artists, marine-debris experts, all love the devices for the things they can do with them.

Which is great. But that doesn’t really help the 99% rest of us who are stuck trying to use an anachronistic technology to express ourselves in words. Yes, there’s voice recognition. Yes, there’s software that lets us swipe letters across a keyboard. But there’s no getting away from the fact that mobile devices were not made for writing. Just one percent of changes to Wikipedia articles are done on a mobile device, according to the NYT.

It’s time we recognised a sobering reality: while we blithely talk about this being the age of user generated content, the reality is that very little of that is actual text, arguments, thoughts etc strung together via words. Instead it’s photos, videos, comments and emoticons, or just passing along other people’s content. We may not all be writing with quills, but then again, we’re not exactly writing, either.

When was the last time you did more than click, swipe or pinch on your mobile device?

Wikipedia: It’s Wicked

Here’s a great example of the Internet as it should be: A font of constantly updated knowledge — available for free.

By Jeremy Wagstaff (WSJ, FEER)

Feb. 16, 2004 6:56 pm ET (original is here (paywall))

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a place on the Internet where educated folk pooled their knowledge for nothing, conscientiously building up a huge, orderly and free database on subjects as varied as wind gradients and the yellow-wattled lapwing?

Actually, it’s already happened. It’s an online encyclopedia called Wikipedia, and it probably qualifies as the largest ever collaborative effort on the Internet. Late last month it reached a milestone: 200,000 entries (compare that with 60,000 at MSN Encarta Premium, Columbia’s 51,000 entries, and Encyclopedia.com’s 57,000 articles). By the end of this year, Wikipedia is expected to have about 330,000 articles.

But of course, quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality. So I ran a few checks on some recent topics. What about bird flu? Britannica’s online (www.britannica.com) service found 75 responses to “avian influenza,” none of which seemed to have anything specific. Encyclopedia.com had nothing. I couldn’t log onto the MSN Encarta Web site at www.encarta.com ($5 a month, $30 a year) because, I was told: “Your market is not currently supported.” The three-CD deluxe version of Encarta had nothing on bird flu, even after I updated it online.

But Wikipedia? Entering “bird flu” or “avian influenza” in the search box took me straight to the right page, with information about infection, bird flu in humans, prevention and treatment, and a link to the World Health Organization’s avian-influenza fact sheet. The page had been modified the previous day to update statistics on fatalities to add the suspected case of human-to-human transmission in Vietnam.

This, I have to say, is impressive knowledge management. And it wasn’t a fluke: I tried “ricin,” the toxin that was recently found in the U.S. Senate mail room. On Britannica it took me a couple of jumps before I found out that ricin is a poison derived from the castor-oil plant; Columbia Encyclopedia only mentioned this in passing, as did Encyclopedia.com. Encarta Deluxe did a much better job, with an article that had been updated two weeks before. (However, if I hadn’t updated the contents, and had used only the CD’s data, I wouldn’t have found anything.) Wikipedia still won, though, with a page dedicated to the subject, and updated to include the discovery of ricin traces in the homes of a suspected terrorist ring in London last year.

So how does all this happen? How can such a huge database be maintained, and stay free? Wikipedia was set up three years ago by Jimmy Wales, a 37-year-old Internet entrepreneur who lives in Florida with his three-year-old daughter, a Hyundai and a mortgage. He wanted, he says, “to distribute, for free, a complete and comprehensive encyclopedia in every language of the world, easily and affordably accessible to even the poorest and most oppressed people.” (He admits it sounds corny and made up, but all good things do.)

Anybody visiting the site can update, add or edit any entry as they see fit, via an online form. They don’t even have to register first. The reason it works is, in part, because the software is really easy to use, and saves all copies of whatever has been changed or deleted. (This is where the “wiki” bit comes in: It’s Hawaiian for “quick,” and Wikiwiki is the open-source collaborative software that Wikipedia is run on, but that’s another story.)

The most obvious concern, with all this freedom, is abuse. What is there to stop people with bad intentions, or just bias, altering, defacing or deleting content? How can we be sure that what we’re reading is accurate, if anyone can contribute? The answer: peer pressure. It’s not that this kind of thing doesn’t happen; it’s just that it’s fixed so quickly most people won’t notice. That’s because the software is set up so that, while anybody can change anything they want, other folk can see what has been changed and, if necessary, alter it or change it back. With about 200 regulars watching the site, and another 1,000 or so frequently monitoring, there are a lot of folk watching out for wreckers, zealots and the misinformed.

Recent research by a team from IBM found that most vandalism suffered by Wikipedia had been repaired within five minutes. That’s fast: “We were surprised at how often we found vandalism, and then surprised again at how fast it was fixed,” says Martin Wattenberg, a researcher in the IBM TJ Watson Research Centre, in Cambridge, Mass.

Of course, this doesn’t mean everything is going to be accurate or unbiased. But once again, the sheer volume of people actively involved tends to lead towards some sort of consensus based on facts. And the rules, such as they are, tend to help rather than hinder. The goal, for example, of all posts is NPOV, which stands for Neutral Point of View. There is no hierarchy, beyond Mr. Wales as a kind of benevolent dictator. But even he doesn’t interfere much. Instead, users talk out controversies online, and only rarely pull the plug on someone. As Mr. Wales himself puts it: “There’s an institutional danger if we start kicking people out that ideological considerations might play a role that we don’t want them to play. An encyclopedia is a neutral reference standard.”

While such discussions can be heated, they reveal the high caliber of contributors: I trawled around and found some recent spats about Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko, the Arab-Israeli conflict and atheism. If that’s the level of debate, the material can’t be bad.

So where is all this going? Mr. Wales has just raised $50,000 in donations from users and fans to upgrade computers (he asked for $20,000) and hopes to raise some more by selling a version of the database to Yahoo. In the long run, however, he wants to find a way to get a hard copy of the encyclopedia to folk who don’t have easy access to information. He’s kind of hoping someone like talk-show host Oprah Winfrey might be interested in helping out.

Over to you, Oprah. And if you know something about something, do your bit by adding, editing or correcting entries. I tried it, and the warm fuzzy feeling you get is great.