kottke.org posts about Google
In the NY Times Magazine, Gideon Lewis-Kraus reports on Google’s improving artificial intelligence efforts. The Google Brain team (no, seriously that’s what the team is called) spent almost a year overhauling Google’s translate service, resulting in a startling improvement in the service.
The new incarnation, to the pleasant surprise of Google’s own engineers, had been completed in only nine months. The A.I. system had demonstrated overnight improvements roughly equal to the total gains the old one had accrued over its entire lifetime.
Just after the switchover, Japanese professor Jun Rekimoto noticed the improvement. He took a passage from Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro, translated it into Japanese, and fed it back into Google Translate to get English back out. Here’s how Hemingway wrote it:
Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.
And here’s the AI-powered translation:
Kilimanjaro is a mountain of 19,710 feet covered with snow and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. The summit of the west is called “Ngaje Ngai” in Masai, the house of God. Near the top of the west there is a dry and frozen dead body of leopard. No one has ever explained what leopard wanted at that altitude.
Not bad, especially when you compare it to what the old version of Translate would have produced:
Kilimanjaro is 19,710 feet of the mountain covered with snow, and it is said that the highest mountain in Africa. Top of the west, “Ngaje Ngai” in the Maasai language, has been referred to as the house of God. The top close to the west, there is a dry, frozen carcass of a leopard. Whether the leopard had what the demand at that altitude, there is no that nobody explained.
Google has updated their Timelapse feature on Google Earth, allowing you to scrub satellite imagery from all over the globe back in forth in time.
This interactive experience enabled people to explore these changes like never before — to watch the sprouting of Dubai’s artificial Palm Islands, the retreat of Alaska’s Columbia Glacier, and the impressive urban expansion of Las Vegas, Nevada. Today, we’re making our largest update to Timelapse yet, with four additional years of imagery, petabytes of new data, and a sharper view of the Earth from 1984 to 2016.
A good way to experience some of the most compelling locations is through the YouTube playlist embedded above…just let it run for a few minutes. Some favorite videos are the circular farmland in Al Jowf, Saudi Arabia, the disappearing Aral Sea, the erosion of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana, the urban growth of Chongqing, China, the alarmingly quick retreat of Alaska’s Columbia Glacier, and this meandering river in Tibet.
Soli is a newish project by Google described as “a new sensing technology that uses miniature radar to detect touchless gesture interactions”. It’s pretty cool. A group at The University of St. Andrews has found another potentially more amazing use for the sensor: recognizing specific objects and materials.
RadarCat (Radar Categorization for Input & Interaction) is a small, versatile radar-based system for material and object classification which enables new forms of everyday proximate interaction with digital devices. In this work we demonstrate that we can train and classify different types of objects which we can then recognize in real time. Our studies include everyday objects and materials, transparent materials and different body parts. Our videos demonstrate four working examples including a physical object dictionary, painting and photo editing application, body shortcuts and automatic refill based on RadarCat.
More simply put, if you put an orange on the sensor, it knows it’s an orange…and the system can learn new objects as well. It’s a barcode scanner without barcodes. Watch the video…you’ll get the idea pretty quickly.
Today’s Google Doodle honors the 100th anniversary of the birth of legendary newsman Walter Cronkite.
Today would be the 100th birthday of the man known widely throughout the ’60s and ’70s as “the most trusted man in America.” Walter Cronkite, the legendary broadcast journalist reported, served, and comforted a nation during its most trying times, including World War II, Watergate, the Vietnam War, and the assassination of JFK, to name a few.
Walter perpetuated an objective reporting style rooted in justice and integrity: “Press freedom is essential to our democracy, but the press must not abuse this license. We must be careful with our power. The free press, after all, is the central nervous system of a democratic society.”
Since I missed most of Cronkite’s career as a TV news anchor (I was 7 when he retired), I mostly associate him with the coverage of the Apollo 11 Moon landing and the early web meme Walter Cronkite Spit In My Food.
It was an unbelievable account of a drunken Walter Cronkite raging at a honeymooning couple in a restaurant. It included an obviously faked video clip of Walter Cronkite spitting and a fuzzy photograph of a man who looked vaguely like Cronkite.
Google’s honor is a bit ironic given that Cronkite favored tougher libel and slander laws for “would-be writers and reporters on the Internet”:
I am dumbfounded that there hasn’t been a crackdown with the libel and slander laws on some of these would-be writers and reporters on the Internet. I expect that to develop in the fairly near future.
as well as legislation against anonymous expression online:
I favor legislation that requires people to stand by their words by identifying themselves on the Internet. They should not be permitted to operate anonymously.
He was clear that he was not after censorship:
I hope to make it clear that I did say that I am opposed to any form of censorship. This is identification… forced identification by those who use the Internet. Not censorship. It is simply requiring them to take the same responsibility that people in print and in broadcasting have to take.
I have been following with fascination the match between Google’s Go-playing AI AlphaGo and top-tier player Lee Sedol and with even more fascination the human reaction to AlphaGo’s success. Many humans seem unnerved not only by AlphaGo’s early lead in the best-of-five match but especially by how the machine is playing in those games.
Then, with its 19th move, AlphaGo made an even more surprising and forceful play, dropping a black piece into some empty space on the right-hand side of the board. Lee Sedol seemed just as surprised as anyone else. He promptly left the match table, taking an (allowed) break as his game clock continued to run. “It’s a creative move,” Redmond said of AlphaGo’s sudden change in tack. “It’s something that I don’t think I’ve seen in a top player’s game.”
When Lee Sedol returned to the match table, he took an usually long time to respond, his game clock running down to an hour and 19 minutes, a full twenty minutes less than the time left on AlphaGo’s clock. “He’s having trouble dealing with a move he has never seen before,” Redmond said. But he also suspected that the Korean grandmaster was feeling a certain “pleasure” after the machine’s big move. “It’s something new and unique he has to think about,” Redmond explained. “This is a reason people become pros.”
“A creative move.” Let’s think about that…a machine that is thinking creatively. Whaaaaaa… In fact, AlphaGo’s first strong human opponent, Fan Hui, has credited the machine for making him a better player, a more beautiful player:
As he played match after match with AlphaGo over the past five months, he watched the machine improve. But he also watched himself improve. The experience has, quite literally, changed the way he views the game. When he first played the Google machine, he was ranked 633rd in the world. Now, he is up into the 300s. In the months since October, AlphaGo has taught him, a human, to be a better player. He sees things he didn’t see before. And that makes him happy. “So beautiful,” he says. “So beautiful.”
Creative. Beautiful. Machine? What is going on here? Not even the creators of the machine know:
“Although we have programmed this machine to play, we have no idea what moves it will come up with,” Graepel said. “Its moves are an emergent phenomenon from the training. We just create the data sets and the training algorithms. But the moves it then comes up with are out of our hands — and much better than we, as Go players, could come up with.”
Generally speaking,1 until recently machines were predictable and more or less easily understood. That’s central to the definition of a machine, you might say. You build them to do X, Y, & Z and that’s what they do. A car built to do 0-60 in 4.2 seconds isn’t suddenly going to do it in 3.6 seconds under the same conditions.
Now machines are starting to be built to think for themselves, creatively and unpredictably. Some emergent, non-linear shit is going on. And humans are having a hard time figuring out not only what the machine is up to but how it’s even thinking about it, which strikes me as a relatively new development in our relationship. It is not all that hard to imagine, in time, an even smarter AlphaGo that can do more things — paint a picture, write a poem, prove a difficult mathematical conjecture, negotiate peace — and do those things creatively and better than people.
Unpredictable machines. Machines that act more like the weather than Newtonian gravity. That’s going to take some getting used to. For one thing, we might have to stop shoving them around with hockey sticks. (thx, twitter folks)
Update: AlphaGo beat Lee in the third game of the match, in perhaps the most dominant fashion yet. The human disquiet persists…this time, it’s David Ormerod:
Move after move was exchanged and it became apparent that Lee wasn’t gaining enough profit from his attack.
By move 32, it was unclear who was attacking whom, and by 48 Lee was desperately fending off White’s powerful counter-attack.
I can only speak for myself here, but as I watched the game unfold and the realization of what was happening dawned on me, I felt physically unwell.
Generally I avoid this sort of personal commentary, but this game was just so disquieting. I say this as someone who is quite interested in AI and who has been looking forward to the match since it was announced.
One of the game’s greatest virtuosos of the middle game had just been upstaged in black and white clarity.
AlphaGo’s strength was simply remarkable and it was hard not to feel Lee’s pain.
….and it still looks like a middlebrow kids clothing brand logo.
So why are we doing this now? Once upon a time, Google was one destination that you reached from one device: a desktop PC. These days, people interact with Google products across many different platforms, apps and devices-sometimes all in a single day. You expect Google to help you whenever and wherever you need it, whether it’s on your mobile phone, TV, watch, the dashboard in your car, and yes, even a desktop!
Today we’re introducing a new logo and identity family that reflects this reality and shows you when the Google magic is working for you, even on the tiniest screens. As you’ll see, we’ve taken the Google logo and branding, which were originally built for a single desktop browser page, and updated them for a world of seamless computing across an endless number of devices and different kinds of inputs (such as tap, type and talk).
Update: The design team shares how they came up with the new logo.
Update: When I said that Google’s new logo “still looks like a middlebrow kids clothing brand logo”, this is pretty much what I meant.
Gymboree’s identity (1993-2000) vs. Google’s new identity (Sep 01, 2015)
Google’s latest project is called Project Sunroof. Sunroof utilizes Google Earth data to estimate the solar energy potential of buildings.
Enter Project Sunroof, my recent 20% project. Project Sunroof is a new online tool we’re testing to help homeowners explore whether they should go solar. Available in the San Francisco Bay Area, Fresno (in central California), and the Boston area for now, the tool uses high-resolution aerial mapping (the same used by Google Earth) to help you calculate your roof’s solar energy potential, without having to climb up any ladders.
If you’re in one of our test regions, simply enter your address and Project Sunroof will crunch the numbers. It first figures out how much sunlight hits your rooftop throughout the year, taking into account factors like roof orientation, shade from trees and nearby buildings, and local weather patterns. You can also enter your typical electric bill amount to customize the results. The tool then combines all this information to estimate the amount you could potentially save with solar panels, and it can help connect you with local solar providers.
Google still has 20% time?
Google announced earlier in the week that they were creating a new company, Alphabet, to house a collection of companies, including Google.
What is Alphabet? Alphabet is mostly a collection of companies. The largest of which, of course, is Google. This newer Google is a bit slimmed down, with the companies that are pretty far afield of our main Internet products contained in Alphabet instead. What do we mean by far afield? Good examples are our health efforts: Life Sciences (that works on the glucose-sensing contact lens), and Calico (focused on longevity).
Google has been focused on diversifying their business for a long time, even before their IPO. In August of 2003, they posted a job listing on Craigslist looking for a manager to run their collection of Googlettes, which were essentially startups within Google:
What is a Googlette? It’s a new business inside of Google that is just getting started — the start-up within the start-up. We’re looking for an experienced, entrepreneurial manager capable of offering direction to a team of PMs working on a wide array of Googlettes. You will define Google’s innovation engine and grow the leaders of our next generation of businesses.
Georges Harik, who is now an advisor for Google Ventures, was a former director of the Googlettes:
As director of Googlettes, his team was responsible for the product management and strategy efforts surrounding many nascent Google initiatives including Gmail, Google Talk, Google Video, Picasa, Orkut, Google Groups and Google Mobile.
At the time, I riffed on this idea a little and imagined Google spinning out these businesses as a confederation of stand-alone companies:
Instead of generating ideas and people for internal use, what if they’re incubating start-ups to spin off into companies of their own? Fast forward five years and instead of being a big huge company, Google is a big huge company at the center of a network of 10-20 large to medium-sized companies with similar goals, values, and business practices. Most of these spin-offs would be engaged in businesses similar (and probably complementary) to each other and the Google Mother Ship, some of them maybe even directly competing with each other.
In hindsight, Alphabet is a much better name than Google Mother Ship.
Chris Umson is the Director of Self-Driving Cars at Google[x] and in March, he gave a talk at TED about the company’s self-driving cars. The second half of the presentation is fascinating; Umson shows more than a dozen different traffic scenarios and how the car sees and reacts to each one.
It will be interesting to see how roads, cars, and our behavior will change when self-driving cars hit the streets. Right now, street markings, signage, and automobiles are designed for how human drivers see the world. Computers see the road quite differently, and if Google’s take on the self-driving car becomes popular, it would be wise to adopt different standards to help them navigate more smoothly. Maintaining painted lines might be more important, along with eliminating superfluous signage close to the roadway. Maybe human-driven cars would be required to display a special marking alerting self-driving cars to potential hazards.1 Positioning of headlights and taillights might become more standard.
Human drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians will necessarily adapt to self-driving cars as well. Some will take advantage of the cars’ politeness. But mostly I suspect that learning to interact with self-driving cars will require a different approach, just as people talk to computers differently than they do to other humans — think of how you formulate a successful search query, speak to Siri, or, more to the point, manipulate a Wii remote so the sensor dingus on top of your TV can interpret what you’re doing.
Google Street View includes views from under the Earth’s oceans. You can tour shipwrecks, swim with humpback whales, and virtually dive down to dozens of coral reefs.
P.S. You can also climb Yosemite’s El Capitan on Google Street View, which is SO OMG TERRFIYING THAT I CANT BE BOTHERED TO CORRECTM Y TPYING. Are anyone else’s palms soaking wet right now? (via mr)
From 1957, this is a drawing of the synergistic strategy of Walt Disney Productions, or what Todd Zenger of Harvard Business Review calls “a corporate theory of sustained growth”.
The boxes on the chart have changed, but since the appointment of Bob Iger as CEO, Disney has seemingly doubled down on Walt’s old strategy with their increased focus on franchises.
Disney’s dominance can be boiled down very simply to one word: franchises. Or rather, an “incessant focus on franchises” in the words of former Disney CFO Jay Rasulo.
“Everything we do is about brands and franchises,” Rasulo told a group of financial analysts last September. “Ten years ago we were more like other media companies, more broad-based, big movie slate, 20 something pictures, some franchise, some not franchise. If you look at our slate strategy now, our television strategy, almost every aspect of the company, we are oriented around brands and franchises.”
Franchises are well suited to extend across multiple parts of a big business like Disney, particularly because it’s a repeating virtuous cycle: movies drive merchandise sales and theme park visits, which in turn drives interest for sequels and spin-offs, rinse, repeat, reboot.
I wonder if more tech companies could be using this strategy more effectively. Apple does pretty well; their various hardware (iPhone, iPad, Mac), software (iOS, OS X), and services (iCloud, App Store, iTunes Store) work together effectively. Microsoft rode Office & Windows for quite awhile. Google seems a bit more all over the place — for instance, it’s unclear how their self-driving car helps their search business and Google+ largely failed to connect various offerings. Facebook seems to be headed in the right direction. Twitter? Not so much, but we’ll see how they do with new leadership. Or old leadership…I discovered Walt’s chart via interim Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
Google just announced Project Jacquard, an effort to introduce interactivity into textiles. Swipe your sofa cushion to change the channel on your TV,1 tap a special “knock” on your collar to unlock your front door, or control your party’s playlist with a few taps of your pants.
Update: Google and Levi’s are collaborating on a jacket that uses the Project Jacquard technology. They announced the collaboration last year:
With the Levi’s Commuter jacket, introduced in 2016, the technology comes to life through a conductive fabric and a Bluetooth device that attaches to the garment. The connected area consists of 15 threads on the left sleeve, just visible enough for you to know where to touch to trigger actions from a paired smartphone.
They just announced the price and availability: $350 and fall 2017.
If you’ve bought a ticket to an event in the past, oh, 15-20 years, chances are you got it from Ticketmaster. Chances are also pretty good that you think Ticketmaster completely sucks, mostly because of the unavoidable and exorbitant convenience fee they charge. And that probably has you wondering: if everyone who uses the service hates Ticketmaster so much, how are they still in business? Because ticket buyers are not Ticketmaster’s customers. Artists and venues are Ticketmaster’s real customers and they provide plenty of value to them.
Ticketmaster sells more tickets than anybody else and they’re the biggest company in the ticket selling game. That gives them certain financial resources that smaller companies don’t have. TM has used this to their advantage by moving the industry toward very aggressive ticketing deals between ticketing companies and their venue clients. This comes in the form of giving more of the service charge per ticket back to the venue (rebates), and in cash to the venue in the form of a signing bonus or advance against future rebates. Venues are businesses too and, thus, they like “free” money in general (signing bonuses), as well as money now (advances) versus the same money later (rebates).
Read that whole Quora answer again…there’s nothing in there about TM being helpful for ticket buyers. It turns out asking “who’s the customer?” is a great way of thinking about when certain companies or industries do things that aren’t aligned with good customer service or user experience.1
Take Apple and Google for instance. Apple sells software and hardware directly to people; that’s where the majority of their revenue comes from. Apple’s customers are the people who use Apple products. Google gets most of their revenue from putting advertising into the products & services they provide. The people who use Google’s products and services are not Google’s customers, the advertisers are Google’s customers. Google does a better job than Ticketmaster at providing a good user experience, but the dissonance that results between who’s paying and who’s using gets the company in trouble sometimes. See also Facebook and Twitter, among many others.
Newspapers, magazines, and television networks have dealt with this same issue for decades now.2 They derive large portions of their revenue from advertisers and, in the case of the TV networks, from the cable companies who pay to carry their channels. That results in all sorts of user hostile behavior, from hiding a magazine’s table of contents in 20 pages of ads to shrieking online advertising to commercials that are louder than the shows to clunky product placement to trimming scenes from syndicated shows to cram in more commercials. From ABC to Vogue to the New York Times, you’re not the customer and it shows.
This might be off-topic (or else the best example of all), but “who’s the customer?” got me thinking about who the customers of large public corporations really are: shareholders and potential shareholders. The accepted wisdom of maximizing shareholder value has become an almost moral imperative for large corporations. The needs of their customers, employees, the environment, and the communities in which they’re located often take a backseat to keeping happy the big investment banks, mutual funds, and hedge funds who buy their stock. When providing good customer service and experience is viewed by companies as opposite to maximizing shareholder value, that’s a big problem for consumers.
Update: I somehow neglected to include the pithy business saying “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product”, which originated in a slightly different phrasing on MetaFilter.
Update: One example of how maximizing shareholder value can work against good customer service comes from a paper by a trio of economists. In it, they argue that co-ownership of two or more airlines by the same investor results in higher prices.
In a new paper, Azar and co-authors Martin C. Schmalz and Isabel Tecu have uncovered a smoking gun. To test the hypothesis that institutional investors gain market power that results in higher prices, they examine airline routes. Although we think of airlines as independent companies, they are actually mostly owned by a small group of institutional investors. For example, United’s top five shareholders — all institutional investors — own 49.5 percent of the firm. Most of United’s largest shareholders also are the largest shareholders of Southwest, Delta, and other airlines. The authors show that airline prices are 3 percent to 11 percent higher than they would be if common ownership did not exist. That is money that goes from the pockets of consumers to the pockets of investors.
How exactly might this work? It may be that managers of institutional investors put pressure on the managers of the companies that they own, demanding that they don’t try to undercut the prices of their competitors. If a mutual fund owns shares of United and Delta, and United and Delta are the only competitors on certain routes, then the mutual fund benefits if United and Delta refrain from price competition. The managers of United and Delta have no reason to resist such demands, as they, too, as shareholders of their own companies, benefit from the higher profits from price-squeezed passengers. Indeed, it is possible that managers of corporations don’t need to be told explicitly to overcharge passengers because they already know that it’s in their bosses’ interest, and hence their own. Institutional investors can also get the outcomes they want by structuring the compensation of managers in subtle ways. For example, they can reward managers based on the stock price of their own firms — rather than benchmarking pay against how well they perform compared with industry rivals — which discourages managers from competing with the rivals.
This map was compiled using the autocomplete results for “how much does a * cost” for every country in the world.
Some notable desires: Mexican tummy tucks, Brazilian prostitutes, Albanian nose jobs, Russian MiGs, Lebanese PS3s, and Japanese watermelons.
See also the desire map of the US.
Ok, April Fools’ is still idiotic, but this is pretty cool: you can play Pac-Man in any neighborhood on Google Maps.
NYC’s West Village is a fun place to play. See also Pac-Manhattan, a real-life game of Pac-Man played on the streets of Manhattan in 2004 by a group of ITP students, including Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley.
In Alaska, people search for the cost of a gallon of milk. In Alabama and Florida, people search for the cost of abortions. In other states, vasectomies, facelifts, and taxis are popular searches. The map was compiled using the autocomplete results for “how much does a * cost”… for each of the 50 states. (via mr)
The plans for Google’s new offices in Mountain View blew me away. Not so much the reconfigurable office spaces1 but the greenhouse canopies. If those canopies actually work, they could result in a workspace that combines the best parts of being outdoors (the openness, the natural light & heat, greenery) with the benefits of working indoors (lack of wind & rain, moderate temperatures).
Burning a person alive is not a new act in warfare or intimidation. Far from it. So how did the gruesome burning of a Jordanian pilot become a incident that outraged the world and possibly altered a war? It was on video. Seeing a video changes everything. The existence of video footage can determine what leads the news, what drives public opinion, and what gets lodged in our memories. It can also determine who becomes a celebrity, who gets elected, which products we purchase, and confirm again and again the dominance of the once overlooked house-cat. Whoever controls the video controls the story. And since about 2005, the person who’s controlled the video has been you. You, the cat owner. You, the aspiring singer. You, the citizen journalist. And yes, you the terror group determined to intimidate and remain at the forefront of a global conversation. From The Telegraph: How YouTube Changed the World.
This article attempts to explain, in great detail, what happens when you type ‘google.com’ into your browser and press enter.
To pick a zero point, let’s choose the enter key on the keyboard hitting the bottom of its range. At this point, an electrical circuit specific to the enter key is closed (either directly or capacitively). This allows a small amount of current to flow into the logic circuitry of the keyboard, which scans the state of each key switch, debounces the electrical noise of the rapid intermittent closure of the switch, and converts it to a keycode integer, in this case 13. The keyboard controller then encodes the keycode for transport to the computer. This is now almost universally over a Universal Serial Bus (USB) or Bluetooth connection, but historically has been over PS/2 or ADB connections.
An I, Pencil for the internet age.
Google Research built an interactive periodic table of the elements where you can see the relative amounts of the elements as found in the human body, in the sea, and, most interestingly, by the number of mentions in books.
If you’ve ever wondered why the periodic table is shaped the way it is, click on “electrons” under “Shape” and pay attention to the number of electrons in the outer shells in each column of elements. Amazingly, when Dmitri Mendeleev and German chemist Julius Meyer published the first periodic tables in 1869/1870, the elements were organized only by atomic weights and chemical properties; they didn’t know what an electron was and certainly weren’t aware of quantum shells of electrons. (via @djacobs)
Today’s Google Doodle honors Jonas Salk on what would have been his 100th birthday. Salk developed the first successful polio vaccine in 1955 and was hailed as a hero for it.
On April 12, 1955, Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr., of the University of Michigan, the monitor of the test results, “declared the vaccine to be safe and effective.” The announcement was made at the University of Michigan, exactly 10 years to the day after the death of President Roosevelt. Five hundred people, including 150 press, radio, and television reporters, filled the room; 16 television and newsreel cameras stood on a long platform at the back; and 54,000 physicians, sitting in movie theaters across the country, watched the broadcast on closed-circuit television. Eli Lilly and Company paid $250,000 to broadcast the event. Americans turned on their radios to hear the details, department stores set up loudspeakers, and judges suspended trials so that everyone in the courtroom could hear. Europeans listened on the Voice of America. Paul Offit writes about the event:
“The presentation was numbing, but the results were clear: the vaccine worked. Inside the auditorium Americans tearfully and joyfully embraced the results. By the time Thomas Francis stepped down from the podium, church bells were ringing across the country, factories were observing moments of silence, synagogues and churches were holding prayer meetings, and parents and teachers were weeping. One shopkeeper painted a sign on his window: Thank you, Dr. Salk. ‘It was as if a war had ended’, one observer recalled.”
Because of Salk’s vaccine and subsequent vaccines, the US has been polio-free since 1979.
An instant classic John Gruber post about the sort of company Apple is right now and how it compares in that regard to its four main competitors: Google, Samsung, Microsoft, and Amazon. The post is also about how Apple is now firmly a Tim Cook joint, and the company is better for it.
When Cook succeeded Jobs, the question we all asked was more or less binary: Would Apple decline without Steve Jobs? What seems to have gone largely unconsidered is whether Apple would thrive with Cook at the helm, achieving things the company wasn’t able to do under the leadership of the autocratic and mercurial Jobs.
Jobs was a great CEO for leading Apple to become big. But Cook is a great CEO for leading Apple now that it is big, to allow the company to take advantage of its size and success. Matt Drance said it, and so will I: What we saw last week at WWDC 2014 would not have happened under Steve Jobs.
This is not to say Apple is better off without Steve Jobs. But I do think it’s becoming clear that the company, today, might be better off with Tim Cook as CEO. If Jobs were still with us, his ideal role today might be that of an eminence grise, muse and partner to Jony Ive in the design of new products, and of course public presenter extraordinaire. Chairman of the board, with Cook as CEO, running the company much as he actually is today.
This bit on the commoditization of hardware, and Apple’s spectacularly successful fight against it, got me thinking about current events. Here’s Gruber again:
Apple’s device-centric approach provides them with control. There’s a long-standing and perhaps everlasting belief in the computer industry that hardware is destined for commoditization. At their cores, Microsoft and Google were founded on that belief - and they succeeded handsomely. Microsoft’s Windows empire was built atop commodity PC hardware. Google’s search empire was built atop web browsers running on any and all computers. (Google also made a huge bet on commodity hardware for their incredible back-end infrastructure. Google’s infrastructure is both massive and massively redundant - thousands and thousands of cheap hardware servers running custom software designed such that failure of individual machines is completely expected.)
This is probably the central axiom of the Church of Market Share - if hardware is destined for commoditization, then the only thing that matters is maximizing the share of devices running your OS (Microsoft) or using your online services (Google).
The entirety of Apple’s post-NeXT reunification success has been in defiance of that belief - that commoditization is inevitable, but won’t necessarily consume the entire market. It started with the iMac, and the notion that the design of computer hardware mattered. It carried through to the iPod, which faced predictions of imminent decline in the face of commodity music players all the way until it was cannibalized by the iPhone.
And here’s David Galbraith tweeting about the seemingly unrelated training that London taxi drivers receive, a comment no doubt spurred by the European taxi strikes last week, protesting Uber’s move into Europe:
Didn’t realize London taxi drivers still have to spend years learning routes. That’s just asking to be disrupted http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxicabs_of_the_United_Kingdom#The_Knowledge
Here’s the relevant bit from Wikipedia about The Knowledge:
It is the world’s most demanding training course for taxicab drivers, and applicants will usually need at least twelve ‘appearances’ (attempts at the final test), after preparation averaging 34 months, to pass the examination.
Uber, in this scenario, is attempting to be Microsoft in the 1980s and early 90s. They’re implementing their software layer (the Uber service) on commodity hardware, which includes not only iPhones & Android phones, mass-produced cars of any type, and GPS systems but also, and crucially, the drivers themselves. Uber is betting that a bunch of off-the-shelf hardware, “ordinary” drivers, and their self-service easy-pay dispatch system will provide similar (or even better) results than a fleet of taxi drivers each with three years of training and years of experience. It is unclear to me what the taxi drivers can do in this situation to emulate the Apple of 1997 in making that commoditization irrelevant to their business prospects. Although when it comes to London in particular, Uber may have miscalculated: in a recent comparison at rush hour, an Uber cab took almost three times as long and was 64% more expensive than a black cab.
If you look at the Washington Monument in Google Maps, the monument’s shadow follows the motion of the Sun throughout the day.
The utility of this feature is unclear, but that is some impressive attention to detail. (via @sippey, @kennethn, @chrisfahey)
Raffi Khatchadourian’s long piece on the construction of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is at once fascinating (for science reasons) and depressing (for political/bureaucratic reasons). Fusion reactors hold incredible promise:
But if it is truly possible to bottle up a star, and to do so economically, the technology could solve the world’s energy problems for the next thirty million years, and help save the planet from environmental catastrophe. Hydrogen, a primordial element, is the most abundant atom in the universe, a potential fuel that poses little risk of scarcity. Eventually, physicists hope, commercial reactors modelled on iter will be built, too-generating terawatts of power with no carbon, virtually no pollution, and scant radioactive waste. The reactor would run on no more than seawater and lithium. It would never melt down. It would realize a yearning, as old as the story of Prometheus, to bring the light of the heavens to Earth, and bend it to humanity’s will. iter, in Latin, means “the way.”
But ITER is a collaborative effort between 35 different countries, which means the project is political, slow, and expensive.
For the machine’s creators, this process-sparking and controlling a self-sustaining synthetic star-will be the culmination of decades of preparation, billions of dollars’ worth of investment, and immeasurable ingenuity, misdirection, recalibration, infighting, heartache, and ridicule. Few engineering feats can compare, in scale, in technical complexity, in ambition or hubris. Even the iter organization, a makeshift scientific United Nations, assembled eight years ago to construct the machine, is unprecedented. Thirty-five countries, representing more than half the world’s population, are invested in the project, which is so complex to finance that it requires its own currency: the iter Unit of Account.
No one knows iter’s true cost, which may be incalculable, but estimates have been rising steadily, and a conservative figure rests at twenty billion dollars — a sum that makes iter the most expensive scientific instrument on Earth.
I wonder what the project would look like if, say, Google or Apple were to take the reins instead. In that context, it’s only $20 billion to build a tiny Sun on the Earth. Facebook just paid $19 billion for WhatsApp, Apple has a whopping $158.8 billion in cash, and Google & Microsoft both have more than $50 billion in cash. Google in particular, which is making a self-driving car and has been buying up robots by the company-full recently, might want their own tiny star.
But back to reality, the circumstances of ITER’s international construction consortium reminded me of the building of The Machine in Carl Sagan’s Contact. In the book, the countries of the world work together to make a machine of unknown function from plans beamed to them from an alien intelligence, which results in the development of several new lucrative life-enhancing technologies and generally unites humanity. In Sagan’s view, that’s the power of science. Hopefully the ITER can work through its difficulties to achieve something similar.
Burkhard Bilger got inside the secretive Google X lab and reports back on the search giant’s effort to build a self-driving car.
The Google car has now driven more than half a million miles without causing an accident-about twice as far as the average American driver goes before crashing. Of course, the computer has always had a human driver to take over in tight spots. Left to its own devices, Thrun says, it could go only about fifty thousand miles on freeways without a major mistake. Google calls this the dog-food stage: not quite fit for human consumption. “The risk is too high,” Thrun says. “You would never accept it.” The car has trouble in the rain, for instance, when its lasers bounce off shiny surfaces. (The first drops call forth a small icon of a cloud onscreen and a voice warning that auto-drive will soon disengage.) It can’t tell wet concrete from dry or fresh asphalt from firm. It can’t hear a traffic cop’s whistle or follow hand signals.
And yet, for each of its failings, the car has a corresponding strength. It never gets drowsy or distracted, never wonders who has the right-of-way. It knows every turn, tree, and streetlight ahead in precise, three-dimensional detail. Dolgov was riding through a wooded area one night when the car suddenly slowed to a crawl. “I was thinking, What the hell? It must be a bug,” he told me. “Then we noticed the deer walking along the shoulder.” The car, unlike its riders, could see in the dark. Within a year, Thrun added, it should be safe for a hundred thousand miles.
America’s legal system will make it difficult for self-driving cars to be accepted here…while not a legal kerfuffle yet, see Tesla’s current difficulties w/r/t fire risk in electric cars for a taste of what’s to come with self-driving cars. Europe is more likely…someplace like Holland or Denmark. They take their public and personal transportation seriously over there.
Google and NASA recently bought a D-Wave quantum computer. But according to a piece by Sophie Bushwick published on the Physics Buzz Blog, there isn’t scientific consensus on whether the computer is actually using quantum effects to calculate.
In theory, quantum computers can perform calculations far faster than their classical counterparts to solve incredibly complex problems. They do this by storing information in quantum bits, or qubits.
At any given moment, each of a classical computer’s bits can only be in an “on” or an “off” state. They exist inside conventional electronic circuits, which follow the 19th-century rules of classical physics. A qubit, on the other hand, can be created with an electron, or inside a superconducting loop. Obeying the counterintuitive logic of quantum mechanics, a qubit can act as if it’s “on” and “off” simultaneously. It can also become tightly linked to the state of its fellow qubits, a situation called entanglement. These are two of the unusual properties that enable quantum computers to test multiple solutions at the same time.
But in practice, a physical quantum computer is incredibly difficult to run. Entanglement is delicate, and very easily disrupted by outside influences. Add more qubits to increase the device’s calculating power, and it becomes more difficult to maintain entanglement.
(via fine structure)
Google’s got themselves a quantum computer (they’re sharing it with NASA) and they made a little video about it:
I’m sure that Hartmut is a smart guy and all, but he’s got a promising career as an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator hanging out there if the whole Google thing doesn’t work out.
Writing for Wired,
Matt Homan Mat Honan on Betaworks’ race to build a replacement for Google Reader in just 90 days. If you are interested in a 35,000-ft view on how Web-based software is built, read this.
McLaughlin saw a blog post in the Fall of 2012 speculating that Google Reader, choked of resources, was shutting down. He sent a teasing note to a friend at Google offering to “take it off their hands.” To his surprise, he got a serious reply. Google, his friend replied, had concluded that it couldn’t sell the name, user data, or code base (which would only run on their servers) and so there was nothing to actually buy.
The following February, McLaughlin, now full-time at Digg, bumped into this same pal at a TED conference. The friend warned him to act fast if he really did want to develop a Reader. “He said ‘I’m not telling you anything, but we’re not going to keep this thing around forever and maybe you want to have something ready by the end of the year.”
But instead of year’s end Google announced plans to shutter Google Reader on July 1. That same night, Digg put up a blog post announcing that it was going to build a replacement. The Internet went crazy.
Loved seeing ye olde kottke.org represented in the Digg Reader mockups, and I’m looking forward to checking out the service when it launches.
After taking in a four-hour keynote at the Google I/O conference, Mat Honan is transported to a magical place called Google Island.
The soft, froggy voice startled me. I turned around to face an approaching figure. It was Larry Page, naked, save for a pair of eyeglasses.
“Welcome to Google Island. I hope my nudity doesn’t bother you. We’re completely committed to openness here. Search history. Health data. Your genetic blueprint. One way to express this is by removing clothes to foster experimentation. It’s something I learned at Burning Man,” he said. “Here, drink this. You’re slightly dehydrated, and your blood sugar is low. This is a blend of water, electrolytes, and glucose.”
I was taken aback. “How did you…” I began, but he was already answering me before I could finish my question.
“As soon as you hit Google’s territorial waters, you came under our jurisdiction, our terms of service. Our laws-or lack thereof-apply here. By boarding our self-driving boat you granted us the right to all feedback you provide during your journey. This includes the chemical composition of your sweat. Remember when I said at I/O that maybe we should set aside some small part of the world where people could experiment freely and examine the effects? I wasn’t speaking theoretically. This place exists. We built it.”
I was thirsty, so I drank the electrolyte solution down. “This is delicious,” I replied.
“I know,” he replied. “It also has thousands of micro sensors which are now swarming through your blood stream.”
“What… ” I stammered.
“Your prostate is enlarged. Let’s go hangout now. There’s some really great music I’d like to recommend to you.”
You could consider this a follow-up to 2004’s EPIC 2014 by Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson.