Cold Cyberwar

HP Inc is firing people as the pandemic spike in PC sales recedes, while Chinese retailer cuts the salaries of top management to pay for worker benefits.

There’s a bunch of tech-focused cold war news, mostly because hacking stuff is too easy.

The Markup joined Mastodon and write up some tips, and Tumblr might add support for ActivityPub and join the Fediverse as well.

It is finally the year of Linux on the desktop with Windows Subsystem for Linux and Windows 10/11.

AWS re:Invent will take up all the space in the room this week, but Alexa is taking lots of Amazon’s money.

We also talk about the flaws in large language models, and the attention to detail in Bluey.

Things to note

I wrote a research report for GigaOm on Storage-as-a-Service. GigaOm is running a promotion at the moment for three months free access if you want to check it out.

Alexa is losing Amazon a lot of money. People mostly use Alexa to do “trivial” things, like play music or check the weather, which are harder to monetize than having margin on purchases of the devices themselves. I agree this is a failure of imagination on Amazon’s part.

HP Inc is going to fire up to 10% of its people and Dell is signalling sharp declines in PC sales. People bought a bunch of PCs for home during the pandemic and don’t need new ones yet, which has apparently surprised a lot of people.

The big layoffs in tech recently have left a bunch of people on H-1B visas scrambling to get a new job, or they’ll have to leave the USA. “Just quit” isn’t a realistic option for a lot of people because of this kind of thing.

Zoom is doing fairly well, with quarterly revenue up 5%, but because people thought the line would go up faster, the stock is down.

Cyberscoop has an overview of Xi Jinping’s focus on hacking. I think it’s fair to say we’re in the middle of another cold war, this time with China and the USA as the anchor tenants for the opposing sides. On the propaganda side, at the very least.

The US FCC has banned use of equipment by Huawei, ZTE, Hikvision, Dahua, and Hytera citing “a risk to national security”. The UK also wants people to stop installing Hikvision and Dahua cameras. Okay, maybe not just on the propaganda side.

Chinese search giant Baidu reports revenues are up 2% YoY which Bloomberg reckons might signal China’s tech sector is recovering. I’ll need a few more strong signals to make any kind of call like that. Data out of China is murky at the best of times, even more when filtered through US lenses.

Reuters reports (a shopping behemoth in China) is cutting the salaries of 2,000+ senior managers by 10-20% next year. It’s apparently to improve conditions for the other 540,000-odd employees, part of Xi Jinping’s “common prosperity” drive. Capitalists don’t have to worry about this kind of thing, though I remain long guillotine futures.

India has a ‘revamped’ data protection bill after its previous draft was heavily criticised from all sides. India is wrestling with how to legislate for privacy while also supporting cross-border data transfers in a modern, interconnected global economy.

Speaking of data protection, I was quoted in a Senate report about Australia’s proposed Privacy Enforcement Bill if you want to get your wonk on. Looks like big penalties will become possible, though I doubt they’ll ever actually get levied against anyone.

Then again, Twitter’s had a big data breach it seems. It seems around 17 million phone numbers have been collected via a bug in Twitter’s API, and this is a separate and bigger breach than the one previously disclosed.

Windows Subsystem for Linux is now GA for Windows 10 and 11. Linux on the desktop, via Microsoft. What next, dogs and cats living together?

The Markup joined Mastodon and wrote about it. The focus on security/privacy is welcome, though the criticisms of how Mastodon works is a bit odd given Google reads all your Gmail and tax filing services have been sending people’s sensitive financial information to Facebook.

Tumblr might add ActivityPub support I guess so you can follow your favourite furry porn Tumblr from anywhere. There’s some concern about Tumblr pushing ads into their feeds, which would get them immediately defederated by a lot of instances, so how this would work overall is a complex question.

This week is AWS re:Invent and Protocol has an interview with CEO Adam Selipsky as one of its last things before Protocol shuts down. The bit about “build low-level stuff or build higher-level services” is the most interesting to me, particularly in what is not said there. I’ll have more to say about that later in the week/next week.

Longer reads

This week’s long read is a 2021 ACM paper On the Dangers of Stochastic Parrots: Can Language Models Be Too Big? 🦜 by Emily M. Bender, Timnit Gebru, Angelina McMillan-Major and Schmargaret Shmitchell.

It argues against a blind “bigger is better” approach to building language models and imputing meaning where there isn’t any. Particularly as these models replicate and magnify existing biases in the datasets used to train the models.

This is the paper that got Bender and Gebru fired from Google.

Weekly tip: Attention to detail

I was recently talking with friends about the excellent children’s cartoon Bluey. Specifically, we were talking about the attention to detail in the show.

For example, a heritage expert friend noted that the buildings in the show are location and period accurate “right down to really small details there is no earthly reason to include”. Another friend noted that the open cookbook page in the Duck Cake episode is a perfect replica, in Bluey cartoon-style, of the page in the original Women’s Weekly Birthday Cake cookbook that the cake is from.

These kinds of details aren’t necessary to make the show work, but I would argue that they are evidence of people who care very much about the show and their own work, and that is what makes the show so great. It is hard to make something excellent if the people working on it don’t care about what they’re working on.

Easter Eggs are a way for creative people who care about their work to communicate with other people who also care about the work.

When building a prototype or a minimum-viable product, there is a temptation to skip this attention to detail as superfluous waste. I would argue this risks creating something bland and boring, and robs the humans building the thing of an opportunity to care about what they’re creating. It’s more fun to care! It’s more enjoyable to build something you’re proud of.

There are risks of over-engineering things, of course. We risk spending too long building the wrong thing before getting an early product out the door to be tested in the real world, to see if real customers find it valuable enough to actually buy and use. We risk spending too long on unimportant minutiae that no one else cares about.

But too long and unimportant are relative concepts. If people stop caring about what they’re doing, if they no longer have the urge to include little details just for the sheer joy of doing so, then maybe the thing you’re building isn’t important enough to work on at all.

I am very aware that I have tempted fate with this tip, and that there are probably several small things wrong with it. I will therefore claim to have done them on purpose.

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