web analytics

Statistics minister James Shaw launched the Algorithm Charter for Aotearoa New Zealand. He says it is a world first.

The charter might not seem a huge deal. Yet overseas experience suggests it could save lives.

Shaw’s press release says the charter will “give New Zealanders confidence that data is being used safely and effectively across government.”

Make that: “parts of government”. The charter is not compulsory. A total of 21 government departments have signed. The biggest data users are there: Inland Revenue and The Ministry of Social Development are important. The New Zealand Defence Force has signed, the Police has not.

New Zealanders would be more confident they would not be on the wrong end of a rogue algorithm if the charter was compulsory across government.

Ethical data use

The charter draws on work by the head of Statistics NZ, Liz MacPherson. She also has the title of chief data steward. MacPherson has been working on ethical data use in government.

Last year the government looked at how it used algorithms. It decided they needed more transparency. In July it set up a Data Ethics Advisory Group.

The thinking behind the charter is sound enough. Government departments use vast amounts of data. At times the software used to sift the data is complex, although it can be straightforward at times.

This can work fine, but humans write algorithms. They can be biased or based on false premises. Algorithms can be broken. People using them can make bad decisions.

Algorithm chaos

There are plenty of stories of algorithms serving up inaccuracies and discriminatory decisions. The process is opaque, government employees have been known to hide behind bad decisions. The logic used to feed algorithms is often kept secret from the public.

When this happens, the consequences can be dire. At times the most vulnerable members of society can be at risk.

One of the worst examples of how bad this gets is Australia’s so called Robodebt saga. Australians who had received welfare payments were automatically sent debt notices, often without explanation if data matching between different departments showed inconsistencies.

Many Robodebt demands were wrong. Fighting or even questioning the demands saw people descend into a Kafkaesque digital distopia. There were suicides as a result.

Agencies signing the charter commit to explaining their algorithms to the people on the receiving end. The rules used are supposed to be transparent and published in plain English. Good luck with that one.

Fit for purpose

Elsewhere the New Zealand charter wants algorithm users to “make sure data is fit for purpose” by “understanding its limitations” and “identifying and managing bias”. It sounds good, but there is a danger public servants might push the meaning of those words to the limit.

Any agency signing the charter has to give the public a point of contact for enquiries about algorithms. The charter expects agencies to offer a way of appealing against algorithm decisions.

There’s a specific New Zealand twist. The charter asks agencies to take Māori views on data collection into account. This is important. Algorithms tend to be written by people from other cultures and Māori are disproportionately on the wrong end of bad decisions.

One area not covered in the documents published at the launch is how agencies might deal with data that is manipulated by external agencies. Given that government outsources data work, this could be a problem. There may even be cases where external organisations use proprietary algorithms.

Intel is considering outsourcing chip manufacturing. The move marks the end of a chapter for the semiconductor sector. American chip foundries no longer dominate.

It matters for the PC sector. Yet the implications go much further and could affect international trade, even politics.

Intel was the world largest chip maker for decades. Although it didn’t always have the best designs, it had the best sellers and the key relationships. The company’s ‘Wintel’ partnership with Microsoft defined the PC.

Apple’s role

When Apple switched from PowerPC to Intel, the dominance looked complete. That relationship lasted 20 years. Now Apple is moving back to its own processor designs. This means Apple can build faster computers and lighter laptops. Devices will be slimmer or have a longer battery life.

Intel was one of America’s key industrial giants. It continued to make chips in the United States long after other manufacturers, including high tech companies, moved their factories off-shore or outsourced to Asian factories.

In its prime the chip giant seemed incapable of making an error. It was relentless.

Economies of scale

One reason for Intel’s might was the economies of scale. The first of a new line of processors would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build. Towards the end of the run, it could measure the cost per-chip in pennies.

Scale meant it got the best engineers, the best scientists.

And then it all stopped. Apple’s iPhone was the turning point. Intel missed out on making chips for mobile phones and tablets. Instead computer makers turned to companies like Qualcomm. Apple decided to design its own.

Either way, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company or TSMC, got to make the chips. It became better at the job than Intel. If Intel does outsource manufacturing, TSMC is the most likely candidate for the job.

TSMC now makes more processor chips than Intel. It has the economies of scale. It has sharper skills, competitive pricing and everything needed to be market leader. At least when it comes to making processors.

Intel’s designs remain first class. But its rivals have caught up. Take AMD: For years it trailed far behind Intel. That’s changed. AMD’s Ryzen can deliver better performance while using less power than Intel processors.

Intel slow to 7nm

Unlike Intel, AMD is working with 7nm technology. That is, more advanced chip technology. We need to be careful here, 7nm refers to the size of chip components, but different chip makers have nuanced uses of the term.

If losing Apple wasn’t enough, last week the company announced it would delay moving to its 7nm process. The company slipped behind when it was late to market with 10nm technology. Now the 7nm line is at least 12 months behind schedule.

Intel isn’t going away. It managed to grow revenue 20 percent in the last quarter. The company sold almost US$20 billion worth of kit. Even the PC chip business, that’s the bit everyone worries about, was up seven percent.

Yet, it does look as if Intel is no longer the world’s leading chipmaker. It’s brand is no longer a name to conjure with.

The entire work model we built the concept of laptops around not only doesn’t exist anymore, it may not ever exist again.

Source: Rob Enderle Why a Desktop PC Makes More Sense than a Laptop Today – eWEEK

Enderle has a point when he says that laptops were built for a world we no longer inhabit. He is talking about the way we work has changed since the Covid-19 pandemic upended the idea of heading daily to offices and travelling to work meetings.

AMD Ryzen Pro

While he has a point, it is overstated. That may have something to do with the AMD Ryzen Pro advertisement that shows on the page. It may not. Let’s take the story at face value.

The AMD Ryzen Pro is a range of high-end processors for desktop computers. As always with AMD, there is a focus on performance. Beyond that the new processors are optimised for working from home on desktop computers.

Make that, working from home on a desktop computer when you work for an organisation with IT professionals. Ryzen Pro processors include a dedicated security processor and full memory encryption. They support remote management tools.

Is there really a trend away from laptops?

It’s all interesting enough, yet we’re not here to talk about that. The subject of interest is the trend away from laptops and back to desktops.

Enderle thinks it is a big thing. He writes: “I’m coming around to the idea that laptops as a trend are over, that the new trend will be desktop computers.”

In my book the trend is real enough. I’ve done exactly the same myself. Look out for a post on this when I have some time. In my case I switched before the lockdown and for a different set of reasons.

Yet dumping the laptop is not for everyone. Not by a long chalk.

Sure, we will work away from home less often. For some people it will stop and that’s it. For others there will be less working away from home. Not zero working away from home. When that happens, the laptop is still the right tool most of the time. You could use an iPad if you have a desktop. Many people would prefer to have the one device that works in both cases.

Some prefer laptops

The second reason why there won’t be as big a shift as Enderle suggests is that many people prefer laptops regardless. This may be because people prefer the physical form of a laptop. It maybe because laptops take up less room and do not need a dedicated desk and chair. Not everyone lives in a spacious mansion with a fancy home office.

Laptop, PC, Tablet sales

According to this Statista graph, computer makers sold 166 million laptops in 2019 and 88 million desktops. In round numbers that’s two laptops for every desktop. In 2010 it was 200 million laptops and 157 million desktops, roughly four to three. The blue shows desktops, the dark blue is laptops and the grey shows tablet sales.

There has been a long term drift towards laptops. It stretches back beyond the graph. It’s possible the pandemic trend may halt the drift. Numbers may even drift back a little. But I’m certain desktops are not about to outsell laptops any time soon.

 

JBL Quantum 800 wireless headset 3

JBL made the Quantum 800 wireless headset for gamers.

It is a fun product. You could, at a pinch, use it for work, but it doesn’t look businesslike and it hasn’t been optimised for serious tasks. In other words, don’t buy it for work thinking you might use it for gaming.

Wireless gaming headsets are everyday headphones that come with a built-in boom microphone. They let you speak to other gamers while you listen to the game sounds and other online players.

There is no shortage of gaming headsets that need a cable to connect to your computer or games console. Wireless headsets are less common.

Cut the cord

As the name suggests, wireless headsets don’t need a cord. This is much more convenient, but it comes at a price. A wireless headset costs roughly $100 more. In practice the extra is worth it.

The Quantum 800 connects to a PC through a USB transmitter. You can use the Quantum 800 with Bluetooth. This is one backup option and the best way to use the headset with a mobile phone.

Sound quality and latency are worse with Bluetooth than with the USB connection. If you use the headset for gaming, which is the reason you’d choose this over alternatives, the Bluetooth latency is irritating.

JBL’s second backup audio route is a 3.5mm jack which can connect with a cable. This will work with a games console and is handy if the USB connection is not reliable. In testing this never happened for me.

Like all wireless gaming headsets, it can handle work-from-home Zoom or Microsoft Teams calls. That is, you can use it if your co-workers or your boss don’t object to its distinct, non-business-like looks.

JBL Quantum 800 wireless headset

Quantum 800 wireless headset dark looks

JBL has gone for a dark, military look. The headset is shiney black plastic with a non-shiney grey metal finish. Each of the two ear drums has a panel with an missable, large JBL logo that lights up in bright colours when the headset is on you. This is programmable, you can tone things down if you are working.

On the left earpiece the flip down microphone sits on a boom. It is foam covered. You can bend the arm to get a better fit.

There’s plenty of padding around the earpieces. More than enough to keep you comfortable through an extended session. While the headphones have active noise cancellation, the padding helps to keep outside noise away in its own right.

Controls and switches sit along the bottom of both earpieces. There is a USB-C charging port and a volume wheel.

Heavy

As headsets go, the Quantum 800 wireless headset is heavy. They weigh 400g. In comparison my three year old Sony MDR-1000X headphones weigh 300g. Over time you’ll notice the extra 100g. It’s not a deal breaker, but the weight isn’t great.

The USB-C wireless dongle is 70mm long and stands out a long way from a desktop or laptop computer. It’s thin enough to squeeze in between other USB devices

JBL gave the Quantum 800 a better microphone than you might expect. You can tinker with settings to get the levels right. When you’ve done this you’ll get a clear sound. It does what it says on the box. You’ll be able to talk to others during a game and come across clear.

Likewise the mic is great for videoconferences. You get a better sound than relying on your PC or laptop mic. It might not be good enough for recording, say, a podcast unless you’re aiming for a lo-fi effect.

The headset is impressive. It is great value at NZ$400 when you consider its performance and features. If you are a committed gamer, it could be right for you.

Negatives

That said, there are a few reasons why I wouldn’t choose the Quantum 800 wireless headset for myself. They may not affect your decision. The design is fine for games playing. It could be distracting if you use them for work. I don’t like the idea of a huge brightly lit logo on my ears.

Another negative for me, but not for 80 percent of computer users is that JBL has optimised for PC gamers. On a Mac the experience is less complete. At the same time, it is not the best choice for console gamers.

A third negative is the sound quality. It’s fine for gaming and video or Skype calls. Explosions are incredible. There’s too much colour for music. It will work OK for casual listening, but if, say, you work with music apps, you’ll struggle. It doesn’t seem possible to neutralise the EQ enough to get a flat response.

These things aside, you won’t find a better PC gaming headset. I can’t think of anything else aimed at gamers that has active noise cancellation. There are dozens of options and features to explore. You can even simulate surround sound.

Apple Installed Base (Number of Users)
Apple Installed Base (Number of Users)

For the second year in a row, Apple held a developers conference that should frighten its competitors. Relying on a nearly maniacal obsession with the user experience, Apple is removing oxygen from every market that it plays in.

At the same time, the tech landscape is riddled with increasingly bad bets, indifference, and a lack of vision. Apple is pulling away from the competition to a degree that we haven’t ever seen before.

Source: Above Avalon: Apple Is Pulling Away From the Competition

Above Avalon analyst Neil Cybart says Apple is stealing a march on other technology companies. He says the company has made long-term decisions that mean its rivals will struggle to catch up.

The story needs to be read through a careful filter. Cybart writes about the company both from an investment point of view and from a Silicon Valley perspective.

This doesn’t necessarily make his analysis biased or wrong, it isn’t,  but it can lack broader context.

Coherence

Cybart’s main idea is that Apple has pulled now all its strands together. The range of products and services has a new coherence and a clear direction.

This, according to Cybart, comes at a time when rivals are weakening.

Together these two trends have set up conditions that will move the company even further ahead of rivals over the next decade.

He makes a good case. Yet there are flaws in this line of thinking. Maybe flaw is too strong. Let’s say questions.

Samsung lack of vision

In the middle of the web post Cybart lists the ways Apple is beating key rival technology companies. He, rightly, notes that Samsung “remains rudderless from a product vision perspective.”

While that’s true, Samsung is a major component supplier to Apple and other hardware companies. If you look closely at Samsung’s financials, it’s clear the areas that compete with Apple are not central to Samsung’s profits.

The areas where the two companies co-operate are more important to Samsung.

Cybart correctly dismisses Google and Amazon as direct rivals. In the greater scheme of things their hardware products are inconsequential. Yet both remain on growth trajectories that could yet pose a threat to Apple.

Microsoft hardware

Microsoft’s hardware move has failed to alter the balance of power between Macs or iPads and Windows hardware. Cybart is right on the money when he says Surface mainly takes business away from Microsoft’s Windows partners.

Yet like Amazon and, to a lesser degree Google, Microsoft is powering ahead with cloud computing. These companies are building a significant digital world where Apple doesn’t play.

This is not a criticism of Cybart’s story. He is on the money as far as personal computer hardware and its immediate successor technologies are concerned. Apple does look set to dominate.

Beyond this there are parallel markets where Apple is, at best a bit player. These markets interact with Apple’s market. In the future they may interact in ways that are not yet clear.

Shorn of context, Apple is powering ahead. But let’s not forget Amazon and Microsoft are also powering ahead. Technology is not a simple zero-sum game.