Observational Computing

Tuesday, October 30th 2012

Since the 1980s, we have been in the mass data entry period of computing. The initial foray.

Since around 1995 it has been the networked data entry phase, where people enter data into online systems.

Since 2005 we're been in the portable networked data entry phase, where you carry a computer and input device (a phone) with you.

All these systems require input from humans. But the pattern is that more data is entered by humans and collected by sensors in each new phase.

Phones have GPS, for instance, that logs where you are as you move around. No human interaction required.

Systems are starting to interact with other devices around them, too. Early versions of this range from automated toll roads to RFIDs, to NFC-based payments systems. And, of course, Google's "Glass" project.

The next phase is "Observational Computing". Where the majority of data is collected and collated without human intervention. Some magical threshold will be crossed where people start entering less data as systems collect more and more data.

A good "consumer" example is "life logging". Here's project on Kickstarter my friend Emlyn sent me: example

As always, technology being rolled out to crazy hobbyists before it actually becomes useful :-).

But the thing to note is: you take fewer photos, but the machine takes many, many more than you would normally. It is observational computing in a small domain.

Over time sensors observe what you do and then systems analyse that stream of data. These systems accumulate data points and generate observations based on those data points that are designed for humans or for other systems to process. Then observers observe those observations ... I'm sure you can see there is a complexity building pattern there!

This phase is not really underway yet. Voice recognition, room computing, object recognition, etc, are still in fairly primitive forms from voice recognition on phones to Microsoft's wonderful Kinect. But the infrastructure is being built and the sensors are improving. The communication between devices is a little underwhelming at the moment, but it will get there.

All this coincides with a the nascent robotics revolution: drones carrying sensors flying over cities, for instance. Robotics and observational computing go hand in hand - the difference is robots can observe and act. But observation is required for "intelligent" action. So fairly advanced observational computing is required before robotics becomes truly flexible and thus commonplace.

Questions arise. Are we entering a surveillance society? Or a more a transparent society? Or both? What does it mean for memory? Business? Politics? Human intelligence? Market systems? How does it intersect with reputation in social networking?

What all this could mean is a matter for another post :-).

Decision Theatre

Monday, October 29th 2012

Decision Theatre: when you labour over a decision to make it feel like a more considered decision than it actually is.


Monday, October 29th 2012

A great old movie:

The Problem of Violence

Saturday, October 27th 2012

Joe Hockey - the Australian shadow Treasurer - gave a speech in London a while ago. You can read it here.


  • governments spend too much,
  • debt has reached crisis levels,
  • governments need to spend less. Cuts are needed.

According to Hockey, this is due to "socialists" spending too much and "conservatives" taxing too little. (And both being afraid to raise taxes or make spending cuts for fear of losing votes.)

Hockey thinks this is crazy. Instead, he says, governments should "live within their means".

Hockey's suggestions:

  • increase the retirement age gradually. (After all, people are living longer.)
  • have universal, compulsory retirement schemes into which employers and employees contribute;
  • end all defined benefits;
  • means test all government funded pensions and other payments (so those who don't need them don't get them);
  • get people to pay part of the cost of government services they access. Otherwise, he says, those services are "over consumed and under appreciated".

The result?

It will involve reducing government spending to be lower than government revenue for a long time. It is likely to result in a lowering of the standard of living for whole societies as they learn to live within their means.

(My emphasis.)

Hockey said:

The problem arises however when there is a belief that one person has a right to a good or service that someone else will pay for. It is this sense of entitlement that afflicts not only individuals but also entire societies. And governments are to blame for portraying taxpayer’s money as something removed from the labour of another person.

And more recently we've had the now classic comment from Mitt Romney:

Audience member: For the last three years, all everybody's been told is, "Don't worry, we'll take care of you." How are you going to do it, in two months before the elections, to convince everybody you've got to take care of yourself?

Romney: There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect. And he'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that's what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the centre that are independents that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not, what it looks like. I mean, when you ask those people ... we do all these polls—I find it amazing—we poll all these people, see where you stand on the polls, but 45 percent of the people will go with a Republican, and 48 or 4 ...

Summary: people are not entitled to things, they should get what they earn. An echo of Margaret Thatcher, perhaps? She famously said this in 1987:

I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.

What Thatcher meant, in all probability, was that the abstraction "society" was just made up of people. Saying something like "society should give me X" was a euphemism for "other people should give me X for free."

Or what about Milton Friedman? Here's a quote of part of an 1975 interview by Richard Heffner of Rutgers University:

FRIEDMAN: [...] You see, I think there’s been one underlying basic fallacy in this whole set of Social Security and Welfare measures. [...] the fallacy that it is feasible and possible to do good with other people’s money. Now, you see that fallacy — that view — has two flaws. If I want to do good with other people’s money I’d first have to take it away from them. That means that the welfare state philosophy of doing good with other people’s money, at its very bottom, is a philosophy of violence and coercion. It’s against freedom, because I have to use force to get the money. In the second place, very few people spend other people’s money as carefully as they spend their own. [...]

  • Watch the interview here

Demanding money from "society" - as Margaret Thatcher would have it - is actually demanding money from other people via a system of violence and coercion (as Friedman would have it).

The alternative? Voluntary cooperation to provide for the aged, infirm, unlucky, poor and so on. Hockey cites Hong Kong as an example of this:

Without a social safety net, Hong Kong offers its citizens a top personal income tax rate of 17% and corporate tax rates of 16.5%. Unemployment is a low 3.4%, inflation 4.7%, and the growth rate still respectable at over 4%. Government debt is moderate and although there is still poverty, the family unit is very much intact and social welfare is largely unknown.

The system there is that you work hard, your parents look after the kids, you look after your grandkids and you save as you work for 40 years to fund your retirement. The society is focused on making sure people can look after themselves well into old age.

He goes on:

By western standards this highly constrained public safety net may, at times, seem brutal. But it works and it is financially sustainable.

But there's something missing from this sort of analysis.


Friday, October 26th 2012

I seem to have been having chats with a number of different utopians in the last few weeks. At dinner, on walks, at lunch, at work, in parks, and so on. Most of them are old friends.

I have split them up into categories (although they often display different combinations of these forms of utopianism):

  • positivity utopians ("Be grateful - life ain't too bad! Just look at the wonderful trees!")
  • techno-utopians ("Our problems will be solved by technology, eventually! Yaay, look at my new gadget!")
  • new age utopians ("Live in the moment! Free your mind and experience the Universe!")
  • political utopians ("We just need to vote for X!")
  • cold hard cash utopians ("All I need is $x and then everything will be splendid!")
  • humanist utopians ("Humanity is getting better and better!") (often allied to techno utopians, nothwithstanding the techno utopians need to modify humanity to improve its lot).
  • possibility utopians (think of all the things you could do ... all the possibilities)

And they're all delightful company. They're happy most of the time. A pleasure to be around.

And they're all completely mad.

Not that horrible, drugged up, empty-eyed, tragic mad. Not mad in that desperate semi-religious zealot way.

Just mad.

Some will probably end up reading this. You're mad, you. You really are.

There is, of course, another group. Non-utopians. People who think life is, well, shit. They, of course, see themselves as more perceptive. They see the Truth (capital T), realise that existence is more of a tragic farce than a tap dancing picnic.

But they're just dystopians. They're mad as well!



Thursday, October 25th 2012


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