Jenn Webb

Jenn Webb is a veteran of the newspaper industry turned freelance scribe, editor, and researcher. She is a nerd with a passion for technology and cultural disruption. She currently serves as O'Reilly Radar's managing editor and helps to investigate topics in the Design, IoT+, Data, and Emerging Tech spaces.

Bitcoin is a digital money ecosystem

Behind the scenes, there's a lot more to bitcoin and blockchain than first meets the eye.

Editor’s note: this is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of our recently released book Mastering Bitcoin, by Andreas Antonopoulos. You can read the full chapter here. Antonopoulos will be speaking at our upcoming event Bitcoin & the Blockchain, January 27, 2015, in San Francisco. Find out more about the event and reserve your spot here.

Bitcoin is a collection of concepts and technologies that form the basis of a digital money ecosystem. Units of currency called bitcoins are used to store and transmit value among participants in the bitcoin network. Bitcoin users communicate with each other using the bitcoin protocol, primarily via the Internet; although, other transport networks can also be used. The bitcoin protocol stack, available as open source software, can be run on a wide range of computing devices, including laptops and smartphones, making the technology easily accessible.

Users can transfer bitcoin over the network to do just about anything that can be done with conventional currencies, such as buy and sell goods, send money to people or organizations, or extend credit. Bitcoin technology includes features that are based on encryption and digital signatures to ensure the security of the bitcoin network. Bitcoins can be purchased, sold, and exchanged for other currencies at specialized currency exchanges. Bitcoin, in a sense, is the perfect form of money for the Internet because it is fast, secure, and borderless. Read more…

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Computational power and cognitive augmentation

A look at a few ways humans mesh with the rest of our data systems.

Editor’s note: this is an excerpt from our new report Data: Emerging Trends and Technologies, by Alistair Croll. Download the free report here.

Here’s a look at a few of the ways that humans — still the ultimate data processors — mesh with the rest of our data systems: how computational power can best produce true cognitive augmentation.

Deciding better

Over the past decade, we fitted roughly a quarter of our species with sensors. We instrumented our businesses, from the smallest market to the biggest factory. We began to consume that data, slowly at first. Then, as we were able to connect data sets to one another, the applications snowballed. Now that both the front office and the back office are plugged into everything, business cares. A lot.

While early adopters focused on sales, marketing, and online activity, today, data gathering and analysis is ubiquitous. Governments, activists, mining giants, local businesses, transportation, and virtually every other industry lives by data. If an organization isn’t harnessing the data exhaust it produces, it’ll soon be eclipsed by more analytical, introspective competitors that learn and adapt faster.

Whether we’re talking about a single human made more productive by a smartphone-turned-prosthetic-brain, or a global organization gaining the ability to make more informed decisions more quickly, ultimately, Strata + Hadoop World has become about deciding better.

What does it take to make better decisions? How will we balance machine optimization with human inspiration, sometimes making the best of the current game and other times changing the rules? Will machines that make recommendations about the future based on the past reduce risk, raise barriers to innovation, or make us vulnerable to improbable Black Swans because they mistakenly conclude that tomorrow is like yesterday, only more so? Read more…

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Hardware start-ups now look a lot like software start-ups

Joi Ito on the evolution of manufacturing.

Editor’s note: this interview with Joichi Ito is an excerpt from our recent report, When Hardware Meets Software, by Mike Barlow. The report looks into the new hardware movement, telling its story through the people who are building it. For more stories on the evolving relationship between software and hardware, download the free report.

Joichi Ito is the director of the MIT Media Lab. Ito, who is also co-chair of the O’Reilly Solid Conference, recalls sending a group of MIT students to Shenzhen so they could see for themselves how manufacturing is evolving. “Once they got their heads around the processes in a deep way, they understood the huge differences between prototyping and manufacturing. Design for prototyping and design for manufacturing are fundamentally different,” says Ito. The problem in today’s world, according to Ito, is that “we have abstracted industrial design to the point where we think that we can just throw designs over a wall” and somehow they will magically reappear as finished products.

The trip to Shenzhen helped the students understand the manufacturing process from start to finish. “In Shenzhen, they have a $12 phone. It’s amazing. It has no screws holding it together. It’s clearly designed to be as cheap as possible. It’s also clearly designed by someone who really understands manufacturing and understands what consumers want.”

Ito also sees a significant difference between what’s happening on the factory floors in Shenzhen and the maker movement. “We’re not talking about low-volume, DIY manufacturing,” he says. Instead, Ito’s students are working through the problems and challenges of a real, live paradigm shift — the kind of gut-wrenching upheaval described in Thomas S. Kuhn’s seminal book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. From Kuhn’s point of view, a paradigm shift isn’t a cause for celebration or blithe headlines — it’s a sharp and unexpected blow that topples old theories, wrecks careers, and sweeps aside entire fields of knowledge. Read more…

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Hardware is an elusive constraint on user experience

Andrew “bunnie” Huang on understanding the interplay between software, hardware, and the existing supply chain.

Editor’s note: this interview with Andrew “bunnie” Huang is an excerpt from our recent report, When Hardware Meets Software, by Mike Barlow. The report looks into the new hardware movement, telling its story through the people who are building it. For more stories on the evolving relationship between software and hardware, download the free report.

Andrew “bunnie” Huang has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from MIT, but he is most famous for reverse engineering the Xbox, establishing his reputation as one of the world’s greatest hardware hackers. He sees an evolving relationship between hardware and software.

“It used to be that products were limited solely by the capability of their hardware. Early radios, for example, had mechanical buttons that acted directly on the physics of the receiver,” says Huang. “As hardware becomes more capable, the user experience of the hardware is more dictated by the software that runs on it. Now that hardware is ridiculously capable — you basically have supercomputers in your pockets that cost next to nothing — pretty much the entire user experience of the product is dictated by the software. The hardware simply serves as an elusive constraint on the user experience.”

Hardware is “a cage,” says Huang, and good software developers learn to work within the constraints of the hardware. “When I work with programmers on new products, I take the first prototype, put it on the desk and I say, ‘Welcome to your new cage.’ That’s the reality. There’s a hard wall. But we try to build the cage big enough so there are options for programmers. A quad core Android phone with a gigabyte of memory is a pretty big cage. Sometimes when programmers feel constrained, they’re just being lazy. There’s always more than one way to skin a cat in the software world.” Read more…

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Cheap sensors, fast networks, and distributed computing

The history of computing has been a constant pendulum — that pendulum is now swinging back toward distribution.

Editor’s note: this is an excerpt from our new report Data: Emerging Trends and Technologies, by Alistair Croll. You can download the free report here.

The trifecta of cheap sensors, fast networks, and distributing computing are changing how we work with data. But making sense of all that data takes help, which is arriving in the form of machine learning. Here’s one view of how that might play out.

Clouds, edges, fog, and the pendulum of distributed computing

The history of computing has been a constant pendulum, swinging between centralization and distribution.

The first computers filled rooms, and operators were physically within them, switching toggles and turning wheels. Then came mainframes, which were centralized, with dumb terminals.

As the cost of computing dropped and the applications became more democratized, user interfaces mattered more. The smarter clients at the edge became the first personal computers; many broke free of the network entirely. The client got the glory; the server merely handled queries.

Once the web arrived, we centralized again. LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) buried deep inside data centers, with the computer at the other end of the connection relegated to little more than a smart terminal rendering HTML. Load-balancers sprayed traffic across thousands of cheap machines. Eventually, the web turned from static sites to complex software as a service (SaaS) applications.

Then the pendulum swung back to the edge, and the clients got smart again. First with AJAX, Java, and Flash; then in the form of mobile apps, where the smartphone or tablet did most of the hard work and the back end was a communications channel for reporting the results of local action. Read more…

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The web is a critical part of the IoT story

In this O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Simon St. Laurent discusses the web's potential, and Tom Greever chats about experience design.

Simon St. Laurent, O’Reilly’s strategic content director for our web space and co-chair of our Fluent Conference, recently launched an investigation looking into the web’s potential to change not only computing, but the world in general. For this podcast episode, I caught up with St. Laurent to talk about the timing, what he’s exploring, and why the web isn’t dead. He said that in some ways, it has always been the right time to launch this investigation — after all, the web has continued to grow amidst market crashes and the dot-com bust — but noted the driving factors behind the health of the web are becoming more clear:

“Something different is happening, though, in the last few years. I think it’s rooted in the legitimization of JavaScript as a programming language. It used to be seen as this annoying, accidental scripting language. Doug Crockford and a lot of others demonstrated that if you looked at JavaScript in the right context, context that’s more functional, that is less obsessed with classical orthodox object-oriented development, that JavaScript is both amazingly flexible and incredibly powerful. That brought in a whole new generation of people to work on things.

“The concept of the web platform arose, which I like as a phrase to keep me from saying HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript over and over, but which gives people the idea that the web is a platform like Windows or the Mac, where you can really control thing pixel by pixel. Jeremy Keith has done a great job of explaining why that isn’t true, but there are a lot of people who come in expecting to be able to program on the web like they do for any other platform. They’re great JavaScript programmers frequently, but we need to be telling the story of the broader context and how all these pieces fit together for the long-term health of their projects as well as the web as a whole.”

Read more…

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Blockchain and decentralization hold big implications for society

Chris Clark on the blockchain's potential to disrupt the financial industry, from contracts to mortgages to government taxation.

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Bitcoin has come a long way from initially being perceived as a pipe dream or fake money. In a recent interview, Chris Clark, a software developer, entrepreneur, physicist, and author of Bitcoin Internals, recalled a story of one of the first bitcoin transactions: someone was congratulated on their “free pizza” after paying in the neighborhood of 10,000 bitcoins for two pizzas. “Now that would be worth, I don’t know, like millions of dollars,” noted Clark.

While Clark said he regrets not getting involved in bitcoin back in 2010-2011, when “bitcoins were super cheap,” he has since researched and written a technical guide to bitcoin, Bitcoin Internals, and expanded his research into the blockchain, looking at the value of blockchain technology for businesses and the potential impacts of decentralization. In our conversation, he described the early evolution direction:

“Right now, we can see that people are kind of looking at bitcoin mostly as just a regular payment system. While I do think that’s definitely a very important innovation, what we’re seeing is a lot of new technologies coming out that are more about things like smart contracts and decentralized organizations, which are right now really in their infancy. I think that those are actually going to be much bigger in overall impact than the payment system itself.”

Read more…

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Welcome to the age of indie hardware

The shifting economics around manufacturing is fueling an indie hardware movement.

Editor’s note: this is an excerpt from our new report When Hardware Meets Software — download the free report here.

All trends rise and fall. A new generation of smart techies has emerged to challenge the false duality of the hardware versus software paradigm. The spiritual heirs of the ham radio operators and homemade rocket enthusiasts of the 1940s and 50s have coalesced to form a maker culture that is quietly subverting the standard industrial model of product design and development.

Even if they aren’t the actual grandsons and granddaughters of the original hobbyists, they apply the same kind of grit, smarts and do-it-yourself confidence as earlier generations of inventors and tinkerers who labored in basements, backyards, and garages all over the world.

Unlike their predecessors, whose audiences were limited mostly to friends and family members, the new generation is sharing its inventiveness globally and selling gadgets through maker-friendly e-commerce markets such as Tindie, Make, and Grand St. Read more…

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Bitcoin’s road to democratization lies in decentralization

Conrad Barski on the bitcoin and blockchain landscape and how the technology will evolve over the next 10 years.

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Conrad Barski, a medical doctor, a cartoonist, programmer, and author of Land of Lisp, has been experimenting with bitcoin since 2011. In a recent interview, Barski talked about the bitcoin and blockchain landscape and noted the potential of decentralization:

“We’re heading into a world where things are becoming more decentralized. Most people already appreciate that because we all know about things like Airbnb and Uber. Of course, there’s kind of a paradox there because we think of Airbnb and Uber as being decentralized, but of course they’re these very centralized companies that run things…I think 10 years from now we’re going to see that these types of semi-decentralized companies are going to be replaced by fully decentralized companies, where the company itself just runs in an automated way on some kind of cryptocurrency. No one knows what cryptocurrency that will be, but there are folks from Ripple, from Counterparty, from Ethereum all trying to build an infrastructure that essentially let’s you run a company that isn’t controlled by any individual person. I think that’s really in the long term the most exciting part about bitcoin.”

What about bitcoin as a currency? In the short term, it’s an open question, said Barski, but he predicted an expansion similar to what we’ve seen with BitTorrent:

Read more…

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Privacy is a concept, not a regime

In this O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Dr. Gilad Rosner talks about data privacy, and Alasdair Allan chats about the broken IoT.

In this podcast episode, I catch up with Dr. Gilad Rosner, a visiting researcher at the Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute in England. Rosner focuses on privacy, digital identity, and public policy, and is launching an Internet of Things Privacy Forum. We talk about personal data privacy in the age of the Internet of Things (IoT), privacy as a social characteristic, an emerging design ethos for technologists, and whether or not we actually own our personal data. Rosner characterizes personal data privacy as a social construct and addresses the notion that privacy is dead:

“Firstly, it’s important to recognize the idea that privacy is not a regime to control information. Privacy is a much larger concept than that. Regimes to control information are ways that we as a society preserve privacy, but privacy itself emerges from social needs and from individual human needs. The idea that privacy is dead comes from the vulnerability that people are feeling because they can see that it’s very difficult to maintain walls between their informational spheres, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t countercurrents to that, and it doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways, as we go forward, to improve privacy preservation in the electronic spaces that we continue to move into.”

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As we move more and more into these electronic spaces and the Internet of Things becomes democratized, our notions of privacy are shifting on a cultural level beyond anything we’ve experienced as a society before. Read more…

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