The Scourge of Robocalls

Wired recently chronicled the rise of robocalls. In the piece, you learn that Americans got “47.8 billion robocalls in 2018” or roughly “200 per year for every adult,” and in 2019, it looks like those numbers will be much higher. It is not going away. Much of it has been enabled by open source software, cheap calling and the rise of Voice over Internet Protocol. Nicholas Thompson, editor-in-chief of Wired, tweeted that one could fight robocalls by joining the Do Not Call registry, reporting spam calls to FCC, and getting an app that helps block the calls.

Unfortunately, as outlined in the Wired story, that doesn’t work.

A letter from Om

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The Good Algorithm

It was quite an astonishing week for science and technology, in large part because we got to see the first photo of a black hole—something that has fascinated us humans for so long. The photo was a timely reminder of our potential.

From our politicians to our media, it often seems there is faint regard for the possibilities and opportunities presented by technology. We often forget the wonders it can enable. It is not the algorithm itself, but what it is tasked to do, that makes it good, bad, or dangerous. As used by Facebook, the algorithm seems like the work of a devil, but in the hands of Dr. Katie Bouman and her colleagues from MIT, it becomes the eye of an angel.

How did this image come about? Eight radio telescopes across five continents were stitched together to form The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), an Earth-sized virtual telescope. The EHT uses a technique called very-long-baseline interferometry, or VLBI, which synchronizes telescope facilities around the world and exploits the rotation of Earth to form one huge telescope observing at a wavelength of 1.3mm. It was all done thanks to extremely precise atomic clocks at each of the telescopes.

Bouman’s algorithm then stitches all that data together into a photo. As someone explained on twitter, “First I thought “is the black hole photo really a ‘photo’? Or is it some collected wave frequency data interpreted into a color image” then I realized that’s every photo.” I wonder how and when the lessons from this achievement will impact the future of photography, computer vision, and augmented reality.

As an aside, data for this effort was collected over two weeks, amounting to roughly 350 terabytes per day, or about 5,000 trillion bytes of data on 1,000 high-performance helium-filled hard drives. The data drives were then taken to supercomputers known as correlators at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, and MIT’s Haystack Observatory in Westford, Massachusetts. The supercomputers used 140 Nvidia graphics-processing units. And the project also used 20 powerful virtual machines running in two Google data centers, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, to serve the EHT members’ computation needs across the globe.

To Dr. Bouman and the members of EHT consortium—more than 200 researchers from 13 stakeholder institutes located in Africa, Asia, Europe, North, and South America—thank you for reminding us of the possibilities.

This first appeared on my April 14, 2019, weekly newsletter. If you like to get this delivered to your inbox, just sign-up here, and I will take care of the rest.

3 pieces of advice in Jeff Bezos’ Shareholder Letter

In my previous post, I urged you all to take a moment and make some price comparisons before buying from Amazon, which is no longer the cheapest or the best place to buy stuff. Other options are equally convenient — it not as fast — especially when it comes to returning stuff that isn’t up to scratch.

However, in the process of writing that post, I ended up spending a lot of time reading (and re-reading) Jeff Bezos’ letter to Amazon shareholders. Here is some wisdom that can apply to all types of organizations – teams, small startups, partnerships, and large groups.

A letter from Om

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Chips Don’t Lie

All that IPO optimism—in addition to ongoing Facebook shenanigans—keep us a wee bit distracted from the dark clouds that are gathering on the horizon. Earlier this week, the Semiconductor Industry Association reported that the “worldwide sales of semiconductors reached $32.9 billion for the month of February 2019, a decrease of 7.3 percent from the January 2019 total of $35.5 billion and 10.6 percent less than the February 2018 total of $36.8 billion.” Coming on the heels of breakneck and record-breaking growth from 2016 to 2018, this is expected to be a slow year, with the industry growing a mere 2.6 percent from $468 billion in 2018.

Sure, some of the shortfalls are due to the trade war between China and the United States. But in reality, you can lay the slowdown at the feet of smartphone sales. After growing for nearly a decade, the smartphone demand has started to behave like an overweight Om walking up a very steep hill (you’ll have to trust me on this). After Apple’s slow quarter, its competitors, like Samsung, began to show similar signs of struggle.

The decline isn’t temporary if you read what the chip sales are telling us. Apple has already said the sales are going to be slower than expected in 2019. Gartner forecasts that the sales will be down by about half-a-percent this year. PC sales are going to stagnate as well, down 3 percent for the year. All of this is manifesting itself in the chip demand.

If you need further proof of how painful it will be for some players in the market, just remember that Apple, a company whose DNA is hardware and devices, is offering a credit card to its customers and selling half-baked media packages—anything to bring in the dollars, to keep the coffers filled. The other big player in the phone business, Qualcomm, announced this week a new cloud-focused chip that helps with machine learning and artificial intelligence inside the data center. It, too, needs to find different sources of income and growth.

Autonomous cars, the internet of things, augmented and virtual reality, they are all on the horizon, but they won’t be impactful soon enough. To paraphrase Shakira, chips don’t lie.

This first appeared on my April 14, 2019, weekly newsletter. If you like to get this delivered to your inbox, just sign-up here, and I will take care of the rest.