RIP: Bob Woodward’s credibility forevermore

I won’t bother paraphrasing Charles Pierce, so go read:

What I don’t understand is why these giants of journalism are imploding at the same time? Sy Hersh was quite strident about Bin Laden’s death being fiction about 2 weeks ago. It’s not clear if he is right or wrong, but it’s clear that he couldn’t make the story stand outside his own personal halo.

Virtual Reality Uncertainty

Like every good futurist, I have been wondering about all the new hype around Virtual Reality that was basically kicked off by Oculus Rift. And of course this went into overdrive when Facebook spent a cool $2b to validate the concept. All of a sudden it seems like everyone is doing it. Which makes you wonder if there is something that people in the depth of these tech companies know that we don’t. Maybe there is some super-secret strategy memo that tech CEOs get that we peons don’t have access to?

First I want to be clear about my lens on this – how big can this tech be? Or more precisely I am assuming the interest is because companies think this ‘new’ industry will be eventually as big as or close to the size of the web or mobile – which is essentially what you would need it to be to drive the next wave of tech company growth. By corollary, my lens is not whether VR will be useful in certain applications or have new capabilities that are exciting (this is a given). Instead it’s about wide adoption as a corporate or consumer technology.

The confines of a new industry are well threaded:

  1. First you need to get over human interaction and cool factor issues – the device has to be something that is useful and intuitive as well as desirable.
  2. Next you need to have an affordable price point so a lot of people can buy it.
  3. Third you need to have useful content on the device – generally apps, professional entertainment content or user generated content. This is what makes the other 2 things ignite and generate a mass market. The barrier to apps are basically how accessible the development platform is. The barrier to professional content is basically the cost of encoding abundant professional content into the new format(s). The barriers to user generated content is how well you can distribute easy to use encoders to ordinary people (which partly goes through the same cycle of 1, 2, 3.). Recursion!!

In all 3 things, VR has a significant hurdle to get over: It may be hard to turn VR into walk-about technology; not that it’s required, see XBOX and PlayStation. But more fundamentally, VR forces you to choose more starkly between your world and the virtual world. Something that is less confrontational in say, living room gaming.

However the most significant hurdle will be content. Games are a no-brainer, but beyond that? How can I take a trip through Europe with a small encoding device and then deliver VR content to my friends via Facebook or whatever its successor is? The scarcity of 4K content also shows that even professional content owners can struggle to deliver appropriate content at scale in a short time frame. How hard will it be to do apps? If it takes an order of magnitude more effort than a game, there will be initial roadblocks to mass market consumer ambitions….

The good enough alternative to Virtual Reality is already here – better video, better virtual worlds on a 2 or 3d screen. And this technology is unencumbered by gnarly human factors challenges.

Virtual Reality tech is actually already splintering. Microsoft has a version of this that is basically really Virtual Interactivity, painting virtual interactive objects over the real world. This has real potential of augmenting and improving humanity but may be harder to program. And the HUD will need to disappear a little more than a bulky headset. I hope everyone can remember the Augmented Reality boomlet of a few years ago in the mobile app space that did not quite explode.

It’s really hard to anticipate the future. But my bet is that if this section of innovation is to take over the world, one should not pay as much attention to Occulus Rift as to people quietly building specialty processors, content encoders, UI standards, programming interfaces and tech that makes wearables become virtually invisible in everyday life. It’s really hard to bet against the future but given the many open questions about how fast VR and VI can grow to even rival the gaming market, it might not be the savior people expect.

Huckabee hearts Duggars

Mike Huckabee was shellacked good for his Facebook statement in support of Josh Duggar. How could a man who has savaged Barack Obama on his parenting – because Beyonce! – and has publicly been harsh about OTHER people’s own crimes related to sexual molestation, go so easy on this instance of abuse?

If you browse the Facebook posts of the erstwhile potential presidential contender, you will see a specific thrust of questioning: why make excuses for these people for such a serious crime? Why is this acceptable?

There is a surprisingly simple answer to this: Relationship. People are much more compassionate about people or ideas that they are familiar or intimate with. And less willing to see them punished, even if that is what the law requires. I’ve always thought that part of the reason that the United States invaded Iraq was because most people in the US were not exposed to Iraqi culture or ever seen an Iraqi neighbor. Making the decision was without emotional costs for most people (although let history record that a significant number of Americans opposed the war regardless).

Without delving too deeply into fraught waters, this might also explain why there is a markedly unfair outcomes in the criminal justice system in the US (and has always been); in the fall of 2014, polling showed that only 25% of Caucasians in the US have any African American friends. If I’m right, a criminal justice system controlled by a dominant culture cannot quite be compassionate about minority cultures that it does not quite understand. Or more precisely it understands second and third hand from many anecdotal sources including the media.

In Huck’s own words: “In fact, it is such times as this, when real friends show up and stand up. Today, Janet and I want to show up and stand up for our friends. Let others run from them. We will run to them with our support.”

NFL 2015 Epilogue

Well if you’ve been on earth recently, you know what happened to the Seahawks at the super bowl. They fell to the scurvy and cheaty New England Patriots in a stroke of bad luck. It took me fully 2 months to process another atom of NFL information after that day and I might abstain completely from the NFL this year unless the Seahawks start early to dominate.

I might never get back to Peak NFL.

Peak NFL 2015

I’ve been in this country for a little bit now, going on 15 years, and I’ve had an interesting relationship with the NFL. I’ve gone from a classic African state of mind (ruled by love for the beautiful game) of “What the hell is this nonsense I am seeing on TV and why is everyone yelling about it??!!” to “Maybe I WILL play fantasy football next season!”. Eh…probably won’t. I went to USC just at the start of the Carroll era so I guess I had no real choice but to get into it a bit. Then Seattle went to the Super bowl in 2005 while I was at Microsoft so that was my real year of détente with the NFL. After that I yearned for a Seahawks repeat and that kept me in the running. But I was a fair weather friend. If Seattle wasn’t in the hunt my treacly allegiances shifted to the New England Patriots – a very soupy name but there it is.

With the Super bowl win in 2014, I guess again I was hooked. That game was one for the ages. The spanking the Broncos took at the hand of my hometown boys was epic. 2015 is the closest year yet for NFL interest for me. Culminating in the NFC championship game to end all championship games. But even more so, I now know names like Gronkowski and even predicted this article before it was written. Ballghazi is also mildly interesting. However the really awesome occurrence is the matchup between my real team and my backup team in super bowl 2015.

I’m experiencing peak NFL baby.

For Africa, Ebola may be here to stay

In the world of viruses, Ebola is like a chickenshit kid with a gun. Chickenshit because unlike its more deadly rivals (virals?) it hasn’t managed to evolve to be airborne – think like most hantaviruses like H1N1. With a gun, because it’s especially deadly (for a chickenshit). So deadly that it works to its own evolutionary disadvantage by wiping out its hosts quickly – too quickly. Usually devastating whole rural villages and then limping back into obscurity when it finds no new victims. Ebola is not new – it’s been around for a long while. I read about it first in Reader’s Digest when I was a child; about a really bad incident that terrorized rural Congolese villages sometime in 1976. In every case that I am aware of, Ebola burnt through the population and then ran out of steam. And its’s been usually confined to remote, forest adjacent villages.

But what we have right now is entirely new. Ebola has finally jumped the rural-urban border into the hot, dense cities of West Africa*. One of the chief features of these cities is pretty terrible health infrastructure. Being African myself, it’s still hard to fathom how vulnerable people are to health issues, how non-existent health insurance is, how woefully inadequate health institutions are, and how utterly at the mercy of disease most people are. I’ve had family members expire prematurely because of terrible hospital care, a misdiagnosis or even simply superstition (that made getting healthcare much tougher).

So a disease that is ordinarily chickenshit and should be fairly easy to control in a place with decent healthcare management systems, is loose in urban Africa. Lagos alone has over 20 million people packed into it pretty tightly. The implied epidemiology of Ebola (that I am aware of) means that it will have willing hosts and high probabilities of transmission in an urban setting that is not decisively controlled by healthcare authorities. This very weakness will also mean that the population will have to take it upon themselves to do their own protection, changing everyday activities like shop keeping, buying and selling, sex, and other mundane activities. Basically sowing grave distrust into mere commerce and everyday existence which requires human contact. Someone should be calculating the economic damage, right about now.

I am not aware of any active viral disease that has been managed successfully in an urban setting in Africa without deploying vaccines. When I was growing up, the most reliable solution to the most terrible scourges (Yellow fever, Mumps, Measles, Polio, etc.) was to get everyone vaccinated. African countries can usually handle that. It’s a one-time investment, almost latent and means that you can come into contact with the disease with relative impunity. And if you didn’t get vaccinated, oh well; you were warned sucker! Given that Ebola requires active management of a kind that may be scarce, one struggles to see how it can be cleanly wiped out in the absence of a vaccine.

If all this stuff is true (ok, big if), one plausible scenario is that Ebola becomes a low grade urban disease, never actually being wiped out, occasionally offering the illusion of complete control, but jumping out of blind corners to claim a handful of lives every few weeks and managing to soldier on. Combine that with the possibility of rapid evolution and mutation (now that is has more room to stick around), you have possibly unprecedented potential.

The debate over Zmapp – the experimental Ebola drug – has been kind of annoying, if misguided. Of course West Africans should have Zmapp, stat! Really, how much more valuable is an American or European life than an African one? The only real gate, which honestly is one that has to be self-assessed by African countries, is whether they have a health care system that can handle its efficient distribution given its high requirements for preservation in transit and administration. And if any pharma house wants to profit off a pandemic, I’d like to see them try. Regardless if I was premier in any West African country I would be setting aside a lot of money to improve health care systems, buy Zmapp and push for a vaccine. This stuff may be sticking around.

Courtesy of Vox media

*This by the way, should have been entirely predictable.

Can you bequeath your digital assets?

Last year I wrote an article about ownership being the last rubicon for digital content. Seems I was prescient. I knew this issue would break new legal ground but I didn’t know how much. Looks like things are heating up on this front: from a Slate article: who owns your iTunes library after your death?. Go read it, it looks like these digital content purveyors have EULAs that are basically mean that you don’t own any of this after you expire.

Here is the key graf:

The Delaware law raises the complexities of how to deal with the accounts that house our e-book collections, music and video libraries, or even game purchases, and whether they can be transferred to friends and family after death. The bill broadly states that digital assets include not only emails and social media content, but also “data … audio, video, images, sounds … computer source codes, computer programs, software, software licenses.” However, the law says that these digital assets are controllable by the deceased’s trustees only to the extent allowed by the original service’s end user license agreement, or EULA.

If you’ve read your Kindle or iTunes EULA, you’d know just how little control over your e-books or music you have. Every time you hit “buy” at the Kindle store, you are not purchasing an e-book; you are licensing it for your personal use only. Even if you reread your e-copy of The Hobbit twice a year for 10 years, you are no closer to owning it, and without Amazon’s permission, no closer to being able to hand it down to your children. Professor Gerry Beyer at Texas Tech University says that the Delaware statute does not override this feature of Amazon’s, or most, EULAs, which are protected by other forms of federal law. “The bill is not designed to change an asset you could not transfer into one you can,” he told me.

This stuff needs to change. Its preventing me from going full hog on digital purchases.

The death of Facebook Home

When Facebook Home launched many moons ago in the yesteryears of 2013, I quickly panned it. The value just did not stand up to strategic scrutiny. Other cheered of course, the demmed gullible tech press. I even did a follow up post thinking about what FB Home would need to be to actually become a player. But now we hear that my prognostication was right on the money and FB Home will innovate no longer. This was highly predictable, FB Home needed innovation along very different dimensions that FB is setup to do at this time (web not OS). Understanding why some things will work and others won’t (generally) is a key part of technology strategy. And this is what is missing from a lot of tech press analysis.

R.I.P. Facebook Home. It was sorta nice knowing you.