A famous VC blogged about the ‘Free and Open Internet‘ recently. Their rant — they couldn’t read a newspaper opinion piece for free, which is a fundamental right of all human beings, and in those circumstances they feel that newspapers have ‘ceded their role as the public square to places like Twitter and Medium that remain open and free‘.
Free as in beer? Free as in a dream?
Twitter and Medium are hardly free. They monetize your free expression. They prioritize the trending content instead of what you want to see or read. They log everything you do on their platforms and beyond, and then they leak that data to advertisers and repressive governments. People die.
Newspapers have always been paid. The public square is the park or the verandah where you read a newspaper and discuss stories with other humans. This is a concept that none of the ‘hardworking’ employees of Twitter or Medium would understand. How many hours do they even get to spend at home without answering a work email or fixing issues?
If you want to read an opinion piece, go buy a newspaper, or borrow one, or goto the library. Oh, a library. Another architectural artifact from the bygone era that these ‘entrepreneurs’ want to get rid of. Because public money is better spent on funding their startups.
The free and open internet was a goofy place. A place where you could set up a cheap website with rudimentary skills and show it off. No botheration with SEO or tracking your visitors or showing them ads. Everything was cheap. Technology still continues to be cheap and free.
So what changed? People changed. They’re more entitled to ‘information’ just like this rich guy. No, you don’t just get stuff for free. It’s a lie. Stop reading crap like this and go setup your own blog, write your own opinions, and start your own companies without borrowing or begging from selfish enablers of bad behavior.
The Internet is still a wonderful place to connect with others. You just have to stay clear of the pull of the free. And remember, the only thought leader who really matters is you.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
If you are an Apple ecosystem developer you must be already aware that WWDC 16 has been announced. You have less than a week to decide about your attendance and sign up for the lottery – yes, a lottery to pay up money to attend a tech conference in a different country notorious for its visa rejections.
Geopolitical considerations aside, the question on every mind is – should I really commit to attending the conference? Tickets used to get sold out within months, then weeks, then a couple days, and the last time there wasn’t a lottery (2013), they sold out within about 3 minutes. I have been an attendee twice, once in 2011, and then the last time in 2012. Ever since then, I have tried and ultimately failed to procure a ticket to the annual pilgrimage. It hurt in 2013; felt bad in 2014; felt like a bad bet in 2015, and finally, this year, for the first time since I moved to Amsterdam, I am actually wondering if I should even sign up.
Much has been said about the newly enacted Border Security Bill in the US (HR 6080 – PDF). At its core, the purpose of the bill (now law) is to provide monies for funding existing and upcoming objectives of the DHS (including USCIS), DOJ, and the Judicial system pertaining to the southwestern border of the United States.
It sounds really simple in intention, except that it really isn’t. The bill’s sponsor, Senator Charles Schumer (Democrat NY) states that it is beneficial to the country because it ‘Would Hike Fees On Personnel Companies That Exploit U.S. Visa Laws’. Wait, what?
Before I state my reasons for supporting this bill, I would like the discuss the exploitation Schumer talks about. The H1-B/L1 visa categories are particularly controversial, in part because they are both what are known as ‘dual intent’ visas. This means that any H1-B/L1 visa holder is allowed under US immigration law to seek a path towards permanent residency in the country. Why this complicates the entire debate – they are both mandated to ‘temporarily employ foreign workers’ in specialty occupations. According to Schumer, ‘It will also avoid adding to the deficit by raising fees on a handful of foreign corporations that abuse U.S. visa programs to import workers from India.’ So, it is clear – the bill’s primary target is Indian IT companies, namely Infosys, Wipro, TCS, and Mahindra Satyam. All these companies are also responsible for the majority of American offshored work as well. So, where is the exploitation? It is clear that the companies bring foreign workers to the US temporarily for a specific work project and for a specific client. Of course, owing to the aforementioned dual intent provision, these temporary workers are free to obtain permanent residency in the US, too, but few do. I bet this mostly due to the contractual nature of such an engagement.
The exploitation Schumer refers to could be the fact that these Indian companies are what are called ‘H1-B dependent’ companies. Simply stated, these are companies with 15% or more employees on an H1-B. These companies pay extra for this ‘privilege’ come time to apply for an H1-B. They also have to provide an attestation that they made ‘good faith’ efforts to hire Americans and that no American jobs would be lost as a result. But wait, there’s a rider. If the company hires workers with a master’s degree or pays them above a threshold salary, they aren’t required to attest anything, not that it’s genuinely easy to find qualified software engineers in the US.
So, please don’t give these companies a bad name. They are not exploiting any visa laws. At best, they are exploiting America’s global push for open markets at open labor rates.
Now, onto why I support this controversial bill, irrespective of the absurdity surrounding penalizing legal immigrants to keep illegal immigration in check. These are my points:
1. This is a good reminder that there are great opportunities elsewhere. USA is the world’s biggest importer, but there are tremendous opportunities in other parts of the world. Infosys, please start bidding on Indian projects as well.
2. This bill is no doubt the harbinger of a greater push towards immigration reform during this presidential term. Schumer has long been a proponent of meaningful immigration leading to a speedy path towards permanent residency. This bill lays the groundwork for such reform. It’s time to tell the world that America would rather import talent permanently than send it back.
3. This is the biggest reason – the bill inherently kills the ‘desi consultant’ business inside the US. These are the real culprits. Basically, these are small time body shops that work at the third or even fourth tier of the consulting business, are almost always owned by first generation Indian permanent residents with another primary source of income, have no business plan, are really H1-B dependent, and have no code of ethics. There are various reasons why someone would join such a company. For most, it’s the easiest path to getting an H1-B (and subsequently legal residence) after completing education in the US. With this new law, such companies would have to shell out extra for every new H1-B petition. This eats into the already meager margins at which these shady companies do business. But, the topic of small consulting companies deserves another blog post of its own.
4. Speaking as someone who earned two graduate degrees from a top American university, I wholeheartedly support any measure that provides confidence to American students that engineering degrees are good and that there is going to a be a job available for them when they graduate. This leads to the much greater issue in my opinion, that of regulating US Inc. such that while global talent and liberal immigration is welcome, steps ought to be taken to ensure a level playing field for people born in the country. It’s not their fault that everything is cheaper abroad. Almost every developed country has such protective measures in place. America should, too. Too bad it would need political might to rein in capitalism.
America is lucky to have a very active immigration debate in this day and age when every other country is on its toes to recruit talent globally. People want to move to America for a better life, better future, and for freedom to take risks that they couldn’t back home. I can only hope that something good comes out of bills like HR 6080. In the interim, I am confident that these steps would lay a strong groundwork towards making comprehensive immigration reform a more welcome agenda in the minds of Americans and would-be immigrants alike.