Losing My Virginity – Richard Branson

I’m currently reading Losing My Virginity: The Autobiography by Richard Branson.

Branson is a bit of a hero of mine. He is probably Britain’s most well-known business man, and currently the world’s 245th richest man. He recently launched Virgin Galactic which is to offer commercial space flights to the edge of space. This adds to his business empire including flights, wine & cola, TV & broadband, music, health clubs and train service.

He attempted to buy the failed British bank Northern Rock, bid for the National Lottery and has, recently, even expressed interest in buying up London Gatwick airport which is being sold off by BAA. Branson is also well known for his attempts to cross the Atlantic Ocean in record breaking time and to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon.

It’s certainly a long book, weighing in at almost 600 pages. But Branson writes really well: his autobiography feels like reading a top class novel. The book tracks the growth of Virgin starting from Branson’s Student magazine, to the launch of Virgin as a mail-order record company, the launch of the Virgin Atlantic airline and the battles with British Airways all the way up to the present day.

This is a gripping read and it certainly left me with a lot of respect for Branson. A strongly recommended read. Parts of his book are also available as a podcast on his website.

Those more interested in business may also be interested in Branson’s brand new book, Business Stripped Bare.

A Guide: How to save the Amazon Rainforest and the Environment

schooling bannerfish school
Creative Commons License photo: jon hanson

It was interesting to open up BBC News and to read the article “Ownership key to saving fisheries“. In brief, essentially scientists have surveyed fisheries across the world and found that giving fishermen long-term ownership of fisheries is the way to keep stocks at a sustainable level. It’s a vindication of basic economics.

In this article, I want to discuss the issue of deforestation in the Amazon – one of the biggest environmental issues facing the world. I’ll run through a simple demonstration on how we could preserve the Amazon Rainforest using the exact same principle as that used in the Amazon.

The Amazon Rainforest

The Amazon Rainforest encompasses 1.4 billion acres (5.5 million square kilometres). In the 10 years from 1991 to 2000, about 500,000 square km of the Amazon was lost to deforestation. It’s been estimated that 17.1% of the Amazon has been lost to deforestation since the 1970. And at the present rate of deforestation, the Amazon Rainforest will be reduced by 40% by 2020.

That’s a big problem for all of us. The Amazon is a huge carbon sink – it locks away huge amounts of the greenhouse gas CO2. Deforestation not only reduces the world’s capacity to lock away CO2; it leads to the release of CO2 too. The existence of the Amazon Rainforest has huge benefits for all of us.

Sustainable logging in Sandakan (FSC certified)
Creative Commons License photo: angela7dreams

Ask a typical person on the street how to solve the problem of deforestation and you’ll get answers such as: prevent illegal logging or ban deforestation of the Amazon.

But then put yourself in the position of somebody who lives in or near the Amazon. Obviously, you’ll need to feed your family and make a living. Cut down some trees and sell the timber to make a bit of money. Use the land to farm and to graze cattle and to feed your family.

I think it’s extremely unfair for anybody to tell the people who live in the Amazon they can’t do this. I mean, how are they expected to make a living otherwise? Sure, we all lose out from the deforestation because it contributes to climate change. But it’s only fair that the people living in the Amazon should primarily be allowed to look after themselves and their families in the only way they have.

The Problem with Al Gore’s Public Commons

In 1989, Al Gore said:

Contrary to what Brazilians think, the Amazon is not their property, it belongs to all of us.

Essentially, Al Gore was blaming the Brazilians for cutting what does not belong to them – the Amazon.

Here’s the problem of a public commons. It could get a little mathematical, so bear with me.

Let us, hypothetically, say that a single acre of the Amazon Rainforest benefits everybody in the world by one millionth of a dollar. Every acre of the rainforest locks away CO2… that’s good news

Morning in the Amazon...
Creative Commons License photo: markg6

According to Google, the current world population is 6.6 billion. So the economic value to society of an acre of rainforest would be $6,600.

Now, we’ll enter the mindset of somebody living in the Amazon (call him Barack). Just like the rest of us, Barack benefits from lower CO2 levels by one millionth of a dollar. CO2 levels don’t have any local effects so we can make this assumption the benefits are the same for everybody. So the economic value to the private individual (Barack) is $1/1,000,000.

Barack could choose to cut down this acre of rainforest. He can sell the wood, and then he can graze his cattle on the cleared land. That’ll probably make him a good $2,000 or so.

So Barack has two choices:

  • Cut down the rainforest and make $2,000 of money
  • Leave the rainforest standing; benefiting him by $1/1,000,000 in a lower CO2 level.

It’s quite obvious to see that Barack will cut down the rainforest. He doesn’t care about the rest of us who all lose out by a millionth of a dollar – in fact it’s such a small amount that none of us would really make a big fuss about it. Would you make a fuss about a millionth of a dollar?

But look at it from a global perspective: as a global community, we’re all losing out on the rainforest worth $6,000 and getting timber and beef which is only worth $2,000 to us. As a community, we’re made $4,600 worse off by Barack’s decision.

We can pay Barack to preserve the rainforest

Tehran Sky
Creative Commons License photo: Hamed Saber

So here’s a proposal. What if we gave Barack the deeds to that acre of rainforest? He’ll own it and have responsibility to look after it. In fact, we’ll collectively give Barack a sum of $4,000 to preserve that rainforest because we know we’re getting a lot of good out of it.

Now Barack has two options:

  • Cut down the rainforest and make $2,000 of money
  • Leave the rainforest standing and make $4,000 of money

It’s a no brainer. Barack will preserve the forest.

Now look at it from a global perspective. Collectively, the global community is benefiting by $6,600 from Barack’s acre of rainforest. But we’re only paying him $4,000 to preserve it – so we’re collectively made better off by $2,600 by Barack’s decision to save the rainforest. Everybody wins from property rights.

To sum it all up…

Without property rights: Barack cuts down the rainforest. Barack makes $2,000. The world loses out by $4,600. CO2 levels rise.

With property rights: Barack preserves the rainforest. Barack makes $4,000. The world benefits by $2,600. CO2 levels fall.

So there we have it. The big environmental issues won’t be solved by telling other people what to do, banning deforestation or giving money to people to plant trees. We don’t need to wait for scientific advances to fix the environment. We just need some open-minded thinking and some basic economics.

What is the Most Efficient Language?

smile is universal
Creative Commons License photo: kalandrakas

In talking about efficiency, perhaps this post is the one to bring out the computer scientist in me. A question for all of you: of the world languages what language is the most efficient language?

Could it be English? The English language doesn’t have any government departments to deliberate over it and hence the language very quickly evolves and mutates. New words can be created without restriction which makes it possible to express new ideas. English is spoken by 1.8 billion people worldwide – that’s a lot of people. But local dialects of English could mean two English speakers in different countries won’t understand each another. It’s also a very difficult language to learn. Obviously these two things mean English is less efficient than it might initially appear to be!

Or could it be Esperanto? As a constructed international auxillary language, Esperanto is short, simple and elegant. There are no irregular forms of grammar. That might make it easy to learn and hence efficient but at the same time, very few people speak Esperanto: 2 million at the very most.

Or should it be Mandarin? With the most native speakers in the world, learning this language opens the doors to communicating with a huge amount of people.

Google Gaffe Causes $1bn run on United Airlines

The duckies invade Google
Creative Commons License photo: Yodel Anecdotal

Times Online reported today on a major Google gaffe in which a 2002 United Airlines bankruptcy article was featured on the Google News website.

The US Securities and Exchange Commission has opened a “preliminary inquiry” into how an outdated bankruptcy story sparked a $1 billion run on an airline’s stock value.

The article about how United Airlines filed for bankruptcy in 2002 was revived when it showed up on a newspaper site’s “most viewed” section on Monday.

From there it was picked up by Google News and later seen by alarmed stockholders. The stock plunged from around $12 to just $3 a share before trading was halted.

However, Google blames this whole incident on a series of gaffes. It says that a single visit in the early morning to the 2002 news article pushed it onto the “Popular Stories” section of the South Florida Sun Sentinel website (a Tribune owned newsflow). From there, Google News found the link to the old article but failing to find a date on the article, marked it for inclusion on its website. It took just three minutes and two seconds for it to appear on Google News.

United Airlines Boeing 777-222(ER) N785UA
Creative Commons License photo: Cubbie_n_Vegas

Once it hit Google News, it appeared on Bloomberg. And automated trading programmes which analyse online news articles suddenly sold United stock causing it to be sold in droves, driving down it’s value.

In some ways, I think this just demonstrates “Garbage In, Garbage Out” which is well known to computer parameters. Being “old news”, the original article was obviously garbage. Google News regurgitated this garbage back out without any checking (as there are no human editors). Similarly, trading programmes consumed garbage in the form of old news and acted badly on it (selling the stock and causing the $1bn run on United).

With an investigation pending, it’ll be interesting to see how this all turns out.

The Large Hadron Collider and the End of the World?

The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN
Creative Commons License photo: Image Editor

It’s been rather, well, amusing to see the news coverage of the test firing of the Large Hadron Collider over the large few days. As somebody who has worked in physics and may occasionally classify themselves as a “physicist”, it’s really nice to see physics making the headlines! But I thought the news coverage was absolutely sensationalist and ridiculous.

The downmarket British tabloid The Sun was ridiculously sensationalist with it’s headline “End of the world due in nine days”. It wrote:

SCIENTISTS are trying to stop the most powerful experiment ever – saying the black holes it will create could destroy the world.

That is why boffins are now trying to stop the project with a last-ditch challenge in the courts.

They fear the LHC experimenters are tinkering with the unknown and putting mankind — and our whole planet — at risk.

The Black Hole
Creative Commons License photo: lautsu

It wasn’t just the downmarket tabloids at it. BBC News discussed the outlandish theory, and ITV originally reported the story as so on their website:

Scientists at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (Cern) are pressing ahead with the experiment despite warnings that it could destroy the universe.

And I woke up in the morning to a long discussion on the radio about the LHC would cause the end of the world.

I’m sorry, but as if any serious scientists thought the LHC would lead to the end of the world. It’s a totally ridiculous theory.

But I’m more than happy to be proved wrong. Check out the live webcams from the LHC and let me know if you see anything 😉

Sociologists describe Facebook "Ambient Awareness"

As a blogger and an avid user of social networking and new forms of web-based communication, I find it absolutely fascinating how they are changing the ways in which we communicate and live.

| apple-command |
Creative Commons License photo: arquera

It’s just passed the second anniversary of the introduction of the Facebook “News Feed”. For people who don’t use Facebook, the News Feed keeps you up to date on what’s going on in your social circle: new photos, wall posts, relationship statuses, events and parties your friends are attending and so on. I must admit that when I first signed up to Facebook I found this really scary. To me, it seemed really strange that a) instead of email, people would send communique to me by writing it on my wall which is publicly readable and b) these “wall posts” and my conversations would sometimes appear on the front page of Facebook for some friends of mine, who would then be provided with a link to view our entire conversation. When the news feed launched two years ago, 750,000 students protested against its launch.

Since the launch of news feed, Facebook has grown from 15million active users to 100million active users. It’s now become an integral part of the site, and the upcoming profile redesign makes the feed even more prominent throughout the site.

After two years of news feed, sociologists now describe an “ambient awareness” of friends. There is a fascinating article over at the New York Times about this:

Social scientists have a name for this sort of incessant online contact. They call it “ambient awareness.” It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, sighs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye.

Look Up
Creative Commons License photo: mrhayata

The article goes on to describe microblogging where people post small and short updates throughout the day of their activities (e.g. Twitter or Facebook)

For many people — particularly anyone over the age of 30 — the idea of describing your blow-by-blow activities in such detail is absurd. Why would you subject your friends to your daily minutiae? And conversely, how much of their trivia can you absorb? The growth of ambient intimacy can seem like modern narcissism taken to a new, supermetabolic extreme — the ultimate expression of a generation of celebrity-addled youths who believe their every utterance is fascinating and ought to be shared with the world.

The article goes on to describe further research. At the end, Thompson concludes:

This is the ultimate effect of the new awareness: It brings back the dynamics of small-town life, where everybody knows your business. Young people at college are the ones to experience this most viscerally, because, with more than 90 percent of their peers using Facebook, it is especially difficult for them to opt out.

Certainly I think it’ll take a bit more time to see how Facebook changes the dynamics of society in the short run. At the moment, it’s impact is very limited to people at college and university. Perhaps it’ll be a welcome thing in our celebrity culture – where Paris Hilton and Wayne Rooney seem to be more important than issues such as climate change and where we feel we know celebrities better than our next door neighbours. Perhaps it’s a cool that’ll lead to a more responsible society.

Enquire Within Upon Everything
Creative Commons License photo: adactio

It’s just like living in a village, where it’s actually hard to lie because everybody knows the truth already,” Tufekci said. “The current generation is never unconnected. They’re never losing touch with their friends. So we’re going back to a more normal place, historically.

Psychologists and sociologists spent years wondering how humanity would adjust to the anonymity of life in the city, the wrenching upheavals of mobile immigrant labor — a world of lonely people ripped from their social ties. We now have precisely the opposite problem. Indeed, our modern awareness tools reverse the original conceit of the Internet.

Certainly the subject of some interesting research. What’s more, browsing the internet on our mobile is still something most of us seldom do. Here in the UK, various mobile companies have been advertising free Facebook access on your phone and new phones such as Android and iPhone make mobile internet access something which is much more palatable. We’ve definitely got more of this coming our way.

Google Chrome Security, Privacy, Technical Issues

The newly released Google Chrome has several issues which I believe makes it unusable.

Chrome claims better security than other browsers as each tab acts as a “jail”. Unfortunately, it’s very easy for a malicious website to download files onto your desktop or your download directory.

The “carpet-bombing” security issue

It takes nothing more than the following line of code:

<iframe src=”RandomFile.exe”></iframe>

Google Chrome then downloads RandomFile.exe into your downloads directory without any user prompt. For many people, the download directory is the Desktop. Being an executable file, it can have its own icon. So potentially, visiting a website through Google Chrome could lead to malicious executable files appearing on your desktop, which may disguise themselves as utilities such as browsers. Not only that, it takes just one click on an icon to launch it from Chrome without any warnings.

Privacy Issue with the Omni-Bar

The address bar (Omni-bar) has built in Google Suggest. This means anything you type into the address bar, including partial URLS, are sent to Google’s servers. Not only that, requests from the Omnibar send your Google cookies. That is, Google can link every single thing (URLs and searches) you type in the address bar back to your Google account and hence your personal identity.

The Coderrr Blog has some examples of requests sent to Google’s servers. It’s pretty scary.

It’s worth mentioning Firefox 3 and Google Toolbar’s auto-suggest features will do the same thing. However, they will only send search queries whereas Chrome sends URLs too. The Electronic Frontier Foundation are worried.

Stability Issue

You can crash Google Chrome by typing :% in the address bar. Don’t ask me why, I have no idea. Interestingly enough, Google Chrome has already crashed several times in the short amount of time I’ve had it. Firefox hasn’t crashed in a long while.

Technical Issues

Google Chrome can’t physically work on a Mac. There is no way to have multiple process rendering to one window on the Mac platform. And it looks like Firefox’s new Javascript engine is beating Google Chrome in benchmark tests.

Conclusions

Google Chrome is a new product and so I don’t think we should be too harsh on it. But what’s true is that there are siginificant security, privacy and technical issues with Google Chrome as it stands at the moment. I feel it’s partially irresponsible of Google to be promoting Chrome to end users on their Google homepages when the latest release of Chrome has so many issues.

What’s more, the browser was initially released with a clause in the EULA which granted it “a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through” the browser. It’s been removed now.

Recommendation: Stick with Firefox for the time being.

Google Chrome Easter Egg: about:internets

I haven’t seen much about this on the internet, so here goes. There is an easter egg in the Google Chrome browser – type in about:internets to see it.

Robert Accettura worked out how this was implemented by exploring the Chrome source code. All Chrome does is to call the Windows Screensaver inside a tab.

If you don’t understand this easter egg, this is what Wikipedia has to say:

Series of tubes” is an analogy used by United States Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to describe the Internet in the context of network neutrality.[1] On June 28, 2006, he used this metaphor to criticize a proposed amendment to a committee bill. The amendment would have prohibited Internet service providers from charging fees to give some companies higher priority access to their networks or their customers. This metaphor (along with several other odd choices of words) was widely ridiculed as demonstrating Stevens’ poor understanding of the Internet.

Oh, and Mozilla’s new Javascript engine beats Google’s V8 Javascript engine in tests.

Google launches web browser: Google Chrome

The duckies invade Google
Creative Commons License photo: Yodel Anecdotal

Wow, what can I say. This surprised me. Google is launching it’s own browser called Google Chrome. They created a comic book to announce it to the world, which is summed up at Google Blogoscoped.

It’s based on the WebKit engine also used in Safari, and includes Google Gears by default. They’ve taken bits from Safari and Mozilla and included it in this project, which they’ve also open sourced.

It’ll be interesting with another browser in the space. It launches tommorow when us web developers can finally have a play with it and see what it’s like.