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The end of driving

If you make a living driving a car today. You won't in 10 years.

Google's new self driving vehicle prototype is cute, innocuous and undoubtably a very good thing. It is going to radically reduce pollution, stop (just completely stop) people dying in accidents, and reduce the cost of transport to nothing.

It's also going to cause social carnage. Driving a vehicle. It's one of the last reasonably well paid jobs that requires minimal skills. And you get a sense of freedom. This entire class of jobs is going to vanish, starting in 10 years. That includes taxi, courier, truck, bus, train, delivery, etc. You know: DRIVERS.

French taxi drivers protest Uber

Above are some French taxi drivers protesting Uber. They're worried about a company coming in and lowering their wages. Wait until the other shoe drops and they realise that Uber in the future won't need them at all. Ouch.

Who is going to get rich off this? Google, obviously, and whatever companies license the technology and manufacture the vehicles. Google will probably follow the same model (though not actually paying companies to use it) they used with Android. They let anyone make self driving cars following their guidelines.

The manufacturers won't necessarily be current auto companies either. Samsung or LG are just as likely to make these things as Toyota or Ford. Because they will be radically different. You don't need crumple zones, engines, or air bags in an electric car that will never hit anything. It's just 4 wheels, lots of batteries, and an AC motor. And a computer of course.

We better start thinking about a basic income quick because that's a whole lot more dudes (most drivers are men) who will be coming onto the labour market all of a sudden.

So why is it still a good thing?

  1. Because global warming. Cheaper solar power and replacing the entire vehicle fleet with robotic electric vehicles is going to be super efficient. Cars parked on the side of the road? That's just wasted capacity when they could be out there earning you money by working as a taxi. So cars will be much more environmentally friendly and we won't need as many.

  2. Deaths. 1.2 million people died in accidents last year. That's a holocaust every 5 years. Guns don't kill people. People driving cars kill people. Driverless cars will never have an accident. The only way you'll get injured in a driverless car is if some drunk luddite in a Jaguar deliberately drives into you.

  3. Transport is going to be cheap and convenient. A $5,000 vehicle that can be out on the street working 24 hours a day (with a few charging breaks) will pay itself off very quickly. And then ruthless price competition will mean companies like Uber charging a thin profit margin over the cost of the electricity to run them. Getting a taxi could end up cheaper than current public transport costs. And buses might just become a public good.

It is going to be a massive social change. Probably the biggest since the original Model T came onto the scene 102 years ago and we all went nuts for cars. When it happens it is going to happen really fast. The economics just make so much sense. Hello JohnnyCab!

Total Recall JohnnyCab

Hansel - 30/05/2014

Whatever happened to baby IE?

Internet Explorer is maturing into a real browser. I went to a Microsoft sponsored event the other night and was amused to see the marketing team wearing their "We have standards!" t-shirts. Great! Welcome to the party. We do hope you will enjoy yourselves...

Internet Explorer was originally written to compete with (and destroy) a competing application on the Microsoft platform. Microsoft did not care about the web page as a medium or the web browser as a piece of technology. But they would be damned if they would let another company own such an important piece of infrastructure on their platform.

Once they won the first browser war they moved on and stopped caring. It would be 5 years and 2 months after the release of IE6 that Microsoft released IE7.

Forever is a long time

2014, the present day. Microsoft is no longer defending applications on its platform against interlopers. Instead it is desperately trying to stop its platform from going away. It is so concerned about being able to sell something to the users of the platforms of the future (Android, and iOS) that it just took the drastic step of releasing Office on them.

But what will become of Internet Explorer? Chrome and Firefox are cross platform browsers. They have been designed to work consistently anywhere. IE is the opposite. Heavily tied to Windows APIs. It would be a herculean effort to port it. And what would motivate anyone to do the huge amount of work needed to port IE12+ to any other platforms? Why would anyone want it? Are you going to install IE13 on your Android tablet?

Microsoft obviously need a browser on their tablets. If only to defend against Google owning them completely. But does it need to develop one itself? Does it need to develop the rendering engine itself?

No, I think IE is finished. It will die alone on the burning platform that is Desktop windows.1 There might be something called Internet Explorer in the future. But it will be a skin over an open source rendering engine. And it will finally have standards. Despite all the best efforts of Microsoft it is still not a browser that people want to use. It is a browser that people use if they do not know any better. Which was how they won the first browser war. In April 2014 IE (all versions) has 23% of users. While Chrome now has 44%. On mobile, the future, they have nothing. A mere 2%. A statistical blip.

Blanche: You wouldn't be able to do these awful things to me if I weren't still in this chair.

Jane: But you are, Blanche! You are in that chair!

Exactly right Blanche. But, thankfully, in 2014 nobody2 is stuck in that chair anymore.


  1. Okay, that is a bit hyperbolic. Microsoft will always be with us, like IBM. But the brief technology environment blip that allowed it to take over the world is finished.  

  2. Yeah yeah, I am aware that legacy business customers exist, and I feel just as sorry for them as they feel for themselves.  

Hansel - 11/04/2014

A basket of crypto currencies

It is the middle of march 2014. As of today there are 173 different crypto currencies listed on coinmarketcap.com. Their combined market cap, right now, is USD$10 billion.

I think it is fair to say that crypto currencies have already succeeded in becoming a medium of exchange. But I think it is also fair to say that the individual units of crypto currency are never going to be scarce.

It is ridiculously easy to create your own version of the litecoin or bitcoin client. Some guy called Matt will even do it for you for 0.10 BTC (USD$64). And then it is up to you and your community to distribute it, mine (AKA process transactions) with it, and exchange its output for things that you value.

Crypto currency market cap excluding litecoin and bitcoin

(Graph taken from the Coin Stat blog, data from January 2014)

Every individual currency is incredibly volatile. And no reasonable human could be expected to maintain 20, let alone 500 or 1000 individual wallets. It has already turned into a maintenance nightmare.

So what I think will become popular is an aggregrated basket of crypto currencies. Think the S&P 500 but instead of the top 500 US companies by market capitalization it would be the top 500 (or 100, or a 1000, whatever) crypto currencies by total market value.

Let us call the imaginary creator of this aggregrate fund Index Corp. Now Index Corp, if it was smart, would let people trade between their individual Index Corp accounts for free and charge a small amount on deposits and withdrawals.

In theory the CREDITS (yes, intergalactic or otherwise) you have in these accounts could be exchanged for credits in other companies that held the same basket of currencies. And that unit. That standardised credit (The full name might be something like Standardised Crypto Currency Credit Top 1000 aggregrate by market cap) would become the popular unit of exchange.

This satisfies everyone but the libertarian idealogues. The underlying technology makes transactions extremely cheap and most transfers free. Governments get accounts, with names attached that they can levy taxes upon. And real users do not need to manage their own security and currency volatility risk. And really, when you do need to make an illegal purchase, off the grid, then you just have to transact directly in one of the underlying crypto currencies.

Now, some would argue that this destroys the whole point of crypto currencies in the first place! That by doing this you have just given control to a couple of large companies. And yes. That is exactly what I think will happen. But the underlying currencies will still exist. You will still be able trade them and use them direcly. But for the majority of people and businesses, using them directly will be akin to using telnet to browse the internet.

And that is what I see these crypto currencies eventually becoming. The building blocks of a new financial infrastructure. The TC/IP of value exchange. Not something that most people will know or care about. But something that everyone will use.

Hansel - 16/03/2014

The Rise and Rise of Television Torture

The X-Files was a reflection of its time. It ran from 1993 - 2002. Two FBI agents working on weird and unusual cases. The X-files. It also had an overall plot line that was slowly advanced in between "monster of the week" episodes. The central plot concerned an overarching conspiracy. A powerful cabal who were collaborating with alien colonisers.

THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE

It was thoughtful and often slowly paced. The central characters were in search of truth while everyone around them tried to obscure it

Fringe is a modern reincarnation of the X-Files. A special division of the FBI who is responsible for for working with "fringe" cases. The show uses the same "monster of the week" format with an overarching arc (though the monsters are often more tightly integrated into the arc itself) and the protaganists are slightly odd outsiders.

However one major difference that jumps out when you compare them is the huge amount of torture that happens in Fringe compared to the X-Files.

Nina being tortured

Torture is depicted as a tool. Sure it is a big hammer. And maybe not appropriate to be used for every nail. But if you need to use it then of course it is appropriate. Why wouldn't you pull that tool out if you needed it? In fact it is often portrayed as a moral failing to not do anything it takes to get the results you need.

Torture is used by all parties. Everyone resorts to torture, whether they are the good guys or the bad guys. Because torture is not seen as objectively bad. It is a technique for winning.

Scully and Mulder from the X-Files did not go around torturing people. And neither were they (at least not very often) tortured themselves.

But this prevalence of torture that you see in otherwise very comparable shows is not limited to Fringe. It is everywhere in American entertainment now.

Everywhere you see it it promotes the lie that torture works. It does this very effectively. Because usually we, the audience, already know that the person being tortured has the information. They just will not give it up. In real life of course torture is not like that. In the hundreds of torture scenes that have been acted out in popular media only a handful show the victim making things up, and saying whatever they think the torturer wants to hear in order that they stop torturing them. Which is the reason why torture is not a useful tool. The process would be: Torture someone, they tell you something, you double check that story, maybe torture the people they implicate, then you find it out that there story was incorrect, go back to torturing them. Just one round of that might take days or a weeks. Which would make for boring TV.

On television National Security or law enforcement, is presented as an ongoing series of life or death situations where some wrongdoer is withholding information that will save many lives if it is just some how extracted. some how. Right now some how. There is no time to think or make rational decisions.

You cannot help but link this increase to the changed attitudes towards torture in American politics. Torture has been legitimized as the only way to prevent a terrorist attack that is going to happen any minute now. When really it seems to being used to extract confessions and encourage people to give someone, anyone, else up.

Missing from the televised depictions of torture are all the other reasons why individuals or states might torture someone. Torture is used for diverse reasons (punishment, revenge, political re-education, sadistic gratification, deterrence, coercion of the victim or a third party) and to show it used for a single purpose only is very misleading.

Fringe, like many other shows (Scandal OMG), is part of the normalisation of torture. When you start actively watching out for it the prevalence of these scenes is shocking.

Scandal torture scene

Not shocking just because they are uncomfortable to watch, but shocking because they are re-educating and changing attitudes towards this act. Conveniently at a time when governments have also redefined torture as something appropriate.

Other Sources

  1. New Yorker article on the presentation of torture in scandal
  2. Taylor Marsh arguing that Scandal is actually progressive
  3. Lengthy discussion thread over on HackerNews

Hansel - 05/01/2014

Canadian cuckoo rips apart Finland's nest egg

Growing up in New Zealand it was a piece of received wisdom that all we needed was one Nokia. The Government's economic strategy at the time was invested in finding and nurturing that one company that could rain the wealth down on us like Nokia did for Finland.

For that reason I have always watched Nokia. Watching them fall prey to Microsoft has been painful.

It only took Stephen Elop 3 years (he was appointed September 2010 when Nokia was worth $37 billion. The company is being acquired by Microsoft in September 2013 for $7.2 billion) to rip the company apart and reconfigure it as the new device manufacturing arm of his previous employer.

If you looked at him as the CEO of a proud independent company none of his actions made sense. Why would you exclusively switch to Windows Phone without gaining any concessions from Microsoft? Why would you write and release a memo that destroyed sales of all your existing products without having anything in the pipeline to replace them with?

You would not. Not unless you had a major conflict of interest. It will be interesting to see what reward Elop gets for his last three years as an agent out in the field. Is he going to be the next CEO of Microsoft? Will he get a chunk of the $30 billion difference that was Nokia's starting value vs it's current purchase price? UPDATE: Elop only got $25 million, for now.

So, you have to feel sorry for Finland. They had a Nokia. Now they have a weak promise by Microsoft to keep them on as a research and development facility. They just got taken for a $30 billion ride by a corporation that showed that it is still one of the most savage competitors in the game.

This is how you Fuck Finland

Hansel - 03/09/2013

Basic income versus nations

A basic income is a response to the idea that modern society can no longer provide a viable* job for every member.

As this Great Recession grinds on with no real end in site and very large problems looming the conversation about a basic income has been bubbling up and the structural reasons why we might need one being gone over.

The argument can be simplified to this.

Then it branches off down two paths

Either,

or

So, you get to pick whichever one you find more compelling.

I think the idea of a basic income is great. Probably necessary. But I have no idea how it could be implemented piecemeal around the world without failing horribly.

Countries do not exist in isolation. Would a country with a basic income have to close its borders? Or would it have openish borders but make becoming a citizen incredibly hard? But doing that would would negate the whole point of a basic income in the first place.

It is a great idea that is probably doomed to fail until we have some kind of global governance structure in place.

* A viable job being one that is above subsistence, or plain slavery.

Hansel - 17/07/2013

Can my organisation use closed source software?

If you are the CEO of a company or the head of an organisation you should probably ask yourself the questions below before deciding if you can risk using a closed source software products and services.

Closed source products cannot be audited for security backdoors. Even if a closed source company assures you that there are no current backdoors they cannot prove that to you. And if they do show you current source code you cannot guarantee that a future update will not introduce one.

For most organisations this is not actually a problem. Small business. Non-profits that have a purely local focus. Their private data is probably not that important to them. They can continue to use closed source vendors and service providers with a reasonable certainty that it will not impact them.

But a government department? Or a large corporation like Airbus that has a competitor who is deeply entwined in the security industry of another country? These organisations cannot use a close sourced product or service without facing accusations of incompetence.

What are the alternatives for organisations that require privacy from foreign governments? Not many. All data stored outside of their own data centres has to be encrypted. But more than that. They have to run their own IT infrastructure, and all software they use has to be written by them from scratch or compiled by them from open source.

Maybe new businesses will arise that help share IT costs between companies while still providing security for their data. Hard to see what it might look like. But it will have to provide extra ordinary transparency to work.

This position might sound extreme, but it is logically the only way to be sure. Anything else involves a tradeoff between cost, privacy, and simplicity. And I think there are a number of organisations out there that cannot compromise on privacy at all.

UPDATE: One of the recent leaks of information from the NSA was caused by their use of closed source products and external IT providers. Delicous.

Hansel - 13/07/2013

Has China been protecting its citizens and companies all along?

The recent revelations regarding PRISM are very interesting. They are also confirmation of what has always been suspected. The US government routinely monitors and spies on all traffic that flows through its large national companies and across the basic infrastructure of the internet. So much of which is based in the USA.

So what do they use this information for? Protecting their national interests. And, in a country that has a government so entangled with corporate interest, national interest includes their business interests.

This stuff has always been hinted at. In 2011 Reuters reported:

The NSA's work with Wall Street marks a milestone in the agency's efforts to make its cyber intelligence available more broadly to the private sector.

When you think about this in relation to the great firewall of China it becomes possible to see their construction as both being about keeping information out of China and keeping information safely inside China.

If the price for using a free internet service (facebook, google, yahoo, twitter), or even routing traffic through the US, is that the US government can access your data and use it to provide a competitive advantage to US companies it seems that China has decided the price is too high.

It may turn out to have been an extremely pragmatic decision. One that Europe could have to make eventually as well.

Hansel - 12/06/2013

The big one

The recession which started in 2007 is still grinding on in 2013. Calculated Risk recently updated his US payroll projection graph and I have included it below:

Months till return to peak employment for post war recessions

Click here for full sized version.

One of the striking things about this chart is the different shapes of the three last recessions. These three recessions (1990, 2001, 2007) have been vociferously fought with a zero rate interest policy. And you can see that it does actually work for 1990. The recession is a bit longer but it is much shallower. Then in 2001 it again makes the recession shallower. But at the cost of making it twice as long as any preceding post war recession. Can it really be said to have worked? Now 2007. The monetary policies set in place for the 2001 recession never actually went away. It is clear that this recession is so much deeper and and longer lasting than anything but the Great Depression.

Hansel - 19/05/2013