Business & Culture Posts

Death to the screen

Is freedom just another word for a smart environment?

You know the “Next Big Thing” is no longer waiting in the wings when you hear it dissected on talk radio. That’s now the case with the Industrial Internet — or the Internet of Things, or the collision of software and hardware, or the convergence of the virtual and real worlds, or whatever you want to call it. It has emerged from academe and the high tech redoubts of Silicon Valley, and invaded the mainstream media.

Of course, it’s been “here” for a while, in the form of intelligent devices, such as the Nest Thermostat, and initiatives like the Open Auto Alliance, an effort involving Audi, GM, Honda , Hyundai, Google and Nvidia to develop an open-source, Android-based software platform for cars.

But we are now tap-dancing one of those darn tipping points again. As software-enhanced objects, cheap sensors, and wireless technology combine to connect everything and everybody with every other thing and person, a general awareness is dawning. People — all people, not just the technologically proficient — understand their lives are about to change big time. This is creating some hand-wringing anxiety as well as giddy anticipation, and rightly so: the parameters and consequences of the Internet of Things remain vague. Read more…

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Building a Solid World

A multitude of signals points to the convergence of software and the physical world.

Building a Solid World by Mike Loukides and Jon BrunerThis is an excerpt from Building a Solid World, a free paper by Mike Loukides and myself about the convergence of software and the physical world.

Our new Solid conference is about the “intersection of software and hardware.” But what does the intersection of software and hardware mean? We’re putting on a conference because we see something distinctly new happening.

Roughly a year ago, we sat around a table in Sebastopol to survey some interesting trends in technology. There were many: robotics, sensor networks, the Internet of Things, the Industrial Internet, the professionalization of the Maker movement, hardware-oriented startups. It was a confusing picture, until we realized that these weren’t separate trends. They’re all more alike than different—they are all the visible result of the same underlying forces. Startups like FitBit and Withings were taking familiar old devices, like pedometers and bathroom scales, and making them intelligent by adding computer power and network connections. At the other end of the industrial scale, GE was doing the same thing to jet engines and locomotives. Our homes are increasingly the domain of smart robots, including Roombas and 3D printers, and we’ve started looking forward to self-driving cars and personal autonomous drones. Every interesting new product has a network connection—be it WiFi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, or even a basic form of piggybacking through a USB connection to a PC. Everything has a sensor, and devices as dissimilar as an iPhone and a Kinect are stuffed with them. We spent 30 or more years moving from atoms to bits; now it feels like we’re pushing the bits back into the atoms. And we realized that the intersection of these trends—the conjunction of hardware, software, networking, data, and intelligence—was the real “news,” far more important than any individual trend.

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Bitcoin is an open network that exhibits resilience and anti-fragility

Over time, crypto-currency networks such as bitcoin will get stronger

If a crook gets access to the credit card or wire transfer networks, it’s a disaster. That’s because, as I explained in my recent article about security models, these traditional financial networks achieve trust by excluding bad actors through access control. Effective access control requires exclusivity and strict vetting, only a small carefully vetted group of “trusted actors” are granted control.

Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies based on the blockchain invention are different. Trust is based on computation, not access control. On the bitcoin network you trust math so everyone can have access. That also means that there will be bad actors, arguably just as there are on access control networks, and nuisance attacks. Fortunately, these types of attacks cannot affect the distributed asset ledger, the blockchain, because to achieve the level of trust to write into the ledger you must apply enormous distributed computation. The root of trust is in the majority of computing power, not individual actors or any central authority.

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DIYbio and the hacking metaphor

Definitive answers require further testing

The following is from the second issue of BioCoder, the quarterly newsletter for synthetic biologists, DIY biologists, neurobiologists, and more. Download your free copy today.


Within DIYbio, one cannot escape the hacking metaphor. The metaphor is ubiquitous and, to a point, useful. The term connotes both productive play with an existing technology aimed at improvement and, at the same time, play with sinister undertones. In this sense, hacking captures the promise and pitfalls of the dual uses any mature technology might be put to, whether that technology is as dramatic as nuclear power/weapons or as mundane as a free/premium software license. But every metaphor has its limits. Pushed too far, metaphors break down, and instead of illuminating, they obscure. Which brings me to ask: how far can the hacking metaphor be pushed within DIYbio—at least the part of DIYbio falling in line with synthetic biology?

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Prefer goals over controls

A common vision is more important than seeking approval

Bruce Eckel is well known for his books in the field of programming, such as Thinking in Java, Thinking in C++, and Atomic Scala as well as his co-leadership of the Java Posse. And yet, on top of his work in programming, he has spent the last several years investing in and researching a topic that seems quite different, yet is intertwined with the destiny of software companies: the culture and operation of businesses.

In his OSCON 2013 Mainstage session, Bruce lays the foundation of modern business management, including a look back as far as Taylorism, a survey of what it means to get an MBA, and ways to gain this knowledge outside of the traditional institutions.

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CPAN’s social continuity of code

Reinvigorate a Perl project today

I contribute heavily in the Perl community, and I’m consistently impressed by the pains we take with code and assets that we personally have no interest in. There’s a group of Perl people who shepherd (camelherd?) code and projects that have lost their maintainers. I’m one of those people.

There’s a very simple system CPAN uses and which has been working since around 1994. Basically, CPAN is a big directory structure that other mirrors rsync (see Jarkko Hietaniemi’s The Zen of Comprehensive Archive Networks). People contribute code through the Perl Authors Upload Server (PAUSE), which does some light verification for identity and permission for the namespaces in that code. No one really “owns” a namespace in Perl, but developers have permissions to control it, including extending that permission to other developers. This is a small bit of a social control. (As an aside, Perl 6′s design handles this differently by allowing people to specify an “authority” for modules)

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The RSA/NSA controversy concerns you!

This controversy impacts everyone (and here's what we can do about it)

As a cyber security author and CEO of a security consulting company, I was personally shocked by the RSA’s attitude about the alleged secret payments it received from the NSA as well as its willingness to weaken its BSAFE product; especially after the weakness became public in 2006. I was even more shocked by the lack of outrage shown by many security bloggers, analysts, and security company executives.

The speaker-in-protest count has reached 13 speakers who have canceled talks they were scheduled to give at the RSA Conference (RSAC) next week, first and most notably, Mikko Hypponen, who published this open letter. A few outraged others have also spoken out about their decision to cancel their talks, including Dave Kearns and, via Twitter, Adam Langley and Josh Thomas.

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Writing without knowing

Sometimes you need to be your customer

Sometimes you just need to leap into sharing your learning, even when you haven’t yet learned much. “Beginner’s mind” usually becomes more abstract as a person advances, making it difficult for beginners to learn from experts. If you can dare to write while you’re learning, you may find unique opportunities to create content that appeals first and foremost to learners.

Despite that, the “learn from the master” story remains powerful: of course, only those who know best should be trusted to teach! Sometimes that comes with the old guild-flavored model: masters should select worthy apprentices and mentor them for a long while.

The apprenticeship model has its benefits, but I’ve spent most of my career promoting what I generally call the DIY model. Even in the thriving field of programming, we don’t have enough masters willing to spend their time with apprentices. Masters seem better at talking with masters than with newcomers, and even the journeywomen and journeymen sometimes forget the difficulties of the paths they’ve followed to get there. The DIY model drops that lost formality and replaces it with books, videos, and occasional classes, combined with a lot of self-study.

Getting the DIY story right is incredibly difficult. Unless you’re lucky enough to be teaching in person, which has its own challenges, you have to anticipate what a reader or viewer will need. The feedback loop runs mostly through reviews, both during and after the creation of the piece. Getting ahead of that feedback loop means doing something scary: write about what you don’t know.

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Building the right thing vs. building the thing right

Usability does not determine usefulness

I love it when companies test prototypes. Love love love it. But it makes me incredibly sad when they use prototype testing for the wrong thing.

First, let me give you my definition of “prototype testing” here. I often build interactive, or semi-interactive, prototypes when designing a product. These prototypes are not actual products. They’re simulations of products. People who see the prototype can often click around them and perform some simple tasks, but they’re generally not hooked up to a real back end system.

“Well, what good is that?” you might reasonably ask. Excellent question. Interactive prototypes are incredibly useful for finding problems in usability testing settings. In a checkout flow, you might create a simple interactive prototype and watch four or five people go through the process (with test accounts) in order to find out if there were any parts of the flow they found confusing or hard to use.

It’s a great technique for any reasonably complicated interaction that you want to test before you spend a lot of time writing code. Interactive prototype testing can save you a ton of time because it helps you make sure that you’re building the product right before you spend a lot of time and money actually writing code.
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Upward Mobility: Your phone is your robot’s best friend

Rosie the Robot may feel more comfortable talking to Siri than to you

Recently, Glenn Martin wrote an article describing how robotics in moving out of the factory and into the house. And while Glenn restricted himself mainly to the type of robots that pop into your head when someone says the word (either the anthropomorphic variety or the industrial flavor), the reality is that there are a lot of robots already in the hands of consumers, although it might take a moment to recognize them as such.

I’m speaking of drones, and especially quadcopters, which are proliferating at an enormous rate, and are being used to do everything from documenting a cool skateboard move to creating a breathtaking overflight of a horrific disaster site.

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