Smartphones: The Dark Side

The BBC made this great documentary called “Smartphones: The Dark Side”. Obviously the smartphone and its apps are made to draw you in and entice you to spend more time on them. The ecosystem financial rewards are driven by you using it. It’s pretty much the same reasoning we used to have about TV. The NY Times wrote about it exactly 38 years ago. I’m of the opinion that we should look more at ourselves than blame the tech companies for bringing “addictive” products on the market.

It’s interesting nonetheless.

Confused Alexa

I’ve 3 echo’s around the house, but I’ve a love and hate relationship with Alexa. I love it because I can bark orders and she’ll obeys diligently by turning on or off the lights or telling me about the weather. She’s reasonably smart but for instance recently she couldn’t tell me how many Dalai Lama’s there have been. Two seconds on searching on my phone gave me the answer.

But there are a few things which drive me nuts. Sometimes I call her schizo of it.

  • When I set a timer one one, I can’t cancel it or ask about the timer on another
  • She won’t even let me know when I’m somewhere else that the timer is up
  • When I ask to turn on the lights, she has no concept of place so she’ll ask me “which lights?”. “Well since I’m downstairs and it’s dark, maybe downstairs?”.
  • When I ask her to increase temperature, she asks me “which device?”. I’ve only one thermostat so what’s the point of that question. She knows that!
  • Sometimes the TV is on and I can’t hear what she says. I ask her to turn up the volume. Then the TV is off and when I ask her something, she “screams” the response. Why can’t she just measure the ambient noise level and change her volume accordingly?
  • When I ask her how long it will take to go to the office, she has no concept of what work means, but she doesn’t even ask me. Where is your office?
  • And since we’re on the subject, Alexa doesn’t know the difference between me and my significant other. We’re all the same people to her. My office is not her office. Even if she would know the concept of office, she won’t be able to make recognize the difference.

The fundamental question is if Alexa is one person for me or 3 different ones? Does she understand place and time? Does she recognize people? As much as I love using Alexa, it still feels like a unrefined product and it’s not really moving forward. I don’t care about 20,000+ skills nor do I care about TV or toaster with Alexa built in. I care about Alexa, but she isn’t growing up. She’s still a toddler.

Censorship & ethics

Last week a presentation of Google research called “The Good Censor” was leaked. It’s a good summary of the burden on we put on tech companies to “police” the internet. Often times the examples we see in the media are overly simplified cases. The devil is in the details – especially for multinational companies. Slide 65 is a perfect example of this. The norms differ between regions.

The problem for me is that I wonder why should let corporations decide what is right or wrong. Especially today, where we as society are not always coherent on where we stand on issues. How do we decide what is fake news? What is hate speech? When should you pull something? What does it mean to influence elections?

All of these companies have “terms of service” which describe the clear and cut cases on what is acceptable or not on their service. We also know that these companies have more detailed guides, but they’re secret. I guess they keep them secret because it makes it harder to circumvent the moderation rules, but they also make it impossible to audit them.

It would be better if companies make their detailed content moderation guides open and share them. Also, they need clear appeal procedures to allow content moderation to change. What was unacceptable in 1974 is not necessarily unacceptable in 2018 or vice versa.

The power and reach of these companies are enormous and that’s fine, but it does come with great responsibility. Hiding behind algorithms or “we’re not a media company” is simply not enough anymore. It’s about trust and transparency inherently conveys trust.

 

When IT is in the way at corporates

The most prevalent excuse I’ve heard in the last 5 years not to do a deal, project or product is because corporate IT isn’t able to support it (in a timely manner).

Still today, I hear this excuse often and this is where corporates start to loose. You’ve to be able to be agile and adapt quickly with your primary business processes. The moment you loose that ability you start loosing opportunities.

It baffles me that in this day and age IT at large corporates is still considered an expense and not a strategic asset. And yes, I’m talking about companies where primary business processes are solely reliant on software.

Regardless of the causes and reasons, IT is not the same as accounting, buildings or corporate support staff to name a few examples. Limiting budgets and limping along on legacy systems is not a strategy, it’s a death warrant.

/end rant

DuckDuckGo

A few weeks ago, I switched from Google to DuckDuckGo as my search engine. Google has been tone-deaf for a while now towards privacy issues in general and I was wondering if I could wean myself of Google’s services. I thought I’d start with search.

DuckDuckGo’s main selling point is that it is not tracking you. Even though they’ve been around for a long time, it’s refreshing to see a company who doesn’t track you. Apparently they’ve been cash flow positive for a long time. Clearly, you don’t need to track people to build a viable business in search.

I’ve tried DuckDuckGo in the past though and I wasn’t impressed with the search results, but that was a long time ago.

Today is different and I can report it’s good enough. I’ve switched over my iPhone, iPad and laptops to use DuckDuckGo by default.

It took me a while to get used to the results of DuckDuckGo. I can’t really quantify what it was, but I found myself reverting back to Google for 1 out of 2 searches. DuckDuckGo makes it real easy, just add !g to your search and it refers your browser to Google. It might have been a confidence thing, but in the second week I found myself reverting to Google less and less. This week I’ve barely touched Google’s search at all.

Next up is Google Maps. Let’s see if Apple Maps has improved since the embarrassing introduction back in 2012.

Facebook “unbundled”

Around two years ago, I deleted all my social media apps and just visit through their websites. I stopped posting or otherwise engaging with any of them. This also changed my visiting behavior. I settled for once per week for Facebook and Instagram and just use Twitter and LinkedIn when I want to look up something. Typically that once per week is on Friday.

Because of my relative low frequency of my visiting, it’s easy to recognize changes. Back in January, Facebook announced it would prioritize personal moments over public content. Today, when I visit my timeline indeed only consists mostly of personal moments – photos, personal statements and memes. The click-bait articles are gone and the amount of silly personal tests has gone down dramatically as well. The quality of the feed has gone up significantly. It almost looks like Instagram now. Instagram cross-posts are now also first-rate citizen’s on Facebook where they used to be buried like the Twitter cross-posts from the past.

It hasn’t changed my behavior and I don’t think I’ll become “active” again on Facebook, but certainly has a place right now and that’s good.

Twitter used to be awesome, but today I’ve really no clue what to do with it. The signal-to-noise ratio is very low. I really wanted to like it, but gave up on it because of that. Somehow Twitter never scaled very well. The bigger it became, the less interesting it was.

Snapchat is for “kids”. It’s the only reason I have it and all people I know who use it, use it for that reason – to communicate with their “kids”. I’ve never received a snap from an “adult”. It’s also the only social media app I have installed since Snap doesn’t have a web interface. I think it also falls into the chat category.

I do wonder what’s next for social networks. It looks like that Instagram is the place with all the action right now. Chat has taken over for personal sharing. It’s also the most diversified area right now. I routinely use 4 to 5 different chat apps on a given day.

It almost looks like we “unbundled” Facebook by accident.

Laptop and traveling

I find technology and how it influences and changes human behavior very interesting to observe. I’ve been doing some heavy traveling lately and I noticed that I’m actually not using my laptop as much as I used to do. My laptop and me used to be tied to the hip, but nowadays I sometimes notice that I’m carrying it around but not using it. I’ve taken trips without my laptop and I felt “naked” even though in retrospect there wasn’t any reason to feel like that at all.

The main reason for this is that my smartphone has become so good that I really don’t need a laptop anymore when I’m on the go. The only reason to bring it along is for those few use cases where a bigger screen is essential like working on a spreadsheet or presentation.

Nowadays my laptop goes in the suitcase (when I’ve a carry-on) and I leave it in the hotel room more often than not. This was not a conscious decision, it just happened. It’s a testament how far mobile phones and apps have gotten. It’s impressive.

10,000ft captchas

Every time I use Gogo inflight, I’m puzzled by their use of captchas. Are hackers bored enough on flights to try to circumvent their authentication system? There are gazillion other and more consumer-friendly ways to solve that problem like introducing progressive increasing cool-off periods after failed login attempts.

They even let you solve a captchas for accessing Delta’s free inflight messaging service which doesn’t require an account. I’m very puzzled by this.

5G

Last week, Verizon announced the launch of their 5G service in 4 US cities. There has been discussions around if it was really 5G or the “world’s first” which I don’t really find that important – it’s just marketing.

What makes me excited about it, is that it’s the first step to an all wireless world. Fast-forward a decade and I expect that internet will go all wireless without wifi. I’ve always regarded wifi as technology as transitional. The deployed wifi technologies always been one or two generations behind what’s deployed in either telecom networks or satellite communications. It is basically a poor man’s wireless network. In that regard, it’s tremendous successful and rightly so, but at the same time it’s not how a wireless world can look like.

The balancing act for wireless providers has always been spectrum, cell size and silicon. Silicon is limited in processing power and battery usage. More advanced coding schemes require more battery power. Cell size is limited by many factors like zoning and capital expenditures to cover a geographic area – the US is huge. Spectrum is a limited commodity. Lower coding schemes improve battery life and range, but reduce the available bandwidth on a particular slice of the spectrum.

Since telecom is a highly capital expensive business adoption of new technology is slow. Combined with zoning regulations managed by individual commissions in all areas, it slows down roll-out even more.

But this is a step in the right direction. I can’t wait for the day, I open my laptop or phone anywhere in the world and I’m connected to the internet. 5G technology brings that one step closer and it’s coming. I’m excited.

Weekcal

One of the first apps I install on any IOS device is Weekcal. It’s a calendar app which has  all the features you’d ever want and more, but it also has this unique week calendar layout which I absolutely adore. Here’s a screenshot:

No other calendar app offers this option. I like having a good overview of my week. It’s also a good visual ‘queue’ to create balance in my schedule. If I’ve trouble managing meetings in this view, I’ve scheduled too many meetings and I need to slow down.

People who are as old as me, might recognize this view from the Palm Vx PDAs back in the late 90s / early 2000s. I’m glad someone had the good insight to turn it into an app. Weekcal offers other views, but I’m always using this one. I could not live without it.