Category Archives: technology

The Internet as fuel for the curious and the crazy

I’ve been thinking a fair amount about how the Internet has been such a boon for curious children, and adults for that matter. If you want to find out more about anything (quarks, volcanoes, bugs, Egyptology) there are resources galore at your fingertips. It’s a glorious age we live in that lets you satisfy any intellectual itch almost instantaneously (so long as you have a computer and connectivity, of course).

But there’s a flip side, too. The exact same tool broadcasts the voices of the ignorant, the paranoid, the prejudiced, the uncritically conspiratorial, and the straight-forwardly malicious among us. I was reminded of this by the response of reader G P Wiggins of Hopewell, NJ to Timothy Egan’s NYT column on Congressional Republicans (The Wrong Side of History) yesterday:

“You want to know how bad this craziness is? Google on the ‘secret plan’ by Obama to get a third and fourth term; and Google on all these recent acts of violence being ‘red flag’ events that the government is secretly behind. Millions of people believe this stuff. The Internet has played a still-under-appreciated role in this madness: you can now live in a paranoid echo chamber and believe that everyone thinks like you.”

Supposed experts aren’t always to be trusted and it’s good to offer a public publishing platform to all. And there are multiple communities of people (those with esoteric passions, retailers and purchasers of uncommon goods, the sufferers of rare medical conditions) who have been immensely enriched by the web’s ability to unite small but widely distributed groups.

But in the face of upended hierarchies of authority, we’ve yet to grapple with the shear weight of misinformed, unsourced, ill-intentioned, poorly argued, speculative, and plain crazy speech that we’ve also enabled and that has so easily conjoined into a sizable, self-supporting shadow-web of bogus guff.

That it’s out there has a lot to do with the origin of the Web in a culture that’s as interested in the statement, “I want to believe,” as, “I want to know.” Belief also drives visitor numbers, whether you’re interested in income or fame, while confirmed fact often does the opposite.

But it leaves us with a powerful nexus of information that is, paradoxically, also astonishingly untrustworthy, where the right answer can’t ever be trusted always to bubble to top. What’s interesting is to ask how could it be otherwise? What’s the best way to allow those right answers to make it through the powerful wish so many of us so often have that things might be other than they are?

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Bioengineer Stephen Quake profiled

I’ve been enjoying the chance to write about faculty in Stanford’s School of Engineering recently. My latest effort profiles Stephen Quake, winner of this year’s MIT Lemelson-MIT Prize.

At just 43, Quake has already made an extraordinary number of major breakthroughs in applying measurement to biological phenomena.

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Profile of Stanford chemical engineering prof. Channing Robertson

Here’s a profile that I put together for the Stanford School of Engineering on Channing Robertson, emeritus professor of Chemical Engineering. He’s a legendary teacher, former Senior Associate Dean, and was the first engineering faculty member hired by Stanford to focus specifically on the chemistry of life forms. Apart from all that, he’s been involved in some of the most significant legal cases of the last 40 years to touch on issues of chemical and medical engineering.

Amazingly, though, that’s far from his whole story. Thanks to the space constraints we were working with, we had to leave plenty of interesting material on the virtual editing room floor. I hope Professor Robertson gets time to write a memoir in his retirement. It would be a great read.

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Shaping the Cloud

Here’s something I wrote fairly recently for HP Labs about research conducted at their Bristol, UK facility that aims to rethink the underlying structure of Cloud computing.

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Why We Are Sad – Seven reasons why Steve Jobs is deeply mourned in Silicon Valley

By declaration of the Governor of California, today is Steve Jobs Day. A national memorial of sorts for him is being held about now at Stanford University. The degree to which Jobs’ death continues to affect people all over the world is remarkable. In Silicon Valley, though, we’ve felt – and continue to feel – his loss especially keenly. He was, after all, our very own global icon. But I don’t think that’s why a surprisingly large percentage of the people I know here took the time to visit his house in the days after his death. They weren’t feeling self-important, I think, or gawking . They were genuinely moved by the passing of a neighbor they didn’t know but to whom they wanted to pay their respects in some way, even if it was just to stop by for a few quiet minutes of witness.

The roots of our sadness are complex, I think. Here’s my attempt, though, to tease out some of the reasons for it.

– Firstly, it was because he was one of our own, by which I mean an entrepreneur, someone who took huge risks, who worked incredibly hard, who had huge belief in himself and the capacity of others. Even in his ego and his management foibles, he was an exemplary Valley figure.

– It’s because he was an outsider, too. Jobs managed to always stand as being with the people against The Man, even when he and his company were big enough to be the Establishment themselves. In addition, Jobs was not a technologist by training. What brought him prominence more than anything was the preeminence that he gave design – even his vaunted skills as a salesman were secondary to that. He didn’t have to sell snake oil, though, because he saw to it that the products he sold were simply beautifully – and brilliantly – put together. Even now, that deference to design is a path few here take. But this is also a land that loves mavericks – and so we admired Jobs’ difference, even as most of us have chosen much more conservative paths.

– It’s because he succeeded – Jobs was one of the greatest of all come back kids. And like all Americans, we love that story. He would have earned obituaries if he’d only founded Apple and then crashed out with Next. Or if he’d come back to Apple the second time, but blown it on his return. But he came back and rebuilt Apple into one of the most valuable companies in the world, even as he grew ever more sick. We revere that outrageous successes and mourn that we lost him at the top of his game.

– It’s also because he failed – in the end, of course, he wasn’t a come back kid. We were rooting hard for him to do it again and beat his cancer, too. We’re saddened and sorry that he couldn’t.

– It’s because he died young and in a place that doesn’t really know how to mourn. Seeing anyone die before their time has its own particular sadness. But in losing leaders from whom we still have more to learn, whom we feel would have inspired us yet more, that sadness is compounded. Silicon Valley remains a young place, too, and we face that loss without the rhetoric or rituals that have mollified the early loss of the great and good in other times and places. Perhaps because we’ve really only seen one great tech generation pass – that of the Hewletts, Packards, Termans and Noyces – we’ve yet to build death into our culture. We have no unique rituals to make sense of the passing of those who’ve most impacted our lives. Perhaps we never will – maybe that’s just antithetical to a community that is otherwise so relentlessly forward-looking. But without the ritual local comfort of an Irish wake, a New Orleans jazz cortege, or a Royal memorial mass, we’re left all the more bereft.

– It’s because Jobs acknowledged his mortality – Jobs had known he was very sick for years, as had we. He took that as a chance to meditate on his life path and to share the fruits of his mediation with the rest of us in his widely circulated Stanford graduation speech. His response to his sickness was to dedicate himself to two things only: his family and his work, both values that we profoundly share. But he did it in the context of his (and our) inevitable death. “Death,” he reminded his audience, “is the ultimate change agent.” And in that he broke a taboo we hold, despite our future-worship, against imagining our own demise, or perhaps he simply drew us out of our cultural immaturity. Again, he both exemplified our values and broke the Valley mold.

– Lastly, I think it’s because by his death Steve Jobs had become, somewhat surprisingly, the great living father figure of the Valley—and I think this is the ultimate root of our sadness. Jobs wasn’t the oldest of our billionaires, CEOs, former wunderkinds, or other local grandees and swells, nor was he the richest, or the most beloved. But – especially after the Stanford speech – he became our psychic taskmaster. We felt that if we knew him he’d only respect us if, like him, we reached for excellence too. If you take him at his word, and I see no reason not to, he wasn’t motivated by money, or power or glory. What drove him instead was a desire to fundamentally improve the world as best he could, and how he chose to lead was to try and inspire the same desire in others. In that he exemplified the hugely demanding but ultimately fair, strict but self-directed, bull-headed but in the end social-minded good father long mythologized in the American West. We might never have relished the idea of actually being his employee or child, just as few people ever really want to work for their dad. But fathers – and father figures – make indelible marks upon our lives and that, perhaps, explains more than anything why we morn the loss of our neighbor Steve Jobs to a self-surprising degree.

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Metaphorical earthquakes

were my subject this week in an analysis piece for the London Evening Standard. I was trying to make sense of a week of big management changes in three Silicon Valley giants that are all doing pretty well in basic financial terms. So why the need for a shake up?

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Vanity searching in vain

Tom Foremski has an interesting post this week about the apparent shrinking scale of Google’s search results.

It turns out that searches on his own name are yielding fewer and fewer results over time.  That understandably surprised Foremski since he’s both prolific and widely referenced.

Foremski is mostly concerned with the fact that this is happening.  “Clearly,” he concludes, “the number of results that Google claims is bogus.”

“What’s going on?” he then asks, and his commenters suggest a number of likely explanations in response.

But whatever the reason, Foremski’s observation makes clear that Google search statistics have dubious validity as measures of scale. And yet journalists, myself included, use them all the time as a shorthand way of measuring impact.

Our model is citations. These certainly have validity when measured against complete and comprehensively indexed sets of data. An example would be a full archive of a particular newspaper’s articles.  You can clearly state that a particular word was used, say, in the New York Times x times in 2005 and y times in 2010.

Citations are also important in science where they help measure impact of a researcher’s work. It genuinely means something to say someone is the most cited psychologist, for example, in the world.

Google, I’m sure, doesn’t mind us thinking that it, too, offers a pretty-much complete and comprehensive data set along with a true count of the number of citations in that data set.

But both the comprehensiveness of the set and the reliability of the count seem to be in fairly constant flux.

There’s solace here for Foremski — his vanity search results may not truly measure his reach (and, along with it, his impact) online.

For the rest of us there’s a lesson, too: that we need to swallow the citation counts we find on Google with a healthy dose of salt.  And I guess we need to be looking for new kind of vanity index to use from now on.

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