Events happen so quickly in the wacky whirlwind world of Donald Trump that it’s hard to react in anything close to real time, but there was an interesting story in the Guardian last weekend that I think deserves some technical context.
The Great British Brexit Robbery: How our Democracy was Hijacked is a breathless but well sourced story about how a U.S. billionaire harnessed Big Data to split up the European Union and steal a U.S. Presidential election. It’s an interesting read, but the point I want to make here is that the tale was entirely predictable and if one side hadn’t done it, the other would have. Next time they’ll all do it.
The title above is a play on the famous Bill Gates memo, The Internet Tidal Wave, written in May, 1995. Gates, on one of his reading weeks, realized that the Internet was the future of IT and Microsoft, through Gates’s own miscalculation, was then barely part of that future. So he wrote the memo, turned the company around, built Internet Explorer, and changed the course of business history.
That’s how people tend to read the memo, as a snapshot of technical brilliance and ambition. But the inspiration for the Gates memo was another document, The Final Days of Autodesk, written in 1991 by Autodesk CEO John Walker. Walker’s memo was not about how the future could be saved, but about how seemingly invincible market advantages could be quickly lost. If Autodesk, the Computer Aided Design pioneer, was ever going to die, this was how Walker figured it would happen. And Gates believed him. Now it’s about to happen again. Amazon Web Services -- the first and still largest public computing cloud -- is 11 years old, which is old enough for there not only to be some clear cloud computing winners (AWS, Microsoft Azure and a bunch of startups) but some obvious losers, too. This rising tide is not raising all ships. That’s why it’s time for the Cloud Computing Tidal Wave.
It was 15 years ago this week that my son Chase Cringely died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) at age 74 days. I wrote about it at the time and there was a great outpouring of support from readers. Back then, before the advent of social media, parents didn’t get a chance to grieve in print the way Mary Alyce and I did. We shed a light on SIDS and, for a couple years, even led to some progress in combating the condition, which still kills about 4,000 American babies each year.
When you lose a child, especially one who dies in your lap, as Chase did with me, you can just curl up and die yourself or you can try to fix the problem. With the help of readers all over the world I tried and failed to build a practical SIDS warning device with the idea of not curing SIDS, but avoiding it. You see the syndrome only lasts for about 11 months, from age 1 month to one year. And while events such as Chase’s can’t be made not to happen, with proper detection and the simplest of alarms the baby can be literally roused out of death.
Bob Taylor, who far more than Al Gore had a claim to being the Father of the Internet, died from complications of Parkinson’s Disease last Thursday at 85. Though I knew him for 30 years, I can’t say I knew Bob well but we always got along and I think he liked me. Certainly I respected him for being that rarity -- a non-technical person who could inspire and lead technical teams. He was in a way a kinder, gentler Steve Jobs.
Bob’s career seemed to have three phases -- DARPA, XEROX, and DEC -- and three technical eras -- mainframes, local area network (workgroup) computing, and the Internet.
As an observer of the Bitcoin market as long as this original cryptocurrency has existed, it never made much sense to me from an investment perspective. Bitcoin prices were too volatile and the volatility seemed too random. Volatility can be a good thing for traders, mind you, but only if you think you have an idea why the price goes up and down the way it does. Otherwise it is just a good way to lose all your money. But a couple of recent events have changed my view of Bitcoin. I now think I can explain its volatility and predict it well enough for profitable trading. And the best part is that it takes no rocket science at all. Your mother (and mine) can make a living trading Bitcoins.
For those who don’t know, Bitcoin is a stateless currency based on blockchain calculations. There will only ever be 21 million Bitcoins and only 16-odd million of those have so far been "mined." The present value of all mined Bitcoins is around $18 billion, which is amazing if you realize they came from nowhere and have no intrinsic value.
Within minutes of the electrons drying on my last column about the Wikileaks CIA document drop called Vault 7, Julian Assange came out with the novel idea that he and Wikileaks would assist big Internet companies with their technical responses to the obvious threats posed by all these government and third-party security hacks. After all, Wikileaks had so far published only documentation for the hacks, not the source code. There was still time! How noble of Assange and Wikileaks!
OR, Wikileaks has found a new business model. When organized crime offers assistance against a threat they effectively control it’s called a Protection Racket and is against the law pretty much everywhere.
As pretty much anyone already knows, WikiLeaks has dropped a trove of about 8700 secret documents that purport to cover a range of CIA plans and technologies for snooping over the Internet -- everything from cracking encrypted communication products to turning Samsung smart TVs into listening devices against their owners.
Two questions immediately arise: 1) are these documents legit (they appear to be), and; 2) WTF does it mean for people like us, who aren’t spies, public officials, or soldiers of fortune? This latter answer requires a longer explanation but suffice it to say this news is generally not good for anyone, not even for spies unless they have been recently unemployed. But for some companies it will open up significant new business opportunities.
Remember the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear accident following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan? I wrote about it at the time, here, here, here, here, and here, explaining that the accident was far worse than the public was being told and that it would take many decades -- if ever -- for the site to recover.
Well it’s six years later and, if anything, the Fukushima situation is even worse. Far from being over, the nuclear meltdown is continuing, the public health nightmare increasing. Why aren’t we reading about this everywhere? Trump is so much more interesting, I guess.
Immigration policy and trade protectionism play large roles in the new Administration of President Donald Trump. With the goal of Making America Great Again the new President wants to more tightly control the flow of goods and labor into the USA. Over the last week this has taken the form of an Executive Order limiting travel from seven specific Muslim countries. That order wasn’t well done, wasn’t well explained, has caused lots of angst here and abroad and is at this moment suspended pending litigation.
That order is supposedly about limiting terrorism. It will be shortly followed, we’re told, by further Presidential actions limiting abusive labor imports using, specifically, H-1B visas. This time, depending again on how the actual order is interpreted, it might be the right thing to do, because H-1B visa abuse is a very real thing that has hurt American workers.
I couldn’t put it off any longer so here are my technology predictions for 2017. I’ve been reading over my predictions from past years and see a fundamental change in structure over that time, going from an emphasis on products to an emphasis on companies. This goes along, I’d say, with the greater business orientation of this column. That makes sense with a maturing market and mature industries and also with the fact that a fair number of readers are here mainly as investors, something that didn’t used to be so much the case.
Of course we begin with a look at my predictions from a year ago to see how I did. Almost nobody in my line of work does this, pointing out their own mistakes, but then I always have been kind of stupid about my career. So here we go.
I’m writing this post on Wednesday evening here in California. Normally I wouldn’t point that out but in this case I want to put a kind of timestamp on my writing because at this moment we’re at the end of the second day of a concerted attack by the UAE Electronic Army on various DNS providers in North America. If you follow this stuff and bother to check, say, Google News right now for "UAE Electronic Army", your search will probably generate some Facebook entries but no news at all because -- two days into it -- this attack has gone unnoticed by the world at large. My last column was about fake news. This one is about real news you never hear about.
We have a great example of such news this week in the Yahoo one billion account hack. Sure, it’s all over the web but it happened in 2013. Are we really supposed to believe that one billion user records were stolen from Yahoo and it took three years for somebody to notice??? The story is that law enforcement officials came across the stolen data, or some of it, and took it to Yahoo for verification. Maybe, but having written these stories for 30 years I think it is much more likely that somebody already knew about the breach and simply chose not to say when it happened. This is not to say that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer knew or didn’t know about the breach, just that shit happens and often isn’t reported if jobs are perceived as being on the line.
I’m here nominally to address the problem of what’s being called Fake News. At its core this is as labeled -- news that is fake; news that isn’t news; deceptive content intended not to inform or convince but to manipulate and make trouble. It’s a huge problem, we’re told, that will require new algorithms and tons of cloud to fix. But I’m not so sure. You see the key to keeping fake news out is to put real news in.
The recent Fake News tempest has got me thinking about what I do and don’t do right here in this simplest of all corners of the Internet. I’m just one man and a keyboard. For 19 years I’ve been pumping out this stuff generally by myself and for the most part without the support of advertising revenue, either. Did you ever wonder how I make my living? It’s not from that PayPal Donate button, which brings in about $200 per year.
There are more things to talk about than Donald Trump, though I doubt that Donnie agrees with me. But we have to get on with our lives which, at least in my case, means getting on with my reading. Where does all the crap I write here come from but reading, talking to people, and waiting in line at Starbucks? Nowhere else! And if you want to be like me you may choose to read a new book by Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds. Of course the book is very good and it’s very well-written and it will tell you a lot about how decisions are actually made. But if we are looking forward instead of backward here, the book and its content don’t really matter that much because we don’t decide nearly as much as we think we do. We don’t decide as much as we used to. In fact I’m about to argue that we’re well into the Post-Decision Age. It’s pretty much out of our hands.
Lewis’s book explains. He’s not breaking new ground but rather rediscovering old ground and explaining why it matters. In this case his earlier book Moneyball explained how the Oakland Athletics baseball team used statistics to win baseball games while this new book essentially takes the other side and explains why most of us (including many baseball managers) are not like the Oakland A’s.
This is my promised column on data security and the Internet of Things (IoT). The recent Dyn DDoS attack showed the IoT is going to be a huge problem as networked devices like webcams are turned into zombie hoards. Fortunately I think I may have a solution to the problem. Really.
I’m an idiot today, but back in the early 1990’s I ran a startup that built one of the Internet’s earliest Content Distribution Networks (CDN), only we didn’t call it that because the term had not yet been invented. Unlike the CDNs of today, ours wasn’t about video, it was about the daily electronic delivery of PDF editions of newspapers and magazines. Canon told us that if the New York Times, say, would make a PDF version of its daily paper, the Japanese company would give an ink jet printer to every electronic subscriber, making their money solely on replacement ink cartridge sales. Communication would be between the CDN and printer with no PC involved. It was effectively an Internet of Things, circa 1994. Obviously, we failed, but learned a lot along the way.
Wow, what an election! I’m tempted to say the FBI gave it to Trump but the results are too strong for that to be the sole reason for his victory. There’s a real movement behind this result and it isn’t in any sense a triumph of Republicanism. In fact I think it may be hard for the Republican Party as we knew it to even survive. Time will tell.
Until such time, the world will go a little crazy. Stocks will slide, women will swoon, babies and men will cry. But eventually we’ll pick ourselves up and get back to work.