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-.

On slowing down

Every day, on my walk back from the park, I pass by the little snackbar (Dutch for late night shoarma shop) I sometimes dine at during the weekends. I love the falafel there, something the owner proclaims is the ‘best in Amsterdam’. I don’t disagree.

Every day, I see the young son of the owner work tirelessly behind the counter, or sometimes causally standing and looking at people walking by. He has a calm demeanor and almost never smiles. At the same time, he doesn’t look like he’s got any qualms about his life.

Today I wondered – how many years could I spend without a semblance of professional advancement in my life. Most of us want to see ourselves making great strides in our careers in our 30s. For him, career is staying happy and making sure the shop stays in business.

We live a very fast life. Our calendars are chock-full of engagements and our address books full of contacts we only connect with a few times a year. Most of us have no time to even go for a walk every day.

Sometimes all we need is to slow down and zoom in on things to get a better perspective on life and what our activities mean for us, others, and this planet. Make time for the things that matter, the things that you can only enjoy now and not when you’re too old or living elsewhere. In the end, the only person judging you is you yourself. All you have to do is beat your own standards.

I am reading a lot about the psychological and physical benefits of slowing down. Changing habits is difficult but the payoff is tremendous if you can manage to improve yourself. Those 24 hours feel like 48 when your observation skills are sharp and you’re zoomed in to the world around you.

The world needs more of things that stick around long enough to actually make a difference.

How populism begins

With the current political turmoil in the UK, I have been trying to understand the concept of populism. While the definition of populism leads you to believe that it can’t really be a bad idea, it’s how it begins gaining roots is why it has become a bad thing in the modern world.

Separatist politics aside, consider this example – you rent an apartment in a building managed by a homeowners’ association.

First some ground facts. The building has an even distribution of residents that rent and those that own their apartments. The owners (and only the owners) meet fairly regularly to discuss the maintenance priorities and the current concerns of the residents. Every month, every resident contributes to the pot of money that is used by the association to provide maintenance and repairs to the building as well as things like the water heating systems.  This contribution generally passes on to the renters as well in the form of a higher rent.

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‘There is always something to do in the kitchen’

I heard this line coming from the server at my daily morning coffee spot right as I was about to get up to pay and leave. No, it wasn’t directed at me; the server, head server I assume, was speaking, rather crassly, to one of the cooks as she had come outside her little world and started lining up the clean dishes on the rack. Clearly, this wasn’t her job. I spent the next 2 minutes listening to him telling her, condescendingly, of all the other things she could have been doing instead of being out in public view, silently in-sourcing a colleague’s chore towards herself. (more…)

Electric toothbrush

I recently started using an electric toothbrush based on my dentist’s advice. It’s nothing fancy – an Oral-B Pro 4000. I got a decent deal with a 2 handle bundle so that V could use one as well.

What’s interesting is that I never knew how long I brushed my teeth. The recommendation had always been to only brush for 2 minutes at a maximum. Since I never looked at a timer, I always assumed that I was following the advice. This toothbrush has gentle haptic feedback after every 30 seconds to remind you to move to the next quadrant of your jaw. Finally, after 2 minutes it gives you a violent feedback almost as if it’s yelling at you.

When I started, I found myself only about halfway done at the 2 minute mark. It means I was almost twice as hard on my teeth and gums as recommended. And I must have done this for years! I have improved over the last week and now am able to time my brushing just right to finish at just about the 2 minute mark. Good learning!

For someone who recently moved to DE blade shaving, it seems backward to now commit to replacement brushes from the same manufacturer. But, it is different. Brushing with a ‘cartridge’ isn’t nearly as bad as shaving with a razor cartridge was for me. I am also using less toothpaste now (the brush head is circular and smaller) and timing my habit just right. Besides, brush cartridges are cheaper and there is potential to buy generic ones.

So, yes, I must be the last person I know who finally started using an electric toothbrush, but here’s to improving your life!

Time Flies, and Then it Comes Around

Corner of Prinsengracht and Brouwersgracht in Amsterdam
Corner of Prinsengracht and Brouwersgracht in Amsterdam (April 28, 2016)

I just took this picture while on my way back from my morning coffee. It has been more than 5 years (5 years, 8 months, and 3 days, to be exact) since we moved to this charming city, and every day feels like we just arrived. It is easy to get lost in that daily routine of re-discovering the city. There are still centuries old buildings that look like they were just built yesterday.

But, today, the walk home especially struck me. The scene reminded me of that rainy day in our first week in the city when I was standing on that corner, umbrella in hand, while V&I waited for the mini-bus to arrive so I could ride it to my new job. There used to be a blue-colored Stop-n-Go bus service in those days that went around the canals all the way to the Central Station every half an hour or so. It was raining, a bit windy, nothing extraordinary now, but perhaps the first time that I was actually using an umbrella in the morning. Then the bus arrived, I got on quickly, did not find a seat and so grabbed a railing on the side of the bus as I stood and waved at V.

The bus service is no longer there, and I no longer treat the walk from our home to the old office as anything that would require me to use public transport. Life has changed in so many ways, and yet, the city still has me re-living precious old memories.

Should you attend the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference?

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.

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Migrated to DigitalOcean

This blog is now fully hosted on DigitalOcean. If you didn’t know, DigitalOcean is one of the ‘cloud’ providers, the main benefit being that it is really simple to set up. Unlike Amazon or Google, the pricing model is really simple, and unless you need all the bells and whistles that these other folks provide, the functionality is really good. They use KVM to provide you root access to a Droplet (in their parlance) that you can configure any way you want. I also liked that setting up a fully functional WordPress server was a matter of a single click from their application directory.

So, the benefits –

  • hosted in Amsterdam
  • full native IPv6 support
  • virtual hosts that I can set up on my own whims
  • free SSL setup using Let’s Encrypt

 

Oh, and it’s a whole lot faster than my previous BlueHost setup which was mind-bogglingly expensive. The IPv6 is a nice touch, although I am not sure why Ziggo still does not provide connectivity. They only had a decade to plan for it.

One thing that I really like about DigitalOcean is the Snapshots. All I have to do is turn off my server (which isn’t really that bad since I hardly have enough traffic) and create one. These are completely free and are manual, which means that you can take as many and as often as you want. If you want to restore your server to a previous configuration, you just fire up a new instance using one of your saved snapshots. You could even move them around in different geographical areas. Regular automated backups cost money, though.

Setting up encryption was really easy with Let’s Encrypt. If you have a server, there really is no reason to not do it.

Do give DigitalOcean a try – they also have free trials. I am sure you’d love them as much as I do! If you have any questions about my setup, write in a comment below and I will share my learnings!