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.

Blogging and the Spread of Truth in the Age of Platforms

A lot of people have proclaimed that blogging is dead, that it doesn’t generate any traffic, and that no one reads blogs anymore. Personally, I don’t know the last time I kept up with a blog on a regular basis like a few years ago. The problem is not the lack of people who share their ideas. Rather, as more people take to ‘social media’ and instant messaging, there remains very little incentive to write out a well thought-out post to be shared. This means that people now spend less time on long-form writing than they do on just sharing snippets.

Indeed, if you search for something of interest, you are more likely to find SEO-fied links on the first 2 result pages about products or advertising than any relevant read. As more and more advertising money flows into search advertising, there is an SEO economy being created where the only winners are websites with a huge advertising and/or SEO budget.

At the same time, a lot of platforms are being created to help people express themselves. Facebook being in the forefront, trailed by companies like Medium. There is no dearth of hosted blog providers who have adopted the Twitter approach of follows and likes to float more popular posts towards the top. A lot of companies boast of using ‘AI’ to figure out what content would prove to be sticker and hence generate more clicks for the authors.

People don’t even read newspapers anymore. On a recent Facebook exchange, I was reminded by a ‘mainstream media’ sceptic that newspapers, or dead-tree publications, as he likened them to, are not the only way to procure your dose of daily news. Indeed, what was once seen as blogging is now increasingly also the format used to report news. It’s the ease of sharing and embedding advertising that makes online blogging a wonderful substitute to subscribing to a printed/electronic newspaper.

So, why were blogs such a wonderful thing?

You could always count on a multitude of blogs positing different approaches to solving a particular problem or educating you about a topic from all perspectives. Stuck trying to figure out how your country’s foreign policy works? Just read up a few posts by passionate bloggers who breathe foreign policy and are eager to share their opinions and understanding.

Newspapers are feeling the heat, too. While a lot of them have established credible online and digital distribution systems, right down to monetization, they simply cannot compete with the phenomenon of click driven ‘fake news’. Whereas in the past people were careful to not treat a certain blogger or website as the face of truth, now that social media has made blogging a more mainstream way to distribute facts, now this area is getting murky. A lot of these websites are primarily content aggregators that they incredulously ingest from other similar websites or persons. What generates clicks are headlines. What’s the incentive to even hire and perform true journalism any more if truth is difficult to swallow and also does not sell well?

Using social media and these blogging platforms is much easier than ever because you don’t have to worry about the technical nitty-gritty like security and maintenance. At the same time, most of these platforms are free to publish on as they make money through advertising. Their currency is likes and followers. You, as an author, feel you’re getting enhanced reach.

Yesterday, I even watched live an incoming president of a developed country dismiss a credible and historic news channel as the purveyor of ‘fake news’.

There is a huge problem inherent with the ‘platformization’ of the web – censorship. While I have not had the pleasure of living in an authoritarian state, a lot of people have that misfortune. Platforms have to follow local laws, which change abruptly based on who is controlling the government. If they don’t follow these laws, they lose the market and hence the money. There are rumors that Facebook is working on a special censorship tool for the Chinese market that would allow them to enter it and hence make a ton of money from the world’s most populous market. Recently, they also started censoring posts and notes that were written unfavorably towards the government in The Philippines.

Apart from censorship, since you don’t control the platform and the laws change abruptly, you can never be sure that your news/content would outlive the platform or would not suddenly be deleted one day.

Solution – let’s get back to the basics. Have a friend set up your blog for you. Because if you control your platform you control your freedom of speech. If your hosting provider tries to censor you, there are others that would offer you refuge. The web was built to be run that way.

Here is something I shared on Facebook when the platform was accused of spreading fake news:

To say that the problem is just ‘fake news’ would be trivializing it. To say that the problem of ‘fake news’ could be solved technologically would be fooling everyone.

There are multiple issues – one of them being conflict of interest. Facebook makes money based on clicks. Fake and sensational information generates more clicks. Any technological solution would be at odds with the objective of maximizing clicks and visits.

AI is another example of Silicon Valley’s bubble. By nature, AI and henceFacebook‘s approach of creating algorithms, would always lag behind trends in society/pop culture. AI is a cute term for big data collection. This makes it implicit that any intelligence is created after the trends go mainstream. AI is the reason why everyone’s news feed is messed up and also why FB insists upon not showing posts chronologically. That impacts click-throughs. When FB talks about AI, translate it to – process of prioritizing paid posts and external links over user-generated content in a way that it’s less obvious and annoys you just a tad less than to the extent of making you quit. 

The best way to use FB is to use it like a repository or a blog. That way chronological order wouldn’t matter much. Stop using the feed. Organically search for posts and pictures. Facebook makes it near impossible, but switch your feed to show posts in their chronological order.

Most importantly, don’t make it the only place you seek out information. The web is huge.

If you have to share something, first consider the possibility of adding something more or even saying it in your own words. The less time and effort you put into what you share with friends and family, the easier it gets for any AI to win over humanity and to further the gap between the elites and the ‘losers’.

AI’s currency is your lack of time and effort. Make it clear that you’re the boss of your profile 

Now, more than ever, it is important to start reading credible news sources. If you can’t afford a newspaper subscription, find out the nearest library that has one. If you read something online, make sure you can verify its authenticity by checking other sources. If you’re still unsure, ask someone else.

When more people blog and share their ideas, rather than mere snippets or forwards, the whole country moves forward. Free exchange of ideas enables the society to move forward and to settle differences through intellectual exchange. More opinions enable better policies.

The least we can expect from a developed civilization is the facilitation of free and uncensored exchange of ideas.

2016 Report Card

2016 was quite an interesting year. While a lot of things happened over the course of the last 12 months, I will like to point out to only a few of these and specifically how I changed as a person.

The year started on a low note – instead of partying it up at some expensive hotel lounge or a bar, we decided to watch the fireworks from our study window. It turned out to be such a wonderful idea that we repeated it this NYE as well. There is something to be said about not having to spend €50-€60 on a bottle of Moët or not having to endure all the crowds. Besides, the view from our building is wonderful and the acoustics make it a wonderful experience.

We had a lot of family time this year. The highlight was the number of trips we made as a family with my parents. It began with a casual and spontaneous visit to Dubai, which was finalized over our daily FaceTime call on Christmas day. Then, after the birth of my niece in April, we flew to her home in Dallas over our summer holidays. After spending a couple weeks there, my parents flew with us to Amsterdam for a few weeks. Then, we made our annual Diwali trip to India about a month later. Then, my sister and her family visited us at Christmas. Fun times.

We also had other travels – the year started with a weekend visit to Berlin in the very first week. We went to Paris with my parents. We also drove to the Rhine river valley region, which seems to be becoming a yearly thing for us; it is just that beautiful and close to Amsterdam! We also spent my birthday in Paris, which was quite amazing as we did not use public transport at all during the entire trip and relied on walking everywhere.

That brings me to the second highlight of this year – health. I feel like I have become a completely different person compared to who I was even 2 years ago. Whereas once I was known in the family for being lazy and very ‘cool’ about everything, this year saw me transform into an energetic and rigorous personality. I can no longer sit around for more than a few minutes and can definitely not bear the pain of having to spend my weekend completely indoors. Daily morning and evening walks have become part of my daily routine, something for which I have to give the Apple Watch a lot of credit. Just this past month, I maintained my year-long streak of achieving my daily activity goals. This is amazing.

2016 also saw us go all in on exploring The Netherlands by cycles. We made a couple dozen weekend cycling trips all around the country. What started as a series of round trips from home to a nearby village called Monnickendam led us to waking up early every weekend and planning a cycling route that usually took the entire afternoon. While I joined a bike sharing plan, V resorted to buying her own bike that we took on the train. There were also unplanned adventures like flat tires in the middle of the forest that made the escapades all the more fun! There was a lot of scenery to be enjoyed along with good food, one of my favorite being this amazing ice cream shop right in the middle of nowhere.

Speaking of health, I also drastically cut down on alcohol.

I took a lot of pictures this year; about 4000. All those amazing cycling trips definitely helped. One of these days I’ll make them public, although you could still see a lot of them on Facebook.

Another big change was reading. Starting out as new habit in 2015, I currently subscribe to a few magazines and a daily business newspaper. The magazines I regularly read are The New Yorker, The Economist, and the Time magazine. Financial Times provides a good balance between general and business news from a global perspective, while not being too expensive. My daily morning routine now includes reading the daily front to back.

While I resolved to make long-form writing a persistent feature of my routine, I was unable to carry through with it. It is something that I need to ponder over a bit more as one of the motivations is to build a record and paper is not particularly a good way to attain that. On the other hand, there is a lot of credible research that ascribes mental health improvements to regularly writing your thoughts on paper.

This year, I aspired to spend a lot more time on calming down and enjoying everything the world has to offer by observing it, by zooming in and watching my world feel time’s impact. A quote from one of this year’s box office failures comes to mind –

“You’ve been given a gift, this profound connection to everything. Just look for it, and I promise you it’s there, the collateral beauty.”

V&I spent a lot of time together, from traveling to working at the same desk every day. A lot of time was spent on brainstorming new ideas, new goals in life, health, as well as the general goings on in the world. In 2016, we had crazy ideas like starting a company together to teaming up for product-market fit research work. While nothing has come out of this, yet, I think this is how good ideas and teams form.

We saw a lot of movies this year. Everything from Hollywood to Bollywood, English and Dutch, documentary to reality. There was a lot less live theater this year, something that I intend to improve in the new year.

2016 also saw V pass her Dutch integration (inburgering) exams. She is now ready to become a Dutch citizen if she chooses to go that route. What’s exceptional about this story is that she did it without taking any kind of professional classes or help, which is rare. I don’t know of anyone else who has managed to achieve this.

I made a lot of progress in simplifying my world, in getting a better understanding of how things work and how to keep myself motivated and on the path to achieving my goals. This was a year of relatively few ups and downs, and the stability helped in figuring out the changes needed to build better habits and get rid of some bad ones (carbs!).

There were a few losses and there were a few gains. The world and time plays out.

If I were to use 5 keywords for 2016, they would be:

family, travel, cycling, growth, health

The emoji for 2016 would be:

😎

My grade for 2016 is a solid A-.