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Just what is the TSA looking for?

NBC News on the decision of the TSA to not allow electronic devices on to planes unless they are charged up:

A U.S. source familiar with the matter said laptop computers are among the devices security screeners may require passengers to turn on. U.S. officials are concerned that a cellphone, tablet, laptop or other electronic device could be used as a bomb.

Some people have questioned why this measure is necessary, given that a potential terrorist could simply pack a device with explosives while retaining the ability to turn it on, but I think they’re missing the point. My guess – and it is a guess – is that someone has worked out how to create an explosive mixture which, when passed through a scanner, looks the same on the screen as a battery. This means you could replace the battery with explosive, but putting it elsewhere would still stand out as abnormal on screen.

Hence the threat: it’s not that someone can pack a device with explosives (something they’ve always been able to do), it’s that they can now do it undetected.

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Paper isn’t more natural than a screen

My old chum Liam is mightily annoyed at the state of operating systems, which he sees (and I largely agree) as kludgy, inelegant messes. Amongst the missed opportunities: Newton and the original Mac:

“And the ancestor of the Macintosh was Jef Raskin’s “information appliance”, with a single global view of one big document. Some bits local, some remote; some computed, some entered; some dynamic, some static; with the underlying tools modular and extensible. No files, no programs, just commands to calculate this bit, reformat that bit, print that bit there and send this chunk to Alice and Charlie but not Bob who gets that other chunk.

Sounds weird and silly, but it was, as he said, humane; people worked for millennia on sheets of paper before we got all this nonsense of icons, files, folders, apps, saving, copying and pasting. The ultimate discrete computer is a piece of smart paper that understands what you’re trying to do.”

Yes but… Remember the video of the child trying to swipe a magazine? Using paper isn’t genetic: using your fingers is. What’s a natural metaphor to someone mine and Liam’s generation can be alien to someone who has never know anything but touch screens.



Neil Gaiman, in a remarkably cogent piece about the Jonathan Ross/Hugos Twitterstorm:

Twitterstorms are no fun when people are making up things about you or insulting you for things you didn’t do or think or say. When scores of people from a group that you consider yourself a part of are shouting at you, it’s incredibly upsetting, no matter who you are. And these things spill over and get bigger – I was saddened to learn that Jane Goldman, Jonathan’s wife, one of the gentlest, kindest people I know (and the person who, with Jonathan, got me onto Twitter, back in December 2009) had deleted her Twitter account because of all this.

This is the point, and one of the reasons why of late I’ve come to disengage a bit from Twitter. Some of the concerns about Ross were cogent, real, and well-put. But a lot of stuff was bullshit, repeated by people who never watch Ross’ work, based on something someone else had said he’d said.

Twitter is a massive echo chamber and it is not always self-correcting. In fact, it is the opposite: it reinforces your own world view, your own prejudice, and reduces your exposure to material which challenges your view.


My gadget bag

Gadgets gather around me like iron filings gather around a magnet, which means I have to be pretty tough with myself about what I makes it into my bag. I try and keep things minimal – but, as you will see from what I carry, that’s often a forlorn hope.

Ally Capellino 11in laptop bag. I originally got this to tote around an 11in MacBook Air which sadly got stolen, but it’s proved to be a great bag for the iPad too. It’s not big enough for a weekend away, but overnight it suffices.

iPad Air 32Gb WiFi and Cellular. When I travel with my bag, this comes with me. It’s removed the need to carry a laptop on almost every occasion I travel. Combined with a Zagg Keyboard Folio case (recommended to me by Harry McCracken) it makes a great laptop replacement.

The big advantage it has over a laptop, apart from portability, is built-in mobile data. Yes, I could tether to my phone, but tethering is inelegant. It never feels robust enough to me.

The only regret I have about the Air is that I scrimped on memory. As you use the iPad more as a day-to-day computer, you end up needing more storage. My 32Gb feels cramped, and the next iPad I have will definitely have 128Gb instead.

On the rare occasions I need to carry a laptop (maybe once every three months), my MacBook Pro 13in with retina display comes along. Having a Chromebook Pixel (which acts as my “backup” computer) persuaded me I wouldn’t get a non-retina machine again. Once you get used to this kind of screen, you don’t want to go back. The MacBook Pro wins over the Pixel primarily for its battery life, which tops seven hours in regular use for me.

iPhone 5S. I’ve tried other phones – most recently a Nexus 5 – but the iPhone remains my phone of choice. That’s partly down to the apps (I spend a lot of time in my to do list, and OmniFocus is the best GTD-based list there is) but also the details. iPhones always feel like they’ve been put together with every detail thought through. Although other phones have some good points – I like the N5’s screen size, for example – nothing feels as good as an iPhone in my hand.

Mophie Helium iPhone battery. The iPhone usually lasts a full day for me, but there are odd occasions on long journeys where I get battery anxiety. Hence the Mophie Helium, which gives me enough battery life to make a full 24 hours. I don’t generally keep the Mophie on the iPhone unless I need it, but it’s nice to know it’s there and I can snap it on for a charge.

Moleskine Evernote notebook. Evernote is where I put all my notes, clippings and scans. I’ve used Moleskine notebooks for a while, and the Evernote ones come with three months free Evernote subscription. Evernote’s ability to recognise my scrawl and make it searchable is pretty amazing.

Doxie Go. The Doxie Go is a recent addition, and although I don’t always take it with me it’s incredibly useful and is becoming a more frequent traveller. I still get given a lot of paper, and having the ability to scan it quickly and send it to the cloud (via a Eye-Fi WiFi SD card) is great. When I first got it, I spent half a day clearing a vast amount of old paper which gave me back three shelves.

Apple VGA adaptors (Thunderbolt and Lightning). These are classic examples of “just in case”. I rarely go anywhere to present which doesn’t have a Mac or iOS adaptor, but when I do need one, you can guarantee there won’t be anywhere close by I could get one from if I didn’t have them with me.


What business is Google really in?

What business is Google actually in? Benedict Evens thinks he knows – and it’s not "advertising" as most people would answer. Instead, Google is a company which is looking to exploit the potential of machine learning, in the same way that GE was all about taking advantage of the age of electrification:

Hence, one could argue that Nest or self-driving cars (and the next big hardware move that Google does) are not really about understanding ‘information’ in any sense, and certainly not about advertising, but about finding ways to deploy being very good at machine learning and, say, connected systems, just as GE’s business is to be very good at making big complicated precision-engineered pieces of capital equipment. In that sense, Tony Fadell’s vision is very apt – to ‘take unloved things’ and connect them to the software revolution than my new boss Marc Andreessen talks about. If software is eating the world, then much of what is eaten is probably running software that’s at least partly in the cloud (especially if it doesn’t really have a screen), and that can benefit from machine intelligence and big data, and isn’t that what Google does?

This is a brilliant insight, and for me starts to put all of Google’s technology moves into perspective.


Can we please stop saying open source is more secure?

I’ve argued for a long time the "open source means more eyeballs means more secure" argument was complete bunk. I’m not particularly happy that the GnuTLS bug – which appears to have been there for up to nine years – has shown I was right. As John Moltz puts it:

This SSL bug may have been in the code for nine years. Please, tell me again that trope about how Mac users blindly think their computers are invulnerable to attack. And it’s not like it’s the only one the platform’s had.

The point is not how many eyeballs look through code (and as Watts Martin points out, no one looks through a lot of that old code). It’s the quality of the eyeballs which matters. If a hundred mediocre coders look through a bunch of code, they’ll never see the same issues that a single really good one will see. People aren’t functionally equivalent units of production.

As Steve Jobs put it:

"In most businesses, the difference between average and good is at best 2 to 1, right? Like, if you go to New York and you get the best cab driver in the city, you might get there 30% faster than with an average taxicab driver. A 2 to 1 gain would be pretty big.

"The difference between the best worker on computer hard-ware and the average may be 2 to 1, if you’re lucky. With automobiles, maybe 2 to 1. But in software, it’s at least 25 to 1. The difference between the average programmer and a great one is at least that.

"The secret of my success is that we have gone to exceptional lengths to hire the best people in the world. And when you’re in a field where the dynamic range is 25 to 1, boy, does it pay off."

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Microsoft culture must change, chairman says

Microsoft culture must change, chairman says – Fortune Tech:

“I would argue that there are some attributes to Microsoft today that do look vaguely like IBM circa 1990. The Windows monopoly is in fact under attack, and therefore we’re going to have to change or think differently about the management systems and the associated culture of the company as time goes on.”

I hope this reflects Satya Nadella’s thinking too.


If you spend any amount of time reading technology news and opinion sites, you’ll know how high the percentage of bullshit is. It’s huge. Finding the decent stuff takes forever, and you’ll spend your time tripping over errant nonsense.

It takes a lot to excel in the field of writing bad technology stories, but I think Eric Jackson, writing for Forbes.com, may have beaten us all and written the worst article in tech history.

It is, naturally, about Apple. Apple attracts poor writing like nothing else, probably because posting articles about the company attracts page views like nothing else. Jackson spends hundreds of words chastising it for failing to buy companies. Everyone is doing it: Microsoft, Facebook, Google… just everyone. So why isn’t Apple?

It’s clear almost from the get-go Roberts knows remarkably little about how Apple works and what’s made it richer than Croesus. Take this:

It’s also clear that Apple has lots of weak areas that it should be more aggressive in filling in: cloud services (it would nice for iMessage not to go down), web/app services (hello Ping and MobileMe), adding key mobile apps beyond things like iPhoto and iMovie, and maybe even turning its back on the whole walled garden approach with iCloud and iMessage by acquiring a leading cloud company like DropBox and messaging app to open it beyond Apple users.

Sure, Apple could “turn its back on the whole walled garden approach”. But why? So it could lower its margins? So it could have to support more platforms, increasing its costs and complicating its business? Apple sells hardware, with high margins. Now I know this idea utterly offends blinkered pundits who think there’s only one way to make a profit (repeat after me: “MARKET SHARE”) but that’s the way it is. Everything else it does is to support and enhance the hardware.

Better is to come. Jackson isn’t just a Jeremiah: he has actual positive ideas for how Apple can spend some of its cash:

What’s a quick way Apple could deploy $50 billion in cash? Well, they could pay $400/share to take out Tesla (TSLA) and make an audacious huge play for the Internet-connected car, as well as snagging Musk into the fold in one fell swoop.

Leaving aside, for one second, the value of Elon Musk (not everyone thinks he’s a genius) what would Apple gain by this? Suppose AppleTesla becomes the biggest car company in the world, by force of will, hitting the levels of General Motors. That’s 10% of the market. What happens then? Simple: every other car company, which might all have bought Apple technology for their connected cars, uses someone else’s tech because there’s no way they’re benefitting a serious competitor.

Plus you’re now saddled with a high-revenue, low profit business: General Motors made just $18 billion gross profit for the whole of 2013, on revenues of $155bn. Over the same period, Apple generated $64bn gross profit on revenues of $174bn. Apple’s profit margin is 21%; GM’s profit margin is 3%. If Apple wanted to just put $50bn in an ordinary bank savings account, it could make a better annual return than buying a car company.

Fucking. Dumb. Idea. This is why people like Jackson don’t get to be CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies.


The best of Google


It’s easy to forget.

I’ve spent much of the day at one of Google’s UK offices, being trained in how to make YouTube channels work better, something that’s of great interest to my employer. Whenever I visit the offices, tucked round the corner from the windy, desolate obelisk that is Centrepoint, I’m reminded of what makes Google awesome: the people.

I’ve never met a Googler that I didn’t like. I’m sure there are some, but in many years of dealing with them I’ve just not met one that wasn’t clever, engaged, interested in what you had to say and most of all fun. That makes it sound like there’s some kind of clone factory churning them out, but it’s true: The Googlers I’ve worked with have been, to a person, great.

That’s one of the things that I think about when someone says to me that Google is evil. It’s not, at all, simply because the kind of people who I’ve met who work there have mostly been anything but evil. They’ve also been incredibly switched on to the compromises that you have to make in running a service which lives or dies by the results of advertising, and that depends on harvesting as much of the world’s data as possible.

The issue I have with Google is simply fear: not that the current crop of Googlers might do bad things with all the power we’re handing over to them, but that in the future some other Googlers will. If there’s one thing history proves, it’s that the more you centralise power, the more likely that power is to be misused in the future.

Meanwhile, though, I’ll just carry on enjoying the products. I’ll keep on being able to find pretty-much anything published in the last 20 years online with just a few keystrokes. That’s the kind of thing which, as a graduate student, I would have died for.

Picture by  Kasya Shahovskaya


Galaxy S5 Hands On: Samsung Galaxy S5 Review Part 1 | BGR:

“Chief among them is a novel new power-saving mode that only displays black and white, and restricts which apps can run.

When you’re nearing the end of a busy day and running out of juice, this feature is going to be amazing.”

AMAZING! I’m AMAZED! And if you’re not AMAZED you’re probably some kind of Apple fanboi.