Archive for the 'infrastructure' Category

Peter Thiel and Bruce Sterling: Separated at Birth?

Sterling ThielI saw Peter Thiel and Bruce Sterling, back-to-back, on the closing day of Southby this year.

While on the surface, if you didn’t know much about either one, you might be convinced that it would be hard to find two people more different.

Yet, while the style and composition of their remarks was very different, I found the underlying convictions that they championed to be remarkably similar.

But, first the differences:

Thiel is a billionaire, Silicon Valley investor, best known for founding Paypal and later investing on Facebook, as was so notably highlighted in The Social Network.

Sterling is a non-billionaire writer and speaker, best known for co-founding the cyberpunk movement with novels like Islands in the Net and Heavy Weather.

Thiel is a halting, deliberate, monotone speaker, who has perfected the VC speaking style of stingily, slowly revealing information as he continuously repeats phrases like, phrases like, phrases like, phrases like… you get the idea.

Sterling is a free-flowing, highly descriptive, non-repetitive speaker who exhorts and yearns, chastises and cheerleads, complains and cozies up to the audience… all the while, making it clear that, if he thinks it needs to be said (‘sickness industry,’ ‘gangster bankers,’ et al), he won’t hesitate to say it.

Thiel is a white button-down shirt, rolled-up sleeves, khaki-slacks wearing guy.

Sterling is a long-haired, laser-cut hoodie, jeans and bolo-wearing guy.

Thiel uses slides.

Sterling doesn’t.

Here’s the thing, though. In the language of Thiel’s remarks, they are both advocates of “Determinate Optimism.”

2x2_peter_thielFor anyone that saw Thiel’s talk, do you remember the 2×2 matrix he used, with the industries/professions that fell into each of the quadrants?

“Engineering and Art” were in the Determinate Optimism quadrant (upper left).

To somewhat unfairly label for a moment, Thiel is an engineer, while Sterling, an artist.

Here are things that (I believe) they both believe:

  • Have a plan; plans matter.
  • The pursuit of truth matters.
  • Those who make their living on process and uncertainty do so for one reason: control. With control, they gain (or fight to retain) power. Their goal is for their orthodoxy to become ‘the religion.’
  • ‘The religion,’ by its very nature, fears and resists disruption — often violently.

At least, these are some of the shared patterns that struck me, when I reflected on what they each said.

What does this mean?

My opinion: while you can make a good living being an indeterminate pessimist, you’ll rarely change the world and you’ll never make history.

If you disagree or heard it differently, I’d love to know.

The Digital Identity Crisis Is Here

It is old news by now that, even as it approaches half a billion registered users, Facebook also infamously accounts for one of the most searched phrases in recent weeks, i.e., “how do I delete my Facebook profile?” among other variations.

It seems that as the Net Generation has entered the workforce and begun its process of professional acculturation, the desire to be a little more circumspect about one’s personal data has increased. I’ve been predicting this would happen for quite some time.

However, as I and many other observers with a bit of “gray hair” have written, the proverbial genie is out of the bottle. A good summary article in the NY Times entitled “How Privacy Vanishes Online” discussed how the minutiae of personal data that we provide online – our birthdays, our school and work histories, etc. – are pieces that can be assembled to supplement programs specifically written to guess more important personal identifiers, like social security numbers.

This sea of data minutiae is likely to increase, with more and more being captured that we know and that others know about us, as shown in the diagram from a research paper about “Pervasive Personal Identity” by nGenera.

At the same time, more is becoming known about us that we are either unaware exists in the hands of others or of which we are completely unaware about ourselves – in other words, totally new findings about our unique digital selves, as represented in the bottom-right “unknown” quadrant of the diagram.

So, how do we navigate this sea of identity, where it feels like we are less the captains of our own cruise liner and more the passenger on an itty-bitty skiff with no one at the oars? Fortunately, there’s a lot going on and, for those that want to get just a bit more educated about the subject, here are some resources for you to check out.

In terms of framing the “big think” aspects of the identity discussion, some excellent recent writing samples – all of which will lead you to other writers providing thought leadership – include the following:

Actually, Cameron’s list is augmented by members of the Identity Commons community. This community is the best center of gravity that I’ve run across for the combination of technical, educational, and legal proposals and solutions involving (digital) identity.

For example, the Identity Venn diagram is perhaps the best single representation of both the technology state-of-the-art and aspirational target of user-centric identity management. Of the three major circles in the diagram, two (SAML and OpenID) are slowly, but surely getting increased adoption.

It is the third piece – information cards, or i-cards – is the linchpin that is yet to really obtain a sufficient level of early adoption.  But, I believe the era of i-cards is coming. And open source projects like Higgins, are helping to strengthen the knowledge and code base for i-card technology so that (hopefully) they will be here sooner than later.

In the meantime, there are some simple steps that we can all practice to be more involved in managing our identities, just like the parental wisdom your mom or dad might have tried to impart with you when you were a kid about managing your money. These include:

  • Employ your own “listening” to know the unknown – anyone can set up a Google or Yahoo alert, which sends you an e-mail any time your name is used on the internet. Do it.
  • Actively manage your critical records and passwords – yes, it can be a hassle, but you need to manage your identity, just like you manage your career. So, simple regular housekeeping – like keeping your profile current and changing your key passwords from time to time – is a necessity.
  • Teach your loved ones about the value of personal information – while media attention about the changes to Facebook privacy controls is helping to educate younger generations about the permanence of data, they need to be reminded that “there is no delete key” for the internet

The truth is, your digital identity and your analog life are irrevocably connected; so if you don’t manage your identify, someone else will, by creating or perpetuating information about “who you are” that is outdated or incorrect. As the new turn on the old saying “You are what you eat” goes: “you are what you tweet.”

Don’t cry for me, SXSW

It’s been a couple of weeks, but I’m still smarting from the letter. Rejection is something we all have to grapple with at some point, but it’s still no fun when it’s on your home turf. Let me explain.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have spoken on panels and/or as a presenter at South-by-Southwest Interactive (written “SXSW” and spoken “Southby,” as many call it now) several times now. Interactive is part of the larger (barely contained) chaos that is the entire SXSW festival, which includes Film and Music and has been hitting Austin every Spring Break for 20 years now.

Once just a wee musical party that mostly insiders and Austin-ites knew, the strength of the SXSW idea and support of the community helped to create the juggernaut it now represents, as one of the major North American creative events for musicians, film makers, and digerati, with a global reach.

I’ve gone to all parts of the festival and experienced it every which way – as a Platinum (All Access / All Events) badge buyer to a comp’d speaker, from paying $100 cash in order to get into Morrissey’s big comeback show 3 years ago to paying $15 to see an outrageously great line-up of 6 bands over 6 hours (8pm – 2am) including a band whose singer/front-woman was Zooey Deschanel, before she was in that awful M. Night Shyamalan movie.

So, I dig SXSW, along with Hugh Forrest and the whole crew. So, when I got this e-mail a few months back after submitting my panel topic for the 2010 Interactive show on “Controlling Robots Through the Web” I was feeling pretty good. The note from the Southby team said:

This is a very cool topic… something I hope we can do more of at SXSW. I like the tight focus (the proposal doesn’t attempt to cover too much ground, which is a common issue with these proposals). I think the description and the questions are right on.”

For the record, this is what I proposed.

“Controlling robots across the web is fast approaching a mainstream moment. Soon, our iPhones could be controlling robots and biomechanical devices that will have a positive impact on agriculture, security, healthcare, and many other uses. Learn about standards, coding, design tips and techniques for websites & mobile apps, and more!”

Geek cat nip, huh?! I consider myself an honorary geek (mainly because I haven’t coded in 15 years – I don’t count minor html editing, which a man’s gotta do), and I thought it sounded cool. But, as the time came for the first panel selections to be announced last year, the SXSW team was great about communicating the evaluation process, the sequence of panels to be announced (in multiple waves), etc. – overall, lowering everyone’s expectations.

Nonetheless, when the first wave was announced and “Controlling Robots” was missing, I was a tiny bit discouraged – but not too much, because I knew that was only about the first 25% or so. Anyhow, to make a long story shorter, several more waves later, I received the following e-mail, from which I excerpt:

“…we appreciate you bearing with us on this form letter. We despise form letters as much as you do — but, sometimes they are the best way to distribute information.

The 2010 PanelPicker interface received more than 2500 submissions from new media experts from around the world. The bulk of these proposals were of an extremely high quality — and we truly wish we had room for all of these ideas. While we have expanded the total number of rooms we will be using at SXSW Interactive, physical space is still limited. Therefore we have only been able to accept about 400 total submissions. Said another way, the selection process has been extremely extremely competitive.

Unfortunately, your submission (“Controlling Robots Through the Web”) got caught in this numbers game and we regret that we are unable to accept this proposal for the 2010 event.”

Arghh! What a bummer – it would have been so fun to do. With my trusty fellow panelists, like Good Robot’s Alan Majer, we would have been the talk of the show! I had been so looking forward to pulling together much that I’ve learned the past couple of years, from exoskeleton advances to augmented reality.

But, hey, I’ll still be attending the parties and sampling the music. SXSW is the greatest two-week scene of its kind and, despite the voices saying it’s getting too big, it’s one of those experiences you really need to sample at least once. So, make sure to put it on your calendar and hope to see you there!

Security Roundup: Dewey, Cheatam, and Howe

I love it when the NPR Cartalk guys – Click and Clack – give the closing credits of their show each week and credit their law firm “Dewey Cheatam and Howe” along with their other various pun-derific service providers and sponsors. Besides bringing a smile to my lips, the name is a constant reminder to me of how you can be getting robbed right before your eyes and not even know it.

One of the benefits (occasionally, co-workers would say a curse) that I received during my tenure leading the IT services practice of Bridgepoint Consulting in 2006-2007 was gaining a healthy respect for systems security, compliance, and IT general controls.

Not that I’m any better than the next person in securing my day-to-day personal and work IT assets; but, you might say I’m a bit more likely to browse the headlines concerning security issues than my average colleague. With that in mind, what follows are a couple of headlines that have caught my attention recently.

There’s a great article by the BBC that describes how bad guys are increasingly operating like small business. I love the quote by the Cisco security researcher when he talks about how “One of the most important themes for a business is customer acquisition.” He then goes on to document how the hot memes and search terms of the day, combined with web 2.0 mass communications platforms like twitter and Facebook, make for a major boon to online criminals.

The moral of the BBC article: it’s all about knowing who it is you are dealing with and, for the moment, the easiest way for the average Joe or Jane to ensure the authenticity of the party on the other end of communications is by using a digital signature. If you are a MS-Office user, like much of the business world, then you can read all about activating a digital signature from Microsoft.

Moving on from signatures to other forms of identification (or ID), I found this article in InformationWeek about the increasing ease of cracking American social security numbers (or SSNs) a good reminder of the need to rely on multi-factor unique identifiers to protect one’s privacy. Since basic identity theft normally relies on the three essentials of ID – SSN, name, and date of birth – this article is a rude awakening.

In the article, it describes how a research team was able to predict SSNs with 60% accuracy after 1,000 attempts, among those born recently in small states. It goes on to describe the staggering potential street value of credit cards obtained using swiped identities, by deploying a large botnet. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars per hour! Definitely enough to persuade your average criminal into a hiring a couple of ethically ambiguous computer science majors.

So, with all of this risk, what does one do? My experience, and what I’ve repeatedly seen advised by the security professionals, is to create a layered approach to security. As with all things, stay informed about the latest recommendations, like this Top 20 security controls list from ZDNet.

An industry colleague, Susan Scrupski, is fond of offering the simple rule “blog smart” when asked what the policies ought to look like for well-run online communities. Co-opting that rule for purposes of security, I would “compute smart” when it comes to conducting your business and personal interactions online.


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