Issue 49

Big, irrelevant data

For those out of the loop, World Health Organisation goodwill ambassador and murderous dictator Robert Mugabe passed away last week at the ripe old age of 95. Apparently he will be granted national hero status and an official mourning. It would be funny if it weren't so sad; Lord Acton really was spot on when he opined that "Great men are almost always bad men", a description which fits Mugabe to a tee.

Moving on, this week I want to touch on Palantir Technologies, named after the "seeing stones" in The Lord of the Rings. The original "big data" company, Palantir last week announced that it may delay its IPO until 2023:

"Palantir,  which has never been profitable, had reportedly been making efforts to  gear up a public offering, which included hiring its first sales team  and eliminating lavish employee perks, like 13-course tasting-menu  lunches, that could raise eyebrows among public market investors.  Employees were also reportedly no longer allowed to expense last-minute  international airfare and at least one person was fired for expensing  off-the-wall purchases like lingerie."

Because of Palantir’s work  with the US military and government agencies, the data-mining firm has  long been subject to scrutiny by outside critics. Most recently,  Business Insider learned that Palantir employees themselves were  becoming increasingly split over the company’s ties to government work –  specifically its business dealings with Immigration and Customs  Enforcement, the federal agency involved in detaining and deporting  people over immigration violations."

What does Palantir do? No one really knows, but the evidence seems to suggest a mix between talent arbitrage, i.e. consulting, and software development (mostly data analysis tools). Its major clients include governments,  which were always going to be the primary buyers of "big data"  services. Why? The lack of market feedback - knowledge transmitting  prices, profit and loss - makes it hard to know which decisions might be  best and how to justify them. Bureaucrats are also easily enticed by  anything that might add "rigour" to their work, regardless of whether or  not it adds real value.

For that reason, I'm sceptical of  Palantir's lofty promises. While not being profitable doesn't (yet)  matter in this day and age: Amazon wasn't profitable for nearly 6 years;  Twitter, 4; and Uber and Lyft may never make a profit, there still  needs to be some plausible future upside. It was clear what the likes of  Uber and Lyft did and might dominate someday, for example autonomous  vehicles, but Palantir? Not so much.

For me, Palantir is up there  with Google's DeepMind in terms of its real world applications, i.e. not  many. Provided it doesn't run out of money first, it will continue to  win government contracts and work at organisations which resemble  governments, such as large financial institutions, utilities and perhaps  universities. But anyone else that dips their toes into the big data  Kool-Aid will quickly realise how useless most of the output actually is  and promptly walk away. Unless you need a veil of opacity with which to  cloak your work, big data are not the answer.

Enjoy the rest of this week's issue. Cheers,

— Justin

The bits

Antitrust will be the weapon used against big tech

A  poor argument rarely stops a lawyer, and especially not those spending  other people's money to chase a big case. This is a political, not  economic, assault.

Learn more:

Facebook dating

The  Facebook brand is toxic and my purely anecdotal evidence suggests it's  mostly used by people no longer in the dating world (i.e. older people).  Releasing it under a different brand name ala Instagram may have helped  but probably not; the media would be on that in a heartbeat, so it  probably had to use the Facebook moniker.

Learn more:

Hong Kong follow-up

Hong  Kong agreed to one of the protesters' 5 demands last week but that  hasn't stopped them. They're also using an app unblockable by China  (bluetooth-based, so require a "chain" of people all within a very close  proximity of the next person) but apparently still can't work out how  to use Twitter (likely journalistic bias).

Note  that the app they're using is proprietary and closed-source so  essentially insecure. A shame as there is an open source mesh  alternative available,  although it admittedly requires a bit more technical savvy to install  (it's not on the respective Apple/Android app stores). As with their use  of Telegram, the Hong Kong protesters are clever but not technically adept.

Learn more:

Other bits of interest

Image of the week

Steven Peter Devereux Smith

Apologies  to people from non-Commonwealth countries (and Canada) who likely don't  know anything about the sport of cricket but this week's image is none  other than Australia's Steven Peter Devereux Smith, who has absolutely  dominated the recent Ashes series against the old enemy, England. He's  now the leading run scorer in 2019 despite missing the first 7 months of  the year.

This week's data breaches

Facebook  leaked a bunch of users' phone number, but wants people to trust it  with their d**k pics. The sad part is a lot of people, blissfully  unaware of the Facebook's blasé attitude towards users' privacy, will do  just that.

The breaches:

That's all for now. If you enjoyed this issue, feel free to share it via email

Issue 49: Big, irrelevant data was compiled by Justin Pyvis and delivered on 10 September 2019. Join the conversation on the fediverse at