Google’s Context

A nice article in The New York Times puts Google’s rise in perspective:

what has really carried Google to the top is a change in our perception of the Internet. Some of the predictions made for the Internet in the late 1990’s were as outlandish as they sounded, especially the economic ones. But a surprising number of predictions about how we would use the Web are being fulfilled.

Google has found ways to make advertising pay without making advertising obtrusive something the big-banner portals are only now starting to figure out. It has changed the way we shop, travel and get basic information about our economic and cultural climates. Perhaps the most fundamental difference since those early days is an enormous change in the usefulness and credibility of what one can find on the Internet.

Make no mistake. The Web is still a place where you find every kind of fraud, deceit, obscenity and insanity more of it than ever, in fact. But the Internet has also turned into a stunningly important archive of documents of all kinds, partly because it is now so easily searchable. The Web has moved from the periphery of a good researcher’s awareness in 1998 to the very center of it in 2004. In doing so, it confirmed what has always been true, that a good researcher is also a skeptical researcher.

Had the Web grown to be the farrago of nonsense it once seemed to be, a haystack with only a few needles, no one would have bothered to create a search engine, much less use it. But the Web is now a haystack full of needles. Once Google’s motto might have been “Seek and ye shall find.” Now it’s really “Find and ye shall seek again.”

What Google also reflects is our changing sense of the dynamism of the Web. Nothing captures how statically we used to see the Internet as well as “information highway,” an old phrase that embodies pure linearity and the smell of asphalt. That stasis is also captured in the increasingly outmoded notion of an Internet portal like AOL, much of whose dynamism comes from offering a Google search bar. The fact is that many of us have grown comfortable within the amorphousness of the Web. We no longer need a breakwater like AOL when a good search engine promises to make the sea itself our home.

Sometimes the best metaphor for the Internet seems to be the population of earth itself, in which every human is a Web page related by kinship and conversation to all the other Web pages on earth. Sometimes the metaphor is a globe papered over with hyperlinked Web pages from which, more and more, tiny beacons arise, beaming updates to our computers like the old RKO tower. Whatever the metaphor, the only certainty is that we’re going to need help finding anything for a long time yet to come.

The Hydrogen Economy

Kuro5hin has an article and discussion:

The reason to change our current fossil-fuel based energy economy towards a renewable energy economy are many. The environmental problems of fossil fuels are well-known, from smog and acid rain to global warming. A second major problem is that soon we have exhausted most of our oil resources. While we actually won’t run out of oil anytime soon, the real problem is that once oil production starts to decline while demand keeps growing, we will certainly see severe price shocks. The third major problem is strategic; the world is more or less dependent on the Middle East, a powder keg just waiting to explode, for oil. All in all, there are plenty of very good reasons to reduce our dependence on oil; the sooner the better.

However, there are many formidable issues that have to be resolved before the hydrogen economy can become a reality. The main problems affect production, storage as well as the final use of the hydrogen to produce electricity (and heat).

A time line for changing towards a sustainable energy economy could look something like the following (with the proper government support in form of research money and tax incentives):

  • Near term: Hybrid vehicles, powered by ultra-modern diesel engines equipped with regenerative particle traps and NOx catalytic converters, allow a huge reduction in fuel consumption and emissions. This is in fact already possible with technology available today. Biodiesel production increases. Intensive research into efficient biomass production and diesel production from said biomass.

  • Middle term: Biodiesel production increases rapidly as oil imports decrease. Synthetic diesel production getting started.

  • Long term: Fuel cells (able to use diesel either directly or by first producing hydrogen with an external reformer) become cost competitive and start to replace diesel engines. All major industrial carbon dioxide sources are utilised to produce synthetic diesel. Independence from fossil fuels is finally achieved.

  • Whither Laptops?

    [via Anish] Om Malik writes about what the incoming chief of Texas Instruments, Rich Templeton, thinks:

    The dawn of the wireless age will prove to be the end of laptop, according to Rich Templeton. Speaking during a keynote session at the 3GSM World Congress in Cannes, France, Templeton pointed to wireless technologys ability to provide a low-cost, low-power platform to make it practical to expand the value of a cell phone beyond voice [capability] Were not far from the day when smartphones are projected to outsell laptop and desktop computers combined.

    Templeton predicts that cell phones will soon become the prevailing devices worldwide for accessing the Internet, listening to music, capturing & watching video, and for organizing personal information. The ability to combine multiple applications into multi-purpose, feature-rich cell phones (beyond just voice) will create a heightened consumer demand for these smartphones. Were not far from the day when smartphones are projected to outsell laptop and desktop computers combined Last year, cameraphones became the best selling cameras outpacing digital still cameras, which themselves surpassed film cameras for the first time.

    I don’t necessarily think laptops will whither, but I definitely see an increase in the use of thin clients as part of the core IT infrastructure in organisations. When networks are high-speed, reliable and ubiquitous, why bother with doing processing and storage locally? Especially, when cost is an issue.

    Online Education

    Torsten Jacobi pointed me to The Online Universities Weblog and a post on globalization and online education:

    Right now there are around half-a-million foreign university students studying in the United States. But imagine the millions out there who would like to study in the U.S. but do not have the financial or educational means to do so, especially in places like China and India.

    However, there are also questions that must be raised before a global university education system would go into effect. Are these people only to be trained in technical areas, or degrees that are functional purely for employment means. What about the benefits of a classic liberal education, as well as the social and interpersonal skills that go along with traditional education at a real university? Is the future of online education mainly to produce students who can put something together, design products, etc.? Isn’t this just a hig-tech vocational school? Today I heard a talk by the CEO of Pella Corporation, the window maker, and he mentioned that around 75% of people fail in their related fields because of lack of interpersonal and social skills. This isn’t anything that can be taught normally, but just by interacting on a personal level at a traditional university some of these skills do rub off. I often wonder about this in relation to online university education.

    Secondly, if one were to educate students in India and China or elsewhere through online liberal education, the propagation of the use of English would surely continue. There are likely to be cultural gaps between what modes of governance are to be taught, the relation to the individual in society, as well as foundations of history. India and China both have thousands of years of history and culture behind them, history and culture they are proud of.

    Vinod Khosla on India’s Rural Economy

    Excerpts from an interview in the Financial Express:

    Finance is still the biggest problem for development of rural economy despite it being innovative. People in the rural areas have no money and often tend to go for high-cost borrowings. No venture capitalists or funders have ever come forward to help those community with social obligations in mind. Who lends the money to those poor people without collateral securities despite having the entrepreneurial capabilities, innovativeness, creativeness and hard working abilities?

    Nobody understood that development of Indias rural economy is vital for growth than urban economy. It is a foregone conclusion that there will never be a growth unless rural economy develops. It is also time for those in the high positions to have courage, passion and help those in BPL (below poverty line) category.

    I would like to spare 30 per cent of my time towards focussing on helping developing the rural economy through funding those micro-finance companies which serve the rural community with dedication and selfless manner. I have identified six micro-finance companies in Andhra Paradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh. I was impressed with their performance and will contribute my mite to those companies to lend the poor people. If those six companies could reach nearly 30 lakh women on a regular basis, imagine what will be the impact if one look at national level, which is amazing.

    There are NGOs and grameen representatives, who have powerful micro-financing model with a business principle in mind and market competitiveness. Venture capital funds for BPL families is a very good idea. If it happens in a more systematic way it will be probably the single largest revolution after the Green Revolution of 1960 in India and I hope so this will happen.

    Legend and Ningbo Bird’s Slowing Growth

    WSJ writes about how China’s buggest PC and cellphone makers are facing limits on their growth:

    During the past two weeks, Legend Group Ltd., China’s largest maker of personal computers, and Ningbo Bird Co., the largest China-based maker of cellphones, both reported missing their growth targets for the final three months of 2003. Both companies are leaders in industries that many predicted would see the rise of homegrown Chinese manufacturers. By taking advantage of low labor costs, government support and direct access to Chinese consumers, these companies have been expected to dominate the domestic market and potentially use that as a springboard to international success.

    Until a few months ago, evidence seemed to indicate that was happening. Domestic cellphone manufacturers, for example, rose from nowhere in 2000 to take nearly 40% of the Chinese market, the world’s largest, last year. At the same time, international brands saw their grip on the country slip. Motorola Inc. held 30% of the market during 2001, but saw its share drop to less than 20% last year.

    But a variety of factors are taking the luster off these new Chinese players. The heady growth in China’s domestic market has begun to level off and domestic manufacturers still lag behind international players in cellphone technology. In addition, both Legend and Ningbo Bird are struggling to adapt to structural changes in the rapidly evolving Chinese market.

    For the past five years, the markets for both PCs and cellphones in China were driven by ultra-fast growth from buyers who were embracing such products for the first time. But now, demand growth for both is slowing, though analysts in both industries say it will likely still outpace world demand for another year or two. As recently as 2001, PC sales growth in China was roughly 25%, according to market-research firm International Data Corp. But that slowed to about 17% last year. Replacement buyers represent a growing portion of both markets.

    Meanwhile, overseas manufacturers are proving their competitive mettle in the country. In PCs, Dell Inc. of the U.S. nearly doubled its market share to 7% during the past two years while Legend’s share held steady at 27%, according to IDC.

    Digital Entertainment Companies look at Software Alternatives

    A story a few days ago in the WSJ looks at how the consumer electronics companies are seeking alternatives to Microsoft in an effort to avoid the fate of the PC makers:

    For companies tapping the exploding digital-entertainment market, rule No. 1 is a lesson they learned from the personal-computer business: Don’t let Microsoft Corp. control the software.

    Many consumer-electronics makers are maneuvering to make sure Microsoft doesn’t dictate key technical standards for their industry, as it does in the PC software business. And they don’t want to pay Microsoft a royalty on every device they sell, as computer makers must do if they load their machines with Microsoft’s Windows software. So manufacturers of music players, cellphones and other gadgets are trying to dilute Microsoft’s power by making their products compatible with rival software.

    Some of the best-selling digital devices on the market — Sony Corp.’s PlayStation 2 video-game machine, Apple Computer Inc.’s iPod music player and TiVo Inc.’s video recorder — don’t use Microsoft software and their makers say they will keep it that way. Meanwhile, longtime Microsoft partners Intel Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Gateway Inc. are finding new freedom in the consumer sector, helping bring Microsoft alternatives to market and in some cases developing products that use Microsoft’s rival Linux.

    TECH TALK: As India Develops: A Tutorial on Development (Part 3)

    How does one increase incomes of 700 million rural people in India? Writes Atanu:

    Yes, India has huge natural resources. Unfortunately, India has huge population as well. So with 2.4 percent of the world’s land area and 17 percent of the world’s population, the natural resource base does not seem all that rosy. Couple that with the fact that India does not have sufficient fossil fuel resources (we import a lot of that stuff) and one is not all that sanguine about India’s natural resources. How about human resources then? The story there is also not that pretty. We do have a thousand million people. But they are mostly illiterate. Literacy is a basic prerequisite for any sort of human capital. Illiterate people can at best be engaged in subsistence farming, not working on rocket science or cardiac surgery or even BPO.

    So then, do we have comparative advantage in agriculture. Perhaps we do or perhaps we don’t. The problem with comparative advantage (as opposed to absolute advantage) is that it is not always entirely clear whether one has comparative advantage because one is good at something or whether it is due to the fact that one is not good at it but one is worse in everything else one does.

    The only way to increase incomes is the old-fashioned way as my grandfather used to say: by producing stuff. Income, just to remind ourselves, is just another word for production. We produce a lot of stuff, so we get to have lots of stuff and that is what it means to have a high income. Therefore for rural incomes to rise, rural production has to rise. Agricultural productivity has to increase (and perhaps some increase in agricultural production as well) of course and then the labor released from agriculture has to produce manufactured stuff and then move on to producing services.

    There is very little by way of innovation that is required for rural incomes to increase, looked upon that way. But there may be innovations required for getting the productivity to increase. For instance, for raising human capital (a precondition for raising productivity), we may need innovative solutions to India’s literacy and education problems. For educating India’s umpteen millions of youth, we may need to use modern technology innovatively. Perhaps we can use the information and communications technologies to impart quality education efficiently.

    Atanu discusses the importance of focusing on production over employment:

    Production, rather than employment, should engage our policy makers more than it currently does. Why? Because if you don’t produce irrespective of how many people you employ you cannot distribute. Even if you distribute scanty production very evenly, you are left with a system that fails everyone.

    Mechanisation and automation expands the ‘production possibilities frontier’ and thus we can get more out of less mostly less labor. Is that good or bad? Let me use a simple example. You can have 10 rickshaw pullers delivering transportation services through back breaking labor 12 hours a day. Or you can use autorickshaws and employ only 2 people who work in relative comfort to provide the same services. Hypothetically you could have every one of those 10 former rickshaw pullers work only one day every 5 days and earn the same as before. On the other four days they could (1) spend time with family, or (2) learn to make pots, or (3) learn arithmetic, or (4) play the santoor, or (5) take care of his aging parents, or (5) contemplate the universe, …

    Now if you are more interested in ’employment’, of course the hand pulled rickshaw is a more attractive system for you. To some, those were the good old days when you did not have the ‘dark satanic mills’, when you had simple country living with horse carriages providing the transportation, and the cooling was done by fans hand-pulled by shapely maidens as one reclined on a diwan eating grapes, I guess. But in those days scanty little was produced and of that, the rich and the powerful got the lion’s share and the unwashed masses simply starved.

    What has happened since those good old days? The economy has changed structurally. And that structural adjustment has produced more goods and services and having produced more, more people have a shot at living a less brutish, short, nasty and mean life.

    However, adjustments don’t come for free. There is a cost and that cost mostly falls on those whose services become redundant in the new production system. Typist and shorthand pools have disappeared. Instead we have web designers.

    People who are concerned about employment alone would have advocated the banning of research into computers and electronics to save the livelihood of typists and stenographers.

    For my money, I would go for a system that is hell bent upon production and having produced, hell bent upon an equitable distribution. Given scarce resources, the most efficient production method is most desirable. If that means more computers in banks, so be it. So you have to lay off bank clerks. But if you look around, humans are somewhat inventive and entrepreneurial. The system adjusts — not smoothly or costlessly — but eventually. And if done with sufficient forethought, without too much pain.

    We have to get away from this fixation with employment and get more focused on production. We have to use the most efficient and effective tools that modern technology can provide to increase our production. And there will be enough people left over who can use their time to figure out how to distribute most equitably the stuff that is produced.

    Tomorrow: A Tutorial on Development (continued)

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