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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Two Sides

Someone is saying there are two models of innovation. Some people say innovation is simply an investment, and that anybody can do it with enough money. Others say it is simply difficult, that good ideas are merely rare and it's just hard to innovate.

They're both wrong.

Where Does Innovation Come From?

Innovation comes from creativity and focus. Creativity is the willingness to try different ideas and map them onto what you are working on. Focus is the ability to turn away even great ideas in order to develop a clear, simple, easy-to-use product. This approach produces iconic results that are valid for the market because it's obvious what their benefits are. This is the fearless approach.

If you have the right mindset, this technique is not as difficult as it looks. But your typical fat corporate entity operates based on fear: the fear of failure, the fear of being fired because you are a renegade, the fear of trying new things because if it ain't broke, don't fix it. In such a world, the nail that sticks up gets hammered down quick.

That's not my world, and I have great sympathy for people who live in that world yet still want to break out and be creative. But consider where they might be working.

Large corporate environments are afraid to take the creative angle on a product. They will stick with what works, and if they are not successful this often means slavishly copying what is already successful. They are afraid of trying something new.

Large corporations operate according to a time-tested investment technique: diversity. The more diverse the investment, the lower the chance of failure. Once again, this is a fear-based choice.

This technique is fundamentally incompatible with focus because you want to diversify your product portfolio, like Sony, which makes thousands of products. Their motivation is to satisfy each market individually to achieve 100% penetration into their marketplaces: there's a product for everybody.

Unfortunately, this technique can't really work. When you aren't focused on a small number of products, you unintentionally water down the quality of each one. Pretty soon nobody wants your products because their design is diluted, their user experience is lowest-common-denominator, and their quality is simply insufficient.

But let's take the flip-side of the argument: the focused, iconic result doesn't always prevail. In order to make this approach work, you have to do almost everything right. The product must necessarily have a really important hook, a life-changing aspect to it.

Once in a Generation

Game-changing ideas seem to come only once per generation. Like a bolt from the blue they make people think differently about their world. They transform daily life, business, and even relationships.

When the iPhone came out, I compared it with holding the future in your hands. It is true that before the iPhone, almost all smartphone devices employed a small screen and had a keyboard. The idea of using a touchscreen device in everyday life was suddenly upon us.

Some say that all information should be free. That technology is free and that once something can be demonstrated, it becomes fair game for everyone. Some say that music, books, movies must all be free.

They are wrong.

All of these forms of content and invention take time and effort to develop. They are the result of sweat from the brows of many good people. A writer of a book generally believes that their content is their own and that they should in fact be paid for their contributions to the art.

But like the baker who gives away the tasty samples so you will go get more, sometimes the artist will release one of their works in a form that can be shared. But that doesn't mean that all their works should be shared as well.

The same is true of the intellectual property that makes advances in technology.

How To Compete?

The best way to compete with innovation is to innovate. Show your best. All ideas don't have to look the same.

But to do that, you have to be able to support both innovation and focus. This means that you will have to start doing things in a very different way. This means the very structure of your corporation must be different. The very way of developing must change.

Personally, I'm don't really believe that most corporations are up to the task.

You will have to rebuild your corporation from the ground up, step by step. Each incorrect layer might be a mistake, so you should be very careful how you do this.

But, make no mistake, it can be done. For instance, Microsoft has shown that the iconic iPhone interface is not the only valid interface. It can be countered by using good ideas and taking a chance. Being fearless. But Microsoft, with its Windows-based corporate mentality, has a long way to go!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Hackers, Part 5: Gauss

You are going to love this. The era of state-supported cyber-espionage using highly modular virus platforms is here.

There is a highly modular virus out there! This virus platform (which by the way is the new way of thinking about viruses) can install new modules on demand. It is descended from Stuxnet, Flame, and Duqu. As you might have read, Flame is able to access local networks, fit itself into a thumb drive to move from computer to computer, list and extract interesting data, and communicate that data back to the host. It can categorize and store within sequestered networks, waiting for a moment when it gets carried out by hand aboard a thumb drive, and when the command-in-control (CIC) host is once again available. When the CIC hosts get shut down (as they always are) then it can wait for the new CIC host to handshake, and resume working just as it would always do.

Oh, and it is resident on quite a few computers in the middle east that run Windows 7, XP, Vista, and other 32-bit versions of Windows. It has several known MD5 certificates as well.

The new virus is called Gauss, named after Karl Friedrich Gauss, a prodigy mathematician and progenitor of so many new ideas I can't even list them. It has modules named after other mathematicians, such as Godel and Lagrange.

I am a math nerd from way back, and this strikes an interesting chord with me.

Endless Speculation

The Gauss virus is intended, it seems, to extract information from those using Lebanese banks. My bet is that it is simply used in intelligence gathering. They want to harvest the information off somebody's computer from afar. This is because of the nature of the modules that the virus has in it, so it probably is the right answer.

But what does the creator of this virus need this information?

I can't help but notice that this seems to come at a critical time in the Syrian civil war. The Iranians want to keep Assad in power it and, controlling Hezbollah, they also control Lebanon. Lovely!

Point 1: Lebanon is right next door to Syria, and all those Lebanese politicians were assassinated (remember Hariri?) in secret plots hatched out of Iranian ally and puppet, Syria. Point 2: Lebanese commerce is a great way to get weapons and supplies into Syria. Without making it look like Iran is doing that. Point 3: Iran will need to have people and politicians in place when and if Assad falls. So, follow the money.

Anyway, point made. The authors of this virus, likely either Israel or the US, are interested in the region. Hell, if I were them, I would be too!

Oh, perhaps it is simply aimed at Iranian money men as part of a coordinated attack. Still, timing-wise it might be of interest to some nation-state interested in how supplies and weapons are being continually supplied to Syria. But why not fly them in? Hmm.

So, what kind of new modules does this virus have?


This appears to be interested in the browser. So much online banking happens through secure browser interfaces. This module installs browser cookies and special plugins that likely co-opt the security of the browser so information can be intercepted more easily.

It looks for cookies. What cookies is it interested in? The ones associated with banking, of course! It needs to know that the user is also a client of one of several banks. These include Lebanese bank keywords like bankofbeirut, blombank, byblosbank, citibank, fransabank, and creditlibanais. Oh, it is also interested in PayPal, Mastercard, Eurocard, Visa, American Express, Yahoo, Amazon, Facebook, gmail, hotmail, eBay, and maktoob.

It is quite clever, loading the IE browser history and then extracting passwords and text fields from cached pages. Jeez! Does that work? Shame on you Microsoft!


This curious module installs a new Palida Narrow TrueType font, for what purpose is currently unknown! It appears to be a perfectly good font. Hmm.

Godel or Kurt

This module cleverly infects USB drives with the data-stealing module. This is how the virus works its way into sequestered networks. Sequestered networks are separate from the internet by virtue of physical discontinuity. So the virus has a special form that lives there and can migrate its data back through thumb drives to the outside world. Quite ingenious!

To infect the thumb drives, it puts a desktop.ini file in that exploits the LNK vulnerability. This data is in target.lnk, in the same directory.

It also searches for malware-detecting products and exits if they are present. This could be the best way to prevent it from propagating. It also doesn't work on Windows 7 Service Pack 1.

The Most Interesting Part

There is speculation that the Gauss virus contains a "warhead" that only deploys when the virus becomes embedded in a specific computer that is not connected with the internet. They can't tell what it is, because it's encrypted and the analyzers (Kaspersky Labs) don't know the key. This is serious voodoo.

Thursday, August 9, 2012


I have a piece of paper on my desk, and it is white, 8.5" by 11", letter size. I have a pen in my hand, and I draw on the paper in clean crisp lines. Oops, that line was wrong, so I can zoom in within the paper, using a reverse-pinch, and correct the line using more pen strokes. I can dropper white or black from the paper to draw in white or black for correction.

But, if I really don't like that line, I can undo it and try again. All on what appears to be a regular piece of paper!

Wait, this is just like a paint app on an iPad!

Yes, this is how paper will be in the future: just a plain piece of paper. Plus.

The drawing can be finished and cleaned up and then saved using an extremely simple interface. Touching the paper with my finger brings up this interface. Touching the paper with the pen allows me to draw.

When I bring up the interface, I can save the drawing. Into the cloud.

Smaller and Smaller

How did this come to be? Simple: miniaturization.

I think the computer concept, stemming from WW II and afterwards, is the transformative concept of our lifetimes. The web, though amazingly useful, is just an offshoot of computing; it's a natural consequence. We have seen computers go from house-sized monstrosities during the war to room-sized beasts during the 50s and 60s to refrigerator-sized cabinets with front-panel switch-based consoles in the 70s to TV-sized personal computers in the 80s to portable laptops in the 90s to handheld items in the 2000s to wearable items in the 2010s.

It's perfectly clear to me where this is going.

Computers are going to be embedded in everyday objects in our lifetime. When I was born, computers were room-sized and required punched cards to communicate with them. When I die, computers will be embedded in everything and will require but a word or a touch to make them do what we require.

Gadgetizing Ordinary Objects

In the future, the world I live in has objects with their own ability to compute, like modern gadgets, but they are impossibly thin, apparently lacking a power source, and can transmit and receive effortlessly through the ether into the cloud. So, let's summarize what they need in order to be a full-functioning gadget:
  1. computation - a processor or a distributed system of computation
  2. imaging - the ability to change its appearance, at least on the surface
  3. sensing - the ability to respond to touch, light, sound, movement, location
  4. transmission/reception - the ability to communicate with the Internet
  5. storage - the ability to maintain local data
  6. power - perhaps the tiny size means the light shining on the object will be enough to power it
You know what? I don't need as many pieces of paper as I used to. This saves trees, which grow outside all over because we are no longer chopping them down except to control overgrowth. Even paper used to wrap boxes rarely exists, because the outsides of boxes also act this way.

The same paper can be used to read the local new feed or to check the weather. But, unlike a newspaper, it is updated in real time. I can even look at the satellite image.

It becomes clear that the "internet of things" is necessary to make this vision happen.

Yet To Do

It's amazing to think so, but most of this magic already works on an iPad. The only conceptual leaps that need to be made are these:
  1. the display becomes a microscopically-thin layer, reflecting light rather than producing it
  2. the computation, sensing, transmission, and reception must use organic, paper-thin processors
  3. touch interfaces must learn to discern between fingers and pen-points
  4. the paper powers itself, using capacitance or perhaps with a paper-thin power source
In 1, like existing eInk and ePaper solutions used in eBooks, power is only used to change the inherent color of a spot on the paper. Normally, power doesn't get used at all when the display is stable and unchanging. In 2, the smaller they processors are, the less power they will use. We can already envision computation at the atomic level, and also in quantum computers. In 4, maybe the light you see the paper with can power the device (a fraction of the light gets absorbed by the paper, particularly where you have drawn black).

Why Change People When We Can Change Objects

Now go through this scenario with any object you are familiar with. Why couldn't it be done using computing, imaging, sensing, transmission, storage, power, etc. ?

Things like undo, automatic save and recall, global communication, and information retrieval become the magic that is added to real-world objects. It's like a do-what-I-mean world.

But what might be different from a current iPad? Turning your image. Imagine turning your image using current applications like Painter. You can turn it using space-option to adjust the angle of the paper you are drawing onto so your pen strokes can be at ergonomic angles.

But with a paper computing device, you just turn the paper!

The ergonomics of paper use are exactly like those of existing paper, which solves some problems right off the bat.

Also imagine that you lay the paper on something and it can copy exactly what is underneath it. It's like a chameleon.

So objects like paper become more useful in the future. And we are just the same people, but we are enabled to be do so much more than we can do now. And the problems of ergonomics can be solved in the way they have already been solved: with the objects we use in everyday life.

Any solution that doesn't require the human being to change can be accepted. The easier it is, the more likely it will be accepted. The closer to the way it's already done in a non-technological way, the more likely it is that anybody can use it.

Solutions that do require the human to change, like implants, connectors, ways to "jack into" the matrix seem to me to lead to a very dystopian future. But remember there are those who are disabled and who will probably need a better way to communicate, touch, talk, hear, or see.

Hmm. I Never Thought Of That!

Cameras are interesting to make into a paper-thin format. Maybe there are some physics limitations that make this unlikely. When eyes get small, they become like fly's eyes. Perhaps some answer is to be found in mimicking that technology.

Low-power transmission is a real unknown. There may be a massive problem with not having enough power unless some resonance-based ultra-low-power transmission trick gets discovered. Perhaps there are enough devices nearby that only low-power transmission needs to be done. Maybe the desk can sense the paper, or the clipboard has a good transceiver.

And if (a fraction of) the light being used to view the device is not enough to power it? Hmm. Let's take a step back. How much power is really needed to change the state of the paper at a spot? Perhaps less power than is needed to deposit plenty of graphite atoms on the surface: the friction of contact may supply enough energy to operate the paper device. There are plenty of other sources of energy: piezoelectrics from movement, torsion, and tip pressure on the paper, heat from your hand, inductive power, the magnetic field of the earth, etc.

Still, I think that computing is becoming ubiquitous, and that one of the inevitable products of this in the future is the gadgetization of everyday objects.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Twists And Turns

Our lives are like roads. By analogy, the features of a road can be likened to different aspects of our lives. This analogy can be useful, because it can help you produce a framework for understanding what happens to you and to others.


Curves in a road are required by the local terrain to keep the road smooth enough for you to continue to navigate it properly. In our lives, the local terrain becomes the external forces that mould and shape our lives, constraining our path. Such things as our family, our mentors, the schools we went to, the jobs we worked, the people we loved, the successes we had, and the crises we went through qualify as external forces. They are a bit automatic, since they don't affect the linearity of the road (in the sequential sense that the next part of the road naturally follows what preceded). A tornado that destroys your home is a terrible thing, but if you survive, you rebuild or move and life goes on.


Hills in a road, where steepness is increased, require you to use more energy to continue at the same pace. Life, on the other hand, can get more difficult for you if you break a leg. Then you may have to work twice as hard to get where you are going. Periods of economic austerity, requiring you to work two jobs at once, or a period when you go to school at the same time as working a job are good examples of such difficulties. Even when you have a baby and you get awakened at all hours of the night can make life more difficult in the short term. Not that it isn't wonderful!


When you take a turn at a fork in the road, you are making a decision in what would otherwise be an unchanging linear path. In our lives, such a decision, through causality, might completely affect what follows just as taking that turn on the road might very well alter your destination.

Decisions are the turns of our lives.

When you decide to take that job in another city, requiring a move, you have made a life-altering decision. If you take the job, then you might be turning left. If you don't take the job, then perhaps you are going straight.

If a decision is forced, then it is really more like a curve in the road. There is no opportunity to turn. Or if there is a turn there, perhaps it is blocked with those orange cones.

But, like on the road, we find that, in life, doing the hard thing can sometimes produce better results than simply taking the easy path.

All Roads Lead to Rome

There are certainly reasons to believe that not all decisions will completely alter what follows. This is because, often, all roads lead to the same place. It's just that they arrive there by a different path. And this is not an insignificant aspect of life.


Sometimes you must pass over another road, or under. In life, sometimes things happen externally that don't affect you, like a vacation that everybody else went on. They just pass you by. Sometimes it seems that there's no point to an overpass, but it does help to address the problem of crossings. In life, things can happen in parallel that might ordinarily affect each other through sequestering. Perhaps these are more like lanes in a road.


Still, largely, roads are embedded in the plane: the surface of the earth is locally a planar topology, though globally it wraps around. When a turn becomes too complicated to embed in the plane (like a road normally is), it becomes a twist. This is akin to what happens when everything in your life turns upside-down. Nothing makes sense. You lose your bearings.

But also, on a road, there can be unnecessary complications: the right lane turns left and the left lane turns right. This is sometimes forced by the multi-level nature of roads, or by the requirements of a turning radius.

You see, unnecessary complications do happen and they are a consequence of things getting too complicated to treat in a simple way. Perhaps they are the result of bad planning. But, as they say, in a battle the plan is the first casualty.

The topology of life is an unrelenting problem and things can get hopelessly tangled up so they can't be separated. We have talked about knots and weaving, fabric and rings, but the humble road is such a good analogy for life, because of its sequentiality. There is something calming about driving a nice straight road. In a similar sense, life seems to be at its best when it is simple.

It's best not to have too many twists in your life. It seems that breakdowns occur when life gets too complicated.

But life does not always comply with our wishes for simplicity.

Roads have another feature: the dead end. This is a place where the road can go no further, at least, in this direction. In life this is simply death, of course.

Me, I think I'll drive onto the ferry and find more road!