Innovative Complacency or the Wisdom of the Deceived?

 

This is where I see a real problem for developed Asia: a complacency and disinterest in the role of technology and innovation. Or is it the clarity of vision from too much innovation?

Screenshot 2016 08 26 05 09 48
Source: Avaya, THE PROMISE OF DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION (DX) IN ASIA PACIFIC’S LEADING INSTITUTIONS

In a survey conducted by IDC on behalf of Avaya (no link available, you need to sign up to get a copy), key IT decision makers from developed Asian countries (leaving aside Australia for now) were much more likely to downplay the role of innovation in driving business. Singapore came lowest with 14% of respondents believing the statement “innovation is extremely important to drive business.” Compare that to around 40% in India, Thailand and the Philippines.

(Avaya, in case you’re wondering, “is a leading provider of solutions that enable customer and team engagement across multiple channels and devices for better customer experience, increased productivity and enhanced financial performance.” That could probably be simplified.)

In short (excluding Taiwan for which there is no World Bank data, and Australia, for now) the Asian economies with the highest GDP per capita — Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong – are those that value innovation the least. South Korea is only slightly behind there in terms of valuing innovation.

The same holds true when measured by Internet penetration: the more internet there is, the less valued is innovation.

Screenshot 2016 08 27 14 29 10
Source: Avaya survey (col 1), World Bank (cols 2-3)

 

At the other end, it’s also generally true. The lower the GDP, the more likely a country is to value innovation.

The sad truism is that once you reach a certain level of development — and you don’t experience serious recession or other economic upheaval — you tend to see innovation as an unwelcome disruption. In other words, you identify with the established industries, the established way of doing things, probably because that’s where you work and get your living from.

Looking at it the other way, the less developed a country is, the more people — and we’re talking ‘key IT decision makers’ here, not the rank and file folk — see innovation as a way of improving things.

Of course, there’s another possibility too: that those ‘key IT decision makers’ have seen innovation and they realise it isn’t as great as everyone makes it out to be. Indeed, I have some sympathy with that view. The more ‘disruptive’ a technology is, the more disruption it causes — meaning not just that big slow behemoths are put to the sword, but the people who work for them, the companies that supply to them, or make a little here and there in the supply chain.

A truly disruptive business/technology will not only chop off the head of an industry, it will cut off the entrails and lay to waste the body. That can be painful, and not necessarily good for consumers, or anyone standing in the way.

The other question raised in the survey was whether traditional traditional companies in the Asia Pacific would be able to take control against ‘Uber-like’ competitors. Nearly half said it was difficult to compete against such disruptors, and only 3% said they planned to be disruptors themselves. And while 43% felt they were on a par with their peers in terms of being able to fight back, only 6% felt they were “best in class”. Asian modesty, or a serious crisis of confidence?

Australia and China are worth a separate look here. Australia scored highest on the innovation/importance question, with more than 46% of respondents reckoning it was important. That’s good, but it’s probably part cultural. Why would you not at least pay lip service to the Innovation God?

And China skewed the other way. You would kind of expect China to be up there given what is going on in technology. But it’s low — 21/5% — less than South Korea, suggesting that either they were asking the wrong folk, or, maybe the disruption in China is already giving ‘key IT decision makers’ pause. China is by far the furthest down the track in terms of disruption in Asia, so maybe there is some truth in the alternative explanation of this (admittedly scant) data: As economies become more disrupted, so the key ‘IT decision makers’ in them become more pessimistic about how useful innovation is to the economy.

Former Soviet Bloc, Allies, Under Lurid Attack

Trend Micro researchers David Sancho and Nart Villeneuve have written up an interesting attack they’ve dubbed LURID on diplomatic missions, government ministries, space-related government agencies and other companies and research institutions in the former Soviet bloc and its allies. (Only China was not a Soviet bloc member or ally in the list, and it was the least affected by the attack.)

Although they don’t say, or speculate, about the attacker, it’s not hard to conclude who might be particularly interested in what the attacks are able to dig up:

Although our research didn’t reveal precisely which data was being targeted, we were able to determine that, in some cases, the attackers attempted to steal specific documents and spreadsheets.

Russia had 1,063 IP addresses hit in the attacks; Kazakhstan, 325; Ukraine, 102; Vietnam, 93; Uzbekistan; 88; Belarus, 67; India, 66; Kyrgyzstan, 49; Mongolia, 42; and China, 39.

The campaign has been going for at least a year, and has infected some 1,465 computers in 61 countries with more than 300 targeted attacks.

Dark Reading quotes Jamz Yaneza, a research director at Trend Micro, as saying it’s probably a case of industrial espionage. But who by? ”This seems to be a notable attack in that respect: It doesn’t target Western countries or states. It seems to be the reverse this time,” Yaneza says.

Other tidbits from the Dark Reading report: Definitely not out of Russia, according to Yaneza. David Perry, global director of education at Trend Micro, says could be out of China or U.S., but no evidence of either. So it could be either hacktivists or industrial espionage. Yaneza says attackers stole Word files and spreadsheets, not financial information. “A lot of the targets seemed to be government-based,” he says.

My tuppennies’ worth? Seems unlikely to be hactivists, at least the type we think of. This was a concerted campaign, specifically aimed to get certain documents. Much more likely to be either industrial espionage or pure espionage. Which means we might have reached the stage where groups of hackers are conducting these attacks because a market exists for the product retrieved. Or had we already gotten there, and just not known it?

Either way, Russia and its former allies are now in the crosshairs.

More reading:

Massive malware attacks uncovered in former USSR | thinq_

Cyberspy attacks targeting Russians traced back to UK and US • The Register

Disappointed, But Looking

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Back in early 1987 I was lured into a store on the Tottenham Court Road by a window display of computers. And I’ve been disappointed ever since.

Well, actually they were called Word Processors. Made by a company called Amstrad which to my ear sounded impressive, a railroad-meets-violin mix of Amtrak and Stradivarius.(I only found out later it’s short for Alan Michael Sugar Trading, which isn’t quite as impressive.)

Anyway, I was working on a history thesis at the time, and as I glanced in the window thought I saw the potential of a computer to help me. That in itself was smart. But my mistake was—and remains—the notion that somehow I could bend the computer to my will.

I can’t. And it won’t. Or rather, we users are always hostage to the guy who writes the software that runs on the computer. A computer has to compute something, after all, and it computes what the software tells it to.

I guess I didn’t realize this when I asked the guy in the shop to tell me what the Amstrad PCW8512 did. I was collecting historical data on Thailand and Vietnam in the 1960s at the time and my tutor had taught me the importance of getting things in the right chronological order. (Simple advice: You’d be amazed how many historians don’t bother with such niceties.)

So would the PCW8512 help me do that?

“It lets you write letters,” the assistant said.

That sounds good, I replied, but would it, for example, create a table that let me put in dates and big slices of text and sort them?

“It has 512 kilobytes of RAM,” he said. “And two floppy disk drives.”

I’ll take it, I said.

And I’ve been unhappy ever since.

This is the problem, you see. We don’t buy what we need, we buy what’s available. I couldn’t then, and I still can’t, get a computer to do the things I want to do, I have to do what it wants me to do.

Sometimes this is good. Sometimes we don’t have a clear idea of what we want to do. No one went around saying I’d love to be able to swish, pinch and shake my device but when the iPhone came along everyone decided that was what they wanted to do. Nobody said “I want a device a bit smaller than a drinks tray that mesmerizes me on the couch so I forget who I’m married to and to feed the kids”, but doubtless the iPad will dazzle both users and Wall Street.

But heaven help you if you have a specific problem you want your computer to fix.

I remember when, four years after my Amstrad experience, I decided to buy a computer running Windows. I clearly hadn’t learned my lesson. I asked the guy in the shop to show me how to organize the windows in a specific way and keep them that way for the next time I used the computer. He looked at me as if I was mad.

“It has a 20-megabyte hard-drive,” he said.

I’ll take it, I replied.

Don’t get me wrong. There are lots of great programs out there. I love PersonalBrain for finding connections between ideas, people and things, and Liquid Story Binder is great for writing books. Evernote is great for saving stuff. ConnectedText is useful as a sort of personal database with cross-referencing. But they are all someone else’s idea of how to work. Not mine.

They don’t say to me: Tell me how you work, and how you want to work, and I’ll make the computer do it for you.

I have a vision of a computer, for example, that will let me throw anything at it and it will know what to do with it. This has a date on it, and some key words I recognize, so it needs to be added to a chronology, unless it’s in the future in which case it’s probably for the calendar.

In my wildest dreams I imagine a computer that just lets me start drawing on the screen and the computer can figure out I’m drawing a table. That what I put in there is text, but also drawings, calculations, images. Software, in short, that does what I want it to do, rather than what it thinks I should do.

That, in short, was my mistake on the Tottenham Court Road. I thought that thing I saw in the window was an intelligence, a thing that make me more productive at how I was already working, or wanted to work,

Turns out I was wrong. Turns out it was just a souped-up typewriter. Turns out that unless we all become programmers, we’ll never actually bend computers to our will.

And, yes, 23 years on, I still haven’t found a program that lets me add, sort and filter chronologies easily. I’m still looking though. Disappointed, but looking.

“Tiny, Feisty Women”, Internet Costs (And a Survey)

 I love an AP story in a recent IHT about Le Hien Duc, a gray-haired 75-year-old grandmother who has become the scourge of corrupt officials in Vietnam. But it was one sentence towards the end of the piece that caught my eye:

Duc runs her crusade from her narrow, three-story home in Hanoi, where her desk is covered with stacks of mail from people seeking help from all corners of Vietnam. She spends about two-thirds of her US$80 monthly pension on the Internet, phone calls, photocopying and motorbike taxis.

I’ve been researching a piece about the digital divide in this part of the world and that kind of figure reminds me how much people still have to pay. So I thought I’d do another one of my surveys, this time on connectivity costs. Please drop by and fill it in it the mood takes you.

The Power of Morse

Watching BBC correspondents and analysts poring over footage of the British sailors being ‘interviewed’ by their captors on Iranian television reminds me, as it must others, of the Vietnam war, and how captured American pilots were wheeled out for propaganda purposes.

What has this got to do with technology? Well, if you recall, one Jeremiah Denton, a co-resident of the Hanoi Hilton with John McCain, managed to subvert the propaganda value for his captors and also convey important information to his superiors by blinking the word ‘torture’ in Morse Code. According to his official biography:

Throughout the interview, while responding to questions and feigning sensitivity to harsh lighting, denton blinked his eyes in morse code, repeatedly spelling out a covert message: “T-O-R-T-U-R-E”. the interview, which was broadcast on American television on May 17, 1966, was the first confirmation that American POWs in Vietnam were being tortured.

Independence Day made some homage to this when it had survivors of the alien attack communicating around the globe via Morse Code. The point? It wouldn’t make much sense, in this era of sophisticated communications, to teach British soldiers Morse Code. But as a survival tool an old technology like Morse Code might prove invaluable.

Lesson? We shouldn’t ever reject old communications technologies because we never know when we might need them.

Blogs and Diaries from the War

I’ve been writing in my WSJ.com column recently about the loss of tangible history, where our move to digital artefacts — letters replaced by emails, snapshots by digital pictures, SMS messages by postcards — is depriving of us of things we can touch to reconnect us to the past. A wonderful piece by the NYT’s Seth Mydans in Vietnam touches on the theme, although that’s not his intention when writing about the massive popularity of a recently discovered wartime diary by female doctor Dang Thuy Tram, who was killed in 1970 at the age of 27 in an American assault after serving in a war zone clinic on the Ho Chi Minh trail for more than three years.

It made me realise a couple of things, as I consider the unmeasured, and perhaps immeasurable, impact of digitization on our lives: My columns were fired by a conversation with a friend who had recently discovered the long lost letters of her mother, who had died when my friend was very young. It was a great way to connect to a woman she didn’t really ever know. But I didn’t really consider diaries. Diaries are hot zones. They plug straight into the heart. Here’s Tram’s tale, as Seth interviews the American soldier who saved her diary, Fred Whitehurst, whose visits to Hanoi have drawn wide attention:

Speaking by telephone from North Carolina, Whitehurst, now a lawyer, said he had been a military interrogator whose job also included the sifting of captured documents and the destruction of those that were of no tactical value. He said he had come to feel that his discovery of the diary linked him and Tram in a shared destiny and he now calls her “my sister and my teacher.” “We were out there at the 55-gallon drum and burning documents,” he said, describing that moment, “when over my left shoulder Nguyen Trung Hieu said, ‘Don’t burn this one, Fred, it already has fire in it.'”

In the evenings that followed, Hieu, his translator, read passages to him from the small book with its brown cardboard covers and, Whitehurst said, “Human to human, I fell in love with her.” According to Tram’s account, two earlier volumes were lost in a raid by U.S. troops, which means the published diary begins as abruptly as it ends, in mid-conversation.

Last year, after keeping it for decades at home, Whitehurst donated the diary to the Vietnam Archives at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Within weeks, Tram’s family was located in Hanoi and last October her mother and sisters were brought to Texas to receive the diary.

“It seemed that my own daughter was in front of me,” her mother said in an interview at her home. “For me the information in the diary is not the important thing. What is important is that when I have the diary in my hands I feel I am holding the soul of my daughter.”

She said she was able to read the diary only in small sections because of the power of the account. “She wrote us letters, but we never imagined that she was suffering those dangers,” Tram’s mother said.

Powerful stuff. I’m a sucker for a story like this, and of course the beleaguered Vietnamese Communist Party is milking this: A beautiful woman who is in love with the party as much as her missing boyfriend, sacrificing herself on the Ho Chi Minh trail? Never mind the self-doubt. Compared to today’s soft youth this woman was a rock.

What I find so powerful about this story is the pure chance that led to the diary’s rescue from the fire, and the long journey it took to get home. I love too the idea of the mother holding the diary in her hands, something tangible she can grasp instead of her daughter’s hands. I love the idea, too, that Tram wrote this for herself, to grapple with the demons and self-doubt within her. She had no audience in mind, no Comments page. She might be somewhere above us horribly embarrassed by the attention, of course, but our diary, and our letters, our writings, are our immortality. They are what will outlive us.

Blogs do this too. And they do a lot more: They connect us with the world, so we won’t be lonely, even if we’re in Dili in the middle of a firefight between rogue soldiers. But perhaps we need that loneliness sometimes, that feeling of writing for ourselves: writing as a form of exorcism and self-discovery. We don’t always need to be validated by others. Our existence is validated because we exist. I think I might be getting too existential here. I guess my point is that we shouldn’t kid ourselves that writing a diary and writing a blog are the same thing. By moving our lives online, in the tiny glare of the few folk who read our musings, are we losing the intensity and unselfconscious honesty for when we write only for ourselves?

 

The Tilted Software Piracy Debate

Software piracy is a tricky topic, that requires some skepticism on the part of the reporter, though the media rarely show signs of that in their coverage. Here’s another example from last week’s Microsoft press conference in Indonesia, one of the prime culprits when it comes to counterfeit software:

JAKARTA (AFP) – Software piracy is costing the Indonesian economy billions of dollars each year and is stymieing the creation of a local information technology industry, a Microsoft representative said.

There is some truth to these statements, but it’s not really what Microsoft is interested in. First off, is it really the Indonesian economy that’s suffering because of piracy? One could argue the Indonesian economy is largely built on pirated software, as a kind of subsidy (like gasoline, which was until recently heavily subsidized.)

Secondly, when did Microsoft ever support the creation of a “local information technology industry”? That’s not their job — and I don’t blame them — but why hide behind this kind of argument? (Interestingly, there’s a lively Linux development community in Indonesia, but I’m not sure that’s what Microsoft is talking about here).

Some 87 percent of computer software on the market in Indonesia in 2005 was pirated, Microsoft Indonesia’s Irwan Tirtariyadi said citing a study from the Business Software Alliance, an organisation representing manufacturers.

That’s probably about right. It’s huge. It’s hard to find a company that doesn’t use pirated software. You can buy pretty much every program ever written, and I don’t know of a single person who uses a computer and who doesn’t buy pirated software. This is not to condone it, but I also only know of about half a dozen shops in a city of 12 million people which actually sell legal software. And forget buying online: Most companies won’t ship to Indonesia.

Lax law enforcement and widespread corruption contributed to Indonesia clocking in with the fifth highest rate of software counterfeiting in the world, he said, after Vietnam, Ukraine, China and Zimbabwe. “I’ve heard when police come to a shop (selling pirated software) it is closed. Basically information is leaking and this is an indication of the quality of law enforcement in action,” Tirtariyadi said.

This is part of the problem, it’s true. The malls are full of shops openly selling pirated software, often on the ground floor near the entrance, with policemen patrolling by. When a raid is planned, everyone knows about it, the shops quietly shut, cover their wares in tarpaulins and keep their heads down for a day or two. (Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the imminent raid is from the police or some Islamic group cracking down on the counterfeit DVD stores, which often sell software too.)

Tirtariyadi told a gathering of foreign reporters that if piracy dropped by just 10 percent, it would add 3.4 billion dollars to the economy, according to figures cited by the International Data Corporation.

Could someone please explain to me how that figure came about? To me it sounds suspiciously as if the argument is based on a false premise: That everyone who buys pirate software would pay full price for legitimate software if there was no alternative. Let me think about that: $3 for brand new software — often a collection of software — against $50–500 for the same thing, in a country where half the population earn less than $2 a day. I don’t think so.

Counterfeiting also inhibited an “inventive culture” and the development of a strong local information technology (IT) industry here, he said. “Some students like to create new software but three months later they find it’s pirated,” he said.

True, there is definitely an inhibiting factor. I wrote a year or so ago about a guy developing a machine translation program which wasn’t bad, but which required him to spend at least half his time developing anti-piracy features in the software. But I still think this is a disingenuous argument. Let’s face it: Microsoft (and Adobe, and all the other BSA big boys) are mainly interested in quashing piracy of their products and building up their market share; I don’t see much sign of Microsoft actually nurturing this “local IT industry”.

Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, has less than 100 IT companies, whereas neighboring Singapore, with a far lower rate of piracy, has between 400 to 800 such companies, he added.

This is not a useful comparison. Singapore is a highly developed country and one of the world’s technology hub. Though, interestingly, it’s not really a locally creative industry, with the exception of a couple of big names.

All this makes me realise that Microsoft et al still don’t get it. Piracy is massive; they’re right. But you don’t deal with it by sponsoring misleading press conferences and well-telegraphed police raids.

Update: Nokia Batteries Safe Shock

 Nokia, hit by a recent spate of reports, from Vietnam to the Netherlands, of its batteries overheating and catching fire or exploding, says a follow-up test by a Belgian consumer watchdog had shown its own-made batteries were safe for use, Reuters reports.
 
Nokia said in a statement a new test by Test-Aankoop, conducted on November 17, showed all Nokia-made batteries were protected against short-circuiting, believed to be the cause of the problems. The Belgian firm said in a separate statement its previous test released earlier this month had accidentally included counterfeit batteries in the sample. But it said Nokia should address the issue of many forged batteries sold under Nokia’s brand.