Notes From An Emergency

Via Charles Arthur, another great observation from Maciej Cieglowski in Idle Words:

Facebook is the dominant social network in Europe, with 349 million monthly active users. Google has something like 94% of market share for search in Germany. The servers of Europe are littered with the bodies of dead and dying social media sites. The few holdouts that still exist, like Xing, are being crushed by their American rivals.

In their online life, Europeans have become completely dependent on companies headquartered in the United States.

And so Trump is in charge in America, and America has all your data. This leaves you in a very exposed position. US residents enjoy some measure of legal protection against the American government. Even if you think our intelligence agencies are evil, they’re a lawful evil. They have to follow laws and procedures, and the people in those agencies take them seriously.

But there are no such protections for non-Americans outside the United States. The NSA would have to go to court to spy on me; they can spy on you anytime they feel like it.

This is an astonishing state of affairs. I can’t imagine a world where Europe would let itself become reliant on American cheese, or where Germans could only drink Coors Light.

In the past, Europe has shown that it’s capable of identifying a vital interest and moving to protect it. When American aerospace companies were on the point of driving foreign rivals out of business, European governments formed the Airbus consortium, which now successfully competes with Boeing.

A giant part of the EU budget goes to subsidize farming, not because farming is the best use of resources in a first-world economy, but because farms are important to national security, to the landscape, to national identity, social stability, and a shared sense of who we are.

But when it comes to the Internet, Europe doesn’t put up a fight. It has ceded the ground entirely to American corporations. And now those corporations have to deal with Trump. How hard do you think they’ll work to defend European interests?



A Grand New Theory of Life’s Evolution on Earth

The Atlantic:

In “The Energy Expansions of Evolution,” an extraordinary new essay in Nature Ecology and Evolution, Olivia Judson sets out a theory of successive energy revolutions that purports to explain how our planet came to have such a diversity of environments that support such a rich array of life, from the cyanobacteria to daisies to humans.

Judson divides the history of the life on Earth into five energetic epochs, a novel schema that you will not find in geology or biology textbooks. In order, the energetic epochs are: geochemical energy, sunlight, oxygen, flesh, and fire. Each epoch represents the unlocking of a new source of energy, coinciding with new organisms able to exploit that source and alter their planet. The previous sources of energy stay around, so environments and life on Earth become ever more diverse. Judson calls it a “step-wise construction of a life-planet system.”

In the epoch of geochemical energy 3.7 billion years ago, the first living organisms “fed” on molecules like hydrogen and methane that formed in reaction between water and rocks. They wrung energy out of chemical bonds. It was not very efficient—the biosphere’s productivity then was an estimated a thousand to a million times less than it is today.

Sunlight, of course, was shining on Earth all along. When microbes that can harness sunlight finally evolve, the productivity and diversity of the biosphere leveled up. One particular type of bacteria, called cyanobacteria, hits upon a way of harnessing the sun’s energy that makes oxygen (O2) as a byproduct, and with profound consequences: The planet gets an ozone (O3) layer that blocks UV radiation, new minerals through oxygen reactions, and an atmosphere full of highly reactive O2.

Which brings us to the epoch of oxygen. Given an opportunity, oxygen will steal electrons from anything it finds. New oxygen-resistant organisms evolve with enzymes to protect them from oxygen. They have advantages too: Because oxygen is so reactive, it makes the metabolism of these organisms much more efficient. In some conditions, organisms can get 16 times as much energy out of a glucose molecule with the presence of oxygen than without.

With more energy, you can have motion and so in the epoch of flesh, highly mobile animals become abundant. They can fly, swim, ran to catch prey. “Flesh” is source of concentrated energy, rich in fats and protein and carbon.

Then one particular type of animal—those of the genus Homo—figure out fire. Fire lets us cook, which may have allowed us to get more nutrition out of the same food. It lets us forge labor-saving metal tools. It lets us create fertilizer through the Haber-Bosch process to grow food on industrial scales. It lets us burn fossils fuels for energy.


Plykea manufactures premium quality doors, drawer fronts, cover panels and worktops, specifically designed to fit IKEA’s latest range of Metod kitchen cabinets.  If they could use a CNC machine to reduce the door front centre by say 7mm, they could sell Shaker style doors.  That would have saved me a lot of money.

Why Amazon is eating the world

Zack Kanter, a startup founder contributing to Techcrunch has clearly studied Amazon in detail.  As a result, his analysis is better and more subtle than the usual Amazon guff.  The idea of using an external market to avoid internal bloat is fascinating.  Compare and contrast with companies that want to “outsource”.

In the 10+ years since AWS’s debut, Amazon has been systematically rebuilding each of its internal tools as an externally-consumable service. A recent example is AWS’s Amazon Connect – a self-service, cloud-based contact center platform that is based on the same technology used in Amazon’s own call centers. Again, the ‘extra revenue’ here is great – but the real value is in honing Amazon’s internal tools.

If Amazon Connect is a complete commercial failure, Amazon’s management will have a quantifiable indicator (revenue, or lack thereof) that suggests their internal tools are significantly lagging behind the competition. Amazon has replaced useless, time-intensive bureaucracy like internal surveys and audits with a feedback loop that generates cash when it works – and quickly identifies problems when it doesn’t. They say that money earned is a reasonable approximation of the value you’re creating for the world, and Amazon has figured out a way to measure its own value in dozens of previously-invisible areas.

But this much is obvious – we all know about AWS. The incredible thing here is that this strategy – in one of the most herculean displays of effort in the history of the modern corporation – has permeated Amazon at every level. Amazon has quietly rolled out external access in nooks and crannies across their entire ecosystem, and it is this long tail of external service availability that I think will be nearly impossible to replicate.





A Conversation With Ross Anderson

Edge talks to Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge University, and one of the founders of the field of information security economics:

Meanwhile, in society at large, what we have seen over the past fifteen years is that crime has gone online. This has been particularly controversial in the UK. Back in 2005, the then Labour government struck a deal with the banks and the police to the effect that fraud would be reported to the banks first and to the police afterwards. They did this quite cynically in order to massage down the fraud figures. The banks went along with it because they ended up getting control of the fraud investigations that were done, and the police were happy to have less work for their desk officers to do.

For a decade, chief constables and government ministers were claiming that “Crime is falling, we’re doing a great job.” Some dissident criminologists started to say, “Hang on a minute. Crime isn’t actually falling, it’s just going online like everything else.” A year and a half ago, the government started publishing honest statistics for the first time in a decade. They found, to their disquiet, that online and electronic crime is now several times the rate of the traditional variety. In fact, this year in Britain we expect about one million households will suffer a traditional property crime like burglary or car theft, and somewhere between three and four million—probably nearer four million—will suffer some kind of fraud, or scam, or abuse, almost all of which are now online or electronic.

From the point of view of the police force, we got policy wrong. The typical police force—our Cambridgeshire constabulary, for example, has one guy spending most of his time on cybercrime. That’s it. When we find that there’s an accommodation scam in Cambridge targeting new students, for example, it’s difficult to get anything done because the scammers are overseas, and those cases have to be referred to police units in London who have other things to do. Nothing joins up and, as a result, we end up with no enforcement on cybercrime, except for a few headline crimes that really annoy ministers.

We’ve got a big broken area of policy that’s tied to technology and also to old management structures that just don’t work. In a circumstance like this, there are two options for someone like me, a mathematician who became a computer scientist and an engineer. You can either retreat into a technical ghetto and say, “We will concentrate on developing better tools for X, Y, and Z,” or you can engage with the broader policy debate and start saying, “let’s collect the evidence and show what’s being done wrong so we can figure out ways of fixing it.”


Twitter: the pulse of the planet that never started beating

Dan Kaplan at Exponents looks at Twitter:

So now we arrive at the part that breaks my heart: Evan Williams envisioned a future for Twitter as the pulse of the planet. The pursuit of this vision would almost definitely have taken Twitter down a very different path than the one it ended up taking.

Because if you’re setting out to become the pulse of the planet, your north star metric is NOT the number of active users on properties you control. It’s not about harvesting your users attention, maximizing their engagement, and monetizing both with ads.

No, if you want to be the pulse of the planet, your goal is to collect, standardize, and analyze as much data as you possibly can about anything and everything that’s happening in the world in real time.

When harvesting real time data and turning it into useful information is your goal, every successful third party app that feeds you that data is your friend. You don’t care if someone else builds a more compelling way to publish or read tweets, as long as you own those tweets.

You might not even care if someone else does a better job hosting your users photos and videos or shortening their links, as long as they give you privileged, free, and unrestricted access to any data they collect through your platform.

When you’re the pulse of the planet, don’t have to play the game of triggering dopamine releases in your users’ brains in order to harvest and monetize their attention…you’re in the business of selling access to your unique data and the extremely valuable insights contained within it.

Is it too late for another pivot?