For John Naughton's latest contributions to The Japan Times, see below:
Aug 20, 2013
Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make credulous. In the case of technology, especially technology involving computers, that's pretty easy to do. Quite why people are so overawed by computers when they are blasé about, say, truly miraculous technologies such as high-speed trains, is a mystery that we will have to leave for another day. The only thing we need to remember is that when important people, for example government ministers, are confronted with what a sceptical friend of mine calls "computery" then they check in their brains at the door of the meeting room. From then on, credulity is their default setting.
Aug 6, 2013
Do you think that, as a society, the United States has become a basket case? Well, join the club. I'm not just thinking of the country's dysfunctional Congress, pathological infatuation with firearms, addiction to litigation, crazy healthcare arrangements, engorged prison system, chronic inequality, 50-year-old military-industrial complex and out-of-control security services. There is also its strange irrationality about the use and abuse of computers.
Jul 23, 2013
Jul 16, 2013
Two years ago, when it was discovered that a U.S. intelligence agency was pouring millions of dollars into a research project on "metaphor," some people thought it was a delayed April Fool's joke. This columnist begged to differ, on the grounds that metaphors are the way that most of us make sense of the world, and if you want to monitor what people are thinking (or plotting), then understanding how metaphorical language works in different cultures might be really useful.
Jul 9, 2013
Over the past two weeks, I have lost count of the number of officials and government ministers who, when challenged about Internet surveillance by Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States, try to reassure their citizens by saying that the spooks are "only" collecting metadata, not "content." Only two conclusions are possible from this: either the relevant spokespersons are unbelievably dumb or they are displaying a breathtaking contempt for their citizenry.
Jul 3, 2013
Dearly beloved: our subject this morning is online pornography and what to do about it. The fact that there is a good deal of erotic material on the Internet is beyond dispute, though the precise amount is unclear. Let us assume that X percent of websites contain porn, where X is a number between five and 15. What does that tell us? Answer: An awful lot of people seem to be interested in pornography. If there wasn't a demand, then presumably there wouldn't be such an abundant supply.
Jun 26, 2013
"To be remembered after we are dead," wrote William Hazlitt, "is but poor recompense for being treated with contempt while we are living." Cue U.S. President "George W" Obama in the matter of telephone surveillance by his National Security Agency. The fact that for the past seven years the agency has, without a warrant, been collecting details of every telephone call placed in the United States was, he intoned, no reason for Americans to be alarmed. "Nobody is listening to your telephone calls," he cooed. The torch was then passed to Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who was likewise on bromide-dispensing duty. "This is just metadata," she burbled, "there is no content involved."
Jun 19, 2013
Watching British Foreign Secretary William Hague doing his avuncular routine in the Commons on June 10, I was reminded of the way establishment figures in the 1950s used to reassure hoi polloi that they had nothing to worry about. Everything was in order. The Right Chaps were in charge. Citizens who had done nothing wrong, declared Uncle Hague, had nothing to fear from comprehensive surveillance.
Jun 12, 2013
A reader writes: "Dear John Naughton, As you write about the Internet, I wondered if you knew how long it takes Yahoo to get back to people. I have an iPad, but went to the library to print a document (attached to an email). Yahoo knew I wasn't on my iPad and asked me to name my favorite uncle. I replied, but Yahoo didn't like my answer, so locked me out for 12 hours. I can't get into my email account. Getting to the Help page is really difficult. Do you ever speak to anybody at Yahoo? I had to open another non-Yahoo email account, so I opened a Gmail account and it looks to have the same problem. Not easy to get in touch with anybody when things go wrong. I am sure I am not the only one who wants to discuss my problem with a human being. Yours sincerely ..."
Jun 5, 2013
"The best is the enemy of the good," said the 18th-century French writer Voltaire. It's a maxim that has a particular resonance for tech designers, because it highlights the intrinsic tension between ambition and pragmatism that haunts them. Many perfectly viable products have never made it beyond the prototype stage because their designers felt they fell too far short of the ideals they had set for themselves. One of the reasons why Steve Jobs was so remarkable as a company boss is that he was the exception that proved Voltaire's rule. He was a perfectionist for whom the good was the enemy of the best. Which is why working for him was such an exhausting business and also why Apple's products became so distinctive.
May 22, 2013
"Our imagination is stretched to the utmost," wrote Richard Feynman, the greatest physicist of his day, "not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things that are there." Which is another way of saying that physics is weird. And particle physics — or quantum mechanics, to give it its posh title — is weird to the power of n, where n is a very large integer.
May 19, 2013
When, in early 2011, Eric Schmidt stepped aside from his position as Google's CEO to become the company's executive chairman, some of us were reminded of Dean Acheson's famous gibe about postwar Britain — which had "lost an empire but not yet found a role." What would Dr. Schmidt's new role be, and when would he find it?
May 15, 2013
The news that a few jokers in Texas calling themselves Defense Distributed have succeeded in creating a working handgun using 3-D printing technology has thrown the cat into the pigeon coop. The reaction from legislators in the United States has been hyperactive. Democratic Congressman Steve Israel from New York was first out of the starting stalls: he had already sponsored a bill that would outlaw "non-detectable weapons"; now, he announced, he would add regulations concerning 3-D-printed guns. "Security checkpoints, background checks and gun regulations will do little good," he told the New York Daily News, "if criminals can print their own plastic firearms at home and bring those firearms through metal detectors with no one the wiser."
May 8, 2013
The Chinese name their years after animals — the year of the goat, the rat and so on. In the tech world, we name years after devices. Thus, 2007 was the year of the iPhone and 2010 was the year of the iPad. It's beginning to look as though 2013 will be the year of Glass. This prediction is based on the astonishing level of comment, curiosity, excitement, trepidation and hostility surrounding an augmented-reality device created by Google and called Google Glass.
May 1, 2013
On Tuesday, April 23, a tweet from Associated Press (AP) revealed startling news. There had been explosions in the White House and Obama had been injured. The tweet was a hoax — the AP Twitter account had been hacked via a clever phishing exploit — but it briefly caused havoc. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 144 points between 10.07 a.m. and 10.09 a.m., for example. Crude oil prices also briefly tumbled and the price of U.S. Treasury bonds and gold futures spiked. Within minutes, AP disclosed that the tweet was erroneous and things returned to normal, with the Dow eventually rising 152 points for the day to close at 14,719.
Apr 24, 2013
In 1975, a computer scientist named Fred Brooks published one of the seminal texts in the literature of computing. It had the intriguing title of "The Mythical Man-Month" and it consisted simply of a set of essays on the art of managing large software projects. Between its covers is distilled more wisdom about computing than is contained in any other volume, which is why it has never been out of print. And every government minister, civil servant and chief executive thinking about embarking on a large IT project should be obliged to read it — and answer a multiple-choice quiz afterwards.
Apr 17, 2013
Infectious diseases, says the World Health Organization, "are caused by pathogenic microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi; the diseases can be spread, directly or indirectly, from one person to another." Quite so. Just like Facebook addiction, which also spreads from person to person and has now reached pandemic proportions, with more than a billion sufferers worldwide.
Apr 10, 2013
Among the many unpleasant discoveries made by those who stashed their cash in Cypriot banks is that the island's government could stop them moving their money elsewhere. Capital controls are supposed to be a thing of the past, a figment of the pre-globalized world. But it turns out that when banks are threatened, the gloves come off.
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