My Daily Morning Highlight

I have increasingly and gradually become a creature of habit; from my morning walk route to what I have after dinner (a cup of green tea), things have become very routine and sort of monotonous. There is something to be said about not having to spend a lot of time in taking decisions as mundane as what to eat or where to go for a walk when the answer is right there in your (hopefully good) habits!

One such highlight of my morning walk is the old-age/retirement home that I pass around the corner towards the end of the street I live on. It is a ‘high-class’ home for people that can afford to live in this neighborhood. It has to be – meals are catered, every room seems to have custom-placed and distinct furnishings, as well as the presence of onsite medical facilities.

Now, I pass through the building twice – before and after I turn around the other corner of the neighborhood. On the first pass I often run into this old lady smoking a cigarette while on her upper-ground floor balcony. She occasionally ascertains if the grocery store would be open while puffing on her cigarette. One time I even brought her a pack of cigarettes to save her the trouble of walking to the grocery store. I think it was unexpected for her as a result of a miscommunication (I learn my Dutch language by talking to strangers) as she never paid me back for it.

On my second pass, I walk in front of the brasserie as well as the main entrance. At the entrance, there are often a bunch of old people and/or employees enjoying their cigarettes (the Dutch love their cigarettes), and so I get a chance to wish them a good morning. Inside the brasserie, at the same table towards the very end of it, I,  almost daily, see an old guy reading his newspaper, presumably having just finished his late breakfast. We even wave to each other.

I have this experience almost every morning, except the weekends, when we take a different route for our pre-coffee walk.

One of these days I’d probably get a chance to go in and talk to the people in person.

A Travel Hack

The best way to travel is to travel light. And with the current heightened state of airport security you really don’t want to be caught in the discomforting web of special inspections just because you happen to be carrying gadgets that you might use on your trip.

I am surprised there haven’t been any real credible businesses set up to tackle this issue, yet. It sounds like an easy problem to fix – loan out laptops and digital cameras to people so that they don’t have to carry these with them on an airplane. I figure it would be difficult for corporate users owing to special software requirements and cloud use rules, but a vast majority of the ‘normal’ people should have absolutely no problems using loaner gadgets.

In fact, you could already do it – buy a new laptop whenever you travel, at the destination. Use it as much as you want, making sure you don’t abuse its condition. Depending on the return policy, return it before you leave your vacation destination. This works flawlessly if you use one of the many cloud services. iCloud will even restore your desktop and documents folders on any new laptop. It’s like you never changed your laptop.

This hack is a bit trickier for cameras as local retail establishments might have varying return policies for camera equipment.

 

When a Gadget Freak Gets Old

There is nothing philosophical about getting old – it’s a biological process. You could try to run from it, but you can’t hide from the age monster.

What is philosophical, though, is how your priorities change. Case in point – love for gadgets.

There was a time when I was the first person in my circle of acquaintances to procure the latest and greatest gadget. The first iPhone, the first iPad, the first online radio hardware player, you name it, I bought it.

That drive is now gone. It’s more about making the most of what I have. I have been using a 4 year old laptop. It just works and is only marginally slower than the latest and greatest. My desktop is inching towards its 3rd birthday. New iPads were announced and they don’t excite me.

I have gone from being a gadget freak to a gadget lover. I love my toys for the joy and productivity they bring. The computing gadget are indispesable, but so are the new Snapchat Spectacles, a cheap piece of tech that makes it a much more joyful experience to capture daily videos. Whereas I couldn’t really manage to make videos of my cycling trips with an iPhone, the ones that come out of these googles are nothing short of amazing.

I want new things rather than new things.

Apart from the aging process, I think a driver for this change is the fact that most gadgets now come with a yearly upgrade cycle. The periodic purchases for the same gadget, just shinier and faster, gets old after a few tries. In the interest of the planet and sustainability, tech companies need to start looking at ways to maximize earnings without forcing users to spend on new devices every few months.

Sonos is great at this. The speaker you purchased 4 years ago still works like new and still receives the same software updates as one you purchased just yesterday.

I can’t imagine myself springing for a new car every year once tech companies pivot to transportation. Or, maybe that would be a sign that gadgets are better leased than owned.

Facebook Pages as a Website Alternative

We have been getting our feet wet with starting our first business over the past few weeks; it has been fun; it has been exhilarating. While in the digital world you measure performance by metrics such as user counts and reviews, in the real world, people come back to you and give you verbal compliments. They refer your products to others who might enjoy them as well.

It is something I wish that I had done earlier!

Now, with a business comes the overhead of various things, one of which is building and maintaining your business’s online presence. Websites are hard enough, not to mention keeping them safe and secure, that a lot of businesses end up with terrible websites that take a lot of time and money to get done by outside contractors.

We had the same dilemma as we purchased a domain and then spent time and money buying and learning various WordPress themes to figure out the best for us. This is even before you start generating content that would ultimately draw customers in. In our events driven business, a lot of this content is in the form of photos and videos. The website also needs to have things like calendar feeds and a way to sign people up for your upcoming events. It would be great to be able to do live videos and respond to people in real time.

Clearly, this is not a simple website we are talking about.

After a lot of tweaking the theme, I came upon an idea – how about redirecting every visitor on our website to our Facebook Page. We needed the Page anyway since that’s how we communicate with our customers and share pictures. Might as well just make it our business website. The only thing missing is email, but that’s an easy problem to solve with the help of any business email provider that supports custom domains.

Facebook Pages provide blogging capabilities, photo albums, apps for business owners as well as consumers, live messaging, and above all, a marketing and analytics platform that really helps in reaching out to the best customers. I am not sure why they haven’t already started selling branded webpages as a service, much like their FB at Work product.

Setting up required a little bit of effort because they don’t natively provide this as a service. This means that you still need to set up your web server to redirect requests to Facebook. At this time, I haven’t set up any custom links on the server, but there is potential in the future to set up links like <yourdomain>/blog to redirect to your Facebook Page’s Notes section.

Now I can focus all my time and energy on one medium. This will definitely change in the future as the business evolves and it would not be feasible to expect every site visitor to have a Facebook login, or be able to use it for e-commerce. Hopefully, Facebook would start offering a more business-ready toolkit by that point.

Soylent

I haven’t been keeping up with the phenomenon known as ‘Soylent’, except when today I just read the news that they have been able to raise a $50M funding round for expansion into new markets as well as retail.

Why is this news?

Well, Soylent is something that is coveted as a food product by overworked millennials who seldom have time to cook for themselves. As such, it is very popular in the elite circles of Silicon Valley. Not surprising, then, that the investors in this food product are all people known in the Valley for making money off software. The company itself is the brainchild of a software engineer from that area. When someone in the family raises money, and that too, in the millions, it is sure to make some news.

I really like how they describe Soylent as ‘addressing one of the biggest issues we face today: access to complete, affordable nutrition’. How did we manage to come to a point in time where pre-packaged powdered nutrition is somehow more affordable than plants that grow in the dirt?

This reeks of hype through and through.

Soylent isn’t even the first meal-substitute – there are countless others. What it does have going for it, though, is that there is a face behind the product and the face isn’t that of a woman. Slimfast comes to mind. It is a meal substitute (although, you still have to include at least one regular meal in your diet), but it has become synonymous with female weight loss. At this point, if you tell someone that you’re on the ‘Slimfast diet’, they’d think you were a woman trying to lose weight, instead of assuming that you’re just time-starved and trying to access affordable nutrition (it is not affordable, though).

For investors, the popularity of the product means a shot at getting bought by a big name FMCG company. It is also a healthy segue from the technology landscape where almost everyone is building an AI or a VR app, not to mention the quantified shortage of skilled people not working for a major multinational company in the Valley.

Is it healthy?

Of course, not. Processed food never is. None of the investors themselves rely on Soylent for their sustenance. It is something that is ripe for the scalability problem that technology investors love to solve, though.

And, it has a brilliant name.

Login enforced apps

One of my newest technology pet-peeves is apps that require an account even before giving me an opportunity to try them out or learn more about them. It’s not just the small players that do this, increasingly, but rather big name app providers like Microsoft.

Just this morning, I downloaded Microsoft’s latest To-Do app. Intuitively, my task list is something that could just as well reside on my smartphone without ever requiring to be synced onto the ‘cloud’, but, no, Microsoft would have none of that logic. The first screen is a login screen. I can’t even preview the UI without as much as sharing my phone number and other personal details.

How’s this for a To-Do – don’t download apps that need me to register before trying them out.

Power of Simple Metaphors

I love talking; I love discussing matters of philosophy and human nature. The strange dichotomy of human existence is that what makes us human also makes us difficult to understand each other. As a result, we often rely on established social norms and behaviors to guide us.

Every so often, you want to ask yourself why things are the way they are; why there are inexplicable patterns surrounding everything from human migration to business development. A theorist would take out their subject compendium and refer you to the works of someone who has performed academic research in that area. Yet, you will be left with dealing with a few assumptions that have no clear basis.

Let me explain what I am getting at. Today, while sipping our morning coffee, V&I started a discussion on simplifying how V approaches her new food entrepreneurship. She was concerned that she did not have a clear path to innovation that would differentiate her business/service from that of established competitors. Classic problem, right. There are dozens of books and university courses that offer to solve exactly this problem.

Then, I started with one of my simple metaphors. That of a train.

When you’re starting a new business, you’re the person with the second class train ticket without reservation, which means you’re going to have to walk all the way to the end of the platform to get into the train. This means that you would have to budget for some time to get to the station and get into your train; you’d probably also have to put up a little fight to get any open unreserved seats so that you don’t have to endure your journey standing up. Life will be a bit tough, especially if reaching your destination means a couple transfers along the way, all complicated by your possession of only a second class ticket without a seat reservation.

So, how do you make your life and journey better? You simply keep catching the same train every day, getting there a little earlier every day to save time, to find a seat, and then getting accustomed to the journey enough that you know precisely when seats open up at stations along the way. After each day of repeating this, you become an expert in the art of traveling on a second class ticket.

There is no need to innovate. You just follow the established playbook of finding a seat, with perseverance.

Then, as you optimize your daily journey, you gradually start reaping benefits of getting to work earlier and in a better state. That leads you to gradually be able to afford a seat reservation, possibly even in first class. You have mastered the playbook.

When do you innovate? How do you get to your destination even faster? Perhaps you could charter an airplane or figure out a combination of rail and road segments. That’s when you innovate. That stage comes long after you’ve made yourself comfortable doing the same thing day in and day out.

This is probably not a perfect metaphor, but it sure does motivate you and make things a whole lot clearer.

The same metaphor also explains human migration. We are all catching the same train to work every day. People in developed countries are riding fast direct trains, whereas there are some stuck riding trains that are slow and often have to endure their journey without a seat. The whole point of migration is to promote yourself to one of those fast trains.

Life is simple.

4 Weeks with the Apple AirPods, or How Social Wearables Are the next Big Thing

On a whim, 4 weeks ago, I logged onto the Apple Store app and decided to check the AirPods availability for in-store pickup. As I write this, they’re in extremely limited supplies with online ordered backordered by about 6 weeks and general store availability more than a month into the future. If you’re feeling lucky, you could check the app a few times a day to grab one as limited supplies come in sporadically.

I am generally not a fan of headphones. Firstly, I am not out of the house much, and then when I do have to step out every now and then, I prefer spending my time reading. Secondly, I can never settle for a pair – sometimes I want good in-ear headphones, while at other times, I crave for a wonderful over-the-head set. Whenever I do use one, I usually settle for the ones you get for free with an iPhone, even though I also own a pair of Beats in wonderful red!

Technologically, these are the best Bluetooth headphones I have ever used – not because of the range or the battery life, but because they alleviate the biggest pain-point with Bluetooth headphones – connecting and reconnecting with devices. When it comes to battery life, owing to their minuscule size, the AirPods actually have very little to offer. You will almost always need to carry the charging box since they only last like 5 hours on a single charge; less so if you spend some of that time having a real time call.

I have not had them fall out of my ears, yet, either, and I do sometimes wear them to the bathroom or while hastily walking towards the next train. Not connecting via a cable, they’re extremely good to use with traveling in a train when your station is near and you have to wear your jacket before you get off. In fact, were they connected together by cable, they probably wouldn’t even qualify for a purchase by me.

As the title of this post implies – the AirPods are also the first piece of ‘social wearables’ technology that I have in my possession. Let me explain – sure, they’re just headphones, but since the two earpieces aren’t connected by cable, you get to enjoy the sound with someone else as long as they’re within the signal range. This changes everything!

My favorite use is listening to a podcast while on our morning walk. This way, both of us (V&I) are listening to the same thing and can discuss it later. The AirPods are also great for FaceTime calls while you’re out in public. The only downside is that only one microphone works at a time, so you still have to sit very close together. No longer are you beholden by the lack of multiple audio outputs on your phone!

What is otherwise quite an isolating experience – walking while listening to a podcast is now suddenly much more fun and social. It also feels different since can just pop out your headphone from your ear and the podcast pauses for both of you automatically to give you time to discuss something or to decide what to get from the grocery store on the walk back home.

I wonder if this aspect of the AirPods could be used to build some interesting games/puzzles.

All-in-all, I find myself using the AirPods a lot more than I have used other headphones in the past. They’re small, sleek, light, and as simple to use as just popping them in your ears. Definitely a fan!

Amsterdam Markets and a New Adventure

One of the best things about living in the Netherlands, and in the center of Amsterdam, in particular, is access to weekly street markets. In a city that is so saturated with grocery stores of all types (organic, raw, vegan, carnivore) and sizes, I find it impressive that the weekly street market remains one of the best places to procure good quality produce and handicrafts.

On sale is food stuffs from all around the world. In our neighborhood, we’re lucky to even have a weekly Wednesday organic produce market where you could find tons of seasonal and fresh vegetables as well as breads. During the summer months, you could also spot little kids bathing in the fountains on the square where the market is held.

The weekly markets afford a unique shopping and product experience that is hard to obtain while shopping online or at your favorite Main Street chain. We have come to make a lot of friends as we enjoy the wonderful waffles and sandwiches every weekend at the market downstairs.

The markets also serve to promote small businesses and entrepreneurship, a large number of them run by women and pensioners. Quite a bit of these businesses graduate to bigger companies and/or complete tie-ups with bigger hospitality companies. All this at a time when there’s entirely too much talk about automation and removal of manual labor; crafts(wo)manship still matters!

The neighborhood Westerpark also has a series of arts and fashion markets throughout the year, more so during the warmer summer months. During the colder times of the year, they usually have one market a month. While these markets are not so much product focussed, you often see a lot of entrepreneurs in niche areas selling things from wooden eyewear frames to custom keychains. As the Dutch would say – the markets are really gezellig.

V and I had been discussing one of her ambitions for a while – that to set up her own food stall with Indian street snacks and the ubiquitous masala chai. This finally bore fruit this past week when she received the go-ahead from the Sunday Market organizing committee to set up her very own stall!  And thus began her preparations. She’s really excited and we hope that it is a hit!

Of course, my job is to only provide support, which I did by helping carry stuff upstairs and performing the shopping chores. She even set up a brand new Facebook page (Delhi 6) for her new venture. In a span of a few hours, the page already had close to 100 likes by our friends. The name comes from the postal code of the Chandni Chowk area of old Delhi famous for its street food.

And hence begins a new adventure. If this goes well, she will set up more stalls at other upcoming markets. The trials with our neighbors and friends have been successful, so there is definitely some good demand for her craft.

If you’re in Amsterdam, you should come visit!

Messaging Applications and Going Back to the Basics

Another day another backdoor in a messaging application. It seems like the more you care about your privacy the easier it gets for state actors to snoop upon your communications.

I believe it is time that we bring back the old instant messaging paradigm. If you recall from your early Yahoo! Messenger/AIM days, instant messaging was always synchronous. The services provided ways to send messages between users, but their main implementation was akin to a directory service. While you could look up if a contact was offline, you could only send them a message if they were online and available.

As these IM networks became more advanced and popular, services began offering the capability to send ‘offline’ messages. These messages, by their nature, would be stored on the company’s server until the recipient went online and was able to download them. This was a diversion from the quasi-synchronous behavior to one that was more a store-and-forward system, just like email. I believe that one of the reasons for this change was that as more people started obtaining always-on broadband connections, it became harder for messaging software to directly connect with other computers. This is because due to IPv4 design challenges, computers sharing an Internet IP address had to be put behind address translators and that made it necessary to employ an intermediary service that the clients could connect to. This solved the connectivity issue while also affording the capability to send offline messages.

Of course, any time you introduce a store-and-forward system into your communications, you are opening it up for easier surveillance. I say easy because the listener/hacker does not have to be listening in real-time. They could just get access to the store system and read the communication asynchronously.

This was also a time when security and privacy was something no one even thought of.

With the current privacy climate, I think it is time to get back to the basics. Messaging should be like making a phone call. If the other person is offline or not available, the messages need to either be dropped or be unable to be sent. This is the best way to protect privacy.

Now that IPv6 is gaining traction and helps alleviate the address translation issues with the ‘old Internet’, it is all the while easier to build such a chat system without much effort. Forget secure messaging services; the best security is one that you control.

So how would this work?

Server:

Open source, based on an open directory standard that would allow people to indicate availability by virtue of a unique identifier. What this identifier can be is an implementation detail, but a phone number or email sounds like a good idea.

When clients connect to the directory server, they can query a particular contact’s availability status. Additionally, they will be able to advertise their network address so that other clients could establish a connection directly for messaging. No store-and-forward.

Client:

Open source, based on open connectivity standards. The client would tell the directory server that a contact with the specified identifier is online and ready to receive messages/voice/video at their particular address.

In order to send or receive messages, the usual encryption techniques would be followed. I envision an extension to the existing public key infrastructure, but for people.

This is my general idea and I am sure that I am not the only person who would love to see something like this.

A lot of people that use today’s messaging platforms have never seen the glory days of instant messaging past. We still had bots in the early 00’s. We had voice and video as well. We had everything! What we did not have back then was secret backdoors. Or maybe they were pretty good secrets!

As phones and computers get more powerful and the Internet more advanced, it only makes sense to cut out the middleman.