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John Naughton
For John Naughton's latest contributions to The Japan Times, see below:
Japan Times
LIFE / Digital
Jan 9, 2014
A lost year for new technology? Look beyond 2013's gadgets
Writing the other day in Quartz, an admirable sister publication of The Atlantic magazine, the experienced technology watcher Christopher Mims struck a gloomy note. Under the headline "2013 was a lost year for tech," he lamented that "all in, 2013 was an embarrassment for the entire tech industry and the engine that powers it — Silicon Valley. Innovation was replaced by financial engineering, mergers and acquisitions, and evasion of regulations. Not a single breakthrough product was unveiled."
LIFE / Lifestyle
Jan 2, 2014
Google's drive into robotics should concern us all
Over the past year, Google has bought eight robotics companies. Its most recent acquisition is an outfit called Boston Dynamics, which makes the nearest thing to a mechanical mule that you are ever likely to see. It's called Big Dog and it walks, runs, climbs and carries heavy loads. It's the size of a large dog or small mule — about 1 meter long,75 cm tall, weighs about 100 kg, has four legs that are articulated like an animal's, runs at 6.5 km/h, climbs slopes up to 35 degrees, walks across rubble, climbs muddy hiking trails, walks in snow and water, carries a 150 kg load, can toss breeze blocks and can recover its balance when walking on ice after absorbing a hefty sideways kick.
LIFE / Digital
Dec 24, 2013
Even our Facebook 'grunts' could be monetized
As Mark Twain observed: "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." And that was a long time before the Web. Which brings us to a meme that was propagating last week though social media. Its essence was an assertion that Facebook monitored — and stored — not only the stuff that its subscribers post on their Facebook pages, but even stuff that they started to type and then deleted! Shock, horror!
LIFE / Digital
Dec 17, 2013
Why do governments make such a mess of IT?
This is a tale of two cities — Washington and London — and of the governments that rule from them. What links the pair is the puzzling failure of said governments to manage two vital IT projects. In both cases, the projects are critically important for the political credibility of their respective administrations. And yet they are both in trouble for reasons that most engineering and computer science undergraduates could have spotted.
LIFE / Digital
Dec 10, 2013
Startups now have it easy thanks to 'incubators.'
One of my favourite books is John Kenneth Galbraith's "The Great Crash, 1929," which, with John Maynard Keynes' "The Economic Consequences of the Peace," is a great example of how an expert can write elegantly about something that is intrinsically complex. Galbraith wrote the (short) book as a diversion from working on "The Affluent Society," and it became one of his bestsellers. As one edition succeeded another, he added a series of prefaces, in one of which he answered a question that had been put to him by a friend: What was the point of going on and on about such a distant catastrophe? The answer, Galbraith replied, is that memory is the only known antidote to financial folly.
LIFE / Digital
Dec 3, 2013
Why the NSA has landed us all in another nice mess
Fans of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy will fondly remember Oliver's complaint to Stanley: "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!" In a future remake, Hardy will be played by Barack Obama, suitably enhanced with a toothbrush moustache, while Keith Alexander, currently head of the U.S. National Security Agency, will star as Laurel. The scene in which this particular bit of dialogue occurs is the Oval Office, which for the purposes of the scene is littered with flip charts summarizing the various unintended consequences of the NSA's recent activities, as relayed by Edward Snowden.
LIFE / Digital
Nov 26, 2013
What's Twitter's real value?
A national economy is an unimaginably complex system. And yet we compress all its complexity into a single measure, and then focus obsessively on that. If you want a metaphor for this, think of King Kong spending most of his time staring at a pinhead, worrying about whether it is moving or not. That pinhead is GDP or, to give it its full moniker, gross domestic product.
LIFE / Digital
Nov 19, 2013
Church of Apple tests the faith of its flock
Someone once said that one of the advantages of religion is that it offers security in return for obedience. This point was not lost on the late Steve Jobs, the cofounder, savior and high priest of Apple. And it led Italian semiotician, philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco, in an essay published in the 1980s, to describe the Apple Mac as a Catholic machine, in contrast to the IBM PC, which Eco characterized as a Protestant device.
Japan Times
LIFE / Digital
Nov 12, 2013
The NSA's war on terror is more than just a 'neat' hacking game
Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy. And then there's Edward Snowden, who was a spy and then became something else. Nobody is neutral about him. The other day I heard a senior military officer describe him unambiguously as "a thief." In Washington he seems to be universally regarded as a traitor. Many people in Europe regard him as, at worst, a principled whistleblower and, at best, a hero in the Daniel ("Pentagon Papers") Ellsberg mold.
LIFE / Digital
Nov 5, 2013
Why the Obamacare website was doomed
One of the most dispiriting spectacles of the last month has been the botched launch of HealthCare.gov, the website created to implement President Barack Obama's landmark healthcare reforms. Obamacare had a desperately turbulent passage through Congress and survived various wrecking attempts by the Tea Party and their accomplices. Then the glorious day dawned and millions of U.S. citizens hit the URL, hoping that, finally, they would be able to find a health-insurance plan that they could afford.
LIFE / Digital
Oct 29, 2013
Remember past smells with the Madeleine
Next month sees the 100th anniversary of the publication of "Swann's Way," the first volume of Marcel Proust's masterpiece "Remembrance of Things Past" (or, if you prefer D.J. Enright's translation, "In Search of Lost Time"). So stand by for what one expert calls a Proustathon.
LIFE
Oct 22, 2013
Apathy is the real enemy in NSA affair
One of the most disturbing aspects of the public response to Edward Snowden's revelations about the scale of governmental surveillance is how little public disquiet there appears to be about it. A recent YouGov poll, for example, asked respondents whether the British security services have too many or too few powers to carry out surveillance on ordinary people. Forty-two per cent said that they thought the balance was "about right" and a further 22 percent thought that the security services did not have enough powers. In another question, respondents were asked whether they thought Snowden's revelations were a good or a bad thing; 43 percent thought they were bad and only 35 percent thought they were good.
LIFE / Digital
Oct 15, 2013
The back door to your PCs, smartphones that can't close
At a remarkable conference held at the Aspen Institute in 2011, Gen. Michael Hayden, a former head of both the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, said something very interesting. In a discussion of how to secure the "critical infrastructure" of the United States, he described the phenomenon of compromised computer hardware — namely, chips that have hidden "back doors" inserted into them at the design or manufacturing stage — as "the problem from hell." And, he went on, "frankly, it's not a problem that can be solved."
LIFE / Digital
Oct 8, 2013
Big data has made privacy obsolete
Watching the legal system deal with the Internet is like watching somebody trying to drive a car by looking only in the rear-view mirror. The results are amusing and predictable but not really interesting. On the other hand, watching the efforts of regulators — whether British ones such as Ofcom, or multinational, like the European Commission — is more instructive.
LIFE / Digital
Oct 1, 2013
Apple has a secret weapon in iOS7, iPhone5s
When Steve Jobs was still with us, many commentators — yours truly included — used to complain about the "reality distortion field" that surrounded Apple's charismatic leader. Those in attendance when Jobs launched the devices and services (iPod, iTunes, OS X, iMac, MacBook, iPhone and iPad) that blew such huge holes in the business models of established industries told of events that were more like religious revival meetings than corporate press conferences. As Apple's dominance grew, the man who led it came to be seen as a unique combination of visionary, guru, saint and mogul.
LIFE / Digital
Sep 24, 2013
Is China after our inventions?
Some things never change. For as long as I can remember, people in the west have been paranoid about the Orient — and about China in particular. I grew up in an ultra-devout Catholic household in rural Ireland and I remember my mother being terrified by what people then called "the yellow peril," by which they meant the supposed threat to Western civilization posed by the Chinese communist regime.
LIFE / Digital
Sep 17, 2013
After the Snowden leaks, why trust a U.S. cloud?
"It's an ill bird," runs the adage, "that fouls its own nest." Cue the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), which, we now know, has been busily doing this for quite a while. As the revelations by Edward Snowden tumbled out, the scale of the fouling slowly began to dawn on us.
LIFE / Digital
Sep 10, 2013
Coase idea explains Internet economics
When the news broke last week that Ronald Coase, the economist and Nobel laureate, had died at the age of 102, what came immediately to mind was Keynes' observation that "practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist." Most of the people running the great Internet companies of today have probably never heard of Coase, but, in a way, they are all his slaves, because way back in 1932 he cracked the problem of explaining how firms are structured, and how and why they change as circumstances change. Coase might have been ancient, but he was certainly not defunct.
LIFE / Digital
Sep 3, 2013
Web giants pumping us for data
Should you be looking for an example of hucksterish cynicism, then the mantra that "data is the new oil" is as good as they come. Although its first recorded uttering goes as far back as 2006, in recent times it has achieved the status of an approved corporate cliche, though nowadays "data" is generally qualified by the adjective "big."
LIFE / Digital
Aug 27, 2013
Banish trolls but the Net needs anonymity
So the proprietor of the Huffington Post has decided to ban anonymous commenting from the site, starting in mid-September. Speaking to reporters after a conference in Boston, Massachusetts, Arianna Huffington said: "Trolls are just getting more and more aggressive and uglier and I just came from London where there are rape and death threats. I feel that freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they say and [are] not hiding behind anonymity. We need to evolve a platform to meet the needs of the grown-up Internet."

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