Prince – Piano & A Microphone

Last week a new album of Prince called “Piano & A Microphone 1983” was posthumously released. It was a recently discovered tape made in his home studio. It’s pure Prince without backing or editing. It’s really great.

When I got the news that Prince passed away, I realized that I hadn’t listened to any of his music for a long time. Prince had big problems with the streaming business model and none of his work was available online. I’m glad that’s no longer the case and Prince’s music is available today. I’m enjoying it.

Honey, I broke the internet!

I’ve been an adblocker since early 2000s. I did it for three reasons:

Reduce cognitive load of the web – ads are meant to grab your attention but distract you from the actual content

Speed up browsing – ads slows down page loading significantly.

Privacy and tracking prevention

Early on adblocking didn’t happen in the browser, but was an add-on for a proxy server. I always run my own somewhere on the internet or at home. Life is much simpler now with browser extensions doing the work.

I do remember that using an adbocker often broke the internet. It was certainly not for the faint of heart. It took perseverance to keep using them and live with the “broken” internet. The filters at the time weren’t as sophisticated as we have today. Also browser extension have much better context of the content where as the proxy server had no such context – it just analyzed network requests.

You can imagine that not always went down that well at home. It certainly didn’t support the “wife factor” well.

Even though adblocking no longer breaks my internet, VPNs break it today. I use a VPN to get into the internet regardless of my location. ISPs routinely sell your browsing behavior or mess with your DNS to inject their own search results. It’s like the phone company routinely selling the numbers you’re calling or texting with. I don’t want that.

Yesterday, I ran into two of those issues I common encounter when using a VPN. First, Google thought I was in the “United Kingdom” even though my VPN endpoint is located in the US. Second – and I get these a lot – is that some service thinks I’m a bot because my VPN endpoint is not an ISP-owned IP-address. Google’s version of the bot protection makes solve silly puzzles to improve their automatic driving object recognition software.

Here’s an  example:

I got that again when I was changing my credit card on FreshDirect. Unfortunately I don’t think anyone ever tested that at FreshDirect because I was unable to complete the form after the finishing puzzling for Google. I ended up using the app to fix it.

Another issue is the streaming services like Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu, etc. To avoid people spoofing their location, they don’t allow VPN-based streaming of their content. The whole thing is just silly. I wish they were more like Apple who just uses the payment method to determine someone’s location, but I digress.

I do value my privacy more than a perfect working internet – I do hope this gets solved. Meanwhile I’ll keep helping Google/Waymo by solving their puzzles.

Browser Fingerprinting

Yesterday, I was reading an excellent review by Ars Technica on Mojave. One of the new features which stood out to me is the new fingerprinting protection in Safari 12. In the article a few sites are mentioned to test your browser and I tried them all out:

The end result? It’s easy to fingerprint my browser and ultimately track me. I encourage you to try it for yourself.

I recommend everyone not on Safari to disable third-party cookies in their browser. Even though they still might be able to fingerprint you, it’s harder for them to track you over time and across different devices. Apple has the good sense to do this by default. Firefox and Chrome (and its derivatives) should get on-board to. It’s the right thing to do.

Privacy is important. I’ll write about that another day.

HD Earth Viewing System (HDEV) at Home

On April 30th, 2014 the HD Earth Viewing System was installed on the ISS. It consists of four cameras pointed at the earth. The goal of the experiment is to test the longevity of off-the-shelf commercial video cameras in space. The views are absolutely breathtaking.

When I came across it back, I was absolutely mesmerized and wanted to have the live stream at home. The video stream was available through ustream and I had a spare iPad to run it on. Unfortunately the ustream app on IOS was never reliable enough to keep the stream playing for more than half a day or so. Eventually I gave up on it.

Earlier this year, the stream became also available on YouTube (see above). YouTube is a lot better at keeping the stream going. It can run for weeks without me having to restart it. Clearly YouTube’s engineers have done a great job on this.

I could finally build a setup to see the live stream all the time. I bought a 1st gen iPad Pro 13″ on eBay – they’re surprisingly affordable – and a AmazonBasics tablet stand.

It’s a daily reminder that we live on this beautiful planet and there’s a whole universe still out there to explore. It’s both inspirational and humbling to see the earth slowly pass by.

Sunday Morning Ritual

My favorite cherished Sunday morning ritual is reading PostSecret with a coffee. Wherever I am, it’s a small moment of peace and contemplation. I can hide from “the world” for a few minutes.

What I like about PostSecret, is that it puts me in touch with my own feelings. They’re little jolts of empathy and emotions which remind me that I should listen to my own – I sometimes I forget they’re there.

Rituals are important and I’ve many little rituals. It keeps me balanced and grounded.

Median pay of S&P500 companies

The Wall Street Journal has a interesting article on median pay of S&P 500 companies which contains a few of the tech giants. Here are some interesting numbers:

  • S&P500 median pay: $69k
  • Alphabet / Google: $197k
  • Facebook: $240k
  • Amazon: $28k

Obviously, the composition of the work force of each of these companies greatly influences the median pay. Interestingly enough Apple is one of the companies missing from this report even though it’s part of the S&P500 AFAIK.

Do not disturb

I came across this article dumber phone and it expresses well about how I feel about my computing devices today.

Smartphones are useful, but they are also incredibly addictive, and that addiction is at the epicenter of Silicon Valley’s effort to grab an ever increasing percentage of our minds. In that a substance or behavior controls us, it becomes our master, and that just won’t do.

Amen. There’s a lot of good advise in this post.  I’ve been battling this very thing for a long time. Not only on my phone, but on all my devices. I carefully curate notifications. By default notification are not allowed and most applications do not get notification privileges. Notifications are off for all apps on my laptop and iPad. My laptop is for working and my iPad is a distraction-free consumption device. I only enabled calling, text and email notifications on my phone.  

Even websites want to send notifications nowadays. I can’t even phantom why you would want that.

Apparently Nir Eyal wrote a whole book about it and then some which is ironic since he’s well-known for his other book; Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. Perhaps it takes one to know one.

The Kamprad Test and Moravec’s Paradox

An article in the Economist reports on efforts of AI researchers in Singapore to automatically assemble an IKEA chair. They call it the Kamprad test – named after the founder of IKEA:

COMPUTERS have already proved better than people at playing chess and diagnosing diseases. But now a group of artificial-intelligence researchers in Singapore have managed to teach industrial robots to assemble an IKEA chair

It took a pair of them, pre-programmed by humans, more than 20 minutes to assemble a chair that a person could knock together in a fraction of the time.

Clearly Moravec’s paradox is that play here. The paradox is:

Moravec’s paradox is the discovery by artificial intelligence and robotics researchers that, contrary to traditional assumptions, high-level reasoning requires very little computation, but low-level sensorimotor skills require enormous computational resources.

It can even explain the difficulties Elon Musk and Tesla face to fully automate their production line.


Unbundling the internet and data ownership

I was reading the two articles below today. Their observations are correct, but their arguments are very technology driven. Technology is just an enabler, it’s ultimately successful business models which drive innovation and change.

The Missing Building Blocks of the Web

The web was designed so that everybody was supposed to have their own website, at its own address.  

An individual having a substantial website (not just a one-page placeholder) is pretty unusual these days unless they’re a Social Media Expert or somebody with a book to sell.

There are social barriers, of course — if we stubbornly used our own websites right now, none of our family or friends would see our stuff.

It’s time to rebuild the web

I’ve written several times (and will no doubt write more) about rebuilding the internet, but I’ve generally assumed the rebuild will need peer-to-peer technologies. Those technologies are inherently much more complex than anything Dash proposes. While many of the technologies I’d use already exist, rebuilding the web around blockchains and onion routing would require a revolution in user interface design to have a chance; otherwise it will be a playground for the technology elite

AOL used to be internet in the US, there was Minitel in France and i-mode in Japan. All of them were widely successful in their day but turned into obscurity when disrupted by more open and distributed solutions.

There’s a law which says something like “any institution always strives to become more powerful over time”. I can’t find the source of this law, but it applies to any organization – commercial or non-commercial. In their strive to become more dominant in a market or sector, they typically strive to centralization of power, influence, usage and product.

For companies this typically means they want to own part of the space they’re in and keep expanding that space. After AOL and their local competitors, the internet became more decentralized by lowering the barrier of entry for everyone. Now we’re back at a centralized internet where companies have a Facebook page with a gmail address instead of a website .

The problem with centralization is that it stifles innovation. It is an unintentional side-effect of the normal course of business, but the AOL platform and now the Facebook platform are not very fast-moving innovative places. Facebook’s mission is to sell ads and everything they do is focused on that single goal. For users this means that they want to get you to visit them as long and frequently as possible to show you ads. Don’t let Zuckerberg fool you when he talks about connecting people and creating communities. That’s just marketing, as a business they’ve just that one goal. It’s also understandable that Facebook wants to extend and protect their platform. As a company they do exactly what they should doing and their investors reward them for it handsomely.

If we step back though, only a small number of entities command 80% of your time on the internet today and this is the problem. At the same, I would argue this is the normal cycle of maturing platforms. In other contexts it’s often referred to as bundling and unbundling.

I’m a technology optimist and I’m confident this problem is going to be solved over time.Today, significant money is invested into blockchain and this could be a solution, but only if they can get it to work right. We’ve seen this before with peer-to-peer technology and that never really took off (besides downloading movies and music). Two main commercial examples of peer-to-peer technology were Spotify and Skype, but they both moved away to centralized systems – mostly because their implementations were in essence centralized, just their protocols were decentralized peer-to-peer. In those scenarios, it does not make a lot of sense. Now if Spotify would’ve been the repository of music and would allow anyone to make a client to access their database, it could’ve worked. The argument can be made for Skype. But the value in their perspective is owning the customer, the experience and the data.

The view on data and customer ownership is ultimately what needs to be disrupted for the internet to change. If companies can accept they don’t own your data or you (as a customer) and build successful business models around that concept, we can see a big shift from the centralized internet today to a more open decentralized internet.