When Free Fails the Doers, the Dreamers, and the Disillusioned

February 17, 2019

My team and I worked for several “open source software companies,” before I decide to hang up my Delta Million Mile Club name tag. (Weird red tags those puppies are.)

I read “Free Labor of Open Source Developers. Is That Sustainable?” The question caused me to chuckle. The answer is fairly straightforward.

Nope. Not for individuals. For outfits like Amazon, yep.

Under specific conditions, open source software does “work”. Now “does work” translates as “makes money, delivers fame, and/or makes those participating [a] happy, [b] feel like the effort is sticking it to the “man”, [c] proves that a person can actually write code which mostly works, and/or [d] builds a psychic bond with a community.

Some big companies do the open source “give back” and “contribution” and “support” dance. For these outfits, open source software is a part of a business model. Usually the practitioners of this type of marketing and sales offer for-fee widgets, add ins, and digital gizmos. Then the customer who downloads and uses the open source code has the opportunity to use the software and [a] buy engineering services, [b] buy training, [c] pay for “enhanced support,” and/or [d] attend conferences for insiders. I find Microsoft’s embrace of open source amusing.

For individuals, a pet project can provide satisfaction and a job maybe.

The write up does a good job of explaining the idealistic roots of open source software. I must admit, however, that I do not drink alcohol, so the analogy “like free beer” does not make any sense to me. The roots of open source software seem to be anchored in a desire to have software which did not [a] cost money to use, [b] could be modified; that is, not put the users in handcuffs, and [c] was updated on a calendar often wildly out of sync with the needs of the licensees. Proprietary software meant “bad” and the new open source software meant good with hints of revolution and “I just can’t take proprietary software anymore.”

The write up reviews a popular paper about the economics of open source software. I did not spot a reference to a later study which suggested that large companies were the biggest adopters of open source.* If that research were correct, the reason boils down to [a] big companies want to trim their costs for proprietary software’s license fees, mandatory upgrades, mandatory maintenance, and contractual limits on what changes a licensee of proprietary software can make. The researchers pointed out that large companies had [a] the staff and [b] the money to make open source software work for their use cases.

Flash forward to 2016. The Ford Foundation’s Roads and Bridges** makes clear that software development performed for free has a built in flaw. Developers can quit. Dead end? Maybe. Large companies can step in and embrace the project and, of course, the community. Outfits using this method range from the Amazons to the smaller firms which allow employees to work on projects. The open source approach can be overwhelmed or a victim of abandonment.

I am not sure I am convinced that the open source community exists. There are factions and many of them are at war. Consider Lucene/Solr’s contentious history. I also am not keen on the simile comparing open source to a religious community. Once again there are fanatics, and there are those whom the fanatics would like to either [a] imagine roasting in hell or [b] actually burning alive after a presentation at an open source meet up.

Net net: Amazon has crafted a new chapter in the lock in playbook. The approach borrows from IBM’s FUD to the more New Age methods of being famous and getting a “real” job.

If you are tracking the world of open source software, the write up is a useful addition to one’s library of analyses. One suggestion: Keep in mind that “free” open source software is a lure in certain circumstances. Think of it as a form of digital phishing, particularly for marketing oriented outfits.

Stephen E Arnold, February 17, 2019



* Diomidis Spinellis and Vaggelis Giannikas, “Organizational Adoption of Open Source Software,” Journal of Systems and Software, March 2012, page 666-682, and Stephen E Arnold’s The New Landscape of Search, June 2011.

** See https://www.fordfoundation.org/about/library/reports-and-studies/roads-and-bridges-the-unseen-labor-behind-our-digital-infrastructure

Google: Just Like a Colonizing Force?

February 15, 2019

Can a company cross over into the monetization methods of a country? I read “Google’s Sidewalk Labs Plans Massive Expansion to Waterfront Vision” and formulated this company-country question.

If accurate the Star’s report seems to outline a way for a commercial enterprise, based in the US, to monetize or “cost recover” via methods usually associated with a nation state. The techniques may be more gentle than those early colonizers of Peru, but the goal seems to be similar.

I learned:

Google’s futuristic development on the eastern waterfront, Quayside, is only the first step in an expansive and ambitious plan to build new neighborhoods — and new transit — throughout the entire Port Lands, the Star has learned. In return for its investment in this vision, Sidewalk Labs wants a share of the property taxes, development fees and increased value of city land that would normally go to city coffers.

The source of this monetization method comes from “internal documents.” Like Bloomberg’s revelations about fiddled motherboards, the information could be viewed with skepticism.

google toronto

Let’s assume that the story is spot on. The revenue from this technology revitalization effort is characterized in the article:

These future revenues, based on the anticipated increase in land value once homes and offices are built on the derelict Port Lands, are estimated to be $6 billion over the next 30 years. Even a small portion of this could amount to a large, recurring revenue stream diverted from the city into private hands.

The money generated from what is usually described as “development” by property professionals would flow to the government entities. These in turn would repair roads, provide services, and educate children. Google, I assume, would use these funds to further its commercial interests and continue its efforts to solve death, develop more sophisticated online advertising methods, and rekindle the Google Glass technology, among other high value endeavors.

There are upsides. The area would become more valuable to the city and its residents.

Nevertheless, the coupling of funding methods commonly associated with nation states and governmental agencies with Google is interesting.

Perhaps the same approach would work for Google in China and Russia? But leaders in those countries may not entertain Google’s 21st century approach to a public private partnership.

In Louisville, Kentucky, Google pulled out of its high speed access project. That’s just one risk of cutting deals with commercial enterprises. Google, in particular, can change its mind. Like Amazon, companies wield real power. New York City and environs are waking up to the reality of Amazon’s bidding the Big Apple farewell.

What happens if Google becomes disenchanted with Toronto? A pull out could have significant financial consequences.

But the idea is interesting, and certainly worthy of Francisco Pizarro’s advisers.

Stephen E Arnold, February 15, 2019

Stephen E Arnold

The Balance: Smart Software and Humanoid

February 13, 2019

Micro-blogging super sphere, Tumblr, recently made headlines when it declared it would crack down on adult content. This is obviously not a small task, so the company harnessed as much deep learning AI as it could. The problems started instantly: pictures of boots and jeans were getting flagged the same as pornography. We got the full picture from a recent The Next Web story, “The Challenges of Moderating Content with Deep Learning.”

According to the story:

“Obviously, the folks at Tumblr realize that there are distinct limits to the capabilities of deep learning, which is why they’re keeping humans in the loop. Now, the question is, why does a technology that is as good as—or even better than—humans at recognizing images and objects need the help to make a decision that any human could do without much effort?”

This is a similar problem that the defense and intelligence communities are struggling through. It’s funny when boots get mislabeled as pornography, but what if your deep learning software mislabels satellite images regarding hostile threats? UCLA researchers recently declared they found the limitations of deep learning and we are far closer than most folks guessed. The solution is good news for us humans, because living-breathing oversight is really still the only solution. Meaning deep learning AI is merely one tool out of many we will continue to use.

Patrick Roland, February 13, 2019

Once a Phone Company, Always a Phone Company

February 12, 2019

American life is not complete without the media generating some form of fear. The newest craze scaring people from the airwaves is their location data. PPC Land reports the story in, “Carriers Are Only One Source Used By Data Aggregators, And This Source Is Now A Threat In The US.” One way that mobile phone providers make a profit is selling their customers’ information to advertisers and other third party agencies. Among the user information sold is a customer’s location.

It sounds banal at first—your location is sold, then ads for specific products and services near you pop up on your mobile device. Then the Big Brother syndrome and privacy fears kick in. The big stink is that bounty hunters can use customers’ data to track targets down to their specific location. Yes, that is scary, but how many people have bounty hunters stalking them?

Mobile phone carriers assure customers that their safety and privacy are top priority. Roadside assistance is referenced as one way specific location information is used. The FCC and Congress are abuzz about this threat, but how are phone providers really selling the information?

“Mobile Carriers use data aggregators to monetize location data. Verizon has contracts with LocationSmart and Zumigo. Verizon says the location data used by the location aggregator programs are limited to coarse (rather than precise) location information. Coarse location information is derived from the Verizon network and is significantly less accurate than a precise location. Precise information are usually from GPS, and is obtained with apps installed on mobile phones (like maps, or car services).”

But mobile phone providers are not the only ways to track an individual’s location: cell IDs, Wifi, beacons, landlines, carriers, beacons, SDKs on apps that use locations, GSIDS, and IP addresses are all used to track location. Phones are a handy device.

Whitney Grace, February 12, 2019

Filtering for Fuzziness the YouTube Way

February 11, 2019

Software examines an item of content. The smart part of the software says, “This is a bad item.” Presumably the smart software has rules or has created rules to follow. So far, despite the artificial intelligence hyperbole, smart software is competent in certain narrow applications. But figuring out if an object created by a human, intentionally or unintentionally, trying to create information which another finds objectionable is a tough job. Even humans struggle.

For example, a video interview — should one exist — of Tim O’Reilly explains “The Fundamental Problem with Silicon Valley’s Favorite Strategy” could be considered offensive to some readers and possibly to  to practitioners of “blitz growth”. When money is at stake along with its sidekick power, Mr. O’Reilly could be viewed as crossing “the line.”

How would YouTube handle this type of questionable content? Would the video be unaffected? Would it be demoted because it crossed “the line” because unfettered capitalism is the go to business model for many companies, including YouTube’s owner? If flagged, what happens to the video?

The Hexus article “YouTube Video Promotion AI Change Is a “Historic Victory” may provide some insight into my hypothetical example which does not involve hate speech, controlled substances, trafficking, and other allegedly “easy to resolve” edge cases.

I noted this statement:

The key change being implemented by YouTube this year is in the way it “can reduce the spread of content that comes close to – but doesn’t quite cross the line of – violating our Community Guidelines“. Content that “could misinform users in harmful ways,” will find its influence reduced. Videos “promoting a phony miracle cure for a serious illness, claiming the earth is flat, or making blatantly false claims about historic events like 9/11,” will be affected by the tweaked recommendation AI, we are told.YouTube is clear that it won’t be deleting these videos, as long as they comply with Community Guidelines. Furthermore, such borderline videos will still be featured for users that have the source channels in their subscriptions.

I think this means, “Link buried deep in the results list.” Now fewer and fewer users of search systems dig into the subsequent pages of possibly relevant hits. That’s why search engine optimization people are in business. Relevance and objectivity are of zero importance. Appearing at the top of a results list, preferable as the first result is the goal of some SEO experts. Appearing deep in a results list generates almost zero traffic.

The Hexus write up continued:

At the weekend former Google engineer Guillaume Chaslot admitted that he helped to build the current AI used to promote recommended videos on YouTube. In a thread of Tweets, Chaslot described the impending changes as a “historic victory”.His opinion comes from seeing and hearing of people falling down the “rabbit hole of YouTube conspiracy theories, with flat earth, aliens & co”.

So what? The write up points out:

Unfortunately there is an asymmetry with BS.

When monopolies decide, what happens?

Certainly this is a question which warrants some effort on the part of graduate students to answer. The companies involved may not be the optimal source of accurate information.

Stephen E Arnold, February 11, 2019

Flagships Lost in a Sea of Money, Fame, and Power

February 10, 2019

I read “The Ethical Dilemma Facing Silicon Valley’s Next Generation.” The headline sounds like an undergraduate essay created by a Red Bull crazed philosophy major at Duquesne University. (I should know. I attended Duquesne when working on an advanced degree in — wait for it — medieval religious literature.)

But this essay is not going to be read by a slightly off kilter professor with a passion for Søren Aabye Kierkegaard and Augustine’s On Christian Teaching.

No. This essay is aimed at those interested in technology and the intersection of Silicon Valley, Stanford University, and the scorched earth approach of “move fast and break things” wizards.

The write up includes this observation:

Stanford is known as “The Farm” because the verdant 8,000-acre campus was once home to founder Leland Stanford’s horses, but today tech firms and venture capitalists treat the 16,000-person student body like their own minor league ball club.

And the university is now flicking the switch on the archives of the university library which contains documents like Pausanias’s description of the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Stanford’s leaders, professors, and students may have forgotten the injunction (which I have anglicized):

Know thyself or gnóthi sautón

But universities, public and private, want to be just like Stanford.

The Ringer reports:

Professors are revamping courses to address the ethical challenges tech companies are grappling with right now. And university president Marc Tessier-Lavigne has made educating students on the societal impacts of technology a tentpole of his long-term strategic plan.

I found this item of information interesting:

In 2013, Stanford began directly investing in students’ companies, much like a venture capital firm.

One would think that universities provided education. The Ringer makes this somewhat surprising statement:

Stanford and computer science programs across the country may not be adequately equipped to wade through the ethical minefield that is expanding along with tech’s influence.

Who is equipped? Consultants from McKinsey, Bain, or Booz Allen? Politicians? Perhaps universities should seek council from the top three officials in Virginia to add an East Coast flair to the ethical challenge? What about individual thinkers? Jeffrey Skilling (Wharton and Enron) and Martin Shkreli (the pharma bro)? Soon El Chapo (a bro-chacho) will have time on his hands once a verdict is rendered in his trial.

Courses about ethics are sprouting like flowers after April showers in a temperate zone.

I underlined in yellow this passage which is almost bittersweet:

The [ethics] course’s popularity is a sign that the gravity of the moment is weighing on many Stanford minds. Antigone Xenopoulos, a junior majoring in symbolic systems (a techie-fuzzie hybrid major that incorporates computer science, linguistics, and philosophy), is a research assistant for CS181. She wasn’t the only student who quoted a line from Spider-Man to me—with great power comes great responsibility—when referencing the current landscape. “If they’re going to give students the tools to have such immense influence and capabilities, [Stanford] should also guide those students in developing ethical compasses,” she says.

Yep, Spiderman. Spiderman.

Net net:

  1. Stanford is not the “problem”; Stanford is one member of a class of entities which cultivate and harvest the problem
  2. Silicon Valley has and continues to function as a high school science club without a teacher supervisor
  3. Technology, unlike a cat, cannot be put back in a bag.

Years ago I did some work for an investment bank. One of the people in a meeting was filled with the the George Gilder observation about convergence. I asked this question of the group of 12 high powered people:

Do you think technology could be like gerbils or rabbits?

The question evoked silence.

The situation today is that the interaction of technology has created ecologies in which new creatures are thriving. The result is that certain facets of a pre-technology world have been crushed, killed, or left to starve by the new digital animals and their inventions.

The Ringer’s article reminded me that “ethics” and the ability to understand oneself are in danger of extinction.

As one of the investment bankers for whom I did some work was fond of saying, “Interesting. No?”

Stephen E Arnold, February 10, 2019

MBA Fancy Dancing: Three Horizons

February 4, 2019

In a world of bits and bytes, MBAs have to do some fancy dancing. A good example is the essay “McKinsey’s Three Horizons Model Defined Innovation for Years. Here’s Why It No Longer Applies.” The write up assumes that the reader knows about consultant speak, the value of simplicity to most CEOs, and the need to sell time. Ka-ching.

You can read the essay for an explanation of what a company has to do to grow. Three tips:

The basic idea is to do things better (reduce costs, put more seats in a commercial aircraft. Make breakfast bars smaller but keep the larger packaging. Efficiency. Firing workers, reduce quality, and trim customer support humans.

The second task is to make more money; for example, puts ads everywhere and make it tough for an advertiser to figure out what actually happened as a result of the ad spend, bill parents for a child’s in game “purchases”, and generate shelves of different types of spaghetti sauce for a person who wants “regular” spaghetti sauce, and so on.

The third  job is to do something new; for example, put health monitors in shoes, solve the problem of death, push the idea that people in cities with lots of rain and snow will ride electric scooters, and similar “outside the box” innovations.

But the three ways to grow — called horizons in consultant-speak — are no longer bounded by time. This means that in today’s go go world, a CEO has no time. Every activity is like the two minute warning in American football. Game tied. Win it or sell used cars for a living.

Consequently businesses have to rethink everything — again. Then implement more new things to deal with the problem the new view of time demands. I can hear the cheers from the consulting firms now.

Here’s what the pressured, desperate, and insecure CEO must do:

  1. Outsource (yep, an old idea needs to be amped up)
  2. Hire consultants or buy hot start ups
  3. Do the “me too” and duplicate what’s working for another outfit
  4. Innovate, either think up something new (very risky) or buy a start up and stock up on scapegoats (less risky).

I don’t want to rain on this recycled parade of MBA chopped liver, but I would suggest that one big idea be kept front and center.

The assumption of the MBA world is that growth is darned near infinite. Competition will produce winners, and to be a winner, one has to do the stuff that wins. The old methods work when there are plenty of resources, barriers to entry, and not too many other desperate people looking for a winner.

The problem is that infinity, while a good idea, does not work when cash is tight, competition is a mouse click away, and execution is often complex.

The signs of a change in the business climate are easy to spot. No MBA needed. Monopolies characterize the present US business landscape. Who will fund a company to knock off Google or Alphabet? Er, still waiting for a hand to go up.

Governmental entities worldwide are not exactly humming along. Whether it is the on going chaos of certain Middle East countries or the slow motion disintegration in South America or the weekly drama of French protesters wearing “colors”— wind downs on display.

Concomitant with the is a bit of that Einstein magic. The amount of time available to accomplish a task is shrinking. CEOs command star ships, but the time required to build a business is getting longer.

Check out the meeting monsters fueled by digital calendars. People work anywhere but find time chopped into nanoseconds. I assert it is tough to do certain types of thinking and work in tiny perturbations in a quantum clock.

One interesting characteristic of reduced time and reduced resources I would suggest is an surge in pragmatic amorality. Example: The Facebook professional allegedly remarked, “The heck with ethics. I want my bonus.”

Therefore, for the MBA in the foreseeable future, here are the trigger points:

  • Expediency
  • Abandonment of social responsibility
  • Clever  and  cute tricks designed to deceive
  • Obfuscation, prevarication, and denial.

There’s nothing like a horizon. But what if it is an event horizon or a recycling of management bromides. Timely.

Stephen E Arnold, February 4, 2019

A Google Moonshot: Shoes

February 2, 2019

I read “Alphabet’s Verily Has Been Working on Health-tracking Shoes to Measure Movement, Weight and Falls.” The news that Apple cut off Google from the app store is trivial next to this announcement. The problems with France and other EU government authorities are inconsequential.

Google is innovating in — wait for it — shoes.

I learned:

Alphabet’s life sciences arm, Verily, has been looking for partners to co-develop shoes with sensors embedded to monitor the wearer’s movement and weight, as well as to measure falls, CNBC has learned.

Potential partners include the designers who created Rosa Klebb’s knife shoes for “From Russia with Love,” innovators who have implemented tootsie wear described by Richard Freiherr von KrafftEbing, and the manufacturer of shoes tailored to those skilled in the art of the shuffle dance.


The write up explained:

If Verily progresses with the project, the shoes could have a wide range of health-related uses. For instance, sudden weight gain can be a sign that the body is retaining fluid, which is a symptom of congestive heart failure. Another area of interest is fall detection, two of the people said, which could be useful for seniors in particular.

Product enhancements range from providing dagger shoes to those engaged in military operations, unusual shoes able to make digital recordings of interesting people have interactions, and YouTube shuffle dancers who put their health in peril performing moon walk moves.

With miniaturization, Google could encapsulate a variant of the Loon balloon, deploying the mechanism when signal boosting is required.

Now word on how the new initiative relates to solving death, another of Google-targeted problems.

Stephen E Arnold, February 2, 2019

Bloomberg Continues to Needle Palantir Technologies

February 1, 2019

Buzzfeed once was a good source of anti-Palantir Technologies’ information. But change is constant. Now Bloomberg finds news in the company that tries to keep a low profile.

Palantir Technologies, as you may know, is a firm which is a search and retrieval system on steroids. One can use the system to find an entity amidst the process content. If search doesn’t work, the firm has bundled a range of software modules to identify those elusive facts an investigator, a financial analyst, or a drug researcher seeks.

Bloomberg’s “Palantir Slashes Its Own Stock Price to Boost Morale” reports that employees are a bit unhappy. The company is 15 years old, and not really a start up. The firm’s technology is a bit long in the tooth as well. Big systems are difficult to reengineer to keep up with the waves of newcomers. For example, I am not sure a comprehensive list of Palantir-like start ups in Israel exists. I have lists, but these are far from complete. Ever hear of Narrative Science?

The write up points out that Palantir’s high valuation has begun to slump, like the eyesight of a teen who has played video games for a decade every night for five hours in his or her bedroom.

The main point of the write up strikes at the soul of the Silicon Valley capitalist: “The stock adjustment raises an important question: What is Palantir worth?”

The answer is that search centric companies, regardless of how they are packaged, lack the ability to generate cash in the manner of Facebook, Google, or, praise the Austrian economists, Amazon.

This Bloomberg statement casts a shadow over Palantir and its management team:

Because Palantir typically offers lower salaries than many nearby tech companies, equity is a big part of the sell. But the stock options were overpriced, according to Palantir shareholders and prospective investors. All seven mutual funds that own Palantir shares have slashed the value of their holdings since their 2015 high of $11.38. SP Investments Management values Palantir at $7.87 a share as of September, the most recent data available. Morgan Stanley’s mutual funds have decreased prices seven times in three years, to $2.49.

Employee unrest, poaching of staff, and financial fancy dancing are routine in Silicon Valley. Why target Palantir? That’s a question which I find more interesting than why the company is trying to keep employees happy?

The answer, “Real news.”

Stephen E Arnold, February 1, 2019

Amazonia for January 28, 2019

January 28, 2019

Amazon and Open Source

We learned from GeekWire that Amazon Web Services continues open-source push with code behind SageMaker Neo. The write up told us:

Amazon Web Services has decided to release the code behind one of its key machine-learning services as an open-source project, as it continues to push back against critics who find its relationship with open-source software out of balance.

Amazon wants to make friends with the open source world.

The write up pointed out:

The release is also another sign that AWS increasing involvement with the open-source community, after years of criticism over its tendency to use open-source projects as the foundation for revenue-generating services without contributing much back to the community. Neo-AI joins Firecracker, which was also unveiled at re:Invent 2018, as another fundamental technology advance that the cloud leader has decided to release as an open-source project.

Amazon has some interesting use cases for open source. Some of these reminded DarkCyber Annex of Microsoft’s efforts years ago but blended with a little of the IBM lock in methodology.

Amazon Backup: Good Bye Cohesity and Veeam?

Amazon has rolled out its official back up service. “AWS Backup, a fully-managed, centralized backup service that makes it faster and simpler for customers to back up their data across AWS services and on-premises, helping customers more easily meet their business and regulatory backup compliance requirements.” Source: About Amazon

Amazon Helps Lots of Small Businesses. Yep, Lots.

According to Neowin, Amazon has helped 50,000 small businesses. The dollar volume of the help was pegged at $500,000. Plus, an additional “200,000 SMBs managed to generate $100,000” in revenue.

Alexa Team Number 10,0000

What are 10,000 people doing with Alexa. We assume that the Alexa in the auto device is high on the list. Business Insider listed some other important projects in the Bezos jungle:

  • Machine learning
  • Making Alexa “more knowledgeable”
  • Giving Alexa a personality.

Another area of activity is improving the question and answer capability of Alexa.

Amazon Facial Recognition Performance

The New York Times revealed that Amazon’s facial recognition may have some accuracy challenges. For example, Amazon’s Rekognition mistakes women as men 19% of the time, and darker-skinned women as men 31% of the time, more than similar services from IBM and Microsoft.

Amazon and Zigbee. Zigbee?

Amazon is ubiquitous. At least that is what Quartz has concluded. Good catch. Zigbee, which does not occupy too much of my time, is now joined the Board of Directors of the Zigbee Alliance, reports The Verge. The write up states:

Amazon now has a say in the development of a commonly used smart home standard, giving the company more power as it continues to push smart speakers, cameras, doorbells, and all other kinds of gadgets into its customers’ homes.

Another path cut through the jungle by the Bezos bulldozer is being blazed.

Amazon Drivers Unhappy?

We spotted a news item from the CBS affiliate in Dallas, Texas. The write up states:

More than a dozen of Amazon packages were found on the side of the road in Arlington Sunday, addressed to homes not far from where they were left.

A single unhappy driver, perhaps. A signal that pesky humans can foil the well oiled Amazon machine? Amazon delivery robots may be the answer. But humans are still needed for Amazon’s house cleaning service which is becoming more widely available in the US. Humans are still required for this, however.

Stephen E Arnold, January 28, 2019

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