Jan 172015
The Australian wine industry has problems

Mind games, wine growers and the Naples mafia are among today’s links along with last person in Britain who lived under Queen Victoria passing away and a touching series of portraits showing the end of the film photography industry.

Cutting out the middle man

Reka Haros is a wine maker in Italy’s Venuto region. Like many small producers her winery struggles with distribution and sales in a crowded market. Reba’s solution of going direct to the customer is one that many businesses should be considering in a noisy world.

Life in protection

I don’t fear death, I fear being discredited. The story of Italian journalist Roberto Saviano and his eight years in protection after writing about the Naples mafia.

Picturing the decline of film photography

Canadian photographer Robert Burley travelled the world with his 4×5 field camera to document the end of analogue photography. It’s a poignant portrayal of how an entire industry comes to and with one technological change.

Last of the Victorians

Ethel Lang, the last surviving Briton to live under the reign of Queen Victoria, died last week at the age 114.

Manufacturing false memories

A frightening physiological experiment shows a cunning interviewer can convince most of us  we committed crimes which we are totally innocent of. This truly is a disturbing story.

Jun 132014

Imagine the car steering wheel had been patented at the beginning of the Twentieth Century and that it was only top end vehicles or French cars that were steered that way?

That’s the situation we’re currently facing in the tech world as almost every conceivable idea, however silly, has a patent slapped on it in the hope it can help the business either defensively or as a revenue generator.

Yesterday’s announcement by Tesla Motors’ CEO Elon Musk that the electric car company would be opening it’s patents for ‘in good faith’ uses is a welcome change.

For Tesla it encourages the growth of the electric car industry making the sector deeper and more attractive to consumers who are tightly suspicious about being locked into proprietary technologies.

It’s interesting too that the motivation for taking up so many patents was to prevent the established motor companies grabbing Tesla’s inventions. As it turns out, that wasn’t necessary.

At Tesla, however, we felt compelled to create patents out of concern that the big car companies would copy our technology and then use their massive manufacturing, sales and marketing power to overwhelm Tesla. We couldn’t have been more wrong. The unfortunate reality is the opposite: electric car programs (or programs for any vehicle that doesn’t burn hydrocarbons) at the major manufacturers are small to non-existent, constituting an average of far less than 1% of their total vehicle sales.

So opening up the patent portfolio means Tesla might see more companies enter the space which in turn may create economies of scale.

No end to the patent wars

Although Tesla’s move doesn’t mean all patents wars are over; Musk’s statement that technologies used in ‘good faith’ will be immune from legal action leaves plenty of potential for disputes.

There’s also the problem of cross-licenses with many of Tesla’s invention being subject to agreements with other companies, not to mention technologies bought in from outside.

As Sun Microsystems showed during a previous round of the patent wars, it’s still possible for innocent users to be sued in the event of a dispute.

IBM and open patents

In the wake of that debacle, which fatally damaged Sun’s reputation, IBM made 500 of their patents available to the open source community in 2005 showing Musk’s move isn’t the first time this has happened.

History will tell us if Musk’s announcement helps build the electric car market, if it does it may be an indicator for the future of patents.

Apr 202014

Could liking a brand’s Facebook page cost you your right to sue?

The New York Times has a story on how corporations are subtly changing the wordings on websites and social media pages in an effort to make it harder for customers to challenge the business in court.

It’s quite cheeky attempting to strip people who ‘like’ a Facebook page of their rights to take action against a company, it even strikes at the heart of building an online community around a brand.

The whole point of accumulating real life followers behind a brand’s social media presence is to create a band of fans; by creating suspicion, business destroy the goodwill behind that exercise and possibly render it useless.

It will be interesting to see how Facebook react to this behaviour as intimidating users and discouraging them from liking brands is a direct threat to their business model, it’s hard to see them not changing their own terms to make this corporate behaviour a breach of their own terms of service.

For consumers though it’s a reminder that corporations, at least those who operate on twentieth-century mass market principles, aren’t really their friends.

Update: Since posting this piece, General Mills has backed down on its policy but the point still remains that unfair and over legalistic terms and conditions threaten social media platforms.

Dec 312013
understanding data with computers

As society and business drown in big data we’re relying on algorithms and computer programs to helps us wade through a flood of information, could that reliance be a weakness?

British Archeology site Digital Digging discusses how Google displays Manchester United winger Ryan Giggs in the results search for Cnut, the ancient king of Denmark better known in the English speaking world as King Canute.

Apparently Giggs appears in the search results for Canute because of the footballer’s futile attempt to hold back a tide of information about his love life.

While Google’s algorithm seems to have made a mistake, it’s only doing what it’s been programmed to do. A lot of trusted websites have used the term ‘Canute’ or ‘Cnut’ in relation to Giggs so the machine presents his picture as being relevant to the search.

Confusing Ryan Giggs and King Canute is mildly amusing until we consider how critical algorithms like Google Search have become to decision making, there are no shortage of stories about people being wrongly billed, detained or even gaoled on the basis of bad information from computers.

The stakes in making mistakes based on bad information are being raised all the time as processes become more automated, a chilling technology roadmap for the US military in Vice Magazine describes the future of ‘autonomous warfare’.

By the end 2021, just eight years away, the Pentagon sees “autonomous missions worldwide” as being one of their objectives.

Autonomous missions means local commanders and drones being able to make decisions to kill people or attack communities based on the what their computers tell them. The consequences of a bad result from a computer algorithm suddenly become very stark indeed.

While most decisions based on algorithms may not have the life or death consequences that a computer ordered drone strike on a family picnic might have, mistakes could cost businesses money and individuals much inconvenience.

So it’s worthwhile considering how we build the cultural and technological checks and balances into how we use big data and the algorithms necessary to analyze it so that we minimise mistakes.

Contrary to legend, King Canute didn’t try to order the tide not to come in. He was trying to demonstrate to obsequious court that he was fallible and a subject to the laws of nature and god as any other man.

Like the court of King Canute, we should be aware of the foibles and weaknesses of the technologies that increasingly guides us. The computer isn’t always right.

Nov 242013
The law applies online to social media and other web services

One of the long running scandals of modern journalism is how media organisations have misused social media.

Haitian photographer Daniel Moran’s victory over Agence France Press and Getty Images is a reminder to journalists and media organisations that when something is posted to social media it doesn’t mean it’s free to use.

Since the rise of social media sites it’s become common for journalists to grab images or videos from them to illustrate stories. At best, the media organisations have credited the sites they’ve stolen the content to allay copyright concerns.

The problem is media companies and journalists don’t have the right to do that; users don’t give away their rights when they post to Twitter or Facebook — they grant a license to the company to use those that content as they wish.

If a photographer, writer, computer programmer or musician wants to give away their work for free then there’s a range of ways they can do it and many are happy to make their efforts available to the community without charge. It just happens posting to a social media site isn’t one of those ways.

Hopefully journalists and media organisations will learn a lesson from Daniel Moran’s case, social media doesn’t mean open slather.

Jul 042013

Early this week I attended the media launch of Data Sovereignty and the Cloud – a white paper from the University of New South Wales’ Cyberspace Law and Policy centre.

The event was refreshingly free of a lot of the hype or hysteria that cloud computing events usually lead to. I’ve covered some of the panel session’s discussion for Business Spectator.

One thing that stood out in the presentation was the Ten Commandments of Cloud Computing which are a good guide to what businesses owners, directors and executives need to consider when looking at online services.

ten-commandments-of-cloud-security copy

Another refreshing aspect of the UNSW launch was the mature attitude towards risk – the overwhelming view of the panel, which included insurers, lawyers and academics, was that all technologies have an element of business risk and it’s a matter of identifying and managing those hazards.

Hopefully, we’ve moved on from the 1980s management view that risk is something to be eliminated at all costs. The result of that philosophy was just to shift risks into other, unforeseen areas.

The UNSW report on cloud risks is a weighty read, but it’s worthwhile if you want to get a realistic handle on exactly what the hazards are in moving to the cloud.

After all, if you don’t know what the risks are then you can’t identify, understand or manage them.