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Y2K bug has 2020 echoThe millennium bug is back with a vengeance, after programmers in the 1990s simply pushed the problem back by 20 years.
Source: A lazy fix 20 years ago means the Y2K bug is taking down computers now | New Scientist

The New Scientist reports on problems with software caused by an echo of the Y2K bug that had every excited in the late 1990s.

It turns out one of the fixes then was to kick various software cans down the road to 2020. In theory that gave people 20 years to find long term answers to the problems. In some cases they might have expected software refreshes to have solved the issue.

As the New Scientist reports:

Parking meters, cash registers and a professional wrestling video game have fallen foul of a computer glitch related to the Y2K bug.

The Y2020 bug, which has taken many payment and computer systems offline, is a long-lingering side effect of attempts to fix the Y2K, or millennium bug.

Both stem from the way computers store dates. Many older systems express years using two numbers – 98, for instance, for 1998 – in an effort to save memory. The Y2K bug was a fear that computers would treat 00 as 1900, rather than 2000.

It turns out that as many as 80 percent of the quick fixes in the 1990s used a technique called ‘windowing’. This meant treating all dates from the 00s to 20s as 2000 to 2020 instead of 1900 to 1920.

In one case people selling cars got acknowledgements from the UK Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency dated in the early years of last century. That’s not going to cause havoc, but you can get an idea of the problem.

There’s another problem in the offing. The year 2038 problem.

This happens because Unix time started on January 1 1970. Time since then is stored as a 32-bit integer. On January 19 2038, that integer will overflow.

Most modern applications and operating systems have been patched to fix this although there are some compatibility problems. The real issue comes with embedded hardware, think of things like medical devices, which will need replacing some time in the next 18 years.

To my knowledge no-one in New Zealand has come across similar 2020 problems. Or have they? If you know of any please get in touch.

Are we on the cusp of an ‘AI winter’?

Source: Researchers: Are we on the cusp of an ‘AI winter’? – BBC News

The BBC talks to researchers who suggest after a summer of activity, AI could be about to enter a winter. They have a point:

Hype surrounding AI has peaked and troughed over the years as the abilities of the technology get overestimated and then re-evaluated. The peaks are known as AI summers, and the troughs AI winters. The 10s were arguably the hottest AI summer on record with tech giants repeatedly touting AI’s abilities.

Note the language here: “tech giants repeatedly touting AI’s abilities”. Not every claimed AI success was really about artificial intelligence.

Some of the time they were talking about AI. Some of the time the were talking about trawling through huge piles of data. That’s not to say there weren’t huge strides in artificial intelligence. There were. But there was also a lot of other stuff dressed up as AI because that term came back into fashion.

AI pioneer Yoshua Bengio, sometimes called one of the “godfathers of AI”, told the BBC that AI’s abilities were somewhat overhyped in the 10s by certain companies with an interest in doing so. There are signs, however, that the hype might be about to start cooling off.

He isn’t kidding. The Gartner Hype Cycle talks about the peak of inflated expectations. During the last decade those peaks ranged higher and higher.

“I have the sense that AI is transitioning to a new phase,” said Katja Hofmann, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research in Cambridge. Given the billions being invested in AI and the fact that there are likely to be more breakthroughs ahead, some researchers believe it would be wrong to call this new phase an AI winter.

Calling it a ‘winter’ is more hype. Technology and science have always had uneven progress. The term does give tech companies a useful fig leaf should progress slow and they have to justify themselves to investors.

Robot Wars judge Noel Sharkey, who is also a professor of AI and robotics at Sheffield University, told the BBC that he likes the term “AI autumn” — and several others agree.

First, the AI summer was overheated. For a while everything tech had AI applied to it. The term was and continues to be misused in ways that leave non-technical people puzzled.

A lot of ‘AI’ is not artificial intelligence in any meaningful sense. And even the more impressive examples of what AI can do are often in practice huge lists of IF…THEN statements working through vast amounts of data.

Take camera makers who say their phones use AI to determine what kind of image they are shooting. The implication is that a phone makes AI calculations at the time the camera shutter clicks. That’s not the case. What’s actually going on is that cameras are using the results of earlier AI analysis. The phone cameras do not learn as they go.

This is not to say AI has not achieved great things. It does and continues to do so every day. AI is changing the world. Yet a lot of the excitement is nothing but hype, bandwagon jumping or AI-washing.

Research company Gartner has made a reputation for itself examining technology hype cycles. Many technologies have progressed along Gartner’s path. Some have fallen away before they get past the Trough of Disillusionment.

AI is on a different trajectory. In part that’s because it’s a more complex and nuanced idea than many of the technologies tracked by the hype cycle.

The BBC story goes on to play down some of the expectation about AI. It’s a balanced overview, with a neat précis of where things are heading. Let’s hope that includes less hype.

The life of the journalist is poor, nasty, brutish and short. So is his style.

Stella Gibbons,
Cold Comfort Farm

And then there is Blaise Pascal. In 1657 he wrote:

Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.

One way this translates into modern English is:

If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter

And that’s the key point. Writing prose that is nasty, brutish and short requires more time and skill than most people imagine. The old school news style of writing seems to be dying, but I’m not ready to let go of it yet.

Mike Riversdale has a problem with the price of the Microsoft Surface Laptop 3. He responded to my review of the Laptop on Twitter:

Soon after:

Then:

He has a good point. The Surface Laptop 3 is far more than expensive than similar laptops. Even if you shop around it is  $1000 or so more expensive than similar laptops. That makes it at least 50 percent more than the price of a 15-inch Windows laptop from HP, Dell or Lenovo. It is a whopping 80 percent more than Riversdale’s fancy new birthday laptop.

Premium laptop

Microsoft positions its Surface Laptops as premium models. It would be fair to say the build is top notch. The case is nicer than you’ll find on most commodity laptops. The keyboard is the best I’ve seen in any laptop. The screen ratio is more suited to writing than displays on consumer laptops optimised for video

All these things are nice. For many people who spend all day writing a first class keyboard is a must. It is well worth paying a few extra dollars for more comfortable, more productive typing.

Yet it’s still a struggle to justify a 50 or 80 percent premium.

And anyway, Microsoft does not sell its Surface Laptop 3 on these features. At the time of writing the marketing copy on Microsoft’s website makes that clear. It starts: “Make a powerful statement and get improved speed, performance, and all-day battery life”.

The $3100 review model might have improved speed compared with a second generation Surface Laptop. Yet it is no faster than those $1700 rival Windows laptops. We can concede the battery life is good, but not a lot better than those competing machines.

Tangible, intangible

If the tangible aspects can’t justify the higher price, does it come down to less tangible things?

And that’s where Microsoft’s price becomes more of a puzzle.

Apple can and does charge more for MacBooks than most Windows computer makers can get away with. There are people, I’m one of them, who are happy to pay more for Apple’s software and ecosystem. The fact that I can handoff between my phone, iPad and MacBook is worth paying a little extra for.

Some people swear there are productivity benefits from using a Mac. You don’t have to agree with this opinion. That’s not important. What is important is that many computer buyers believe they get better productivity from a Mac

Microsoft cannot make a similar claim. The version of Windows 10 on the Surface Laptop 3 is near identical to that on rival Windows laptops. There is no premium in the software. Unless you count the fact that Microsoft doesn’t load up its laptops with bloatware.

Microsoft Surface Laptop brand

Which only leaves another reason Microsoft thinks it can charge a premium; that the brand is more valuable. It can’t be that Microsoft computers are more reliable than competing devices. In 2017 the US Consumer Reports said that it would no longer recommend Microsoft’s Surface laptops and tablets because of “poor predicted reliability” compared to other brands.

That’s damning. Microsoft says it has fixed the problems. It may have done. But any laptop buyer with a memory or access to Google will doubt it is worth paying a quality premium.

It’s not going to cut much ice with buyers, yet scale is one reason Microsoft hardware is expensive. The company does not rate among the top five PC makers. HP, Dell, Lenovo, Apple and Acer account for 80 percent of personal computer sales. Acer is the smallest of the top 5 with a six percent share of the market. It’s no secret Acer is struggling.

The Surface range is a US$2 billion business for Microsoft. That puts it in the region of a little over one percent of the company. It’s healthy, but not essential to Microsoft’s future.

It’s not about you, it’s not about the laptop

So what is going on with Surface? Before Microsoft entered the market, the Windows laptop scene was in bad shape. There was as race to the bottom between computer makers. They still make tiny margins selling hardware, in some cases unsustainable margins.

Microsoft introduced the Surface to inject quality and excitement back into the market.

At the time Apple was almost the entire premium end of the PC market. That’s not something Microsoft could sit by and watch. Over time that would erode the Windows brand and create all sorts of tensions. There was no way Microsoft would leave the high ground to Apple.

You can see from the numbers and the market share, that Microsoft is not serious about winning the bulk of hardware customers. It doesn’t need to do that. It needs to establish a premium Windows computer brand that shines out as an alternative to Apple.

Having high prices is an important part of that strategy. A high price can be as much a marketing strategy as low, low prices. It also means Microsoft makes a tidy sum from the exercise.

If you, like Mike Riversdale, think the Surface Laptop 3 costs too much at NZ$3100, that’s fine. Shop elsewhere. It’s not for you. It is a message from Microsoft to let you know there is more to the PC business than getting a bargain.

This year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona has been cancelled after mass cancellations from exhibitors worried about the coronavirus. GSMA, the organising body pulled the plug on Wednesday, two weeks before the event was due to begin. Before GSMA acted big names such as Cisco, Nokia, Vodafone group and Facebook all dropped out.

The Financial Times (behind a paywall) reports:

The conference’s cancellation will be a big blow for Barcelona, where hotels and restaurants ramp up prices in expectation of a bumper week that attracts high-spending telecoms executives. Local media has estimated that it generates €492m for the city, and creates about 14,000 temporary jobs.

This makes a lot of sense. MWC is a huge four day event, more than 100,000 people from all over the world attend. Many are from China where the virus is most prevalent. Last year the organisers boasted there were more than 1 million business meetings at the event.

If only one of those people tested positive for the virus, all the attendees would need to be quarantined for two weeks. Apart from anything else, the expense and logistics of that would be on an unprecedented scale.

Apart from the financial risk, the danger for GSMA is that cancelling this year’s MWC could put next year’s event in jeopardy. But let’s not dismiss that financial risk, the show’s insurers appear unwilling to pay out for cancellation.